Let There Be Light

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P1010117A few months back I was contacted by Village Innovators, an organization dedicated to supporting projects in Kenya that are student led, provide practical skills to the students involved, and have a long lasting and sustainable lifespan. My Village Innovators contact asked if I would be interested in organizing a student team and building either a windmill or zero-electricity refrigerator. I replied that I was very much interested and invited ten students to participate in the project. A couple weeks later we gathered for our first impromptu meeting. I explained the Village Innovator vision and asked what project the students thought we should take on. Even though I had not presented it as an option, my student team suggested that we install solar panels and a battery to provide power to the girl’s dormitory and a neighboring classroom at the local Polytechnic (vocational) school; then the girls would be able to study at night. They pointed out that our village is not particularly windy, we already have a number of refrigerators in our village center, and many people use solar power locally because it is sunny nearly year round. Touché wajifunza, touché. I told my clever student team I didn’t know if a solar panel project would be possible, but that I would ask. Meeting adjourned.

P1010082 Luckily Village Innovators is an encouraging, flexible, and essentially awesome organization, and was more than willing to support our alternate project plan. I contacted a local electrician with several years experience in solar installation we arranged for him to meet with the student team and me. We explained our limited budget and the student vision for the project. One of the male students suggested an outdoor security light for his female peers to use when they need to go outside and use the pit latrine at night. My typically standoffish students were giddy, clearly not just excited, but even honored to be part of the project. Our fundi (catch all term in Kiswahili for person who does skilled work with his or her hands) helped us brainstorm all the materials needed for the project and draft a budget for the project. We arranged for him to pick up materials in Nairobi and set Saturday June 21st as our project date. Here Jane was getting herself into yet another project she knew little to nothing about, trusting that the sheer motivation, positive attitudes, and talented contacts of her student team would carry them through. She is proud to report that they very well did. P1010035

We met last Saturday on a morning that could not decide whether it was sunny or cloudy. All ten students plus one hanger-on—who proved to be an essential part of our team—were present. Wait wait, pause, timeout. I would like to take a moment to point out how notable this is. I am overjoyed that I have about 50% attendance at my weekly weaver meetings. I am truly thrilled to have such a dedicated women’s group. The idea of “giving” your time to a higher cause is still pretty exotic here in Kenya and most people do not give their time freely unless they feel they are getting something in return. For our Village Innovators solar project we had something around 109% turnout if you count our new team member. A day of unpaid labor for the betterment of your school and yourself? I think it would a hard sell for a lot of American kids. Yeah. My team was out in full force. And boy oh boy did they rock it. Turns out that polytechnic students know how to work with their hands, and as soon as our handy-dandy fundi showed them what to do they were on it like my cats on ghee. Build a small wooden table to support and protect the battery, come up into this crawl space and help me clip wiring into place, use a hammer and metal rod to removed this concrete and make space for wiring tubes, find a ladder, bring water to mix this concrete…the list goes on and on…but what you really know, what I really want you to know, is that we knocked the project out in one day. On budget. Ahead of schedule. Injury free. Smiles on. What a note to end my final project on. Two weeks left in Kenya…and counting. Now for the packing. The tying of loose ends. The goodbyes. Or as my long time readers will well know, bitter-sweet-byes. We made it.

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Home Coming Queen

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Home Coming Queen

When I first arrived in Kwa Kulomba I was emphatically informed that I walked too fast and my English was too “deep.” I was punctual, impatient, and quintessentially American. As I pushed groups to be more organized and motivated I quickly became exhausted. After six months in my village I finally learned to sit back and allow the motivated people to come to me. It took awhile, but eventually they did. And therein lies the beauty of having 2 years to burn. While my men’s group focused on fighting alcoholism disintegrated, the wives of these men stepped forward and said they wanted a group of their own. They proposed weaving as an income generating activity, requested 500 shillings each (about 6$ USD) to get started, and off they went. We met each week to discuss our potential market, new ideas for basket designs, and of course at least one hour of local gossip. Our meetings always started late and most of the time our secretary failed to take minutes, but at least ten women came every week. They drafted a constitution and collected funds to register themselves as an official group. After several months of reminders and discussions, each and every one of them has repaid their loan and meetings tend to start in the general realm of on time. A few members of the group have become highly talented weavers who I hope to work with even when I am stateside. If you are interested in buying an authentic Kamba basket drop me a line!

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So where exactly are you headed with this story Janet? You seeking a pat on the back? In fact dear reader, I am trying to express some sneaking anxieties that I simply can’t shake. Now that my pace and English have been Africanized I can’t help but be intimidated by the prospect of assimilating back into my own culture. Of course I remain American and freckled to the core, but grinding away for 40 hours a week at a job I may or may not be invested in has never sounded spookier. My work here in Kenya inched along, the margin for error within each project enormous thanks to the snail’s pace at which all things move. Deadlines nonexistent, timelines months long, days or weeks always available to mitigate each and every problem. My schedule was mine to create and manipulate. I was my own master, taking responsibility for every mistake and applauding my community for every success. I am told that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are highly employable; that we have hands on work experience up the wazoo; that we are flexible problem solvers who are able to hit just about any ground running. Perhaps this is all true, but for the time being nearly impossible goodbyes here, and expectations back home, loom large. Friends and family in Kenya are quite curious about what I will be doing with my belongings, while their counterparts back home continue to inquire about when, where, and how much they will be able to see me. Of course the scramble for my possessions and time is based in love, but the transition has not even begun and I am stretched thin.

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Ah and here it is; she finally broke down let you in faithful reader. Well what’s a girl to do?! I’m essentially going through the worst break up ever. Half of my possessions won’t fit in my suitcase and I have to walk away from people who I love and may or may not ever see again. Thank goodness for you people back home waiting with open arms…but don’t be put off when I drop into Idaho and hide out for awhile. No cell phone, no wal-mart, and no responsibilities will be just what the doctor ordered for a few months. Turns out that reverse culture shock is real. I’m already shocky just discussing and committing the few homecoming plans I have! Haha funny how Peace Corps changes you. The old Jane would have needed a job lined up with a six month plan to match. Goodbye high-strung lady. Hello…you. You as of yet post-Peace Corps unemployed but rafting the Grand Canyon in October so it is ok beast. Watch out world. Specifically rural Idaho. Here I come.

Close of Service

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We were 31 strong when we left the United States. Our swear in group now stands at 18. This week we have gathered for our Close of Service Conference and it is the last time all of us will be together before we leave Kenya. After 2 years here we will now leave one home for another, saying goodbyes to our new friends and family members who we might not see for years to come. It is hard not to ask yourself if you did enough; if the things you did do will continue to make a difference. Not to mention the creeping fear that immersion back into life in the United States will be difficult. No job. No car. No plan. Some would point out that I am blessed with absolute freedom, how lucky I am not to be tied down. Well I would like to point out that a man named Kierkegaard once said “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” A abundance of life options feels at once empowering and overwhelming. Exhilarating and intimidating.

P1000587In an attempt to buffer questions that are difficult to answer- such as “what are you going to do (‘with your life’ being implied)”- I will give you the run down of my not so set in stone future. I am hoping to leave Kenya in late July and stop to see my Uncle Guy and cousins Bea and Lou in Spain. From there I will jet back to Boise, ID where my loving ma and step pappy will pick me up from the airport. From there I plan to  spend two days recouping from jet lag before moseying down to the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival. Next stop, back to Crouch for my ma’s 50th Birthday celebration and my official welcome home party (weekend of August 15th- all friends and fam welcome!!!). Late August I’m off to Burning Man if I can swing it. September is open in case I want to get me Wilderness First Responder certification…in preparation for…DRUM ROLL PLEASE…RAFTING THE GRAND CANYON. Yep, 21 days of utter outdoor majesty. Basically all of October I will be living out the ultimate rafter wet dream. All mine.

P1000790At this here conference they’ve got us thinking and talking about the future. How will we tell our stories about the past 2 years we spent away? It’s time for reflection activities, paperwork and resume updates. Suddenly the future is feeling not so distant and my long term has yet to come into focus. And what will I be up to after I run the Grand in October? You want to know where exactly I’m headed? Well so do I, so at least we agree on something. As callus as it might sound this corps junky is ready to make some cash money. Find myself a big girl job where I don’t have to sit a cubicle. Maybe open a little savings account, move to the big city, and start acting like an adult, but not until I eat a ton of turkey and decorate a tree with my family. Definitely not before then. Apparently I’ll have some thrilling reverse culture shock to process so how about I come visit y’all and we work through that one together. Sound like a plan? Sheesh I can’t wait. Janet.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

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What’s a girl to do when her house lacks electricity? READ! Ok, yes there is also cooking, cleaning, lesson planning, weaving, phone talking…but quite a bit of reading has been going down in my neck of the desert. Before coming to Kenya I had read a pitiful amount of literature about Africa and African History. Although baby size, I have been taking steps to remedy my Eurocentric mindset. I would like to take a moment to recommend some gems that provided me with much needed context for my experience in Kenya. Enjoy!

1. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, Michela Wrong

Wrong’s page-turning investigation focuses on the story of John Githongo and his role in the fight against corruption in Kenya. She brilliantly uses Githongo’s whistle-blowing story as a case study to explore larger cultural and political themes within Kenya. After introducing Githongo It’s Our Turn to Eat gives a detailed history of the government in Kenya, specifically the turnover from the British and how governmental systems were maintained and utilized by succeeding politicians for personal gain. From there Wrong further uses Githongo’s saga to investigate tribal tensions, the systematic milking of public funds by those in power, and the continuing legacy of corruption and tribal tension that Kenya faces today.

2. One Day I will write about this Place, Binyavanga Wainaina

A beautifully written and unique memoir written by the founder of the first African literary magazine, Kwani. One Day I will write about this Place is a compilation of several pieces that Wainaina wrote over the years, ranging from reflections on his childhood to the existential questions of his 20s and on into his adulthood. Wainaina’s style is quirky, but skillfully captures the jumbled 19th century meets 21st century nature of Kenya. I took my time reading this book because I loved it so much.

Sidenote: Wainaina recently came out as homosexual in protest to anti-gay laws that are gaining steam across Africa. While this does not pertain to my book review, he is very brave for doing this and I hope his decision will create healthy dialogue and possibly acceptance of his not alternative but actually quite normal lifestyle. For more info click this link:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/21/kenyan-writer-binyavanga-wainaina-declares-homosexuality

3. Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, Blaine Harden

Dispatches is a collection of non-fiction pieces written by Harden when he was a reporter for the Washington Post in the 1980s. While this may seem out of date, Harden explores universal themes that are still very much relevant in Africa today, including: familial obligations causing the redistribution of wealth; western governments and NGOs offering guidance and funding that is not culturally appropriate or sustainable; and Africans striving to over tribal roots to became patriots of their various nations. Two of his essays focus on Kenya, while there are others about the Congo, Sudan, Nigeria and more.

4. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Wangari Maathai

A call to action written by the founder of the Green Belt Movement and Noble Peace Prize winner Maathai. Pulling from her own roots, the Bible, and her overriding sense of justice and empowerment she explores environmentalism and why the movement to preserve the natural world needs to start now. While I am not much of a Bible thumper myself, I found Maathai’s words to be inspirational and hope that the movement she started before her untimely death continues to grow throughout Africa.

5. Life, Love, and Elephants, Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Dame Sheldrick’s life has truly been remarkable and her memoir gives an inside look at the catastrophe of poaching in Kenya and the attempts to manage this enormous problem from the 1960s onward. She also gives adorable details about raising dozens of animal orphans and explores the challenges of rehabilitating and releasing these orphans. If you are willing to overlook her slightly anti-Kenyan independence, pro-colonialist tone than Life, Love, and Elephants is well worth reading.

A few other books I recommend but do not focus on Kenya specifically are The Invisible Cure, What is the What, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, Cutting for Stone, and Poisonwood Bible.

Now, I have a little game for you kids today. Did you ever read those books where you are given different choices to get through a maze adventure of sorts? They’re awesome right? Well let’s try to recreate the same affect here, except with a Peace Corps adventure. Now I want to tell you there ARE right and wrong answers. Fair warning, and good luck. Choose the letter (A,B,C…) of your decision and scroll down to the corresponding info-which will be labeled with the same letter that you just chose. Welcome to Peace Corps.

It’s an average Wednesday in your village. The sun rises at 7:00 am (year-round! Ah the joys of living on the equator) and it starts to warm up from there. You can hear roosters cock-a-doodle-doing, goats making their funny sneezing sounds, and the kids on your compound getting ready for the day (mostly just slamming the door to the choo—pit latrine). On Wednesdays when school is in session you travel two villages over to teach at a school called Ndithini Secondary. Your first choice at hand is this:

A- For today’s adventure school is in session and you are scheduled to teach Life Skills at 9:20 am at Ndithini, an hour and a half walk away.

B- School is not in session so you are embarking on a different adventure.

 

A: Your next choice is how you will commute to Ndithini:

C-Wake up at 6:00 am to give yourself enough time to prepare for the day and walk to school.

D-Wake up at 7:00 am, prepare for day, and walk to bus stage. Bus as close to Ndithini as you can and walk the remaining ½ hour up hill.

E-Sleep in until 8:00 am, prepare for day, and take a piki piki (motorcycle) door to door to Ndithini.

 

B: You have been invited to a chief’s baraza (community gathering) one village over to announce details about an addiction training you have planned later this month. Will you:

F-Get cold feet about talking in front of so many people and not go.

G-Arrive exactly at 10:00 am, the height of punctuality.

H-Take your time greeting friends and drinking chai, not arriving until 11:00 am.

 

C / D: Good work. You might be a little sweaty from some walking but you made the right choice. After teaching your lessons you must decide what to do about lunch:

I-Walk to the nearest hoteli (restaurant) that you patronize and grab whatever they’ve got cookin’.

J-Try a new hoteli just for kicks.

K-Travel home and cook something for yourself.

 

E: END OF ADVENTURE. A Peace Corps vehicle was in your area and saw you on a piki piki…which is strictly against Peace Corps global policy. I’m sorry but you will be flying home later this week.

F: END OF ADVENTURE. Because you didn’t go to the baraza no one knows about your training.

 

G: While you end up with some time to kill (you live in Kenya, nothing starts on time except for school), you made the right decision by coming to the baraza and now the community knows about your training and will be in attendance. After the baraza you must decide what to do about lunch:

I-Walk to the nearest hoteli (restaurant) that you patronize and grab whatever they’ve got cookin’.

J-Try a new hoteli just for kicks.

K-Travel home and cook something for yourself.

 

H: You at the same time as all the mamas and your caffeine buzz from all that chai helps you get through the 2-hour meeting. You announce your training. Good work. After the baraza you must decide what to do about lunch:

I-Walk to the nearest hoteli (restaurant) that you patronize and grab whatever they’ve got cookin’.

J-Try a new hoteli just for kicks.

K-Travel home and cook something for yourself.

 

I: You have an enjoyable lunch of chapti and beans chatting up mamas you know. Awesome. Your next choice is what to do with the rest of your afternoon:

L-Grab a beer down at the bar with some locals.

M-Go for a hike in the hills around your village.

N-Head home to do some sweeping / washing / etc.

 

J:END OF ADVENTURE. You either get giardia or are harassed by a drunkard. Your choice.

 

K: While this option works you are HANGRY (angry due to extreme hunger) by the time you get home. Next time I would recommend grabbing lunch out. Your next choice is what to do with the rest of your afternoon:

L-Grab a beer down at the bar with some locals.

M-Go for a hike in the hills around your village.

N-Stay home to do some sweeping / washing / etc.

 

L: END OF ADVENTURE. You have ruined your reputation in the village, especially if you are a woman.

M :This option is ok, but let me remind you it is HOT in Ukambani and people are going to greet you an average of every 20 feet so it might be slow going. Just sayin’. Congrats you completed your day successfully!

N: So domestic of you! Congrats you completed your day successfully!

Wasn’t that fun??? Well I certainly hope so. Catch ya later.

Miss Universe 2014

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Do you remember being a kid and looking up with your innocent, saucer-sized eyes to that camp counselor, older sibling of a playmate, second cousin from a few states over, or college bound neighbor who was just the coolest? Because I do. I remember being so jealous of these young adventurers who where exploring the world without a list of chores or a bedtime. Semi-adults who knew what to wear, what music to “jam” to, and represented the next nebulous life step out there beyond the schoolyard. I remember those mixed emotions of “I want to be you,” oddly paired with “I want to be kissing you,” which basically epitomizes being 12. These larger than life role models encouraged us to begin asking existential questions including “Who am I?” and more importantly, “Who do I want to be?” Questions that thankfully distracted us from more confusing quandaries such as “Where did all this body hair come from?” As kids we feel perpetually stuck in mini-person limbo and struggle to imagine ourselves stepping out into the world, eventually becoming pseudo adults ourselves. I didn’t even realize I had become one of these cooler than cool role models until some 12 year olds where kind enough to let me look through their eyes. That is the story I want to tell you this month—the story of corresponding with my aunt Molly’s fabulous 5th grade class.

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I began writing letters to my aunt Molly’s students early in my Peace Corps service but it wasn’t until her fall 2013 class arrived that our correspondence really got rolling. This particularly diverse and curious group of students simply could not get enough info about my adventures in Kenya. My first couple letters along with the facts they gleaned from my blog did little to stifle their curiosity. They quickly followed up with individual letters chock-full of clever questions, some that I didn’t even know the answers to. One student asked if Kenya was named after President Jomo Kenyatta. Turns out Kenyatta was just a nickname, but I had to ask around to figure that one out. Another student—who comes from the Philippines and sometimes visits her grandparents there—asked me if I have to wash my clothing by hand and went on to explain her own laundry adventures abroad. Before my big move to Kenya I didn’t even consider laundry issues—it simply didn’t cross my spoiled American mind. Each time I sent off a letter full of Peace Corps antidotes and pictures they enthusiastically asked for more. I went from nervously drafting letters that I worried would not be interesting enough for 5th graders to giving them extensive details about my life and work here in Kenya. When my aunt asked if I could skype with her class in January I gladly agreed, eager to talk to the students and feed off of their contagious enthusiasm. Little did I know I was about to be interviewed as a candidate for Miss Universe 2014, or at least that is what it felt like.

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“What made you want to join Peace Corps?”

Well I had not lived outside of the United States before Peace Corps and that was something I wanted to try. I also really enjoy volunteering and I had heard amazing stories from returned Peace Corps Volunteers, so I wanted to give it a shot.

“If you could fix one problem in Africa, what would it be?”

Water security. People who don’t have access to water also don’t have enough food or good health. Access to a clean and adequate water supply is the first step in development.

“What project are you most proud of from your time Peace Corps?”

My well improvement project. The whole community came together to make it happen and people use that well to fetch water everyday. The well is much safer now and I am very thankful that I got to be part of that project.

“Do you have other projects that will leave an impact in Kenya?”

I hope that my teaching will have a lasting impact. I teach about relationships and communication, and I hope I am giving my students skills that will help them be healthy in the future. I try to talk to them about things that other adults might not, and I trust that my lessons will make a difference for them.

“What do you miss most about America?”

Ice cream. And my family. But yeah I really miss ice cream.

“What will you do after Peace Corps?”

Um…I don’t know for sure but I want to come back and get a job and I am considering going to graduate school. This might sound strange but after being a volunteer for so long I am ready to find a real job and to make a little money.

Oh, and there were less formal questions too…

“Have you seen large cats fighting? Like lions and leopards?”

I saw both lions and leopards in the wild when I went on safari but I have not seen them fighting. That would be pretty cool though.

“What is your favorite wild animal there?”

I love the secretary bird. It is a flightless bird that can grow to be five feet tall and runs around killing snakes by stomping on them. It is really unique looking—you should look it up online.

“How long did it take to get there on the airplane?”

Well it was not a direct trip to Kenya. We stopped in Europe on the way and had to wait awhile for our next airplane. It ended up being about 24 hours total though—a very long trip!

“Is it warm there? We haven’t had recess this week because of the polar vortex.”

Yes it is probably 75 or 80 degrees outside and it is nighttime. I’m sorry to hear about your recess! I hope it warms up a bit for you.

“What time is it there?”

10 pm. *Surprised response along the lines of WHOA…

After we hung up the call I felt a million bucks, and not just any million, but a million designated for philanthropy. Those kids gave me new rose tinted glasses through which to see my service. They are glorious glasses that filter out all the self-deprecating muck that drifts around in my brain. Suddenly my guilt at not having achieved more was eased. My frustration at being asked to help with projects too expensive and extensive to take on was pacified. This delightful video-call reminded me to be proud of what of I have achieved and appreciate what an adventure my experience in Kenya has been. As my mind raced back over faces, smiles, and questions of the class I realized that I am now a cooler than cool pseudo adult, and there is no place I would rather be.

A Day in the Life

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Below find a piece I wrote for Peace Corps Kenya to include in the “You’re going to Kenya!” acceptance materials that are sent to the fresh meat volunteers before they depart the US of A. Enjoy.

I awake this morning to the familiar sound of birds chattering with anticipation for the coming dawn, their high-pitched calls punctuated with the baritone of a lone rooster. Soon the goats also awaken and join the chorus, and although my clock tells me I should sleep for thirty more minutes my compound is telling me otherwise. I roll out of bed and look in the kitchen to decide whether it will be oatmeal, banana pancakes, muesli, or sukuma and eggs for breakfast this morning. As the mamas of my compound walk by my house on their way to the pit latrine they invariably take a peek in my window, and greet me as soon as they see me in the kitchen. Greetings are the glue for relationships in my tribe and I know whether rain or shine, 6:00 am or 9:00 pm, to call out in the local language “I am good!” After breakfast I prepare for the day, selecting a skirt, shirt, and slip to put on and slathering on my daily dose of sunscreen. A quick brush of the teeth and I am out the front door walking down the dusty dirt road to town.
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I arrive at the computer lab at 8:30 am as scheduled, and not a student is to be found. I wait around for a half an hour or so before calling the principal of the Polytechnic to inquire on the whereabouts of my students. She informs me that there isn’t any electricity in town today so we won’t be cycling the twenty-three students through the four computers in the lab. Why don’t I come down to the Polytechnic to teach Life Skills instead? The need for punctuality dampened, I stop in at my favorite duka to greet friends and take chai. The owner of the shop weaves skillfully as she asks me about my schedule and the meeting we have in the afternoon. After shaking a sufficient number of hands I leave the village center and head toward the Polytechnic. As I walk along the road I am greeted with an assortment of names; there are some I identify with and others I do not. Sister I have come to terms with because nuns typically do great work, but Mzungu, the catch all term for foreigner, does not sit well with me. I am also still called by the name of the volunteer I replaced over a year ago, but when I am finally approached with my given American or Kamba names I can’t help but feel a small swell of pride at my “insider” status, however diminutive it may be.

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Upon reaching the Polytechnic I find the male students busy making bricks and can’t help but smile at the prospect of an intimate class of only twelve girls who will now have one less excuse to be shy. Once all eyes are on the chalkboard we discuss gender roles, how they are changing, and what kinds of careers these young women are interested in. I ask them if a woman can have a career and family: they tell me “she can balance.” After two and a half hours of lessons and games I walk home in time to catch the 2:00 pm lunch served in the big house on my family compound. As usual it is a dish of boiled and salted beans and corn, known in Kenya as gidtheri. Following lunch I am left with an hour and a half to prepare for my 4:30 pm women’s group meeting. The women’s group is primarily composed of women with alcoholic husbands who are seeking both emotional support and sources of income. We formed the group when we realized that several such women were friends and interested in organizing. Now that they each have small loans of 500 Kenyan Shillings to weave we need to discuss what kinds of baskets are marketable and a plan of action for our income generating activities. I write on a few flip charts with a marker in preparation and tape them on the side of my house. Next I put a few benches in place facing the wall of my house, thankfully shaded from the afternoon sun, and wait for the group members to arrive. As each woman approaches I stand, shake her hand, greet her in Kikamba, and invite her to sit. While these neighbors in a small, gossip ridden village have been known to squabble from time to time, they all listen right up as I give my short presentation and it is translated by one of the women in the group. After an hour of basket business and an hour of chatting pleasure, one of the older women closes the meeting with prayer and we all go our separate ways, namely me back into my house to bathe and change into pajamas. It will be dark by 7:00 pm and I will attempt to get my ducks a row before then.

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After it is dark outside I make my nightly walk up to the “big house,” a mammoth of a dwelling glowing white across the compound with security lights. I plan to charge my phone, eat a second helping of gidtheri, and spend some time with the seven kids who live on my compound. Tonight I have brought some paper, pencils, and coloring books for us to work with. We communicate with a mixture of broken English, Kiswahili, and Kikamba—not to mention smiles and hand motions. By 9:00 pm my quiet, cozy house is calling my name and I mosey back across the compound to my abode. After putzing around with any last chores I light two candles and read until I can’t keep my eyes open. And that there is a day in the life.

Happy New Year all you lovely readers you. More soon.

Well Intentioned

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Oh my it looks like the time got away from me. Here we are slipping into December and I have not written since September. Let me extend my sincerest apologies…and mention that my October post appears to have disappeared into cyberspace. Sigh. Oh internet. Now the complications of executing a 3-month update gracefully ensue. Bear with me my friends, bear with me. Let us start from the beginning and proceed accordingly. I hope you’ve missed me as much as I’ve missed you. 19 months down, 8 to go.

ImageOne of the first groups I met with after my arrival at my site was the Mbaa Ndolo Self Help Group. Mbaa Ndolo is made up of villagers who live in the hills outside of Mumbuni; a small town approximately a 30-minute matatu ride from my village. When my counterpart Francis first took me to visit the group he was a bit vague about where exactly we were headed. “Not far” is the standard answer to questions such as these in Kenya, which can mean anything from a 10-minute walk to a 3-hour trek. One must simply be prepared with comfy shoes and a least one liter of water at all times- not all that different from my trail crew days really. So Francis and I “alighted” from our matatu and started walking down a dirt (duh, they are all dirt in these parts) road. Of course our destination was “not far,” so I put on my protective gear (sun glasses and goofy large hat) and tried to appreciate the dry scenery. After an hour or so of walking we reached a small village where some of the Mbaa Ndolo members greeted us. They pointed to the hills and explained, “We live up. The well is there.” My counterpart had left one small detail out; the Mbaa Ndolo group was struggling with a dangerous well and hoped that I, a clueless and brand new Peace Corps Health Volunteer, would be able to help them fix it. We proceeded to the well, a 15-foot deep hole dug into unstable soil with murky water pooled in the bottom. As the chairman of the group edged down the steep path to the water, explaining, “The well is too dangerous,” gravel started to slide beneath his feet and he almost fell. Point taken. After our visit to the well we walked further up the hills to a gorgeous family compound built on a large terrace cut from the hillside. Chairs were brought out and placed under an umbrella tree (what everyone calls them, not sure what the other name might be), a coffee table was placed in front of me, and I was served more ndengu (lentil stew) and chapati (delicious greasy tortilla) than I could eat. I was thanked for visiting and offering my services to the group. I stumbled through a Kiswahili-ish (mediocre Kiswahili mixed with Africanized English) explanation of my limited access to funds and only budding knowledge of water projects. No matter, indicated the group. We know you will be able to help us. Not sure of what to do, I asked the group to draft a sample budget for the well-improvement project and send it along to me. I would try my best, but no promises.

ImageWhen I received the budget a couple weeks later it didn’t seem right. All of the prices were high and unnecessary items listed. I mulled it over for a few days, wondering how best to tell the group that I am not a “normal” NGO volunteer. Of course I had told them I had limited access to funding, but the color of my skin and country of origin had surely spoken more loudly than my words.  A culture of aid dependence and the resulting entitlement to funding preceded me. It wasn’t anything personal, just NGO business as far as they were concerned. I finally got up the guts to tell them that the budget was not an appropriate request and that I would not be willing to work with the Mbaa Ndolo group unless they drafted a reality based budget. Two months later a new–budget approximately one-half of the original–arrived and we got down to business. I applied for $500 of funding from Water Charity (www.watercharity.org), an incredible organization  that funds Peace Corps Water Projects around the world. We were awarded funding in early September and started construction right away. The picture above shows the enormous concrete ring that was placed in the bottom of the well as a base for the bricks to be laid along the sides of the well.  As the male members of Mbaa Ndolo heaved the base into place the female members, young and old alike, fetched the handmade and recently baked bricks. It was amazing to see this group mobilize and do something to help their whole community. I am thankful I got to be a part of it and that my family members stateside were kind enough to provide their support through Water Charity. Find pic of finished well below.

ImageWell what about October and November you ask? Oh you know, the usual. Taught some Life Skills and computer lessons. Sold a couple dozen traditional Kamba baskets for my women’s group. Went to Nairobi last week to get new glasses and ate a piece of legitimate apple pie just in time for Thanksgiving. Had the opportunity to help out at another Girls Leading Our World Camp outside of Kajiado. Received adorable letters from my Aunt Molly’s 5th grade class. Best quote: “I want to be in the NFL when I grow up, just like your job in Africa.” Haha. Just like it. Pic below taken of Carol by compound kid Lucky. Pic of me up top was taken by Lucky- girl is getting to be quite the photographer!Image