Category Archives: Culture

Life back at home

Hm, re-entry back to life in the United States, and San Francisco, has been more turbulent than I was expecting.  There was the first week where I needed to hide away from the over-marketed, over-televised, over-gaudy society that is the American Christmas season. That and everyone’s obsession with the traffic and the weather. And then a week spent in New York City exploring and visiting friends, and imagining if I could be happy living there. Christmas with my family. And now I’ve returned to San Francisco, where I’m trying to figure out the plot twists in my next chapter of life.

For a three-week stretch in November and December, I slept in nine different places. I’ve now spent three weeks sleeping in one place – a home in SF full of friends – and that has been great – but until I get a new job, I will be firmly engaged in a gypsy life, floating from friend to friend, and couch to couch. And that is a very strange, and very new, feeling for me.

It’s been six weeks since I arrived back home to this country – and I’ve been struggling to define “home” ever since. I no longer have my own apartment; I no longer have a job to give me a defined purpose and way to focus my days; I graduated from my Masters program; most friends are hibernating during January, so my usual social scene is very slow right now. And, perhaps most importantly, I got very comfortable with the slower pace of life in Kenya, and a more homey existence, complete with helpful neighbors and boisterous kids next-door. I realize now that I want my next home to include other people – no more studio living for me. Having a cluster of wonderful friends that are part of my daily life, creating deeper connections, that’s what will make me feel more connected and at home.

How do you define home?

 

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A Capital Time

I promised you a post about Nairobi a while back didn’t I?  I haven’t forgotten.  Everything you read about Nairobi mentions how it’s referred to as ‘Nairobbery,’ and that you should take taxis everywhere at all costs and never walk around at night. I was therefore both cautious and extremely curious about what it really was like.  I ended up being incredibly surprised by Nairobi, for many reasons. The Nairobi I saw was a pleasant, cultured, courteous and safe one.  Maybe I was just lucky, or blessed by guardian angels, but it felt like a nice city, except for the truly disgusting level of pollution in the air.  The traffic is intense and the smog and dust and construction dirt and soot from industry means that on arrival you immediately start sneezing, coughing, and making your handkerchief black – that is the gross part of Nairobi.

I traveled there with my Director Gabi for a 3day weekend back at the end of September. We left 10pm Friday on an overnight bus.  We splurged a bit and got tickets on the nice bus, which was comfy, spacious, and came with snacks even.  The road between Mombasa and Nairobi is in notoriously bad shape though (and dangerous, so many accidents), and it seemed like the bus had to go off-roading, um, the whole trip. So there was a ton of turbulence whenever I tried to nod off, and I didn’t sleep a whole lot. We arrived about 5am, and waited for our friends Nikki and Nick to come collect us from the bus stage on the side of the road.  It was here that began our weekend of guardian angels.  A pikipiki (motorbike) driver stood with us, very much standing guard, not taking any passengers until our hosts showed up and we were secure.  We walked to their apartment and fell into sleep.  The next day we spent recovering from the journey, and helping prepare the apartment for a party Nikki was hosting that evening. We hung out with a bunch of Kenyans in the NGO and tech scene at this party, making new friends and connections. Possibly the biggest surprise for me about this city was that everyone speaks English to each other! Such a change from life on the Coast, where everyone speaks Kiswahili, and English is not guaranteed. The people of Nairobi are a mix of not just internationals, but of so many Kenyan tribes too. Each of these tribes has its own mother tongue, so Engish IS the common language here. And we were hanging out with a well-educated bunch too. All the same, it was a welcome relief to be sitting in a room full of Kenyans, and understanding the conversation for once. I also met someone who’d just moved to San Francisco, and was working for Samasource, a friend’s former employer. It’s fun to say “small world!” when you actually are on the other side of the world.  🙂

On Sunday we met with and interviewed a Kenyan girl who’d applied for an internship with us.  She was very impressive and has now been a great addition to our office the past three weeks. We then headed towards Impala Park, to check out a “Classical Fusion” concert we’d seen advertised. A string quartet from South Africa was headlining, and we’d missed the Mombasa show, so we decided not to miss it twice. It was such an unexpected experience!

Immediately after walking through the gate, the classical music, not-crowded grounds, and the atmosphere of the event made for a pleasantly abrupt change from the matatus and traffic-heavy road just outside. I was blown away by how familiar and normal everything and everyone inside was – from the picnic baskets and box-wine to the kids playing in the bouncy castle and the teenagers looking impressively stylish and hipster-like for their age. Just like home! The only difference was that ~97% of the people there were African. All ages, all styles, but definitely most all were in the upper middle class, happily enjoying this outdoor concert on a hot summer day. Like I said, unexpected! The music too: it was definitely “fusion” – I think they intended that to mean a combination of Classical and African beats… but it felt more like Irish folk music!! Seriously. The entire crowd got up on their feet and danced when asked to by the band.  And they stayed dancing, everyone, until the end, which was capped off by fireworks no less, in front of a brilliant sunset.  Really such a fantastic time.

We then went off in pursuit of Thai food.  I’d read that there were quite a few restaurants in the city and I had to get some tasty Thai, my favorite, while I had the opportunity.  After a trio of matatus across town, and a few more guardian angels helping us find our way, (even accompanying us out of their way a few times!) we made it to Westlands and a Thai restaurant – oh no it was closed on Sundays!  But thankfully, there was another one in the building that was open! Oh the magnificent options of a real city, how I miss thee. We enjoyed a very delicious meal, and not just because we were in Kenya. It stood on its own as really delicious, and I made note to attempt some Thai cooking back in Likoni, to diversify the options for my tastebuds. (See: Thai cooking post) We headed back to Nikki’s, enjoying two more matatu rides (gasp, at night!). Not once did we take a taxi, our entire time in Nairobi. So there, Lonely Planet!

On Monday we went to the Tarehe School for Boys to visit their library and take notes, as we were organizing our own community to get our library completed. The school and library were clean, orderly, impressive. Freshly inspired, we were to then meet with Gabi’s friend who works at a school in Kibera. She had to cancel, so I called a friend of a friend, and we met up with him for lunch instead. He is building schools throughout the slums of Nairobi, and meeting with great success using a corporate model (Bridge Academies – the site is pretty empty though!). The nicest part about meeting Jay was talking to someone about our mutual friends, while also about development topics and issues on a professional level. I want more of that in my life! I’m eager for more of my socializing to be with people in my chosen career world. That might mean leaving all of my loved ones in San Francisco for a while. I found the immense size of Nairobi comfortable and exciting, and it made me wonder if New York might be the place I want to live next. I’m applying for jobs all over the country, we’ll see where the winds blow me…

We parted ways with Jay and headed to a second-hand clothes market for some shopping.  Even though I don’t really enjoy bartering at all (I’ve found that I miss pricetags so much – don’t ask me what I want to pay, just tell me how much it is!), we managed to get some good deals, and some cute new items.  We went back into town, met up with a coworker’s sister for a drink, and then went to another place to get some burgers.  Nikki and Nick met us there after a bit, and Gabi and I intentionally drank our beers quickly so that we’d sleep well on the late bus home. It worked! I managed to sleep, and we got into Mombasa just about sunrise. Our words were few and our eyelids heavy, but a satisfying and fun time was had. I was glad to leave before something happened to sour my experience!

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Thoughts on Change

When I was deciding on this developing country experience, I figured that six months would be just long enough that I would really be able to become engaged with the community, but not quite long enough that it would feel like I had to leave a new home.

I now have less than three weeks remaining of my 5.5 month assignment here.  And I was right.  I’ve made lots of friends, and gotten comfortable in my own home here, and made relationships with my neighbors.  Hell, I’ve even adopted a cat!  (and found a family to care for it after I leave, too, yes.)  And it’s a strange feeling that I have now.  It’s not one of longing to stay here.  No, I’m ready to come home.  Which makes the feeling even stranger.  I’ve been here so long and gotten into such a rhythm, that it feels odd to imagine that in three quick weeks it will all end and change drastically, all over again.  Maybe part of that is a reflection of what it is like to live in Kenya.  Change is hard to imagine.  Whether it’s introducing a new item to the menu, replacing the ferry with a bridge, or understanding how a complete education could improve your child’s life, many people in Kenya just do not comprehend, or have no experience thinking about, such things.

But I hear you asking, Didn’t Kenya just usher in a new Constitution, under the hopeful banner of We Want Change?  Yes, they did.  And most everyone here has high expectations for how it will make their country better very quickly, like some magic potion mixed up by the medicine man on the corner.  And there have been headlines daily about this Prime Minister here and that official there being exposed as corrupt, and now arrest is even being threatened to them.  But what is the ordinary person doing in their life to affect positive changes in their life and community?  Well, some are deeply committed, yes, but on average? From my impressions, not much. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not that those people are lazy or dumb or would just rather steal to make money.  It’s more that they simply cannot imagine that it could work any other way.  Kenya has just emerged from a 24 year regime, as one Kenyan friend put it.  Corruption was so commonplace and expected that a whole generation, the entire youth of the country, grew up thinking that was how life worked, that you had to give someone some money to get anything.  Slowly, some of these youth are starting to realize how deeply engrained this has been in their minds, and are working to undo it, and to help the new generation see life in a different way.

What I’ve come to learn is that when you live in a developing country… where your government has never provided or looked out for you, where your parents are forced to view you more as an expense and a burden than an investment and a source of joy, and where your work options can be counted on one hand… When you live this kind of life, maybe you get used to nothing good happening to you.  You get used to nothing changing, and you learn to be happy with whatever life hands you, and to not demand any better.  Maybe that’s why visitors so often become enamored with smiling children and families living in squalor, seemingly content with so little.  The tourists wonder “Do they know something important about life that we’re missing?”

In a way, yes. There is one fact of life that is deeply engrained in their collective minds, but it is so depressing and firm that it is better to just make do with what you’ve got and forget about it. This fact is how desperately difficult it is to change your circumstances when you’re on the world’s bottom-most rung, how unfairly lacking your opportunities are. Without something new being added to the equation from outside your bubble of resources, you have no options. Learning about new crop techniques, new seamstress training courses, or how to research available scholarships online are some of these new things. Local civil society and international NGOs have been working for decades to introduce these small advancements. Some few people throughout the country (and world) have seized these opportunities and made their lives better. But until the government steps in to make the big changes, like sewage systems, adequate public education through high school, and potable water systems, everyday life for the everyday person will remain unchangeable in any meaningful way.

Well, this post took a swift turn for the disheartening.  That was unintended.  Changes are happening, and lives are improving.  But perhaps it’s appropriate to think about this as I evaluate all that I’ve learned from this experience.  I have yet to see an example of international NGOs or local organizations making drastic improvements in a country.  No that’s not true. Bangladesh was recently lauded for its incredible rise in the HDI rankings (Human Development Report 2010).  And much of that effort can be attributed to Grameen Bank and all of its subsidiaries.  I am not sure if that model is repeatable.  Do you have other examples of work in the development sector having a direct connection to improvement in national numbers and indices?

The lack of examples do not lessen my resolve or spirit.  I am only further inspired to be a part of some effort that does make lasting positive BIG change.

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When I was deciding on this developing country experience, I figured that six months would be just long enough that I would really be able to become engaged with the community, but not quite long enough that it would feel like I had to leave a new home.

I now have less than three weeks remaining of my 5.5 month assignment here.  And I was right.  I’ve made lots of friends, and gotten comfortable in my own home here, and made relationships with my neighbors.  Hell, I’ve even adopted a cat!  (and found a family to care for it after I leave, too, yes.)  And it’s a strange feeling that I have now.  It’s not one of longing to stay here.  No, I’m ready to come home.  Which makes the feeling even stranger.  I’ve been here so long and gotten into such a rhythm, that it feels odd to imagine that in three quick weeks it will all end and change drastically.  Maybe part of that is a reflection of what it is like to live in Kenya.  Change is hard to imagine.  Whether it’s introducing a new item to the menu, replacing the ferry with a bridge, or understanding how a complete education could improve your child’s life, many people in Kenya just do not comprehend, or have no experience thinking about, such things.

But I hear you asking, Didn’t Kenya just usher in a new Constitution, under the hopeful banner of We Want Change?  Yes, they did.  And most everyone here has high expectations for how it will make their country better very quickly, like some magic potion mixed up by the medicine man on the corner.  And there have been headlines daily about this Prime Minister here and that official there being exposed as corrupt, and now arrest is even being threatened to them.  But what is the ordinary person doing in their life to affect positive changes in their life and community?  Well, some are deeply committed, yes, but on average? From my impressions, not much. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not that those people are lazy or dumb or would just rather steal to make money.  It’s more that they simply cannot imagine that it could work any other way.  Kenya has just emerged from a 24 year regime, as one Kenyan friend put it.  Corruption was so commonplace and expected that a whole generation, the entire youth of the country, grew up thinking that was how life worked, that you had to give someone some money to get anything.  Slowly, some of these youth are starting to realize how deeply engrained this has been in their minds, and are working to undo it, and to help the new generation see life in a different way.

What I’ve come to learn is that when you live in a developing country… where your government has never provided or looked out for you, where your parents are forced to view you more as an expense and a burden than an investment and a source of joy, and where your work options can be counted on one hand… When you live this kind of life, maybe you get used to nothing good happening to you.  You get used to nothing changing, and you learn to be happy with whatever life hands you, and to not demand any better.  Maybe that’s why visitors so often become enamored with smiling children and families living in squalor, seemingly content with so little.  The tourists wonder “Do they know something important about life that we’re missing?”

In a way, yes. There is one fact of life that is deeply engrained in their collective minds, but it is so depressing and firm that it is better to just make do with what you’ve got and forget about it. This fact is how desperately difficult it is to change your circumstances when you’re on the world’s bottom-most rung, how unfairly lacking your opportunities are. Without something new being added to the equation from outside your bubble of resources, you have no options. Learning about new crop techniques, new seamstress training courses, or how to research available scholarships online are some of these new things. Local civil society and international NGOs have been working for decades to introduce these small advancements. Some few people throughout the country (and world) have seized these opportunities and made their lives better. But until the government steps in to make the big changes, like sewage systems, adequate public education through high school, and potable water systems, everyday life for the everyday person will remain unchangeable in any meaningful way.

Well, this post took a swift turn for the disheartening.  That was unintended.  But perhaps appropriate as I evaluate all that I’ve learned from this experience.  I have yet to see an example of international NGOs or local organizations making drastic improvements in a country.  No that’s not true. Bangladesh was recently lauded for its incredible rise in the HDI rankings (Human Development Report 2010).  And much of that effort can be attributed to Grameen Bank and all of its subsidiaries.  I am not sure if that model is repeatable.  Do you have other examples of work in the development sector having a direct connection to improvement in national numbers and indices?

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Brain balance

Oh wow, it’s been three weeks since I last posted!  Everything here is still good.  Work is getting a bit complicated.  But my projects are gaining a clearer focus as the weeks tick past. I’ll give a work update later this week, but for now, something different.

Chances are probably quite good that if you’re reading this, you have a hobby.  Dancing, painting – something related to music?  Amateur photographer?  Doodler, or designer?  Using the left side of my brain is yet another luxury that I’ve taken for granted (with many grateful thanks, Mama and Papa!).  I have learned to play the piano and the trumpet, taken ballet, singing and hip-hop dance lessons.  I brought a set of gouache paints with me to Kenya, and have been practicing watercolor painting while here.

And it’s days like this past Saturday that make me wish so fervently for the day when all children have such everyday opportunities to creatively express themselves.  I went to watch our most recent football tournament, and to be the photographer for it.  As usual, when I break out the big SLR camera, every kid wants to play with it.  I had two girls in my lap, so I kept the strap around my neck and let them take pictures.  One of the girls, Fatuma, was enthralled.  Snap, snap, snap, zooom, snap!  Putting a camera into a child’s hands is one of the most thrilling transformations you can ever watch.  Suddenly they’re in control of how they look at the world – and some of the ways and things that they see will stop you still, and make you realize how much their young brains take in.  In fact, Kids with Cameras was the organization that first got me thinking that I wanted to work with NGOs in the developing world.  More specifically, it was their documentary Born Into Brothels.  If you missed it somehow, I recommend you watch it immediately.

Fatuma and Aisha

Anyway, as Fatuma was happily snapping away on the camera, another child, a 7 or 8 year-old boy, became intrigued with my hair and kept petting it.  He asked for my hairclip, and began trying out at least a dozen different hairstyles.  He passed judgment on each one, until he was finally satisfied.  About a month ago, a volunteer brought beads and string to the Center, and the kids leapt on the activity of making necklaces and bracelets with a fervor.  We also brought in a poi instructor to give them two lessons, and a few of them picked it up really quickly and really want to learn more skills.  It’s examples like this that make me realize how little there is to activate this half of impoverished kids’ brains.

Now, I’m not saying that there is a dearth of creativity among the children in Kenya.  Not at all.  You’d be amazed at some of vehicles that they make out of plastic bottles, straws rubber flip flops, and scrap wire.  But that short list of materials just about exhausts the resources available to the average child in Likoni.  Oh, there’s also the old classic “hoop and a stick” – I am not lying, it’s one of the more prevalent toys here.  And some of the kids are damn good with it!  But every time I see one of them running down the road with one, I can’t help but think how 19th century it is.

And unfortunately, the government, specifically High Education Minister William Ruto, doesn’t think very highly of the arts as an essential part of your daily education.  In fact, universities that offer majors in the arts are having their funding reduced, so that more money can go towards science and technical degrees, because those will lead to jobs that directly boost the economy.  This is important, and does make some sense.  BUT we are not all right-brain-dominant robots though, and this approach won’t benefit Kenya.  Some of us are left-brain-led monkeys.  Society needs artists and musicians and photographers and performers and designers too.  Thankfully, his plan has riled a lot of people in Kenya who agree with me.  Unfortunately, despite being a “working” democracy, that doesn’t mean that officials in Kenya actually have to listen to their constituents.

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Filed under Culture, developmentissue, politics

My own place

On a more personal note, I also moved into my own 2-room apartment on Sept 1 – here everyone calls it shifting places.  I then immediately spent five days with my friends Heidi and Joe, who were visiting Kenya and came to Mombasa to see me and my life here.  We had a great time, and they got to meet my hostmama and hostsister, and to hang out with the kids at Twaayf and Madaraka, and we all worked on our tans. 🙂  So then I spent last weekend nesting a bit and getting used to the place.  After 2+ months of living with 4-7 other people in my host family’s house, being back in an apartment with just me and no TV was so quiet.  Luckily, everyone else in the building makes up for that.  Music and TV are on loudly a lot, but I really don’t mind.  I usually need to be up by 8am anyway, it’s cool.

Here’s a picture of me in my new apartment, and a picture of all of the plastic crap that I had to buy for it.  The red wrinkly floor is included in that category, by the way.  It’s what’s called “PVC carpeting” and it’s covering the floors in both of my rooms because new concrete floors soak up a lot of moisture from the ground and make the floor very damp at night.  It eventually lays flat, and adheres thanks to this moisture.

My apartment is in a neighborhood of Likoni called Majengo Mapya (which translates to New Buildings).  This whole area has been populated just within the past ten or so years I’ve been told – one person was given a huge tract of land by someone in the government, and eventually locals stepped in and took the land back and started building.  Something like that.  Houses are being built at a very fast rate here, and I wake up to hammers quite a bit.  Though I now live very close to a mosque, so the call to prayer wakes me up even more – I’m getting used to it though.  I’m very happy now that Ramadan is wrapping up, as that means shorter and fewer calls over the megaphones.  The 5am one will be there every day though.  I’m getting better at falling back asleep after it wakes me up…

Here’s a map of Likoni.  You can see the ferry at the northern edge, just south of the island part of Mombasa.  The green arrow is the Hatua Likoni office, the yellow arrow is my host family’s house, and the orange arrow is my new apartment.  It takes me about 25minutes to walk across to the office now, and it took me 5min to walk from the other house, to give you perspective of scale.  Most of my coworkers live on this side of Likoni, and you also see how much closer the beach is now, and those are 2 big pluses.  The Likoni-Ukunda Road that is yellow and snakes around the edge of the map is the only paved road in all of Likoni.  I can also walk to ferry easily. I just got a bicycle, and biked to work today for the first time, which was great!  The roads are definitely very bumpy, and plagued by sharp coral-rocks, but I’ll go slowly and hopefully avoid punctures.  I’m excited to explore more of the area – having my own means of locomotion always makes me a much happier monkey.

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Katiba holiday

This past Friday was really lovely. So much so, that I want to share it with you as a taste of my days here, atypical though it was.

It was another national holiday, this time in honor of the new Constitution (Katiba) being signed into law. There were ceremonies and speeches and music performances being televised all day long, and millions of people gathered in Nairobi to be there for it. We decided it was a good day to get out of the office, and so everyone was asked to help out at Twaayf, our children’s center, as it was in need of a fresh coat of paint.

I woke up to the sound of rain, lulling me back to sleep. A little late, I woke up again and showered, and ate the yummy egg, tomato, onion scramble that my hostmama had left for me to eat (it’s the month of Ramadan, so they all wake before dawn to eat, and then go back to sleep). I head out, catch a matatu to Ferry Plaza, meet Denno at the hardware store and we buy a big bag of whitewash. We then get a tuktuk to take us to the center. Its raining again now, so we all hang out for a while, waiting for it to abate. It continues to rain, so the board games and beads are brought out, and we all start playing. The kids have all been beading a ton since one of the volunteers brought them the materials last week, and they love it. Like every new fun activity that is introduced to them, some of them show immediate zeal and skill for it, their brains leaping at the chance to engage their creative sides. I become engrossed in finishing my necklace (and excited to check out the bead store in town so I can make more) and when I’m done, the sun has emerged.

I begin to whitewash with all of the other staff and volunteers working today, slopping the pasty mix over the dingy walls and fading graffiti decorations. As we accumulate more and more white spots all over us, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer, and realize how easy of a sell he had to make to all those boys – painting IS fun!

Denno, Omali, Sami and Burning whitewashing

By mid-afternoon, we’re done, and the place looks so bright and white and clean. The center is just across the road from the beach, so I’d brought my swimsuit. Stephie and I decide to change and head that direction. Shelly Beach is very convenient – but not super as beaches go. I love exploring the tide pools that stretch out for 200 yards, but that means that when the tide comes in, you swim through a whole lot of seaweed and floating detritus. Flip-side of that coin though is that there are no waves coming in, and so with the strong current, we had ourselves our own Endless Pool where you could swim against a current for many minutes and not get anywhere. It felt great to get some proper exercise – I think I’ll be making swimming a regular activity when I live closer to the beach.

We head back, change out of our suits, and walk down the road to a palm-filled bar. We enjoy our beers, chatting under the trees about Kenya, men and our future careers, until just before sunset. Back out on the road, a man named Francis insists I ride back to Ferry on his pikipiki (motorbike), for the same price as a tuktuk, so I agree, judging him to be sober and old enough to know how to drive it well. Plenty of pikipiki drivers possess neither quality, so I generally only ride with ones that I know and trust. Francis is a-ok, and I try to remember his face for next time. At Ferry, I walk towards the spot where I’ll catch a matatu home, but Sunday (one of my regular, approved drivers) pulls up to me on his pikipiki and insists that I let him drive me home. I don’t want to pay the 50shillings so I say the matatu’s fine (10sh), but he says he’ll just charge 20, so I say ok. We chat about his health and the holiday, and when we arrive, he doesn’t have change for me, so he just says I’ll get it from you next time. I love being a regular now.  🙂

I go inside, greet my hostfamily, wash my hands, and sit down just in time for dinner, as they break their fast as soon as the sun goes down. I make myself do some work on the computer, and finish the last few pages of my book, and then the active day, topped off with swimming, a beer and a full tummy sends me to sleep soundly and content.

Next post: “So what is this ‘work’ she’s talking about?”

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A mini-tour of places I’ve been in Kenya

I thought you might enjoy a little tour of the spots I’ve been to in Kenya so far. I actually have not taken that many pictures that have not been work-related (surprising, I know, for the girl who always has a camera in her bag back in the US), but I’ve got some good random ones from these places that help tell a bit about each place.
Mombasa

Mombasa roofline

I took this picture from Rebecca’s host family’s apartment, in Old Town, Mombasa. I took it because I recognized the beautiful green and white mosque from my flickr-stalking of Mombasa before I came. I wanted to make sure I found my way to it at some point – I’ve got a bit of a thing for the color green, you see. I did the same thing in London actually… hunting down a green bridge there because I saw a picture of it on flickr. Heh. Anyway, this roofline picture of Mombasa shows you just how city-like it is, cluttered with buildings. None of them are very tall though, and little things like the palm tree, the turrets of two mosques, the colored buildings and the rusty tin roof-shed and laundry hanging on a line are some details that make this Mombasa, and not Metropolis, USA.

Diani

Fresh fish! (and squid)

This picture would be better if Diani Beach was in the background, but the best part of this picture is that this fisherman is standing right next to our house’s porch (and you’ve seen a million pictures of beautiful beaches). The FSD staff took us five interns to Diani for a weekend retreat halfway through June. We had a cottage just 50 yards from the beach, and Saturday morning this man walked up through the property asking each house if we’d like freshly caught fish, prawns, or these squid he’s holding up – all taken from the water we’d just been swimming in. He had a pocket scale that he could hang the fish or prawns from in a plastic bag, so you knew how much you were getting, and so he could charge you based on his per-kilogram price. The squids were getting their ink all over the place, and the fish we didn’t feel like scaling, so we ended up getting prawns and cooking them up with lots of fresh veggies – we couldn’t get enough vegetables that weekend – and they were very delicious!

Likoni

My hostmama in Flats

Two weeks ago was Kenya’s Referendum Day, when people voted Yes or No for the new Constitution. I walked with my hostmama to her polling station (where my hostsister was working for the day too!). After she voted, we went to buy some groceries, and stopped in at her friends’ apartment in Flats on the way. Flats is a section of Likoni where a whole bunch of apartment buildings were built (hence the name Flats) – I am not sure if it is similar to ‘the projects’ in US cities, but it seems comparable. It’s one of the safer places to walk through though, because there is always someone around. It’s the areas where there are no residences that are less safe, because there is no one around to help you or hear you. So, this is my hostmama, pausing in the doorway to the very open and airy building as we are leaving to say again how much she wishes she was able to attend the wedding of her friend’s son in Nairobi.

Pirates

Camel ride

Two weekends ago, we had a girls day at the beach. We took a matatu up to Pirates, a beach just north of Mombasa. We got some sun, went on a boatride, and Debora and Rebecca hopped on a camel for a ride down the beach. My most memorable part of the day was watching the beach become a waterpark for all of the local kids and families who had come out for the day. The tide came in higher and higher, making the beach shorter and the waves crash harder. The kids would just sit and let the waves hit them, eliciting dozens of squeals in unison as they crashed over them. Mothers would hold their small babies in the waves, submerged in their full long robes to maintain modesty. And the shore was lined with people just standing there, in slacks and button-down shirts and nice shoes (like the guy in the picture above), simply taking in the chaos and cacophony of these amusements, and looking very out of place in this tropical scene. Debora, who lives nearby in Nyali, explained that people just stop by on their way to other places to check it out, and they aren’t there for ‘beachtime’ themselves.

Malindi and Gede Ruins

Posing as Queen at the Palace

And because three of my fellow interns leave Kenya this weekend to return home, last weekend we went to Malindi, which is about 2 hours north of Mombasa. It’s a town with a huge Italian influence, and so we saw strange sights like a mozzarella shop and a few gelato shops… and little Kenyan children yelling Ciao! to us from the side of the road! We got tasty pizzas for one meal even, which was a nice treat. It’s very tourist-centric, so we did plenty of shopping at both the Tourist Market and the Craft Cooperative, picking up special gifts for loved ones back home. We went to visit Gede Ruins as well, 15km outside of Malindi, which is the site of an excavated Swahili city from the 16th and 17th centuries. It was in the middle of the jungle and we saw great huge baobab trees, monkeys, butterflies, lots of strangling fig trees that make you think of Ankgor Wat, and a long staircase up one very large tree, leading to a viewing platform treehouse that overlooked the main Palace. Here I am, posing as Queen at the entrance to the first Palace.  Christan took this picture – for pictures of the treehouse, Palace and monkeys check out her blogpost.

I’m now wrapping up my ninth week here in Kenya, so I’ve got fifteen weeks left to see other places. The spots highest on the list are Nairobi, Watamu, Lamu, Lake Victoria and hopefully even flying to Zanzibar! Stay tuned… I’ve got lots to do during the workweek, but it’s relatively easy to travel for a weekend or even a day to someplace new!

PS – Thanks to Skippy, I just learned that roundtrip flights to Mombasa from SFO are only $1266 in November! Come visit!

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The land of fire and dust

Bikes whiz past you.  Flashes of fire catch the corner of your eye.  Throngs of people weave with the traffic in the road, at a leisurely lope.  Right-of-way applies to everyone and no one.  Neon lights blink and flash, and wispy dustclouds are stirred up with every step and passing vehicle.  Everyone seems happy to be here, adding their gait, their style, their ride, to the vibe.

Welcome to the Likoni Ferry Plaza.  It’s my own little piece of the playa, here in Kenya.  It only feels like this at night, when every vendor puts small kerosene lamps on their stands, and those are the brightest lights you see, except for motorcycle headlights.  The dirt roads, the ramshackle buildings, the small wooden stands, the masses of people moving in every direction – everything has such a mishmash order and layout, colored by a friendly yet frenetic energy, it reminds me of the major intersections of Black Rock City, and the random corners and pockets just off the road.  The dustiness and the different beats coming from all directions are also here (though neither is the right quality of course.)

Every time I experience this, I think of my second-home city and how I love and miss it.  This is the second year in a row I won’t be on the playa, after six years straight attendance.  As of now, 2011 has my name on it – I hope life doesn’t decide otherwise for me.  But it’s 2010 now.. To everyone returning this year, welcome home! and a big welcome spank to all the virgins.  Have an excellent burn, and an awesome Tuesday night!

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YES!

There’s something about elections that makes me all misty-eyed like watching a damn Hallmark commercial.  I’m serious.  After a lifetime of being as apolitical a Democrat as is possible, in June 2008, I up and decided to dive headfirst into working on the Obama campaign, because something about him, and something about me, made me truly believe in the power of the individual, and the power of the vote.  I believed in my own power to affect change in this world, and I wanted others to understand that they too had this power.  Obama’s platform of Hope and Change was built for America, but I felt it applied more broadly than that.  It emboldened me to truly Hope for this world, and all of its ailments, and to seek Change for its people, and all of their needs.  And so ever since that glorious celebration night in November 2008, elections touch a soft spot in my heart.

This Wednesday, Kenyan citizens went to the polls, and voted on the state of their future.  After 20 years of independence under a Constitution and a government that are universally condemned as flawed and corrupt by its citizens and the world, a new Constitution was proposed, and the country was asked Yes or No?  Now, it is also universally agreed that this new document is not perfect, and that it does not address or fix all of the problem areas.  But the Yes campaign petitioned that it was a hugely needed step forward, finally, and that it put into place the legal mechanisms for amending it properly later on.  And the No campaign said if we’ve waited this long, we might as well make it right before we make it law, as well as some other less admirable logic. (For more details, see here)

Obama’s blood springs from this land and these people, and his passion and vision for change must be hereditary.  What it came down to this week was that the people of Kenya want a better future, and they’re tired of being told to wait for it.  They are tired of being cheated and lied to by their leaders, and they want to hold them accountable, and undo the laws that have allowed them to behave so badly.

Anxiety was understandably raised about the potential for a repeat of the post-election violence that wracked Kenya in 2007, after Kibaki blatantly stole the election from Raila.  But those two came together now in support of this new Constitution, and so their supporters merged camps as well.  If tempers flared, it would only be if it seemed that votes were stolen again, not because of former or tribal schisms.

After a day of counting votes, 69% of the votes cast were for YES – over 6 million voters versus 2.5 million for NO.  An overwhelmingly strong win for Change, and show of solidarity with Hope.

‘Twas the day after the election, and all through the country, not a riot was started, not even a brawl. Out on the streets, there arose no clatter, and peaceful smiles ruled idle chatter.  The news commentators asked, their eyes all aglow, “what will the international media think, now that we have not become violent?”

I hope that the world is paying attention, and that they are thinking about the beautiful power of a people united by the wish to better their country, and to exercise their rights as humans, and as citizens, to bring about that change on their own terms.  It is really a remarkable thing, when the ideals of Democracy become so tangible in front of you.  I hope some of you get misty-eyed thinking about it too.  And the next time you step into your own polling station to vote, give a moment of thanks to all those who fought for you to have that right, and send a prayer of strength to all of our fellow humans who are still fighting for their own ability to have a voice.

For a vote is not just one’s duty as a citizen.  Rather, the power of the individual vote lives not just on election day, but in the fact that we are all able to envision and craft our own futures.  It is our unique right as humans to conscientiously make choices for what we feel is right and good.  If we remember to embrace and flex that right, each and every day, a society is built that moves forward, that does not leave its weakest members behind, and that stands up for our children, and all of our futures together.

YES YOU CANYA

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Filed under Culture, Motivation, politics

Wengi Watoto (Many children)

One of the Directors here at Hatua is excited and eager to revamp the curriculum at our school, Madaraka Community Nursery School.  We will be speaking with some of the top-performing schools in Likoni about their curricula, and adapting ours based on what we learn from them.  One of the crucial elements that my Director is already aware of, and very excited to implement, is having the teachers switch to a method of teaching that focuses on tracking each individual student’s progress and learning abilities, rather than teaching each day’s syllabus by rote, without adaptation to the students’ grasp.

I realize now how very fortunate I was to grow up taking such attention for granted.  Here in Kenya, it seems the emphasis has had to be more on getting the kids into the classroom, than on what to do with them once they’re there.  So, schools are built, teachers are hired, and kids are collected into the classrooms.  Slowly but surely, more and more parents (and their children) are realizing how powerful and valuable education can be for one’s future.  And the government provides free primary education, which is a huge step forward.  The result is that many kids are getting into school.  Unfortunately… that’s also part of the problem.

There are never fewer than 25 kids in a classroom – and there can be as many as 60, or 100!  Does that mean there are not enough schools?  No, I don’t think so – there are 30 schools in Likoni alone, though admittedly they range from 100-1000 students each.  And of course, building schools is a pet charity of foreigners from all over.  I believe the Issue is that there are simply too many children.

our Baby Class has 58 students

In the past 10 years, the population of Kenya has climbed at a steady rate around 2.6% each year (the 27th highest rate in the world). The result is that 42% of Kenyans are under the age of 14.  (ref: CIA World Factbook) Check out this interactive comparison of population growth rates of all the countries.

Having identified an Issue, I’ve been trying to trace back its Causes, in order to find a Solution.  (Spoiler alert: It’s never that easy.)  Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had in pursuit of one though.  They are by no means fully developed or even that helpful, but I felt like this was a good example to share, to show how difficult it is to address and remedy such an issue.

Ok, why are there so many children?  Well, families are huge here. The average family has 4 children (ref: World in Balance), and a family with 8 or 9 children is not uncommon at all. Why? In a developing country, I would’ve expected that people would want to keep the number of children that need feeding to 1 or 2.  But that’s like putting all of your eggs in one basket, apparently.  I’ve been told that the reasoning is that the more kids you have, the more likely it is that one of them will get a good job that pays well and can take care of the whole family.  Life is viewed as so tenuous here that you hear people speak about the guarantee of your next meal feeling as slim as the chance of whether you’ll be alive tomorrow.  So, the running philosophy is to make lots of kids, to increase the chances that one of them will live long and prosper.

Except Kenya can’t afford to provide this free primary school education for all of these kids, much less begin to provide free secondary school education (high school).  But the value of education is becoming more appreciated – surely more parents will begin deciding to raise and educate fewer children for longer, like my host family is doing with their 3 children.

Except if a Kenyan says they have 2 or 3 kids, people look concerned, and ask what went wrong. A large family is a sign of a capable man.  Kind of like how a large man is a sign of a rich man.  So, that’s a major cultural hurdle.  The egos of men are not to be trifled with when attempting to change a male-dominated society.  But spreading information can change that right?  Perhaps a campaign that outlines the many benefits of smaller families, not just for the children and the family’s sakes, but for Kenya as a whole.  And increased family planning services and sharing information about how and why to limit your pregnancies.  Ok, it seems Kenya is already doing this. Back in the 1960s, Kenya was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to begin developing a national family-planning campaign.  The average number of children per woman has dropped to around four from around eight in the 1980s, which constitutes one of the fastest-ever national declines in family size.  (ref: World in the Balance)  But that’s still a lot of kids per family.

AND family planning can only do so much, now that the kids already exist. But a 1993 study found that literacy was a strong contributor to desire for small family size (ref).  So, as education continues to spread, desire for fewer children will likely increase.  That also explains my hostfamily’s smaller size.  So, in time, this issue should right itself?

Family planning poster

Except “While the Kenyan government formulates official strategies on family planning, promotion of the message and means of family planning falls mainly to local health-care offices and nongovernmental organizations.” (ref: World in the Balance)  For family planning to be even more effective, the government probably needs to take an active role in promoting its use.  And, despite the efforts that have been made, I’ve been told that many women like the idea of the pill’s benefits, but as a whole, tend to forget to take it on a regular basis.  And abortion is as divisive a topic here as anywhere, if not more so (thanks to the legacy of missionaries, and the stoking of the issue with regard to a clause in the new proposed Constitution).  Although my Muslim hostsister said that although her religion says it is a sin, she doesn’t think the Kenyan Constitution should ban it – she’ll simply follow her religion’s rules, over the government’s.  Well, maybe the other forms of birth control, like the Depo Provera injections, and IUDs, are something that could be made more readily available in developing countries then?

Except I’m sure it would be extremely difficult to get pharmaceutical companies to make them available at prices low enough to make a difference to the women most in need of them.  The poorest people are the ones who won’t get the information or medical supplies that will let them control the size of their families.

So much for figuring out how to reduce classroom size.  I feel like the last station for this train of thought is to do market research in order to woo corporations into a new market.  Well, one can’t expect such a major issue to be simply remedied.  It muddles my brain a bit.  Which explains why this blog post that is a bit all over the place.  And way too long.  🙂  If you made it this far, I hope your brain isn’t too befuddled, and got something from it.  Now go outside and have a good weekend.  I welcome your comments on this topic, and its many threads.

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Filed under Culture, developmentissue, education, populationgrowth