Some stories are too good not to share. Others are too surreal not to share. This is one of the latter.

I only teach Lifeskills to Class 6-8, as the younger children are too young to learn about HIV/AIDS and conctraception. So the younger children know me mostly from coming onto campus to teach their older brothers and sisters. Sometimes I eat lunch with them or head out to the field and join them in kicking around a soccer ball composed of tied-together plastic bags.

One of the few “lessons” I’ve taught them is about capitalism. See, I can go weeks without being harassed by the children for “pesa” (money), and then out of nowhere, be hit up for money ten times in one day. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the younger students at my school decided a few weeks back that it was National “Mzungu, Nipe Pesa” Month (I’m hoping Month and not Year). These adorable little scamps, who had just days earlier been content for me to play “tire-roll” with them (it’s when you take a used bicycle tire and roll it back and forth), now were baying for moolah. So one day a couple weeks ago, I told them, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” This had little effect and I realized that, as far as children are concerned, meals are free. So I tried a different tack.

“You want 5 bob?”

Cries went up: “Yes!” “Eh!” “Nipe pesa!” “Mzungu, give me money!”

“Well then,” I said, “I will give you 5 bob if you give me your shirt and trousers.”

That provoked a satisfying mixture of laughter and embarrassment from the crowd of watato.

“That’s how capitalism works,” I told them. “You want me to give you something, you have to give something to me.”

“Like bidding?” one boy asked.

“Yes, like bidding,” I said, wondering what this kid knew of auctions.

Fast-forward to last Thursday afternoon. I was walking past the soccer field at my school (the road I live down goes right past the school). I had taught Lifeskills to Class 6 children earlier that day, then had spent a couple hours wandering through the community, drinking Coke and talking to the wazee (old men), and buying vegetables. As I passed the soccer field, a bunch of Standard 4 and 5 kids (age 7-11) came running up, per usual. They broke into the usual chorus of “Wafula, habari!” “Oriena!” “Michael Smiff! Michael Smiff!” “How is you? How is you?” etc.

Auction Boy came running up. “Give me money, mzungu!”

I “wewe”d him and kept walking. But Auction Boy had decided to give capitalism a try.

Picking up a large crumbly doorstop of a stone, he said “Nipe pesa! I bid you a stone! I bid you a stone!”

I laughed and said “Sitaki stone, I don’t want it.”

The other kids, gathering up stones of their own,  joined in. “I bid you stone! I bid you stone! I bid you stone!” They sounded adorable, as usual, until a few of them proceeded to offer the stones to me by pitching them over the chicken-wire fence at my head. It was a generous gesture, but one that of course I could not accept. I walked away down the road, thinking to myself “I’m going to go with they were offering the stones to me at high velocity. Yeah, that’s it. After all, I have to live here 9 and a half more months.”

Since that afternoon, I have walked by Auction Boy and his friends several times out by the fence. Each time Auction Boy has tried to get money from me, though he has revised his approach. He no longer “bids” me anything. Instead he says “Give me money and I keel you! Give me money and I keel you!” Which of course provokes the other kids to join in “Give me money and I keel you!” I laugh, “wewe” them, and keep walking. It’s kind of hard to take someone seriously who says they will “keel” you. Especially when they have a bit of a lisp.

I can safely say that Auction Boy understands capitalism now. But what kind of offer is “Give me money AND I keel you”? What do I get out of that? I think I need to teach them proper conjunction use next.

A post this Michaelmas about an incredible lady we lost this week, a lady almost entirely unknown in the States.

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize back in 2004. At the time, I was a little puzzled. Maathai was given the award for her work with the Green Belt Movement she founded. She was presented by the media as an environmentalist, not just a tree-hugger, but a tree-planter as well. As she said in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture:  “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.”  

Well-said, but the connection between her work and the great task of world peace was far from intuitive. But a piece I read in today’s Daily Nation makes the connection plain:

In times of arranged marriages, girls (who never went to school) in the village could only independently meet young men who were not picked for them by their parents when they went to the well or to the forest to collect firewood.

At the same time, the forest was a source of bondage and discrimination because the girls were condemned to collect firewood, while the boys went to school.

One of the most complex contradictions of our times developed.

In one sense, it seemed necessary for the forest to go away for women in African villages to find freedom.

But when the forest went away, things got worse. Women walked longer distances for firewood.

Over the years, we solved the problem of water [in some places -Ed]. We dug boreholes and safe wells. But the forests just kept disappearing.

So the fight to protect the forest, had essentially to be a fight for women’s rights.

The latter required that you challenge the political order, that most women of Maathai’s generation were too isolated and feared the resulting rejection, to do. However, Maathai did.

In that sense, she was not just the original environmentalist, but also one of the region’s pioneer feminists.

But women’s rights make little sense in an undemocratic context. So Maathai became a democracy activist.

(and met Oprah)

“A Strong-Minded Woman”

Wangari Muta had the kind of life Hollywood loves to make movies about (Spielberg, get on this!). In her youth, she was sensitive to the environmental damage she saw under the British colonization. She recounted in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture:

 “As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water… I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.

Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.”

This budding ecologist went to study in the US thanks to a program started by Senator John F. Kennedy — part of the same batch of 300 Kenyan students which included President Barack Obama’s father. After completing her master’s degree, she returned to Kenya and married Mwangi Mathai. While her husband pursued a career in politics, she focused on raising three children and becoming the first woman in all of East Africa to get a PhD. Her husband filed for divorce, accusing her of being “too strong-minded.” After criticizing the judge who granted the divorce, she spent 6 months in jail for “contempt of court.” When her ex-husband demanded she stop using his last name, she simply added an extra “a” in defiance.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 because, in her words,

“I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.”

Maathai quickly found herself blacklisted by the political establishment of President Moi’s regime and was jailed repeatedly as she increasingly turned her focus to political action. Drives to register voters and protest the laws banning freedom of expression were repressed. When Moi tried to enrich his cronies through building a 60-story skyscraper in Uhuru Park (imagine Obama trying to get a giant skyscraper complete with parking for 2000 cars and a giant statue of himself put up on the National Mall and you’ll get some idea of Moi’s audacity), Wangari Maathai spearheaded the campaign against it. Moi responded by evicting the Green Belt Movement from its offices and auditing it. But the protests Maathai led brought so much negative international attention to the project that its foreign backers withdrew and the effort collapsed.

Maathai used her new-found international celebrity to organize protests and hunger strikes for free elections and the release of political prisoners, earning her more jail time and beatings. After Moi finally allowed multiparty elections, Maathai dedicated her tree-planting efforts to healing the wounds from tribal violence that Moi had instigated after the 1992 elections (violence that recurred after the elections in 1997 and 2007). She won a seat in Parliament in the first truly free and fair elections in 2002 and became Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. Two years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Wangari Maathai’s life, we can see how the greatest problems Kenya (and the world) faces are all interrelated: environmental degradation and desertification and global warming; the deadly culture of patriarchy; acceptance of corruption and impunity; appeals to violence and resistance to needed reforms for the sake of “the tribe” (whether an ethnic, religious, political, or nation-state group). This tangled nest of problems will take a very long time and many many more Wangari Maathai’s to untangle. At a time when a nation devastated by famine (induced by the global climate change and massive deforestation Maathai warned about) finds itself with leaders concerned only with personal enrichment and at a time when “austerity fever” in Western nations has prompted proposals to cut foreign aid and environmental protection laws while giving subsidies to giant oil companies, it’s clear we need more people with the spirit and compassion of Wangari Maathai.

“It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.”


Hey everyone,

It’s been quite an eventful month-plus for me, lack of blogging to the contrary. First my mom came to visit for two weeks, which was really awesome! We traversed the country from Western to Coast and saw and experienced so many things, from “zeh-brahs” to rock hyraxes, baby elephants to Swahili coffee and tea. We visited my host family from PST, I introduced my mom to the teachers I work with and other community members, and we toured a couple hospitals (my mom’s a nursing professor) and NGO-run schools. We also went on “safari” at Hell’s Gate National Park and Kimana Animal Sanctuary. It was really cool to finally do those stereotypical touristy things. To plagiarize the title of a Calvin and Hobbes collection, the days were just packed! But invariably either I was too tired or it was simply not possible to update this blog. On the tail end of the trip, we both fell sick with a mild GI bug. As soon as I got back to site and recovered from the bug, a rogue lightning bolt zapped my laptop’s A/C adapter, which took me until last weekend to get replaced (A/C adapters for laptops not being readily available in rural Kenya).

Afterwards, I fell sick with a new, more potent infection (the works: diarrhea, stomach cramping, headache, fever [my first in Kenya!], and chills). I took a self-stick blood test and can confirm it is not malaria. Personally, my money is on giardia, a really nasty parasitic protozoan; I don’t have a test for giardia, though. My fever is mostly gone now, after peaking at 101.8, and the other symptoms seem to be slowly abating as well. Just another week in Kenya, right?

The Peace Corps Halftime Show

The date on my computer reads June 26, 2011. This means that today is exactly 13 months since my group of volunteers flew into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and began training. Today is also roughly halfway through our not-quite-twenty-six-month stint of service (our official Close Of Service date is July 20, 2012). This then, seems a good time for retrospection at least, if not a play-by-play halftime analysis.

My mother was daunted by the prospect of having to describe to folks back in the States her experiences during two weeks in Kenya. How much more daunting then to attempt to sum up 56 weeks? Rather than summarizing the highlights, I will go over a few things I’ve not previously blogged about.

Currently, I have several projects ongoing, but sadly all of them are still wandering the labyrinth of various bureaucracies in search of funding. It’s so frustrating to have to say, “No, we’re still waiting for funding. Yes, I want that too, I know exactly how we’ll do it… once the funding gets here.” Honestly, I feel I am still the least-patient person here. Kenya (and the Peace Corps application process) has given me an enormous capacity for patience I didn’t know I could possess. But it’s still so frustrating to see each week go by and projects get no closer to completion and NO ONE ELSE seems be worked up about it! Kenyans are a pragmatic lot, they’re used to prolonged delays. I guess I’m not quite there yet. “Polepole” (slowly-by-slowly) and “Hatua kwa hatua” (step-by-step) are good phrases to keep in mind, but sometimes I have a hard time convincing myself I can perceive even an illusion of progress.

When I fall into this funk, it is usually children who break me out of it. The barefoot children happily kicking a plastic bag down a soccer field. The snot-nosed little 5 year old who herds cattle four feet taller than him and whose English vocabularly is limited to “How is you?” The little girl who, while rifling through my trash pile – neighborhood kids apparently think this is coolest game EVER! – discovered an empty knockoff-Pringles can and uses it to cart her collection of small rocks around (it also makes a pretty neat noisemaker). The Standard 6, 7 and 8 children I teach, beaming up at me with faces brimming with possibilities. It’s hard to feel self-pity when I know so many people who have so many fewer opportunities than I do and they still praise the Lord on Sundays as if they were the luckiest people on Earth. Who am I to say they’re not?

As far as my LifeSkills class goes, it might be the saving grace, productivity-wise, of my time here. If I were to be MedSepped and sent back to the States tomorrow, all my big projects incomplete, I’d be quite frustrated. But the weekly LifeSkills classes I teach give me hope that these children are taking the lessons to heart, that at least some of them will make better life-choices because of the information I’ve armed them with. These kids are so ambitious: future engineers, businessmen, soldiers, even a future female airline pilot. If even just one of them can navigate the gauntlet of societal pressures, teen hormones and an archaic (and sometimes arcane) educational system and actually achieve their dreams, my entire two years here will have been worth it. Maybe that wouldn’t be enough for some people; it wouldn’t have been enough for me a year ago. But it’s enough for me today.

It’s all downhill from here….

It’s equal parts frightening and exciting to think that today marks the halfway point. The past 13 months seems to have flown by, though at times it feels like I’ve always been in Kenya. The sand whooshing through the hour-glass is a constant reminder of how much I have to finish (project-wise) and how little time I have to finish it with. But thinking of flying back into JFK, once again drinking a Long Island Iced Tea (and possibly seeing Viggo Mortensen bellow at a server again), eating American food (Peace Corps has definitely transformed me into a foodie), visiting Target and Subway again (rather than doing some kind of bizarre corporate sponsorship of my dreams), driving down an open road with no direction in mind, watching the leaves change color, and seeing all my Stateside friends and family again…. It makes me want to start counting down the days until I can return.

But I will be somewhat changed when I return. Just thought I’d give you all fair warning. I’m tanner than I’ve ever been in my life (Melanoma, Schmelanoma, right?). My newfound addiction to chai tea and fresh mangoes will return with me. So will a weird accent and way of pronouncing certain words, at least for a while (as well as interjections like “eh!” when I’m surprised). I can already tell I’m going to be a less-sympathetic listener to sob-stories (“I just lost my job!” “Yeah, well I just got finished ridding my body of giardia and schistosomiasis. I win!”).

But on a deeper, more subtle level, of course I’ll be somewhat different. We are products of our experiences and during the last year I’ve had so many unforgettable ones. There are some things I’ve gone through that I can really only talk to with other PCVs, as they’re the only ones who could really understand. Though I will always be an American, Kenya has gotten under my skin in ways I’m only beginning to understand. Rather than Kurt Vonnegut’s “A Man without a Country,” I will be (along every other RPCV), a “Person with Two Countries.” I like to think this is what JFK and Sargent Shriver understood when they created the Peace Corps and made cultural exchange two-thirds of our mission. A world that is as intermeshed as ours has become needs “citizens of the world,” people whose minds and hearts have been transformed by living in a foreign country.

So if there is anyone reading my blog who is thinking or has ever thought about joining Peace Corps (or working in any developing nation for any length of time), you should do it. You’ll have days of being homesick, of wanting to scream at the people around you to “please just stop being Kenyan for five minutes, please!” You might get giardia or a similarly exotic disease. You’ll probably poop your pants. But you’ll also have experiences that are impossible to anticipate but absolutely worth having. And you will learn so much, about yourself and others.

Lessons from Kenya

Kenya has taught me so many things. I have learned to love the crackle of lightning as it tears across the indigo sky, rather than irrationally tense up when I hear the roll of thunder. I have learned that when I am sick, I will have neighbors dropping by to make sure I’m still alive, drop off antibiotics from their scarce personal supplies and talk to me to cheer me up (and assume I’m going to make them chai, fever or not). I have learned that I can find being called “mzungu” by a child tolerable, amusing or infuriating by turns, all in the course of a single day. Though I am given a seat, a Fanta, and a microphone at every public venue I go to (or walk past), I have learned that I am not as important as I (or they) think I am. I have learned how to peel a tomato, slice a mango, season a broth, sweep/mop floors and clean countertops – Kenyan-style! I have learned to appreciate the bizarre variety of riotously-colorful tropical birds natural selection has enabled to enliven my life and my yard. I have learned that flip-charts are next to Godliness and that there’s ALWAYS time for two or three cups of chai! I have learned that all my illusions and preconceptions about Africa aren’t worth a bucket of giraffe spit.

I have learned that Blue Band has 11 essential “vit-a-mins” because the friendly-looking mzungu chap on the lid told me so. I have learned that to a Kenyan, a shortcut is the absolute most direct way between two points “as the bird flies;” and that, due to poor roads, a “shortcut” may take many hours longer than a non-shortcut paved road. I have learned that “I am on the way” means they’re still working in the shamba, but they’ll probably make it in an hour or two; that “just there” is what lies at the end of a “shortcut.” I have learned the knack of being politely evasive with where I am going (“I am just around” or “just within” means I am going somewhere in Sitikho location but not going all the way into town). I have learned to loathe with a visceral hatred the soul-crushing dependency bred by a half-century of irresponsible “aid” being showered on Kenya by Western governments, NGOs, and churches, preempting entrepreneurship and serving to encourage and reinforce massive amounts of corruption at every level of government. I have learned that no matter how long I live here, most people, even those I work with the most, see an ATM when they look at me. I have learned that the Piedmont red-clay soil here and the Appalachian-esque mountains make me a little less homesick with each passing month. I have learned how to wash my clothes by hand, and also learned it’s totally worth it to pay someone to do it for me! I have learned that sukuma-wiki truly can help “stretch-the-week!” I have learned that the more I learn, the less I truly know.

I have also learned that I am very very lucky to be here now. Serving in Peace Corps has been my dream for five years. There were very dark times when that seemed like a ridiculous pipe dream, that I would never be able to surmount all the obstacles and challenges in my life, that I was a failure who was destined for nothing more in this life than sleep-walking through a dead-end retail job. I’d like to think my being in here Kenya now, living my dream, is due to my own Scots-Irish pig-headed stubbornness or to the support of my friends and family who believed in me and my dream when I lost faith. I know both are true. But I also know that isn’t the whole story. I am where I am today by the grace of God. With God indeed, all things are possible. I am blessed beyond all belief. And after 13 months, I am still so happy to be here. Life here is not what I expected. But for today, it’s everything I need.

This is just a brief post to go over the projects I’m working on now and the ideas I have for future projects.

1) The ICT project: I was informed when notified of my site assignment that this project was basically the reason Peace Corps sent me to Kenya (as opposed to, I don’t know, Kyrgyzstan). Yet had I been asked back in the States if the ICT4D “Kiosk” project would be a sustainable way to bring knowledge of and access to computers and the internet to rural communities, I would have had to say no. There is certainly a need in my rural community, where the only computers are a few aging ones in the schools. A kiosk with several computers sounds plausible, but in addition to the burdens of having to provide security for it, its reliance on satellite internet and solar panels would have been problematic. Anytime the satellite dish got knocked out of alignment (which has happened at the satellite-internet powered computer lab in the Youth Empowerment Centre in Webuye) or anytime a problem arose with the solar panels, it would require sending for technicians from Mombasa, on the other side of the country (paying for their transportation, food, lodging and labor costs) — pretty much the opposite of sustainable!

In addition to these difficulties, there was also what you might call a “failure to communicate” (a quite common problem, I’m finding). The CBO (Community-Based Organization) I’m attached to agreed to participate in this project because it was told by a participating NGO, Voices of Africa, that it was going to be given the kiosk gratis. Finally, at the end of October, we were informed that the CDF (Constituency Development Fund, which distributes grants for development projects from the central government to local organizations) would instead be treating it as a loan… A loan they refused to provide any details on, such as the total amount (though it was “probably” going to be “no more than a few hundred thousand shillings”), the repayment period, or any of the necessary contractual details. After conferring with a few of my colleagues who were also involved in the project, I brought the situation before my CBO and we agreed to pursue a more realistic and sustainable option — a computer lab!

We submitted the proposal for the computer lab to the CDF a few weeks before Christmas. Waiting on bureaucracies anywhere in the world is always a transcendently frustrating experience, but that’s where the project stands as of now, still waiting for the funding we’ve been told is “just there.” The proposal calls for 4 computers and a modem to start with and I have ambitions of creating a small library (Kenya is not a “reading culture,” due to high rates of poverty, so I’d like to find a way to start a book-borrowing system, perhaps with a few dozen paperback classics of world literature and popular novels). While waiting, I have trained 5 youth, who are CBO members, in software, hardware, social-media, social-entrepreneurship, and the principles of ICT4D (ICT for Development). These youth will be the operators of the computer lab, monitoring users and teaching computer classes; the goal is for the computer lab to be an IGA (Income-Generating Activity) for the CBO, as well as a source of income for the trainers. As for impact in the community, community members could obtain valuable career skills, find a market for their crops, obtain medical information, set up a Facebook account, publish information about their lives and what they know on blogs or Wikipedia, etc etc etc.

Teaser: Since submitting the application, I have been approached with a unique and promising location for the computer lab. Once I have approval from the CDF, I will post more about it, but it could be Legen… wait for it…

2) The PEPFAR project: In its origins, this project was viewed solely as an IGA by my group: a community member offered 2 acres of his land to grow passion fruit and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes on. While both types of produce are quite nutritious (especially the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are both sweeter and healthier than the pink-fleshed ones typically grown here), they would also offer the opportunity of “value addition.” Both can be made into juice, and the sweet potatoes can be turned into amaranth flour, thus providing an additional source of income. I was quite proud of my group for having the initiative to come up with the project and start implementing it without waiting for “the mzungu” to show up and do the heavy lifting. I did recommend, when asked for help finding funding for the project, that we should enlist the support of the local PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS) support group, both to make funding easier and to assist a group of people often stigmatized and socio-economically marginalized. Currently we are working on a proposal for PEPFAR funding for this project, and should hopefully be approved within about a month. The first small crop of sweet potatoes has already been planted and harvested (with assistance from the Kenya Department of Agriculture, which provides free seeds of certain extremely-nutritional crops), but we await funding to make full use of the two acres.

3) Teaching LIFESKILLS classes: Three days a week, I teach LIFESKILLS class at the nearest primary school to children in Classes 6-8 (ages 10-14). I have a lot to say about this experience, so I’ll save it for another post. One thing I will say is that while LIFESKILLS is a non-graded course mandated by the Kenyan Department of Education and it is also something the Peace Corps has trained us in, the two things are not exactly the “same-same.” According to the training PCK (Peace Corps Kenya) gave us, LIFESKILLS is teaching people, primarily children, how to make healthy life decisions, most importantly how not to get HIV/AIDS. In the States, this is known as either “Health” or “Sex Ed.”

In Kenyan schools, in my experience so far and judging by the syllabus and other materials the Min of Ed puts out, LIFESKILLS includes a number of things the Kenyan government would like their pupils to know, namely: self-control, how to deal with all the various relationships (with family, friends, teachers, police, etc), maintaining positive self-image, reinforcement of moral values, and inculcating patriotism. There’s a small bit in there about resisting peer-pressure for the older kids, but that’s the main area of overlap. This is not to say that the children don’t know anything about HIV/AIDS (they certainly do, along with “knowing” a few things that just aren’t so). It just highlights the gap I’m presumably expected to fill here, to bring health information into the classroom which might be too culturally taboo for some teachers to deal with. So far, I’ve started off cautiously, teaching about “the bridge model” of decision-making, how to set life-goals, stereotyping and stigmatizing. This week’s topic will be “Early Pregnancy.” More to come….

IDEAS FOR FUTURE PROJECTS:

I’ve got a few ideas for future projects that I’ve just started working on. The local Health Centre is doing a massive anti-malarial bed-net distribution/mobile VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing — for HIV) drive next month which I’ll be involved with. I’d like to do some kind of “afforestation” (tree-planting) project for World Environment Day in June. Likewise, I hope to have taught enough local students and have aroused enough interest to have them form health clubs by December 1, so we can have a World AIDS Day event in my community. Access to clean drinking water doesn’t seem to be a major issue in my community, but I’m keeping an ear to the ground, just in case it becomes one (it appears that the season of the “long rains” started yesterday, but I’m not positive; if the rains aren’t consistent, drought and crop failure is a definite possibility). Finally, the owners of the school I teach at want me to put together a proposal for a dining facility for their 100+ pupils, so that’s also something you’ll probably here more about in the months to come.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned (and have been told by previous PCVs) it’s not to load up on too many projects. Two years seemed like an eternity when I first got to Kenya, but now 10 months in, I can see how little time it really is. Since Peace Corps requires our projects to be finished well in advance of our COS (Close Of Service) date, I probably have until September at the latest to begin any projects and apply for funding. Given the nature of bureaucracies and the generally slower pace of life here (as well as taking into account that there are ALWAYS complications), juggling several small projects is probably more desirable than trying to be a “SuperVolunteer” and kill myself attempting to do 80-bajillion projects. I didn’t apply to the Peace Corps expecting to single-handedly change the world. I’ll be satisfied if even one kid makes a smarter life decision because he or she knew me. And if I can teach them how to waste their time planting fake crops in their fake shambas in Farmville, well, that’ll do.

Tomorrow, March 1, marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the Executive Order creating the Peace Corps. So naturally, one would expect some contrarian to rain on the parade. Right on cue, Foreign Policy magazine has published an opinion piece by Charles Kenny asking the question, “does the world still need the Peace Corps?” Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, I naturally have some thoughts on the matter.

It’s the Sustainability, Stupid!

His primary critique, which he returns to again and again, is that the Peace Corps “can’t seem to move on from the 1960s.” It’s difficult to decipher what Kenny means by this, as he never explains. Is it the fact that many volunteers are still motivated by the idea of service propounded by Kennedy in his Inaugural Address, that we should “ask what we can do for our country”? It’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing. Is it that the Peace Corps has been static over the last 5 decades, refusing to adapt to changing circumstances? If that’s his critique (and again, he never coherently spells out what his critique is), then he is far off the mark. The Peace Corps has undergone vast changes in the last 5 decades….

To take one example, in the 1960s, my great-aunt served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. She and the other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) lived for those two years in a dorm-style building in the capital, Addis Ababa. They taught in schools and were encouraged to spend their off-time together in the dorms, rather than living amongst the people. Today, the overwhelming majority of PCVs live alone in poverty-stricken rural communities, where over two years, they can get to understand the culture enough and integrate enough to successfully implement projects that make real change possible. To take a second, the Peace Corps initially focused on manpower-intensive projects, such as drilling boreholes and husbandry programs. Today, the primary focus of the Peace Corps worldwide is public health, education, environment, youth, and ICT/Small business entrepreneurship. That’s hardly refusing “to accept that the 1960s really are over.”

Kenny summarizes the Peace Corps’ 1960s-bound mission as “‘to promote world peace and friendship’ through three core goals: providing trained men and women to work in developing countries, increasing the world’s understanding of Americans, and vice versa.” So far, so good. But then he makes a series of mistaken assumptions. Whereas PCVs “had the field to themselves” in the 1960s, now “more than 1 million Americans reported volunteering in a foreign country… Organizations ranging from church groups to private companies to Doctors Without Borders send people overseas to provide everything from manual labor to advanced technical expertise.” This is very true, and all to the good. Yet each of these groups has different goals and effects on the ground. Many church groups, for example, are focused on spreading the Gospel and their projects (ranging from working in a refugee camp to buying books for school kids to simply donating money) often are implemented by Westerners who parachute in a for a few weeks and then return home. Not to negate any of these projects, but how much can someone really get to know a foreign community and its culture and its needs in a few weeks or even a few months?

There are two other potential problems with this short-term model of development work: first, the community will rightly believe that the project was something “done by that mzungu (white person).” There’s the tragic story I heard of the NGO that put portable latrines in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. There was certainly a need for an intervention, considering the complete lack of a sanitation system and the widespread habit of simply throwing bags of human waste out into the streets to get rid of them. Yet by parachuting in and implementing this project quickly and without attempting to get the community involved and invested, the latrines suffered two fates: they were either never used (“Why should I use that thing the mzungu put here? It’s not mine, it’s the mzungu’s.”) or they were used and, once full, were abandoned (“That mzungu really needs to come back and clean up HIS latrine. Oh well, back to the old way.”). Plenty of Westerners are, to their credit, quite willing to donate their money and efforts to address problems in Africa, but unless the local people feel a sense of OWNERSHIP of both the problem and the solution, it will all be a waste. Having a mzungu show up every now and then to maintain a project is simply not SUSTAINABLE, which is one of the Peace Corps shibboleths.

The other groups Kenny lists have their own issues. Private companies are first and foremost concerned with making a profit (duh!) and might be more concerned with getting good PR for a project than with it working properly. As you can probably tell by now, there is a kind of “sustainable development mentality,” which is often counter-intuitive, the principles of which few businesspeople (actually few non-development workers period) are familiar with. If there’s one overriding lesson from decades of development work, it’s that GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NOT ENOUGH. Because “aid” encourages dependency, there are few rural areas in the developing world where the people see a Westerner and DON’T assume they are there to give them money. It’s a simple lesson, but one that far too many NGOs and others with good intentions simply haven’t learned, the result being a continuation and deepening of dependency. And as for emergency groups like Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), they do extremely valuable work, but one would hope that work in war-torn societies is not the new model for the development industry as a whole! All of this is to say that the work the Peace Corps does is NOT completely duplicated by other groups.

They can afford cell phones! Mission Accomplished!

Kenny also points to a shrinking education gap between PCVs and their local counterparts.

“Only 3 percent of the college-age population of Guatemala, a reliable favorite Peace Corps destination, actually attended college in 1970. That figure is 18 percent today. The same is true of other countries with a large Peace Corps presence. Indonesia’s college enrollment has grown from 3 to 21 percent over that period, and Panama’s has climbed from 7 to 45 percent.”

Increased college enrollment is a very positive sign, to be sure, and over time will help reduce those countries’ need for assistance, as they build up a skilled entrepreneurial class. But it would be naive to assume that local community colleges and trade schools obviate the need for the Peace Corps. There’s a reason that even an American undergrad diploma from an accredited state university is valued to such an extent that hundreds of thousands apply for US student visas every year. If they thought they could get a comparable education in their home country, they would. It’s that simple. While there are increasing numbers of high-quality universities throughout the developing world, America still maintains its role as Educator to the World; not a bad little niche!

Kenny again: “The original idea was that young, idealistic volunteers living in communities for extended periods of time would foster goodwill toward the United States. But according to Peace Corps surveys, only 44 percent of host country nationals who have interacted with a volunteer believed that Americans are committed to assisting other peoples.” In all honesty, that does seem a little high, considering that to most people in my community, I am “the mzungu” rather than “the American.” From the perspective of most Kenyans, all white people, be they from North America, Australia or Europe, are the same-same (in the same way that far too many Americans think all Africans are the same or that Africa is a country rather than a continent).

Flitting from one random factoid to another, Kenny tells us that “in 1970, there were fewer than 11,000 telephones in the entire country of Senegal, most of them in the capital city of Dakar. Today, there are 5.6 million of them, spread throughout the country.” Yet Senegal also has a much higher per capita income than most African nations with PCVs.

There’s also a difference between having a cell phone and having it be a smartphone that has access to the internet. Even for those who can afford such a smartphone (the cheapest sell for about $8000 KSH or about 1/17th the average annual per capita income here; note that most PCVs live in rural areas where the per capita income is much much less than this), will Kenyans or Senegalese use these phones to try to find out about US culture? Kenny seems to think so: “In 2008, about two out of every three dollars spent in movie theaters outside the United States were spent on U.S.-produced films.” Which would increase knowledge of US culture more, having a PCV in your community or drawing stereotypes about what Americans are like based on Hollywood movies? Is that even a serious question?

The next question posed in Kenny’s convoluted argument: “How many volunteers would it take to make up for the images broadcast around the globe of ‘Made in USA’ labels stamped on the tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets shot at Egyptian pro-democracy protesters this month?” A valid question, but one entirely outside the control of the Peace Corps. Gee willikers, perfessor, you’re saying that if we give with one hand and take with the other, people will be confused about our intentions? It would seem rather obvious that since our founding ideals have inspired people around the world, that our power and influence abroad would be enhanced when our policies and ideals are in harmony and that they would wane when the two are not aligned. This isn’t rocket science nor, since Peace Corps does not decide matters of war and foreign policy, is it remotely relevant to the argument Kenny seems to be valiantly struggling to construct.

“The world is a very different place than it was in 1961. Between 1996 and 2009 alone, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Africa tripled to 399,000 a year; 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. A lot of those studying did so in developing countries — 13,681 in Africa and 3,670 in the Middle East, for example.”

We already looked at other groups which travel to Africa (church groups, NGOs, businesspeople). As far as studying abroad goes, Kenny admits that only 13,681 out of 260,000 students studied abroad in Africa. Most of the rest studied abroad in developed nations, particularly in Western Europe. Living abroad, even in London or Barcelona, can be an enriching experience; but there’s a much larger cultural gap between the US and Kenya or even Kyrgyzstan than between the US and Spain or the UK. It’s clear that with such small numbers of US students studying abroad in Africa that such programs can hardly be counted on to contribute much to cross-cultural understanding between the US and African nations.

Moving to the argument that the Peace Corps costs too much, Kenny asks, “Is there a need for a significant administrative infrastructure in country to ensure the safety and comfort of Peace Corps volunteers in nations like Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, or Thailand? Plenty of backpackers would tell you otherwise.”

Of course not! It’s not like Jamaica was plagued by drug-cartel fueled street violence last year or that Thailand has seen years of strife and insurrection since a military coup in 2006. And of course, it couldn’t possibly be the case that there are PCVs in nations even less stable than that, including more than a dozen which have experienced a civil war in the last decade alone. Especially in the wake of often hyperbolic and breathless recent media coverage of some horrific incidents involving Peace Corps Volunteers, his cavalier attitude towards PCV security is bizarre. Clearly there needs to be a certain amount of administrative and medical staff in each PCV-hosting nation, particularly if there is an emergency, an outbreak, or evacuation proves necessary. Personally, as someone living alone almost an hour’s drive from the nearest Westerner, I’d like to be able to receive medical or security help when I need it!

And OF COURSE living in a foreign country for 2 years is EXACTLY like backpacking through a country for a few days or weeks! People in either situation are at EXACTLY the same amount of risk of violent attack (since most victims know their attackers) and are at EXACTLY the same risk of contracting a tropical disease or parasitic infection (since the more time you spend in a malarial zone, the greater your chances of being bitten, for example).

“We’re Broke.” Sound Familiar?

Now I’m sure there are plenty of things the Peace Corps could do better. Some administrator in DC or elsewhere could probably stand to see his or her salary cut. Every corporate or bureaucratic budget has SOME fat. And the Peace Corps’ approach to the safety of its volunteers is worth debating, though I imagine few would argue that the solution is spending LESS on security. And his point that we should have more PCVs in strategically-important areas like the Middle East is correct (though Yemen, aka “the next Somalia,” is an odd example). But rather than start a worthwhile debate about any of these issues, Kenny pivots to conclude by suggesting that the Peace Corps be converted into a grant program: “In a new Peace Corps, grants could be offered directly to volunteers to cover the cost of travel and living in a developing country. The agency could set conditions on factors such as minimum length of service, security, language skills and training, focus countries, and the total cost of the proposed program.”

Why would converting to a grant program be an improvement over the current system? Well, according to Kenny,

“There are private-sector programs that place volunteers overseas for between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, or about 10 percent of what the Peace Corps pays per volunteer. Trimming the current bureaucratic structure — and perhaps rethinking the two-year commitment — would expand the number of countries where the program could operate and allow the Peace Corps to attract more volunteers. Given all that, it would make considerable sense for the agency to move toward a model of awarding grants for overseas service rather than attempting to provide a full volunteer package.”

Would it really make considerable sense? Generally, attempting to more with less turns into accomplishing less with less. I’m not opposed to the idea of a government-funded development grant, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that that approach would be more effective.

Why does it cost so much more for the Peace Corps to place a volunteer than other groups? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that in Africa alone, according to the latest PC budget, “In addition to French and Portuguese, the Peace Corps provides training for Volunteers in over 150 local languages and in sign language in Kenya and Ghana.” Hiring language trainers to teach all those languages doesn’t come cheap.

Why force PCVs to stay in a developing country for two years when most volunteer programs don’t put their volunteers in the field for anywhere close to two years? Because it takes at least one full year to truly get integrated into a community enough to know the movers and shakers; to figure out who genuinely cares about improving their community and who thinks you could be a source of easy money; to know what the community’s real needs actually are; to be conversant enough in the local language to be accepted as a member of the community so that whatever project you spearhead, it becomes THEIR project, not just yours.

Reducing the term of service to less than two years will drastically reduce the effectiveness of volunteers and result in fewer completed projects. Kenny might dismiss this as a relic of the ’60s, but an organization that has been doing something for five decades has undoubtedly learned a few lessons along the way. The Peace Corps is certainly FAR from perfect, but it might more productive to find out why the Peace Corps does things the way it does than to blithely assume it has something to do with a weird 1960s fetish. Or as the Godfather of the Peace Corps might say, our work of international development “will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Hey y’all. I know it’s been a looong time since I updated this blog. I don’t really have any excuses, other than general laziness. I keep meaning to write, but the sheer length of time since I last wrote intimidates me. How do you describe in full all those months? I simply can’t. But what I can do is give you some “snapshots,” the memories that stand out to me of the time since training began. Hopefully, combined with my Facebook updates and photos, this will give you a taste of life in Peace Corps Kenya.

Training:

-Being introduced to my host mama, baba, and kaka (brother).

-Watching the World Cup on my baba’s 10-inch TV and watching the US-Algeria game in Makuti’s with all the other volunteers.

-Waka waka eh eh.

-Walking to class with those amazing views of Kili looming in the near distance.

-Being told by Mary and Silvia of all these terrible parasites that Kenya has but not being told where in Kenya these parasites live (fortuately, mango flies seem to live only in South Coast).

-Bukusu classes at the Catholic church with Brian S. and Elizabeth… and our very… what’s the word…. unique teacher Abby.

-Choco-bisc: Egypt’s most addictive export (after “tahrir” of course); the closet thing to it would be a thin-mint Girl Scout cookie, minus the mint. I’m still convinced Rebecca’s mom owns a lot of Choco-bisc stock.

-Being escorted home my first week by small children who muttered to each other (in English) “Let’s take his money! I bet he has a nice phone.” I wasn’t sure I’d make it out of that cornfield alive.

-That time I almost walked all the way to Tanzania with Brianne.

-All the other times I got lost.

-My mama’s delicious homecooking: githeri (beans and corn), matoke (cooked bananas), ugali (a cooked mass of maize flour), sukuma-wiki (a kind of spinach), catchumbari (red onions, tomatoes, and pili-pili [red peppers]). If I turned my head for even a second, Mama would slip more food onto my plate. As soon as I finished seconds, she’d insist on my having thirds, and then fourths…. Also her endless cups of chai, of which at least 8 cups a day were obligatory. “Ok, yes, I will take chai.”

-My embarrassment when my stomach proved unable to tolerate Kenyan boiled meat and Baba’s response, referencing the previous volunteers they had stay with them: “It is ok. Nicole threw up when she ate meat. Gregory threw up. (Five second pause) Even Nemo, he throw up.” Half of Baba’s stories were based on that framework. I’m sure my name will be added in there when they get their next volunteer.

-Arguing about Persian history and philosophy with Megan H.

-Eating delicious beef samosas at Saki and githeri at Kilimanjaro Cafe.

-My first taste of ORS (rehydration “beverage”).

-Discovering that Kenyans think the best thing to do when someone is sick is to go bother them and make sure they are never alone or resting.

-“Shots, shots, shots!” (Medical can do their worst, just so long as I get a mini-Twix bar afterward)

-Learning to wash and cook like a Kenyan mama (I still can’t do either as well as these ubermensch).

-That time my mama showed me a “shortcut” to Outward Bound. Over the river, through the woods and brambles and cornfields, up and down several mountain slopes past thickets where I could feel the beedy eyes of lions on my neck… all to dumped back on the main dirt road at the bottom of the first hill leading to Outward Bound (Total time saved: negative 10 minutes).

-Those days when I was able to catch a Peace Corps vehicle and waved to the poor schmucks trudging up the foothills of Kili towards Outward Bound.

-The Fourth of July party and all its awesomeness.

-The time Damon almost got eaten by a monkey.

-Louis’s hat with purple feather and his poems. The rest of us are simply outclassed in comparison.

-My first and only Pentacostal church experience. :Shudder: I tell people at site that I prefer to worship in my own way (without speaking in tongues for hours on end).

-Going into a bar to get Mama a Guiness because in Kenya, the only ladies who go into bars are jembes. Also Baba doesn’t approve of drinking. At least Mama has good tastes.

-Teaching my kaka David and his friend how to play UNO.

-My last week and a half in Loitokitok, when Baba bought a Frisian dairy cow that started mooing at 3AM, a good half-hour before the chickens usually started up.

-Brian Geyer’s Zebratastic shirt.

-The nervousness leading up to the final Language Placement Exam (LPI): “Novice High STRONG,” my ass…

-The farewell luncheon in Loitokitok.

-Our swearing-in ceremony, complete with REAL American Doritos; Ambassador Renneberger’s and Tom’s completely opposing speeches; a monkey that decided to ham it up for the cameras; and a group picture with my supervisor, Geoffrey Walmalwa.

As a PCV:

-The long Easy Coach ride to Webuye, looking at the often-breathtaking scenery of Rift Province.

-Being greeted by a drunk (or as the locals call them “a crazy man) and a bunch of obnoxious beseeching children immediately upon arrival in Webuye; pretty much a par for the course.

-Not being able to get to my house until the next day and being pleased by the electricity and gas cooker, less so by the distance from town and the large snake I found in the hall a few weeks later.

-First meeting with the MP (Member of Parliament) on my second day in the area and being told that my Bukusu name was “Wekesa,” because I was born during the harvest season.

-Meeting the husband and wife who own the house I live in (they live in Nairobi) when they came back home to vote in the referendum for a new katiba (constitution) on August 4.

-Having to wait almost a full month to have a meeting with my chief, in which he introduced me to the community and bestowed on me the name “Wafula,” because by the time he got around to introducing me, it was the season of the short rains.

-Trying to explain the internet to illiterate farmers (“like a cloud in the sky with books up there, and a computer is like a ladder that can help you reach those books”).

-Taking the “pole-pole” test at Cross-Sector in Kakamega.

-Meetings at the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) offices in Webuye on the Rural Internet Kiosk (RIK) project.

-Getting to know various people in the area.

-Being ok with being called “mzungu” for the first two months, then no longer responding to it or to any other high-pitched nasally talk, especially when coming from adults, who ought to know better. “HOWWW ARE YOUUUU?” Mzungu do NOT sound like that!

-Paige’s birthday party in Mumias.

-Chilling at Cheer’s (“where everybody knows your name”) with the other Webuye volunteers.

-Gathering info from the medical centre and other offices for the Community Needs Assessment (CNA).

-Becoming very frustrated by the unwillingness of government workers to retrieve the CNA information I asked for.

-My first trip to Kisumu and first Green Garden calzone (oh dairy products, how I miss thee…)

-Watching Inception and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1 in theatres.

-Going back to Nairobi for In-Service-Training (IST).

-Toga party!

-Java House: salad, hamburgers, milkshakes, what more could you want?

-Learning the ins and outs of bunny farming in Thika.

-Discovering that I am only 42% white (according to “Stuff White People Like”).

-Buying an external hard drive (changed my life).

-Heading back to site after IST.

-Realizing that the RIK idea was completely unrealistic and getting my CBO to agree to work on getting a computer lab, which is cheaper and more sustainable.

-Being able to go a week without being asked for anything, and then having five people hit me up for money or “connections” in one hour.

-Having lots of time to read (and now a Kindle to read on!)

-All those times eating lunch at International House with the other half of “Team Awesome” (Brianne’s phrase).

-The time Ben, the owner of the nearest school, stopped by to give me a bunch of pills for malaria, headache, and diahrrhea because he heard I was sick.

-Finally being able to meet all the members of my CBO and actually get the ball rolling on some projects (“pole-pole” [slowly-slowly] is the unofficial Kenyan national motto).

-Birthday pancakes with real maple syrup, thanks to Jason, Brian S. and Elizabeth!

-Being Barney Stinson for Halloween at the One Acre Fund house in Kisumu. Jen: “Haaaave you met Michael?”

-Watching Nollywood movies with local kids: Take one part witchcraft and mix with two parts bad acting, one part Christian proselytizing and three parts random violence. Shake well and mutter a spell, then insert into your DVD player.

-Trying to explain Thanksgiving to my supervisor: “We all get together and eat turkey and cranberries from a can, and pumpkin pie and then we crash, because of the tryptophan in turkey…” “Oh, we do this because the Pilgrims… um… they ate with the Indians before they stole their… Uh, you know, we don’t really have a reason for it, it’s just a tradition.”

-Training five local youth working for my CBO in ICT, so that they can train others once we open our computer lab.

-Eating lunch, with chai and sugar cane for desert, at my friend and ICT trainee Eric’s house.

-Visiting my host family again just before Christmas.

-Killing brain cells watching “Jersey Shore.” “That’s a Situation!”

-Watching the sun rise over the Indian Ocean on Christmas morning.

-Getting a second-degree sunburn which made movement painful (thanks, Doxy!)

-One-upping the official Gede tour guide.

-Exploring Ft. Jesus with Megan H.

-New Year’s at 40 Thieves in Diani.

-Getting back to Webuye and finding out that the hostess at International House got run over by a motorcycle and died. I haven’t been back since.

-Blushing at the praise from CBO members when my APCD made a site visit.

-Frustration at the internet being too slow for me to watch Obama’s State of the Union.

-Plotting and scheming involving the computer lab and interminable waiting on the CDF for funding.

-Listening to BBC radio coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt while washing dishes.

-Staying up all night to watch the Super Bowl with other PCVs, NGO workers, and the Walter Reed folks in Kisumu.

-Multiple doctors’ visits for my “zombie-itis” (mysterious epidermal allergic reaction).

-Eating AMAZING Ethiopian food at Abyssina in Nairobi with Jeff Burkholder.

-Teaching my first LIFESKILLS class this morning!

Hope you’ve enjoyed these highlights. My next post will cover a much shorter period of time, scouts honor!

Hatua kwa hatua,

Michael

Hey everyone! You still remember me, right? I know, long time, no blog. I really meant to blog more often, at least once a week. Blogging was kind of hard to do when I was training in Loitokitok and the Peace Corps stuffed the days full to overflowing with sessions from 8 AM-5 PM Monday to Friday and imposed a 6:30 curfew on trainees. Once I got to my home-stay, I would invariably have to sit down, have chai (the Kenyan national beverage; this is not the spicy “chai” you might find in America, it is basically tea plus boiled milk and sugar), and talk to my baba (host-father) about my day. Mama (host-mother) would have dinner ready between 7:30-8:30 PM (and sometimes I helped to prepare it). After dinner, there was watching a bit more TV, usually dubbed Spanish-language soap operas, over still more cups of chai, then language homework; by this point it was usually after 9:30 and my brain was shutting down anyway, so I would put thoughts of updating my journal out of my head, grab a book, and let my eyes pour over words like water over rocks until I would realize I’d been staring at the same page for 5 minutes and get up to turn off the light, tuck my mosquito net in, and sleep. Also, the World Cup being on TV didn’t help either!

Even at site, the general lack of internet cafes is an issue. The ones that do exist (in the nearest market town, a solid 10+ kilometers down a lovely dirt road) are usually expensive, slow, and full of all kinds of wonderful viruses! Now that I have my laptop with me again, and I have a modem, I ought to be able to blog much more regularly, if I can beat procrastinitis. So before I start talking about my site, I’ve got to catch you up on the last 3 months since I left the States. I will keep things as brief as possible, but this will take a few posts to reach the present. I will try to hit the non-boring highlights.

So it begins…

So on the morning of Monday, May 24, 2010, I took a flight from PTI to Philidelphia, after a tearful goodbye with my family (actually, I didn’t see anybody cry, but I’m sure the tears were internal). After some brief drama trying to find the shuttle, I made my way to the Radisson Valley Forge in King of Prussia, PA. During registration and the “staging” info sessions, I met the other members of the group going to Kenya. Dinner was with some of my fellow Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) at a brewhouse in the mall and I had my last American hamburger. I went to bed for my final night in America right after dinner, at about 9:30.

The following morning, we loaded a tour bus full of our luggage and left for JFK just before 10. After eating lunch at Au Bon Pain, we checked bags, went through security, and waited for the Swiss Air flight to Zurich to take off at 6. A group of us walked the short distance from the gate to Buffalo Wild Wings, where I had my first Long Island Iced Tea. Sitting on the other side of the bar from us was Viggo Mortensen. I took a blurry picture of him with my iPhone camera and excitedly posted on Facebook about it. Viggo had some argument with the server and stormed out. Shortly thereafter, boarding started and we took off about 6:30 PM EST. We arrived in Zurich at 8 AM local time. As usual, I was unable to sleep on the flight. I picked up a bar of Swiss chocolate, bought an International Herald Tribune to read on the next plane, and made a final phone call to my Mom before removing the SIM card (so that AT&T wouldn’t charge the account a bajillion dollars in “roaming” costs in Africa). In the far distance out one window, we could see the Swiss Alps, glistening in the sunlight. After less than an hour and a half on the ground, our next Swiss Air flight took off for Nairobi.

This was a long flight with some really good food, although there were no available window seats, so I had to sit in the middle of the cabin and miss out on seeing anything of the Alps, Italy, the Mediterranean, North Africa, or Kenya from the air. This time I was able to doze for about an hour. After a total of just under 18 hours on a plane, we arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, outside Nairobi. We passed through customs and picked up our baggage, then made our way to the Peace Corps buses. I was positive that a huge swarm of African mosquitoes would be waiting for me outside in the parking lot, but in all honestly, there seem to be few of them in Nairobi. Outside the city is a different matter.

Once we arrived at AFRALTI (the semi-hostel that Peace Corps puts up trainees and volunteers in), they served us dinner, which consisted of three foods which would become very familiar to me: ugali, sukuma-wiki, and “meat.” Ugali is a white pasty substance, made by taking maize flour and mixing it with eggs, then heating it over a fire or Jiko charcoal stove. Kenyans eat this bland maize dough by grabbing a handful of it, then grabbing some sukuma-wiki (like a stewed spinach), and usually a piece of “meat” (the toughest, least appetizing from a Western standpoint, pieces of cow, goat, or chicken) and eating them all together. Not knowing this, I ate the ugali by itself, pretending I liked it. After a while, it does grow on you, but only just a little. I then went up to my room and crashed, after tucking in my mosquito net underneath my mattress.

I woke up about 5:30 AM and started getting ready, testing the shower and brushing my teeth with bottled water. The day was full of information sessions and 3 different shots in the afternoon (I had thought they had required me to take enough shots before I left the States, but apparently not!). Medical also passed out First Aid kits and malaria prophylactics. We also began taking our first Kiswahili language lessons. That night after dinner, I sat around with about half a dozen other PCTs on the balcony while they played with their laptops. The more things change, right? I cursed myself for being almost the only one to follow Peace Corps recommendations and leave mine at home (a situation since rectified). I would also curse myself for bringing glasses and leaving my contacts at home, again as per PC recommendation.

The next day was Friday, May 28, our last at AFRALTI. The trainers gave sessions on adjusting to life at home-stay (the host families we lived with during 8 weeks of training in Loitokitok). The most important warnings were given were about the “choo” (pronounced “cho”), the iconic Kenyan spin on bathrooms. Each family will usually have an outhouse-type structure behind their house, with wooden walls and a concrete or dirt floor. There is a small (6 inch by 3 inch at most) rectangular hole in the floor into which you deposit your bodily wastes. I’ve actually become pretty skilled at using the choo, but my knees sometimes hurt when I squat, due to having to squat just barely above the level of the floor. Most Kenyans do not use toilet paper; my host-family uses newspaper, but it’s apparently much more common not to use anything. It reminds me of what my great-grandmother, whose life spanned from the start of the 20th century into the 21st, once said: that toilet paper and zippers were the greatest inventions of her lifetime; it wasn’t so terribly long ago that American sanitation was at Kenyan levels.

A fair amount of the problems Kenya faces come down to cultural factors and tradition. According to a report I read a while back in the Daily Nation, the main newspaper in Kenya, 97% of Kenyans claimed to have access to soap and water for after-choo usage but less than 10% actually used them. I know there are some PC volunteers who carry around bottles of purell for use after shaking hands with locals, but I think that would probably hinder community integration. In any event, I think the 97% figure is inflated by people telling the pollsters the answer they know they want to hear. From an inventory of several schools at my site, only one has a soap and water station near the choos, leading to an increase in diarrhea and lost school-days due to illness. In many areas of Kenya, sanitary pads for women are non-existent to too-expensive, leading to obvious health issues and girls missing at least several days a month of schooling. I’ll write more about the various public health issues here in Kenya, I just wanted to emphasize that sanitation is important, in ways we take for granted in America.

Ok, so world’s longest aside aside, the next morning, we packed up all our luggage again and set off on the 3 and a half hour drive to Loitokitok, just north of the Tanzanian border and in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. That seems a good place to stop for now. My next posts will summarize how life at home-stay and training in Loitokitok was, what a typical day was like, all the details of the swearing-in ceremony. After that I will sprint through the last six weeks at site, haraka-haraka (very fast; in Kiswahili, among other Bantu languages, to add emphasis you can sometimes simply say a word twice).

Also, whether friend or family, if you’re reading this, you’re probably someone I miss terribly. Come visit! For serial. I’d love to have visitors, and if you can find a way to get to any location on the African continent, I will arrange to come meet you there. And if you have any questions for me, just leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in a future post. I have pics up on Facebook, so check those out. For now, kwaheri!

Michael “Wafula”

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know who I am and what I’m doing. I’m leaving tomorrow morning to begin training with the Peace Corps in Kenya. I’ll write a more in-depth post later on why I’m doing this and other Frequently-Asked Questions. Being the night before I leave, it’s been crazy around here with friends and family calling, not to mention last-minute packing details. Also tonight is the series finale of Lost, so that takes priority. I should be able to get a post up tomorrow night. Here is a rough itenerary:

Monday, May 24: Fly out of PTI (Greensboro, NC) at 9:23 to Philidelphia for registration.

Tuesday, May 25: Drive to JFK (New York) and fly to Zurich, Switzerland.

Wednesday, May 26: Briefly stop-over in Zurich before flying over to Nairobi, Kenya.

Thursday, May 27 – Saturday, May 29: Briefings in Nairobi.

Saturday, May 29: Head to Pre-Service Training for the next 2 months.

Lost is beginning, so I’m going to leave it there. Until next time,

Namaste!

-Michael

Archives

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other followers

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.