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.