Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Idle Hands, Mombasa, and Barack

This week is the second week of the teacher’s strike out here in Kenya, and I’m finding myself with way too much free time. I was talking with some of the other volunteers from my group about this, and we agreed that too much time on our hands makes our brains and imagination over analyze everything, and needless to say, that isn’t good – we were starting to second guess our skills, our ability, and comparing ourselves to others, and just basically beating ourselves up. You can imagine my relief when I was able to fill up some of the idle time with the other volunteers, a few DVDs, as well as some house shopping, and a lot of eating out in Mombasa.

Regardless of the amount of idle time I had, I find myself energized by the visits with the last year’s Volunteers, and the weekend in Mombasa with a couple of this year’s Deaf Eds (look at Paul’s blog if you want to see a couple of pictures of the weekend). I started making lists that I plan to post up on my door or wall in my room – projects to do around the house (for example sewing some curtains from lesos – there’s a few of those old fashioned non-electric sewing machine with the foot pedals here at the school – they’re everywhere, I have yet to see an electric sewing machine), long term projects for the Deaf Ed Peace Corps Project that could possibly be secondary projects, including updating the Deaf Education Manual, things I need to buy for the house, kitchen / food projects (such as making cheese – I have access to milk from the school cows, and the cheese out here is so expensive [especially on a Peace Corps budget], I thought it would be fun to try and make a bit myself).

I am starting to used to the slower lifestyle here, the slow internet connection, television without captions (if there is a TV), the concept of not necessarily multi-tasking or having to do a few things at a time, basically just throwing out everything that I’m used to or am familiar with back in the States. I read in one of the cultural exchanges / handbook / resource manual that Peace Corps gave us, and it said that one of the most important concept of many cultures is just the act of sitting. In the States, we look at sitting as just a waste of time, but out here in Kenya, it’s a sign of respect, a requirement to stop and chat a bit (in KSL, “to story”). If I don’t stop by and chat / story a bit, regardless of what my schedule is, I would be considered really rude, so that’s definitely a cultural difference that I’m adjusting to.

Last Tuesday, one of the other Deaf volunteers came over and stayed the night, and we went over to the neighbor’s house, to story a bit, and watch our new President swear in. We were talking about how proud we were as PCVs that Obama was sworn in, and how cool it was that we are in Kenya – almost surreal in a way, that my Kenyan neighbor and I could actually relate with the same person with a lot of power – and look at him with pride and respect.

Pretty cool, I think.

New Mailing Address

You can mail me at the following address:

PCV Charlotte Lewis
Kibarani School for the Deaf
Po Box 265-80108
Kilifi, Kenya

Just a couple of things in terms of mailing - I'll start paying duty in a month or so, so add some school supplies for donations (I can always use it), and it'll cost me less - also the Kenyan Government opens ALL of our mail, so don't send anything that could get me in trouble! Also for packages, it is suggested that you write on the box "God is watching you" or something to that effect, to help safeguard any custom folks stealing from the box.

Otherwise, happy mailing!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Lesson of the Millipede

As I paused to think and reflect about the past week, this past week can be basically summed up in one incident. After talking with my American Mama online (yay for technology!), I started getting ready for bed and had the living daylights scared out of me by a millipede that was about a foot long and an inch wide, sauntering in my hallway like it owned the place. And probably, before I moved in, it DID own the place. For all intent and purposes, the fellow was more or less harmless, but it sure did scare the hell out of me. After a couple of deep breaths, I got over it, and took the dustpan to gently move the little fellow outside, and said, sorry, buddy, there’s a new tenant here.

Once I take a couple of deep breaths, reframe any situation or anything that happened in a different way, think about it, figure out what I can do about it (or just accept it for what it is and do nothing about it), it becomes all that less scary. Granted, I’m still adjusting in a major way to the change in lifestyle – hell, change in everything – but I am getting used to the whole concept of living here, and trying to not to over do it.

The kids, at first, was a little overwhelming, but as I got to know some of them, see their personalities, and started learning their name signs (you go and try and memorize 200 kids’ sign names, as well as the teachers – it’s a bit of a challenge!), and figuring out which kids needs which type of teaching / support, they started looking a lot more like kids rather than a huge blob of green uniforms.

There’s a huge gap in special education here in Kenya (at least at the school I’m at, and I believe the same is for many other schools) – not specifically the special education of the Deaf, but of the Deaf with other disabilities such as CP, mental illnesses, and developmental disabilities, to name a few – they are all in the same regular classroom as the other students, and this is one issue I have noticed that might create a barrier for educating some of the kids (both the ones with the other issues, and the regular Deaf students). My head-teacher and I talked about that briefly, and he said that because I had experience working with the Deaf with mental illnesses, he wanted my input on how to address this issue, and figure out ways to make this work at the same time working inside the educational system already here in Kenya, so that’s one of the things I will be thinking about / working on. Any input, information, websites, ideas, whatever from any of you are more than welcome – please post in comments or email me if you prefer a more private conversation.

The Kenyan sense of time applies to everything, and that includes the beginning of a new year at school (the school year starts in January here). The kids are still trickling in, the teachers are working on their Schemes of Work and lesson plans, the admin staff is still working on who belongs to which classroom, and we are all also waiting to see what happens with the strike on Monday.

Today I headed over to a beach to take a dip in the Indian Ocean – it was a much needed and blissful swim. I swam away the difficulties that came over the past week, and reveled in the perfect temperature of the water, the gorgeous beach (we were almost the only ones there), and the perfect blue skies. I lazed around with a couple of other volunteers, had a great cheeseburger (the first one since before I left the states), and chatted the afternoon away. It was the perfect way to end my first week.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Spiders, Lizards, and Frogs, oh my!

[Note: More blog entries are below this one – I posted a few today.]

A group of us got on the bus out to the Coast, dropping people along the way until it finally was my turn to be dropped off. I got off along with my supervisor, the Head-Teacher of Kibarani, and we jumped into the lorry with all of my bags to head to where I would live for two years, an apartment in the school compound.

My place is luxurious by Peace Corps standards – my taps for water works about half of the time, if it is not shocking me, I have electricity that works most of the time, and my house has a lot of spiders. It is a huge place – a two-bedroom apartment about the same size as my Williamsburg place, and totally empty. This apartment is kept for Peace Corps Volunteers who works at this school, and I could see evidence of former Peace Corps Volunteers as one door had the logo of Peace Corps plastered on it, the kitchen door had “Doxy!” written in permanent marker (Doxy is the name of one of the malaria medications that some of us take – I take Mefo), and one of the bedrooms had a lot of inspirational quotes and poems written on the walls.

The place, however, was a little dirty, so I spent the day scrubbing a good part of the place, and in the process, scared a few lizards (and was startled by one), found a mummified dead frog in my kitchen cabinet, and transplanted a lot of spiders outside. After bathing tonight, I found a little frog that decided that my basin was a just dandy spot to hang out.

Kilifi is a pretty cool place – it is a nice in-between kind of place – not such a big town like Mombasa or Nairobi, but big enough so that you can buy real coffee (you couldn’t buy any other coffee than bad instant at Loitokitok) and have things to do other than meeting up for a soda.

So, yea, you’re finally all caught up. I look forward to meeting my kids on Monday, as well as the teachers I’ll work with.

Swearing-in Speech

I was asked to give the speech for the swearing-in using KSL – three of us were chosen, one to do it in KSL, one in English, and one in Kiswahili. We wrote the speech together, and the text of the speech is below – and italics in brackets is my explanation of a situation / term). When I ever get around to uploading pictures (hush, Ben), there are a few of me giving the speech and a couple of short clips of me.

Thank you all for coming. It is a privilege and honor to be in front of you today as representatives of our Peace Corps training group from America. We want to welcome and recognize the following people; [Names Omitted to Protect the Innocent].

We especially want to thank each one of our dedicated instructors, advisors, and administrative personnel. We thank [Names Omitted to Protect the Innocent].

The group of volunteers to be sworn in here today is a diverse collection of 35 deaf educators, businesspeople, and math and science teachers. Many of us are recent college graduates, and others include experienced teachers, a lifelong lawyer and a former top banking executive who has climbed Kilimanjaro. We represent almost all age groups.

The reasons we joined the Peace Corps are as varied as we are. Some of us wanted to fulfill an idealistic dream, pursue adventure, or give back to the deaf community. But what is common to all our motivations is the idea of service – Peace Corps brought us together from all walks of life so that we may better the world we live in as well as ourselves.

Our homestay experiences were diverse, as well. Some trainees stayed in families without running water or electricity, while others had satellite TV and Internet access. Regardless, every family overwhelmed us with their hospitality (indeed, one trainee was welcomed by an entire church congregation whose members carried luggage on their heads) and their willingness to help us make our transition from over-comforted American homes to a simpler, calmer, more family-oriented environment.

During the training process, we have grown to love Kenya, its vibrant culture, and its natural beauty. Kenyan culture is rich in tradition, and while it is very different from our own, we have to come its communal nature and aspects such as the bucket bath, the choo [usually a hole in the floor – you’re lucky if you have a baby swallower, and the extremely lucky ones had western style toilets], the Kenyan sense of time, getting around on foot, and – everyone’s favorite – washing clothes by hand. We have learned to meet the challenges of cooking with wood, charcoal, and paraffin jikos [a type of stove which usually uses charcoal on a layer of thick clay – we cook on top of the charcoal]. Of course, we have also had to learn to dodge pickies-pickies [motorcycle taxis which nearly killed me several times – no worries, mom, not as many of ‘em around here in Kilifi as there were out in Loitokitok] and stand and deliver at the choo. The intellectual skills we have learned include teaching methods, strategies for integration into the community, and the Kiswahili and KSL languages. We have already learned much from Kenya and this is just the beginning of a learning process that will last for two years.

We trainees have grown closer over the past eight weeks in Mombasa and Loitokitok through our numerous KSL and Kiswahili practice sessions, fueled with innumerable cups of chai and meals of beans and chapati. We have also had our mishaps. A few trainees have experienced losing an entire, precious roll of toilet paper in the choo. A trainee drank for two weeks what she thought was chai was only drink with no chai in it, because she did not realize “bila” means “without.” A deaf-ed trainee confused the sign for “buttocks” with the sign for “television” during the mock Language Proficiency Interview [this trainee was saying, “my family watches a lot of television, they always leave the television on really loud and it really annoys me.” You can imagine how funny it was when he realized that he actually signed butt instead of television]. Another trainee wanted to make an innocent statement in Kiswahili about playing a game during a cultural session, but ended up saying “kucheza ngongo” – to play sex. Our malaria medications also have played games with our heads, and on one of our first nights a trainee woke up to the alarming fact that there was a moose in his room [just so you know, moose does not live in Kenya, and there was no moose in his room].

But, missteps and mishaps aside, we embark tonight on two years of service in the country that has welcomed us so warmly. We are very pleased, and very proud, to represent America in Kenya. We look forward to helping promote peace and understanding among all peoples, and to inspire and motivate people to improve their own lives via the implementation of sustainable projects. In all we do, the promotion of HIV/AIDS awareness will play a major role. Kenya is a young country and in it we see opportunities for business development and education that may not be possible elsewhere.

This is an auspicious time for the Peace Corps in Kenya. This is the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to be sworn in after the post-election violence earlier this year. The Peace Corps has had a program in Kenya for almost the entire duration of Kenya’s existence as an independent country, and it is back to renew its mission. Also, within a few days, a new president will be inaugurated in Washington. President-Elect Obama has expressed particular support for Peace Corps service, and as all of you know, the President-Elect’s paternal origins carry particular significance for Kenyans.

Let us go, then, to serve and to learn. Let us educate others and educate ourselves, on a common mission to service that transcends our backgrounds as Americans, that has now been renewed. We thank the American Peace Corps and the Republic of Kenya for choosing us to serve. We are very proud and poised to do our best.

It’s the Coast, baby!

Tuesday and Wednesday was two days that were polar opposites – I had a RPCV tell me a couple of years ago that my lows would be really low (much lower in comparison to my bad days in America), but that my highs would be outrageously high, I did not really understand her, but after last Tuesday and Wednesday, it made complete sense to me.

Tuesday was a bad day – a few of us were sent home; for various reasons, including one in our program. We lost one of our Deaf Eds, and that was tough for us all around – we grew to really like each other over eight weeks of KSL practice sessions and seeing everyone most everyday for eight weeks, and losing a person always sucked after such an intense training. There were a lot of other factors, I think being antsy about our sites, some confusion about Peace Corps expectations / policies, and a lot of cultural clashes had some of the other trainees upset, and it was just a very negative day for many of us.

I guess I have to thank my former place of employment for making me think about things and put things in perspective – whatever I encounter in Peace Corps, in its training, in everything I do at my school, I don't think it will ever be the same level of despair I felt when I worked with that former company.

Wednesday, on the other hand, we found out our sites and that sent us off on a rocket high. I am assigned to Kabarani School for the Deaf in Kilifi, 50 kilometers north of Mombasa, in between two volunteers from this year’s Deaf Ed group, and two volunteers from last year’s training class, so it bodes for a good experience and a support system in place. After finding out about our sites, a few of us went out to Carnivore to celebrate – and that was a lot of fun.

We were officially sworn in on Thursday, and we are now Peace Corps Volunteers.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wrapping up Loitokitok – A few days in Nairobi

So much have happened over the past week and a half that I decided that it would be impossible to write all in one blog entry, so I am writing a few entries just to make it easier for me, probably make me less likely to go off on tangents (I hope!) and just so things make more sense (again, I hope!).

The last night in Loitokitok was a fun night – it reminded me of being at summer camp with all the bad songs, fire mishaps (no worries – nobody was hurt), and sleeping in the same cabin with ten other people. Some of the Deaf Eds practiced their signing skills by interpreting the songs, which was awesome for me, and provided us with much laughter as they sometimes made up signs for words we have not learned yet. That last day, we had a farewell ceremony with our homestay families and we all had mixed feelings about leaving our homestay families, while they did an incredible job of teaching us loads about Kenyan culture (and feeding us loads of ugali), we were excited about living on our own, starting our projects and doing what we came here for.

The next morning, we packed the bus and a truck with all of our bags … now that was quite an experience. The reason why we slept over at the Outward Bound center was so we could leave promptly at 8 in the morning. Needless to say, that did not happen. The bus arrived at 7:30a, and the packing started – I am not sure what happened - maybe Peace Corps underestimated the number of bags that we brought with us for two years, maybe the bus was a little too small, maybe the lorry (hey, I’m in Kenya, where pants are trousers) wasn’t big enough … or it’s probably a combination of all the factors. But you can guess what happened – the Peace Corps Trainee class of 2009 became the Peace Corps Sardines. After piling the lorry with quite more bags than any of us thought it could handle, roping everything down, putting the tarp over all that, we started packing the back seats with a few bags, and when we realized that there weren’t room, the aisle became a place to put our bags. Even with all that, one of us still had to sit in the aisle while everyone else was crammed in seats that were made for kids. All in all, a very typical Kenya transportation experience (at least all but one had a seat – our Kenyan trainers say that they’ve had to stand up for a 8 hour trip, so I guess we were not all that bad off).

We got to Nairobi after another stomach-curdling ride, and were transported into a completely different world. We gaped at everything like country bumpkins (which we were for the last two months), and after a couple of hours in traffic we reached our hostel, and some of us had the first hot shower we’ve had in a couple of months (I was stuck with a room with no hot water). We stayed for a few days in the same hostel as it has a relationship with Peace Corps – it was a nice place, and I look forward to the next time we go there for IST in April.

The next few days we spent our days in training sessions, finding out our sites, figuring out the logistics, and swearing in, we spent our nights out getting a cheese loaded meal of pizza, checking out Carnivore (which was listed as one of the world’s 50 top restaurants – we were not sure if it would rank up there, but it was good – I recommend the ostrich – the crocodile wasn’t too bad either … a bit fishy, tho), and staying in one night for a final hurrah.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Deaf Ed Peeps / First Post of 2009

Hey folks - you might want to check out some of the Deaf Ed people that I have been hanging out with over the past seven weeks (as five out of nine has a blog), and for a bonus, a couple of the current Volunteers who came over last year.

Paul gave me one of the best and funniest secret Santa gift - there's a picture of me on his blog laughing hysterically and trying to compose myself - the inspirational baby posters are everywhere, and it's huge out here. Matt is the one who hacked the goat to death on Christmas - read about it (and when video is uploaded, watch it) in all its glory! Ginnie has emerged as our unofficial social chairperson, and Erin is an awesome all-around person. I'm lucky to be a part of a great group of folks this year!

As for last year, there's Sarah and Mabe who was with us during immersion week and helped us ease into our first week as PC Trainees.

Enjoy reading!

New Year's went great - most of us had a great time, showed a lot of pictures to each other, watched our watches as midnight ticked, was amazed when we realized that it was only 4p in the East Coast when it was midnight out in Kenya. When we woke up at 8a / 9a / 10a, we thought about our friends and family who were at that time celebrating the stroke of midnight, and it made the time difference all that more weird for us. We were also celebrating the finish of the Language Proficiency Interview (we were required to get at least an intermediate in KSL in order to swear-in as Peace Corps Volunteers - today we found out that all of us passed, so we're happy about that).

Today was the last day of classes in Loitokitok - we all are really happy about packing up, heading to Nairobi and eating a few good meals, finding out where we are heading for the next two years; all in all get out of limboville out here!

Hope the holidays were great for all of you!


This blog consists of my personal thoughts and opinions. It does not in any way reflect the position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.