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!