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 . . .

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cat Hawley Post #7: My Limited Impressions of the United Nations

Megan and I were fortunate enough to be graciously invited to the home of Svante and Leah for a marvelous dinner. This excited me on many fronts: 1. We have a wonderful mutual friend (Phil Homer) 2. They have a darling new baby (Dexter) 3. Who would turn down a home cooked meal consisting of Swedish meatballs stuffed with figs, salad (my only one on this trip – stuck to cooked vegetables in an effort not to get sick) and decadent chocolate cake.

Several friends had been invited and we are introduced. The conversation followed a predictable course until the topic of the Chillean earthquake brought definitive comments from a French lady who works at UNEP (UN Environmental Protection). From here on out I’ll refer to her as “U.N.” U.N. told us there will be a large earthquake in the next three years in San Francisco. I contended that although earthquake preparedness is an important part of living in the Bay Area (I have most of the items in a “72 hour” kit) I am skeptical that earthquakes can be predicted with such accuracy. She went on to state that people are leaving the state for fear of the impending “big one” and I contest that, no, if anything, people are leaving the state because of high taxes (and Megan chimed in due to the rising cost of living!).

The conversation normalized. Svante recounted a trip to Sweden and we got updates on eight month old Dexter. Megan was next up and she explained that, “I have been involved in the life of a young women who recently had a baby as the result of rape. We had tea with her yesterday and dropped off baby gear brought over from the states. She just got her own place not far from her Mom's in Kawangware (one of Nairobi’s many slums) and she and the adorable little baby are doing well.”

U.N. nearly let out a shriek. She is shocked that Megan goes to the slums and asked in a perfectly posh French accent “You drive your car there? Do you fear for your safety?” Megan diplomatically explained that it isn’t safe to visit at night but that she has made several uneventful visits during the day. What I find shocking is not that Megan has been to a slum but that someone who has lived in Nairobi for 13 years could have such complete isolation from a critical part of the population. This woman is supposed to have a knowledge base to give helpful advice on local matters.

I’d had a little beer so the edge was taken off and I was in a compliant and relaxed state for the moment. The conversation turns to the Chinese and U.N. unequivocally stated that when they smile they are cajoling you and will use this tactic to manipulate almost any situation. Megan asks, “Cat did you experience this when you lived in Hong Kong?” I give a flat, “No.”

We wrap up the evening as I had to sort gear for a climb I was leaving for the next morning. Megan offered to give a friend of Svante’s a ride home and U.N. and her helper as well. U.N. doesn’t drive at night and, yes, she had full-time help with her (I don't think she likes living alone). I was sandwiched in the back seat with U.N. on my right. Megan turned on the wipers and defroster and we backed out. U.N. starts frantically rolling her window down and barking at Megan that she has the “wrong icon” on (due to the slow defrost and the admittedly uncomfortable hot air) about three times in rapid succession. U.N. was getting a bit frantic, it seems she thought Megan could’t drive. While I’ve shared this sentiment on previous occasions, in this instance Megan had complete control of the situation.

U.N. was relentless in her expressions of discomfort. It’s as if her very life depended on the windshield defrosting at the rate of jet propulsion. She told Megan to turn off the windshield wipers . . . the rain let up for a nanosecond then came down again in sheets. I proclaimed, “We have a back seat driver on our hands.” She told Megan her brakes are useless as her car is so old. Megan took it all in stride, handling the situation with her usual maturity and grace. I’m not so poised and began to giggle (as much to myself as possible). U.N. exclaimed she is too hot and I was noticeably giggling at that point. When you insist on maximum defrost on a wet night in a crowded vehicle things are bound to get warm. This is not a secret of physics, it is basic common sense, which is clearly lacking. I swallowed my giggles and collected myself. For the sake of friends involved I summon everything I had not to be rude or comment further.

We turn onto Muthaiga Road where U.N. lives. I momentarily wondered if Megan turned left into a porthole that emptied in Beverly Hills. We found ourselves on pristine light pavement with manicured gardens that would make Kew Garden's greener with envy. U.N. explains that her neighbor, whose estate we are passing, is the sultan of blah blah blah and the “he receives his weight in gold each year.” I’m not doubting this guy is extremely wealthy but a this point I’m beginning to question the factuality of her little tidbits. The askari (guard) opens the gate to her chateau. A guard is actually typical in Kenya but you are getting the picture. . . this is no ordinary Kenyan existence this lady is living. We are invited in for wine but respectfully decline citing the long day of travel ahead. U.N. says we can do it another time and promises to invite Megan to a lawn party.

The helper and U.N. exit our vehicle and I immediately express my astonishment in my typical boisterous fashion that Megan is well accustomed to. “Did you hear the same things I was hearing? Please tell me you think that was as unbelievable and ridiculous as I do?” Svante’s friend concurs that this woman is a little off. My giggling has turned to fits of laughter as I recount the comments of the evening. Megan has joined in my astonished glee. I encourage Megan to attend the lawn party and drink as much of U.N.’s free booze as possible.

Svante’s friend explains that the last time she went to dinner at the house she had an escort car in front and in back of her. This seems outlandish seeing as they live in a middle class neighborhood a mere fifteen minutes from her house. It’s not like she is driving through a SLUM to get there . . . oh the horror!

More recollections of the evening bring amusement and I go back and forth between giddy befuddlement and dismay. Once the absurdity wore off I was left to make sense of the experience. The United Nations has a reputation of being out of touch and the microcosm of my exposure did nothing to dispute this stereotype. I couldn’t help but be concerned that someone so removed is giving opinions and making policies that effect the lives of locals. Is the United Nation’s role just another form of colonialism? I feel momentary guilt for passing so much judgment. After all, I live a comfortable life in San Francisco and this woman left her home presumably to help others. Still, it wasn’t clear that good intentions were helping anyone. I had run out of empathy for another over paid bureaucrat.

Cat Hawley Post #6: Rotary Sunshine Rally

Megs wrote about this event a year ago but now you get it from my perspective . . .

Megan is an active member in the Hurlingham chapter of Rotary in Nairobi. Every year the whole of Nairobi Rotary clubs host an event at the Nairobi fair grounds. Hundreds of disabled kids convene in one place for a day of celebration, food and entertainment. Megan warned me that the retarded kids from Kenya would have more rhythm than I do. Even with this cautionary word it was humbling to see proof when she was right.

A group of Jains coordinates the food distribution. Hundreds of young Rotarians distributed snacks, juice, lunch, fruit, milk and candy. It was a literal Thanksgiving. Music was playing on stage and the DJ was keeping the large crowd engaged. Then it came time for the BMX bike races. There were little kids on bikes from Kenya’s junior team here to entertain their less able-bodied peers. They went all out and the kids were smiling and cheering. The kids needed to be kept off the field for safety and every now and then you would get an enthusiastic fan running after the bikes, flailing and sprinting with astounding energy. A Rotarian would go tearing after the child to keep them out of harms way.

As the bikes were whizzing around, a very young boy wanted to go across the field. I couldn’t let him but followed him at the edge of the crowd to be sure he stayed safe. I held his hand and affably made small talk but he didn’t respond. It turns out he just needed to make his way to the porta-potties. I told him I would wait off to the side for him (no response). As I waited four boys in wheel chairs with missing limbs rolled up (by the way these kids also have better rhythm than I do). I was totally unequipped to help these kids and was asking them if they had a teacher who could assist them. I was a bit distracted trying to round up someone who could assist with the bathroom needs of these kids and I realized I might have lost the little guy I’d brought over first.

Shortly thereafter I found him signing to another kid. It turns out I’d been yakking to a deaf kid for the last 10 minutes. I got him back to his group and there were plenty of hugs and high fives along the way. For all my fumbles I couldn’t top Megan. She asked a group of kids (including several blind kids) if they would like to “see” the digital image of the picture she had just taken. Thankfully, we didn’t dampen any spirits and the day was a success.

It rained in the afternoon but that didn’t stop the fun. We just kept handing out food and then Kenya’s most popular rapper took the stage. The kids wanted hugs, handshakes and to dance. At one point a kid asked me to dance and in what struck me as a formal way. He said something like, “It would be my pleasure if you would dance with me now” and held out his hand. Just as I reached out to hold it, a teacher rushed up and said, “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”

It was a pleasure to see these kids in an environment where they were praised and the day would be filled with positive memories. These kids are facing stark challenges on many levels and it was glorious to see them spend some time away from their worries.

Cat Hawley Post #5: Post Election Violence

Driving from the boys home in Mangu we saw a lady holding a baby waiting for a Matatu. Megan stopped so we could give her a ride into town. She was very grateful. We chatted and she handed me her baby who fell asleep in my arms. Respa (the mom – who you were introduced to earlier in this post by Megan) explained she also has a six-year-old boy and had recently moved to Mangu. During the post election violence her husband’s family disowned her because she is from another tribe. She turned to her own family and her mother and sister sent her away. Respa was wiping away tears. It was incomprehensible that her own mother would disown her and the children. Her family had originally accepted the marriage but tensions of the country changed that.

Respa has a sweet disposition and a sincerity that was undeniable. Megan and I got the sense she hadn’t opened up about this much, if at all. She explained she is now starting her life over on her own with her children. It is hard to imagine being in her situation; mourning the loss of your family and having the responsibility of two children and all this in a volatile political situation that might turn on you again.

She asked for Megan’s phone number. We pulled over to drop her off, I handed her the sleeping child and we said goodbye. As we pulled away Megan explained that it would be normal and acceptable for her to ask for money (but we were pleased she didn’t at that time). It would also be acceptable for us to say no. Megan explained that it can be hard to simply be empathetic for worry that the money question is forthcoming. That evening we received a text: “I hope you got home safe. Thank you for the ride.”

Respa’s story is more common that I would have originally guessed. Although the riots took place in early 2008 the country still has divisions that clearly aren’t mended. There are some that think violence will flair up again. They are worried about what the future holds and not much confidence is bestowed on the government to mend the situation.

Other less severe stories are equally surprising. Sandra, a friend of Megan’s graciously took me to the bead wholesalers of Nairobi. She is an attractive, creative and quick-witted fashion designer. She explained to me that the coalition government is holding together but is basically ineffective. As we walked she pointed out brand new police housing that will be torn down to build a road. Sadly, this is the tip of the iceberg in poor planning and corruption. I ask her about her experience during the post election violence.

Sandra explained it was worst in the slums and that she stayed home and ate what she had in the house because she was cooped up for days on end. Her cousin was not so lucky. He had been married less than a month to a woman who is not from his tribe. He received threats that his house would be burned down and that he and his wife would not be safe unless they left. The wife fled to her family for fear she would be killed. The house was burned and they were left with nothing. Only recently were they reunited but now Sandra’s family is responsible for helping him get back on his feet. This is a hardship in a country where means are already spread so thin.

Note from Megan: I also wrote about Respa's situation here - though I spelled her name wrong! Due to a generous donation from Joy Nelson I hope to be able to send Respa to secretarial school in the hopes that it will put her and her children on a new path towards independence and safety.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cat Hawley Post #4: Things Megan Has Not Told You About Her Life in Kenya

1. Everyone drives with their brights on at night. No one turns down the high beams for oncoming traffic. This is particularly confounding to me because another thing you notice in Nairobi are numerous driving school vehicles. It seems a number of people are attending driving school but what they are learning is a bit of a mystery.

2. “Flash me” is commonly said but it doesn’t mean “show me some
flesh”. It has a different connotation and basically means “ring me
and hang up.” The cell phone system is different than in the States;
you don’t buy a plan, instead you purchase credit. So if you know you
are low on credit this comes in handy and you flash your friend and
they call you back (you can receive calls if you are out of credit but
you can’t make outgoing calls). The credit phenomenon creates a
culture of hanging up with out saying goodbye (your credit is by the
second). Sometimes someone will call, get and answer to their
question and hang up. It can be baffling and seem rude when you are
accustomed to western communication norms.

3. Short ties are laughably short. Driving around the central
business district one will notice respectably dressed men in suits
with their tie extending no lower than 4th button of their shirt, in
other words embarrassingly short. It is unclear to Megan and myself
how such a fashion “no no” was ever introduced, propagated and

4. Swahili is a melodious language. It is absolutely captivating to listen to even if your vocabulary is limited to phrases from The Lion
King. Lala Salam means good night and there seems to be an
onomatopoetic sensation communicated by its sound.

5. Weather on the equator is not necessarily sweltering.

6. Megan knows her mechanic intimately. He meets her at home and at school or where ever she has car trouble. She trusts him with her life in a fairly literal sense (see numbers 7 and 8). So when she
noticed what seemed to be yellow liquid leaking from her front tires
she called him. He asked her if she had a dog. She said yes. He
didn’t charge her.

7. Car accidents are rampant. We saw three in one day (not including
minor fender benders.)

8. Drinking and driving is common practice.

9. Littering is common practice.

Cat Hawley Post #3: Safari with the Boys from Nakuru

Megan and I took five little boys from the Joseph Waweru Boys Home on safari in Nakuru National Park with us. We arrived at the park gate early in the morning. Megan and I paid for our tickets while the kids tried to coax a monkey into our van with their
breakfast. The pop-top to the safari van was open and the monkey was basically ready to jump in. In a panic, we explained that it wasn’t appropriate to feed the animals. We thought our guide was aware of the situation, which he wasn’t, so we mentioned it to him. He turned around with a look on his face that said “that is not good.” The monkey is close to Megan’s head and she is understandably flustered: we don’t need a monkey in our van with kids holding swipable edibles. In this moment of concern Megan announced “no food until lunch.” All ended well, our guide intervened; the monkey was shooed away and the kids got a snack before noon.

Look Out!
Peaceful Moment Near Waterfall
Lunch Time

Easter procession

We passed a group of villagers following a priest carrying a wooden cross on Easter Friday. At first we were tempted to write the scene off as any number of small-town revivals marked by scratchy loud speakers and fervent calls to repentance. Rather, it was a peacefully quiet crowd of all ages kneeling in prayer facing the cross, their backs silhouetted against the brightly colored facade of the town’s few kiosks bordering the dusty road we traveled on.

Further on we stopped for a bathroom break and realized we had created a barrier of sorts with our parked car to the worshipers, now forming a procession and coming our way. We giggled nervously as we faced the stoically approaching wall of people. But it took only a moment to remember the cross that they followed, to see the peace on their faces, the hands held between generations - all in their Sunday best. I asked if I should move our car so that we didn’t get in the way of their march, realizing as I did that such a barrier could do nothing to stop such a group. Their faith, their journey, their very existence reflected the perfect synchronicity of grief and hope that Easter celebrates. To this crowd of believers the road was wide open; such obstacles were only to circumvent.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


For those who doubt in miracles.

How cool is this!?

I had nothing to do with this hand, by the way - just enjoying bearing witness to a new range of opportunities for Daniel. My Rotary club here in Nairobi has raised some money to get a lift for his leg (he was hit by a car last year) and for part of the school fees to help his daughter finish Form 4 - senior year).

I would like to try and raise around $60 to help Daniel pay for his living costs while he attends three months of training in Busia to learn how to use his hand. This could transform his life from one of begging to one in which he can make a living of his own.

He was just glowing.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Songs from up country

I left last Wednesday to drive north to the town of Kitale. On the border is a slum of unfathomable conditions given it's proximity to a town and the lush vegetation that surrounds it. The people of Kipsongo welcomed us with songs and dance passed down through generations of Turkana people. Though they left their ancestral land 40 years ago their traditions run deep. Amidst serious poverty and challenges to health, sanitation and education this is yet another moment of pure, blissful celebration that I've been fortunate to witness.

Check out the work to create sustainable change in this community that is being led by an incredible family with the support of their church and local Rotary in Michigan: