Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day 13: Resilience

(This post was written on an airplane returning from Michigan two weeks ago.)

I am reading 'The War of Art' in an attempt to remove myself from the somewhat expected but no less devastating place of "what's next?" We all have our demons, or as the author Steven Pressfield calls them, Resistance. Mine is a fight for confidence and focus marked by victories big and small on the road to a life of meaning.

My return to Africa in 2007, the ensuing scholarship and the plethora of people and projects these experiences exposed me to made me feel alive. I had near daily opportunities to create links between communities and individuals, expanding the reach of a story and a reality bit by bit. All this was focused on experience - on gleaning from the trenches of a developing country where real changes were possible to enhance relationships on a global level and improve livelihoods for all. My two year odyssey came to an end while my understanding was yet beginning, though the call to base from my homeland grew stronger. So I returned and plunged into a place I thought I'd left behind, a place full of "What really matters?" "What am I really good at?" "How do I support myself and do the work I feel called to do?" The greatest of Resistance crept stealthily in until I found myself paralyzed in old fears, worn excuses and shallow professions of "it's just not to be."

Alongside this time I continued to meditate on my 30 days of Asante - a self-assigned desire to pinpoint the gratitude embedded in the last two years and the home I found in Kenya. And as I talk, read, pray and sometimes plead myself out of this dark place of self doubt and unknown corners I rest upon the resilience of my community and friends in Kenya and here at home.

I don't like to trivialize, capitalize or sensationalize other people's stories - but I do learn from them, and whether simple or severe my life these past two years was colored by the stories of children of the streets, women running shoe-string childrens homes, a brave survivor of rape, a number of post election violence survivors, former street boys trying to take responsibility for themselves and others like them, a woman starting an NGO, a recovering alcoholic, a displaced and abused mother and countless business people who started small, worked their butts off and now have the means to give big. All this alongside my family and friends at home, some getting degrees, other starting families, still others losing loved ones or facing the devastating impact of the recession.

Resilience continues to overcome Resistance in these lives, and I'm determined that as I confront my own doubts and downfalls I will find my own resilience and move forward with the strength, humility and focus to step through whichever doors God opens to claim my individual role in this global village - however big or small that role might be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 14: Growing old gracefully

(This post was originally written three days before I left Kenya).

It's Sunday night (well, Monday morning) and I'm rounding off a a weekend of goodbyes that feel both perfect and out of place. Kenya has become a true home, and how can one ever say a firm goodbye to such a place?

Friday night I had a simple night out with friends in preparation for a Saturday at the Nairobi Arboretum for a family friendly picnic. The sun showed up as did some of my favorite Kenyan food and it was all that I had hoped - relaxing and full of people who have colored these two years with personality and friendship beyond what I could have hoped for.

Afterward my friend Anthony graciously drove a few of us home and we prepared for a night out with my Rotary club at a local restaurant. In a small room some of the people I have admired and fellowship-ed with in Rotary gathered to send me off in true style. I floated above it all trying to soak in the reality of departure, the understanding that this life I have built is somehow shifting to a new dimension. I am starting to understand.

Starting to understand that as I know returning to the U.S. and the opportunity to be closer to family and lifelong friends is exactly what I am meant to do, the reality that Kenya is now home stands firm. There is a version of me that I am able to embrace here that I have never quite embodied anywhere else, it feels tied to that arrival 20 years ago, when as a child I first opened my eyes to this land. I remember the smells, the people, the roads as we traveled. The small boy with a crutch by his side who smiled so brightly as we passed in our mzungu vehicle. And now 20 years later this place is home - those memories replaced by the reality of walking these streets, breathing this air, becoming the person who feels at home in this once foreign place. And the people - those friends who have swept me up when I couldn't make sense of myself, of my living here, of the choices that led to this path. Of the relationships that transcend being abroad and instead have taught me what it means to identify myself as a friend, a community member, a daughter, a sister or an aunt.

Last night my voice cracked as I tried to explain to my community here that this has not been about living in Africa for me - but about somehow learning those most basic realities of life and humanity and community that immersion in my own culture had kept me from. My desire to help, to make a difference - I understand now that if I were to limit this to the "African" context it would be without value on the cosmic scale - because we are all people, we all face the same struggles albeit in different scopes and different scales. These two years have not been about Africa, they have been about humanity - about understanding myself in relation to the world around me, and how that world calls me to be a part of it.

And so tonight I return home from a night out with my favorite guys - 4 men who have brought joy and friendship and support into my life this year especially. And as I walk into the room I see Cristabel's baby bag at the foot of my bed, left by Maureen today because she had too much to carry. And I think that when I add it all up, two years here in Kenya, it amounts to the most perfect of sums. It amounts to the reality of relationships, of new friendships alongside those richly held back at home. It has been a time of experiences that I still can't comprehend.

Just over seven months ago I welcomed this precious child into the world while I held the hand of her mother. Ever since I have watched the growth of this duo - the love of a mother and the blank slate of a child dependent on her parent. I realize I am just the same - a child of God gradually writing and rewriting my slate as I learn what it means to live and love fully, no matter where I am.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day 15: An open table

On one of my last weekends in Nairobi I had plans to meet my friend Kevin at an open house for a local charity run by a Rotarian. Kevin was working so he had his brother pick me up with a plan to drop off some other relatives and then pick Kevin to continue to the event around 2 p.m. BUT, t.i.K...(this is Kenya) and at 7:00 p.m. I found myself still at the first stop (having already had tea, chips, sausage and cake) about to sit down to a prodigious feast. I didn't really understand until after we left at around 9:00 p.m. (mind you, without Kevin - who was still at work - even though he was my only connection to this group) what this visit was all about. It turns out that Kevin's aunt was visiting her granddaughter who was born shortly before her son was killed. The girl had just turned four and it was a day for her grandparents to come together, pray for strength as they raised their grand kids and celebrate the legacy of a life lost (and another, the mother, who lived far away in search of a better job in Singapore). I was a random visitor invited and encouraged because I simply happened to be there. I was welcomed in.

My mom hosts Thanksgiving every year in our family. I treasure this day because we celebrate an open table policy as well - each year there is always a person or two who is traveling through or finds they are at an overladen Thanksgiving table in our house for the first time. There are also the oldest and truest of family friends who share this holiday with us, and there are always a few spots where someone is missing (in recent years it has been me among others). This year I will relish in the warmth of a love-filled house and having many of my nearest and dearest within arms reach. I will also be soberly aware of those who are not with us for one reason or another and say a prayer that someday the following will ring true for all, "Forever on Thanksgiving day the heart will find the pathway home."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day 16: Simple Gifts

Two years ago on my first full day in Kenya I walked a couple of blocks from the YMCA to get a sim card for my phone. I knew to look for a Zain sign (one of the largest cell networks in Kenya) based on recommendations from friends. The first one I saw was on Koinange street and within minutes I was in the expert care of Sanjay. Two years later I still have the phone number he set me up with.

Sanjay quickly became my go-to guy for all sorts of things - DVDs, Mirrors for my room, saffron for my brother's Christmas present (I'd heard it was much cheaper in Kenya). I passed his shop most days coming to or from school and I'd stop by for a quick chat or sometimes bring by sodas or icecream to say thanks for a variety of small favors during my first weeks and months in Nairobi.

On one of my very first visits Sanjay gave me a Philip Presio watch - a steal by American standards but pricey for Nairobi's downtown. I couldn't understand why he'd give me something when he barely knew me and all I had done was buy a sim card and some phone credit from him. Still, as he did, I realized to refuse the watch would be horribly impolite. I also recognized that if I were to accept it, I had to do so in the spirit of giving, and not with an expectation that I owed a favor or something else to this new acquaintance who I really didn't know that well.

For months, each time I saw Sanjay I expected some request to counter the gift of the watch. Would he someday ask me for money or a loan? Would he eventually cross a line and hit on me? None of these things ever happened. Instead, he invited me to meet his wife and two small girls who lived in a small lower-class Indian enclave on the road out of town. Over the next year he would call to check in if I hadn't stopped in in awhile, always asking if I was o.k. or if I needed anything.

This last year Sanjay's shop had moved and I never got to see him. He called me a few times to say hi, giving me an update on his family and checking in. I continued to wear the watch which was extremely helpful in Nairobi where you risked staring at an empty palm if you checked your phone on bustling streets.

Tonight I arrived in Orlando to visit my brother Todd and his family. Shortly after getting off the plane I stopped by the restroom and in a quick flash watched as Sanjay's gift flew off my wrist and into the forceful flush of the airport toilet. It happened in an instant due to a loose clasp and suddenly this trusty little time piece was gone.

It was a simple gift from a fleeting friendship that helped me feel at home in a far off land. It was generous, without strings, and useful - everything a gift should be. I will miss it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 17: D.I.Y.

I want to finish my '30 Days of Asante' posts now that I'm starting to get back in the swing of things. That said, life is far from fluid and I'm still about 12 days out from being able to unpack my suitcases and settle down for a bit. I leave Orange County tomorrow and I've loved visiting with old friends and even newer friends from Kenya who happen to be in town. I've also tried to give myself some downtime so I haven't seen everyone I wanted to - I've needed the days to get organized and put out feelers for work while I begin to get back into school-mode so I can continue working on my project.

As I've unwound in the borrowed spaces of treasured friends I've noticed moments of silence and stillness that suddenly ring with profound appreciation for beauty in the everyday. I come across articles, songs and stories describing tender moments and suddenly my eyes are leaking. It's like the semi-hardness that I developed trying to deal with my own inadequacies in the face of need has started to melt away, and I'm finally able to process the beauty and pain of reality just as it is.

The lovely ladies behind Raven+Lily shared this article today and I had to pass it on. Personally, I've always been drawn to international issues, motivated by the global citizen identity that so much of my upbringing, activities and education has fostered. I have had the flexibility of being young and single, and the time and savings to explore how international development is practiced and what is and isn't working. Having the freedom and drive to do so has set me on a path that has been absolutely critical in the evolution of my understanding not just of global development issues, but of humanity (and our commonality) as a whole.

My time in Kenya has yet to result in a specific mission or organization that I felt a need to start in order to elevate these lessons. I think I am better suited to raising awareness about existing organizations I believe in like Rotary - which empowers everyday people to join forces while promoting strong standards, partnership, and an empowerment mentality. I think this statement from the article summarizes what the organizations and individuals I am drawn to hope to address: "The challenge is to cultivate an ideology of altruism, to spread a culture of social engagement — and then to figure out what people can do at a practical level."

When I talk to people who are in careers that are either low paying or extremely demanding time wise, I often hear a sense of powerlessness in the face of inequality and need. But take a look at the article and how inspiring the individuals who are practicing D.I.Y. foreign aid are (and for those whose passion lies in addressing more local needs, these models can be applied to domestic challenges as well). I especially love this organization, One Day's Wages, because it recognizes that none of us are so limited that we can't make a profound difference in someone's life. I hope that as I adjust back to life in the U.S. I don't forget this.

Very few of us will ever be such change agents that we stand as individuals behind the innovations or inventions that revolutionize life for the masses. If we are lucky, we will touch a few lives profoundly and know that this is enough. As the first organization that took me to Africa recognized, if we all are willing to make a difference where we can - that collective difference adds up. Every time a person, article, story or moment reminds me of this I am moved to tears with the brilliant simplicity that in such acts, we can find the deepest of meaning.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day - Water

My family is a family of singers. Over the years at family gatherings with wine flowing and the dusk moving into night we have raised voices in harmony to sing songs taught by my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Some are silly, some desperately sad - others act as virtual history lessons. I equate different songs to different people, and one of the most beautiful is a song my grandmother sang called 'Water.' The lyrics go like this:

All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water,
Cool water.
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water,
Cool water.

Keep a movin' Dan, don't you listen to him Dan, he's a devil not a man
and he spreads the burnin' sand with water.
Dan can't you see that big green tree where the waters runnin' free
and it's waiting there for me and you.
Water, cool water.

The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water,
Cool water.
And way up there He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water,
Cool Water.

Dan's feet are sore he's yearning for just one thing more than water,
Cool water.
Like me, I guess, he'd like to rest where there's no quest for water,
Cool water.

These aren't the exact lyrics my family sings, but you get the idea. It's a song that manages to capture the desperation of a thirst I've certainly never known, but which continues to plague people around the world for lack of this most fundamental need.

Kenya is no exception, with tribes in the north and villages in especially dry regions more prone to the ill effects tied to lack of clean drinking water - including a variety of water-borne diseases. My rotary club (and many others) have made this a special priority in their projects, and blog action day is a great opportunity to highlight the continued needs for deep wells, affordable filtration systems and additional education for all about the importance of preserving this precious resource.

Tonight I'll take a moment to count my blessings for being back where water is readily available (and easily taken advantage of - I need to work on this!) while I close my eyes and try and hear my grandmother's voice singing about this cool, clear life support to us all.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Need help?

As I mentioned in my previous post I am looking for short term/part time work opportunities this fall as I catch up with friends and family and begin writing my thesis. I am interested primarily in remote-access work (i.e. online writing/special projects) OR opportunities from November 1st onward in or around Monterey. For very short term gigs (i.e. special events etc.) I am available for travel - especially in/around the SF Bay Area.

If you have any needs in your personal or professional life or know of any opportunities, please keep me in mind for the following. I am happy to provide references that can affirm my ability to jump in at a moment's notice and get the job done.

  • Writing/Editing: Copy, features, newsletters, website content, resumes, cover letters etc.
  • Special Projects Coordination and Project Management
  • Social Media Strategy/Consulting
  • Events Organizing/Customer Service/Sales
  • Personal Assistance (i.e. anyone with any special needs that a willing helper can take care of)
  • Photography
Finding some work to stay afloat over the next few months would really help me complete this journey more comfortably while preparing for next steps (which I hope include 1-3 months of finalizing my M.A. work in Kenya before embarking on my full-time job search in the Pacific Northwest).

Many thanks!

Oh, hello there

Hi friends. You know when things are about to get crazy and you sit yourself down and have a little talk about how it's about to get crazy and you're going to handle it smashingly, stay on top of your correspondence, make a daily call list? Well I'm still in stage one of the chaos and so far the new iphone is helping to read emails, but I'm not doing so great at responding. And I've been running around like a chicken with my head cut off but I still haven't even called some of my best friends or family members! Suffice it to say, I'm back in the U.S., and it's going to be like this for awhile. To my friends in Kenya - you are in my thoughts! To my friends here - I will see you soon!

Recap of Week 1: 1 night in Bay Area, 3 nights in Yosemite for a wedding, 3 nights in Monterey and 2 nights back in the Bay Area.

Week 2: Drive to Seattle, overnight in Portland, 1.5 weeks exploring Seattle, visiting Rotary Clubs, networking, visiting ROOTS (Simon's Church), drinking coffee etc. etc. Data review/analysis from my research during the days.

Week 3: 3-4 nights in L.A. followed by 4-6 nights in Orange County. Meeting the newest gaggle of babies from my college friends. Visiting my nephews. Starting aggressive short-term job outreach (see next post). Oktoberfest! Surfing!

Week 4: Back to the Bay - celebrating Cat's 30th, starting some short term work, continuing to write, visiting Todd and Julia in Florida (if I can swing it).

Week 5+: Monterey to WRITE and work where I can. That's my plan for the fall!

I will return to the 30 days of Asante as soon as possible. Cheers!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Day 18: Prayer

When I first returned to Africa in 2007 I found myself in an area with the highest HIV/Aids infection rates in the continent. Kwa Zulu Natal is the land of South Africa’s greatest and fiercest warriors, whose descendents have been crippled by a disease against which spears have no effect. A hardened development professional I met with after my return was quick to point out I’d never walked the rows of a children’s Aids' ward in west Africa where babies lay listless and ready to die. But I found the experience of living with Lindokuhle in the days before her death alongside the knowledge (confirmed two years later) that Noluvo’s lungs would someday give out was sufficient to drive home the devastation of this epidemic and the undeserved affliction of the youngest generation.

During that time I struggled to understand the seeming chaos of such inequality and powerlessness. While my nephews and nieces at home were thriving these children were covered in sores, abandoned by parents or surviving family members, scarred by abuse at the hands of impoverished caretakers. But each morning I would awake to laughter, singing and the sound of prayer over breakfast. And each afternoon as uniformed little bodies returned from school the yard would erupt in vibrant activity and the energetic throng of children’s energy. And eventually I understood, that as each of these growing beings had already faced challenges far beyond my comprehension, they remained children – not yet whole as individuals. There was room for hope that with the love and support of this home and the people that had taken them in they would triumph over scarred pasts. Such hope gave way to a bigger hope, that this region would begin to respond to the outreach of the health workers, to the growing awareness and education about how to protect itself from this disease. And this, in turn, gave way to hope that the global community would take greater notice, would make better choices holding this country accountable to the reality of the epidemic, using what capitol we could to encourage education, treatment and equal access to opportunity. And so I left with the understanding that in the deepest and darkest recesses of humanity, there is always room for hope.

Last night I returned from a visit to the boys’ homes in Nakuru. It was a delightful weekend although the same challenges continue to plague one group especially – how do you break boys who have been on the streets fending for themselves of the habit of doing the same when their needs are being provided for? I found myself worrying over the little boys who are, like all kids, vulnerable to the world around them. Growing in response to external forces, being moulded into people who can survive the world they are a part of. Here I was hoping for them to remain soft and innocent – and yet such traits would likely lead to their great disadvantage in the long term.

So I returned home and as I lay in bed last night I began to pray. I let go of any anxiety built up over the days as I acknowledged my role as a witness and a participant rather than an engineer. I asked for patience, for grace, for guidance, for faith. I prayed for these boys, for relationships, for humanity. And I found hope, and peace.

Please forgive the delays in posting - the internet is not cooperating with my 1 post per day plan!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Day 19: Old Friends

Planning multi-country travel from rural South Africa in 2007 proved fairly challenging. The result was a total change in plans that had me flying to Kenya by myself as my travel companions would still be in Mozambique. With no real plans and worry that I'd be a bit shell shocked trying to navigate the city on my own, I reached out to a professor at my alma mater who I'd met at a couple of Africa-focused dinners before my departure. She provided my first window into Kenyan hospitality by putting me in touch with her brother Daniel, who sight unseen picked me up from the airport. I am not even sure how we figured out who each other were, but that first greeting gave way to 4 days of total immersion into the Nairobi social scene. We did lots of tourist stuff, lots of craft market shopping (I mean this is me, right?) and lots of raising our bottles of Tusker. I met a handful of his friends who became my first friends in this country. They picked me up at the airport over a year later when I returned, and have provided some of my most fun (and crazy!) memories to date with camping trips and nights on the town. I saw a couple of them last night for the first time in ages and I gotta say, no matter how much time goes by I just love these people.

I haven't traveled widely in Africa but the countries and towns I've been to have all presented a similar reality when it comes to the passage of time. Relationships here do not depend on constant contact to survive. There is an understanding and an appreciation for the ebb and flow - and time ends up flying without the perception that it has passed at all. I love that the result is friendships and relationships that can be rekindled at the top of an evening and are always there to remind you of your roots.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Day 20: My global village

I just got back from the airport picking up my roomie from last year. It's been over a year and I can't tell you how good it is to have her back! As I started to tell her about my year in the car I realized that just like last year it has been full of friends coming in and out from all over the world. I have three new friends from Germany (Lars, Michael and Judi), Frederique from France and Angeline from Ireland. I have friends I keep in touch with in Ethiopia, Lamu and Zanzibar, South Africa and a host of other destinations. My friend Jeff from Canada has written me over the past two years after we met and cycled together to the Cape of Good Hope in 2007. Jeff went with another Zambian girl we met on that trip, Ronnie, to climb Kili last year - and I heard from her recently asking for Kenyan coastal vacation suggestions. These are just a handful of the people who have made the last few years that much more colorful during my time abroad (not to mention many of my own country mates who I've bonded with as expats in Kenya). All this simply enriches my community of local Kenyans - many of whom have global villages of their own. This is an international city and I love that when I leave I'll be able to share memories of this time wherever I end up going in the world with friends I met along the way.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Day 21: Sleep

Three weeks from now I will board a plane late in the evening. I will think about sleeping but the call of in flight movies will prove a perfect match for being over tired and overwhelmed at this first flight of departure from life being fully lived in Kenya.

I am fast planning the next few months, scheduling visits and blissful time with friends and family seen too little these last two years. I do this in part to help stem the ache that is sure to settle when I settle and the knowledge that even as good things unfold to keep me grounded here I will never be truly in two places at once.

So I will begin to build the next phase of my life, to lay what further ground work I can so that I may always return and feel at home and part of the community I so cherish here in Nairobi. And each night I will lay down and pray as I have learned to pray a prayer of thanks for all that the day has held, all the lessons learned, all that has been left undone. I will travel to the dream land in which my many worlds collide, letting me be all places as my body rests and gets ready for whatever roads must be walked the following day.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 22: Perspective

Today I got the call - my proposal is finally ready to present. Tonight I'm to make a few revisions, go to school first thing in the morning, collect signatures and send it out in advance of Thursday's presentation date.

I got home about fifteen minutes ago, sat down to revise and the power went out. Of course it did. Here here for mobile modems!

(This short post brought to you courtesy of my failing battery and short candles).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day 23: Everybody move to the back of the bus

I'm not sure I've ever felt more empowered then I did while driving through the Kenyan country side with my windows down and savannah air blowing in my face. I've had some of my favorite moments out on the road here. Moments in which I realize that twenty years after I first met this land I found my way back. What a dream.

Alas, the car is now sold and I'm doing a lot more walking, bus and matatu riding. I'm actually enjoying this because it gets me out in the community in a way that having a car shielded me from for a time. I'm reminded more and more of my first weeks and months here when every corner turned was new and a simple bus ride felt like an adventure.

Now the bus is just a bus, but the past year has seen the advent of various improvements in the public transport scene in Nairobi. While matatus used to be the only entertainment-laden vehicles around, a selection of the larger (and more formal) KBS buses are now equipped with t.v. screens at the front. These screens play ads, public service announcements (today I learned it is illegal to cross the street as a pedestrian while talking on the phone) and videos. Tonight's video took some googling to figure out. But if you were me taking the bus home tonight, here's what you would have seen:

Now who wouldn't be thankful for such absurdity? Hopping vampires and baboon ghosts...whoever picks the entertainment for route 46 gets an A+ in my book.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day 24: If you can walk you can dance

I think every human is born with an innate desire to dance. I've watched babies around the world flail tiny fists in response to the first few notes of a song. I've danced around the room with nephews and nieces and recorded elaborate music videos as a child myself with my girlfriends. But where I come from, by about the age of ten you know if someone is a real dancer or not - and if you're not, you turn your extra curricular activity focus elsewhere and start working on your go-to move for all future dance opportunities. If you're me, you come up with a ridiculous dance face to hide your fear that you're making a fool of yourself each time the beat gets going, even as that inborn desire to move with the music has never left you.

In Kenya people never learn to be self conscious of their dancing ability. It wouldn't occur to someone here to put themselves in a "good" or "bad" dancing category. Because dancing is simply an extension of the self - an automatic reflex to good music and good times that refrains from demanding optimal circumstances, a perfect partner or any validation from those around you. I love being at a local bar and seeing a table of people with one person who just can't stand it anymore and has to get up and dance in place. They don't dance to seduce, they don't dance because they're sick of talking or because they're trying to get someone's attention (as with any rule, there are exceptions). Most people I see dancing here simply dance because they must - there body moves and at some point they can't sit still.

Last night I went out with some friends and I danced like no one was watching. I gave in to the reality that if I were to let my self consciousness hold me back I'd be alone in such silliness. I felt at home in my skin and unaware that anything set me aside from those around me who never learned to question why their body must move when music calls it to.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day 25: Making History

This morning I sit glued to my t.v. as a new dawn rises in Kenya. Outside the final clouds of our coldest season blanket our city while throngs gather at Uhuru Park for the promulgation of the new constitution. Dressed in all manner of regalia, entertained by dancers from around the country, Kenya’s leadership oversees this day. They sit with solemn faces, breaking occasionally into smile as the celebration peaks in song or dance or the simple joy of hope. For them, changes loom large. Positions will change, voting should have more meaning, progress should be harder to stall in the name of special interests. And yet, somehow, it passed. The country unified with a resounding “yes” – its original dictator doing great service to the yes camp by being so strongly in the no camp.

Now I am watching as my friend Caroline Nderitu (a member of my Rotary Club and a former Poet Laureate of Kenya) shares a poem she has written for this day:

“…For we have come, where we have been going,

the platform for transformation.

It is time for a new brand of a brand new Kenya.

It is time.”

A gospel singer follows Caroline. One man in the rows of dignitaries stands amidst his more solemn counterparts, waving his hands with the rhythm, echoing the scores of the common people more willing to give in to the joy of this occasion.

They are all standing now. I am crying now. This is a day bigger than I can understand but even I know it is a beginning.

Tonight the sun sets on Kenya’s second republic.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day 26: Opening doors

Coming to Kenya was the manifestation of a variety of doors that had opened for me in the previous year or two. I think the only role I played was being willing to say out loud, "I want something more than this from and for myself." I started to articulate what I was dreaming about, where I envisioned myself and then I put those things into words. Words found their way into conversations, conversations gave way to contacts, contacts became friends and partners. Eventually my scholarship with Rotary came through and here I am looking back on it all with awe.

Rotary has been a huge part of my life in recent years and has offered me the chance to become the person holding the handle at gateways for others. One such person is Lian Kariuki, a young Kenyan I met earlier this year who in the interim between high school and college has decided to use her talents and passions to help empower disadvantaged youth here in Kenya. I love meeting people like Lian who recognize that change starts here, and who see no boundaries reflected in their age or personal limitations. While I haven't been able to provide financial support to Lian, I did share with her an application for OXFAM's International Youth Partnership a while back after a classmate shared it with me. To our mutual delight Lian was chosen as one of 300 youth from 98 countries around the world to become an OIYP Youth Partner.

This is such a great opportunity for someone with vision and passion like Lian. As part of the program she gets to attend a gathering of all the YP's in India this fall. Scholarships were limited, however, so now she's trying to get there. As Lian doesn't lack creativity - she's put together a fundraiser with products her project, Adopted Dreams, create with local youth. For each donation you make I will personally deliver (or mail!) one of their products (Lian will pay for the cost of the product out of the donation). Please take a look and consider supporting Lian in her first year as an OIYP Youth Partner. I promise - this won't be the last that you see of her!

$30 Donation - Receive a handmade Kanga shopping bag (colors vary) for eco-friendly shopping with a global twist :)

$50 Donation - Receive a handmade travel pillow in Kikoy or Kanga print (the outside is removable for washing).

Patterns vary but please feel free to specify a preferred color. You can donate via my paypal link at the right of this blog.

Asante Sana to all!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day 27: Burnt Meat

Last December I joined a friend from my local pub for a goat boil near my house. As we ate, I remember thinking, "It doesn't get any better then this! Meat? Check! Potatoes? Check! Beer? Check!" The following day I visited Red Rose school and on the way home realized I was having trouble walking. When I got to my house I got in bed and didn't get out (except for nature's calls) for four days. Suffice it to say, I didn't have much taste for meat for MONTHS after that experience.

After a summer at home I came back to Kenya and found I'd really missed local food. It's like my stomach had finally transitioned and suddenly the stewed meats and vegetables that I'd gotten hopelessly sick of during the second half of my first year were all I wanted. Perhaps I was becoming a Kenyan? All I know is that nothing tastes as 'sweet' (Kenyan for DELICIOUS) as nyama choma these days. The literal translation is 'burnt meat' - and as an American whose been raised to relish a perfectly rare steak, this took some getting used to.

Now, give me some piping hot roast mbuzi, a small pile of salt and a block of ugali - add some sukuma on the side and top it off with a cold Tusker - it's heaven on a plate.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 28: Alex

In Nairobi, everyone has a shortlist of trusted taxi drivers that can be called at a moment's notice. Such a list is born of strong recommendations or exceptional service after that one time you were forced to head to the queue and trust your luck. My current list numbers 13, but my first call is always to Alex.

In Kenya taxis wait at specific spots. I think they actually pay association dues based on their location. Alex queues across from my old house so he's always been nearby when I needed him. His car is to put it mildly, falling apart - not ideal for a taxi in Nairobi where the quality of your car can quite literally mean life or death if it leaves you stranded on the wrong road at the wrong time. But Alex is a mechanic so I have faith in the car staying in working order, regardless of the sounds it makes (and right now, the passenger side door does threaten daily to fall off).

Alex and I have slightly different political views but our friendship is steadfast. He's seen me head to school with my bag over packed and the sleep still in my eye, and collected friends and I in the wee hours of the morning after concerts or dancing on the town. He never fails to greet me with a "Hello Megan! How are we today? Long time!" even if I've seen him just a couple days before.

When my parents came to Kenya I made sure they met Alex and that he provided as much of our Nairobi transport as possible (this was before I had my car, which I had Alex take a look at before buying - I needed his seal of approval). I love that when I see him he askes how Mama and Daddy are, and that one day I got to meet his kids when he picked me from the airport before taking them to school.

It is simple relationships like this that I treasure here. Knowing that there is someone who provides good service but also friendship to accompany my comings and goings. When I next return to Kenya it is likely Alex who will greet me at the airport, hopefully in a newer car he his working is butt off to import and expand his business with. I for one will be giving him a token tip towards this effort on our last ride together for now.

Day 29: Makina Market

I wrote about Makina last year when long-subdued creative juices were manifesting in the trash-laden road running into Kibera. My friend Sandra first took me there when my questions about where to go for various craft supplies wouldn't stop. She figured she might as well lead the horse to water instead of quenching its thirst by the thimble-full. I have never seen another mzungu in the market or even at the stage where you alight from the Matatu at inner Toi. This leaves me feeling like I've discovered a secret source of those things that are four times as much at each of the well known tourist markets. A place where those sandals that seemed cute but not so comfy can be customized to a pair I already own and in the color of my choice.

I mostly go to Makina with Sandra to see how her various orders are coming (she designs wonderful laptop and messenger bags) but have been back recently to have my favorite faux bag (well loved and falling apart at the seems) remade in leather. It took a year and a half to find the right color, but the craftsman, Ofula, finally found it and is making it now. I went to finalize the order yesterday and enjoyed walking silently through the uneven rows of pint-sized tailoring and fabric shops. I loved when some mending I took in warranted a 70 bob repair fee (less than $1) - proof that I am known here as a local, not a mzungu for which the prices could be quoted a whole lot higher.

I am always amazed at Makina and the sites that stay the same time after time. The men in front of Ofula's shop crouch in the dust pounding out long strips of copper which will be bent into braided bracelets to be sold to bleary-eyed tourists across the country. I can never fathom that a market for such quantity exists, but at my old house the copper bracelet seller was there every day - so somehow he must have enough buyers to keep him going.

I spoke with Ofula at length yesterday about the quality of his pieces, asking him why he didn't have an apprentice, why wasn't he expanding? "I tried to teach my nephew, but he left," he told me. He looked discouraged as he spoke of young people and the wealthy people they aspire to be who look down on artisans as uneducated and lacking promise. This conversation took place just three days after a staff member from the Ministry of Youth shared at my Rotary meeting her vision for encouraging leather production in Kenya - noting that when our cattle die, we bury them where they lay - skin and all. Then, we import leather from India and China.

Makina reminds me that the best learning experiences I've had here are taking moments to step out of my role as visitor, as mzungu, as student or as buyer. To simply enter into conversation with the people working this country from the ground up. To hear the voice of blistered hands and aching backs bent over beautifully crafted pieces, or at the steering wheel of a beat up taxi. But that is for tomorrow's post.

This month I'll also be posting favorite pictures from my time here with each post. Sometimes they'll be related, sometimes not (like today).

Day 30: Maggie

It took me awhile to get used to the number of people coming in and out of my old house. For starters, in my first year I was frequently exhausted by the time I got home - both physically from walking my feet off and navigating Nairobi rush hour and emotionally from new situations and cultural realities on a daily basis. Because of Rotary I was also constantly meeting rooms full of people and I've long had the sense walking around town or entering parties that there are plenty of people I'm passing that I've met before, if only I could place the face.

My last house was home to an organization with roughly 12 staff members but on top of those common faces at school breaks we'd have a variety of students that my housemate Megan supported show up for visits, work (for school fees or pocket money) or to stay and study. Maggie was one of these students who I met a couple times last year but didn't get to know until this year when she came to stay for a few weeks. I've written about the ordeal she went through trying to get her birth certificate and ID card in order to meet the new regulation that no child can be enrolled in school without them. She was sitting next to me watching a movie when our neighbor was murdered, and we got to spend a lot of time together during that time which was personally stressful for her and unsettling for our household as a whole.

Maggie has become a friend and a bit of a teacher to me. She has told me of her experience during the post election violence, about growing up in a combination of Mathare slum and the HCI children's home. Of being sidelined by pneumonia during her upper class years in high school, and then again this year as she prepared for the coming exams that will determine her academic fate. Her performance will dictate whether she gets a treasured spot in the public University system with fees paid - but less than 10% do.

Sometimes when we're together I find myself studying the contours of her face to see if I can find marks of the life she's lived. She is a teenager and a woman, a child and a teacher, a friend and a dependent.

Maggie came over for a sleepover on Friday night and yesterday when we parted I realized it was my first goodbye. She goes back to school tonight and will be there through her exams in October. I will see her when I return in the Spring (and she'll be a graduate!) but I won't see her before I leave.

Late last night as I tossed and turned I got a text from Maggie on a borrowed phone saying goodbye and thanking me for my friendship. Like so many things I have learned here this relationship has deepened my persective of friendship, my understanding of how to give someone love that needs it, and how to receive love when I need it. I'm so thankful for this beautiful young woman and the time we spent building a friendship this year.

30 days of Asante

This morning I woke up to the realization that I have one month left living life as I currently know it in Kenya. While I hope to return in the Spring for a short time to finish my project and perhaps do an internship, this chapter is coming to a close. Fall on the west coast, holidays with my family, and milestones for dear friends in the coming months beckon and thrill me. But when I am still, when my heart is not racing with anxiety for being behind or coming out of a period of months where I turned off some pieces of myself in an effort to focus (I advise against this by the way!) I catch a glimpse of the sorrow this farewell will bring. In an effort to prepare myself and to document some of the things that have made this experience spectacularly life affirming I'm going to share something each day that I am thankful for about my time here, the people I've come to treasure, the land that feels ancestral to me and the knowledge I have that Kenya is one of my homes and always will be.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August and everything after

This year is well beyond half over, and truthfully, I'm not sure where it went! How can it be August? How can I have already extended my time in Kenya, but have 45 short days left to live my life here? And, given such a time line, how can I get out of my perpetual school rut and get back into the awareness and immersion that this experience has been so ripe with throughout.

I had great meetings with my supervisors before a short two week trip home (from which I just returned) and thought I'd hit the ground running when I got back, finally getting to the point where I can present and move forward with my research. But, in my truest of academic fashions, I've hit the skids and have spent the last three days staring blankly at my computer, listlessly making my way through print outs, feeling vaguely aware that there is a plethora of information through which I must sort and coherently put together and whew, that makes me want to take a nap (jet lag doesn't help). I think today I've realized I need to detach from my macbook, go for a walk, chat over coffee and give myself a break from myself. Because I can't say I'm taking a break from work, because I haven't really been getting anything done. But here's hoping tomorrow that changes.

That said, life looms large ahead with a September 21st departure from Kenya fixed. And it's unlikely I will be "done" and I'm ok with that if I could just get anywhere but here with my project. And the exciting thing is I get to look forward to breaking from academia and back into reality - back to shared work spaces and dreams of that perfect job coming through. It may not, but I'm excited to get back into the vision stage, because this stage, well this stage is not so good for the psyche. But give me people, give me ideas, give me vision - and I'll be back on track in no time.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Watch this, and then tomorrow night watch this. Then, you can understand one of the only truths I've come to terms with after almost two years here. Education is where it's at. We can all make a difference, it doesn't take much. Every child has potential. There is always hope.

Friday, June 25, 2010

For the archives

(I started this post weeks ago and it was written over a period of time but I'm posting it now, after the fact, for memories sake as this blog serves as a chronicle of my time here, and this was a major time period in my second year).

In the last week my work/life balance in Nairobi took a precarious turn for the totally ridiculous. It is no real secret that I am woefully behind on my research project (though to be fair, most of my classmates are on the same timetable). It should be noted that a great deal of this is because of an inability to sit, focus and process information that has plagued me as a student for as long as I can remember. The problem is that the challenge doesn’t stop there – in fact life in Nairobi lately has been sort of a cosmic jokester determined to defeat my weaknesses as a student once and for all.

Remember my post right after I returned from Ethiopia? It wasn’t that long ago – and didn’t it just ring of the promise of focus and knuckling down? I wrote that on a Monday night, and it took until Friday (and a sobbing mess of a Thursday in which I hit the proverbial bottom) to have a solid day of getting work done (thanks to a dear friend who has lent me a desk at his office so I can get away from the chaos of my house). I’d spent Thursday night processing the stern advice of my advisors that an end of July departure (as planned and booked with a non-exchangeable miles ticket) would be a nail in the coffin of my M.A., and I should revise my plans to stay until the end of September in order to ensure a completed project and a December 2010 graduation. I’m still planning and processing how to make this work, though the idea that it actually provides enough time offers a fair amount of consolation to the inevitable stretch to finances and the additional time spent away from friends and family. By Friday I felt like I was ready to make this work and I stayed in Friday night finalizing some pieces of my introduction and keeping a young girl who was staying with us company.* We watched a movie, let the dog out and went to bed somewhere around 3:00 a.m.

The next morning we learned some terrifying news – the first house in our compound of 3 had been broken into early Saturday morning, and the 55-year old French woman who lived there had been killed. It is estimated to have happened at around 2:30 a.m., so we were home, awake and in and out of our house with the dog at that time. I won’t go into details but it was a targeted attack and nothing was stolen (thus minimizing the threat to our home), but it has shaken my housemate and I as I write this I do so from a friend’s couch, as I didn’t want to stay home alone tonight just a week after the fact.

By Sunday we’d started to recover from the shock of Friday’s events and Maggie, housemate Jana and Mukuria (boyfriend of Megan who is currently in the states, he acted as our de-facto security the first few nights after the murder) were all at the house. At approximately 9:30 p.m., the flood I posted about previously rushed through our house, and three hours later we were still emptying out water. A retaining wall had crumbled and unlike the flood at Christmas (2 hours before my Christmas party) this gave way to an actual current even after the rains had subsided.

By Tuesday life felt more or less back to normal, or as normal as can be with the knowledge that an assailant crept through your backyard a few days before and brutally killed your neighbor. Tuesday and Wednesday were fairly uneventful, and then Thursday afternoon I returned home to learn that the woman who washes our clothes two days a week had gone missing. It was puzzling given her shoes, purse and jacket were in the house, but less so when we realized she’d crawled UNDER my bed after coming to work drunk and being afraid of anyone finding out. We found her passed out with our dog Leo curled up beside her, and as I told Megan in an update – it would have been comical if it wasn’t so sad.

(note some time passed between the first part of this post and the next part)

When I returned from South Africa I found that a new security breach had been detected in our back yard where three cement blocks had been carefully sawed out in what we presume was someone’s preparations to enter the compound. As the parameter was very carefully inspected after the murder we can only imagine this was a new development, and my fear that our compound would be seen as an “easy” target had come to fruition. My impending move was put into fast forward and I write this from a lovely new apartment where I can already sense the potential for a bit more peace and a little less chaos in my remaining months in Kenya.

The majority of this post was written about a week and a half ago, and life has certainly calmed down since. But in the spirit of total absurdity one of today’s events managed to remind me that I need to be willing to roll with just about anything right now. Yesterday I had my radiator fixed after overheating and breaking down last Wednesday at rush hour (note: this is to be avoided at all costs in Nairobi and it was TOTALLY my fault as my mechanic had warned me to check my water levels daily. With all the chaos of recent weeks that had flown in one ear and right out the other). Today I remembered while getting gas that I was still supposed to check my water levels for a couple days and asked the attendant to do so. We quickly realized the car was still too hot to take the cap off, but he tried anyway and before making the final turn warned us to “run away very fast.” A geyser quickly manifested and as it did he lost hold of the cap, which promptly ricocheted off the hood and into the abyss of my engine. I looked at my friend who I’d just collected from the airport and we had a moment of acknowledgement, knowing full well a) rush hour was about to start and we were on one of the most traffic-laden roads and b) there was no way we were going to find this thing easily. 45 minutes later we were proven right on both counts.

*Maggie is in Form 4 – the equivalent of Senior year in Kenya. This is when students take the exams that in many ways determine their future and which schools and funding they will be eligible for. Maggie is very bright but has already had her schooling interrupted by the post election violence when she was displaced a couple of years ago. Now, like many students in Kenya, she is up against a new rule that requires all students produce their birth certificate before they can sit for exams. Maggie’s school has taken it a step further by sending all students without a birth certificate home – not only preventing them from doing the mock exams so essential for practice and placement for the exams this fall, but also interrupting their study schedule. I’m happy to report that Maggie FINALLY found a sympathetic soul at a local government office who didn’t require a bribe, and I sent her off yesterday to return to school and resume her studies.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Take that Cat: A Rebuttal

Let’s get this straight people, the idea of shopping for “self” is a term I coined to address Cat’s particularly challenging opposition to shopping. As in shopping, period. Now you don’t have to love wandering sprawling markets or finding killer deals like me, but as an adult I do think it’s important to be willing to spruce things up every once in awhile. I am working myself on the idea of “investment” pieces because I don’t like trends or spending money on things that won’t last (though I usually return anything that would fall into that category because I feel guilty about the cost). Cat has actually always been a good example of this, and every five years or so she splurges on a sweater, bag or pair of boots that look fantastic. The rest of the time, however, she pulls earrings out of dumpsters (true story!) and dons the worst Laura Ashley dress from her Freshman year on the east coast. I THINK SHE HAS WORN THIS DRESS ON A DATE IN HER LATE 20’s. I'm pretty sure I donned my last Laura Ashley when I was 12.

So while I have learned from Cat that shopping is about finding things you truly love, I hope she has learned from me that every once in awhile, ESPECIALLY when you’re presented with opportunities to spruce up your winter wardrobe for anywhere between 7 cents and four bucks, why not?

That said, let me amend the various interactions Cat recounted below for the sake of our friendship, her wardrobe and my credibility:

At Toi Market (This place has bargains so good it makes the Goodwill look like Bloomingdales)

Toi Market is one of the mitumba markets you’ll find throughout the continent. It is full of first world cast-offs that reflect a throw-away culture in which trends change by the minute. You would not believe the quality or labels you can find at Toi – and yes, sometimes for as little as a nickel. Now, would I rather encourage a friend to buy a top that supports re-use and extends its life RATHER than buy a 1-off top at a big-box store that will end up in one of these very piles sooner rather than later? You betcha.

We’re looking at bracelets (yet again):
Megan: “You’ve wanted one of those for so long”

I SWEAR SHE SAID MULTIPLE TIMES SHE WANTED A HORN BRACELET…though Cat’s dyslexia sometimes transcends words and moves into materials and she kept calling them bone bracelets.

Megan also has a vision for each item; loose waists can be belted, awkward sleeves can be cropped, if a shirt doesn’t have the right form or fashion a blazer or necklace can right the situation. In any case “it” should be purchased. Toi Market purchases and their subsequent tailoring is truly Megan in her element.

Am I right or am I right? That there is a 7 cent top bringing out the sass!

Another favorite:
Me: “but this ring doesn’t fit”
Megan: “that is because you have been walking around; your fingers are swollen”
Me: pause
Megan: “It is 50 cents; when I got my first horn ring I wore it for almost a year”
I make the purchase.

Here I’m just not interested in spending any more time debating spending LESS than 50 cents – though I do stand by my swollen statement.

We are in a silversmiths shop in Lamu:
Megan: “But you don’t have anything else like that”. . .
My thought: I probably have over 40 necklaces AND THIS IS A NECKLACE

Like I said people, earrings from a dumpster!!!

At Kitangela Glass:
Me: “But Megan I don’t need Champagne flutes”
Megan: “You can’t get crummy ones half off at Ross for less and these are one of a kind”
Me: A look that says you've got to be kidding me
Megan: “Plus you love Champagne”

Now let me be honest, what I’m really saying is that I love champagne, but drinking it out of coffee mugs at Cat's studio takes away a little of the pizazz.

Ahem. Allow me a moment to climb atop my soap box for a final thought on the Masai ladies, who will really drive you crazy if you let them. I DO think it’s important to support them – and it IS their only independent income as women. As a tourist I’ve come in, created a demand that has commandeered their land and I’m paying upwards of $100 a night to experience what was once theirs and only theirs. $2 for something that I’ll wear or hang in my room, that provides some money for the things they can no longer get off the land AND will always remind me no matter where I go or am of this moment in time is no sweat off my back. Plus, I don’t like to buy in Nairobi because things have changed hands so many times you’re almost certain the artisan isn’t getting any of the profit.

That said...

Cat did fail to mention that on our way back to Nairobi I almost stopped for some Masai ladies who looked like they needed a ride. Cat's face reflected immediate panic and she blurted out, “Oh my God Megan no! If they drive with us to Nairobi I’ll be climbing out the window and you’ll have so many bracelets on you won’t be able to bend your arms to drive!”

With that, I suppose Cat gets the final point here.

Monday, May 31, 2010


One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned since I focused more on living abroad than traveling, is the simple reality that every life you become a part of is not always one that you can stay involved with. This is especially true with children in the foster or orphaned system – unless you are permanently setting up a home or joining as a staff member, you must resign yourself as a volunteer to reality that you are but a blip in the life of a child, trying to have faith that the time you spend with them will somehow be more important than the act of leaving, or the inability to keep track of them once one of you has moved. It is unfair, especially to them, and yet somehow you know that it is better to provide those solitary walks and talks while you can - rather than leave them undone in the first place.

When I was staying at Sizanani center in 2007 a 15 year old boy named Fanele had just arrived after having been removed from his mother’s home. I never got his story in full, no one really seemed to have all the pieces and yet here he was on our door step. He was one of the oldest of the kids at the center, and for most of the time I was there he wasn’t yet in school. This left us with a lot of time together and in general he was very helpful watching after the two toddlers and baby that stayed at the center each day as well. Still, it was clear that Fanele had discipline problems and while we bonded very early, he rubbed almost all other adults the wrong way. He quickly befriended one of the other older boys and between the two of them the little kids ended up in tears quite frequently from nasty jabs, taunts or simply exclusion. When I left I had the sense that Fanele’s days at the center were numbered, and I pleaded him to be more respectful and to do what he could to stay in school. He is a bright kid who has honed is smarts on the streets, and that tends to be a lethal combination in childrens' homes which try and protect the little kids who haven’t yet been hardened in such ways (having their own traumatic histories from which the home provides a respit).

It has been hard to get full updates from the home in the past three years – everyone there is so busy and overworked and I don't want to take away from their daily schedules. I did get word at some point that Fanele had ultimately left or been sent from the center, thought I never found out where he ended up.

After I left in 2007 another volunteer from Germany came within days of my departure. She has since returned three times and is currently on the 9th month of an 18 month stay. She also knew Fanele well and while in town a couple weeks ago heard someone calling her name. When she located the voice it was a dirty and hungry Fanele in dire need of help. She shepherded him back to her apartment, got him a shower and some dinner and started working on a place for him to stay. By the time I arrived in Nkandla last week he had been re-enrolled in school and was staying with one of the local priests. I was overjoyed to see him and receive a huge hug from someone I have often thought about and wondered of his path.

He is now 18 and I can see a certain hollowness in his eyes that reflects all the realities of life on the streets in an urban African center (he’s spent some time in Durban). But beyond that I saw the same soft-hearted boy whose story I won’t ever really know but who I continue to hope and pray will find a way to fight his demons and make use of the head and the heart that could do so much for himself and those around him.

We went for a short walk into town, I gave him my camera to take pictures and we chatted about what we could, striking up the same banter and camaraderie of three years prior. I didn’t get to seem him the following day when I left as he was in school, but as I said goodbye on Sunday I once again implored him to stay in school, to study hard and to be good.

These are empty words coming from someone who has only been there for him two months and one afternoon of his 18 years. All I can hope is that he heard in them what I could not figure out how to say and somehow he doesn’t understand yet from the world.

I love you Fanele and I’m sorry I can't be there for you. I believe in you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Saturday, 22nd of May, 2010. Nkandla

Three years ago I sat on this bed in moments of stolen calm listening to the sounds of little voices echoing in the hallway. This became a sacred space in which I caught my breath, distracted myself and created some order with what little possessions I had. How funny to be back here these years later seeking calm so soon after my arrival. The sites, the sounds the energy is virtually the same. But there are more systems in place, there is more structure that makes it easier to step away in order to rearrange hair left frantic by tiny hands and carefully stow the camera or ipod responsible for thirty minutes of ecstatic entertainment.

I know these faces so well. I stared at them, worried over them and captured them on film for the time in which I would be elsewhere. Their limbs are longer and their baby fat may be gone, but I see unmistakably Funeka or Paga or Lindilani. Some haven’t grown much, certainly not to the stature expected by their age. But one whose legs may be short and whose belly may still be too big speaks perfect English, the result of a private school scholarship that has him bilingual at six – a rarity in rural S.A. What a revelation to be able to speak in a shared tongue with these kids for whom a hug or a song or a craft used to be the only way I could give them love.

I’m only a quasi-celebrity this time around. My name is shouted and spoken but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m recognized or because I’m a visitor. Nosumo grabs my hand and gravitates to me just like she did when she was little– is that recognition or is that simply the chemistry of our body heat drawing each other together for swinging hands and hugs? Zinhle is the only child at the center with serious physical and mental impairments. She is blind and cannot speak, though she understands most Zulu and some words in English and German. When she was younger she was brutalized by male family members in unspeakable ways and it’s hard to know whether her ailments trace back to this or they simply made her more vulnerable to attack. I arbitrarily decided she was 17 when I was here before – only to realize she’s only 14 now.

When I first came to Sizanani in 2007 I tried to set aside a few minutes a day to give Zinhle some one-on-one attention and one of the few things I came up with in an attempt to keep her stimulated was variations on paddy cake. Mostly we just ended up slapping hands repeatedly but sometimes I could create very basic patterns and eventually get her to follow. Today as I walked down to greet the children who had stayed behind at the center* I saw Zinhle for the first time seated next to a beautiful play structure (this was in the works while I was here and a friend of the center had finally managed to make it happen). I approached her and one of the mamas asked her if she remembered Megan, and she immediately grabbed my hands, placed them out in front of me and started slapping them with her own.

When the opportunity to visit here cropped up the idea refused to die, regardless of logistics and funds. I think I am seeking to arouse some muscle memory from the time in which I blindly boarded a plane and arrived laden with craft supplies and good intentions, only to discover how little I understood about the nature of this work. In the years since I have peeled away my expectations as I began to prepare myself for the start of my career in the development sector – now I fear I’ve peeled myself a bit raw and know precisely nothing as I try and finish my degree and prepare to launch my job search.

What can I glean from these few days back where this journey began? What shall I take away for the sake of building my confidence moving forward, of being reminded of the certainty in which God whispered this path in my ear until I heard it and believed it?

Here in Nkandla there are a few new buildings, fresh looking paint and a list of continued improvements to be made as the funding comes in. I treasure the care that is evident in this my temporary of homes that is now the only one known to these kids. After two short days I am reminded of the hope I found here after I confronted the absurdity of poverty and disease and its littlest victims. I hope I can get to that same point back in Kenya where I struggle more and more to make sense of an aid structure that seems to further empower the wealthy while robbing the poor of the faith in themselves to change what’s going on in their country.

How I hope to find that peace in hope itself.

* The other children had gone to a football match and returned proudly sporting World Cup t-shirts provided by President Zuma, who is from the region – thus Nkandla has finally made it into the modern lexicon of South Africans countrywide.

If you are so moved, please consider making a tax-free donation to the sisters’ work in Nkandla via The Africa Project.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


In 9 hours I fly to Capetown with a ticket my dear friend jasmine helped me buy to see her on African soil. By Friday I’ll be on a flight to Durban where I’ll rent a car and drive 3.5 hours to Nkandla where I started this journey three years ago. I’ll take pictures with an SLR my father bought for me before I came to Kenya and visit the projects that dear friend Joy’s donations have helped support (along with many initial contributions from family and friends when I first joined The Africa Project). I mention these things because they remind me that this incredible journey that has ushered me out of my twenties and helped me grow and get ready for next steps has taught me one thing above all – the role that community plays in each of our lives. I’ve been supported in my own endeavors and in my efforts to support the people I’ve come across. I’ve received phone calls and emails and letters and donations so full of love that they bring me to tears. I’ve had a group of strangers in a service club in Orange County become friends and facilitate an experience abroad that transcends anything I could have hoped for. I’ve had what feel like divine work opportunities that helped me stretch this experience into two full years. I’m reminded daily that in this final push it will all be worth it for the doors it hopefully opens for work moving forward. But perhaps more importantly it has been worth it simply for the journey it has been as I delved deeper into my understanding of humanity and community at home and abroad (sometimes facing the crystal clear reality that not all can be known). And I know this now more than ever - there really isn't any difference between here and there after all. Different stages, different distractions, different gifts, different blessings. But as people - we are the same. As countries - we are the same, imperfect collections of humanity with pockets of brilliance and truth just above torn knees needing repair.

I may not have taken the leap to book this trip to South Africa if I’d realized I would be here until September (original plans had me flying back to the U.S. end of July). The timing is horrible and I can’t afford it. But my community helped make it possible – both with financial support and with a reminder that this is about my time here coming full circle. As soon as the seed was planted what could I do? The thought of seeing the kids, of seeing the hills, of re-familiarizing myself with the zulu click – it brings back a rush of emotion I have stored away for three years. The sisters in Nkandla bid me warm welcome when I told them I might visit, and I can’t wait to turn up those dusty roads, to see all that has grown and changed in three years. But mostly to know that under it all is a vein of truth that remains the same – that constant companion of faith and trust when steps taken in response to a call are made. This is a place in which I learned more than I can ever encapsulate in words, and I can’t wait to see how that continues as I return a slightly wiser (only in my knowledge of how little I truly know) and hopefully more humble version of the self that visited there three years ago.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

All the kings horses

I'm often struck a bit dumb by the reality of the last few years in my life. Most often by the blessings and the experiences, sometimes by a level of overwhelmed I can't really even convey. Last week I took advantage of a crazy cheap ticket to have an extended time in Addis Ababa during our District 9200 Rotary Conference. I saved $300 by flying at 4:30 a.m. last Sunday and coming back at 12:30 a.m. this morning. It meant I had almost 9 days in a totally fascinating city and country - 9 days of which I planned to be working consistently on my project while seeing some sites during the day. That plan was scratched at approximately 9:00 p.m. on the 24th when I spilled an entire glass of milk onto my laptop right as I sat down to finally synthesize my notes into a long-overdue and long-promised draft proposal. Remedy? Box your comp up in rice and say a prayer that it dries out over the next nine days (this post is evidence that it worked!). What that meant was my travels to Ethiopia suddenly turned into more of a vacation than a work trip. "Let the impending guilt begin," I thought as the plane took off early last Sunday morning.


Turns out I needed a vacation. And not because I don't get to take amazing trips or see amazing sites all the time here - I do! If you take the projects and groups I've gotten to know and throw in visits by two of my best friends, this year has been especially full of incredible experiences and sites. But it has also been full of a lot of packing and unpacking, sweaty clothing, bumpy roads and a mixture of beauty and poverty that I'll never fully wrap my head around.

Ethiopia had the latter, but none of the former. I was hosted by a friend of a friend of a friend in a lovely four bedroom apartment with an incredible DVD collection. The apartment was insanely quiet. Quiet in a way I had no idea I needed or missed. My house in Nairobi never has less than three people in it (even at night) and during the day it averages around 6 and up to around 13. It is not conducive to any sort of quiet workspace, and if you mix in my predisposition to multi-tasking (or should I just call it A.D.D?) it's a recipe for disaster in relation to getting my work done. What I do get done is everything else. Rotary? Check. Boy's home in Nakuru? Check. Daniel's new hand? Check. Visit from my favorite baby Christabel? Check. Proposal? Ummm....

So I spent some time in Addis feeling guilty. Wondering why I could think so clearly (and why I needed so much sleep) and then realizing that my phone wasn't ringing with situations that make me panic. And my house wasn't full of people who knew exactly when I woke up or went to sleep, when I got something to eat or left the house (and all the parents out there say BIG DEAL). I wasn't being woken up by slamming doors or fits of giggles or someone asking me for money to go buy soap or milk or bread or matches. A full house is definitely not a bad thing - especially when you love the people that are in it (and when half of them are there to take care of it!). But I don't think I've ever fully conceptualized just how much I miss having space to myself. This past summer I took advantage of amazingly generous and flexible friends and family to couch hop and house sit my way through three months at home. The logistics were insane - I think I drove at least seven cars (and 1 bike!), carried at least one bag of cat-pee stained clothes on the eBay shuttle to work one day, and had weekends where I slept in three different beds over three different nights. So personal space and an unfettered schedule has been in short supply over the last two years.

I'm feeling pretty great after this break, after some "me" time combined with some wonderful new friends in Addis and some additional perspective into the challenges facing East Africa. I'm also clearly home, as by 11:00 today I had:
a) heard from Daniel twice asking for money for his next month of training
b) received an email from a friend involved in one of the craft projects I support about how his life is being threatened as a result of some pretty horrific post-election events he was dragged into
c) received an unexpected visit from the manager of the Kipsongo Project I visited last month to pick up the Lifestraws donated last year (which upon opening we discovered had exploded and are all ruined - SO SAD)

So I'm definitely home. And I'm definitely up against the same things that remind me why I'm here, but also pose a serious challenge to finding the space (both physically and mentally) to get my work done. It seems so simple - go to the library, shut off your phone, knuckle down. I know this is what I need to do. But I find so much value in the relationships I've created here, they feel like why I came - and I just don't know how to make them a second priority. But I have to, and I'm hoping that the time and space of the last week will remind me that life goes on whether I'm in it or not, and being able to build on these relationships, experiences and the small opportunities to help people in need that I have found (and have been so incredibly supported in by my community) requires me to finish this degree and package myself in a more complete and effective way that I'm currently living being pulled in so many different directions. I think I make progress every day in setting boundaries and focusing my efforts, but at the end of the day I have a really important proposal to write and I need a little bit more of my Addis Ababa life and a little bit less of my Nairobi life in order to get it done.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cat's FINAL Guest Post: Shopping for Self

Megan is good at encouraging “shopping for self” as she puts it. She has a knack for justifying purchases like no one else. If I didn’t know her better, I’d think she was getting a commission on cow horn bracelets, glass bead necklaces and an assortment of gorgeous fabrics.

Here is an excerpt:

At Toi Market (This place has bargains so good it makes the Goodwill look like Bloomingdales)
Me: “Do you think this will fit?”
Megan: “That top is 5 bop [seven cents], of course you’re going to get it.”
I purchased that shirt for 7 cents. It had a tag from the GOODWILL with a purchase price of $1.49.

We’re looking at bracelets (yet again):
Megan: “You might only be here once”
Megan: “You’ve wanted one of those for so long”
My thought: “have I?”

Megan also has a vision for each item; loose waists can be belted, awkward sleeves can be cropped, if a shirt doesn’t have the right form or fashion a blazer or necklace can right the situation. In any case “it” should be purchased. Toi Market purchases and their subsequent tailoring is truly Megan in her element.

Another favorite:
Me: “but this ring doesn’t fit”
Megan: “that is because you have been walking around; your fingers are swollen”
Me: pause
Megan: “It is 50 cents; when I got my first horn ring I wore it for almost a year”
I make the purchase.

We are in a silversmiths shop in Lamu:
Megan: “But you don’t have anything else like that”. . .
My thought: I probably have over 40 necklaces AND THIS IS A NECKLACE

At Kitangela Glass:
Me: “But Megan I don’t need Champagne flutes”
Megan: “You can’t get crummy ones half off at Ross for less and these are one of a kind”
Me: A look that says you've got to be kidding me
Megan: “Plus you love Champagne”
Me: “Ok, I can always give them away as gifts if I feel really guilty”
I made the purchase.

If she is not appealing to the part of your brain that will go for great deals and “good investment pieces” (mind you, I was not raised to consider a retail purchase an investment) then she switches modes with no decrease in effectiveness. Megan is on a mission to save the world one accessory at a time. . . as if I needed to tell you, she is succeeding.

The Masai are a tribe known for their beautiful beaded jewelry. A swarm of “sales people” are stationed at every border, safari stop and tourist trap. You hear the phrase “looking is free” more than if you spoke it into a feedback machine and mixed it. In week two when they were trying to sell us our 10,000th bracelet:
Megan, “this is the only way for women in this community to have any independent earnings.”
I was getting fed up and had a I’ll-scratch-my-way-out-of-here-I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-this kind of attitude. Let’s just say we dealt with a lot of hard sells. Megan meanwhile seems happy to entertain every offer. I’m not sure if its respect, patience or another redeeming quality I’m lacking, but there is clearly SOMETHING . . . hmmm. . . its not a bracelet. So anyway, “looking is free” but buying numerous brick-a-brack African dust covered trinkets is not.

At one point Megan was hoping to find a goat skin rug . . . instead she got two sheep skin rugs to which she is allergic.

We pull into a turn out on the highway that overlooks the Great Rift Valley. We’re just stopping for a quick bathroom break but there are little shacks with items for sale.
Me: I’m out of patience.
Megan: “Get a little something. In all likelihood no one has bought anything here all day”
Me: “That is because they are selling crap Megs”

Let me be clear, I trust Megan and although I generally don’t enjoy shopping I enjoy shopping with her. She has never steered me wrong or encouraged a purchase I didn’t end up using and enjoying.

Although I would not be one to encourage impulse buying, I was amused when Megan purchased a Barack Obama Scrabble board (it was either that or Jesus). She even got me to play, which is no small feat (I have extreme difficulty with spelling and abhor the shame and anguish a game of scrabble indefinitely brings). Megan proved her persuasive powers extend beyond shopping for self. . . hopefully the purchases she encouraged did some good and will come in handy . . .