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!