Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happiness in a Heavy Duty 100L Barrel

Yesterday I bought a 100L barrel to keep in my kitchen and filled it up while the water tap was working (which because I bought the barrel will never stop working again, a la Murphy’s Law). I had a broad smile on my face, as I dumped bucketfuls of water into the barrel, thinking of the times I had to lug water from the tap behind one of the teachers’ house, about 200 – 250 meters away, and if that was not working (which it was not over the past couple of weeks), I would have to walk over to the school kitchen area which is twice the distance and use their water (usually a kid would run over to me and grab my bucket before I could do it myself). It gets especially annoying when I needed like 30 liters to do the laundry, like on yesterday morning when I finally gave up and decided to quit putting off buying the barrel.

Over the last couple of months, I have become much more aware of how much water I am using on a daily basis – I know my bucket holds 10 liters, so does my bathing basin, and I am really keeping a tally on how many liters I am using. I know for sure that I am using much less water than back in the States, and I am curious about if this awareness will continue when I get back to the States where I do not need to think about where my next liter of water will come from, and where things are not measured by buckets or basins.

Not only that, I am suffering from slight OCD-ness in regards to having safe water to drink (to the delight of my mom and to the bemusement of the older PCVs). I boil water on a daily basis and keep at least three to four liters in my fridge just so I have something to drink – I think this stemmed from my experience on New Year’s Eve party when we had a lot of booze and soda, but no safe water to drink. Needless to say, that was a mistake that none of us are prepared or plan to repeat, and the concept of just using tap water and drinking from the tap seems so far removed from reality that I probably would have to go through a bit of culture shock to get used to the idea again.

All in all, who said that you could not find happiness in a big ugly black plastic barrel with “HEAVY DUTY 100 LITRES” spray-painted in white on the side?! Not me!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Did I Learn English?

Teaching English to Form 1 (freshman level) students, and pre-language to nursery students really made me think about the concept and process of learning the English language as a Deaf person. Naturally, I started a philosophical conversation with myself (I am seriously going through a philosophical phase over the past couple of months – everything I read is somehow connected to everything I am doing, feeling, or thinking – feel free to skip this entry if it is not really your cup of tea), and this conversation begins with the question -

How did *I* learn? I’m probably not the best person to ask this, so bear with me as I go through the process of figuring this out!

How did all the grammar rules and exceptions become so innate to my writing? Right now, off the top of my head, I could only rattle off a couple of rules because they are the rules I had a hard time with (damn you, subject-verb agreement), but the other rules, when I type or write something I can just sense that it was not correct or did not jibe, and I just fix it. As I type this entry, I become much more aware of these self-corrections and I try to think about each grammar rule, after all, I will have to teach or re-teach many of these rules to the Form 1 students.

Past tenses, verbs, nouns, adverbs, spelling … of all this, I think the biggest obstacle for Deaf students is confidence.

There were a few memorable teachers from elementary school through graduate school, who, in addition to my parents, encouraged my love for reading (I think I picked up a lot of the innate grammatical rules from reading), encouraged me to write, and basically did not allow me to even consider the idea that I could not or would not.

On the other hand, I also have many clear memories of exceeding people’s low expectations and surprising the hell out of them, and wondering why that was so shocking. For example, I remember one teacher telling me on the first day of the year in her class in eighth grade that Deaf kids never did well in her class (self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?). In hindsight, I realize that they were basically telling me that they did not expect me to excel, to be able to read a variety of material, be able to write as well as I do (granted, I’m no Shakespeare, but I think that I am slightly better than the writers for the National Enquirer), and because I had the support of all the other awesome teachers, my family, and my friends, I was more or less able to ignore the low expectations most of the time.

And, my kids? Most of them are not able to communicate at all with their families (basically expected to just shut up and help out with the house), have no access to books, and eagerly look forward to coming to school just so they have access to a language with their peers. Some of them are orphans (and that created another conversation and issue in itself), and the school is the only thing they really have in terms of communication and support. If someone like me, growing up with basically a silver spoon in my mouth in comparison to my kids, gets in a funk every now and then because of patronizing attitudes, low expectations of me, or audism, then I wonder, what the hell do my kids do? How do they do it?

Maslow and his theory of the hierarchy of needs plays a part in this – Maslow believes and I think it makes sense, if a person’s basic needs are not met, then he/she cannot move up to the next level of need – the basic needs at the base of the pyramid are food, water, and shelter, and then you move up to friendships, family, relationships, and then onto to material things and other factors that makes up our lives. If the kids have no decent support system, it is difficult to think about doing something like learning a second language, when you are just trying to build a support system.

So, sure, yeah, there are many issues in learning the English language as a Deaf person, as the idea of bilingualism is only starting to grow onto some of the teachers, (tho one thing that Kenya is light-years ahead of the United States, is that they have an official government sponsored curriculum for Kenya Sign Language and teaches KSL by itself in a full class period, while we have nothing even remotely close to that [as American Sign Language is only taught alongside all the other subjects, or for the lucky hearing students as a foreign language]), the struggle of the teachers with the idea of teaching without using phonics (Hooked on Phonics, people! That television commercial has scarred, I tell you, scarred me for life), and the challenge of the transition from a visual and three-dimensional language into a linear and two-dimensional language, I think the biggest thing that I can do as a teacher is to provide a safe space and expect more from the students than the other teachers normally expect.

See, I went off on a philosophical tangent and took all of you for a ride … back to the question –

How did *I* learn?

That will be an interesting thought process for me as I use the student workbook / teacher’s guide / curriculum to teach Form 1 English this year, and I am sure I will dredge up a few tidbits and stories of my own educational learning process, and if you are lucky, I will philosophize a little less.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Home Sweet Home?

Sipping my freshly French pressed cup of coffee, watching the school herd of cattle make its way around my front porch, and admiring my new sitting room curtains this morning, I was struck with the thought that I have started thinking of my two bedroom apartment out here at Kibarani as home.

My place is starting to feel like my own with the adding of some of my personal touches, somewhere that I can escape to and chill, the food I am cooking is more like what I would normally cook and eat, and I have settled, more or less, in a daily routine. I think the strike threw off many of us from our day-to-day routines, really, before we were able to get into a day-to-day groove.

The adjusting process is long from over (as is all too clear with my struggle with the Kenyan sense of non-privacy and my American sense of privacy), but I think I am starting to feel comfortable and as each day goes by, the more I talk with the teachers and the students, the more I understand and see what the school needs, I feel more comfortable, and understand better what my role is. Tomorrow I have a meeting with a couple of teachers to discuss the HIV / AIDS club, and to share some resources I got from Peace Corps (including a few short films in KSL), and see what kind of involvement they want on my end.

As I finished up my coffee, greeted the groundkeeper who was herding the cows and a couple of bulls around the porch, and started walking to the office for the morning assembly, I thought, wow, I am starting to feel like this could really be a place I can call home for the next two years.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Back to School!

Last Thursday, the teacher’s union and the Kenyan government reached an agreement for the next three years (so I am guessing that for the rest of my two years of service, I probably would not experience another strike, but who knows). Rejuvenated by a day of swimming, much laughter on our stellar farmer tans, and a night of dancing to music that skips frequently with a good number of PCVs out in Mombasa, I was (and still am – well I wrote this entry in the beginning of the week, and due to the bad internet connection, I could not post it until today) ready to tackle the week. We have started teaching some of the kids, and this week we are focusing on finding out what the children knows.

The class that I’ll be teaching is basically what they consider nursery class out in the States, but it is the class before Kenya’s version of first grade (they call it Class 1 or Standard 1). I have seventeen kids, from ages of 4 to 16. Their language abilities are as varied as the ages are, from having no languages at all, to being able to have a basic conversation in KSL. A few of these kids, I could see immediately, had issues in addition to their Deafness that could be a factor in their education as well as in their relationships with the other classmates. As one of the other teachers explained, Kenya does not have the legal responsibility to send the kids off to school, as well as the issue of disability (which is a huge taboo and a major embarrassment for some families), and these factors greatly contributes to why the sixteen-year-old is just finally starting nursery class (and as well as why the other disabilities have been lumped into here).

This week, I spent some time working with my counterpart, looking through the classroom for a variety of materials that I could use, observing my counterpart teach a few classes, and figuring out what to teach the kids. We also cleaned up a lot of junk out in the corners and just basically getting a better idea of how to start this year.

Speaking of cleaning up, I realized that I was definitely becoming used to all the bugs around here, as I now flick off the ants that crawl on me without a second thought, and in the kitchen, the ants does not bother me as much as it used to (granted, there are a lot less now than when I first moved into the place). Additionally, when I was cleaning up in the classroom, I saw a few water bugs (or at least what I thought were water bugs, as they’re approximately the same size and looks just like them, about five centimeters [trying to get used to the metric system]) and I drew away my hand, but then went right back in the box, looking for anything I could save out of there as the bugs scurried around.

Okay, enough about the bugs, back onto the kiddies (I know all of you’re hanging on my every word about the bugs, especially you, Steph, but I’m trying to not allow the bugs to distract me from the general idealistic Peace Corps Volunteers’ aim of saving the world) – I have started to learn the personalities of the kids, they are starting to realize that I am here for a bit, and they’re starting to give me a little more respect (which means I’m actually able to control the classroom for about an hour before it descends into Dante’s Inferno and I need to get rescued by my counterpart’s Kenyan Mama stare).

Not only that, I realized today that today is the one-month anniversary of departure from Loitokitok. Training seems such a long time ago – and in a completely other parallel universe – and it makes it all the more clear why the saying goes for PCVs is that the first six months will feel like one and a half year, and the last year and half will feel like just six months.


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.