Friday, December 25, 2009

A Kenyan Krismasi

Krismasi Njema (Nice Christmas) family and friends!

This has been an interesting holiday season for me. For one thing, it does not feel like Christmas at all. The lack of Christmas carols, changing weather, and buying of presents really diminishes the Christmas spirit. But, I have managed to not be the Grinch / Ebenezer by being creative…. I just finished decorating wrapping paper and wrapping small presents for my friends and family here. Some Kenyans do celebrate Christmas, but my family doesn’t really celebrate holidays. So, I’m blasting some Mariah Carey Christmas songs to get into the holiday mood! Also, this is my first Christmas away from home…..I’m all grown up, at the age of 22!

Later today we will be eating a rooster that was just slaughtered (and that had been acting as my alarm clock for the past few days!) I refused to watch its beheading, despite my baba;s (dad) protests. In these moments, I really miss store bought frozen shrink wrapped chicken breasts. No blood, no feathers, and no loud crowing. This morning I helped prepare the food by peeling carrots and potatoes. I showed my mama a potato peeler that I brought with me from the states…and she was amazed! It really makes me think about all the things in the US that make life so much easier (slap chop, Panini maker, george foreman, etc). My mama laughed out loud when I tried to explain a dishwasher to her….she though I was even crazier when I explained leaving cookies for santa on Christmas eve. She said she would rather eat them instead :)

I just gave me host family their presents and for the first time in my life, I can truly say that I was completely content with only giving and expecting nothing in return. I was especially moved by the house boy’s reaction to the deck of cards I gave him (wrapped in some pretty beautiful hand drawn Christmas tree wrapping paper, I might add). He kept saying asante (thank you) as he went through the entire deck of card feeling each card and looking at the pictures. I am constantly humbled knowing that he works 100x harder than I ever have (and quite possibly ever will) for 2000 shillings a month (roughly 30 US dollars). He and the house girl, who are from Tanzania and who have become my personal Kiswahili tutors, wake up at 5 am wash clothes, milk the cows, clean the house and cook all day for the monthly salary that many Americans earn in less than an hour’s work. Seeing how happy he was with one small gift, made me smile and reminded me why I am here.

Why am I here, you might ask. And sitting here, slightly sad that I am not with my family for the holidays, and slightly happy that I’m not smothered by the sometimes over-the-top American Christmas spirit, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the reasons:

1. I want to make a difference in someone else’s life and education, especially in an area lacking qualified teachers, is one way to do so
2. I really love to travel and feel like a part of a community abroad. Living in a foreign country somewhere for two years is a way to accomplish both.
3. I don’t really know what else I would be doing in the states. Maybe not the best of reasons to join the Peace Corps, but I do see this period in my life as a transition into learning about what I want to in the future.
4. I’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps since the 8th grade when Mr. Laird told me about his experiences with the organization
5. I want to learn more about myself and gain confidence in my independence. Living alone, in a foreign community, speaking a different language, and not knowing a lot of the cultural norms are ways in which (hopefully) my independence will manifest.
6. I wanted the adventure. Trying new foods, seeing new sights, meeting new people is kind of an addiction of mine. I can’t stay put in one place for too long with out feeling anxious.
I’m sure this list will be fluid and will change in the near future when I actually start my job. But for now, these are the reasons why I came here and why I am happy to be here (even despite the 5 am rooster alarm clock)!

Well, marafiki na jamaa yangu, I hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas! Know that I am thinking about you all the way on the other side of the world.
Merry Christmas and much love,

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A busy week

Great news! I passed my LPI (language proficiency exam) with the score of intermediate mid. The Peace Corps only requires intermediate low in order to move on. So, beginning next week, I’ll be learning Luo. Luo is the local/ tribal language predominately spoken in the Nyanza provice (where I’ll be working in January). Apparently, Luo is a hard language to learn since it’s tonal, meaning that saying words in different tones changes the meaning….great.
I also found out that I was selected to have the honor of giving our swearing-in as speech in Nairobi. (We will have a ceremony to celebrate being done with training and finally becoming volunteers). I’m a little nervous since it will be at the ambassador to Kenya’s house. And , a bit more nerve-wracking, I’ll be delivering it in Kiswahili! Yikes!
Anyways, it has been a busy past week. On Thursday, we had a simulation to test our household skills such as cutting vegetables, lighting a jiko (a charcoal stove), lighting a lantern (most volunteers won’t have electricity at their site), hand washing clothes, and scrubbing the floor. We also did a simulation on how to deal with everyday Kenyan experiences in Kiswahili such as how to bargain in the market, submit a police report, brave a matatu (have I talked about these yet?), and survive a bar (and accompanying marriage proposals). The simulation day was fun and I was amazed to learn that after only one and a half months, I feel prepared to live as a Kenyan.
This weekend has been very busy. This morning the other volunteers and I planted acacia trees in a nearby garden. Acacia trees are a giraffe’s favorite food. Then I went to the market, did a little Christmas shopping for my Peace Corps secret santa (got him some awesome sandals made out of tires!), went to lunch, learned how to play the card game hearts, washed some clothes (all by myself!!!), and then had chai with some friends .
I’m busy working on making Christmas presents for friends and my host family. But it does not feel like Christmas season at all! For starters, it is very hot and dry and dusty (not at all like a California Christmas). And there are no Christmas carols on the radio, or Christmas movies on TV, or even Christmas trees! Therefore, in my mind, it does not feel like Christmas in Africa.
Anywho, this is a short post because tomorrow morning I am off to Makindu for an AIDS conference. I’ll be there for the next few days, before returning to Loitokitok for Christmas. We’ll be traveling by matatu which is Kenya’s most common form of transportation. It basically is an old rickety van that crams as many people as possibly in to it- a bit unsafe and a bit scary, but very convenient. It will be a true test of my matatu skills as we have to get to Makindu all by ourselves! Ok, I’ll put up pictures soon.
Happy Holidays,

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Necessities of Life: Water and Food

Water here is life. When the intense rainstorms come, like it did today, my mama is ecstatic. She begins to call the nearby towns where her shambas (maiz and bean farms) are located to see if it, indeed, is raining there too. The rain shakes the walls here and the tin roof amplifies the sound so it wakes even the soundest sleeper up at night. And while I used to complain about the hassle of all the mud ( I seriously have never witnessed so much mud in my life!) I know the rain is necessary for the crops. Rain is like Christmas here. My family gets so happy, runs outside with buckets, and calls friends- much like Christmas day in the US. For you to get an idea of the intense rain, here is a picture of my friend Chris and the RIVER of rain that formed on the main street after only a few minutes of Kenyan rain.

The food here has been surprisingly delicious. Where variety lacks, ingenuity prevails. Like I’ve mentioned before I love chapatti – a delicious tortilla / naan like bread eaten with beans or cabbage. Another common dinner for my family, who are Kikuyu (one of the 43 tribes in Kenya), is githeri. Githeri is a mixture of maiz kernels, beans, and potatoes. Very filling, and very delicious (especially with avocado!). And I am finally getting used to eating ugali (maiz and water mixed to the consistency of clay) and sukumawiki (kale cooked with onions and tomatoes). I used to be a mess in my attempt to eat ugali with my hands, but my technique has improved over the past few weeks.

During the week, I eat lunch in town at one of the restaurants. There are maybe 10 small restaurants that offer a few things each day. The concept of a menu is very different here. While the restaurant may have a menu with 30 different items, there are most likely 4-5 options for the day. You can get a good cheap meal of chapatti and beans for 50 shillings ( 70 cents) or an expensive nice meal of rice and grilled vegetables for 100 shillings ($1.50). My definition of expensive has definitely changed. I say expensive because A. I’m on a Peace Corps salary now and B. I am starting to think in shillings, and 100 shillings can buy you a lot here!

Here is a picture of my host brother's best friend Taqueen eating the spaghetti I made last weekend. They LOVED it! My mama wants me to make it again every weekend.

I also baked a cake today for my host brother's birthday. Well, actually it was a few days ago, but he never mentioned his birthday until I asked! Apparently, birthdays are not a big deal here, my host mom forgot that it was her own son's bday!!!!It was a little difficult without an oven, but I baked it by covering a pot with charcoal. After an hour of cooking in this makeshift oven, the cake turned out tamu sana (very sweet!). I will definitely be baking in the weeks to come so I can figure out what works best with the materials I have available. Improvising is one of the great skills that I am picking up as a peace corps volunteer…who would have known that I would be cooking cakes with charcoal ovens? Maybe, the Food Network is interested in a Kenyan version of Ace of Cakes??

Much Love,

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pants and Frozen Yogurt

Dear friends and family,
Please don’t be offended by the following statement: the things I miss most right now are pants and frozen yogurt. Now I too was surprised by these recent discoveries. I had imagined that the 3 F’s (Family, Friends, and Food) would be the things I would miss right away. However, my freedom to wear what I please is strictly prohibited by cultural norms. As a women living in rural Kenya, I am not allowed to wear pants in public. Instead, I am stuck with long skirts…all day, everyday. As I constantly remind myself to cross my legs at the ankle and hike up my skirt to allow for jumping over mud puddles, I long for the ability to just put on a pair of pants! I never quite realized the luxury of wearing pants. Your thighs don’t rub together. You don’t have to wear a slip. You don’t have to cross your legs all the time. Sigh…..those were the days of thigh rubbing freedom.
Now my second longing, is frozen yogurt. For starters there is nothing cold in this entire town. On hot days, an ice cube is all I can think about, but a lukewarm soda is the best I can get. I seriously daydream about Yogurtland. Or maybe just anything remotely colder than room temperature. I was used to living near Pinkberry and Yogurtland’s deliciousness which does not make into an easy transition to the freezer-less reality of Loitokitok, Kenya. Does anyone want to invent a mail-able frozen yogurt container..if so, a desperate Peace Corps volunteer would really appreciate some Yogurtland cheesecake frozen yogurt with strawberries please!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Siku ya Kushukuru (Thanksgiving)

Happy Thanksgiving friends and family! Over on the other side of the world, we were lucky enough to have our own Peace Corps Thanksgiving celebration …turkey and all! Using the ingredients found at the local market, we cooked sausage stuffing (mom’s recipe), spinach, mashed potatoes, rice, 3 chickens and a turkey. The poor turkey was still alive when we got to the Outward Bound training site. Somehow seeing a live animal before you eat it makes it much less appetizing. But, the food was delicious and we were completely stuffed, just like a Thanksgiving at home!To add to the cultural exchange, we performed a reenactment of the first Thanksgiving for our language trainers (complete with pilgrim hats and Native American headdresses). We then made hand turkeys, said what we were thankful for, and played pin the gobble on the turkey. Our holiday ended with a bonfire (but sadly no s’mores, no one here knows what a marshmallow even is!!!!) and some Tusker beer. All in all this was a Thanksgiving to remember.

And even more good news (that maybe tops a Thanksgiving feast) is that I found out where I will be living and teaching for the next two years. I will be in a rural town located outside of Kisumu. Located in the Nyanza province, Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya and is near Lake Victoria and the Ugandan border. Lucky for me I will be eating lots of samaki (fish) in the next few years. I will be teaching Biology and Math at a small all girls school. There are only 92 students and 7 teachers. The school is new ( next year will be the first year that there are students in grade 12) and therefore has relatively few resources compared with an older school. I will be living a few kilometers from the school on a compound with another family. I will have electricity and a well to get water from. I’ll be living in a 2 bedroom house, with an outdoor choo, and indoor bathing area. I hear there is a veranda as well! While I am a bit nervous to be living on my own, I am very excited to see my future home for the next two years.

I am still studying Kiswahili on a daily basis and learning a lot from my everyday interactions with my host family and neighbors. Last week I took my first Language Proficiency Exam (LPI) and scored Novice-high! I only need to improve by one level in order to fulfill the Peace Corps' language requirements. If/when I do pass the LPI I will start studying Luo which is the language spoken in the Nyanza province. It is quite amazing how many languages are spoken here. With 43 tribes the number of languages heard on a daily basis is overwhelming! Lucky for me, English and Kiswahili are the national languages so I will be teaching in English.

The weather here is getting colder and everyone here is thankful for the rain. As my mama says, no rain no food. When it rains here it REALLY rains. The rain brings out the “mdudu” or the insects which some people here catch in the air and eat! I have yet to try this Kenyan delicacy and am not sure if I will. Speaking of food, my mama here is very happy that I have been eating more. I am now getting used to the giant Kenyan proportions and can now eat 3 chapati when only a few weeks ago I could only finish 1!!!

I am now pretty adjusted to the lifestyle here. The bucket baths, choo, and hand washing of clothes no longer are shocking experiences to me. I am starting to understand more and more Kiswahili which has in turn made me more comfortable in my environment. While I have not been too homesick, I do miss my friends and family back home. Hopefully some of you will be able to come visit me next year. On a sad note, Tootsie had to be put to sleep…she will be greatly missed. Please send me an update on your lives when you get a chance, I’d love to hear from you!
Hugs from Kenya,

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Here are some of the Peace Corps Math/Science volunteers Stacey, Whitney, Christine, Margaret and me walking on the road to my house. We usually get chai and chapati at a restaurant in town after a long day of Swahili class and technical training.

And this is a very happy picture of me…why? Because Stacey and I just cooked fajitas and guacamole. It was delicious! Although, my host family was not as excited about it as we were. They thought guacamole was “interesting.” Haha. Tomorrow I am going to make spaghetti for them to try…maybe they will like it better.

This is the beautiful view of Mount Kilimanjaro that I am lucky enough to wake up to every morning. Loitokitok is very close to the Tanzanian border and is at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Hopefully, when Mom and Rob come to visit me next year we will be able to climb up it (it takes one week to reach the top!).

Where ever we go, there is sure to be a swarm of Kenyan children. While they are cute, the incessant screams of “Howroooooo?”( “How are you?” screamed as one long high pitched question) does get annoying. This is a group of children that followed us as we went on an evening walk.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hatua kwa Hatua

One full week of living the life of a Kenyan has passed by. And I have really learned a lot. A typical day for me is waking up at 6:30 (everyone else wakes up at 5am!), I take a bucket bath, eat chapati (like a tortilla mmmmmmmm!) and some fruit and drink chai (tea). Then, during the week, I have Kiswahili class from 8 am to noon. My language teacher, Mugo, is amazing and incorporates lots of different learning styles into our classes. For instance, we went to the market and learned about asking for prices, bargaining, and types of food.

After language class, I have lunch with some other Peace Corps volunteers in town. There are a few restaurants that I’ve tried so far- but watamu na chapati (beans and chapati) is my favorite meal. Then, in the afternoon I have cultural or technical training with the whole Peace Corps group. We’ve learned about the Kenyan school system which is MUCH different from ours and will begin observing classroom teaching on Monday. After a long day, I walk home to my host family house and study for a bit. My host sister, Maureen, has been a big help in teaching me Kiswahili. They are so nice and have been very helpful in teaching me everything I need to know in order to eventually live on my own.

I’ve learned how to get my water for my bucket bath, purify my water (which is such a process it takes almost an hour of filtering and stirring!), cook githeri (maiz and beans), make chapati, and , finally, I have mastered peeing in a choo! (This may be my biggest accomplishment of the week!). And, my Kiswahili is slowly coming along. I can easily greet people and am beginning to pick up words in conversation….not bad for one week! This week has been a learning process, and as a popular Kenyan saying goes, it will all come together, hatua kwa hatua (step by step)..

What tribe are you?

On any US roadtrip you may expect to see some roaming cows, wandering horses, and maybe a few beautiful birds, but on our journey to Loitoikitok yesterday zebras, giraffes, and ostriches lined the roadside. Loitoikitok, located on the border of Kenya and Tanzania is a beautiful town with a spectacular view of Mt. Kilamanjaro (or so I’m told, as the clouds have yet to part). The one paved road is bombarded by children yelling Howroo?” over and over again.

My host family consists of baba Macharia, mama Jane, Robert (17), Maureen (13), and Morris (5). My baba is off at university for another month though, so I will be spending most of my time with the mama and kids. They are all very welcoming, helpful, and curious (the children seem to stare at me all the time). On my first night, while talking about America, my mama asked me, “What tribe are you?” and my response was, “Californian?” So there are some definite changes in life that I will be getting accustomed to in the next few weeks, starting with learning the tribes of Kenya.

While the language barrier is not a big problem (because some members of my host family speak English), the use of the choo (toilet) seems to be my biggest challenge. A Kenyan toilet, or choo, consists of a tiny hole in the ground. For someone with years of practice, aiming into said tiny hole would be easy. BUT for me, who is not trained in such an art, it is quite a challenge. I’ll spare you the details, but you try peeing into a 3 inch hole.

There are times when everything seems like a challenge. Take for instance, walking 30 minutes home in the rain. While in the US this would be no problem with the aid of an umbrella, walking on the dirt roads of Loitokitok pose a serious problem for the slightly unbalanced. The rain turns the roads into a muddy mess that cakes to my shoes making me wobble more and more with each step. Thankfully, my host family has been very helpful in my adjustment here, teaching me how to remove inches of dried mud from my shoes with a machete and reminding me to take my rain jacket.

As the week goes on I’m mastering the art of peeing in a choo, eating ugali with my hands, avoiding and killing the giant bugs and spiders that appear in my room, and absorbing as much Kiswahili as possible,

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Karibu Kenya!

Hey all,
I'm safe and sound in Kenya after waaaaay too long of a flight. I definitely am familiar with JFK and zurich airports now! Anyways, I am now staying at a compound right outside of Nairobi. There are 27 volunteers in my group- we are a mix of Math, Science, and deaf education teachers. We will be here for the next few days doing Health/Safety training (Don't drink the water!, take your malaria meds!,don't look like a tourist!, etc. etc. )
On Saturday we are off to Loitokitok where we will meet our host families for the next few months. I'm getting a little nervous about learning Kiswahili .... we have to pass a proficiency test and I heard that 4 people from the last group went home because they failed :( So far I know two words (jambo and Karibu = welcome)it's a start, right?
Ok, well the internet here is quite slow. I'll let you all know more once I get to our pre-service training site. I updated my mailing address so start writing to me please!

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Jambo (hello) family and friends,
As I prepare for my 27 month stint with the Peace Corps in Kenya, many emotions have been running through my head. Excitement (yay, travel!), worry (can I really pack for 2 years?!), and a whole lot of nervousness (No Sweet Peas Chicken Pesto sandwiches for TWO years?!). But I think the most overriding emotion has been thankfulness. I am so thankful for the opportunity to live and work in another country. The Peace Corps combines volunteering and travel, two of my most beloved pastimes. I am so thankful for those who have supported me throughout the long application and decision process. And, in this last month, I have been incredibly thankful for the opportunity to spend time with my family in Hawaii and California and my best girlfriends in Vegas. Family and friends are definitely what I will miss most.
So to keep in touch, I am starting this blog. I’m not sure what my electricity/internet situation will be like. But I’ll try to update and let you know that I am alive whenever possible. I’ll also leave you with my address in case you want to send me a chicken pesto sandwich! ( Just kidding, packages take up to 3 months to get to me!) Here is my address while I am in training for the next three months:
***************EDITED ADDRESS*************

Jenny Nakata
US Peace Corps
P.O. Box 698-00621
Village Market
Nairobi, Kenya

If you get a minute, write to me. I always appreciate snail mail : )

*NOTE ON PACKAGES* Do NOT value package at more than $100.00 on customs form, do NOT write food, electronics, or anything expensive on form. DO write vague descriptions such as education materials, used books, used cloths, personal effects etc. And DO NOT send porn (not that any of you were going to) apparently it's super illegal here... and I do not want to be jailed for possession of pornography :) DHL and UPS are expensive, regular mail is fine to use. Apparently things get here pretty quick (2-3 weeks).

Much of this process has flown by, a whirlwind of applications, travel, and last minute packing. But for those of you that are curious, here is what I know so far about the upcoming months of my Peace Corps journey.
At this moment I am on my way to Philadelphia where I have “Staging” my quick four hour training and registration in the USA. On November 3rd, I embark on the journey to Kenya (JFK-> to Zurich -> Nairobi). I’ll be spending a few nights in the capitol before taking a 8 hour bus ride to the southern border to a town called Loitokitok. Here is where I will live with a host family for the next three months. I’ll be learning Swahili as well as some technical, health/safety aspects of the job. Then on January 7th 2010 (my 23rd birthday!), I’ll be moving to my site where I will live and teach high school science for the next two years. Writing about this makes me excited to meet new people, try new foods, learn a new language, and travel another country. Hopefully, I’ll soon be a Kenya expert and can give those of you that come to visit me a tour of the country ;)
Ok, check back later for updates!
Much love,