Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chopped Liver

I had liver last night for the first time I as long as I can remember. But what am I here for, if not to try new things? I didn’t like the smell at first, but got used to it and finished all but one of the little chopped pieces I took. That’s right, chopped liver.

The hub of culinary innovation and diversity Kakamega is not. Food options are pretty straight-forward and it seems to me that every meal is composed of a starch, a protein (if you can afford it), and some shredded greens.

The starch options are: white rice, fries, ugali (a stiff porridge made from corn flour) or chipati (like naan).

For protein you’ve got chopped beef, chopped liver, oxtail, chicken, kidney beans, lentils or fish, including the head. Oh, and goat and lamb!

About the only "side dish" I've seen is stewed cabbage and carrot.

And that’s it! I have yet to encounter a meal which disproves this theory.

Except for the predictability of it all, I’ve been very happy with the food, because there’s nothing I like better than beef stew, rice and naan. The fish, liver and tough chicken have taken more adjustment, but can also be good. I’ve also gotten used to the ugali, which reminds me of Cream of Rice, a.k.a. “mush” we would have for breakfast growing up. It’s served in a giant mound the width of a small pizza pan and four or five inches high, then cut into slices. You take a hunk/slice, then break off pieces of with your fingers, roll the piece into a little ball, make a divot in the middle of the ball with your thumb, then load it up with meat, soup (meat juice) or greens. It’s the same idea as Indian naan or chipati—it acts as a scooper.

Fortunately for me, the beef stew is really good at our house. My host mom makes it with tomatoes, onions, garlic, maybe some green pepper, curry powder and some packaged spice mix which no doubt contains MSG.

When we had fish, also stewed with the above-mentioned ingredients, she asked if I wanted the head. Ehhhhhrrrr... Apparently if you serve fish to a Luo (Obama’s dad’s tribe) without the head, he or she will refuse to eat it. “How do I know it’s fish?” Mama Susan says they’ll ask. How indeed.

When we had chicken, the whole thing save the feet and head, went in the pot (I’m sure you didn’t see that one coming). I stuck to eating the drumsticks and avoided the neck and carcass--I couldn't tell where the breasts were. I remember reading somewhere that because Americans eat so many chicken breasts, the dark meat is often frozen and sold to Eastern Europe and the feet go to China. Imagine different parts of the same chicken being consumed tens of thousands of miles away from each other.

Besides breakfast, I eat about 1/3 of my meals with my hands. Anytime you have ugali, you won't see silverware. To facilitate all of this, there are sinks to wash your hands before eating in restaurants and dining rooms. If you don’t have running water, you take turns pouring a pitcher of water over each other’s hands over a plastic basin.

Dessert is a slice of mango, pineapple or watermelon, all of which are the best I’ve had anywhere. There are oranges too, but they're nothing special. I didn’t like mango before I came to Kenya, and now I have it every chance I get.

(Fruit salad at the Golf Hotel, the fanciest place in town.)

In general, the fruits and vegetables here are smaller than back home – 1/3 to ½ the size we’re used to, but have about twice the flavor. I may have to start buying organic and seasonally when I get home, after being spoiled by the produce here…


Update: I wrote this on Feb. 18th and it is now the 25th, and currently I am tired of the monotony of the food and want a sandwich in the worst way. With lettuce. Which I've not seen once in Kakamega.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From dust to mud

2-23-09 6:30 pm

You haven’t heard it rain until you’ve heard it rain on a tin roof. It sounds like a continuously crashing wave at the beach…

I’ve been going out to the nine elementary schools ACCES runs the past few weeks, and out in the countryside, everyone’s got their fields ploughed and ready to plant corn. I wonder if this downpour signals the start of the rainy season… I think it usually starts in mid-March. It also could just be a late afternoon shower, like the ones we had everyday the first week I was here. I welcome the rain as it’s so hot in the ACCES office in the afternoon, I can hardly work. It’s also been really dusty.

However, as I sit here inside my host family’s house, having my Cadbury’s “drinking chocolate” for Tea, I have to wonder how Kakamega deals with the Long Rains, since so much of life here is carried out on the streets and in the open…

What happens to our three chickens when it pours like this? Where will they go?

What about my host parents, who aren’t home from work yet? My host mom takes a motorbike-taxi a half hour to and from work every day – is she getting soaked? I think my host dad walks. What about everyone who takes boda bodas? Are you supposed to carry an umbrella? Just get soaked?

What about all the mud-dung/ structures everywhere? Do the walls hold up?
What about the puppies at my fellow intern’s host family’s house? Dogs are NOT let inside here, so I guess they’ll just find a shed or barn to camp out in?

What about the all the women who line the road and sell used clothing and random kitchen supplies on my way home? Will they have to stop selling all of rainy season? Or is it so predictable that they know when to pack up?

What about the gang of street boys? Are the trash piles going to get too wet to sort through? Where do they sleep anyways? There’s another intern who just got here who is going to join an org that works with street kids, so I’ll find out soon.

Oh, just figured out what the chickens are up to – I can see them out the window and they’re having a field day in the grass, getting soaked, looking at the sky. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Boda Boda Life

This is an experiment to see if a picture will get e-mailed out and posted on my Facebook Notes page. I think this photo, or "snap" as they all say here, sums up my life in Kakamega pretty well. My coworker Elizabeth took it, while riding another boda boda, on the way back to the office after lunch. It was too darn hot to walk. Yikes, I realize my highlights are growing out... not sure what to do about that. Cut it all off? But then I won't have anything to keep the back of my neck from, I can't imagine any of the salons here, many of which are also electronics shacks, have any idea how to cut misungu hair. Maybe in Nairobi? Hmmmm.

Mom and all -- looks like you can click on a picture from the actual blog post itself to see it full size.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Selma and breastfeeding in Africa

I'll try to make this shorter than last week... got a little carried away about the chickens..

Will let me know about a video that was posted to You Tube of Selma Hayek breastfeeding an African baby on Friday, which he said was viewed more than a million times in less than a day. Hah! Good on her! (as an Aussie would say) He also informed me that the "worst part is, apparently Sierra Leon has the worst childhood mortality rate in the world (25% don't make it to 5, or something unbelievable like that) because they're rarely breastfed, because the enlightened Sierra Leoni men won't have sex with their wives while they're breastfeeding, so the men make them stop...." NICE, guys, nice.

I told my coworkers Liz (Gender & Health Coordinator) and Maggie (Nurse) about the breast feeding thing and they're aghast! Liz wants to know what the rate of breast cancer is in Sierra Leone and says it's probably be higher than normal from the women NOT breastfeeding. She also says that if you breastfeed exclusively it acts as a family planning method. Biologically that makes perfect sense. Who knew!

I was going to go out to the field (aka to one of the nine elementary school/adult education centers we run) with Maggie today to hear her give a talk about preventing mother to child HIV/AIDS transmission, but a kid had an epileptic attack this morning at one of the centers, so she took off to attend to that. The kids in our schools are orphans, ex-street kids, or from reeeeeally poor families, so she found a place that will give the kid free health care. (Very glad to hear that.) So we'll do the talk tomorrow.

I know you're disappointed that *you'll* be missing the talk, so in case you're curious, it's not that hard to avoid transmitting AIDS to an infant, as long as an HIV positive mother:

* doesn't feed the baby from a breast that is infected or if a nipple is cracked or bleeding (I'm laughing at the idea of Eli reading this at work...)
* bottle feeds if the baby has any mouth sores
* uses condoms to prevent reinfection. Becoming reinfected ups the amount of HIV in the mother's system, which increases the likelihood of transmission.

Despite the small additional risk of breastfeeding, it's still recommended that rural women breastfeed instead of bottle feed if they're HIV positive because

* of the benefit of the antibodies and nutrition in breast milk
* they may not have the money required to buy formula
* they may not have the time to gather wood to sterilize the water for the formula
* they may not have the time to prepare formula 12 x per day (women here work HARD)

It's funny, breastfeeding in public is completely normal here. Moms will nurse in the middle of the market, church, wherever. I think it makes sense--what's the big deal? But of course, this is coming from me, she who thinks beaches should be topless to avoid tan lines, like the South of France! (I know that Danielle's rolling her eyes as she reads this!) I showed Liz and Maggie a "cover up" I found on-line that you can buy as not to offend anyone when breastfeeding in the U.S., which they think is hilarious. I did a double take on seeing the blond women with a little pink baby modeling the cover-up, as I've seen nothing but cute African babies for three weeks straight now, and forgot that babies even come in any other color but dark brown.

In closing, I think it's ironic how here in Kenya, displaying a breast is natural and acceptable for women, and yet wearing shorts is scandalous. Not that that stops some of the University Girls—as we are fond of calling them—from dressing like hoochies. At least until their parents get home! I guess some things are universal! :-)

Cheers to Ms. Hayek!

Your misungu,

P.S. Yeah I know that wasn't much shorter than last time... I'll work on it..

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What is normal?

7:30 pm
Things are starting to feel normal for me here, but it’s funny how strange they might have seemed two weeks ago.

When I got home an hour ago, I had late afternoon tea, which means chai and bread with margarine. Kenya is, after all, a former British colony! The half-water half-whole milk combo used for tea is boiled in the morning and kept in a thermos all day so that it’s still hot for afternoon tea.

I can smell the beef stew cooking in the kitchen... Mama Susan is making dinner from scratch like she, and the vast majority of other Kenyan wives do, every night, seven days a week. (I would not be a very good Kenyan wife.) On a side note, we have been having meat almost every night, which I was not expecting. Daniel, one of the other FSD volunteers, said that is definitely not the case with his host family.

Steve, who’s in 8th grade, just got home from school, after leaving this morning at 5 or something crazy. After seeing how hard these kids work, I will never have a shred of pity for American school kids again! :-)

My host dad is in the process of locking all the windows and closing the drapes, as we do ever night when it gets dark for, as they say here, “security.”

Before she started cooking, Mama Susan gave me my clean folded laundry, which a house-helper hand washed and line dried today. She comes once a week to help with laundry. In Kenya, it’s demeaning to wash another’s underwear, so I do that myself.

There’s a hose going from the kitchen sink going out the window, filling up a giant 50 gallon tank in the kitchen annex, to use when there’s no water. There are several of these jugs around, which made sense to me when Mama Susan says they went for four days without water one time.

I’m also saving this Word doc a lot, so that I don’t lose it if the power goes out. It went out for a half hour on Wednesday, when Mama Susan was right in the middle of making dinner on the electric portion of the stove (it has gas and electric burners, but we’re out of gas). When it didn’t look like the power would come back on after 10 minutes, she busted out the wood-burning stove (there’s a fireplace in the kitchen) and finished cooking on it. I was SO impressed.

I can hear the 7 o’clock news is in Kiswahili on the TV. I try to listen sometimes to catch words here and there, but have to wait for the 9 o’clock news in English if I actually want to understand anything.

Finally, the two kukus and jugo (chickens and one rooster) just came in for the evening – every night around dusk, they meander into the kitchen annex clucking away and wait for one of us to come and lift up the upside-down basket that constitutes their coop. Then, they head under it, with some flapping of wings and more clucking, to hit the proverbial hay after a long day of poking around the shimba (family garden.) This is probably my favorite part of the day as they crack me up every time. I took a video of the daily ritual last night so I can share when I get home. (I can’t imagine trying to upload video on a dial-up…)

Speaking of kukus, an interesting fact I just learned tonight: apparently, if you only have hens, they’ll take off and find a neighbor’s rooster to shack up with. If you only have a cock, he’ll leave, in search of hens. So you have to have both sexes for them to not run away. We will keep the chickens until they stop laying eggs, but the rooster’s not so lucky – he’ll hit the dinner table much earlier in life and be replaced. :-( Mama Susan says she herself doesn’t like to do the deed, but fortunately Steve and my host dad are experts.

On Tuesday, I knew we were having kuku for dinner, because Mama Susan said that she had ordered one from a guy on Monday (ours are too young to eat ). I was expecting to witness the slaughter, but el pollo had long since made it into the stew pot by the time I got home. The method (skip this if you’re squeamish) involves holing the wings down with your feet and cutting the head off with a knife, as quickly as possible to spare unnecessary pain. As soon as you de-head it (I can’t bring myself to say be-head), it goes straight into a pot of boiling water, which helps with the plucking/defeathering.

I was a little bit disappointed to have missed it, because I’m a big proponent of “If you can’t deal with killing it yourself, or at least seeing it being killed, you shouldn’t be eating it,” but at the same time, I think it’s probably better that I didn’t witness my dinner transitioning from animal to food, as I would have (a) passed out (b) cried or (c) intervened and tried to recue the chicken. And quite possibly would never eat chicken again – after all, Danielle doesn’t eat lamb as a result of seeing one slaughtered in China...

The chicken wasn’t bad – the meat is significantly darker, and MUCH tougher her than in the States, as a result of there being no such thing as a NON free-range chicken in Kenya. Once you get used to the extra chewing, it’s quite flavorful. The liver is a delicacy and goes to the head of the household, aka the father. It probably goes without saying, but the entire chicken, save the head and feet, went into the pot.

Mugo (moo-go), our Kiswahili teacher from orientation, also teaches life skills to Peace Corps trainees, which includes instructing them how to kill their poultry. You can’t get pre-packaged chicken here, so it’s do it yourself, or go without. (Skip again if you have a weak stomach.) He told us a story about one volunteer was eager to do try her hand at doing it, but mid-neck cut, freaked out and started crying (this would be me, btw). Mugo told her she had to finish the job, as the chicken was in pain, but she was in hysterics and refused. Finally, another volunteer intervened and put the poor bird out of its misery. I guess no kuku for her during her two years of service! As my stomach was churning and I was getting light-headed hearing all this, I was thanking God that the whole Peace Corps thing didn’t work out for me.

Time for dinner... I’ll send this after, as it takes a while for the dial up modem to do its thing.

Love from Afrika,

P.S. Yes, it's Friday night and I'm home on the computer. Rockin'! :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

First Days of Work

It's 4:30 pm and I just finished my second day with my host organization, ACCES, African Canadian Continuing Education Society. Canadian is part of the name as the whole place is funded by the Canadian International Developmet Authority, the Canadian counterpart to USAID. They/we have the following programs:

1. Nine primary schools (grades 1-8), 4 of them which have adult education contingents.

2. Scholarships for children whose families would otherwise be unable to afford secondary school (high school), vocational training or university. They are going to give 263 full scholarships this year. Currently the common area is full of bags for the students, each containing a blanket, sheet, laundry soap and a few other necessities.

3. Health, (esp. HIV/AIDS) & Gender Education for those schools, as well as Health Care.

4. Small business management education, at the four adult education centers, and small business loans for those who have completed the class series.

I'll be helping with the last two—women's empowerment and micro-credit.

I currently have a little desk in an partitioned-office with Maggie and Elizabeth. Maggie is the ACCES nurse and is soft-spoken, sweet, smart and unassuming. She is petite and has short hair (shorter than Doris') and is a new mom. Elizabeth (Liz) is the Health Education Coordinator, is friendly, imposing and says she's as tall as I am (she's got about 8 inches to go.) Liz jokes that Maggie's new son is huge, and is going to be bigger than her in no time flat.

When I showed up for work yesterday, Liz had on pinstripe slacks and a button down. D'oh!! If I had known the office dress code, I would have brought my work pants! Oh well. I've been getting lots of compliments on the two peasant skirts Katrina made for me, and Liz said that they're perfect for going into the field, where the women won't listen to what you're saying if you're not wearing a long skirt. Too funny.

Steve is the Micro-finance guy, is very nice and laughs easily (though most here do). He usually has a Christian radio station on in his office. This place feels like a principal's office combined with a community center -- kids and parents coming and going, folks from the community coming in to talk about their loans, etc.

Lucy is the Scholarship Coordinator, and is currently acting as Program Director as well (she's as busy as I'm sure David is doing two jobs). She is tall and lean. Her personality is direct, caring, friendly. She doesn't mess around in getting stuff done. So far I've seen no evidence of the Kenyan Time here. Everyone is in by 8... maybe this will be the dawn of a new, earlier schedule for me?

There's a nice breeze that blows through the open windows and the sounds that waft in from outside include kids playing, goats bleating, cows mooing, birds cawing, and maintenance men sawing tree branches for makeshift fences by hand. It's a very pleasant environment overall. I don't have my own computer (again, should have brought a laptop) but folks here are in the field enough that I think I'll be able to use one (like now) at least once a day, depending on workload. There's a short gray and white cat that runs around too, and though I'm not supposed to touch any animals I may surreptitiously befriend it.

I've spend the past two days divided between reading ACCES literature and tagging along with Liz and Steve making visits to the program sites.

Yesterday I went with Liz via boda bodas (a bike with a seat on the back for a passenger that usually cost less than 50 cents to go anywhere in town) to one of the schools that hadn't turned in their paperwork for January. She met with the site coordinator (principal) and two Peer Mentors briefly, and after took me into the five classrooms that comprised the school. They were just like the schools you see in CARE, Save the Children, etc. brochures -- dirt floors, mud/cow dung walls (don't worry, it didn't smell) and 25 or so ADORABLE barefoot, wide-eyed kids in each, wearing regular clothes instead of uniforms (which is standard here) sitting at little wooden bench/desk combos that fit four or five across. There was a blackboard in the front of each class and an enthusiastic teacher. We visited the 2nd/3rd grade combined class and the second Liz and I walked in, the kids jumped to attention and replied to the teachers request to welcome us: "Karibu!" in almost perfect unison.

Even though these classrooms were pretty bare bones, the kids seemed happy, full of energy, and to be learning a lot.

Today, I visited a school (via matatu, boda boda and finally by foot) with Steve, where he lectured a group of 10 adult learners on small business management. They were all women, mostly older, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was because Steve is a charming guy. I didn't understand much because it was all in Kiswahili, but I got the jist that they were discussing Risk, Reward, Opportunities, Challenges, and such.

Most of them will do some sort of farming: sugar cane, tea, cabbage, kale, carrots, corn (or maize as they call it here), wheat, etc.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Phone and mailing address

P.S. Call Me! Send me stuff! :-)

My cell here: +254 (716) 415-353.
We're 13 hours earlier, so just switch the am to pm and add 1, e.g., 4 pm PST is 5 am Kenyan time.

I will be working 8 to 5, so anytime between 5p and 10p on weekdays is fine, or on the weekend after 9 am or so. You can also text me.


My name
c/o: FSD
P.O. Box 1124
Kakamega, 50100 KENYA

Most of the roads here don't have names, and the houses/shacks certainly don't have numbers, so everyone just drops off and picks up mail at the Posta. Love it.

Fires & Obama-mania

Hi, all,

Apologies for the delay in writing. It’s been a busy week of orientation and I have limited computer access. (I really wish I had brought a laptop!) I moved in with my host family on Saturday, and living with them couldn’t be further from the mud-floor, pit-latrine, bucket-shower life I was imagining. They have a shower with instant hot water (usually you flip a switch and wait 10 minutes for the water to heat up), a new refrigerator and a computer (with wireless dial-up internet - I don't think there's a landline). They’ve made me feel very welcome and even painted the whole house before I arrived (Of course it wasn’t JUST for me, but having a house guest is definitely good motivation to finish home-improvement projects.) My host parents speak near perfect English – it’s going to be hard to learn Swahili when I can revert to English so easily. My host father (babu) works for the government doing gender equality training and some social work and my host mother (mama) teaches primary level (elementary school) teacher certification (AND human resource management once a week.) And cooks dinner from scratch every night. I don't know where she finds the energy. She says "one gets used to it!" My host father whistles all the time while he’s working around the house and has a deep, jolly laugh. They're both extremely sweet. Susan (host-mama) is letting me help her cook Luhya and Kikuyu traditional food (she is Kikuyu and he is Luhya). They have three children, ages 11, 15 and 17. All three go to different boarding schools, but there was a fire in the dorm of the youngest, (Steve) so he’s home while the school looks for alternate housing. The fire was at 5 am, but these kids start EARLY, so they were long off to their pre-breakfast study session. Nuts.

Speaking of which, it’s been a bad week in Kenya for fires. In Nairobi, a Nakumat (basically like a Target) burned to the ground killing 27 – including a Kenyan celebrity actor. There were reports that when the fire first began with a generator, people started heading for the door, but the guards thought they were stealing so locked the doors. Ei yi yi. Additionally, there was not adequate water available for the firefighters. Then, on Saturday, a tanker overturned on the road a few hours from Kakamega. As scores of locals ran to steal the petrol, some idiot lit a cigarette. You can imagine what happened. So far, over a hundred people have been reported dead. My host mom said that the same thing happened 3 years ago, but that Kenyan's don't learn. The president has declared that all flags fly at half-mast this week and that the tanker victims get top notch medical care (this is ironic to me considering how many others around the country have no health care, period, or are dying of preventable diseases like malaria. Hello, PR.

On a more positive topic, this country is IN LOVE with our president, their own native son. Walking down the main drag (the A-1), I’ll get, in this order of frequency “Hihowareyou,” “misungu” or “Obama!” Misungu means “foreigner,” or, literally “explorer.” It’s not derogatory, just descriptive. But it does get old. Obama’s face also graces the back of matatus (minibuses), posters for sale and the odd t-shirt or roadside banner. Most of them feature el presidente in front of a Kenyan and American flag. Awwww. My host parents said that many Kenyans are looking at the US as a positive example of a country that’s overcome racism, and are inspired to stop their own tribal racism. The majority of folks here identify more with their tribe as opposed to being Kenyan, though hopefully as they intermarry more and more, that will lessen. The major political parties are aligned along tribal lines, which can result in violence during elections. Apparently, other Americans were being congratulated “on a peaceful election” before I got here. The things we take for granted!

Time for bed. I miss you guys! I have yet to have a dream about Kenya – they’re all about home.