Grownups Have All the Fun

Well. I think that I knew it was coming at some point in my life, but I don’t think I realized that it would happen at 25. I’ve become my parents. It’s official; earlier this week I caught myself mid-sentence and realized that I was in the middle of giving the exact same lecture that I myself received a decade ago from good ol mom and dad. I have sweet little Sid to thank for my slipup. Allow me to elaborate.

At the school, we have instituted a mandatory after school homework hour, so that the children are finished with their homework before they even leave campus. The main motivation behind this move was in response to the culture here in Njabini. Most of the children go home at night to hours of chores around the house; they don’t have to dread setting the table or loading the dishwasher; no, they get to look forward to tending to the animals, setting piles of trash on fire (true story – in two months I’ve taken 10 years off my life with the combination of sun damage and toxic fume inhalation from burning piles of trash) cooking dinner over an open flame and caring for younger siblings. It’s no wonder the children show up to school with incomplete homework. Yet another barrier to their productivity, I would venture to guess that 9/10 of these children’s families do not have electricity. Once the light is gone, it’s a lot harder to produce a satisfactory composition. Not to mention that back in November when I first arrived here, I was amazed that a white piece of paper could be brown and stained 12 hours later. Long story short: the community children’s homes are not conducive to learning.

Which brings me to Sid. Around lunchtime the other day, her teacher approached me, with a deflated looking Sid (and if you know this girl, you would know that deflated is not one of the character traits she easily embodies) and proceeded to regale me with a list of grievances against her. Apparently that was the third time since school started 2 weeks ago that she has shown up to class unprepared, not even bringing her backpack or notebooks. Additionally, she has been inconsistent in her homework completion and more often than not, she ends up sitting all day in class with no books or means of taking notes, and instead gets up, walks around, and distracts her classmates.

While the house and school are separate buildings in the same compound, in an effort to reinforce the separation of school and home, we have been teaching the children that when they leave the house at 8am they need to bring everything that they need for the day with them, and we don’t expect to see them back in the house until 3pm when school is over. The first week of classes, we were getting children running in and out of the house at all hours, getting the pencil or notebooks they had forgotten, grabbing the sweater that they hadn’t needed in the morning, or changing into a more appropriate pair of shoes. Not only is it unfair for the 60 community children who don’t have the option of retrieving a forgotten book or item of clothing, but it sets a bad precedent for the children.

Regardless of this rule, apparently Sid had already been in and out of the house twice to look for the backpack which she had “lost.” Frustrated, and frankly, embarrassed (geez, parents reaction or what?), I apologized to the teacher for her lack of preparation (I feel as if it is a direct reflection of the Flying Kites staff if our children aren’t the most prepared for school) and had Sid issue a similar apology to her teacher. I explained that it was disrespectful to a teacher to not be prepared for his class; I then walked inside with her to look for this lost backpack. Our matron, Joyce, suggested that Sid look in the sitting room for her bag, and, lo and behold, there it is, in plain sight on one of the bookshelves. I gave Sid a reproachful look and shooed her out the door, expecting that the problem would be solved. I suppose I can chalk that one up to a first-time parent’s naiveté….

After dinner every night, the children can choose to watch a movie until 8pm, at which point the begin the process of teeth brushing, pajama changing and face washing. As Sid filed past me into the hallway I asked her if she had completed all of her homework. She said, “well no, but I have been told to go to bed.” I said, no no Sid, that’s not how it works. You were only sent to bed if your homework was done, and furthermore, why were you watching the movie when you knew you had homework to complete? Well, she did not have a good answer for that one, so I sent her back to the dining room table and told her to get back to work. (Again, I blame myself for assuming that she would have done her homework during the “homework hour.” She told me that rather than doing her homework, she was entertained by the men who were in the classroom leveling the legs of some of the desks with saws. Apparently it was fascinating stuff). 15 minutes later, we heard the pitter patter of her new furry croc slippers as she shuffled down the hallway to the living area the volunteers were relaxing in. She meekly poked her head in and asked if we could send someone down to the other end of the house to sit with her while she did her homework. Ha. Ha. I don’t think so Sid. We told her to bring her books down to us, and we would all sit with her while she was working.

I was instantly reminded of a book I used to read as child, “Grownups Have All the Fun,” or something to that effect in which a young girl laments going to bed night after night, convinced that her parents wait until she’s sleeping to start the party. She has visions of her parents having pillow fights, watching movies, inviting friends over and eating buckets and buckets of ice cream. One night, she either sneaks down or is allowed to stay up late by her parents, only to realize that they are no more than dull duds for those few hours they are up after she goes to bed. The mother does bills, while the father reads the paper, or something similar, and she is filled with this immense disappointment that there is in fact, nothing special about getting to stay up late. I believe Sid had a similar revelation that evening, as she sat in the room with us while we typed away on our computers, read a book and chatted quietly. By 8:30, a few of us had already gone to bed ourselves.

I kept a watch on Sid’s progress out of the corner of my eye, and every time she looked up to contribute to the conversation, I found myself saying “Sid, back to your homework please, it’s not a privilege to be in here right now, it’s a punishment.” Chastened, she would immediately go back to her work, although I noticed that while her pencil was moving in the air, she was not actually putting lead to paper, as she was clearly eavesdropping on our conversations rather than concentrating on her homework..

After about 45 minutes of unproductivity I was ready for bed, and realized that since I had by default of everyone else leaving, been designated Sid’s unofficial supervisor, my bedtime was not in sight at the rate she was going. I made an executive decision (which I now realize was not a random thought that sprang into my head, rather, it was my genetic destiny kicking into high gear) that there was no way Sid was going to finish her work that night, and I had to come up with a solution. I decided that rather than poorly complete the homework and make us all miserable, she could instead choose compose a short letter to her teacher, apologizing for her prior indiscretions, and additionally, apologizing for not honoring the promise she had made hours earlier to him that from now on her homework would be completed every evening. When I presented her with the two choices she had, she looked as if she had just watched a third eye pop through my skin. Again, I have to explain a bit about Sid as a person for anybody to fully grasp how rare an event it is for her to be speechless. Maybe it’s about as rare as the solar eclipse we had seen earlier that day.

Sid is one of our most effusive children; her emotions are always on the extreme ends of the spectrum. She is one of our happiest, most bubbly girls, but also one of the most aggressive troublemakers. I believe this dichotomy in her emotions is the result of her early childhood. When she was born she had a small stroke that may or may not have affected her brain development (personally, I don’t think she is slower than the other children; on the contrary, she is impressively bright), however the left side of her body is much weaker than the right. Sports and heavy lifting are quite a challenge for her, and she slurs her speech a bit and drools quite liberally; it’s as if she has a permanently Novocained left side of her mouth (imagine the drugs never wearing off from a dentist appointment) In addition to her birth injury, Sid sustained significant emotional and physical trauma as a young girl when she was repeatedly raped by her uncle. In addition to the emotional damage she has incurred as a result of this despicable sexual abuse, she is one of our nightly bedwetters, as her pelvis has been permanently damaged, which affects the ability of the bladder to function properly. So, it is my belief that this early trauma causes her to wear her emotions on her sleeve; for completely justified reasons, Sid is either wicked happy, or wicked sad and moody. However I would say that 70% of the time she is a carefree child.

Now that you all understand what an impressive feat it is to render this child speechless, you may appreciate the sense of satisfaction I had when I felt that I had, in fact, helped to teach her a lesson. After another painful 20 minutes, the letter to her teacher was finished. I think Sid herself realized the irony that she was apologizing for not being prepared for class and promising not to do it again in the same sentence that she apologized in advance for not being prepared for class the next day. While I asked my parents about this when I next spoke with them, and they couldn’t collaborate my suspicions, I am almost convinced that I myself had to write a letter like this at least once to a teacher. I remember it being such an embarrassing experience that it scared me straight for at least a week…

So far so good; it’s been almost a week, and every day Sid has come straight up to me after school and let me know that her homework is complete, and that her teacher has already graded it. I’m reassured, if only for a short while, that my lesson sunk in. Although, if this girl is anything like I was in 3rd grade, I guarantee I’ll be hearing from her teacher again soon.

Another Sid-related motherly moment: the girl does NOT know how to slow down. She does everything at warp speed, which makes her even more hilarious, because she favors her left side, so it’s always slightly behind her right side, but fast nonetheless. So, it stands to reason that she also eats fast; I mean this girl shovels food into her mouth like it’s her last meal. To be fair, a lot of the children do that, boarders and school children; I think it’s a cultural thing, food is not always plentiful, so you should eat all that is put in front of you and be grateful for it. Regardless of the cultural reasonings behind it, our kids are pigs. It’s something we’re chipping away at slowly but surely, introducing them to napkins, placemats (it’s so cute, they have the placemats with the map of the world on it and every night we have them find a country and then give a little fun fact about it. To this day, they can still tell you how to spell Mongolia, and explain that it is known for horses, and a man once rode across the country on the side of a horse, a fun fact they learned over a month ago…) and other accoutrements of civilization. The utensil of choice in Kenya is the spoon, and Sid will shove a tennis ball sized scoop of rice and beans in her mouth, followed quickly by another, and then 10 seconds later, get up from the table choking. I told her repeatedly that her bites are too big, she needs to chew before she swallows, and she most certainly needs to stop getting up and moving around the dining room with a mouthful of food. She listens to me for approximately 3 bites before she is choking again.

After a few nights of this, I decided that the solution was not to tell her to take smaller bites on her adult sized spoon, but to force her to take smaller bites by giving her a smaller spoon. We have a few small sugar spoons lying around, so the other night, I went into the cupboard and presented Sid with her “special spoon.” At first I was concerned that she would be offended by this downgrade, but my fears turned out to be unfounded, as she squealed with joy and showed off her new spoon to everyone. Needless to say, we have had no choking-related incidents since, and every night when the kids are getting ready to sit down, I hear her little voice: “Auntie Hannah, my special spoon please!” Ah, how can you NOT be encouraged by such a wonderful little victory?

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I realized that I would most likely loosen up a bit when I came to Kenya, but I had no idea just how much I had crossed over to the dark side until I saw it reflected in the eyes of our new (well, no longer new since it took me so long to post this) volunteer Paulina. Allow me to elaborate on a few of the choicer incidents.

 The Airport:

One of the other volunteers, Paul, and I headed to Nariobi to pick up our volunteer Paulina, who came in a couple days before Christmas. We arrived at the airport with one of our taxi drivers that we hire regularly, and are therefore quite comfortable with. Paulina’s plane was due to arrive at 9:30pm, so allowing for customs and baggage claim (plus, we‘re on Kenyan time now), we were still quite early when we arrived at 9:45. We jostled for a position at the packed international arrivals gate, elbowing representatives from safari companies and hustling taxi drivers, all holding up their personalized signs, hoping that the group of white holiday tourists walking through the sliding doors belonged to them. At one point, I had the very certain feeling that the taxi driver behind me was over exaggerating the push from the crowd behind him and using it as an excuse to inappropriately lean into me, but nothing could distract me from my assignment. After 45 minutes of waiting and holding our Flying Kites sign up at every scared looking white girl that walked into the sea of Christmas travelers, we became slightly concerned and Paul began making periodic walk-throughs of the terminal. After 90 minutes of waiting, I pulled out my phone to call Sarah and let her know we had an AWOL volunteer.

Turns out, she had arrived about the time we arrived, but British Airways had lost her luggage and she was held up with the baggage claim office for a while. Looking back, I remember how terrified I was when I arrived that there would be no sign with my name on it when I walked through those doors. I blame myself for not remembering this feeling as I held up the sign for Paulina. She must have walked out of those doors, shaking with exhaustion, done a cursory glance for her name, and, upon not seeing it, walked away in despair. LONG STORY SHORT – we found her huddled and shaking like a kicked puppy in the café in the corner of the terminal, and walked outside to find our cabbie. Funnily enough, he was not to be found. Of course, I didn’t even bat an eyelash. No cab driver that we trust? No big deal. Flash back to my arrival nearly two months earlier when I almost died in my seat when my van had a fender bender on the way out of the parking lot. We call Anthony, and find him in a different spot than we left him, but still there, patiently waiting. We load up Paulina, minus one bag, and begin our journey to our hotel in Nairobi, 20 minutes away.

Ten minutes later, Anthony curses, and pulls over to the side of the road. Poor Paulina, tears threatening to spill over, after 15 hours of sleep deprivation and near abandonment in an international airport at 11 o’clock at night 2 days before Christmas looks at me in bewilderment. Turns out, we’re out of gas. No worries, we’ll just chill on the side of the road for a while (please refer to my first blog post to recall how I would have reacted two months ago). A short while later, a few men with machine guns slung casually on their shoulders saunter up to the car. The attack-inducing anxiety failed to rear its ugly head, and I relished the surprise delay as a chance to close my eyes. I’m used to machine-clad police here, but alas, Paulina is not. No big deal, we have a friend arriving with petrol. 45 minutes later, we’re on the road (I’m so screwed when I get back to the states. Kenyan time is on an approximately 300% delay).

The following morning, on our drive from Nairobi to Kinangop, we drove passed a police paddy wagon with a dead body chained inside. Anthony informs us that the news of the shooting was on the radio – apparently the guy was a “robber” and was killed after a shootout with the police. Poor Paulina – she probably wished she was back with her 2nd bag in London Heathrow.

[Update: I have since been banned from picking up any new volunteers from the airport. While there was no specific reason given for this removal of responsibilities, this was one of those instances in which silence can speak louder than words]

First Night at the Centre:

It’s Paulina’s first night at the centre, and everyone’s starving. We have stocked up on REAL food at Nakumatt, and asked our matron to cook pasta for us. In addition to the pasta, we get a stew-like soup with veggies and potatoes. When we see the surprise in the pot, we all get super excited. I eat two bowls of the stew, so excited for the delicious variety in our meal. Paulina, on the other hand, eats a small bowl of pasta and butter. She couldn’t even touch the stew with a 10 foot pole. I’m not saying it is bad by any standards. But to be fair, it’s probably not first class cuisine. Still. Anything is better than rice, cabbage and ugali.


I wrote a bit about driving in Kenya a while back. The other day I was in a Land Rover (veryyyy VIP for Kenya) for a short ride, and complained to Sarah that driving in this car was so boring and uneventful, I was almost hoping we would hit a pedestrian or biker just to mix it up a bit. That’s how mundane driving has become to me. I used to close my eyes and put on my iPod anytime I entered a vehicle. Now, it’s not a fulfilling ride unless we play at least 5 games of chicken. I have learned to love the bars on the windows – gives me something to hold on to. I’m screwed when I get back to the states. I may or may not get 10 traffic tickets over the course of 2 months. Many of them will probably be for driving on the wrong side of the road. I won’t lie – I still freak out every time I think we’re going to tip over, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that fear (although, as soon as I enter the vehicle, I assess its tip-a-bility, and decide how nervous I can reasonably be, and what bodily harm I can expect in case of a tip-over. I‘ve also realized, that I increase my odds of keeping my eyes safe from any flying shards of glass if I keep my sunglasses on for the duration of the drive, regardless of the time of day. The sun never goes down in the land of the cool.) but the fact that I now face oncoming traffic as an adventure instead of a threat is definitely an improvement. I didn’t think I had made such big strides until we were in the car with Paulina for the first time and she flipped out every time we almost crashed. No big deal – it’s not worth breaking out in a cold sweat until you hear the driver swear. It’s kind of like flying; no need to assume the crash position until you see the flight attendants running for cover.

Bucket Showers:

I have never and probably will never admit to liking the bucket shower, but I have certainly grown accustomed to it. Sarah, Paulina and I decided that Wednesday would be a bucket day. Sarah took hers first, and a while later, Paulina began to prepare for the “shower,” but needed some guidance. We patiently explained to her that it’s really very simple, you just get hot water from the matrons, dilute it till it’s your desired warmth, stand or squat (your choice), use the provided Tupperware as the means of rinsing your hair and body, and you’re good to go. 45 minutes later, Paulina emerged, shampoo still sticky in her hair, glared at us, and said “that was NOT as easy as you said it would be” and strode off to salvage what she could of her tangled mane. Oops.

My Accident:

When I’m lazy, which is quite often, I take a motorbike to and from the centre when I go into town. One day, after a particularly heavy rainfall, I hopped on back of a bike and told the man to hit it. About ¾ of the way up the dirt road, there is a hill. The bike began to fishtail; the thick mud from the rain in combination with the incline of the road = motorbike crash. To call it a crash is to completely overstate the situation, but I think it sounds more badass that way. In reality, the bike just kind of wobbled in place, and we fell over. Unfortunately, I was wearing shorts, so my entire leg was covered in mud, and there was a dull throbbing in my knee, but other than that I was fine. So, I walked to the top of the hill, waited for the motorbike man to catch up, attempted to brush off my dirt and blood smeared leg, and hopped right back on. I can guarantee that I wouldn’t even have been on a bike in the states, let alone hop back on after a “crash,” although to be fair, the bikes travel at like, 5MPH on the road to the centre, so it’s not a fair comparison. When Wombogo saw me, he started cracking up and told me I shouldn’t even bother showering anymore, because I can’t manage to stay clean for an hour. I have since used that as my excuse for cutting back on my personal hygiene.

The Worm:

Perhaps my personal favorite weird thing that has happened to me since arriving. A few weeks ago, I noticed a bite shaped rash on my collarbone. I made a note to keep an eye on it, and promptly forgot until a week later when it began to itch. Upon inspection in the mirror (which are so rare around here, I almost never see my reflection anymore – probably a good thing since I haven‘t had my eyebrows done since before I left in October, and I‘m quite certain I‘m beginning to resemble Ernie from Sesame Street), I realized that the rash had tripled in size, and was all red in the middle and flaky on the outside. Awesome. Upon revealing myself to everyone else, they diagnosed me with ringworm. Oh, is that all. Not unlike my motorbike accident, it’s really not as big of a deal as it sounds, but it’s just another one of those things that I have added to and promptly crossed off my bucket list as they have happened. Ringworm is a fungus that thrives in unwashed, sweaty places. It’s quite common among sports teams and on wrestling mats, so it’s not some weird African affliction – but still – it‘s called RINGWORM. Apparently it’s not uncommon for volunteers to get it on their collarbones, as that is where children often rest their (dirty sweaty) heads when they sit on your lap. While our children are definitely on the cleaner side, my mind immediately flashed to the assembly line of the unwashed masses who lean their heads against my collarbone in church on Sundays. One of the matrons picked me up the cream they use when the kids get it, and 2 weeks later, the shape of the rash has changed, and now it’s red and bumpy. No big deal, Joyce just picked up a different cream – if it’s not gone by the time I’m scheduled to come back to the states, I’ll just have to remember to wear a high collar when I walk through customs so I don’t get detained for trying to attempt a medical terrorist attack on my flight.

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Yesterday was a particularly hard day for me. It started off normally enough: we were playing with the kids outside when Wombogo came and got me, explaining that there was a girl who had fallen out front and needed to go to the hospital.  We had been having an especially exasperating week disciplining some of the village kids this week (they are attending a day program this week before the start of school on Tuesday), and physical violence had been escalating among the boys. It’s typical end of summer fever I think, boys and girls alike pushing the boundaries of their teachers, seeing how much they can get away with. I had just finished putting one child in a time out, trying to instill a sense of right and wrong (it is WRONG to punch a girl in the face just because she is in your way) and, exasperated, I assumed he was referring to the girl who had just been punched in the face (let’s be honest, she was fine after a “make it all better boo boo kiss“). He explained that there was a child outside of our front gate who had collapsed and since we had a vehicle, the neighbors were asking if we could drive her down to town.  

Upon assessing the situation, I ascertained that it was not, in fact one of our children, rather she was a girl from Njabini who happened to be outside of our front gate when she collapsed. Fully aware that picking up an unconscious child could cause any level of permanent damage had she injured her spine, I quickly realized that I have not seen one ambulance since arriving in Kenya. I‘m sure they exist, but if we wanted to get this girl help, we had to take our chances and pick her up. I hopped in the front seat, while the three neighbors who had found her cradled her across their laps for the 10 minute bumpy, pothole ridden dirt road to the clinic. Since nobody knew who the girl was, we stopped multiple times during the drive to inquire as to her home and her parents. One woman recognized her, and informed us that her parents were away working outside of town. While she worked on contacting the parents (to no avail), we brought the girl into an examination room; by this time, the girl was conscious, but had not spoken a word. After minutes of Kukuyu conversation (of which I understood not one word, and nobody thought to translate), it was determined that this girl had been here before and had a file.  

The nurse brought in the child, Julie’s, file. This being Kenya, and not the states, HIPPA be damned, I was able to flip through the chart myself and determine that the girl had been diagnosed with epilepsy in September. She had missed her checkup on the 17th, which most likely explained the most recent seizure. All of this seemed pretty self explanatory, and I assumed that once the parents arrived, I would feel confident enough that the crisis had been averted, and make it back to the centre in time for lunch.  Shortly thereafter, a “child advocate” arrived, which I believe is the equivalent to a social worker. He began talking with one of the nurses, who apparently knew this child, and they began gesticulating wildly, turning the girls hands palm up and gesturing to them. Again, only after my repeated attempts to interrupt was I acknowledged. They explained to me that the girl is known around the village, she often sleeps outside and has been known to beg for food and money.  

According to the word on the street, the child’s mother beats and burns her repeatedly (the girls palms were covered in cuts and burns from the abuse), and turns the child out of her home. Incidentally, she is the youngest of 5 or 6 kids, but is the only one treated in such an abusive manner (apparently this is not an uncommon phenomenon in an abusive household).  The medicine which is prescribed for epilepsy (and administered free of charge thanks to a partnership with a British advocacy group) must be taken every morning, and, at the advocates urging, the girl had admitted that her mother often withheld the medicine as a form of abuse, which also provided an explanation for her episode that morning.  

Every time she opened her mouth to speak, her voice cracked with anguish, and tears ran freely down her cheeks. While I had only a vague idea what was happening, the girl’s mannerisms spoke to me more than the hurried translations I was given every 10 minutes. After about 45 minutes the girls aunt arrived, being the only relative we were able to locate who could come out. Relief flooded my heart when the woman recognized me from Christmas Eve, when we were out delivering food to needy families. She was the treasurer for the SWORD group, and also, incidentally, the guardian of Beth, the quirky child with Down Syndrome we had so much fun with last week.  

The two of us conference for a bit and then she directed her attention to the child. She and her “advocate” began speaking to her sharply, and her aunt began wagging her finger and using the English word, “misbehaving” repeatedly. Thinking that Julie was getting in trouble for causing such drama, I demanded to know what was going on – were they yelling at her when it was her mother who should be receiving the scolding? Her aunt told me that she had on good authority that 14 year old Julie was being “kept as a wife” by a neighboring man. Julie was reluctant to admit this information, which was why the adults voices had escalated.  

At one point, I counted 8 adults in the room, male and female, all talking heatedly over this girls head, while her eyes darted from one adult to the other, her expression a spitting image of a deer in headlights. At one point, her eyes locked with mine, and her expression seemed to plead with me for help. That was the first time that morning my own eyes filled with helplessness. I had less of an idea what was going on than she did, yet I felt like I was letting her down by not intervening.  

The nurse finally asked us all to leave so that she could be alone with the child and her aunt. After a few minutes, they emerged, with confirmation that the child’s mother and father had dropped her off at her neighbors house with a nylon bag full of her things to become a child wife to this sick, perverted individual. When he was finished with her, he too turned her out on his doorstep, leaving her to beg her way back into her home, where she was greeted with nothing more than a hearty beating. I understand that this kind of sexual abuse is not endemic to Africa – it happens in first and third world nations alike, but that knowledge does nothing to stifle my outrage. What kind of twisted, sadistic, devil people does it take to conspire against a child in such a way? What kind of world do we live in where these atrocities are committed with such regularity? How can we ensure that this will not happen to even ONE MORE innocent child?  

Once this information had been confirmed, I knew that there was absolutely no way this child could go back to her house that night. It was bad enough when I knew she was getting beaten and that her lifesaving medicine was being withheld, but to know that she may have to go back to a grown man’s bed against her will was more than I could bear. I called Sarah in tears, hoping she could advise me on what we could do. Flying Kites has a lot of contacts in the community; if it took us pulling a few strings with the local authorities to save this girl’s life, that is what we were going to do. Fortunately, Sarah was with Francis, another SWORD group founder. He told me he’d call his wife Jane who was at their nearby home to come and see what she could do.  

An hour later (even in an emergency situation, everyone is still on Kenyan time), Jane walked into the clinic, where I hastily explained the situation, and she sat down with the aunt. Once Jane spoke with the girl, I was able to learn even more about the gravity of the situation.  

[A word about the “firewood children.” Firewood is not easy to come by in this area; trees are sparse in the village, but as we are nestled in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range, there is ample firewood in the region. These firewood children set off from their homes bright and early every morning, and trek through the streets of Njabini, and up to the national forest. I always see them walking on the roads, children of all ages, with a sack of firewood on their back, held up by a string, which is balanced on their foreheads. Many of the children have laced the rubber of the sole of a flip flop through the string, so that they can rest the flip flop on their foreheads to avoid the strain of the rope. When full, their sacks must weigh 20-30 pounds, and these children walk for probably at least 6 hours a day carrying this burden. We took a drive out of Njabini towards the mountains last week; we had been driving uphill for 25 minutes and we were STILL seeing children going back to town with their burdens. Francis pointed them out, explaining that these were children from the village; we had seen these children around, but didn’t understand the gravity of the task they undertake every day. They must walk 25 miles round trip, 12 of those miles, laden with a 20 pound burden. When the children get to town, they sell the firewood for just enough money so that their families can eat that night. They do not attend school, they do not play with their friends, they do not eat breakfast or lunch, and dinner for the entire family rests on their shoulders – literally. All obvious negative effects of this aside, the weight of the firewood bearing down on their heads day after day must stunt their growth]  

A group of children on their firewood collection route


Julie is a firewood child. Jane explained to me that one day, she did not get a receipt for the firewood (I have no idea where and from whom they obtain the wood, but apparently a receipt stands as proof that you paid for it at the national park area) and upon her journey home, she was robbed of her livelihood.  When she arrived home empty handed, without a receipt to prove that she had in fact, made the trip that day and not played hooky, the intensity of the beatings increased. Jane was vaguely aware of the case, as the girl is a neighbor, and as part of her SWORD group outreach, she has been going door to door to assess family situations. She said that on December 23rd, the beating began at 6am, and did not stop until 7:30am. She could hear the child’s cries through the window: “please stop beating me mother, please don’t burn me, I’ll be good, etc, etc…” However, this was the first Jane was hearing about this girl’s “husband.”  

It’s hard to condemn Jane and her neighbors for their lack of intervention in the beating of a child; unfortunately, in Kenya, it seems that there is an unwritten rule against speaking out against events that happen behind closed doors. It’s as if there’s an understanding that a family’s business shall remain a family’s business, even at the expense of the children and the wives, who are often the recipients of the “business.”  However, I knew unequivocally in my mind that there was no way, no how that I would allow this innocent, scared child to return to the living hell she called home that evening. Jane agreed, and with tears in our eyes, we began to brainstorm solutions.  

[In defense of the clinic nurses (we saw the doctor for a total of 10 minutes – some things are the same in every culture) and the social worker, I don’t think they would have wanted to send her back either; apparently there are steps that they can take to remove a child from such a situation. Everyone was in total agreement that what this girl was being subjected to was unequivocally criminal and illegal. I was definitely impressed that there did seem to be protocols in place for dealing with vulnerable child situations, and I was heartened by that realization. However, I don’t think my presence hurt in this particular situation. People know Flying Kites, and we are respected throughout the community, and together with Jane and Hannah (the aunt) from the SWORD group, we served as a solid advocate for the child.]  

I asked Jane if her aunt, Hannah could take her in; by default of her status as a founding member of the SWORD group, Hannah is a compassionate individual, and her relation to Julie made her a prime candidate to be a guardian. Jane advised me that she is already taking care of 5 children (orphans of her daughter, who died of AIDS), one of whom has Down Syndrome, and the added burden of such a physically and emotionally abused child would be significant. Hannah readily agreed to take in the child, and I didn’t hesitate to offer to subsidize a proportional amount of her expenses. However, I wanted to ensure that this support was directly administered through the SWORD group, as it is crucial that these community organizations are credited with the good work they accomplish.  

With the question of where Julie will go solved, our only obstacle was her parents; if they agreed to let her aunt take her in, we would have no problem. If, however, the parents objected to this arrangement (the only reason I can imagine is that the man might have been paying them for Julie‘s “company“) we would have to involve the Chief (like the mayor), who would intervene on the child’s behalf. Jane and I left once it was clear we could do nothing else for Julie until they got a hold of her parents, with the promise that as soon as we had an answer, we would meet up again to buy the supplies for Hannah and her family.  

As Jane and I walked up the road toward her home, I asked her how she handled this kind of heartbreak on a regular basis. She said that often, after visiting these families she would go home and cry for hours. She smiled wearily and said that at least this afternoon she knew someone would be sharing the burden of her tears.  

When I got back to the centre and regaled the other volunteers with my tearful account of the morning’s events, I just collapsed inside myself, utterly exhausted. While nobody doubted that I did the right thing by sponsoring this child, Sarah accurately pointed out that the way I have been reacting to these situations is not sustainable. Just a few days ago, our neighbor approached me with her grandson. She gave me a quick summary of their situation (that’s a lie – nothing in Kenya is quick except the Olympic runners); essentially, her daughter got pregnant at a young age, and abandoned her son when he was born. Her mother had no idea where her daughter and grandson had gone, until she found him again living at a neighbors house 8 months later. The boy was so malnourished and sick that he spent a year in the hospital, but is now a healthy 9 year old child. The child attends a primary school down the road, and until this year, the headmaster has been helping her with the school fees, however they go up as the child gets older, so she is no longer able to support him.  

She was initially asking for the boy to be admitted to our school, but he is going into standard 4 (which is like 3rd grade?), and our school only goes until standard 3. She offered that the boy could repeat the year, but when I looked at his report card, I saw that he had been first in his class since standard 1. There was no way this boy needed to repeat STD 3; what he needs is to continue at the academy he is currently attending. While Flying Kites doesn’t yet have the funds to sponsor these individual cases, I knew that it would be a crime for a boy this bright to have to drop out of school for lack of funds. So, once again, I pulled out my metaphorical wallet and offered to meet with the headmaster of the school and find a solution for the situation. The woman was ecstatic, and when his grandmother explained it to him, the boy simply glowed. In fact, the next day, he was in the yard playing with some of our kids, and Sarah entered the house and said she had been given a special request to “greet me” by the child in the yard – my new charge.  

While I understand Sarah’s point that I can’t respond to every situation by pulling out my wallet, I also know that the amount of money it takes to help these children is so minimal in proportion to the impact that it makes, that it would take a real scrooge to deny these children such basic human rights. I worked for 8 months to save money to come here, and if helping these children means that I may have to live at home again when I go back to the states, than so be it (sorry mom and dad!). It’s a small price to pay, and one that I will continue to pay until I exhaust my resources, to save a child from sexual exploitation and to allow a gifted child to get the education he deserves.

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Christmas Eve


When I initially booked my ticket to come here, I was slightly regretful that I would not be spending my holiday season at home; however, now thatI I am here, I am so grateful I have had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in such a different and eye opening environment.

In my family, Christmas has always been a wonderful time of year. Presents fill the bottom of the tree and spill out to fill nearly our entire living room. The days leading up to the 25th are filled with Christmas music, the smell of cooking, snowy days, warm fires and the furtive wrapping of presents behind closed doors. I would never say that our family is greedy for presents for ourselves, rather, we enjoy giving so much that even though we would be happy receiving less presents, we all love watching the reaction of a loved one as they open that “perfect gift;” I fear we will never be able to cut back completely on Christmas gifts.

Our family has always been very good about recognizing the comfort of our lives and giving back to those less fortunate; we buy gifts for families and children sponsored through our church, we are always thankful for what we are so blessed to have in such abundance and there are always moments of reflection for those who are not as lucky. My parents are especially generous throughout the entire year to those less fortunate, I have been trying to follow the example they have set.

However, the image in my mind of what constitutes the “less fortunate” was forever altered this Christmas Eve.  We teamed up with our head teacher, “Teacher Francis” and his wife, Jane, who have started a support group called the SWORD group (Single women, Widows, Orphans and Disabled).

[Francis and Jane arrived in Njabini from Nairobi two years ago where they had run a successful bakery in town, but during the post-election riots in 2007, they literally had to abandon all their earthly possessions and flee for their lives when their bakery was set fire by rioters. Clothes, books, diplomas, wedding pictures, everything had to be left behind. They never even got to return to the site to see what remained of their livelihood. While I don’t completely understand everything that happened, I think essentially there was a tribal war – all tribes ganged up against one particularly successful tribe, and destroyed any infrastructure that was built by this tribe;  among that infrastructure was Francis and Jane’s bakery. When they were telling me the story I was literally in shock; obviously you hear and read about this kind of stuff, people fleeing for their lives, losing everything they own, having to sleep during the day, travel by night, forge papers and documents and bribe people to help them get past checkpoints, but never have I heard a firsthand account.]

The point of this story is not that Francis and Jane are less fortunate (well, they are, by American standards, but by Kenyan, and especially Njabini standards they are average middle class), but that they saw the need in this village upon their arrival, and did something to address it. They, along with friends from church and the community bounded together to form the SWORD group, which extends the hand of fellowship to

particularly impoverished families who meet the criteria of the group (single women, widows, orphans and disabled). There are 30 member families in the group, who have all bought in with a very very small membership fee, but enough to give them a sense of belonging to the group. Jane and Francis invited us to join them on Christmas Eve to distribute packages of food to these families for the holidays. Sarah and I have been in talks with them regarding seeking American financing for a rabbit breeding project they are hoping would be a good income producer for these families as a part of Flying Kites’ “Magnet Effect” program. This is a new Flying Kites venture which seeks to strengthen bonds with the community by providing funding for projects and bringing more attention from abroad to Njabini. As these would be the families that would benefit from our first magnet effect venture, and we were missing our families during the holiday season, we were eager to come along and help in any way we could. Sarah generously purchased the food for the families as her Christmas present to the community.

We met 6 or 7 of the other SWORD group founders in the morning and set off to the first needy area of the day. I’m not sure if there was a way I could have been adequately prepared for what I was going to see that day. This first group of families lived in a “neighborhood” of probably 300 or 400 shacks which mainly consist of a living house and a cooking house.  Often, the clothesline is strung between the two, chickens and children wander about the area aimlessly and the smoke from the cookhouse makes your eyes tear reflexively.

I find it very hard to put this experience into words. This is the kind of poverty you see in commercials for “sponsor a child” charities and read about in Time Magazine articles. It’s never the kind of poverty I ever thought I’d be holding in my arms and presenting food to.  These are the true “dollar a day” families – and many of them are supporting so

 many on so little you wonder how they have even survived as long as they have. One woman who was supporting 5 orphans lived on 120 shillings a day at best, which is the equivalent to about $1.75.  At one house, Sarah and I asked Jane what was wrong with the child in the yard, he looked strange – his features were distorted and his head seemed proportionally too large for his body.  Jane responded that nothing was wrong with him, he was just hungry. Oh. Is that all…

big brother carrying a snoozing little brother


To the mothers that we visited, Christmas is just another day to worry about how they are going to feed their children.  The destitute don’t have the luxury to take a day off, however even among our better off matrons and teachers, I did not get the impression that there was any form of present exchange that occurred. Christmas is certainly regarded as a time to be with family, and to eat lots of good food, but I did not get the impression that children stay awake through the night straining to hear the tap-tap-tap of Santa’s reindeer on the tin roof. In fact, only when I was in Nairobi last week did I see any type of holiday decoration; Christmas trees are obviously not indigenous to this area, and I think Christmas is much more of a religious celebration than it is a commercial one. Really, a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas occurs here – not the meaning that the Hallmark card and toy industries have assigned to the holiday.

With each stop we made, we stepped back onto the path only to find that our entourage had increased by 10 more children.  These children were in varying degrees of filth, most had no shoes, while some had bits of tires lashed around their feet with string; nearly all of them were unwashed and reeked of bodily fluids – flies alighted unnoticed on their faces and bodies. We noticed that a few of the youngest children were not wearing any pants or underwear at all. Judging by the age of these children, they were probably not yet potty trained, and I assume their nakedness was for lack of clean diapers, or to cut back on the added laundry burden that an unpotty-trained child would undoubtedly add to an already overburdened household.

Gaggle of children who follow us everywhere we go

One of the children, who over the course of the day we became enamored with, very clearly has Down Syndrome. This is the first African child I have seen with the distinctive features of such an unfortunate disease, however she is a very clever and friendly child, with a constant smile on her face. It’s devastating to imagine that she will probably not live to see many more birthdays; the health problems associated with Down Syndrome in conjunction with the state of poverty she lives in are a recipe for disaster for little Beth.  Her situation is very reminiscent to me of our boys (and the millions of other African children) who are born HIV+. It’s like their lives are snatched from them before they have even had the chance to live them. These children could be the next leaders of the world for all their wit and intelligence, but they’ll be lucky if they live to see their 20th birthdays.

After visiting one particular home, in which I handed the bag of food off to a widow who gripped my hand, and with tears in her eyes said “God bless you so much,” I had to step aside for a few minutes and pull it together. I was consumed by this feeling of utter helplessness, and I felt completely overwhelmed. I recalled an essay written by one of the founders of Flying Kites, Leila. In it, she described a particularly devastating moment pre-Flying Kites, volunteering in an orphanage in Nairobi when she retreated to a closet to cry. She felt so overwhelmed by the needs of the children she was with and felt paralyzed to help. After a few moments, she noticed a child in front of her wanting to play cats cradle or some other game. She made a choice in that moment, to live in that moment, to play a game with that child, and to take it one day at a time.

I felt like I was with her crouching in that closet that afternoon – I was so consumed by utter helplessness and ineffectiveness that I literally could not keep walking. A child approached me at about that moment and I decided to live for that Christmas Eve; I scooped her into my arms kept walking. She became my new friend for the next two hours (although my arms may argue just how long she was sitting in them, judging by how sore they were the next morning). I know Leila has had this feeling, and I know I certainly have had it – Sarah has expressed the same moments of paralysis as well. I understand how this can often be a barrier to aid; people get so overwhelmed by the problem, that they don’t even attempt to try to solve it. It’s very easy to imagine that what you are doing makes no difference in the scheme of things, but it is that very method of thinking that prevents any measurable progress.  You have to realize that saving the life of even one child is worth all the feelings of despair and ineffectiveness in the world. I am helping to save the lives of 16 children here, and that has to be enough to keep me going.

To the children following us from hut to hut, this was their entertainment for the day. None of them go to school (we asked Jane), and many of them are orphans, or might as well be, for all the attention they get at home. Many of the women we were bringing food to were taking care of their children’s children – their daughters and sons having passed away from AIDS. They were very obviously affectionate towards their grandchildren, and the fact that they took them in in the first place shows a big heart, but unfortunately, many of these women are simply too old to be looking out for the welfare of 8 children.

The family that affected me the most, however, was on the far side of town. A widow with 10 children lived in a hut made of bamboo spaced about 4 inches apart. The open space had been filled in with packed mud, however the house was in such a state of disrepair that the mud had crumbled away in many places, and I could see right into their “home.” I knelt down to shake one of the younger children’s hands, and attempted to flake off some of the mud that had dried on his earlobe, only to realize what a futile effort this was, as his entire body was caked in mud, and nothing but a hot bath and 2 bars of soap would remove the dirt of his daily life from his little body.

Jane told me that she had the most trouble keeping it together when she visited this family. The family does not own any beds, mattresses, blankets or pillows; all 11 of them sleep side by side on the mud floor of the hut. Later that night, it began to downpour, and in fact it has rained pretty steadily for the past few days. I thought of that family when it began to rain, and wondered how they were going to stay dry that night. I wanted to run out and buy the family mattresses and blankets – but then I wonder if there is something else they need more. Sarah and I were having that conversation later in the van, about what we can do to make a real difference in these families lives. The food was a start – it would at least get them through for a number of meals, but we struggled with what kind of charity would be most effective. I was struck by the pervasive barefootness of the children, but realized that if they were all given a new pair of shoes, they would be barefoot again in a month for the amount of wear they would get. It is impossible to help every single person in Njabini; Flying Kites has chosen to focus on educating children. Through education, children can begin to realize what lies outside of the realm of Njabini, and the doors that education opens. Rather than undertaking an effort to clothe, feed, house and shoe the entire village, we have dedicated ourselves to providing children with an exemplary education. Maybe someday we can help to educate every child in the village – but for now we have to be content with the little bit we can do.

I’ve been wrestling with my conscience these past few days; I am torn between my desire to help the people I have seen over the course of this past week, and to continue to enjoy the holidays that I have grown accustomed to in the states. Sarah says there is a book that wrestles with this very dilemma of finding the balance between enjoying the privileges of the life I was born into, while at the same time realizing and helping to ease the plight of others. While I don’t want to give up every Christmas at home, I think that coming to an area like this on a regular basis and establishing an effective means of giving back is essential to becoming a better citizen of the world.

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A Night on the Town

A couple of us decided to spend a weekend at a “hotel” in Njabini, thinking that the electricity and hot water might make for a luxorious get away. It’s first important to clarify exactly what a hotel is in a rural Kenyan village. Actually, we could have done a lot worse for ourselves; it’s much nicer than I was expecting. The previous statement serves as an example of just how low my standards have dropped in the past month.

It resembles a motor lodge, in that the rooms all open onto a communal balcony hallway and look out over a central parking lot/courtyard. There are about 25-35 rooms on both sides of the courtyard, spanning three floors. I have the pleasure to be on the third floor. The 30 some odd steps I have to haul myself up every time I need something from my room will do wonders for my lower body if we stay here for any significant length of time. My 9X12 room contains a bed somewhere between a twin and full size, which resembles a  hammock, as the mattress caves inward at the middle, and no matter where I start the night sleeping, I always wake up dead center. Upon arrival, there was a towel folded at the end of my bed, which is standard for any hotel, except most hotels don’t provide you with damp towels. There are a number of reasons the towel could have been damp, but on the off chance it’s because it had not yet fully dried after being used by somebody else, I chose to forgo my personal hygiene until I could secure a clean, dry towel (let‘s be honest, I had just showered that morning – there was no need for a towel for at least another 4 days). Also in my room, a desk and chair and a 10” TV with 5 channels, 4 of which are in Kiswahilli. Although I suppose it doesn’t matter how many channels I can view, as there are only 2 outlets in the entire room, one of which is at least 6 feet high on the wall (no idea why, but last I checked I wasn’t 6 feet tall, and neither are any of my cords) so I am forced to choose between plugging in my computer, phone or camera, or watching a show that may or may not be in English.

The room is tiled, which makes almost no sense because the second we all walked into our rooms, the red mud smeared everywhere and I may as well be walking outside it’s so dirty in here. I could have had my floor washed yesterday when they offered to change the sheets, but that required me leaving my key with the management, giving them free reign over my 2 suitcases of worldly possessions and electronics up for grabs. Also, I’ve been sleeping in my dream sac, so I’m not even dirtying the sheets they’re offering to wash, and since I have since seen the housekeepers hand washing everyone’s linens, I figure I’ll save their back a needless bending. So I’ve taken to removing my shoes and putting on my slippers before even entering the room, but somehow my socks are still filthy.

Currently, I’m gearing up to take a shower. There is electricity here (although yesterday the entire village had no electricity for about 8 hours, which is frustrating when you’re used to charging your electronics for 10 shillings – 10 cents – at the various charging shops around town), but apparently the hot water is still a hit or miss situation. I’ve been told to hit the switch for hot water far in advance of my shower; it’s been over 30 minutes – I’m about to give it a shot….. Well, the water definitely heats up after a 30 minute lead time. It would have been nice to know how to turn the COLD water on; I don’t appreciate having my skin scalded off first thing in the morning. The setup of the bathroom is similar to the one at the orphanage, and I think many foreign bathrooms. The showerhead sticks out of the wall between the sink and the toilet, forcing you to close the toilet seat and move anything you don’t want getting wet out of the way. It’s not the worst setup, aside form the cramped quarters – I may consider investing in an all in one bathroom when I get back to the states. A shower certainly doubles as a way to clean the appliances and floor in the bathroom.

So our first night at the hotel was a Friday; there were 6 of us staying in the rooms, and we decided to head out to a pub (which actually exist in this town) and get some dinner and a much needed drink. Like I mentioned before, the people of Njabini get offended if you call their home a village – it is actually much bigger than I initially suspected, and our move across town has opened my eyes to the amenities it has to offer.  We ventured across the street to a local watering hole; I think the owner just saw 6 $$ signs walk in, as the presence of so many Muzungus in one place is bound to attract a crowd. The bar was really just a room with a single fluorescent bar on the ceiling, 3 or 4 picnic table like benches and tables and a fenced in bar, with a small hole in the front to serve the bottles through.  Really though, it had the atmosphere of any anonymous townie bar in your home or college town. Grimy, dirty and bare bones, but that all you really need for a good night with friends sometimes.

I remember reading in my Rough Guides: Kenya book that taking a glass bottle of any kind out of an establishment is considered stealing, because of the deposit on the bottle. I learned this to be true the hard way, when I was forced to chug the soda I had bought in front of the cashier, so he could be sure I didn’t walk out with it. I also read, and remember thinking that there was no way this actually happened in real life, that you are not obligated to drink the beer bought for you; the “bartender” will set it in front of you on the table, unopened, and if you choose not to open it that night, you can put it behind the bar “on credit” and drink it the following night. As all of you know, I’m sure, I have never been known not to consume a drink that is placed in front of me, however when you haven’t had a drop of alcohol in over a month and the beers are like 18 oz, I quickly saw the genius in this “credit” idea.

After sitting down and making the obligatory, “ahhh muzungu invasion” jokes and acknowledgements (we have found it’s easier to joke about it right away rather than deal with the open stares and whispers for the remainder of the night), we saw a man with a huge tray of food enter through the front door and set it down at our neighbors table. It looked like a combination of spinach, beans and goat, and we were all starving, so we quickly flagged down the man in the white coat who had brought the food in and asked where it had come from, and could we please place an order. We proceeded to order one of whatever the other table had, and 10 minutes later there was a steaming tray of goat, cabbage, beans and potatoes in front of us. Turns out, it came from the butchery across the way – apparently they make deliveries around here. As I’ve said before, my standards for cleanliness, deliciousness, quantity of flies and sterility have dropped in direct relation to the length of my stay in Kenya. We dug into the steaming plate of mystery meat and sucked back our 18oz Tusker Ales.

Before the dust had settled from our arrival, I had already fielded one marriage proposal, and let me tell you, it did NOT include the rock of a diamond that I always imagined would be coupled with my first proposal of marriage.  Jonathan, my “fiancé,” sat in front of me, introduced himself to our table, and turned his full attention to me. I believe the first question he asked was if I was married; I said no, and turned to my friend next to me hoping that would dissuade him from pursuing the line of questioning any further. He did get up and walk away, but it was a short lived victory. Minutes later, he plopped down in front of me again, took my hand, and asked me to marry him. I laughed nervously and said no, sorry. He asked why not. In an effort to be gentle, I said that my refusal was based only on the fact that I lived in America and that it would never work. He then asked how long I was staying, and when I told him another 3 or 4 months, he said, ahh, that’s plenty of time, maybe we can work out an arrangement in the meantime? I was certain I should be offended by that remark, so I told him to track me down in another 2 months to reassess my level of desperation, and excused myself to use the phone. As I am the only blonde among the girls here, I make quite the impression when my hair is down. I didn’t understand why there was such a commotion surrounding me that night until someone pointed out the Britney Spears poster mounted on the wall – long, blonde, wavy hair; apparently the resemblance was uncanny. If only they could have seen my matching 6-pack abs (ha), I would have been signing autographs left and right. Mind you, this was a circa 1999 Britney Spears photo – being compared to this version of Britney is probably the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten.

While outside trying to make an intercontinental call, my personal favorite stalker (suitor?) of the night followed me outside and tried to strike up a conversation. I indicated that I was trying to make a phone call to the other side of the world by plugging my free ear with my finger and turning into the wall.  Apparently, subtlety is lost on determined Kenyan men and he continued to try to strike up a conversation. As I stood, rejecting his advances with one ear and listening to my mother reject me with the other ear, telling me she was too busy to talk to me because she was on a museum tour in NYC (honestly mom, I’m calling from AFRICA), I began to feel for the poor guy. I had tasted rejection firsthand, and it was bitter.

Now this particular suitor was quite the character; I couldn’t help but notice him when he entered the bar – and probably not for the reasons he was hoping to be noticed that night. Not only was he wearing a traffic cone orange, mesh, body hugging T shirt with a red Kangol cap, but he was sporting Obama Brand Jeans, held up by a 5 inch wide and 3 inch tall USA belt buckle. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I said it: Obama Brand Jeans. I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen, until the next morning when we exited our hotel and walked past a shop with a wall FULL of Obama Jeans. Don’t fret there will be pictures to follow.  I wonder if all of Africa has made the President of the United States a fashion icon, or just his home country of Kenya. And I also wonder if he knows that there are Kenyans wearing his name on their asses in Njabini. There are Obama bubblegum pops, pens, notebooks, and posters galore in this place. Don’t you have to sign some sort of release to let people use your name to promote something? Or is that just implicit when you take your oath as President. “I Barack Obama do solemnly swear to uphold the office of President and serve the American people to the best of my ability, blah, blah, blah…..and I also allow my name to be used in collaboration with any and all apparel and product promotions and endorsements worldwide.” If President Obama has nothing better to do than sign away his name to be sewn on the backs of g-h-e-t-t-o jeans, then I may seriously reconsider my vote for him. Also, I will probably buy a pair to bring home. Feel free to place an order with me via-email. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity folks. Does anyone have Obama’s address? I can grab him a pair too, I just need his inseam measurement.

So I had already become acquainted with Mr. Obama when, unbeknownst to me, he approached my friend Toby, and asked how much I cost. I overheard a bit of the conversation, but at the time did not know it was about me. Apparently he walked up to Toby, said he had money on him, and how much would I cost for the night? I then heard Toby tell him to F off, but I later learned that he had offered 10,000 shillings (about $100 – I should be insulted, right?) and some poultry. When I heard about the poultry, I thought about accepting the offer, as it’s been over a month since I’ve had any protein except some questionable “goat.“ However I reconsidered when I realized I would probably be paid in live poultry, and slaughtering, plucking and cooking the chicken in addition to whatever services I would be expected to perform in exchange seemed like it would be more trouble than it was worth. All the same, I guess I should be flattered that at my worst: no makeup, questionable hygiene habits and filthy jeans and sweatshirt on, I’m still worth $100 and a couple chickens to a Kenyan man. Its good to know I have a backup plan. So I’ve got that going for me…which is nice.
At one point, one of our English volunteers got into a discussion with a clearly intoxicated man. He was of the impression that the Chinese have a very negative influence in Africa, and that the election of President Obama was detrimental to the cause, because he refused to nuke China.  Apparently that was the crux of his argument; the Chinese were bad, and needed to be nuked. Obama was not going to nuke China, therefore, Obama is bad. Now, generally, the drunken musings of an old man are nothing anyone pays much mind to, however he was very, very adamant that anybody who voted for Obama was essentially voting against Africa. He decided to turn on me, assuming that I was American, and began to accost me for voting for such a vile man.  Trying to dodge the spittle that was launched in my direction with the delivery of each barb, I attempted to speak in my very best English accent and deny any association with America.  Apparently, I do not perform well under pressure. Under non-duress induced circumstances, my English accent isn’t half bad, but I botched my attempt so badly that even an inebriated old man saw right through it, and continued to accost me until he was forcibly removed from the establishment.

As an interesting side note, this is the only African I have met who does not applaud the Americans for electing Obama, and while I have certainly heard criticism of the Obama administration over the past year, this is definitely the first time that I’ve heard him criticized because he won’t nuke China. 

The following night, we found ourselves in a back alley pool hall. I can’t say that I have ever watched a World Cup draft in my life; now I can say I witnessed it as one of 3 women in a pool room full of men off of an alley next to our hotel.  I suppose that until this week I also couldn’t have said that I had been perceived as a “lady of the night” OR had such swift marriage proposal, OR been compared to a circa-1999 Britney Spears.  All in all, I’d say it was a pretty productive couple of evenings, as far as checking things off my bucket list that I didn’t know I should have included in the first place goes…

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Full Gospel Sunday

I apologize in advance for my novel, but a trip to the “Full Gospel Church” in Njabini warrants nothing less.

Fortunately I had a piece of paper and pen with me so I could sit there madly scribbling all of the things I had to remember to write about when I got back. If the sideways glances I got for using my bible as a writing surface were any indication, the congregation probably wouldn’t have looked too kindly upon me pulling out my laptop and madly typing away as they prayed to Jesus.

After a local meeting in town Saturday night, Sarah announced to us that she would be attending church the next morning in order to make some connections with the village elders.  Up until this point, I have managed to gracefully bow out of church every Sunday, with empty promises of “next week, next week (lying to God, I know – a low point in my life, for sure).”  However, once Sarah announced her intentions, Ashwini, her friend who will be leaving soon decided that she wanted to give church the old college try before she left. Reuben, one of the two other volunteers here also agreed to go. I felt trapped.

To understand this feeling of entrapment, allow me to describe a typical Sunday morning at FKKCC. By 8:30am, the house is empty for a good five hours; children, matrons and usually a volunteer or two, gone for the entire morning. To most people, a morning of peace and quiet sounds like total bliss.  Most people have electricity. Most people have access to food (I, alas, am at the mercy of Mary, our wonderful cook, who does not serve lunch until after arriving home from church – and trust me, cooking over a charcoal fire is not my forte). Most people have TV, or internet, or electronics that are fully charged. Most people have errands to run or a gym to go to or money to spend. I suppose I could have sat and read a book, but I just finished one last night and I have more than enough time to read on any given day – I don’t need 5 uninterrupted hours of peace when I get plenty on a normal day here. I can’t even take the chance to sleep late; it’s impossible to sleep past 7:30am, considering I’m in bed by 9 every night!

As you can see, my options were dire. Church it was. In honor of the occasion, I decided to “take a bucket,” and, gasp, shave my legs (let’s be honest, from the knee down). I donned one of the two knee-length skirts I brought with me (thank goodness for our last minute Natick Collection trip Abz and Jax), threw a little mousse in my hair, and, for the first time in Njabini, applied more than just tinted moisturizer.  Just a smattering of powder, blush and mascara, but when the kids saw me, you’d have thought I underwent massive reconstructive surgery. We piled into the van (another paragraph on that to follow) and literally, people gasped.  It was probably a combination of the smell of soap, my curly wet hair, my skirt and the makeup, but before I knew it, there were hands grabbing at my face in hair from every direction.  Even the matrons and teachers who had come along with us exclaimed “Ooooh, Hannah, your hair is so LONG and CURLY.” I was like yes, and it’s clean. Should I take the hint that a bucket and 10 minutes worth of effort makes me look different enough that it warranted such a reaction? Ugh, if I DO take the hint, then that means I should start putting more effort in on a regular basis – too much work if you ask me.

Now, on to the van. It’s a van constructed to hold 10 people. We fit 28: 18 children and 10 adults. I tried to take pictures, but they do no justice to the maneuvering it took to fit that many people. On account of the massive rainstorms we had on Saturday, the roads on Sunday morning were still puddles of mud, prompting the entire van to erupt in a cheer for Wombogo every time he was able to out-maneuver a potentially disastrous mud related situation. Meanwhile, I clung with white knuckles to the bar on the ceiling and looked out the window, calculating how many bodies would crush into me if we tipped over to the left and if the glass of the window would puncture me at just the right angle to kill me instantly.

In many ways, church in Kenya resembles church anywhere else.  People gather beforehand to greet each other on the lawn, the boys look uncomfortable in their Sunday best (and there are always the ones who get away with their jean jackets and baseball caps) and the girls are dressed to the 9’s.  I got such a flashback to my church-going Sundays when I looked at the adolescent girls, dressed in what they thought was the trendiest thing they owned, but now that I have the hindsight of 12 years I can tell you was nothing short of gaudy.  I felt for these girls, in their out of style heels that they insisted on wearing, because they were heels after all, the outfits that they hoped would make them look older and sophisticated, but only succeeded in making them look uncomfortable and the ridiculously ugly purses that we brought with us everywhere we went, so that if someone needed a cough drop or tissue, we could be at ready. Girls in Kenya are still girls.  Of course, they won’t be embarrassed about these outfits for another 12 years, if at all. This is all not to mention the youngest girls, who, while they wore worse getups, could get away with them because of their age.  Tutus over pants, knee socks sagging over sandals that never managed to stay clean, topped by whatever sweater or jacket was closest to the door.

The women, however, were of a breed I have not been exposed to before.   I don’t know if being at the “Full Gospel” church made a difference, but these women were decked out, much the way women in a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi might be, saving of course, for what defines “Sunday Best.” I imagine that most women (and men and children, for that matter) have one or two outfits that they reserve only for special occasions and church. Because Kenyan families work primarily outside and the red mud clings to anything you wear like a magnet, it becomes a necessity to segregate your clothes if you want to keep them in any semblance of shape.  These are proud Kenyan women; nearly all of them had donned a colorful headscarf and skirt suit in honor of the occasion. While the styles were completely dated and the colors faded, they kept their clothes in the best condition they could, and looked regal.  Maintaining your shoes however, is another story altogether.  It’s literally impossible to keep any pair of shoes clean in this area; the dry dirt is bad enough, but after the nearly daily rainfalls, it is next to impossible not to find your feet covered in mud 10 minutes after stepping outside. Honestly, I shouldn’t have even bothered to shower; my feet and ankles were filthy by the time I even got to church.

We arrived at the church by 9:15am – the sign out front announced that bible study was from 9-10:30, and worship was from 10:30-12:45. Unfortunately, by the time we saw the sign, we were past the point of no return. We couldn’t have escaped even if we had wanted to – we were so packed in, it took 5 minutes to unload the van, person by person. We took up 2 of the dozens of empty pews for bible study – I wondered how many people came on any given Sunday.  I brought my bible to Kenya, because I figured if you can’t find God in Africa, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. The children had a ball reading the inscription on the inside cover of it, dedicated to me in 1999 (incidentally, the last time I opened my bible) in honor of my confirmation.  They got a kick out of seeing my full name written in calligraphy and reading along with the minister during the sermon in my English version.

By 10:30 when worship started, the church was still woefully empty; by 11am however, the place was hoppin’. It was at about this time that I realized I was having my first experience with a gender-segregated church; men in the left row, women and children in the middle and right rows. Unfortunately, it was also Ruben’s (one of the male volunteers) first experience with a gender-segregated church as well; a first experience he embarrassingly witnessed from the women’s side.

The beginning of the service caused me to become slightly nervous for what the remaining hours might bring. The hymn, led by a few women with microphones at the front (no hymnals or programs in this joint) started off harmlessly enough, I even found myself swaying back and forth and clapping along, mouthing, if not actually singing, the words that I could make out. However, after a few minutes of standard Jesus-thanking, members of the congregation and the women up front began to sit down and rest their heads on the pews in front of them, still singing. Us white kids looked around at each other, not sure if we were expected to sit as well or remain standing.  When it became apparent that we were the only ones still standing, we joined the women on the benches, although many of them were on their knees by this point, with handkerchiefs pressed to their eyes. It was like a scene out of a movie: women were crying, raising their hands to the ceiling and rocking back and forth on their knees and mumbling incoherently aside from the occasional, “thank you Jesus.”  Throughout, the feedback on the microphone was causing a loud, low rumble, which added to the movie-like atmosphere I was witness to (at the time, I thought the feedback was done on purpose to imitate God’s presence, which, of course I now realize it was not). I was later convinced the feedback served to awaken the dozing children (and perhaps adults) from their uneasy slumber during hours 3 and 4 of the service.

After that first hymn, I knew I was in for a treat. Little did I know just how much I would witness this morning. Once the church was at (and above) capacity, we were packed in as tightly as pickles (it’ll catch on..); there was literally not a spare seat in the house, and during the hymns, people spilled out into the aisles, as there was not enough room to move your arms and feet squeezed in so tightly.

The only way I can think to explain the family-like atmosphere of the church service is to recall an anecdote my mother tells me about going to a party on my father’s side of the family when my sister was just weeks old.  She walked into the hall where the party was being hosted, and one aunt or cousin or another came and took my sister from my mom’s hands.  She didn’t see Abby again for something like 4 hours.  A Kenyan church service is like an assembly line of children.  Babies were being passed from one person to another, down a row, across an aisle and back again. I don’t think a mother kept possession of her child for more than 10 minutes at a time. Every time I stood up, I sat down with a new child on my lap. At one point in the service, Sarah looked at the child on my lap and whispered, “that’s not one of ours.” At another point, I was certain I felt the unmistakable heat of a child’s urine seeping through my skirt.  With trepidation, I gently lifted the little body from my lap and much to my relief, saw my clean, dry skirt was intact.

Muzungu’s (white people, English speaking people, etc..) are not a common occurrence in a small Kenyan church; needless to say, we were quite the sideshow to the service. I was on the end of an aisle at first, and there were literally 5 children standing and gaping open-mouthed at me at any given time.  Eventually, one of the little girls squeezed into the pew and without hesitation, sat on my lap. Thus, she became my little friend for the next portion of the service. At one point, I resembled Stretch Armstrong, my hands were being grabbed by a child in both the pew in front of me and behind me as I struggled to keep the one on my lap from slipping off. There were hands constantly stroking my long blonde hair, or touching my face – reminiscent of the Lost Boys stretching and pulling Robin William’s 40 year old skin, searching for the hidden Peter Pan in “Hook.”

The FKKCC children were called to the front of the church to perform a song they had been practicing in preparation that morning. My heart surged with pride and tears burned my eyes, threatening to spill over at any moment as I sang and clapped along with the children I have grown to love from my seat in the audience. Once our kids had taken a seat, the minister chose that moment to ask the 4 Muzungus in the congregation to stand up and wave so that we could be recognized as first time visitors to the Full Gospel church service (you know, on the off-chance that we hadn’t yet been noticed by every single person in the church). That wasn’t embarrassing or anything…

As the service wore on and the child du-jour sat on my lap, scratching her surely lice ridden head and staring at me with the unabashed curiosity that only a child can, I felt such a rushing love for Kenyan children. In that moment I knew I am doing the right thing here – regardless of what path I pursue once going back to America, I know that a piece of my heart will always be in Kenya.

The first hour and a half of the service and I was having a ball – I figured I could make this a weekly tradition, coming to church with the kids, playing with the village children, holding babies, etc… By hour 2, my faith was fading, by hour 4, I needed out. Never again will I complain about the padded pews I had to sit on as a child; the uncomfortable hard wood of the pine benches was probably the only thing keeping me awake by 1:15pm. Fortunately, the matrons ushered us out, although I don’t believe the service was over yet. In any event, we had a gaggle of children waiting outside to send us off. The little girl who had by that point become a 5th limb was visibly upset when I told her she had to let go of my hand, that she couldn’t come back to the center with me. Aside from that, I would call the trip an overall success. Sarah and I agree we will go back, but make sure to slip out once the fun part is over and hitch a ride back home. n

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Driving in Kenya

November 23, 2009 – On Driving

Silly me to make the mistake of not wearing a sports bra in preparation for our trip to Nairobi. What was I thinking? There are 6 of us on our way to Nairobi right now, and rather than “splurge” for two cabs (~$15/person for a 1.5 hour drive – extravagant, huh?) we hired a bus for the day.

Let me paint a picture: 2 seats at the front for driver and passenger, and 4 rows of 3 seats each for us poor unfortunate souls in the back. Although, I think that I prefer the backseat to the front, as at least I am shielded from the road and the multiple games of chicken played by our driver with oncoming traffic. The only thing separating our feet from the pavement below which our tires are flying over at 80KM/hr is the metal floor. This van is no frills attached. Oh, except of course for the blue and gold curtains adorning the windows. When I first got in the van, my instinct was not to buckle my seatbelt, as I felt it would be to my benefit if my body was thrown from the vehicle in the event of a crash. However my better judgment told me that a thin strap of nylon may be the only thing that prevents me from cashing in on my expensive travel medical insurance – an expense that I hope proves unnecessary. However, the state of this seatbelt is not as reassuring as I would have hoped.  While at one time it may have passed safety standards as a proper passenger restraint, the current state of the strap is only a mere whisper of what it once was. The part where one normally adjusts, with a bit of effort, the tightness of the strap, is missing, so it is really just one long strap looped in 2, with no way of tightening it. But, I suppose, the attempt at safety should still count for something, no?

After a short drive in the van, we got out to grab some necessary sustenance for the road – bottles of water (not too many though, because on these jarring roads, even a half full bladder can quickly become an issue) and multiple bars of chocolate.  I’m not sure what it is about these English folk I’ve been hanging out with, but they can each easily devour 5 bars of Cadbury chocolate a day, so a trip to the store for chocolate becomes as critical as oxygen. Upon my return to the van, I came to the realization that my seatbelt would no longer latch in the base. Short of little seatbelt elves sneaking in and messing with my latch, I am baffled as to what could have happened in the 10 minutes I was out of the van that would incapacitate my seatbelt in such a way. I’m in a bit of a pickle now I suppose, but, *light bulb,* my once good for nothing fat person seatbelt comes in handy, as I can stretch it to the clasp of the seat next to me, creating one large seat, and securing me marginally better than my previous arrangement. Now as to whether or not I feel any safer, I’d rather not say…

It’s amazing to me that this van smells as terrible as it does, considering there is nothing contained within it to absorb an odor.  The chairs are covered in a vinyl upholstery slipcover, which feels great against my sweaty skin – peeling my arm off of the back of the seat is reminiscent of peeling my pre-approved credit card from the top of the American Express application I received in the mail.

I decided to pull out my computer and put on my music on the drive to distract myself from the speed at which we are traveling, and the frequent jarring swerves the driver makes to avoid and or/overtake donkeys, bicyclists, sedans and small children. Unfortunately there is only an hour left on my computer battery, and probably less on my iPod, 30 minutes less than our total trip. Hopefully we’ve made it to the city by then, and putting my computer out of sight of passersby would be in my best interest; although I suppose I could always just draw the curtains…

But back to  my need for a sports bra. Let’s say approximately 33% of the roads in Kenya are paved. Approximately 10% of the ones I have been on since arriving in Kenya have been smooth. I’m seriously concerned for the health of my chest; I have visions of stepping out of the van and hearing the splat of my boobs on the pavement 4 feet below.  I’m no expert on cars – really, I don’t know what makes them run aside from gas, but I DO know that there’s no way the cars I have driven in over the past few weeks are built to withstand this kind of abuse. Yet somehow they do.  Calling the roads riddled with potholes would be a generous understatement.  Calling them roads at all is a significant overstatement.  Especially the dirt ones; at anything faster than 5 mph, the car runs the risk of losing its floor to the red clay threatening to break through at any moment. Shocks, I think they’re called, do not exist on cars driven in rural Kenya. Hence, the splat of my boobs on the pavement.

This is all not to mention the steep drops on the sides of each road.  Too far to the left or right, and our van is tilted dangerously to the side, forcing me to hold on to the reassuring bars on the windows to avoid rolling over altogether.

As I type, over the volume of my iPod (I swear, I will leave Kenya with shattered eardrums for all the times I put the earphones on maximum volume to avoid one unpleasant sound after another), our van is beeping, or getting beeped at, by a much larger “mutatu” (basically, the buses that people use to get around – maybe the size of a Gladiator van, but with twice as many people packed in as should be) as it passes us on the ever present dotted yellow line.  That is perhaps what scares me the most about driving in Kenya, the passing of other cars, regardless of size and speed of travel.  It’s as if drivers are playing a perpetual game of “my penis is bigger than your penis and let me prove it to you by passing you on the road regardless of the peril it puts my engine and passengers in.” Like, really, is it necessary to play this back-and-forth passing game? Is your life and the lives of others worth that little to you?

During my time in cars in Kenya, I have realized that in order to not have a panic attack every time I strap (or don’t) myself in, I have to just kind of let what will be, be. I have to just put my life in the hands of the driver, and trust that he has been doing this long enough to not kill me.  This is not a particularly valuable way to treat my life, but I would probably leave this country with a serious anxiety problem if I worried about every possible crash that we avoid by sheer luck on each journey. As a matter of fact, I just looked up out the front windshield and was rewarded with the heart-stopping threat of a massive head on collision. Silly me for disobeying my own cardinal rule of driving: DO NOT WATCH THE ROAD!!

While on any other car ride, a nice way to pass the time might be to look out the window and enjoy the scenery – on a car ride in Kenya, looking out the window almost makes me with I were Catholic, so that I could finger my rosary beads in prayer. I’ve found it’s best to occupy oneself with a book or crossword and run the risk of contracting a headache or nausea than to look out the window and run the risk of contracting a pulmonary embolism….



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Hannah and Christina’s Trip to the Bank

An amusing anecdote that will make any American used to a semblance of urgency squirm in their seats. Hannah and Christina’s trip to the bank. (Joey and Janice’s DAY OF FUN). I had to get to the bank in town (was surprised to learn there was one) so I could take cash out to purchase my internet hookup and add value to it. The internet key looks identical to a flash drive, and rather than topping up minutes, the way you do a phone, you top up MB, or KB or whatever, so that you pay for the amount of information you download from the internet, rather than the amount of time you spend on it.  For example, uploading photos and watching YouTube will run down your credit very fast, while sending emails and browsing uses almost no space.)

We arrived at the bank, which is located in an area of the village that until that point we had no idea existed (we also now understand why the people of Njabini are insulted when we call it a village – it’s a town) at about 3:45pm.  The bank  closed at 4.  Awesome.  We saw an ATM and went to get cash.  Apparently they put a certain amount of money in it each morning (or whenever they get around to it) and when it runs out, you’re SOL. We then proceeded into the bank, where there was a line of about 10 or 11 people waiting patiently.  This is most definitely a line, but it’s certainly a manageable one, especially when it’s 15 minutes to quitting time and everyone pitches in to get through the line so they can get home for the evening.  There were three teller windows. One was unoccupied. At the second, a man sat counting money and sorting through papers, at the third, a woman was assisting a customer.  They have computers, but I get the impression that not everything is done on them, as there was a lot of carbon paper lying around and I saw one of those machines from 1970 from which you obtain the impression of a credit card by sliding a lever over and back.  After a few minutes, the woman finished with her customer, but did not summon the next person in line.  At this point, we had been waiting for probably 5 or 7 minutes. While that’s not an intolerable amount of time, the fact that we had not yet moved up even one customer was slightly alarming, as was the fact that no one seemed at all concerned with this.

We waited for a while longer, incredulously watching as people who weren’t even in line went up to the teller to retrieve forms she was handing them, chatting and laughing as if none of this was out of the ordinary.  Bank employees walked in and out of the teller area, as we waited with baited breath to see if any of them would sit at the empty window.  At one point, the man counting money and stacking forms stood up, and simply left the room.  We assumed he would come back, but no such luck.  We could see through the glass to the back of the bank where people were chatting and milling about, oblivious to the line that sat at a standstill in the front.  20 minutes, andcountless unnoticed passive aggressive glances at my watch later, we gave up.  The internet would just have to wait. The security guard who let us out of the locked front door (they had shut down shop at 4, but presumably those of us still in line would be helped before C.O.B) he looked at us with a confused expression.  We explained that we would be back in the morning when the bank opened at 8:30am; his expression didn’t change.  We explained that the line was not moving and that we didn’t have time for this (although, really, what else are we doing with our time here). Still confused. Ah, well, the American sense of urgency may be lost on the town of Njabini forever.

Incidentally, when we arrived at the bank bright and early the next morning and walked right up to the teller, he told us to use the ATM to make any withdraws. Fortunately, it must have been stocked up overnight, so I was able to complete my transaction. It’s a good thing we left when we did the night before, because had we waited for the hours it would have surely taken until finally being helped the previous evening, only to be told that I had to wait for the ATM to be filled in the morning, the security guard with the rifle might not have looked kindly upon my jumping over the partition and grabbing the money from the drawer myself.

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“Internet Cafe”

So I’m sitting here at the ‘internet café” in “town” – and by internet café, I mean: 4 1995 Compaq computer monitors, three Compaq towers, one printer, and a swinging door. I have my laptop on my lap so I can work on this document while doing my research on the desktop computer, which takes approximately a minute and a half to navigate between pages. EVERY time I click on a link or website, a prompt reading “[insert link here] is a site that uses a security certificate…..that will not be valid until 5/5/2009…your computer’s time is currently set to Friday, January 4, 1980 at 12:37am…is this correct?” So, not only am I working off of a computer that recognizes the year 1980 (and I understand that, being computers, they all recognize the year 1980 – but I‘m trying to make a point here), I have to accept this damn waiver of rights every time I want to navigate away from a page.

And by “town” I mean: a dirt road intersecting with another dirt road, approximately 5 butchers, 5 “supermarkets”, 5 shops selling random phone parts like the # key and the number 9, which also offers charging for approximately 20 shillings a pop (30 cents – because no one has electricity in the town, but everyone has a cell phone – kind of ironic, if you think about it – people come to town to charge electronics for a paltry fee), a few permanent outhouse structures, if you can’t hold it long enough to get back to the school (which today I might not be able to – this should be interesting) and a man who walks around with the straps of bras looped around his arm, advertising his wares.  There’s also a man who sells socks – singles or in pairs. Good stuff. It’s really impossible to paint a picture for you city-folk of what a rural village in Kenya (and I assume, the majority of Africa) truly is.  I will post pictures at some point, but it’s literally just dirt roads, and 6 identical grocers, butchers, fruit stands and tailors.  I’m not sure how any of them stay in business, when they sell the same stuff for the same price.

John, of “John’s Hotel and Internet Cafe” (the only requirement to be a hotel in Njabini is that you serve tea, or some form of beverage) is somewhere around the village.  When I arrived to find the café empty but for an African pop (not sure of the genre) song blasting from the speakers of a computer at the front of the shop, he appeared from no where behind me in the doorway as I peered around the swinging door. He must have seen me dismounting my motorcycle taxi out front to the amusement of all the old village men who stare at us whenever we arrive. It’s as if there’s a white chick radar that is triggered as soon as we call for a motorcycle, an silent announcement broadcast throughout town, warning of our impending arrival, to ensure everyone has time enough to get to the main drag and stare as we dismount.

Literally, as I sit here typing, there is a small crowd peering in the doorway at the white chick with her iPod, laptop and blonde hair.  To be fair, I wouldn’t be listening to my iPod if that damn song wasn’t playing. The children are the cutest, because the second I look up to acknowledge their presence, they run away screaming and laughing, only to creep their way back to the doorway until I look up again, repeating the cycle to their endless amusement. Their parents should really pay me a fee for occupying their children for such a large part of the day.  The adults that gawk I believe stare more out of curiosity than anything else. Unlike the leering men of Italy and Spain, I don’t feel uncomfortable here, or as if I’m being mentally undressed. I don’t feel ogled, merely looked at with an open fascination. The village (excuse me, town – explanation to follow) is so small and our center is so well-known, that people know why we are here. I probably teach a few of their kids, and the rest don’t bother us. We are fellow residents, who happen to be white with yellow hair, which serves as the reason for staring. Like I said though, it’s not uncomfortable.

The volume on my iPod is so loud it’s threatening to permanently damage my eardrums, but it is really the lesser of two pains when compared to the alternative of literally, losing my mind listening to this song – to be fair, a music video, playing on Windows Media Player on repeat.  I wish that I could find the link to this on YouTube (everything exists on that site now, right?) because it would literally make you laugh out loud the FIRST time you watch it (but you will also understand why I am ready to tear my hair out after the 15th go ‘round) with it’s wardrobe and dance moves straight from 1995 (incidentally, around the time these computers were built). I may or may not be listening to Boyz II Men “End of the Road,” and understand that it’s not much of an improvement, but at least it’s not on repeat!


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Friday, November 20, 2009

I now understand why people become teachers.  I get it.  I finally see the gratifying side of education.  As I mentioned before, I am teaching Class 3, which is made up of 9 children from the village.  I would estimate their age to be somewhere between 8 and 10 or 11.  It’s hard to judge kids age because so many African children are petite as it is, and the poor, malnourished ones are even smaller.  For at least for the 16 orphans at our center, we don’t have original birth certificates, so when we formally took on the children and needed documentation, we estimated an age, and they got to choose their own birthday.  Really cute, but also, pretty damn depressing that they don’t even know when they were born.  However, as my mom points out, not knowing your birthday is actually a pretty common occurrence. When immigrants come to the states and are registering for residency, they tend to choose the first of any month, and approximate the year….

But I digress…. I would say that these children are in the equivalent to the 3rd or 4th grade, with approximately a 1st or 2nd grade education.  Prior to coming to FKKCC for school this year, these children had no formal education whatsoever to speak of. They began the school year in January, and are wrapping it up now.  The parents of the 9 children in my class have already asked that their children repeat class 3, as they are so far behind their peers as far as their level of education goes. It reassures me that these children are okay with repeating the year together, and that they’re not concerned with moving up in school as much as they are concerned with actually learning the material before they advance. 

Earlier this week, there were Kenya-wide exams for all school children in English, Kiswahili (the other official language of Kenya), Science, Social Studies and CRE (Christian Religious Education – another requirement in public schools); even though FKKCC is privately run, our school took parallel exams so that we can benchmark our students against those in public schools throughout Kenya.  It would be generous to say that the village children struggled across the board.  It would be more accurate to say that they pretty much outright failed. There are a couple students who stood out from the pack, but for the most part, the children are just not at the same level as their peers (and why should they be, they only just started their proper education 10 months ago – their progress is really quite astonishing when you look at the numbers). 

Once the exams had been graded, we spent time going over each subject, correcting the mistakes.  We started with math.  At one point, our teacher stepped out of the room, so I stepped up to the board and went over a question with them. Enter: the snowball effect. The children were ecstatic that I had stepped up and taken over, and the teacher was just as happy to sit back and watch me sink or swim.  But really…math? You’d think that me, an American History major, could have landed the Social Studies or English subject, but no…math. Honestly, I don’t know how my teachers did it in elementary school. Trying to teach something new to children is literally like running into a brick wall, over and over and over.  I keep racking my brains for the clever tricks my teachers used to teach long division and double multiplication (I.e., 33X54), but keep coming up blank.  I ended up making it through the day, and assigned homework (which they received quite eagerly – I’m not sure if it was the novelty of “Auntie Hannah” assigning it, or that they don’t get it on a regular basis), which they copied into their notebooks.  There is no copier up here, nor is there any sort of stockroom of dittos, so they make due by copying into their books.  The following morning, I graded their math homework while Teacher Francis went over their other subjects.  Oh. My. God, can you say abysmal? There were two children out of the 9 that got more than 4 out of 8 questions correct, and at least 4 of them didn’t get any right.  I felt as if everything I had laboriously taught the day before had gone in one ear and out the other.  It was frustrating, to say the least.  Remember those little gold, silver, blue and red stars that our teachers used to use on charts and homework? Well I brought a batch of those over, and put a star on anyone’s paper who got at least ONE question right.  They were in awe, just like with the chocolate, that I had put a star on their notebook. I felt bad for the children who didn’t get one, but come on, I can’t positively reinforce failure!! I spent the next couple hours going over the problems from their homework and giving them new ones to do while I looked over their shoulder and monitored their progress.  I kept emphasizing that it was not the answer I was interested in seeing, rather, it was the work they did to get that answer (honestly, it’s like after you scold a child and realize you have turned into your mother without even realizing it – that’s the reaction I had when I did a double take and noticed I sounded like those teachers I used to despise so much).  This was just as much to deter the children whose eyes were wandering to their neighbors and writing only the answer, with no work, as it was to teach the children that the work was just as important as the answer.

I finished off the day and prepared questions for homework. I decided to take a different approach this time; I noticed when I was grading the homework they had copied down from the board, that half of them had some of the numbers and symbols (-, +, X, /) written incorrectly, setting themselves up to fail.  I used some printer paper and handwrote 9 dittos with 10 questions each and handed them out to the children.  Again, utter awe and gratitude. They were so excited that they didn’t have to copy down the homework, I swear it had something to do with the transformation. That, and the stars.

I had to run errands today, so was going to miss most of the school day, but I stopped in in the morning to grab their homework and grade it.  I sat down outside, certain that the only positive thing about that task was that I got to bask in the beautiful morning sun while marking 9/10 questions wrong on each ditto.  The first child got all 10 questions right, the second got 8 out of 10, and so on, until I had graded all 9 papers, none of which got lower than a 50%. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I sat there with tears in my eyes, putting multiple stars on every paper, realizing that not only did I, ME, Hannah the math dunce, impart my pearls of wisdom on these children, but they RETAINED the information, and were able to do it again without my support.  It also helped that I gave partial credit when the answer was wrong but the work was right, so that they weren’t punished for a simple addition error if the rest of the process was there.

I jumped up out of my chair, ran into the classroom, interrupted Teacher Francis, and literally, with tears threatening to spill over at any moment, congratulated the children on a job well done. I couldn’t keep the huge grin off my face as I handed back their star-studded (literally) homework and repeated over and over how proud I was.  It was probably inappropriate and uncalled for, but I don‘t care – they earned the right to see their teacher jumping around like a blithering idiot.  Since I couldn’t’ sit around with them for the day and go over work, I can only hope that when they turn in their homework on Monday (20 questions, since it’s the weekend and they have more time…their request, not mine), that there are even more correct answers. But like I said, I finally get it. I had one tiny little victory, but that little victory gives me the reassurance I need to know that, it’s works, I just have to hammer away little by little, but eventually, I’ll crack even the blankest of stares.

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