Sunday, November 29, 2009

October/November Pictures

*NOTE* Pictures do not format well when I link from smugmug - please click on the image to see the full picture. Thanks!

I'm finally starting to feel a tad organized, a bit more inspired to get some long-put-off projects underway, might even attempt to catch up on email! In the meantime, enjoy some pics of the projects and people that have been keeping me busy!

With Dan and Zeph (Zeph in hat, Dan seated next to Dennis, with lollipop). These are two former street boys who have taken some younger kids off the street and though they have very little to give/share, they have managed to enroll them in school and keep them with them. I love Dennis - he is a smart kid and quite endearing. When I chided him for eating his lollipop and how bad it was for his teeth, he joked, "but they're all ready rotten!" Sadly true, but that's not gonna get him down!

At the Joseph Waweru boy's home in Nakuru for my first visit of the year. I took 2 of the 3 computers my friend Jason donated (I'm using the 3rd one while my mac gets shipped to S. Africa for repairs!) and confirmed they'll have a secure set up to ensure the computers are protected from misuse and theft. The boys were very excited! I'd love to raise $200 to purchase a copy of encarta for kids for each center. If you can contribute $5, $10 or $25 towards this I would greatly appreciate it. The rest of their software needs, especially in terms of typing tutors, excel and Microsoft tutors, are being donated by my dad's good friend Jo-L Hendrickson of Individual Software. Thanks so much Jo-L, Jason, Shirley and the Orange Rotarians for making these opportunities possible for these kids!

Earlier in the month my roommate Katie and I joined Hurlingham Rotarian Ken Idwasi for a trip to his rural home near Kakamega Forest. Along the way we stumbled on a fundraising for a local church, and then visited a local school Ken's family has been supporting in honor of his late mother.

About a year ago, the current standard 8 students (8th graders) were all failing their national exam practice tests. With Ken and his family's help (in the form of salary support for a new teacher, provisions of sanitary pads and education to keep girls in school all month and a variety of other assistance) the students are now virtually all passing their practice tests. We attended a prayer meeting held the day before the actual national exam, met the proud parents of each student and treated them to a big lunch after the meeting.

Katie also led an empowerment workshop with the girls and we both discussed with them some of the changes they can expect in high school, the realities of the issues that until now they've only heard about but have yet to confront (drugs, alcohol etc.). They seem prepared and we were really impressed with the amount of sex-ed and STD-prevention they had already received.

This weekend I started with a Friday visit to a group of crafters I know in Thika. I'm working on connecting them to some groups in the U.S., and it was fun to be back in my element - talking production, talking prices - finding out the stories behind each piece.

Finally, yesterday some Hurlingham Rotarians and I visited the Mt. Olive Girls Academy in Athi River - a school that a group of Newport Rotarians have raised support for. We've been helping identify wholesale supplies including bedding and linens and furniture. So fun to see the new building and think of the girl's lives who will be fortunate to attend there! Huge thanks to Ken and President Remmy for all the help coordinating - and kudos to Kimberly and Sylvia in Orange County for all their work helping the school!

Blankets and towels and sheets oh my!

Tonight's Thanksgiving celebration was postponed until tomorrow due to a power outage this afternoon - but those pics will be here shortly!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's a girl!

I'm sorry for being so out of touch. Between my computer going haywire, spending entirely too much time trying to find a car* and keeping up with a LOT more work for school, posting and uploading pictures keeps getting pushed off. However, I miss sharing my life here, and I'm thankful that people continue to mention this blog to me - it means so much that you are reading.

I'll share a bit more when I get back up and running with my own computer (FedExed to South Africa for repairs today!), but in the meantime I want to share about one of the women who works at our house every day and who I know could benefit from some support from home (my native home, that is).

This is Maureen - a gal whose smile and laugh are the sort that can turn a bad mood around in no time - they're just utterly infectious. She works with my roommate's organization, ZanaA, and until recently was a junior field officer (one of the high school grads that are working with their younger peers doing empowerment groups and helping distribute sanitary pads). I was used to seeing her on Tuesdays and Fridays when they had group meetings and so I didn't know her very well until I returned this year and learned she was nearly 4 months pregnant (and now working in the office while she prepares to welcome her baby). I don't think it's my place to share the details of her pregnancy, but suffice it to say it was not planned, and Maureen was not responsible for it. Like the other junior field officers, her focus has been entirely on taking advantage of the opportunity her job with ZanaA has offered, and the hope that in breaking out of the poverty of the Nairobi slums, university lay ahead. Now, she worries constantly that having a baby will interfere with that hope, but I see her daily choose to focus on the positive of her health and her support network here to face the future as bravely as possible.

So why am I sharing this? Though Maureen has younger siblings, she's spent very little time with babies, but has taken on her impending motherhood with a level head and total responsibility. She's made a list of the things she needs to care for her child (a girl!) and hopefully accommodate her attending school, because she's not ready to give up on that dream yet. At the top of her list are the usual baby items - onesies, socks, receiving blankets, diapers, a crib etc. Because they don't have water in Kibera where she lives, cloth diapers aren't super feasible - but she would like some (and protectors) for when she has enough access, or when she simply can't get disposables. I thought that my Bay Area community might be especially helpful in this regard, along with seeking 1-2 portable breast pumps so she doesn't have to give up nursing if funding for university does come through. She's done some internet research and has also become aware of the various ailments nursing can cause - and would love any of the breast pads or creams that you moms out there have found to be especially helpful.

I have a friend coming to visit in February shortly after Maureen's baby will be born who has agreed to set aside a suitcase to help bring her any donations I can collect. Please share this with anyone you know who might be able to help (and financial donations are also very welcome via my paypal account - we are trying to raise at least a year's worth of rent in a larger house as her family currently shares one room, as well). If you can help with any of these items - shoot me an email at meganmacdon AT gmail DOT com and I will connect you with my friend who will carry the items over.

Thanks so much, and more from me soon (contingent on FedEx, that is!).

*It's done! A 1996 Rav4 is parked outside and carried me happily through the sort of errands and activities that would have taken twice as long with out it today :)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A moment of profound thanks

I have to admit, I had a frustrating afternoon. And more than anything, I wanted to come home and blog about it - because what had happened was the sort of thing that makes me feel like SUCH a foreigner here, and sharing it with my extended community helps me to feel less like an other while I process whatever has happened. Thankfully, tonight my mood got flung to the far end of the spectrum with a number of emails that reminded me of the much larger picture of this journey, and how it continues to evolve and change in ways I can't imagine.

Almost three years ago I gave notice at my job and began planning a volunteer trip to South Africa in the hopes of exploring an international career. What I found when I arrived was an utterly tragic rural situation with too many children facing far too much on their own - be it their own illness or the loss of those that should care for them. These kids became my playmates, my pupils (as I attempted to overcome my fear of teaching in basic tutoring sessions) and my inspiration as I submitted my application for the Rotary Scholarship that would ultimately bring me to Kenya. When I applied, it was with the hope that I would end up in South Africa, and be able to continue building a relationship with these children, who had said goodbye to far too many people in their lives, and whose tears when I left broke my heart in such a way that I can barely think about them for fear of the guilt of leaving creeping in.

Such is to say that while many think that this whole experience has been one hell of an exciting ride (and believe me, it has!), it has not been without a large amount of anxiety, fear, sadness and hopelessness along the way. I don't know of anyone who can immerse themselves in such communities and not face moments of pure despair from time to time. Seeing the situation in Nkandla firsthand, reading the case histories and joining the life cycle there for that short time is one of the most incredible things I will ever do - and yet not being able to go back or support them since has been very hard, and made this whole process feel very selfish at times.

Tonight, I received an update from The Africa Project, the group that continues to raise money and support these kids, with pictures from this past summer. I am sometimes afraid to ask how certain kids are doing for fear of hearing bad news, and these pictures reminded me of their incredible spirits and the ongoing work of so many that I was fortunate to be a part of for that short while, and that in so many ways launched me on this path. I was also told that a large donation given by a dear family friend, Joy Nelson, was used in part to take the children on Safari and camping this summer. Though they live near some of the best game parks in the world, many of these kids never have the chance to see them. What a true blessing to know that after 2.5 years, somehow my time there has continued to play a role in their life by way of the generosity of someone in my community.

I was talking to one of my best friends recently and he mentioned that because I often blog about my struggles to understand this experience and all that I see around me, he didn't think that I'd changed that much having taken the steps that I have. It was hurtful to read that comment, but at the same time easy to dismiss. However much I might struggle with who I am in relation to my surroundings, or how exactly I am to go about creating the change I hope to see here or maximizing my contribution in honor of the opportunities I've been given, I am in no way the same scared, overly logical girl who lacked the confidence to take risks and live life to the utmost that I at some point became. Though I have much yet to learn, this journey has opened my eyes and my heart to so many realities of life that I just wasn't getting where I was at. Having moved quite a bit growing up, I now feel like I have the most incredible community at home - though it's spread out around California, the U.S. and now the world. Just today I got an email from a Newport Beach Rotarian who is working with my host club here, a friend from Monterey my parents met at the fair last year who connected me to the weaving and spinning group I've worked with, and two members of The Africa Project - one of whom is anxious to learn more about Kenya and opportunities to get involved. I talked to two young men in Nakuru who will receive the Orange Rotary Club's computer donations, and finalized plans for the Kakamega trip this weekend. I have learned how simple it can be to ask for help - whether for others, or even for myself - and the profound necessity for being a storyteller when I come across things that need to be shared. I have learned to better value work and opportunities, freedom and health, family and friends in entirely new ways. I have begun to understand what sacrifice is all about, what it means to hold out for what is right and how to communicate across cultures, across understandings of right and wrong. It is hard to share life primarily through the internet, but I hope that every once in awhile I do justice to this experience, to the incredible payoff to any risk taken, to the people who have been a part of it and continue to help me weave a path of inter connectivity that I am in absolute awe of. At the very least, I promise I'll keep trying.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Things are looking up

Just a quick note to say that if the rumor mill is true, my classmates and I have officially passed our first year! I know that doesn't sound horribly impressive - but considering our statistics class last semester, there was a bit of concern! I also think I've found a car that I can afford and meets the safety criteria for Nairobi roads. Please say a prayer that it comes through - the alternative is a teeny tiny toyota or a corolla without a working horn (not ideal for coming up against matatu drivers!).

I will head to Nakuru next week to deliver the first round of laptops, and then to Kakamega Forest with a rotarian to distribute sanitary pads to a school in his home town. I'm going to take the ZanaA intern and we will hopefully do an empowerment workshop with the girl's there. I'm also excited about an upcoming training opportunity with the beading group that I provided a loan for via the excess funds raised by my rotary club in Orange to get their website up and running. They ended up using the funds to hold a series of trainings on quality control with their beaders, and now they want me to come and present on style and designs - how fun! It has been great to reconnect and to have a creative outlet moving forward. I will keep you posted!

Oh - lastly, my classes this semester are really interesting! Last year we were fairly mired in theory and history - now we're getting into the more tangible side of development and its relation to business, which is where my interests rest. My classes include Entrepreneurship, Economics of African Agriculture, Industrialization and Rural Societies and Change. I'm excited to see where the year takes us.

Happy weekend to all!

Monday, October 26, 2009

In which I attempt to cover a lot of bases and wrap them up into a coherent blog post

My first two weeks back in Nairobi have been much like the rest of my time here - a mess of contradictions, struggles to balance needs versus wants versus the needs and wants of others, and finally the reminder of what a funny role I play here. I feel like I'm repeating myself, but I'm not sure I've ever adequately conveyed how much I struggle not fitting into any of the social boxes that that I think we're all used to in some form or another. They might be slightly different here, but who doesn't (however much they may hate to admit it) appreciate identifying with some sort of group/class/culture etc.? I can't really fit myself into one of those yet - though I am constantly confronted by others who assume I fall into the role that many who look like me or come from where I come from do (like the ex-pat friend who heard I was looking for a car, and sent me a notice for a great toyota at what he must have assumed was the reasonable price of $28,000).*

The thing is, I don't think it's that big of a deal to feel like an outsider to a group you're either used to being in or expected to be a part of, provided you've identified a new group on which to hang your hat. But I'm not even your typical starving student here - I have far "more" resources than many classmates or others on my campus - not to mention some of my young professional friends who can't seem to make the leap to the next salary range - which might be only $500/month (great by Kenyan standards when compared to the masses but a far cry from the earnings of many from the elite, well-educated class). I'm both a have, and to a far lesser extent (but often obvious), a have-not - and I'm living and making life decisions daily in a place where the color of my skin, my background, or my home country will constantly decry this fact. It's a simple reality, but it means I spend far more time than I should explaining why I can't afford a car that is considered a deal even by local standards, or why I want to live in a certain area, or how to balance the poverty that I see daily with planning a fabulous trip for my best friends when they come to visit. I sit and I stew because in the midst of living my life here and figuring all these things out, I can pass a little boy on the street begging, learn his name, see how vastly different our struggles are - watch my internal dialogue come to a screeching halt when I stop to consider what his must be: "There's a rich mzungu. She looks nice, I bet she's got some money to spare, now I just have to figure out what words to say to get her to veer off her path and take me to buy some bread and milk...yep, she's wavering, I can tell I've got her now!" This reality, both of the world around me, and how it perceives me, is never far from my mind - and it creates the craziest duality of resenting the label I'm given, the lack of a clear cut label to apply instead, and the guilt of worrying about such things in the first place, given the more profound reality of a small child in worn out shoes forced to walk from a far-off slum to try and find food for the day.

I guess all this goes to say that I'm learning that much of feeling grounded is being able to identify within some sort of a community (duh, right?) - be it socially, economically or philosophically. Part of being abroad for me this time has been removing myself from pretty much all of the identifying groups I'm used to, and at the same time trying to process the realities of my new home and how I relate to them. I have been introduced to so many fascinating microcosms of these things - pockets of people and groups that I am fortunate to be exposed to, but can never quite fit myself completely into.

I wonder how my perspective on this might change over the course of the next year. In the meantime it's somehow therapeutic to write about it, to at least try and explain why my sensitivity level is so heightened here.

*For many foreigners who work for embassies, the UN or high profiled Development agencies or businesses, that is a steal - they've got most of their basic needs covered through work (housing, moving costs, security etc.) so they just buy the biggest car considered safe and convenient for Nairobi driving.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Semi-charmed kind of life...

I like to joke sometimes about how charmed my life seems - because in the past three years (starting in fall of 2006) things have really fallen into place at times so perfectly I can't quite fathom my luck. Of course life is life - ups, downs and all-arounds regardless, but every once in awhile I'm reminded by things that seem almost absurdly charmed to be thankful for this time, and this life. One such recent reminder? That given how much I adore my littlest nephew, Dexter, God saw fit to put another one in my life here in Kenya:

Dexter Ness, born July 5, 2009 (might have been morning of the 6th now that I think of it...)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day, 2009

I like to participate in Blog Action Day, but I am doing so too late in the game to add any original thoughts to this year's topic of climate change. I can say that Kenya is experiencing its own microcosm of the issue (if the environment of an entire country can be considered as such!) with the destruction of the Mau Forest and the ensuing environmental degradation that is causing (or at least contributing to) the raging drought. Aside from that, I include a quote (and a link to the original post from whence it came) that touches on the fact that the issue of climate change has become like so many other indescribably important things - fodder for debate, rather than an impetus for change.

"Our silence is not the lack of words, it is the absence of an essence in urgent human relationships, an essence with power to break the bonds of unthinkable thoughts:



Day 4 in Nairobi and I'm starting to settle in. I admit that while breaking the trip up always helps (who wouldn't want to acclimate to the time difference in a glorious place like Turkey!?) it also made returning to the ever-developing world a bit harder than I had expected. While fellow travelers in Turkey remarked upon air quality and trash, compared to parts of Nairobi I found it impeccably clean, and I had an incredibly inspiring and exciting week exploring on my own and with new friends. Cappadocia was quite simply everything I had hoped it would be and more - and I was reluctant to leave, to be sure.

But as the days go on, and I take advantage of being in my own bed for the first time in 3 months, with bags fully unpacked and a few final days to awake naturally (before school requires an alarm), I rediscover all that makes Kenya feel like home. Reconnecting with old friends, seeing the familiar faces on my corner, meeting new people who welcome me so warmly, though we've just met. There is hustle and bustle in our house - one of Zanna's Junior Field Officers is pregnant and a new American volunteer named Katie who has taken my old room keeps her busy with pre-natal exercises. We were excited to find out after a healthy ultrasound she is expecting a baby girl.

School starts next week, and I'm taking advantage of these days to catch up on long overdue work, as well as put a few things in place in extension of the incredible generosity of friends and Rotarians this summer. 3 beautiful laptops donated by my friend Jason Pierce have already arrived, and another 4 or 5 are on their way from my sponsor Rotary club in Orange (thanks to Shirley for all she's done in this regard!). Some will go to the boys' home in Nakuru, and others will hopefully be used to help establish a small training center in Nakuru center with some former street boys who have taken in a number of other kids and are attempting to raise them. Like so many things such efforts will take a village. Thankfully, having spent the summer in the U.S. I am reminded that mine is always bigger than I think, and no matter how far apart we all are - the global village is what we make it.

More of my Cappadocia pictures here - slow internet means Istanbul will have to wait :)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Back in the OC

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to present my "final" presentation to the Rotary Club who made this past year possible for me. I am so thankful for this club - for the encouragement they provide, the amazing energy the members have, the various projects they are doing on their own throughout our local community and Africa as a whole, and the support they have given me and are likely to continue for my own work. Here are the comments I offered this club - along with my profound thanks for fulfilling last year's Rotary of "Making Dreams Real" - the sure made mine! I'll post more pics when I get them - the pic above is with club member Ron Lacey who along with a handful of other Rotarians made my scholarship year that much more personal.

August 27, 2009 Rotary Presentation

Somewhere around a year ago I had the opportunity to visit you all and share my history and my hopes for my scholarship year. I shared the recent process I’d gone through to reorient my path and pursue work in the international arena, and how for me this translates to the collecting of stories and experiences that must be shared in pursuit of the goal that this scholarship embodies – to foster a global community and enhance international understanding.

Your club has played a paramount role in allowing me to take that many more steps along this path, and for that I must first offer my profound and deepest thanks. Your support, example and enthusiasm for the goodwill of Rotary and the opportunities it has extended to us all has been an inspiration and encouragement to me throughout. I have especially appreciated the opportunity to get to know a few individual Rotarians (some of whom I did not meet in person until today!) including Bob McCauley, Char Martin, Ron Lacey, Dr. Stephenson, Bill Courdes and of course Mike and Jean Abdalla who all provided special support throughout the year.

So let me tell you about it!

I know a number of people in this room have been to Africa – has anyone been to Kenya? It’s a fascinating place, one in which you are likely to have had some very different experiences depending on the point in history in which you were there. I recently met a gentleman who visited in the 70’s, who talked about how impressive the country was – so modern, so on the up and up. As I learned and lived as a student of development studies, sadly, the 80’s painted a very different story for Kenya – in part due to the international oil crisis of the 70’s, in part due to the expansion of international trade and lop-sided trade statutes, and perhaps most significantly due to the massive loans our country led the way in offering – loans that came with conditions that effectively halted the social progress Kenya had been making to that point. It has been humbling to learn the specifics of the role my country has played in suppressing the development of another (and this, by no means, is the sole reason for which Kenya continues to struggle, but it is a prominent one), and it made it that much more significant to be serving as a Rotary scholar – as an ambassador for the U.S. to share my joint hopes and dreams for the country to get itself back on track.

Let me first say that because I hoped to be in the country for two years, I tried to spend the year simply observing and taking it in – not passing judgment or trying to fix things per se. I can say, that after doing just that this year, the country has a long way to go. Kenya was recently ranked the most corrupt nation in all of East Africa – and corruption permeates the day to day operations of the country – both on a local and national level. But when I would confront these things, or when my studies would focus for too long on the challenges – I would look to my classmates for inspiration and the courage to believe that someday the country will once again chart its course for the good of all Kenyans.

So let me tell you a bit about my classmates! There are nine of us in the 2010 IDS M.A. program. We meet on the 5th floor of the Mahatma Ghandi building on the main campus of University of Nairobi. I should mention that I’ve taken a fairly untraditional route – of the 40,000 or so Nairobi students spread amongst roughly 5 campuses, I believe I am one of about 5 non-African international students (I’ve only met three others). I am affirmatively in the minority and stand out like I’ve never quite experienced before! It’s been a unique experience – something I think very few of my peers or many in my community will ever truly experience – being an “other” on such a scale, and in such an obvious way.

Back to my classmates – in the group of nine there are five women and four men ranging in ages from around 24 to roughly 36. Of Kenya’s forty or so indigenous ethnic groups, there are at least 7 present – from Luya and Meru to kamba and the biggest group in Kenya which is Kikuyu. A few recently finished their B.A.s and started their M.A. straight away (I should mention that education is of paramount value in Kenya with an extremely high percentage of the population getting Masters degrees – many of whom do so abroad and have shown in studies to outperform all other ethnic groups in the U.S.), while others have worked in the fields of politics, economics, healthcare and youth services. They are an inspiring bunch – some clearly in school simply for the job opportunities the degree will present, others with hopes of once and for all changing the trajectory of the country and promoting a more equitable and socially just land.

As I mentioned before, one’s impression of

Kenya might be very different depending on the time in which you visited it – but one thing that won’t change is the people – the threads of a Kenyan culture that transcend the tribalism that continues to rear its ugly head in the promotion of differences. Tribalism allows politicians to manipulate the masses into thinking that it’s impossible for all Kenyans to be afforded the same opportunities – thus they are willing to fight for the sake of protecting their own – at the worst times (as in late 2007), to the death. But on a day to day level to be Kenyan means to warmly welcome any outsider, to be fascinated with the goings on of the world and one’s country – I was so inspired by the young people (and everyone else for that matter!) who read the paper thoroughly each day, who often knew more about what was going on in the U.S. than I did as I struggled to adjust to life away from the news headlines I’m used to reading throughout the day online at work.

We need more of this – more focus on what it means to be Kenyan. And this is where I find one of the most valuable lessons of my year as an ambassadorial scholar and the opportunity to take what I learned and bring it back with me to my own country. I have found that I never understand more profoundly how deeply blessed I am to have been born in this country and afforded the opportunities it presents than when I am abroad. This is not because being abroad I see countries whose problems are so much worse than our own – but rather I see problems that simply reflect the very human struggles we all share to live side by side, manage collective resources and empower all to live life to the fullest. While there are many things I found myself thankful for during the year as an American, I also saw that each issue I confronted in the Kenyan economy, government and society I could find in some form in my own country. Perhaps most importantly – the failure on all our parts to recognize our collective similarities, before we break each other down with our differences and opinions. In Kenya, a place now dear to my heart, such divisions resulted in over a thousand lost lives at the beginning of last year, and many people believe that the election of 2012 could be worse. One bright spot in the midst of the country’s recovery following their own elections that must be mentioned, regardless of the political demographics in this room, is the absolute joy and pride that all Kenyans experienced upon the election of Barack Obama. Seeing people of different political opinions, ethnic groups and backgrounds all rejoice in our country’s decision gave me hope that someday they will collectively identify a leader of their own who will once and for all end the corruption and grow the country so that all people can benefit from a vibrant economy and the opportunities it presents.

I’d like to share some specific experiences by way of my slideshow now, and I encourage you all if you have a moment to check out my final report (well, a version of it – I failed to save the final version I submitted via fax!) to learn more about some of the specific experiences I had and how I did my best to mobilize the support you provided for the sake of those around me. I want to especially thank you for the donations you raised that allowed me to cover the hospital costs of my night guard’s child – I wish I could convey the joy, relief and excitement I felt when I received emails from Char, Bob and I believe Ron telling me about your outpouring. I would also like to report that the additional funds you raised have been distributed - $50 to Kibera Girl’s soccer academy that works with at-risk girls in Africa’s biggest slum (about 15 minutes from my house) to get the education they so desperately desire, $25 to a dear friend whose story I hope to share with you if time permits to re-enroll her young nephew in school after his parents were unable to pay school fees and around $125 which was given as a loan to a struggling youth project that creates beaded bracelets with logos and slogans (great to keep in mind for any of your fundraisers, businesses or school!) and needed to get a website running to keep afloat. That money will be reinvested in similar projects so you can be confident that though my year as a scholar has come to a close, I will continue to spread the generosity you have extended to me and through me as I return. And of course, my involvement with Rotary does not end here!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I'm sorry for the great delay between my last post and this one. Much has happened - I finished my first year of grad school, welcomed my parents and our friend Joy to my adopted home and embarked on a true safari with them. I want to share something I wrote to be read to ambassadorial scholarship applicants for the 2010-2011 school year (since I couldn't be there in person). I have also posted some recent pictures from our safari at my smugmug site here, and am working on catching up on many past-due photos as well. I am in the Bay Area working with eBay on until October 3rd, when I will return to Nairobi (via Istanbul where I'll do a week stopover!) to start my final year at University of Nairobi. Thank you for sharing this journey with me, and for all the support that I have received. My attempt to put the experience into words that follows, is just that - an attempt. Words, as much as I love them, will never do it justice.

"I’ve spent my scholarship year in Kenya where I’m pursuing a M.A. in Development Studies, and savoring every moment of an experience that has truly encapsulated the current Rotary theme of “Make Dreams Real.” Having an organization like Rotary recognize your goals and aspirations and extend the support they do is as great a gift there is. I know each of you have unique and incredible ambitions and aspirations, and whether you get this scholarship or not, I’m confident you’ll find ways to pursue them.

As for myself, these are the things I find myself treasuring as I near the end of my scholarship year abroad. These are things that I know come only from this sort of experience, from an investment in time and exploration in a country so far from home.

They are:
• The Kiswahili words that now flow easily from my mouth, but that will have no meaning to friends and family when I return home.
• The foods that I now crave with afternoon tea (heck, afternoon tea!) that I know I won’t find when I return home.
• The subtle cultural nuances I’m still learning to adjust to and accommodate in my daily commute, or when I enter a room here for the first time.
• The inner struggles to acclimate to a different set of norms while at the same time staying true to my own comfort zone and interests.
• The opportunity to present myself as a foreigner, as an American and as a citizen of the world in a way that those I interact with in my new home may have never seen or understood before.
• The equal opportunity to see in them something different than I may have expected.
• The appreciation and final acceptance of utter and complete differences sometimes small and other times incomprehensibly big.
• And finally, the realization that always hits me at the oddest of times: In the end, the culmination of such differences in culture, location, interests and day to day reality are in fact all actually subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) reminders of the sameness that binds us all together as humans.

In closing, I’d like to make a special acknowledgment of how much richer this experience of studying abroad has been simply because it has introduced me to the Rotary family. I knew little of Rotary before I applied but I cannot imagine how different this experience would be if I did not have the many Rotary clubs and local Rotarians (not to mention support from Rotarians at home) accompanying my journey. I have been afforded intimate access to all walks of life in Kenya, exposure to major leaders and a first hand glimpse of how the local community is tackling the development problems I’m studying."

The boys from the home I've visited many times in Nakuru in the sweatshirts and clothes my friend Heather and her co-workers donated - thank you everyone!

My dad celebrated his 80th birthday in Kenya! What a gift to share this trip with him.

More pictures available here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On the inside

Have you seen The Constant Gardener? Do you remember the rolling sprawl of rusted tin roofs in Kibera? Did the movie capture the fractured earth, the plastic bag-choked bits of green amidst the ever-present brown?

I went to Kibera for the first time shortly after I arrived here to visit Red Rose School. I wore the wrong shoes, and was cautioned that were I ever to go through the gate next to the school that beckoned into the depths of the slum I better make sure my feet were covered. I’ve been back many times since to the inner Toi market (fabulous used clothing market, I have a friend who got an authentic Louis Vuitton for under $1) and Makina market where my tailor is. All these visits allowed me to say, “yes, I’ve been to Kibera” though none of them in anyway conveyed the reality of the place I visited for the first time today. The border does not betray the inner sanctum’s reality. No, it does not.

My class had a field day today where we were tasked with visiting an acting development project. I arranged for us to visit school empowerment groups in Kibera that are being run as part of my house mate Megan’s organization, Zanna. I’ve been wanting to visit for ages and this was a great opportunity to do so. Plus, the vision and strategy behind Zanna is exactly what I think the development field needs in order to have a hope and a prayer of actually solving the problems that continue to permeate countries like Kenya.

The first thing you notice about Kibera is the abundance of children, all of whom seem to be the same size. It’s like a slum full of four year olds, all fluent in the language of “How are you!” of which as a mzungu I heard continuously throughout my visit. Then you realize how careful you’re being walking, and the sense of risk you feel as you attempt to peel your eyes from the uneven ground in order to take in the sites and smells around you. A butcher. A sausage cart toiling as it would over a cobbled street but leaving a trail of loose rock in its wake. Mamas and babies peeking out of low, dark windows. A woman in a purple lesso sifting and lightly blowing on maize with a rhythmic toss. Children everywhere, laughing and running, holding hands. A pair no more than three, each wearing one blue flip flop on the opposite foot. What friendship.

I admit I loved being there. I loved the children running by and giving me high fives. I love any opportunity to be reminded how people survive and make the most of the worst of conditions. To find an alternative to the individual stories of grief and despair, to the continued political and ethnic debauchery, the remaining IDPs, the rampant corruption. The sun was shining. Life continues.

One of our professors, a recent PhD graduate assisting our research-burdened tenured staff walked with me for a time. He couldn’t contain his disgust, his frustration at the scene. He takes it more personally than even I do for all my struggles with the inadequacies of humanity. How can some of us rock climb for fun while others build houses upon shifting land amidst rocks of poverty-laden rubble? He is Kenyan, these are his people. This is his land, right nearby the “poor” area he himself lives in. An area that cannot compare to the filth of Kibera.

Kibera, for all the attention it has received, is no joke. Incomes, where they exist, are cobbled together. I passed many tarps of odds and ends – rusted wrenches, dented mechanical parts I could not name, bits of old metal and wire for which I couldn’t imagine a purpose. Every once in awhile a shiny mobile phone. On one tarp, a single upside down porcelain urinal filled with buttons.

It is hard to reconcile my ability to see the beauty, joy and goings on of life in the slum, with the revolting site you have to process in order to know it must be changed. The land is sucked of the green. The water is scarce, the trash unbelievable. Children meander through filth, shining their glorious youth and innocence in order to make it human, to make it bearable.

There is music, constant music. There are babies being held, old men shooting the shit, hunched grandmas walking together. It is life, at the same time as it should, and never should, be.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Scene: A Typical Phone Call

Some insight into the strangely significant sort of cultural accommodations you have to make here on a daily basis.

My phone rings:

Me: Hello?
Person calling: Hi Megan! How are you?
Me: Hi I’m good, thanks. Who is this?
Person calling: Fine, fine (by way of response to my unasked question of “how are you?”). Are you in Nairobi?
Me: Yes, sorry, who is this?
Person calling: Great great, when can we meet?
Me: I’m sorry who is this?
Person calling: (finally tells me who it is).

End scene.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Defensive dressing

There are a million funny bus stories I've failed to record or share here, but I couldn't keep today's to myself.

I often do grocery shopping in town, and today I had my computer as well so by the time I got to the bus I had my hands full. When we passed the stop before mine I got up as I usually do and made my way to the stairs at the door. As I stepped down, preparing to hover in the door so that I could jump off as soon as the bus slowed, the bus sped up and the weight of my bags pulled me forward. In a moment of panic I kicked one foot forward, effectively launching my left shoe out into the street and under the car behind us. Thankfully I didn't launch myself out of the bus, but I was a very silly site walking back from my stop, about 200 yards down the road, with my hands full and one bare foot.

Today's incident adds loose flats to my list of what not to wear on the bus. The biggest prior offender being, of course, the wrap-around skirt.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Playing hooky

Here's what I know: Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They can run upwards of 14 miles an hour, have seriously huge tusks and a massive jaw (not to mention their substantial bulk).

Here's where I was on Sunday night: Fisherman's camp - famous for the hippos that come up to eat the grass below the campsite that sits on the edge of Lake Naivasha.

Here's why I was there:
I've wanted to visit Hell's Gate National Park since I got here. It's just an hour from Nairobi (though by matatu it took me 4 hours...grrr...) and the only place where you can do walking or biking safaris (no lions or elephants - but there are buffalo and leopards so it does require some care!). I haven't had any friends interested in going when I've been free, so its been one of the many tourist attractions I've flat out missed until last week when my friend Allan, a volunteer in Mombasa, said he wanted to go and convinced me to skip my Monday classes (two of which ended up canceled thankfully).

Here's where our tent was:
About 15 feet from a very pathetic looking electric fence, that didn't appear to be on. Allan had impulsively leapt over it when the grass was hippo-free just after dinner, hitting it in the process with his metal crutch (he had a sprained ankle) with absolutely no reaction on the part of the fence.

Here's where everyone else's tents were:
A lot further away.

And finally, here's what happened: We went to sleep around 11, sad we hadn't seen any hippos but ready to rest in order to get up at 6 for our biking safari (for which I sadly have no pictures because I forgot to change my battery - snap!). At about 11:30 we were awoken by the unmistakable sound of a large animal outside the tent, most likely chewing the grass, but possibly just walking through the spongy ground (it had rained that day). Allan bolted out of the tent with my headlamp, while I simply rolled over and tried to get back to sleep since I knew I wouldn't be able to see anything and I was comfy.

A few minutes of relative silence passed. Then, I heard the deep, deafening roar of a single adult hippo. It broke through the night like nothing I've ever experienced. It sounded like he was just outside my tent, and I was sure that the fence we'd observed before must have had a gap we hadn't seen that allowed him to wander up to the grass next to the tent.

The roar was followed by the immediate sound of running directly past the tent. I remember being sure that it was the hippo itself, I could hear the weight in the movement, though thinking back I think I was hearing both the hippos mock charge and what I found out was Allan, crutches free, sprinting past the tent at virtually the same time. I wish I had words to articulate the combination of the roar and the speed of the thunderous running. The first few seconds of this video show what a charging hippo can look like:

Then, silence.

So there I was, by myself in a tent with no screen or way of seeing outside, knowing only that one of the most dangerous animals in the world was less than 20 feet away and really, really pissed off.

I didn't know how hippos sense things (apparently it's by smell so you want to get down wind of them if possible). I didn't want to call out to Allan for fear it would attract attention, and I was afraid to move in case of the same. While I could logically run through the fact that there was a fence, that all I represented was the motionless white structure of my tent and that all a hippo at that time would be interested in would be grass, I could not calm down. Allan finally came back to the tent and explained what had happened. He'd followed another hippo down the grass a bit and when he came back caught the second one square on with my head lamp, causing the mock charge.

There were a few more brays throughout the night, but for the most part it was calm. Of course I jumped at every rustle of the trees, constructing all sorts of scenarios in the aftermath of fear (at one point convinced there was a leopard outside, at another dreaming that a man with a machine gun was entering the tent). It is by far the most scared and powerless I have ever been.

The next day we learned that most likely the hippo near us has been cast out of his herd for trying to challenge the dominant male. For now, he's eating as much as he can so he can bulk up and try again. Incidentally, we also found out that a tourist was killed at Fisherman's camp in 2005 when she came between a hippo and its calf late at night.

Suffice it to say I gave the buffaloes a wide berth on our bike safari the next day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A new endeavor

Like so many of the most exciting projects I've been a part of in my life, my newest endeavor is the result of a last minute burst of inspiration that moved me to throw my name into the mix and see what came of it. I've just joined the Editorial Advisory Board for JustMeans, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about corporate social responsibility (CSR), providing a forum to discuss it and other related issues (ethical consumption, social entrepreneurship, sustainable development etc.) while raising awareness for both companies and consumers alike. I'll be posting roughly every other day working to generate dialogue, interview CSR professionals and everyday people about what they know of CSR and what they think it should be and much more. Today is my first post and I'd love it if you'd take a look here. Feel free to comment and send any thoughts you have about CSR my way - I'll be on the constant look out for fresh content and perspective as I work to balance this new opportunity with my final month of school and preparation to return home for the summer.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Kenyan Wedding

You may or may not know this about me, but I'm a little obsessed with weddings. While I do think they're starting to get a bit out of hand in the U.S. (it's just one day!) I love how they combine all of life's most important pieces into one event. From family and friends to the day's underlying theme of love, plus the added elements from the spectrum of creativity (fashion! music! design! FOOD) everything blends together in celebration of a couple's new life - what's not to love? Thus I've been anxious to attend a local wedding to experience and compare Kenyan traditions and perhaps more importantly, to see what people are wearing. For you see, a Kenyan wedding is one of the best excuses to break out your hottest, brightest and most in your face African outfits. I say African because Kenya doesn't really have a national dress the way some African countries do. Some tribes have traditional wear but when it comes to Nairobi, where society is a blend of backgrounds and tastes, you pretty much get it all. Dresses for formal occasions and weddings are often made specially (and sometimes worn just once) out of traditional kangas, imported wax cloth from West Africa, more locally printed leso and kitenge or any combination thereof. I'm still learning how to distinguish what comes from where and what patterns are more traditional versus new takes on classic pieces, so I loved having the opportunity to see so many designs in one place (though I had to be somewhat surreptitious in how I took my photos!).

A great thing about Kenyan weddings is an invitation is more of a formality than an etiquette lesson. For yesterday's wedding, I was invited by a friend of the bride, who, along with the groom, I have yet to meet! The event started in a Catholic church, where a wonderful choir sang both modern and traditional hymns throughout the service. After the church portion (in which the groom was invited to "embrace" his bride - no kiss!) the guests were invited to take pictures of the bridal party before they left briefly for formal portraits. After that, a buffet line was set up and guests ate and drank (soda - alcohol isn't served until the evening's festivities which are more for the couple and their close friends - less family, more booze) while waiting for the return of the bridal party.

Upon the bride's return, all woman were summoned to greet her at the car and help bring her into the reception with song and dance. The bride is from the Akamba tribe, but her husband is Kikuyu so it was his relatives that participated most in this in order to announce her welcome to the family and her new identity therein. There was a loud call and answer song as the group made their way into the reception. Shortly after, the bride's family and friends from the coastal area were also invited to dance and celebrate their traditional songs in celebration.

A series of dances and speeches followed, culminating in the cutting of the cake, which the bride and groom took turns feeding each other and then to their parents (I thought that was a nice gesture of commitment to each other's family). The whole ceremony was very Christian, with many sound words of advice for making marriage work and biblical references. I loved the honesty and encouragement family members and friends offered - very realistic about the challenges of marriage but also full of hope and blessings for the new couple.

Turns out it's easiest (and quickest) to upload photos to facebook. You can look at the rest of the wedding photos here, whether you're a facebook member or not.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Up Country Easter

As most of you know, I come from a large and treasured family. The beautiful home my grandparents made in Monterey and the family homes nearby have hosted a lifetime worth of holidays full of friends and family, inevitable group sings and some of my favorite, home cooked foods. Easter is traditionally held at my Aunt Carlie’s house, and there have been years when the egg count topped 200 due to the abundance of kidlets in their Easter best, lined up smallest to tallest awaiting their turn to take on the lawn.

In an attempt to stave off the homesickness that is inevitably worse around holidays, I headed to Nakuru to once again visit the boys at the Expanding Opportunity group home. I was joined by Jinna (the other Ambassadorial Scholar who ran the food distro at the Rally for the Disabled) and with a couple of soccer balls and some food coloring in tow, we hopped a matatu for the two hour trip.

A couple months back, a friend I know only through the blogosphere indicated he wanted help the boys by sending some support. Shortly thereafter, my cousin Madeline indicated that for her son David’s birthday, he had elected to collect money in lieu of gifts to support the boy’s home. So, Easter not only meant a fun visit with the boys, but the opportunity to deliver these incredibly generous donations.

It’s hard to imagine over a dozen boys ranging in age from 5 to 18 without any sporting goods or balls, but the intense love and devotion given to such things by the group means they rarely last very long! Still, I think their replenishment is a necessity, and we brought two (funded in part by Frank and David’s donations). The first was put into use immediately and by day 2 looked as if it had been at the house for years! It was amazing to see the boys switch effortlessly between soccer, volleyball, wall ball and general fancy footwork tricks.

On Easter Sunday, we broke out the food coloring and interrupted our marathon Scrabble sessions (one of the oldest boys, Sammy, is a true Scrabble genius. He scrabbled his second play in the second game and won every single game we played by a wide margin). The boys really enjoyed the egg dying, though at first they thought it was a strange activity indeed.

We postponed the egg hunt itself until Monday so everyone could participate – it was fun to see the group apply their keen eyes to the garden where we hid eggs and treats. It was a great weekend and since that time, I’ve received a full report of how the donated funds have been put to use. You wouldn’t believe how far $300+ dollars can be stretched! From helping outfit the new, full time social worker's office and filing system (in order to be compliant with local regulations – this is an amazing step for the home), to getting pajamas, clothes and underwear for the boys along with new (used) games, artwork for the walls, a complete paint job of the main dormitory and general storage solutions for laundry and personal belongings, the money has been put to great use. My unending thanks to my cousin, David (and his parents of course!), and Frank for their generosity and heart for these boys!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My small room's time to shine

Not sure if this really gives me the credit to say "I'm a published photographer" but it did give my friend Dan and I quite a fun rush when we saw it posted!

About a month ago Dan told me about a series that Andrew Sullivan, a prominent blogger on The Atlantic website, has been publishing for some time. He simply asks readers to send in the view from their window - no glitz, no glam, just what you see day to day. He is planning to publish a book with the pictures he's collected and had mentioned in a post that he didn't have any submissions from Kenya, so there ya go - my room on The Atlantic's website. Fun!

(please click on photo for full dimensions - dang blogger likes to mess with my frames!)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The White Highlands

A few weeks ago Chris and I drove to Meru, a small town on the edge of the "White Highlands," the nutrient and water rich hills that many colonialists claimed as their own before Kenya was given back to its people. We visited the offices of the International Peace Initiative, a Meru-based NGO started by Dr. Karambu Ringera to address the many problems facing her home town. I love visiting local organizations, especially groups as transparent and well-run as IPI. During our visit we saw the first of six planned children's homes that will serve 80 orphans. One of Karambu's goals is to change the community's perspective of children orphaned after losing their parents to AIDS, who many see as a nuisance and drain to local resources. Karambu hopes that by building the home in a communally central local and empowering the kids to train their neighbors about better farming techniques, chicken and cow raising and handicrafts, they will be seen as leaders and beneficial to their home communities. Another plan for the kids is to set up individual savings accounts so that once they complete high school they have nest eggs of their own - either to start businesses or pursue university.

I met some of the kids who currently stay with Karambu when they're home from boarding school and they are very bright and driven - sure to make wonderful local citizens and leaders due to the support they are getting through IPI - regardless of the hardships they've faced in the past. As I got to attend an IPI board meeting it was truly wonderful to see an organization for whom the main focus remains the people it serves, and not its own employees or founders (corruption is so common in Development NGOs unfortunately).

The following week my optimism in the face of so many development challenges grew further with a visit to the local offices of a U.S. based NGO called Olive Branch. I met the Kenya Executive Director, Parit, at an export conference a couple months ago and wanted to learn more about their programs - especially those involving local women and artisans. We talked about marketing ideas for the various crafts they buy to support their local programs and how to work with the women to enhance the design and market relativity of their products to increase income and better sustain their lives. I'm talking to a few local designers in the hopes of setting up some workshops next year to help introduce artisans to the idea of designing with trends and seasons in mind, helping them to embrace their creative potential rather than just churn out identical designs with little marketability.

With all the challenges I'm studying and observing it's always wonderful to meet individuals and groups who are embracing the opportunity to address what's wrong in their communities with what's right.