Through Inspiration

Kenya, and a life inspired.

When one door closes…

Well here I am, 4 months have passed and the end of my African journey has finally arrived. With this comes an overwhelming amount of sadness. I cannot begin to wrap my head around the thought that my time here is up! It seems like just yesterday I was getting off of the plane, wide eyed, scared and eager to explore new places. Now, it’s become home. I’ve really established myself here; I have a life, a family, a lot of knowledge about how to live day-to-day and intense love for the things around me. In no time these things will just be memories. But, I have a lot of updating to do! So, I will back track….

I finished up my time in Mombasa. I was staying in a hostel on the ocean with 5 other girls from the program. We had a wonderful time together. We supported each other through the writing process of our ISP papers, cooked together, exercised together and enjoyed day-to-day life. I think we really grew in friendship. The food in Mombasa was incredible. We particularly loved the street food—chicken schwarma, chicken tikka and these incredible avocado smoothies for 30 shillings. We ate, explored and wrote our way to the finish of ISP period! I completed my 30-page paper about my time with Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya. I ended up discussing major themes I found in my interviews and then paired them with narratives from the women themselves. I think it ended up being quite powerful (I hope so anyways!). Let me know if you’d like a copy and I’d gladly send it your way. Then we headed off to a resort in Malindi with the rest of the students in the program. It was lovely to be reunited for the presentation week. To our surprise the resort was incredibly beautiful! The rooms had AIR CONDITIONING, hot water, pools and a buffet. I felt like I was a kid back in a candy store. It was nice to be relaxing in paradise. I was the third to present my project. It went really, really well and I was so happy when it was finished. I then spent the rest of the time watching all of the other presentations and enjoying the last few days with my pals!

Six of us left the program two days early to travel to Tanzania. We had to take a bus from Malindi to Mombasa and stay over night the first night. We then traveled from Mombasa to Dar Es Salaam on a 10-hour bus and stayed there over night. Then onto Zanzibar by ferry the next morning! It was quite the journey but well worth every minute. I loved the wild bus rides, the unique hostels and the people we met along the way. It felt nice traveling away from the program. We made it all the way to Zanzibar despite my debit card getting eaten by the ATM, our insane bus driver almost leaving us at the ‘rest stop’, Sam needing to bribe the border to let him through without his WHO card (then almost re-vaccinated him!) and a few stomach issues. So, we arrived in Stone Town Zanzibar where we stayed for three days. It was a wonderfully quaint city with beautiful architecture, nice people and more good food. We did a tour of the Zanzibar spice plantations and explored. We ended up at the hilarious reggae concert where we danced, laughed and had a great time. We ate delicious market food, had yummy smoothies, did some shopping and wandered around soaking it all in. From here we crossed the island to a town called Paje. We stayed on the beach for another three nights. It was stunningly beautiful there. The water had shades of turquoise I had never seen and the sand was pure white. I can tell you that the place we stayed wasn’t luxury at all, and we mostly ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I was happy just the same. It’s all about the experience, right? Our toilet was outside so when it rained you had to pee in the rain–really not that bad actually until I got attacked by bats while using the bathroom, but no harm was done. I also got dive bombed by a giant crow while I was going for a run on the beach. It swooped down and slammed my stomach, knocking the wind right out of me! I have two bloody claw spots to prove it! I couldn’t believe it, I never thought something like that would happen! But again, I am fine. We also decided to hire a local guy to take us snorkeling for really cheap. He showed up right on time in a worn out wooden sailboat! I will admit I was terrified but I got in anyways. He and his “crew” sailed us out to the reefs. We had to bucket out the water that was slowly filling the bottom of the boat but hey, we made it and I quite enjoyed myself! The whole experience was really hysterical and very entertaining. Never a dull moment. I saw a lot of really cool fish and starfish and I definitely swallowed too much salt water. Geez, I could write on and on…

We flew back to Nairobi and here I am. I am sitting in my bed listening to the train pass, the rainfall and the children yell on their way to school. Each moment seems desperate; almost like I have to hold onto it or it will all slip away. There are these tiny, tiny pieces that build on each other to make this experience what it is. Pieces that are entirely unique to each moment, each place and cannot be described. I was thinking this yesterday after I bought a bag of sugarcane and was crunching on it as I walked by the mamas selling chapati and dengu. I want to remember all moments, each face and every thought that has crossed my mind. I wish I could share it all so every one would understand. However, these things are impossible. The reality is that no one will completely understand the last four months except for me. I can try to give images and glimpses by telling stories and showing pictures, and this will be wonderful. The truth is, the rest will be kept inside of me. To inspire and shape the person who I am, to remind me that these four months will live inside of me forever.

So, I thank East Africa. Thank you for the constant lessons that bring me back to earth. Thank you for the children, the laughter and the songs. Thank you for the people, the faces, the images and color. Thank you for music and dance. Thank you for your intense beauty and thank you for your ugliness. Thank you for keeping me on my toes. Thank you for being so unique. Thank you for your challenges. Thank you for the fabrics, the food, the language and the dirt. Thank you for my family, in Shirazi and in Nairobi. Thank you for the sun. Thank you for the rain. Thank you for the insanity, and thank you for the calm. Thank you for holding me, shaping me and spitting me back out the other side, deeply touched but completely unharmed.

I will spend today cooking with mama, doing my last load of laundry in the bucket, packing and spending the evening with my two sisters. Tomorrow, the whole family will bring me to the airport. Saying goodbye might kill me but on the other side awaits another very loving face! I will fly to Spain to be with my cousin Jessy! If we aren’t out causing trouble I might find time to write another post….see you on the other side.

A little update!

Gosh, long time no blog! After many weeks of working on my ISP I have arrived in Mombasa to explore, have fun and write my final paper. The last few weeks of ISP were full of challenges and wonderful women. I finished my time at the WOFAK Kayole center and moved to work in the Kibera slum. I continued to conduct interviews about the lives of women living with HIV/AIDS. I heard many inspirational stories and gained a lot of perspective. In addition to the interviews I got to visit the Nairobi West Prison and sit in on an HIV support group with the prisoners. This was a highlight for me. It was fascinating to witness the prisoner’s willingness to talk openly about their statuses. They were very engaged and had some great questions. They were more attentive and respectful than any college students I’ve ever been in class with (that might not be saying much since I go to UMass). J But really, I was in awe.

 

After arriving in Mombasa I decided to go back and visit the Shirazi village where I stayed back in February. It was like I never left. I missed village life so much. My family is wonderful and after being in the city for so long I hadn’t realized how much I craved sitting on the dirt floor and listening to the palms! My mom slaughtered a chicken in my honor and we ate it for lunch with rice and potatoes. Unfortunately, I only got to stay for 5 hours. I wanted to stay for days! I missed the kids, the slow pace and surprisingly, the Kiswahili. It was really hard to accept that this was the last time I would be visiting. I really can’t say for sure that I will every see them again. That is hard to wrap my head around. Shirazi is such a special place. I feel blessed to have spent time there!

 

So, now I am in Mombasa! I am staying in a hostel on the ocean with some friends. It is like 95 and humid everyday-sometimes it makes me grumpy. But, I swam today and it was wonderful. Anna, Lana and I climbed down the rocks and very ungracefully threw our bodies into the splashing waves. We really attracted a crowd. There may have been 50 + Kenyans observing us from the cliffs. Many were taking pictures! I think they were questioning our ability to swim. We definitely surprised them. We’ve been eating fabulous food. Mombasa has an amazing Indian influence. We eat curry a lot, street food and these amazing avocado smoothies for like 30 cents. Yum. Man, I love food. Considering Mombasa is a little safer than Nairobi I get to exercise! This has felt fantastic. I finally have control over my diet and workout routine- two things that remain very important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time walking around exploring shops, wandering through spice markets, fending off aggressive men and soaking up my last weeks in Kenya. Did I mention the 30-page paper that I’m slowly working on? It’s due Wednesday. I am 16 pages in, so things are looking up! Well, I am off to watch Monsters Inc. with the girls. I will try to update again before I’m off to Zanzibar on the 9th! Yahooo.

Oh, I put new photos on facebook. Will try to post them here soon, too!

Xo

As I enter the last month of the program I am starting to become hyper aware of the subtleties that surround me. There are things I have gotten very used to and they’ve become a part of my daily life and daily routine. The streams of black garbage smoke that burn on the sides of the roads no longer make me wince and cover my nose. The over-crowded buses that are sticky and sweaty no longer make me feel claustrophobic. I am used to seeing men peeing on the sides of roads, mamas walking down the street with three little ones surrounding her and another slung on her back, music blasting from public bus windows, erratic driving, constant yelling, beggars and steaming kiosks of food that I know better than to go near. My snot is constantly black from the smog and dust, my hair is messy and my clothes are rubbed warn from hand washing- I’ve never felt so glamorous. I have also gotten used to being the only white person almost everywhere I go. “Mzungu, how are you??!” floats out of dark corners, porches and front steps. I already miss the children here; I have never seen such beautiful faces.

Other things, like the pure chaos of my three-hour commute to WOFAK I may never get used to. I don’t like being grabbed, pushed, pointed at and practically run over by drivers who are too aggressive to pay attention. It makes New York City at rush hour seem like a calm walk in the park. However, when I was pushing my way down the crowded, eroded sidewalks after work today I realized that this won’t last much longer. My days of maneuvering the Nairobi streets are numbered. It makes me happy to know that amongst all of this chaos I can manage. I’ve learned how to shove right back, yell for my change and jump off of the moving bus when they are too impatient to stop. I’ve learned to ignore the stares and laughs and I’ve learned that most of the time embarrassment has no place. As much as I sometimes want to get the hell out of here, I know that I will miss these unique aspects of each day. I can tell that I’ve grown, even in ways I won’t know until I arrive home. I know it’s a bit early to be speaking as though I am coming home tomorrow but I couldn’t help but have these thoughts on my way home.

As far as everything else goes, I am plugging along with my ISP. Working with WOFAK has been both great and very difficult. It requires a lot of patience and a real ‘go with the flow’ attitude. They have been so welcoming and helpful to me; I can tell they want me to get the most out of my time. I am learning a lot about myself and about HIV/AIDS. The more I learn, the more questions I have! My ISP is slowly evolving and changing. At this point I don’t even remember what my initial plan was. But like I said; go with the flow. The last two days working there have been life changing. The people I am meeting I cannot begin to describe. Their dedication, courage and strength are beyond inspirational. I am captivated, moved and either crying or smiling (hugely). I feel as though I am building a real community at the center. I love the kids, I love the workers, the guards and the cooks. The people in the community have even started recognizing me, and my stroll to and from the bus is a constant exchange of pleasantries. It is hard to imagine that I will have to leave this place and these relationships. I am truly honored to be welcomed.

Everything else is good. I still love my family, they make my days bright! Mama has been feeding me so much lately. I swear I will never eat any kind of white fried bread again. As much as I try to exercise and eat right sometimes it’s hard. I always eat what is put in front of me out of respect and sometimes the evening runs that I look forward to just aren’t possible. I got home a little early from work yesterday so I wanted to go for a run. Come to find out Scofia had washed my sneakers in a bucket of water and they were hanging on the line to dry! Well, no run! Maybe tomorrow. I just keep telling myself to not get annoyed, stressed or frustrated when I cannot stick to my personal routine. I will be home in no time eating salads and running up a storm. I’m still here now, and that is what matters. Well, I am off to eat more fried bread and potatoes. I will then spend time transcribing my interviews. I am headed to the jail tomorrow to sit in on an HIV awareness session-updates to come!

All my love.

Sometimes the past speaks true for the present.

This is a poem I wrote at some point last year when I was having some self doubts and general questions about what the hell I am doing with my life! I found it again this morning and it couldn’t come at a better time. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t feeling some of those same things. Not that I don’t know what the hell I am doing in my life but more that I am feeling deeply challenged. I spent my day yesterday at WOFAK (Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya), I am working with them for my ISP. Overall it was an eye opening and inspirational experience. That being said, I left with a lot of it weighing heavy on my heart. What is my purpose there? How am I helping? Am I really helping at all? How can life be so harsh for so many? Most of all I was left feeling guilty that I am an outsider, a privileged student marching into these women’s lives studying them and asking them to tell me their stories. Why should they? They studied me carefully, spoke honestly, openly and very frankly about their struggles. Their pain is real. Their hardships are real. They looked at me and spoke to me as though I had something very significant to offer them. I didn’t feel this way sitting next to their beds, their bodies melting away in front of my eyes, in their one room homes shared among 5 people or more. I was totally helpless, embarrassed and felt ignorant. Then I read this again…

The time has come to delve into self-exploration,
To deny no opportunities and to plow forward, head first into the pure loveliness of the unknown
The time has come to be braver than once imagined
To take charge with an unwavering sense of capability

It is a time of true forgiveness
To forgive the ones who’ve done wrong by you, and to forgive yourself in all your complexity.
The time has come for your obstacles to slip off and melt away
Leaving you vulnerable and undoubtedly ready
To stand tall and face the world.

After careful reflection I need to remind myself that I am offering them my ear, my heart and my compassion. I am listening to them when many others may not be. I know I do not have the answers, the cure, or the money to free them from their suffering and I need to be okay with this. I will be okay with this. I am sure it will get harder as the next few weeks carry on. I will continue to tell myself that I may not be able to give them exactly what they need in that moment, but my intentions are pure and true.

Tanzania and beyond

Okay, so it has become apparent that I am not the best blogger. It’s hard to find the time and energy to sit down and attempt to summarize life here! I’m just living it, moment by moment and trying to internally process it all! The past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster. I haven’t been entirely present. We had a significant loss in my family back home in MA, and I found myself spending lots of time on the phone and allowing myself to be alone, and be sad. It caused me to be very distracted, left questioning the significance of this semester and my goals here. Honestly, I was left totally unmotivated. That being said, I broke free from the captivation of my own head and set off to Tanzania. We had a fantastic time. This was definitely one of the best weeks of the trip and best experiences of my life. We were constantly busy which helped to keep me focused and happy.

Where to begin? We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania on March 25th just in time for lunch! We were greeted by Charlotte and Pete O’neal, chairman of the Kansas City Black Panther Party back in the late 1960s. He fled with his wife Charlotte to Tanzania after being accused of carrying a gun across state lines. They have been living here in exile ever since, around 40+ years. I felt like I was in the presence of great wisdom, and I was right. Pete and Charlotte proved to be gentle, creative and giving souls- full of life experience and good intuition. They began the United African Alliance Community Center, which focuses on helping the residents of the community by providing free art, music, film, language and computer classes. I felt happy and at home here. I could sense my motivation and passion seeping back into my body and uplifting my spirit-it felt great! We had a fabulous stay.

The next day we set off to visit the UN Tribunal for the Rwandan genocide. We were promised to sit in on one of the trials and were greatly disappointed to find out that the witness on the stand that day was private, and we were denied entrance. Instead, we got to watch a documentary and visit some of the empty courtrooms. This wasn’t completely satisfactory but interesting nonetheless.

On March 26th we made our journey to the Tanzania Maasai land to spend three days living in a Maasai village. The program had set us up with tents just outside of one of the main bomas (living compounds). It was here under the open African sky where I could really breathe again. We did many things while in the village. They gave us an herbal medicine tour in the surrounding areas and we helped gather firewood, herbs, bark and plants. We delivered these to some of the mamas who made traditional tea. The sight of these people is breathtaking. They have dark, dark skin and wear striking red fabrics. They practice body modification as part of their cultural tradition and have brands on their faces and arms, stretched earlobes and are decorated with brilliant beading. I am hesitant to try and capture their appearance, and ways of life in one blog post. They are greatly inspiring, spiritual and humble beings, I was awed by them.
Instead of writing a novel about my time here I will list activities:

Beading with the mamas
Bonfire under the dark dessert sky
Goat sacrifice and preparation
Branding ceremony
Traditional song and dance beneath the half moon and sparkling stars (one of my most favorite moments)
Goat herding

The rest of the week included visiting the Ngoro Ngoro Crater for a captivating safari! We saw every animal imaginable. It was entirely expansive and real. We visited one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in East Africa, and hiked 9,000 feet of Mount Kilimanjaro. The hike was challenging and the forest was magical. All of the scenery in Tanzania was magical; the rolling hills, dry deserts, tropical forests and gentle people. I will definitely try to visit Tanzania again; I wish I was still there now.

I am back in Nairobi. The rains have arrived! Who knew the skies would open up with such intensity? I hear the rain pound my tin roof, making my sleep all the more peaceful. Tomorrow I go to the center for Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya and begin my independent project. I look forward to personally speaking with each of you, writing seems to be an impossible task at this time…

Kwaheri

God willin’ and the fun don’t stop.

I have just finished chomping down an amazing Mango, dried juice still stuck to my elbows. I sat next to Scofia in the back of the house while she washed dishes and I licked my mango pit clean. We chatted about her daughter back in Uganda who is suffering from malaria, I pray for her. Scofia and I have become very close in spite of our language barrier. She has a wicked sense of humor and teases me endlessly. She loves when I dance awkwardly in the kitchen while she sings tunes from Uganda or when I attempt to hand wash my clothes. She also loves to keep me from my studies, interrupting me over and over and laughs when I tell her to go away. The night is cool, which is a relief from the extreme dry heat we’ve been having. The roads are dusty, the air is smoggy and I have dirt in all crevices of my body, the dust is unbearable. With the dry heat comes a lack of rain. March is supposed to bring cool rains, but we have yet to see them. The city has been rationing our water and three days out of every week they shut it off. I’m getting used to it but sometimes it’s still surprising to turn on the faucet and see nothing come out.

I’m learning to surrender to many of the challenging realities I have been combating. I have surrendered to the fact that I have no control, and no knowledge of how things are run here. Just when you think something is making sense it changes, just when you think you’re getting the local price someone rips you off, and just when you think you’re safe something sets the fear right back in you. This weekend was my birthday! My sister took me out for Ethiopian food and frozen yogurt, it was delicious! Later on my friends and I were out having a great time celebrating, eating cake and drinking mojitos. Many of us had avoided going out at night lately because sometimes it’s just not safe. This weekend however we decided to have fun! Unfortunately at around 930 we got a text from our director saying that there was a bombing in Nairobi and we were all to return to our home stays. This cut the night short and was not the ending to my birthday I had hoped for. I am fine, and no one from the program was harmed. They are still looking into who was responsible for this terrorist act. It is suspected that it may be the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab. Despite this tragic event we managed to make the cab ride home an adventure. There was nothing we could do about the bombing so we continued to have fun until we got into our front doors. I was thankful to have people to celebrate with, I was feeling the love sent from America and I was safe. The lives that were lost in the bombing stick with me as a tragedy but I am recognizing them and holding them in my thoughts.

Monday was amazing! A group of 4 of my friends took a day trip to Hells Gate National Park. We rented bikes and biked ten miles through the park. It was early morning when we arrived and all the wild animals were out! We biked passed baboons, zebras, antelope, giraffes, warthogs and wildebeest. The scenery was stunning and the air was still fresh from the previous night. I felt so happy and free; a bit like I was in heaven! When we got to the ranger point we ate our picnic and then went on a tour of the gorges and natural hot springs. Our guide was fantastic and helped us climb rock walls, leap over hot streams and showed us where Tomb Raider was filmed. It was a fantastic time. Once we finished our tour it was about 12 and we needed to bike back. The African sun was pounding on my back and my $6 rental bike wasn’t going the speed I wanted. Basically, we were dying. Not to mention the fact that I got sick half way back and had to sprint into the bushes, not knowing what might be lurking back there. As I said, I am learning to surrender to the uncontrollable.

Tonight on my run I was hyper aware of the faces staring at me as I passed. What do I represent with my running outfit, nice shoes and privileged ability to exercise? Many of them hardly have time or money to eat three meals a day let alone make time for an evening run. I felt embarrassed. I pushed passed my embarrassment and focused on the beauty in each face I saw. Man, this country has good-looking people. If I could write a book about faces, this is where I would write it. Every one’s eyes seem to tell a story, they are intrigued by me and I am fascinated by them. I also continue to be obsessed with every child I lay eyes on. What’s going on behind their gaze? What is their history?

I continue to be well. I’ve had a few moments of frustration and homesickness in the past week or two. These have balanced out with some really incredible moments, however. The workload has increased and I find myself at my computer writing, rather than socializing with my family, which can be irritating. My mom is hilarious. Currently she is refusing to eat because she went to a funeral for a fat woman. She said to me tonight in the kitchen “If you are fat, you will die. I do not want to die, so I will only eat chai and bread”. I almost peed my pants. I asked her why chai and bread? She just laughed at me…She is a big woman and is always watching her weight but she is in no way unhealthy. The way she says things always makes me laugh, and her use of English is quite comical. Next week I leave for a ten-day trip to Tanzania! It is going to be incredible. I will fill you in on the details asap.

So much love.

Habari Gani?

Wow. I am finding it difficult to begin this post. I have been putting off writing mostly because I am never sure how to fully capture the fascination, the learning and the adventures that are happening. It has been a long journey since I last wrote and I will do my best to fill you in while trying to correctly portray many beautiful details.

Today I arrived back at my home stay in Nairobi after being on the Southern coast of Kenya in a village called Shirazi, and then in Mombassa. I was greeted home with open arms from my family here and it feels nice to be settled back in. I spent the morning hand washing my clothes and bucket washing all of my filthy shoes-who knew they could get so incredibly dirty. Scofia (the house help) and I scrubbed away and chatted in broken Swahili about what I did and ate in Shirazi. She only speaks Swahili but her and I have a special bond and we laugh together all the time. She was thrilled to hear that I had been eating tons of Ugali (a Kenyan staple, not my favorite) and laughed at the thought of my choking it down day after day! I am going to learn to make samosas tonight with my mama, delicious.

The village was simply incredible. It was a transformational, grounding, humbling and unique experience. Shirazi is in a rural area in which there is no running water or electricity and the nearest clinics, shops etc are a good number of miles away. It was hot there, around 97 and humid every day. The ocean cast a nice breeze from time to time but mostly we got used to being sweaty, very sweaty and oh, so dirty. We each lived in our own home stay with a family and our mamas dressed us in traditional clothes everyday. These were rich, thick African fabrics wrapped around us and tucked in so tightly. I loved my family. I had tons of siblings, cousins, a grandmother and a wonderful mama. She named me Zuhura and that was what every villager called me-I loved it. Anywhere we went in the village we were called to in Swahili by our Shirazi names. My family didn’t speak English so I used my Swahili and did the best I could. Many times my mama and I would lay side by side in our dirt hallway and sing African songs together as a way to fill the silence, these were beautiful moments. I close my eyes and I am back there. I could write pages about the beauty and calmness of the Shirazi village. Instead, I will include a journal entry I wrote while there, perhaps it will give you a glimpse.

2/22/12

This experience feels a bit like a dream. I am laying in my bed listening to mama bang around outside cooking our dinner over the open fire. She is cooking Ugali and Samaki. I can hear Furuki and Miriam sing school songs to themselves outside my window-songs they learned in school today. Even as I lay here I can hear the wind through the palms, picturing those glorious stars I will gaze at tonight. The kids were all over us tonight, grabbing at us with their dirt caked hands. They were shouting, singing, dancing and teaching us their games. I love to play with them. Barefoot, dirty, innocent and laughing. What will their lives be like? My reality is so far from theirs. A part of me wants to protect the girls forever. I want to shield them from the harsh realities of being a woman in Kenya. And the little boys, what kind of men will they grow up to be? What kind of husbands, what kind of fathers?

My lantern glows dimly, just enough to cast light on my mud walls and dirt floor, it shines through my mosquito net. I look forward to sharing another meal with mama. We will sit side by side on the floor as we always do, eating with our hands from the same platter. I am sure she will push the big pieces of fish to my side of the plate and I will hide them under some ugali. I’ve gotten good at eating with my hands. When I am full I say, “Nimeshiba” and she pours a little water on my hands while I wait for her to finish her meal. I love when she smiles at me. I can hear Nya Nya outside my door, it’s time to eat…

There are MANY more details I wish I could share of my time spent in Shirazi. The health challenges, the differences in nutrition, in family structure, sanitation and general way of life. There is so much to look at and consider. Overall, I loved it. I learned a lot about flexibility, patience and going with the flow. I missed showers and cold drinks! Ah, the things we take for granted. As soon as we arrived in Mombassa I got ice cream and a large Indian meal, the food there was amazing! Mombassa was also wonderful. It was nice to have so much freedom and comforts after being isolated. It was very cultural, busy and the people were overly generous. I hope to return. Okay, so life still moves on in Kenya, I am slowly developing my ISP and I look forward to sharing it with you all. So much love.

 

 

Kenya, another week!

Another week has passed in Nairobi. The realities that exist here are becoming clearer and continually more overwhelming. This being said, I will start with the good things first. I moved into my home stay on Saturday night. I LOVE it here. My family is amazing. I live with my mom (Mama ZamZam), my dad (baba), my older sister Mary (she is so wonderful) and the house help, Scofia (she doesn’t speak English but we laugh together a lot). It is interesting, everyone here has house help! They have welcomed me in with open arms and emphasize that this home is now mine, and I will forever be a part of the family. They are a muslim family and my father is a polygamist, these are both things that I do not have a lot of knowledge or experience with so I am eager to learn. Mama is a fantastic cook and literally force-feeds me at every meal! I have to try to politely tell her that I am full but she gives me a dissatisfied expression and puts it on my plate anyways. Normally I would say no, but she cooks amazing food, and we all know how I love to eat. She is constantly making me laugh, telling me about how she needs to go on a diet. Her expressions are priceless and her laugh is soothing and heart warming, I am growing to love them all already! On the nights that my father is home from his other wives house we all eat together in the living room. He chats with me about my studies and teaches me about Kenya, while my mom watches her favorite American dubbed soap operas—amazingly hilarious. Our house is very nice in comparison to what many other students are dealing with, I feel very fortunate. My sister and I have been getting up around 6 am to walk in the mornings. She likes to exercise and so do I (we both need to burn off mama’s cooking). We stroll through the streets and watch the little kids walking along the railroad tracks on their way to school. All of them are wearing matching school uniforms, and many of them barely 4 years of age. The children here are breathtakingly adorable. They all smile, wave and yell “muzungu, mugunzu!” and run away laughing. Muzungu means “white person” in Kiswahili.

We visited numerous NGO’s this week. I love when we go on visits, it means we don’t have to sit in 4 hour Kiswahili lectures. Earlier this week we visited Women Fighting Aids in Kenya. This experience, like many this week, was very eye opening and inspirational. We visited women living with HIV/AIDS and sat with them in their homes. It became so apparent that the issues people are facing here are real, more real than I could ever have imagined. The stigma around HIV/AIDS is tragic and the people who are suffering from this disease cannot find work. The woman we spoke to lives in a one-room shack with one bed that took up the entire room, she lives here with 5 other people. Their rent is twenty-two American dollars a month and its all they can afford. She spoke openly and honestly about her experience, and we all sat crammed in her tiny room soaking up her presence. What inspired me the most was the hope and joy the women displayed in spite of their disease and living conditions. Words cannot describe what it was like to sit and hear their stories of forgiveness and how they make sense of their condition. I feel so fortunate to have met them.

Today was amazing and challenging. We visited the Kibera slums. Kibera is the largest slum in East Africa and it is about 10 minutes away from my home stay. Imagine all of the things you’ve heard about third world slums and they’re all true. We found our way through tightly woven homes made from tin, wood and old plastic tarps, rivers of human feces ran by our feet and over peoples front steps. Children sat in the dirt crying, black from dirt and dust, flies covering their bodies and their bellies bloated from hunger. In the midst of this terror and madness you find beauty. Beauty in the people you meet, those trying to make a difference and trying to make a living. Children scream and laugh in the school house as you hear them chant their ABC’s in Kiswahili; they are fascinated by us white people. Children gather behind fences and chant “How are you, how are you, how are you!” and laugh when we reply in broken Swahili, “Nzuri sana, na we we?” I find my eyes darting in one million directions, trying not to miss a moment. My mind follows, wondering, observing and coming up with endless amount of questions. I am in awe of the conditions, and in awe of how people can live their lives this way, day after day. To them however, this is home, this is life. The smells are overpowering, the trash scattered and piled high and moms wash buckets of clothes in dirty water, a baby slung on her back. There is no water system, minimal electricity and no sewer systems; the women and children walk kilometers to find clean water. All of this being said, there are a lot of wonderful people doing hard work to change the conditions of Kibera. I am thinking of studying maternal mortality in the slums. The maternal mortality rate in Kibera is an appalling 33%. This is an unacceptable reality.

Oh lord, I have probably overwhelmed you all. I am overwhelmed! I want you to know that I am well. Thinking a lot, learning a lot and laughing a lot! I have a good group of friends and a fantastic family. On my 2-mile walk to school I buy a mango and an avocado for 30 cents and happily munch the day away. A week from now we will be leaving for the village where we will be living for 2 weeks. I am hoping to get another chance to write before this. Feel free to email and ask questions. There is SO, SO much I haven’t gotten a change to write or express. Each day is filled with stories. I feel as though I am giving such incomplete explanations of the experiences and the things we have been doing and seeing. I hope to give you each a glimpse, at the very least. Hoping you’re well.

Bridgette

Arrival!

Hello from far away,

I have safely made it to Kenya. The journey was long but very much worth the effort. This week has been a bit of a whirlwind. We have mostly been doing orientation activities-lots of lectures on culture, safety, rules etc. The compounds where we have been staying are beautiful! They have hot showers and the food has been great. I get along with mostly everyone in the program. I can tell that by the end of this trip we will be very close, I already feel I have made lasting relationships with multiple of them. It is always interesting being thrown into a new group of people, where do we find our place? How do we establish ourselves? It’s like a blank slate to be the person you want to be. So far there have been many, many, many laughs. My stomach hurts just thinking about the amount of laughing we’ve been doing. I found a group of about 5 people who like to go running! Last night we ran through this field into the setting African sun. I kid you not when I say that it was something out of a movie. The grass was swaying in the breeze, the tree branches glowing in the dark red sun. We ran past abandoned huts and men sleeping in the shade. It was a slice of heaven. Tonight we are at a new location and ran through part of Nairobi where the offices are. We ran past matatus full of African men staring, billows of smoke emerging from broken tailpipes and women seeking shelter under bushes. There is no lack of visual stimulation. The contrast of the greenery with the red African dirt is breath taking. The dark curious faces that follow our every move never cease to intrigue me; what is their story?

I am continually amazed by the amount there is to see, learn and experience. The differences between here and home and huge and every step is new. I get overwhelmed by the thought of all I want to do and see. We have toured some of the city, eaten the traditional food, taken public transportation and visited the giraffe sanctuary (amazing). Saturday we move into our home stays! I still have no information about my home stay but will know it all soon enough. I have been taking malarial pills every day and had no reaction so far. I am covered in bug bites with no sign of a fever so they must be doing their job. Tomorrow we have a presentation from the US Embassy, a visit with the local doctors about health precautions and a discussion with the home stay coordinators. Today we had a lecture about Kenyan culture. It ended up being a discussion of circumcision and genital cutting. Apparently this is the biggest issue in Kenya right now and is the cause of most of the post election violence and political conflict between tribes and people-everyone has an opinion. I am fascinated by this issue. I learned that I really cannot judge it from a Western point of view. I have so much to learn about the subject as a cultural issue and I must be sensitive to this. I requested further information and reading. It was a good lesson in checking myself and my judgments and preconceptions. The issue runs deep, hundreds of years deep, and it is not my position to form an opinion until I learn much, much more (although the thought of it makes me want to throw up). I am sure issues like this will continue to come up in conversation, and I hope that they do, it is important to challenge my previous opinions. Anyways, there was mention of an NGO that we will be visiting called “Women fighting AIDS in Kenya”. I think I may end up doing my independent project with this NGO, but there is lots to be decided.

Okay, I suppose that should be all. I am doing really well! So overwhelmed and over stimulated. There is a lot to think about and process, but I am really happy and so excited about all that is to come. I hope you are well.

On my way!

I’ve arrived safely in London. The accents here are fantastic and I am having a splendid time people watching. Every one is quite friendly and are dressed to perfection, no shortage of eye candy. My feelings are mixed. I am very excited to see what adventures are ahead, but I find myself nervous for the very same reason. Saying good bye is never easy, but it’s important to remind myself that it isn’t good bye, but simply, I’ll see you soon! I fly out this evening at 9:20 London time and arrive tomorrow morning in Nairobi where I will be greeted by the SIT staff. From there, I will depart to orientation. I do not expect internet during the orientation period, but will make sure to write when I am settled. Hope everyone is well..

Bridgette

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