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.