Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kenyan & American Lenses

Last term, I started teaching life skills class for my Form One and Two students - it is not a priority for the Kenya educational system as it is not a testable subject, but I thought that it was a important class, and that it might be fun. 

We started talking about the basic aspects of life skills, job skills, self-awareness, stress and anger release, relationship and dating skills, just to name a few topics that we have covered.  We shared numerous laughs discussing some of the rules for dating and relationships, and during a class with my Form Two students, we then shifted into the discussion of the American dating culture in comparison to Kenyan dating culture, and it led some interesting thoughts and ideas from both the kids and me. 

I started, “So, do you know what drawing a map means in Kenya?” I saw a few kids start to giggle, and then I asked, “Oh, so you do know!  Anyone brave enough to show us?”  Nervous laughter emerged as the kids looked at each other, nobody really thinking that I was serious.  Finally I started demonstrating the typical Kenyan female response of a typical Kenyan male advance – the man is supposed to be stubborn, and then the woman would keep saying no, at the same time, one of her feet would be “drawing a map,” giving a subtle response for the guy to keep asking until he gets the answer he wanted.

The class erupted in laughter after my demonstration.  I asked them if they knew what I was doing, and they all started talking about what they know and filling out some missing information.  They had gotten information from their friends and in some lucky cases, from their families. 

“So you don’t do it like that in the United States?” the brazen Josephine asked, with a twinkle in her eye.  Half of the class gasped, looking at Josephine with unbelieving eyes for being so brazen.  The other half of the class rolled their eyes and looked at me, expecting an answer from me; they had expected that I would answer all of their questions, as I usually do. 

I laughed, and said, “No.” 

“How do you guys do it, then?  Is it like in the movies?” Monica followed up Josephine’s question – because of Monica and Josephine, the rest of the class would be content to just sit back and watch how brazen Monica and Josephine would be. 

“In no way is it like the movies – it’s a lot more messy and not as pretty.  The big deal is communication – people don’t talk in the movies, they just kiss.”  I said, to laughter from the class.  We talked about communication and how that impacted relationships and referenced to a previous class in which we played the telephone game and discussed how rumors could run rampant. 

Josephine persisted, “But you Americans and Europeans kiss a lot.”  This statement did not just shock half of the class; it shocked the entire class, and sent everyone in gales of laughter.

“You’re right, we do.” I responded.  I did not think that was the response they were expecting, as it left a usually talkative class totally mute and staring at me.  “As an American, it was always part of the husband and wife relationship to kiss your husband or wife when he or she returns from work, or from a vacation, so we’re used to that.  When we see the interactions between an Kenyan husband and wife, which is basically just a handshake after a long day at work, it just does not make sense to us, just like the way kissing in public during a relationship does not make sense to you.”

“Why is it different? How did that happen?” Gona jumped into the conversation, another student, who is a close second to the team of Monica and Josephine in fearless questioning. 

“I don’t know.  Cultures develop differently in different places.  Things change, and because everyone is so far from each other, some culture norms (at this time, I took the time to teach some cultural vocabulary … literacy in every possible way, dude!) just develop differently.”

“Wait, like how there’s different rules in different Deaf schools, and maybe different signs because they just don’t grow up together?” Mercy asked. 

“Exactly!”  I said with a smile, mentally cheering to myself that some of the kids are actually thinking for themselves or remembering the stuff that I had taught them.  We talked about some sign variations, different rules and expectations at schools, and this led into a discussion about the dress code. 

Shukurani asks, “Why do the Americans not feel shame about wearing shorts and maybe a low cut shirt while out in public?”

“That’s the culture out there.  Not everyone does it, but people do not take a second glance if girls or boys wear that or some other weird stuff.  There’s no shame – that’s the culture.  It’s the same way – I respect the Kenyan culture because I know the students and teachers wouldn’t probably work with me well if I wore shorts all the time, and when you guys fly out and visit the US, you’ll need to respect what people are wearing there instead of making fools out of yourselves ogling at everyone.” I explained.

“But they don’t feel ashamed?”  Shukurani persisted with a disbelieving expression.

I thought quickly and got a start of an idea, something, but I wasn’t sure where it would go. “Okay – here’s another way to look at it.  Who’s Muslim here?” I asked and a few hands went up in the air.  “Okay – if you’re a woman, when you’re married, what do you need to do?”

“Wear a bui-bui (this is name of the scarf that goes around the head, hiding the hair of the woman).” Abdullahi said.

“What happens if a woman does not do that?” I continued.

Abdullahi looked at me in shock, “She would be ashamed!”

“Okay, now a question for the Christians in this class - would you be ashamed if you did not wear a bui-bui?”

Silence in the class as the students pondered this. 

After a couple of minutes, Shukurani nodded, “Okay.  There’s no shame.  The cultures are just different.”

I smiled and thought to myself, I just love days like these. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Maize?!

Walking home, I see the housemother, Nyevu unknowingly standing in the middle of my attempt at a little garden (or shamba, in Kiswahish), right on the baby lettuce I had just planted a couple of weeks ago.  She was looking around, laughing, and talking with the headmaster’s twin daughters, who were also laughing.

Sighing, knowing what was going to happen, I went up to the group and asked Nyevu to step out of my lettuce patch politely.  Nyveu held out a bottle of maize seeds and told me to plant maize.  I explained that I did not intend to plant maize. 

“There’s no maize there,” I said, “I planted lettuce and a few herbs.”

“What’s that?” Nyevu asked.

“A sort of green leafy vegetable,” I searched for something that they knew that is comparable, “Something like sukuma (Kiswahili for kale – you never call it kale even when you’re using English, much like how shamba has found itself in the English vocabulary here instead of garden / farm).” I finished lamely. I then pointed out the little leafy lettuce sprouting out. 

One of the twins promptly started pulling out a couple of these sprouts saying, “You don’t eat these!”  After seeing the look of despair on my face, she stopped pulling them out.  “You eat these?”

“Yes.” I knew that they were never exposed to lettuce, and that they basically just meant well, but I was starting to become tired of the whole oh-look-at-the-mzungu-working-on-her-shamba-oh-so-cute scene.  After a few more moments of conversation, they shook their head with the indulgent look that parents gave their children as they left. 

A few hours later, a group of my students stopped by my house to ask a few questions about the mid-terms that was happening this week, as I was lounging around enjoying my iced coffee. 

“How is the shamba going?” Josephine asked.

“Pretty well – I can see it growing up a bit, I hope it works out well.” I answered.

“Maize?” Dennis inquired.

“No, no maize.  I’m growing lettuce.” I wearily responded as I wondered if growing lettuce, which I missed over the last year and half, was really worth the attempt at a garden. 

“What’s that?” Gona asked.

“An leafy vegetable – used mainly in salads, a popular dish in the United States.” I said.  “Something like sukuma, and you don’t cook it.”

“Whaddya mean?!  You don’t cook it?!” Osman, Dennis, and Josephine all exclaimed at the same time. 

“How do you eat it?” Josephine asked.

“You eat it with onions, carrots, cheese, nuts, whatever you like, then add dressing, which is mostly oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and maybe some mustard – depends on one’s taste.” I explained.

Monica mused, “There’s no way I can eat uncooked food.  I’ve never eaten uncooked food.”

Gona added, “How can you eat it uncooked?”

“Do you have the seeds? Can we see it?” Josephine asked.  I went into my kitchen and showed them the seeds, and saw their expressions change with wonder and surprise – they never saw such small seeds. 

“Can we buy it here?” Osman asked. 

“I don’t know.  I’ve not seen seeds for lettuce for sale here – I got this from my brother and his wife.” I replied.  “Why does everyone grow maize, and only maize?”

With shrugs, everyone said that it was always that way.  Everyone grew maize, period.  If you have a shamba, you grow maize.  Maybe some like Katumo out at his house would grow eggplant, tomato, and a couple of other things, but that’s not usual. 

After the conversation made its way through all the uncooked food that I liked, and that they would refuse to even try, namely sushi, and then some of the cooked food I liked, including octopus, in which a couple of the kids also liked, we ended the conversation with a promise extracted from me to bring a bowl of uncooked, much to the dismay of a few kids, salad when the lettuce is ready for harvest.  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Charo Samini Gohu

Yesterday morning I taught the Form One students how to use reflective pronouns properly, you know what I'm talking about - myself, yourself, themselves, and all the others.  After explaining the purpose of the reflective pronoun--definitely not as easy as it looks--we went through some practice exercises where the students would need to identify which pronoun to use in the blank in the sentence. 

The class participation began slowly yesterday - everyone was still groggy as it was the first class of the day and because it was raining cats and dogs, everyone was either soaked or cold.  After a couple of sentences, energy started to build.  After a few more sentences, it was almost a mad house. 

For number six, I called on Samini, who always raised his arm with a huge grin.  As he walked up to the blackboard in that gawky teenager way that only a teenager boy could pull off, took the piece of chalk and wrote in the right answer.  When I gave him a cheer, as well as a few of his friends, he went back to his seat with a shit-eating grin. 

Samini wasn’t a jock.  He never played football like some of the other boys.  He wasn’t a nerd, either.  He was a middling and average student, not the worst, and not the best.  He always had a smile and nice word for everyone.  He was always friendly and happy-go-lucky.  He did not give off the bad boy vibe like Ndaa and Amir did, nor a leader vibe like Emmanuel, Teresia, Joyce, and Karembo did.  Like I said, he was happy to cheer on Jumaa, Khamisi, and Baraka when they played football.  He was also born with some heart issues, and that probably was the reason why he did not play sports.

Yesterday morning, when I picked Samini to answer that question, I took an involuntary mental snapshot.  You know when some moments are just clicked and stored away in your mind, not by your choice, and yesterday morning Samini was one of them.  I remember vividly him raising his hand, answering correctly, and the shit-eating grin. 

After I taught both Form One and Two their English lessons, corrected some of the Form Two homework from the night before, I was ready to head to the primary school for tea, and for that, a ten minute walk is required.  As it was pouring, many students would attempt to run down the path some rolling up their pants and skirts to the knees, taking off their shoes and holding them as they run through the rain. 

I saw the back of Samini as he ran to the dining hall.  I joked and laughed with some of the other students who decided that the tea wasn't worth the run in the rain and stayed in the classrooms before I headed to the staff room.  That was the last time I saw Samini alive.

Five minutes after I reached the staff room for tea, in midst of a conversation with Mary, my counterpart, about Gone With The Wind in which I lent her, our headmaster came in with the announcement that Samini collapsed and passed on.  With my mind racing, along with some teachers we went to the dining hall to run inference, herding the kids out of the way, getting the lorry and putting Samini into the lorry to head to the hospital. 

His heart had just gave out.  This teenager, with his entire life in the front of him, will forever stay etched in my memory as a kid with a shit-eating grin. 

I write this full of anger and sadness.  I am angry for the lack of preventive care and precautions that Samini would have received if health care was more geared toward preventive rather than reactive here.  I am angry about the lack of training of First Aid and CPR.  I am angry that deaths of children is almost expected; I have heard people here saying that having only two children is like playing Russian roulette – the more children, the better chance you have of someone taking care of you in your old age.  I am angry with myself for feeling such anger, and I am almost angry at my American upbringing which is the cause for my experience / knowledge that this could have been avoided. 

That anger is now starting to become sadness; for the Gohu family, for the Kibarani and Pwani Secondary students, teachers, and staff, and for everyone else that he has touched. 

Like Samini did for almost every day I have seen and taught him, in his memory, let’s try to go through life with a shit-eating grin. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

pen and paper

One cool thing about being Deaf is that many, if not all interactions with the outside community, by that, I mean people who don’t use sign languages, and those who do not regularly interact with the Deaf community is almost always done by paper and pen.  Because of that, I have filled out approximately five or six notebooks with notes, conversation, shopping lists, bargaining, and various other interactions with people from all over the country.  I thought it would be fun to put down some samples of the variety of the conversations I have had.

I have had some crazy and fantastic conversations with fellow PCVs and ex-pats, ranging from discussions of poker rules, introductions of ourselves, arguing American versus European sports, to random thoughts and questions, to raunchy descriptions of the Hoover maneuver.

A volunteer in Uganda showing up in Nairobi for medical reasons, meeting up with a few other Kenyans PCVs in Nairobi for the same reason, and a couple of us who were there for some meeting or another writes, “I’m in econ development.  I’ve been changed around a lot!  I ended up doing HIV/AIDS work, tho.  She continues, “It’s in Eastern Uganda – Actually I’m close to another volunteer that does work in deaf ed, and we met a few PCVs from Kenya who came out to Uganda a few months ago – and it’s hot and flat, and there’s lots of ugali.  But … it’s close to my heart.”

 In the middle of a conversation with a couple of PCVs, one randomly writes, “Have you heard of the man who is able to hear, but didn’t talk for like fifteen years?” I still can’t remember why he brought it up …

Sitting in a restaurant / hotel in Mnarani, just south of Kilifi, I had a friendly discussion with an Irish lad (pitting three Americans, including another PCV and The American Ex-pat against this poor Irish). 

The American Ex-pat writes, “The Irish Lad says that America only likes sports where they can be called World Champions; baseball, basketball, American football, lacrosse, hockey, so on.”

TIL then grabbed the pen and notebook and writes, “TAE says – look at how many STUPID sports we’re good at!”  At the same time TAE tries to strike out the STUPID with her pen.

I then wrote, “Variety is the spice of life – how many sports do you have?!”

TIL writes, “Hurling!  We’re world champs!  No pads or helmets!”

I replied, “Not only are you folks one track minded, you’re not safety conscious!”

Another PCV writes, “Seinfeld talks about how the invention of helmets is a sign of how stupid we are.  We are talking part in activities that require protective gear.  When you jump out of a plane, that helmet is now wearing you for protection.” I wasn’t sure which side this PCV was on …

I also had numerous conversations with Kenyans – both at my home stay family (we filled a couple of notebooks with our conversations over the two months), and the local people out here in Kilifi. 

My conversation with my home stay brother, who was seven at that time and wrote with a cute and unsteady hand but using very proper English went as follows:

I started, “How was your trip?”

“Fine.  We have gone to Nairobi.”

I added, “I will be going to Nairobi in January.  What did you do there?”

He replied, “We have gone to my grandmother.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Yes, I did.”

I met the local chairman of the disability organization in Kilifi, an interesting man who grew up with my headmaster playing football until he developed muscular dystrophy, and now is wheelchair-bound but very active in the local Kilifi and Muslim community.  He tells me a story of an incredibly unfortunate Christmas he had in 2004 –

“My house caught fire on Christmas night on 25/12/2004, at midnight.  I was lucky to have survived the huge inferno.  My friends saved me, took me off the bed and put me on my wheelchair.  Not even a scratch on my body.  My wife was away in Dar-es-Salaam.  I lost everything I owned that night, even my childhood memoirs.  To date I am still rebuilding.”

This man, successfully rebuilt his business, and on the Saturday I spent with him visiting, the place looked great, with a couple of storefronts, house rentals in the back, and a few projects in development.

These are only samples of interactions I’ve had over the past 19 months living out here, some are incredibly boring such as discussions of PC-K administration that wouldn’t make sense to the non-volunteer, discussions with the shop owner in Mombasa about buying outfits for Olivia, Cora, and Spencer, and on the other side, some conversations were a little too raunchy to write about on this family friendly blog.  I could see the evolution of my awareness and feelings during my service learning more and more about Kenya, my reactions become less and less afraid of the cultural interactions, and I could see how I finally began to balance my American need to stand up for myself and my kids and respect for the school administration and hierarchy. 

If these conversations were not written in those five plus notebooks, I would probably have forgotten most of these conversations and it’s always really cool to revisit yourself in the past every now and then and become amazed of the person you were, are now, and will become.


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.