Friday, January 29, 2010

You Know You’ve Been Living in Kenya For More Than A Year When ….

It’s time for another installment of You Know You’ve Been In Kenya When … I realized that the last time (and only time) I did this was last July! That had to be remedied, so here goes another installment!

-you stop half expecting ceiling fans to spin out of control

-you’re amazed to see a house without termites

-you feel weird if you don’t shake hands with at least five people by tea

-you enjoy ugali

-warm sodas and beer doesn’t bother you

-you think that Hawaiian shirts are fashionable

-families of five or six on a motorcycle finally stop scaring you

-toads and frogs are welcome roommates

-you are able to calculate the actual time of meetings

-you’re almost as excited as Kenyans are about the 2010 World Cup

-you finally stop multi-tasking and enjoy the peace and quiet

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mythology of the Snake

Upon return to my house from the travels and holidays, I was accosted by a couple of my neighbors who told me of a snake trying to enter my house.  We walked around in the house and found no snake, then they started to tell me the epic tale of the valiant battle between the neighborhood of Kibarani and the snake.  

A house girl working for my headmaster began the story, as she walked around my house, she saw a snake trying to get into my house via the kitchen door.  Terrified, she ran to find the other neighbors and after much discussion, it was decided that some paraffin would be poured down my door to prevent the snake entering and wrecking havoc.  Apparently it proved very effective as my neighbors proudly said that the snake left and my house is declared snakeless.

Now my kitchen door smells faintly of paraffin.  At least the neighbors did not set fire to my house in the process of trying to get the snake out.  If they did that, in fact, I would not be too surprised - Kenyans hate snakes with a passion that may only rival their passion for football (soccer to y'all Americans). 

The snake holds a place of importance to Kenyan - all their fables and myths set up the snake as the villian, even today in medical and education settings.  For example, we were boggled when one of the KISE (Kenya Institute for Special Education) teachers was giving a presentation of causes of Deafness in Kenya to the new volunteers in Machakos, he said that looking at a black snake made you go Deaf, and that they should be careful of black snakes.  

Talking with the educated Kenyan teachers and other professionals working for various organizations, almost all of them expressed a distaste for snakes.  Some of them knew that the fear and distaste was slightly irrational but all of them have stories of various relatives and friends dying from snakebite.  When I told them that the same widespread fear of snakes does not exist in the U. S., and in fact, my brother and dad at one time had something like six pet snakes, I could see the disbelief creeping into the faces.  

Even the nursery children I taught last year were well versed in the folklore and mythology of the snake before they even got language.  When I taught the sign for snake in KSL, along with a drawing on the blackboard of the snake, everyone from the 4 years old to the 16 years old cringed and signed bad! bad! hate! hate!  They told stories of their parents, older siblings and family friends killing snakes and telling the kids no, no, bad, bad!  

So, careful of that black snake, y'hear!  

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Nairobi to Kilifi in Ten Hours Flat

Standing on the sidewalk of a street in city center in Nairobi with the counterparts and new volunteers and our bags, we waited for the conductor donning uniforms with a crude drawing of an elephant on their backs with the motto “We lead the leaders” below.  The conductor and porters put our bags in a compartment and checked our tickets, and allowed us to board.  Those who sat in seats in which the adjustment of incline worked proceed to adjust to their preferred incline.  Hoping out against hope some of us tried to adjust the fan above us only to find that like always, it never worked.  Sitting in my seat, I hoped that I remembered to sit on the right side of the bus in order to avoid the sun.  After everyone boarded, we were off to our homes on the Coast. 

The driver wove through the streets filled with pedestrians, motorcycles carrying ten crates of bread stacked up on one another, touts trying to convince people that their lives depended on going to Nakuru rather than Meru, taxis honking and playing with the realm of mass and space, and buses competing for a quick departure of the clogged city center to their destination.  As we left city center, we joined the snarl of traffic on the Mombasa Road, passing large warehouses, corporations, and of course, a Nakumatt, and as we go along the road, the buildings gradually became smaller and smaller, less and less westernized.  After a while, instead of backlight signs of a corporate logo, signs are adorned by the Coca-Cola or Tusker logos with simple black lettering on white boasting the establishment’s name.  Safaricom green, Zain pink, and the red, white, and blue of Omo becomes the de facto colors of buildings we pass.  Roofs now alternate between the brightly colored tin roofs and thatch roofs instead of ceramic, tile, or regular roofing materials.

Machakos junction loomed as the bus chugged on, most likely than not spewing out fumes, going over man-eating holes and speed bumps that would better be described as hills.  More and more Acadia trees and vegetation started to pop up in the landscape, often fronting a series of hills jutting out in a backdrop of crystal clear blue skies.  Passing Machakos junction, we went through several hundred kiosks selling sodas and peanuts, and the landscape starts to flatten more, houses are farther apart, and made of mud, wild life such as zebras, baboons, and African buffalo are spotted, as well as mounds of termites as tall as I am, as well as numerous herds of cattle and goats with the lone chicken scratching the dust they stomped up.

The road, thankfully, started to smooth out as we approach Emali, going through hundreds of hawkers selling thousands and thousands of red onions – I will remember Emali always as the land of onions.  The temperature starts to rise, and with dismay, I realized that I was stuck with the glare of the sun on my side, so I adjusted the flimsy curtain to block what it could of the sun and settled in for the rest of the trip.

Several large mosques and other houses of worship sped by as we went through Makindu and Kibwezi.  We reached the halfway point where we gladly got off for a choo break and some snacks.  The temperature continues to rise and the humidity starts to stifle the air, and I knew that we were going home, near the Indian Ocean.  Getting off the main road, we went through the safari town of Voi, which always felt to me like a neon colored beacon in the middle of nowhere.  Glimmers of colors from the Art Deco era of Miami combined with the craziness of Las Vegas can be seen and felt in Voi.  Our bus became besieged by the hawkers selling everything imaginable, from food to hankies to watches to pets, and then of course, finally, mobile scratch cards.

Another hour or two pass and we approach Mariakani, and the first strand of palm trees were sighted.  The sight of the palm trees always made me hold my breath for a second or two, with the thought, we’re almost at the Coast!  Traffic started to increase, more and more pedestrians, especially Mamas with colorful lesos walking around, building are closer together, and boasting colors with a distinct Coast flavor.  I see a series of tin roofs clustered together and I know I have reached the outskirts of Mombasa.  We crossed over the bridge, entering the heart of Mombasa, passing buildings with business names painted on them, men pushing wheelbarrows of water, mangoes, and pineapples.  The roads expel steam and humidity around the hustle and bustle of Mombasa.  Even the hustle in Mombasa has a Coast flavor – slightly slower and lethargic.  Hotelis boasts of Swahili dishes, especially pilau and biriyani.  Passing Bishara Street, with almost every level surface covered by lesos and fabric, we started north toward Mtwapa, Kilifi, and finally Malindi.  Crossing the Nyali bridge off the Mombasa Island, we pass a junction, called the lights, where several hundred meters of homemade wooden and burlap stalls laden with used clothing many with hilarious statements and unintentional irony make their homes.

Continuing our way, we pass several extremely fancy resorts with manicured lawns and nary a flower out of place contrasted with shops and homesteads with children playing and chicken scratching the bare dirt ground.   Crossing the gorgeous teal water of the Mtwapa creek, we enter Mtwapa, a juxtaposition of riches of traveling mzungus and Kenyans, youngsters about to go clubbing, and a very traditional Muslim community.  After Mtwapa, it becomes less densely populated and fields after fields of sisal that is used for weaving mats and baskets followed by clusters of palm and coconut trees can be seen.  Hulking baobab trees becomes more and more common.  High above the water, we went over the Kilifi creek sparkling with the mesmerizing color of sea green, we entered the northeast edge of Kilifi. 

Disembarking in the Kibaoni neighborhood of Kilifi, looking at the familiar sight of several bars and kuku choma joints, I was ready to tackle the bumpy road that I knew would lead me to my school, and then my home, ready to tackle the year of 2010. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“I can’t think of a better way to start the year …”

Said the United States Ambassador to Kenya at the swearing-in ceremony today at his house, in combination with the celebration of 45 years of Peace Corps service in Kenya, and I have to agree with him.  Twenty-five Math/Science and Deaf Education trainees became Peace Corps Volunteers, ready to embark on their two years service.  I watched these great people talk about their uncertain future, what will happen when they get to their sites, and just basically wondering what the hell they got themselves into.  

I remember the days I wondered what the hell I got myself into, one of which definitely was the swearing-in day, a year ago, and watching the ceremony sent me spinning a year ago into my memories.  Today made me miss my training group, their individuality, their quirks, and most of all, the fact that we spent eight insane weeks together at the end of 2008. I have to say, 2009 was a year of ups and down, although it was more ups than downs, and for that, I am grateful.  Regardless of the fact that our training group lost way too many qualified and intelligent people that I was proud to call friends, I found a home, a school that I loved working at, students who inspired me to continue working on the days I thought that nothing was going my way, neighbors who would invite me into their homes for beans and chapati, of course, the fantastic volunteers that makes up the support system I would depend on, who will be lifelong friends, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that my gorgeous niece who would always put a smile on my face was born.  2009 also ended with a fantastic trip back to the States, seeing my family and friends (and celebrating the births of Olivia and Spencer!), ushering in the year with one of my best friends and a group of cool RPCVs who told me stories of their experience in Kenya.  

Overall, 2009 felt good. 

Starting 2010 with the final few days of PST with the new volunteers, with their swearing-in ceremony, I rode the positive vibes, which I hope would continue to be the case for most of the year.  Tonight we are going out for Mexican and some serious dancing, so as I write this blog entry and get ready to head out, donning the cool t-shirt I got from Kris (thanks, Kris!), I thought, the only way this would be better was if my training class was here, but it’s all good.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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.