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.



    hope this helps!

  2. that is so funny that your student thought you were 5! i cant wait to tell people that... also i really want a penpal and you have my address so let me know!

  3. jenny!!!

    i discovered your blog today during my facebook at work time! we haven't talked in forever but i'm having a seriously major love surge for you right now. i'm so impressed and in awe of you right now - and i'm loving reading about your adventures.

    i realize this is like a month or so after the fact but your mention of the lack of pads reminded me of a blog entry i read awhile ago by the founder of SHE (sustainable health entreprises) which was founded to address the very problems you're coming up against. here's the link - i hope it's helpful (

    you are AMAZING!!! eva is visiting me in oaxaca in a few weeks (i haven't seen her since nica!) and i predict we'll be spending some quality time gushing about you.

    much much love

  4. I came across your blog randomly, but I really enjoy reading it. I hope that Kenya is becoming a good experience for you. I'll bet you'll be learning a lot then recruiting for Peace Corps two years later.

    I don't mind being a penpal for one of your students. Let me know.

  5. I came across your blog recently and I love it. You're a great writer, and being in the middle of my application process, reading about your experiences definitely inspires me to keep trucking through this never ending paper work!

    I realize it's a year later, but if you still need penpals email me at

    Keep up your hard work. It sounds like you really are making a difference in the lives of people in your host community. :)

  6. I randomly discovered your blog and I find your Peace Corps experiences very inspiring. I'm looking into joining the Peace Corps to serve as an education volunteer once I finish college, so reading about your life in Kenya is really interesting.

    I know this post is from almost a year ago but if you are still looking for penpals for your students you can e-mail me at
    I'm in highschool right now so it might be interesting for your students to write to an American teen around their age. :)