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.