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.|Start Petition