Sunday, January 31, 2010

How old are you? 5? 14?

Let me preface this story by saying that age is very skewed in Kenya. For one thing I have no idea how old most Kenyans are. Sometimes I’ll meet an elderly lady on the street who could, in my mind, be 80 years old as her wrinkly skin and missing teeth would predict. Nope, she’s 50. Or I could see a child carrying a bucket that weighs twice as much as him who is only 4 years old. Sometimes I see a 7 year old carrying a newborn on her back while balancing a basket on her head. So maybe I shouldn’t judge my student who thought I was 5 years old. Yes, FIVE. It’s hard to tell people’s age when you are only accustomed to the aging of your own culture. But five? Really? This is how our conversation went:

My student Rosebel: At the funeral, people said you were married to the Kayila son
Me: I’m much too young to be married! And no, I am not married to the Kayila son
Rosebel: How old are you?
Me: How old do you think I am?
Rosebel: I think you are younger than me
Me: No way! You’re in form 2. How old are you?
Rosebel: Sixteen.
Me: So let me get this straight. You think I am younger than sixteen?!?
Rosebel: Yes!
Me: You know I went to secondary school and then university right?
Rosebel: Yes. So you’re not 5?
Me: Noooooooooo
Rosebel: So you’re maybe 14?
Me: Are you serious? 5? 14????

So should I be more disturbed that she thought I was five years old? Or more disturbed that she thought I could be married at this age? Or impressed that she thought I was a child prodigy who completed a degree in Neuroscience at the age of five? Hmmmmm.

On a completely different note, I have seen two dead bodies in the last week (two more than I have seen in my entire life!) But don’t worry, not dead bodies like murder victims or anything of the sort. I’ve been to two funerals this week- and what a celebration funerals are in Luo-land! For one thing, there is lots of dancing, singing, and lots and lots of wailing. It was quite intense to witness. People wail and scream and wail some more. (throwing themselves on the ground, kicking and screaming, and wailing). All the crying and howling is followed by a series of dances and songs and eating. The next day, the deceased is mourned through many eulogies from all the visitors (and there were about a thousand) before he/she is buried in the family’s backyard. Yes, this may seem strange. Being buried in the backyard is a ceremony that we Americans reserve for our household pets (minus the unlucky goldfish). But to the Luo people, being buried at home is like coming full circle. You must be buried in the place you were born in order for your spirit to feel at rest. The funerals here seem like much more of a party, they could easily be mistaken for a wedding or big birthday party. And I agree to some extent, the Luo are celebrating a life well lived, and that is a reason to rejoice.

Another random fact, I got my first Kenyan pet today! It is an adorable baby bunny. She is about the size of my palm and is so cute. I bought her for 50 shillings (.75 cents) from Rosebel’s little brother. He was going to breed her and then eat her! So I’m happy I saved her from a future of sex slavery and human consumption. Anyways, she will be keeping me company in my big, lonely house until the day that I add on to my pet collection. One of my colleague’s dogs is pregnant so I will soon have a puppy as well! I’m seriously horrified of the way that Kenyans treat animals. They throw rocks at dogs, hit puppies, torture kittens, and do all sorts of things that would really irk even a non- PETA supporter. So I’m hoping to soon have a small animal sanctuary free from the Kenyan culture of pet abuse!

And on another random note, does anybody have any suggestions for what people can use in place of pads? I made an anonymous question box so my students can ask questions without feeling embarrassed; A major source of their anxiety is the fact that sanitary napkins are inaccessible to them. For one thing, they are expensive (about 70 shillings for 8 which can be more than a full day’s earnings). Therefore, some of the students resort to using dirty clothes and old blankets instead. And sometimes, at the expense of their education, they just stay at home while on their periods. It breaks my heart that this seemingly menial necessity is widely unavailable. I’ve been buying pads for some students- but this is an unsustainable and costly solution. So do any of you have any suggestions? Please help!

And lastly, please let me know if you would like a Kenyan penpal. I’m trying to match up my Form 4 students with an American penpal. They are in desperate need of good role models and just someone to talk to. And they just have more questions about America than I can answer (see my earlier blog entry). You would just have to write them once a month or once every other month. Having a friend in America is a very exciting idea to them. Send me your address if you are interested.

Hugs from Kenya,

P.S. Thank you soo sooo sooo much to those of you that have donated or will be donating to my school. I can’t thank you enough! You are doing a wonderful thing for my students.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Helpless, but hopeful

I’m not quite sure how to describe the emotions I’ve felt today. I feel like I’m being pulled from opposite ends of the emotion spectrum. I feel helpless and helpful at the same time. I feel hopeless and hopeful too. Let me explain, today, was the first day that I truly realized the poverty that I’ve been living in. Sure I’ve been living here for over two months, but the excitement of being in a new environment truly masked the “real” life of a Kenyan. Carrying water on my head, walking 45 minutes to school, and eating 10 cent meals was fun and new. To me, living here has been an adventure.

But today, I realized that my temporary adventure is what other people here call life. And for many Kenyans, it’s a struggle just to get by. Carrying water on their heads, walking hours to school and eating cheap meals isn’t exciting- it’s what they do to survive.

This realization sunk in today when I spoke to my school’s principal about the possibility of sponsoring students. Many of them cannot afford to pay their school fees- the family’s either do not have the money, give their son’s education priority, and/or assume that their daughters don’t deserve an education. I have been receiving emails from some friends and family back home interested in donating somehow, so I breached the subject with principal. She told me that yes, we have needy students. But I had no idea just how needy she meant.

She continued to tell me the stories of some of the students. One was raped by her father, ran away from home, and now lives with distant relatives in order to complete her education. A majority of the students are orphans living with kind strangers. Two of my students are pregnant. All of them struggle to purchase sanitary napkins (which are expensive) and often resort to prostitution to pay for them. Many students have children of their own. Some of my Form 2 students (sophomores) are older than me.

The lowest/highest part of my day was when I told one of the students that I had found a sponsor for her. She would be able to move out of her house and move into the boarding section of our school. She would no longer have to walk an hour to school, cook and clean for her family, and worry about paying her school fees. The sponsor would pay for her tuition for the year- she burst into tears in happiness/relief/ and any other emotion one would feel with a huge weight lifting from your shoulders. I asked her what other things she would need in order to move into the school. She told me she would need slippers, a blanket, sanitary napkins, and toothpaste- things she has never had before.

I left the room and cried behind a tree for a good 30 minutes. Her single parent mother had never been able to buy these things for her. Her story made me feel so happy and so devastated at the same time. She will now be able to finish her secondary school education. She now has the possibility of going to college. She will now have the opportunity for a different future. Yet I felt so disheartened at the same time. How can she be so enthusiastic about education (asking me so many questions and participating in class) when she had all these troubles at home? How can she be so happy and motivated all the time when she doesn’t have a blanket to sleep with at night?

Part of me feels so foolish and ignorant for living in my “adventure bubble.” And the other part of me feels incredibly motivated. I can do a lot to change the future of these girls’ lives. And I truly hope that with dedication, mentoring, and encouragement my students will be able to decide their own futures, rather than let cultural/social norms force them to drop out of school. I am motivated to keep my students in school so that they will be able to find and follow their dreams. I ideally want to find a way to keep all the students in school, and then, as a long term goal, build a laboratory for the girls to actually see why science is important.

Please be on the look out for an email from me soon on how YOU can sponsor a student at my school. And spread the word too. There is so much that can be done here, but I need help to do so.


Just for some giggles

So folks, I’ve been at site for a little over a week now, and I thought I would share with you some of the funnier moments of my being here- don’t worry I won’t be offended if you laugh at me- I have definitely found laughter to be the best medicine

Questions from my students on the first day of lessons:

Is there grass in America?
Are there trees in America?
Is your hair real? If so, can I buy it and make a weave?
You’ve had hair like that since you were born?!?!?!?!
When was the last time you shaved your head? (girls at my school must shave their heads for equality reasons)
If you live here for two years, will you be as dark as me? (my response : maybe, if I don’t wear sunscreen and want skin cancer!)
If I go to America, will my skin become as light as yours?
In America, does everyone look like you?
Why are your lips so much thinner than ours? (Hmmm, good question)
Are there fat white people?
In America, do people pay Africans to brush their dog’s teeth? (My response: No, but some people do brush their dog’s teeth. I told them about the chicken flavored toothpaste Tootsie used to have and they thought it was the strangest thing ever!)

Comments from other Kenyans:
“By Kenyan standards, you are old! You should be married with 3 children right now. Kenyans will laugh at you because you are not married. Get married tomorrow!”- the bike taxi man
“Can you see the sun in America?”- Biology teacher at my school

Embarrassing moments:
-Tucking my skirt into my underwear- in front of my entire host family
-Completely misunderstanding things on a daily basis (Kenyan English is not the same as American English. For example, alight and fullstop have been added to my vocabulary)
-Attempting to carry water on my head= epic fail. I walked into a tree branch knocking the water all over my face, body, everywhere!

Anyways, hope some of these moments made you smile. I will be sending try to update more often, but I’ve been quite busy! Actually, things just take me a lot longer to do than a Kenyan. For instance, getting water takes up a good portion of my time. With the skill of carrying water on one’s head (which 5 year olds can do here) walking with water would be much easier. However, for the uncoordinated, like myself, balancing 20 liters on your head can be a huge task. So I have to resort to carrying small buckets back and forth from the pump to my house. Other things that take awhile- washing clothes (no spin cycle here!), washing dishes (my least favorite chore), cooking (seriously, be thankful you have a microwave), and walking (not complaining here, but everyone on the street greets me and shakes my hand- it takes soooo long to get from point A to point B here). My days are long, starting before dawn and ending much after dark. But being busy has kept me energetic and not homesick.
For those of you reading this, I cannot thank you enough for your positive encouragement. I really appreciate your kind words and inspirational thoughts. In addition, I have had many requests for a way to donate to my school. I am currently in the works of drafting a fundraising email- so check your inboxes soon.
Much love and smiles,

Friday, January 8, 2010

23 Thoughts About Kenya

As I celebrate my 23 years of being alive, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you some of the observations I have made about life in Kenya thus far:

1. I am now an official Peace Corps volunteer! I parted ways with the other volunteers yesterday and will be living on my own.
2. I gave the swearing- in speech at the American ambassador’s house in Swahili! It made the national news!
3. I am so lucky to have been placed in my work site. I am in a town near Lake Victoria which is absolutely beautiful. I am surrounded by greenery and fields of maiz.
4. I have a beautiful house at my site. It is very large (much more than I expected!) with 2 rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a verandah.
5. I have electricity in my house which makes me feel very privileged as only a few people in the whole town can afford it.
6. As I unpacked my belongings, I am forever glad that I packed Snowball. No matter where I am, or how old I may get, she is a consistent source of comfort!
7. I live about 45 minutes away from my school, so I will have a nice walk every morning.
8. I live on a compound with an elderly couple who are so hospitable. They have been feeding me delicious Luo food too! The nyanya (grandmother) will be teaching me how to cook someday soon.
9. I met my future students today and they seem like very intelligent girls. There are about 120 students at the all girls school I will be teaching at. Some interesting things about the school are that all the girls must shave their head because many are too poor to keep it clean otherwise. They all much wear a uniform including collared shirt and tie. And they all call me Madame (which makes me feel slightly like a brothel owner-oh well!).
10. The principal at my school is an inspiring person. She works so hard, has many ideas for the school, and is very enthusiastic about her job. She has transformed the school in the past 2 years. It is now 3 classrooms. Within the next few, it will hopefully have a laboratory and living quarters for the students. She has a huge heart too and takes in orphans who cannot afford to go to school.
11. There are 7 other teachers at my school, only 3 of which are trained. The others are straight from secondary school meaning they are very young to be teaching!
12. I will be teaching Form 1 Math (freshman), Form 2 & 3 Biology (sophomore and junior) and all Forms Life Skills. Life skills will teach things like self confidence, building relationships, setting goals etc. etc. I have a lot of work to do this weekend in preparing for my lessons! I have to write lesson plans and schemes of work for the whole term.
13. I was equally motivated and disheartened by hearing my principal’s explanations for why girls so often fail in the Kenyan school system. Partly because of household chores (ie carrying water for many hours out of the day) or because of the common belief that girls don’t deserve an education (many parents only will pay for their sons to attend secondary school). While disturbing to hear, I now feel like I have a duty to influence these girls’ lives.
14. Water is scarce in my town. My babu (grandfather) offered part of his land for a borehole to be built many years ago. People walk hours to our house in order to pump water for just 2 shillings/ 20 liters. This makes me think of how much I took running water for granted.
15. I went shopping at the local market and am happy that I can buy mangoes, bananas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and kale for just a few cents each.
16. In my town, I am able to buy only the basics- some fruit and vegetables, flour, etc. For all other things I must travel to Kisumu city. It is a 1.5 hour walk to the main road where I will catch an hour matatu ride to the city.
17. Today, I learned how to put together and use a lantern. I bought a fanta of kerosene (so called as they use an old fanta bottle to measure it) at the market and will be using it in case there is no electricity.
18. I am very lucky to have been shown around town by a fellow teacher named Emma. She is only 19 years old, but she is amazingly mature. She helped me move into my new home, bargain at the market, and taught me how to pump water.
19. While I miss my host family in Loitokitok, I finally am starting to feel settled. I like having my own space and being able to call a place home. I am comfortable living here and cannot wait for the time when I will be able to communicate in the local language of dhoLuo. It is very difficult to learn as it is a tonal language, but I hope to understand it soon!
20. I am consistently overwhelmed by the friendliness of Kenyans. Nowhere in the states would you find someone willing to let a stranger, from a foreign country, live next to their house and teach them the basics of life. I am very thankful that my inability to live on my own here has not translated to stupidity! (ex. I still don’t know how to heat my bucket bathe water on my own- a skill that Kenyans learn around the age of 6).
21. I have recently realized how different my life is today than it was one year ago. For instance, I am immune to the giant cockroaches that are staring at me from the ground. If this had been at my apartment in LA I would be Raiding them to a toxic death. Also, I am now perfectly content with a refreshing bucket bath outside, when last year I would have complained to my landlord about the lack of hot water. I have learned to eat ugali and rice with my hands a la Kenyan style. Just last year I would have much rather eaten with a fork. I am surprised with how fast, and with what ease, I have acclimated to life here.
22. I was given a Luo name. The Luo people give names based on the time of day he/she was born. Since I was born in the evening my Luo name is Achielo. I don’t remember the rest of it in dhoLuo, but it is roughly translates to “Born in the evening daughter of Abiero” (Abiero is the name of my school).
23. I am incredibly excited and motivated for the time that I get to spend in Kenya. I can’t explain in words how grateful I am to be here. So many people have invested so much time and effort into making me feel comfortable here- all because they think that I will make a difference in their community. And I truly hope I won’t let them down. While I don’t want to set my or the community’s expectations too high, I feel like I can make some tangible improvements in the time that I am here. I think about how just 2000 shillings ( a little over 20 dollars) can send a girl to secondary school for one whole year or how a few dollars could drastically increase the number of textbooks available. - I just cannot think that I won’t be able to make a positive impact here. Hearing these facts made me seriously rethink all the frivolous purchases I have made in the recent past ( 40 pairs of shoes? Seems a little extravagant in retrospect). And while I miss my friends and family back home, I can truly say that I am content being here. I feel independent and I feel like I have a purpose. I know that two years is a long time (When I return to the states in 2013, I’ll be 25 years old!), but as of now I feel like two years is so short, as I have much to do!

I hope you enjoyed learning about these tidbits of my life here. I will try to keep you updated as much as possible, but I foresee a VERY busy next few weeks/months. If you want to send me a letter, package, or anything, my new address is:

Jenny Nakata
Bishop Abiero Girls
Secondary School- Magwar
P.O. Box 42- 40131
Paw Akuche

Wishing you all a happy new year and much love,