Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Long Rains

It's rained during the afternoon for three days in a row, so I think it's official that the season of the Long Rains has begun. Which I am very happy about, for the following reasons:

1. The rain cools everything down. Normally at this time in the afternoon it would be about 89 degrees in my little partitioned office. But it's refreshingly brisk. Seeing that I basically missed Winter this year, it feels great.

2. Our maize (corn) will grow. I spent Saturday with my host dad hoeing, fertilizing and planting the field next to our house (a.k.a., "shamba") and he said that as long as we got rain within a week, the maize would start sprouting and the seeds wouldn't die. After the rain Sunday afternoon, he proclaimed, "God loves us!" I told him I'd gone out to a village and had done a rain dance with the witchdoctor. ;-) Planting was hard, hard work, but a lot of fun. I've got some nice blisters on my hands and I think the soles of my feet may be permanently stained the color of the orange dirt.

3. The people will eat. A large number of people out here in the sticks of Western Province are subsistence farmers. So if it doesn't rain, and their crops don't grow, they are in big trouble.

So, it's a good thing all around. With the exception of women's hairdos: weaves, braids and extensions do not like getting wet. No good at all. Fortunately, most women have a shower cap or cloth to protect their hair, or in a pinch, a plastic bag. My hair just turns into a frizz bomb, which is nothing new..

To answer my questions from a few weeks ago:

What about everyone on the streets trying to get home, etc?

If you're inside and it starts pouring, you stay where you are and wait it out. If you're on the street, you duck under an overhang for however long it takes. If people see you running around and getting soaked, they will invite you to come under their thatch vegetable stall or whatnot. It's understood that meetings, etc. will be delayed accordingly.

What about all the mud-dung/ structures out in the villages? Do the walls hold up?

I think so... apparently these huts can last for forty years. You just re-dung the floors and walls once a year (it doesn't smell or anything) and re-thatch every couple of years.

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?

Awww, how sweet and American of me worrying about the dogs. I'm sure they're fine.

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?

Predictable. You can kind of tell when the clouds are gathering and it's about to rain -- it reminds me of the South West. The produce market operates if its a light rain, but everyone covers their goods or packs up if it starts pouring. Kids will continue to have recess and play soccer, hangout outside, etc. unless it really starts coming down.

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.

Oy. Don't know about that one. Though everything dries pretty quickly in the sun, I can't imagine that getting soggy helps the garbage any. Yikes.

I've pledged to myself to keep these pretty short, so I'll sign off.


P.S. Mom & Dad: I got malaria last week but am fine now. It was like a getting food poisoning with a headache and joint aches. The great part was that my doctor's visit only cost 300 shillings ($4), my lab test was 50 shillings ($.65) and my malaria-and-pain killing medicine was only 8 bucks. Doctor Odongo was both the doctor and the cashier. Love it! And no insurance paperwork! Even better!

You can thank Will for making me go to the doctor, when I thought it was just an upset stomach and that I would be fine in a day. Hah! And yes, I was taking my Doxycycline (anti-malarial) but I guess it's not 100% effective, eh? :)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lake Nakuru midterm retreat

Hi All,

Sorry I've been slow about posting and thank you Hanwen for bugging me to.

So, I did try again to get to Imbale last Tuesday, and was able to make it out to the school, though Joseph had to come with me to the matatu stage (stop) and put me on the right one. Imbale is quite lovely -- the teachers lounge where they correct papers and such is outside at a picnic table under a thatch canopy and a lot of the school yard (a.k.a., the area behind the church which donated the land) is shaded by large eucalypti.

The site coordinator and teachers were very helpful and got all the older girls names and signatures for me quickly. I told them that Canada had approved our request to recommence the uji (porridge) program which had been cut from the 2009 budget. Thus, the kids had not been getting any porridge for two months. The site coordinators said that that was wonderful because the kids are pretty lethargic from being hungry. Keep in mind, the children at these schools are mostly orphans and from destitute homes -- most school kids in Kakamega are fine and seem to have plenty to eat--even if it is just beans and rice. Which is quite delicious.

When I got back to the office late in the afternoon, Liz was pissed off because she found out that we were only going to get four pads per girl, plus booklets on puberty and menstruation. Sigh. Oh well, better than nothing I guess. And the booklets will be good, because I don't think they have anything like that currently.

In other news, our midterm retreat to Lake Nakuru last weekend was fantastic. Angie and Damaris (our two site coordinators) hired a matatu which felt extremely roomy and luxurious with only the seven of us, plus driver and companion, as opposed to the normal 20 or so. It was a pimped out with a DVD PLAYER (I kid you not) on which we watched music videos the whole five hours there-- the selection included Sean Paul, Mariah Carrey, the Pussycat Dolls, and of course, lots of our favorite Nigerian hip-hop artists, P-Square. About one third of the trip there was on unpaved roads which did cause some skipping.

We stayed at a guest house in the park which we thought was quite nice, but that is according to our new Kenyan standards. In the U.S., I'm not sure if it would even get one star. It had a shower, much to the excitement of all the other interns who take bucket baths at home. At these times I keep my mouth shut, getting a hot shower every day.

I knew there would be flamingos at Lake Nakuru, but had no idea at the rest of the wildlife we'd see-- water buffaloes, storks, water bucks, baboons, vervet monkeys (who stole the bananas out of our van -- stupid monkeys) zebras, gazelles, wart hogs, impalas, three giraffes, three white rhinos, one black rhino and even a female lion! Here are my safari pictures.

The day after the safari we went to the Simba Wildlife Lodge in the park to have a snack and drinks. It was sooooooo nice -- 400 bucks a night I think. I think the way to go is to stay in a cheap guest house/hostel (ours was 500 shillings pp per night, which is about 6 bucks) and self-cater, but then have drinks or use the pool at one of the really swanky places.

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Saturday night, we moved out of the park since it's a $60 fee for every 24 hours you're there (for Kenyans it's $4) to nearby Nakuru and stayed in another guest house. Again, we thought it was great, but if it had been the first place we'd seen getting off the plane in January, we'd have thought it was a dump. There was no stove in the kitchen, so the owners fired up some jikos for us to cook on (charcoal burning stoves).


After dinner, Daniel wanted to dance (quel suprise), and our driver/host really wanted to see this Kenyan rapper who was playing in town, Jina Kali, or something like that. So we piled into the safari van again (now party van) and went back out around 10 pm -- at night! Going anywhere after dark is an event, considering I'm usually at home with the windows shut and locked by sunset. The venue was like any decent partially outdoor club in L.A., and it was fun to see all the young vibrant Kenyans in their sexy, "smart" club attire: a good reminder that not all of Kenya is impoverished. Personally, I had to swallow my pride and go in trainers and clam diggers. Sexy.

The concert was good except for Jina Kali didn't come on until 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. Oy. I didn't think he was anything special but the Kenyans loved him. I got to see Damaris, our Kenyan site coordinator, dance up a storm and sing the words to every song. Very cute. On the downside, every time we walked through the crowd to get to a place to dance, the two guys would have to extract several prospecting hands from their wallet pockets, and the girls would have to cover each others' behinds, else they be grabbed. I was on patrol for Damaris.

And I hate to say it, but I didn't see a bad dancer out of the thousand or so people who were there. Kenyans have got rhythm, I tell you! I tried to blend in--ha ha hah. Speaking of blending in, we saw a few other mzsugus in the crowd; I am always amused by how immediately suspicious I become-- what are they doing here? Traveling? Working? Volunteering? Studying abroad?

The other interns say that they react similarly. We joke that most of the rules from thingswhitepeoplelike.com (which should really be called "what upper-middle class yuppies like") apply to us, including #71 Being the only white person around. Anyway, I know I'm going to get heat from you guys about being racially insensitive and unPC, but isn't it allowed if you're making fun of yourself?

Back in Kakamega, I saw some mzungu backpackers yesterday and thought they looked hilarious. It would be like seeing a bunch of random tourists tromping around Orinda or something -- what are they here to see? Maybe the Kakamega Forest? Dunno. I felt a little bit protective of Kakamega-- Are Kakamegans like wildlife that you want to watch? Hm. It's one thing if you're proud of your community and want to show it off, it's another if you feel like you're being objectified or observed out of curiosity by someone who you know--despite their grubby clothes--is several times wealthier than you.

On a similar note, I can never be mad at all the kids, teenagers, mamas, etc. who giggle at me in the street, because in a way it gives them power over me. Which is fine, because I'm the one invading their town, knowing that 99.9% of them will not be able to be a tourist in my town. As much as I try to fit in and LIVE here, in many ways, I'm still a cultural tourist. Not sure if what I'm saying makes sense or not: I guess it's just different dynamic touring a place that is economically similar to the U.S., like Western Europe, vs. visiting a country that is much poorer.

Anyway, off to have my favorite meal at Dona Caf for lunch: beef, cabbage/carrots and rice. (Kenyans like to abbreviate "cafeteria" or Cafe to Caf, Computer to Comp, etc. Hah!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Maxipad Mission

Maxipad mission

Written Monday afternoon 3/9/09

This morning, Clara (office administrator) and Elizabeth (Gender & Health Coordinator) announced that Always (of maxipad fame) is donating supplies to local girls who can’t afford their products. This is great news because at the nine primary schools ACCES runs, the older girls in 6th, 7th and 8th grade will often stay home and miss class when they have their periods, because they can’t afford pads. (Though come to think of it, what did women do before pads? I’ll have to ask…)

The Always people are coming through Kakamega tomorrow, and to get the supplies, we have to give them school rosters with the girls’ names and signatures, signed and stamped by the school nurse.

Given this mission, Clarah, Liz and Maggy and I all dropped our plans for the day and divvied up which schools each of us would go to. I’d never gone out to the field on my own before, but it was now or never. The girls need pads!!! Liz didn’t know how many they would actually get, but I was hoping for a year’s supply each.

I grabbed my blank rosters and walked from the office to the gas station where the matatus (passenger vans) pick up passengers. Once they fill up (i.e., smoosh 20 or so people in the 15 seats) they can leave for their destination.

I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s to one’s advantage to find a van that’s almost full to avoid having to sit around. The downside of this system is that the touts will fight over passengers, and it’s impossible to walk by matatus without being asked “Madame, where are you going? Where are you going?” I’ve even seen the touts take old mamas by the arm and physically lead them to their vans. Hah!

Normally, someone from ACCES finds the right matatu, haggles over how much we’ll pay and I just stand back and watch the show. But when I got to the station alone, I was swarmed by matatu touts, harassing me to get in their van. I didn’t see the minibus we’d taken the last time, so went with a tout whose matau who said he was going to Imbale. A few people in the matatu even motioned for me to come join them – Kuja! Kuja!

Though I’ve been to five out of the nine ACCES schools, I couldn’t necessarily tell you which road each is on. I haven’t actually seen a map of the greater Kakamega area, except for the very general one in my Kenya Lonley Planet. All I remember about the Imbale school was that it was a really rough dirt road, and it was further out than the other schools – it took maybe an hour or 45 minutes to get there.

Once happily situated in my van, feeling proud of my new independence, I decide the next order of business was to get some food, as I’d be gone all day and only had tea and bread for breakfast. Vendors will walk from matatu to matatu selling snacks, so I bought some bananas from a woman selling them from a basket.
Shortly after, some street boys, probably about 9 or 10 years old, came up to my window and started asking for pesa (money). I’m sure their ripped t-shirt and trousers had once been different colors, but they’d long since become a light brown/grey color that is the uniform of street boys. I instead gave them a banana each and told them to stop sniffing the super-smelling glue from a small, plastic much-refilled container one had.

I was surprised when they gave me back the bananas through the window. Ingrates!
However, a young bespeckled guy sitting behind me, wearing a button down and slacks, informed me that I had bought Cooking Bananas, not Sweet Bananas. Right.

So I waited for another vendor to come to the window and bought some peanuts (ground nuts here) and cookies (biscuits) and shared with the two urchin boys. After that I shut my window to try to get them to leave me in peace but they loitered.

Meanwhile, the guy behind me had gotten out of the matatu in search of a Sweet Banana vendor for me. He came back a few minutes later, followed by a cart banana vendor. Hah. So I got my sweet bananas after all.

When the matatu finally filled up, we pulled out of the gas station/matatu stop and headed off at around 10 am – only an hour or so wait! Great. A nice woman next to me, in a smart (sharp) grey skirt suit, looked at my instructions from Maggy: first I was to go to Imbale, then Shivagala school. She looked at the paper a little quizzically. Not a good sign.

After bumping along for 45 minutes in the rickety matatu, picking up and dropping off passengers every 200 meters, we hadn’t turned onto the dirt road that I remembered. I asked the tout again – “Are we going to Imble?” “Ndyio, tunaenda” (Yes, we’re going.) Hmm… I was starting to think that maybe he’d lied to me just to get me on the matatu and take my fare (not unheard of, especially with mzungus (foreigners).

After another 10 minutes, I started seeing signs for a town called Mbale and assumed that When we pulled up to the Mbale market, I alighted (got off), hoping that Imbale was a nickname for Mbale or something. I was immediately swarmed with boda boda (bicycle taxi) and piki piki (motorbike taxi) guys looking to supply me with transport on the next leg of my journey. I showed them my paper and they passed it around, all looking at each other and grabbing it from one another and asking questions about my destination.

I told them I was going to a shoole kidogo, a small school where the kids were orphans and didn’t wear uniforms like most school kids. Finally one said he knew it, so we agreed on a price and I got on the boda boda. We pedaled through the market and started heading to the “interior”. He pedaled slowly and pretty soon I realized he had no idea where he was going. I told him to turn around and

Long story short, Mbale and Imbale are definitely NOT the same place, and after asking more people all over town if they knew Imbale, I had to go back to the office, defeated, because it was too late in the day to try to get to Imbale (my little jaunt started at 8:30, and I didn’t get back until 2:30). Mbale is probably only 20 miles away, but such is transportation in Kenya. I thought it was all quite hilarious and would have been a fun adventure and a great story, if it had not been for my failed mission. I was pissed off at the possibility of these girls not getting their pads because of my ineptitude. I swore that if I couldn’t get those names again on Tuesday, I would take the money for the pads out of my seed grant money or my own pocket.

When I got back to the office those who had not gone out to the field were apologetic but also agreed with me that it was pretty funny. I plan to try again Tuesday with a home-made map and a little help from a co-worker in getting on the right matatu.

More soon...