Saturday, March 28, 2009

Joy! Part deux

(please note, in an attempt to save time I've linked photos directly from my smugmug account. Unfortunately, this has caused some undesired cropping. To see the full image below, please click on each photo. Thanks!)

Today I joined Rotarians and Rotaractors from throughout the greater Nairobi area for the annual 'Rally for the Disabled.' I didn't know much about the event beforehand, and much like my visit to Red Rose it turned out to be a ball full of joy at the end of a busy week. Every year a different Rotary club takes charge of this large-scale event, and schools that cater to those with physical or mental handicaps are invited to enjoy music, performances, face painting and food at the Nairobi fair grounds.

My host club of Hurlingham was in charge of food, and my fellow Rotary scholar, Jinna Yun, and I had our hands full working with Rotaractors to distribute over a 1000 lunches. Jinna had been working on this for two days, and I'm not sure she ever even got a chance to get out and meet the kids she was so busy counting and distributing boxes. I was luckier to rotate between working with Jinna and delivering food to the various groups, which was a lot of fun and very humbling.

Though some schools work with one specific type of physical challenge (we had two large schools with over 100 children that worked with blind or deaf kids), many of the smaller schools teach children with all different sorts of impairments. I worry a bit that the stigma attached to certain physical characteristics has lumped children of normal intelligance in with children coping with actual mental disabilities, but for the most part the children seemed well adjusted and cared for in their school groups. What was wonderful and humbling to experience was the comraderie between classmates, especially between those in need of assistance and those who despite their own limitations were ready and willing to offer it.

The kids were spread out throughout the stadium, but all seemed to enjoy the entertainment . We rolled kids in wheel chairs across the dry earth and watched as they joined classmates and kindred spirits to get down to Kenya's favorite pop songs (and let me just say, it's absolutely true that Africans have more natural rhythm than just about anyone - even kids who could barely walk or sit still were dancing circles around me!).

There were some wonderful groups who performed, including a dance troup whose members had various physical challenges - from shriveled limbs to a lack of limbs all together (the guy standing in the photo above has only one leg) - which they managed to move gracefully while setting a powerful example that physical limitations need not hold anyone back from that which they desire to pursue.

The day ended with the Nairobi sky opening up to torrents of badly needed (though poorly timed) rain. A tent was finally assembled so the dancing could continue, and even in the cold I think the kids enjoyed the ice cream treats distributed at the end of the day.

More photos here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I'd like to introduce you to...

...a feisty little gal I've started to call 'The Angry American.'

Never in my wildest dreams would I think I'd play this role in a foreign setting. I much prefer to don the slightly elitist, exceptionally culturally aware 'Sympathetic World Traveler' identity while abroad. The trouble is, when you move somewhere it's much harder to play any role at all. For me, it's against my nature, and even if I was a better actor than I am, there's just too much sensory overload to be anything but my most human and base self in my new home. Unfortunately, this can every once in awhile lead to the emergence of the aforementioned character with whom I'm trying to make peace. And, as with most things (dreams, fears, faults etc.), I think public admittance is half the battle.

The Angry American tends to emerge most often in food or beverage establishments. I might order a small beverage, and a large is delivered and added to my bill instead. Or, I mistakenly ask for a lime instead of a lemon (as lemons here are bright green) with my vodka tonic, and receive Rose's Lime Cordial instead (also added to my bill). Upon attempting to correct such errors I am often advised that once something is on the bill, it can't be remedied, and I just need to deal. The anger and frustration is not always valid - sometimes basic mistakes are made, and sometimes it's my fault. But such things don't happen in a vacuum, they happen in the context of a country where the color of your skin still says more about you to most people upon first meeting than anything else. As a mzungu you are expected to be wealthy, indulgent and unlikely to count pennies. I suppose this is the case for many white people and foreigners in Kenya. But it's not for me, and I have a hard time dealing with those who assume it is. Thus, even when such mistakes or a refusal to correct them are made with absolutely no relation to me as a mzungu, the collateral effects of daily life in this skin leave me brittle and overly sensitive.

I also struggle with my identity as someone entering the Development field under the pretext of "I'm here to help" (cue the Elle Woods accent my friend Adrienne donned in jest when I was preparing to leave last summer). After all, what right do I have to be here or to assume that in doing so I am, in fact, helping anyone at all? And, how do I know how to best maximize what resources I do have given the constant need and opportunities around me? If I did have all the money in the world, I'd be confident in knowing how to invest and offer it where I know it would be used wisely and to great benefit. As I don't, I am constantly wondering where what I do have can be best directed, and feeling guilty when it is sometimes spent on little indulgences or myself.

I think it's because of the thoughts above that when people attempt to play the "rich mzungu" card with me (or downright steal from me as happened on Friday night), The Angry American is ready and willing to respond. On a matatu coming home from one of Nairobi's priciest malls this past Sunday (I was there for a craft show), the tout refused to give me my change, though he had the correct coins in his hand. He was half flirting, but clearly hoped I'd brush the change off and leave it with him. After what happened Friday I was in no mood to indulge the assumption that I have cash to burn and don't think extremely carefully about each and every bit of money I have or spend here. The frustration of getting my purse snatched on Friday and the constant reminder that I just don't know how to balance spending with the need around me boiled up and I took the guy on. My anger appeared to entertain him and the rest of the passengers, who maybe had never seen a mzungu on public transport quite so upset (it's fairly rare to see a mzungu on matatus at all, to be honest). His persistence in withholding my change and taunting (at one point he outstretched his hand and then snapped it back when I went to take the coin) made my blood boil, and I felt completely helpless to do anything about it. Though I can now laugh (and cringe) at my threat to, "climb over the seat and clobber you if you don't give me my change!" the whole scene was wildly uncharacteristic for me. As a friend on facebook said, "Wow, Megan being mad??? You are like the nicest person in the world!!!" Let's just say this matatu full of people does not share that impression! Now a few days later, it's hard for me to imagine how such a small thing could so upset me, and I'd be horribly ashamed to witness the outburst - but at the time it was simply the final straw in a string of bad behavior and assumptions based solely on how I look (I asked the tout if he'd have pulled the same crap with any of the other, clearly Kenyan passengers - there's no way he would have).

I see unfairness and lack of recourse all the time here. People are mugged, houses are robbed, consumers are screwed and the apathy and corruption on the part of law makers leaves little option but to suck it up and count your losses. Couple this with the basic human need found in urban and rural settings right alongside the average person's preference to look out for their own interests (myself included) and I start to understand why The Angry American is so readily available. That said, I don't like her at all, and while for the most part I feel my indignation is justified, I'd like to overcome the anger that presents me as someone other than a foreigner who is desperate to have her presence here be a good one.

As I process my own personal journey I always try and look at things in the broader context. Realities and perceptions don't exist in a vacuum, and as I try to deal with those projected on me and how I react, I'm realizing that in order to deal with the problems facing humanity you have to be willing to admit your own identity therein. Though I don't like to, I must admit this often includes the good, the bad and yes, even the utterly irrational and just plain angry.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

By request: how to help

I've shared a number of organizations and individual stories on this blog thus far, along with a few specific requests for help should anyone be in a position to offer it. I know most people already have their charitable budget determined and set (especially in this economic climate) but I've been inspired by how significantly small amounts can make a difference in some of the lives I've come across here. Take the $18 dollars that covered a month's worth of transport for a young friend starting a job from scratch who had no way to get there but walk (2-3 hours each way) until his pay kicked in. Or, the $6.40 that covered two months of rent for a mother of 4 I met during the visit to coffee country that let her and her kids have a roof over the heads for more than a few nights at a time.

It's amazing what some pocket change can do to give someone a small leg up. Support aimed at providing sustainable training or resources is best and what I am trying to focus on with my time and resources - but in honesty the need is plentiful and whatever can be spared can be put to good use. A friend recently asked if there was a way to send funds that could be directed to some of the organizations I've highlighted. In response I've added a paypal donation button in the right hand sidebar if any of my past or future posts inspire you to give.

Let me say that asking for money, no matter how noble the cause, is probably my least favorite thing in the world. I'm doing it because people have asked me to make it easier to support the people and orgs I've written about, and, in all honesty I feel like it's part of my responsibility as a Rotary Scholar to mobilize whatever resources available to help respond to the opportunities I come across.

Previous posts:

The good, the bad and the ugly
Support immediate needs for the boys at the Expanding Opportunities home in need of clothing, school fees, sporting equipment and monthly sponsors. Donations can also be made by way of the organization itself here.

Hidden Masai
Provide funds to purchase books and help keep the Masai children of this off-the-map village in school.

Further Out, Further In
Help grandmothers raising orphaned grandchildren in Mathaato to start a sustainable business raising chickens and selling eggs.

Help with school fees for Damaris and her sisters, a family who lost both parents a number of years ago.

Support the children of Red Rose Elementary school, currently participating in a pen pal project with the kids of Red Hill Elementary in Orange County and St. Johns Primary School in London.

I will share the results of any donations received and how I'm putting them to use. In terms of the schools and kids I visit, it's great to have some resources to help purchase those things I see immediately lacking - puzzles, balls, notebooks etc. In regards to potential projects - it would be wonderful to have some funds to help establish the chicken project in Mathaato, or to help when specific cases (like Be's work transport or Cecilia's lack of housing) arise. Feel free to send any questions/comments my way. Asante sana to all!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The good, the bad and the ugly

The start of second semester was delayed by a week and I took advantage of my last free days to visit the boys home in Nakuru again on Thursday and Friday. They have fifteen boys now, ranging from 5 to 16 or so, and they are truly a wonderful bunch. Running hugs, late nights studying, adopted big brothers - I see in these boys the best of young men who happen to be coping with the worst of situations - loss of family, former alcohol and glue dependency, and the continued struggle to keep them in clothes and school with extremely limited funds. I watched them stay up late with a local pre school teacher who came to tutor them Thursday night, and when I got up with them at 6 to take pictures in their school uniforms, many had been up since 3:30 studying. Two of the boys, all their circumstances aside, are competing for the top spot at their high school. This is truly no small feat! It breaks my heart to think of the challenges they will face paying for university - both Sammy and Bernard want to be engineers and they will work their tails off to achieve this dream - but like anywhere else, dreams cost money.

I would like to note that my little cousin, David, has decided that this year for his birthday he will ask his friends and guests to donate to the boys in Nakuru in lieu of gifts, and he will also be starting a penpal relationship with one of them. I'm so proud of his willingness to share his blessings and his interest in getting to know these boys who I know he would have so much fun with if they could all hang out in person! In the meantime I am continuing to look for donors and supplies for the home. I will take my parents to visit when they come to Kenya in June - so anyone nearby who has boys clothing, sporting goods or books to share please do. There is literally nothing that would go unused or unappreciated. The littlest boys do not even have underwear right now!

I returned to Nairobi having had yet another dose of perspective. My friend Rachel who is volunteering at the home has been using her own funds to get each boy a new outfit, school books, back packs and underwear. I see need daily in Nairobi, but I get to escape it in the evenings when I retreat to my beautiful home and the comfort of friends. Rachel is on the front line (trading street boys food for glue) - her experience reminds me so much of my time in South Africa and the desperate desire to make as much of a difference as possible. Still, I left the boys home energized by the pure potential and joy of the kids - it was great to help out at the home in the morning and get my hands dirty (literally - we cleaned and organized their exceptionally dusty bookshelves - clearing out such irrelevant titles as "Choices in Becoming A Woman").

My good mood (and the great nap I got in the matatu on the way home) inspired me to hit the town with friends and enjoy my last free weekend. A very fun night ended on a bad note as I got my purse snatched downtown. I let my guard down and hate to admit I was a prime target (I am normally extremely careful - in all my travels this is the first time I've been mugged). I don't think the guy was prepared for the three people who pursued him - a security guard, a friend of a friend and myself (I have not run that fast since high school track - and in heels no less!) but I got waylaid by a sharp corner that sent me into what I hope was a kind of cool tuck and roll (or maybe just crash and burn?) and the other guys lost him in the dark alley. We briefly got him on the phone and thought we could buy back my wallet and phone, but he didn't show at the appointed location. In some ways it's better that he wasn't caught - thiefs are often "lynched" by whoever witnessed the robbery - meaning they're beat to death in front of the victim. I lost an expensive phone and some money, but I'd rather not have someone's life be exchanged in their stead. It was a lesson learned and a true Nairobi initiation. Please do send me your phone number as I rebuild my contact list. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Going to the source

Second semester's been delayed by a week, due more to scheduling issues than the student protests that kept most rational people out of the city center today. As I await the start of classes I am enjoying the opportunity to continue exploring my creative side with the help of a new friend, Sandra, who is a budding Kenyan designer.

One of the best things about building a life in a new place is the opportunity to reinvent pieces of yourself that in the past you've failed to pursue to the extent you might want or be capable of. There is a freedom to be found in introducing yourself as the person that you want to be - rather than the person you've been. For me, this is increasingly taking form in an acknowledgment of my utter need to be involved in creative endeavors, and the opportunity to pursue writing specifically as more than an infrequent hobby. I have started to acknowledge that those dreams we often place far outside the parameters of our "could or would be" aren't always as daunting or intimidating as they seem. I may not leave Kenya as a full-fledged writer or designer - but while I'm here, I'm doing my best to change the way I look at myself as an individual and an artist - breaking my habit of partitioning such critical pieces of myself and focusing on the practical. So today, I sent off a query letter to a local editor and I joined Sandra on a trip to Kibera to meet many of the artisans who create the fundamental components of so many of the arts and crafts found in Kenyan markets.

We caught a bus in front of Kenyatta hospital, with Sandra happy to have made it out of the city before the protests were in full force. Upon arriving in Kibera she encouraged me to make note of our stop - which for all extents and purposes looked like any other in Kibera - full of people, small rusting kiosks, maize husks on the ground, dust and the bent pieces of steel and wood marking the many furniture makers to be found. We entered a market with colorful numbered stalls. Some were tailors, other fabric shops, still others leather dealers (as we'd come to see). I learned how leather is sold and priced and what colors are available. Toddlers peaked out from under their parents' ironing tables, one giggled for quite some time as I marveled at his perfect "toddlerness." Apparently I am quite funny looking to a Kibera two year old. We visited a man who makes the beaded leather sandals found in the markets - his were exquisite - and like all the other vendors, he welcomed sketches and designs from us. We collected prices for piping, waste bands, embroidery, tops and skirts, and then left that market area to visit the bone carvers. Sandra warned me about the dust, but I was more concerned with the almost pleasant, distinctive smell of goat that emanated from the many stalls where men sat hunched over buzz saws and carving tools. Stacks of bones, both dully untouched and glistening polished white lay at their feet. We passed furniture fundis (a fundi is a skilled worker in Kenya) and metal smiths. We stepped over meter upon meter of copper and metal rods, some already pounded into the designs that I'll be offered by street vendors selling bracelets for 100 shillings.

It was as if the local Masai market that is held throughout Nairobi on various days was gathered, sorted and then taken apart piece by piece. I could see the start of dresses, shoes, bags, bracelets, necklaces and furniture. I now know who to go to if I want any of these things (or their components) made. It was a good day, a step forward in being the whole person I want to be. And, as far as I know the University of Nairobi protests did not result in any injuries or major police action - yet another thing to be thankful for.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reality check

I hate to post stuff like this because it alarms family and friends, and I also fear it gives people the wrong impression of Kenya as a whole. At the same time, it's part of reality here - you read the U.S. Embassy advisory in the morning, change your plans to head to town and offer a somewhat desensitized shrug. Then you read the evening headlines and despair at the absurdity of it all.

Activist Killed As Mungiki Returns - Daily Nation, March 5.

Under foot

Here are the rugs Rising will feature in an upcoming fundraiser. The Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers make all sorts of rugs and shawls in various sizes and designs (including plain).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What do you mean there are no chimps in Kenya?*

I've had a perfect two weeks off - time to recover my energy and my senses after throwing myself into academics following a six-year hiatus. Time with friends, time to brainstorm and outreach on the projects I am most excited about, and re-connect with the things that energize and inspire me - namely connecting with artisans and continuing to explore the producer network and opportunities here in Kenya. This past weekend I returned to Nanyuki to pick up three rugs that Rising will use in their fundraising efforts - I think they turned out beautifully! Pictures will be posted soon.

It wasn't all work this weekend though - I was joined by Angeline, Lars and our friend Charles to both celebrate Lars' 27th birthday, and visit the chimps of the Sweetwaters Sanctuary (run by Jane Goodall's foundation) where Angeline did her masters research three years ago. I was proud of how well I embraced the chimps - I have a fear of chimps rivaled only by my brother Tim's fear of wolverines. We both maintain the rationality behind such fears (the tragic mauling of a woman in the U.S. and Tim's contention that you'll never meet someone who's been attacked by a no one survives...). Of course these chimps are far better accomodated and respected for the wild and wonderful animals they are than those dressed up in costumes and given driving lessons, but I digress.

Our game viewing wasn't stellar (Cape Buffalo being the only Big 5 contender we saw) but it was glorious to be in the shadow of Mt. Kenya. I love Nairobi but it's always a treat to get out of the city and into what feels like the real Kenya.

A few more photos here.

*The chimps at Sweetwaters have been rescued from throughout Africa. Most were kept or sold as pets following the poaching of their parents for bushmeat. They've experienced various levels of abuse in their past lives and are now living the life on 22 hectares of Kenyan Savannah. It was a treat to see those who remember Ang, even after so many years. I also loved watching them use tools to maneuver the small space under the electric fence in search of stray peanuts. I think they were more careful than I would have been!