Monday, June 21, 2010

A Kenyan Haircut: A seemingly ordinary experience gone askew

Disclaimer: This entry contains some sexual content and is therefore rated PG-13

This past weekend, I decided that I was in drastic need of a haircut. For those of you who know me well, I am not a huge proponent of hair brushing. In the states, I would brush my hair a few times a week and the Peace Corps factor lessoned the frequency to about once a week. This somewhat hippy habit got out of control last week when my weekly hair brushing broke my only brush into pieces (literally). My hair was too long and too tangled to do anything with so I concluded that I would have to take the risk of letting a Kenyan cut my hair.

As you may have deduced from my blogs, Kenyans do things differently. Everything from clothing style to current music trends seems to be behind American standards. For instance, on the street a man tried to sell me Westlife, Backstreet Boys, and Dolly Parton CDs as the “most popular” music now. You can therefore understand my hesitation with letting a Kenyan cut my hair. Furthermore, the regularity of weaves and shaved heads added to my doubts of anyone having knowledge of cutting my type of hair. I also have a somewhat irrational attachment to my hair. After some horrific haircuts (my childhood nickname was Mogli due to my jungle book hair style) and dye jobs (my hair once closely resembled Tony the tiger) I believe that I am justified in my worries. I also have had my hair cut by the same woman for the past 6 years and have refused to trust anyone else with my precious hair. I also had this scene from Little Women replaying in my head where Jo cuts off all her hair and one of her sisters cries, “Your one beauty!” Despite these silly fears, I decided that after the hairbrush breaking incident, it was time to cut my hair to at least a manageable length.

On Saturday afternoon I entered a salon in Kisumu that claimed to specialize in Asian/Caucasian hair (How many Asians are even in Kenya?? I thought I was the only one..). The salon proceeded to tell me that the person who normally cuts wazungu hair was out. Then, a man sitting in the waiting room offered to cut my hair, claiming that he could do a good job (this should have been my first warning sign). This is where the story gets a bit strange. He started to comb out my hair and, seeing the state of my tangled hair, called for backup. A team of three men armed with fine tooth combs spent a good 20 minutes combing out the half-dreads that had formed in my hair. After a quite enjoyable hair wash, he began cutting my hair by holding up chunks of hair and hacking off pieces with what resembled gardening shears. And while I have no idea what is taught in Kenyan beauty school, I’m going to argue that step one should be “Do not hack off pieces of hair with gardening shears.”

At this point, I closed my eyes. I had come to acceptance that parting with my untameable hair was necessary. But what came next was not part of the plan. I’m 88% certain that the man cutting my hair was somehow aroused by this haircutting business and had a large erection that he kept pushing up against my shoulder. I was quite uncomfortable at the time and kept hoping that it was just a curling iron or rollers or something else penis shaped.

So, after a tortuous time watching my hair falling to the ground in uneven pieces through half open eyes, he finally finished. If things could get stranger, they did. He then walked out of the salon and called a random passerby to help blowdry my hair. In between singeing my hair, the other random man kept petting my head as he helped hold the blowdryer. After, the haircutter looked proudly down at his work and asked if I liked it. To my amusement, I had to point out the fact that the left side of hair was a good 3 inches longer than the right. “Oh!” he exclaimed and continued to hack some more. Once the sides were relatively even (or even enough for me not to care) he proceeded to put so much pomade and hair product in my hair that I could have doubled for John Travolta’s hair double in Grease…that much slickness. (A fellow PCV told me he could see his reflection in my hair). I let him style away to his hearts content then went straight to my hotel and washed my hair 3 times to get out all the product.

After this haircutting fiasco, I realized that, here in Kenya, something as mundane as a haircut can be quite an adventure. I’m going to avoid haircuts for as long as possible from now on. If I come back looking like Cousin It, you’ll now know why:)

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I haven’t been too homesick since arriving in Kenya, until this week. I was sad on Christmas when I missed my family, traditions, and home, but didn’t really want to go home. And now, I’m at a strange and somewhat confusing state of homesickness. I don’t want to go home necessarily, because, what would I really do there? But I don’t really want to be here either. It’s not that I’m bored or overworked or any other emotional extreme that would cause someone to want to move. But it’s the overwhelming frequency of death. Maybe I’m being immature, but dead things terrify me. Whether it’s the full chicken head (beak and rooster waddle thing included) that ended up on my plate or the horrifically mutilated rat that met its demise in my rat trap (and that hung for my ceiling dripping blood until a colleague helped me remove it) there is something odd about once living things. Not that I fear wilted flowers or browning fruit nor even dead insects that I willingly squash with my shoe. But there is an eerie association for me with the death of something that once breathed, and moved, and had a life of its own. And, lately, I feel like there has been much too much death here (There are least a few funerals every week). While I in no way can compare the death of a colleague to the death of a pesky house rodent, both deaths still evoke a similar peculiar sensation in me, somewhere between remorse and wonder; remorse that I didn’t have any final positive moments with my colleague and wonder to where he is now, remorse that I may have brutally murdered a rat patriarch and wonder if it was a good enough scare to drive the rest of his family out of my house
To be honest, before coming to Kenya, death was something that was not a part of my community, my life. I’d been to only one funeral before, and never seen a dead body. But in accordance to traditional Luo burials, the dead are to be viewed before being buried in the family’s backyard (which is much less grotesque than another Kenyan tribe that traditionally buried its dead with the head above ground). As a result, I have seen more dead bodies than I would have liked to in the past 4 months. The same senses of remorse and wonder enter my mind at the sight of a lifeless body. Sorrow for remaining family and wonder as to what really happens after death.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this question lately. And while religion dictates heaven or hell or purgatory (LOST fans anyone?), I want to believe that there is more to it than that. While I don’t consider myself religious, I see the appeal to something constant, like religion, especially in a place like Kenya. Poverty, and the associated challenges, are unexplainable in so many ways (Why are some people born into suffering? Why do some people go to bed hungry? Why do some many people die of AIDS?) that it seems logical to place the culpability in someone else's hands.

To help me sort out my scattered thoughts, I went to church today. And while I didn’t understand a word of the Luo ceremony and found the final hour sitting under a heat amplifying tin roof tortuous, I felt somewhat calmed by the music, the people, and the cohesive energy. While the singing and clapping and drumming passed, I was able to silence my mind filled with questions. Closing my eyes, hearing the beautiful Luo songs, feeling the vibrations of that church walls, I was able to conclude that death’s finality makes it both feared and fascinating. And while I have to in no way enjoy the dead chicken head or bloody rat or untimely passing of a colleague, I must accept it as a part of life. To Mr. AG, wherever you are, RIP.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


It’s a funny thing, this concept of immunity. I’m teaching about it in my Form 2 Biology class. It’s quite fascinating how our bodies react to pathogens to build up antibodies in order to protect us from future harmful micro organism invasions. In essence, our bodies’ immune systems are so intelligent that they are able to provide us with protection against future disease. Or in some cases, with the help of a few vaccines, or in my case MANY, our bodies are even further strengthened. However, I fear, that is what is happening to mind; I feel immune to things lately. So many devastating things have happened in my community this week, and yet, I feel immune to it all. Just like an over vaccinated body, has my mind experienced too many traumatic events that now I cannot feel anything?
The teacher I wrote about earlier this week died today. He succumbed to the dreaded disease that is afflicting so many people in Africa. The region I live in, Nyanza province, has the highest AIDS rate in all of the country (16% compared to the national average of 7.4%). This is due to a variety of factors including cultural practices (wife inheritance, polygamy, no male circumcision) and social concepts (AIDS stigma, refusal to use condoms, the topic of sex being taboo). The teacher that referred to his housewife as a housefly, who spent his salary on the local brew, who refused to be tested for HIV, died of AIDS. And while no one here will say it out loud, they all know, he died of the most stigmatized disease of all. I was shocked that he died, but not surprised.
A few days ago, one of my favourite Form 2 students, who is my neighbour, confessed that she was raped on her walk back from school one night. We live about a 50 minute walk away from school and our houses follow a shaded, winding, rocky path away from the main road. The students and teachers must be at school at 6:40am and leave school at 5:20pm (or sometimes much later). With a stop at the market or a few mandatory Kenyan greetings to random passerby, this results in often walking to and fro school in the dark. To my great horror, my 15 year old student was raped on her walk home. I was saddened, but not surprised.
And to top off this week, I found out my top Form 3 student is pregnant. Despite people from every direction preaching abstinence, despite my urgings to use condoms, despite her better judgment, one of the brightest girls in the school must drop out. She’s just 16 years old and will soon be a mother. She is the third student in Form 3 to drop out of school in the past 3 months due to pregnancy. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Because I haven’t been surprised that any of this has happened, because I’m not crying over a dead colleague, because rape and early pregnancy seem to be a common occurrence, am I now too immune to cry, to empathize, to feel? I’m terrified that I’ve lost my ability to show emotion. I remember when I first got here, how strange I thought it was that Kenyans do not show emotion. They give handshakes, they don’t hug. They sometimes get frustrated, but never furious. They may laugh in public, but they certainly do not cry. But now I’m starting to understand. They don’t show emotion because their bodies have built up a defense mechanism against the pain that comes along with the seemingly common events of death, rape, and so many more daily problems associated with poverty. It’s much easier to be indifferent towards something than be emotionally, physically, mentally drained from all the various challenges. However, I’m nervous that all these awful events, instead of making me feel motivated to make a change, are making me feel nothing. I fear that I’m turning into the tin man who has lost a heart. So, rather than scurrying off to Emerald City hand in hand with Dorothy, Toto, a scarecrow and a lion, how am I supposed to get my heart back? Or is my body, like my strengthened immune system, doing what is best and protecting me from future pain?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

AIDS: too close to home

I’m crying over the teacher that has made me cry numerous times before. The teacher that argued that women should be beaten, that students should be to blame for student-teacher sexual relationships, that AIDS was made as a warfare weapon constructed in an American laboratory to kill Africans, that HIV testers’ jobs and ARVs were created to make amends for America’s “mistake of creating AIDS.” The teacher that told me condoms are useless, that extramarital sex is for men only, that women should always be subservient, is now in no state to argue with me. The teacher that pushed my patience, that forced me to tears arguing for what I believe in, is dying of AIDS.
Because of the extreme stigma associated with “God’s curse” no one says the words. People may whisper the word under their breath or pass the unspoken word through a knowing appraisal of the patient. But it’s never spoken. Especially on someone’s deathbed. So that’s why I have to blurt it all out here, on the non judgemental, stigma unknowing pages of my blog.
Today, at this teacher’s house, part of me wanted to scream “I told you so! I told you condoms are necessary in fighting the AIDS pandemic! I told you that AIDS is a serious issue that cannot be swept under the rug!” But looking at this frail teacher, who just 2 weeks ago was fervently telling me that he does not believe in the education of girls, my self righteousness and bitterness toward him disappeared. Looking at his sniffling eldest child nervously picking at twigs to assuage his fear of his father’s imminent death, I couldn’t have any other emotion besides sorrow. Sorrow for the teacher’s family. Sorrow for his young children’s future. Sorrow for his pitiful state. Sorrow for his suffering.
There is no trace of the teacher I knew. His face is unrecognizable; hollow cheekbones protruding from taut skin, lifeless eyes gazing from sunken sockets, and a wheezing breath that still haunts my ears. His strong, tall body has failed him. He cannot walk, nor sit up right. Lying meekly on his bed, mosquito net thrown haphazardly over him, bones, not flesh, define his figure. I cannot recognize him.
As he is pushed away on the back of a bicycle, supported by three men, to the nearest hospital, I have to wonder: Will his decrepit state be a wake up call? Will he swallow his pride and start ARVs? Will he change his lifestyle? Will he change his beliefs? While I ask those questions of my dying colleague, I ask similar questions of myself: Will this be a wake up call to the need of HIV/AIDS education in the community? Can I assist in healthy behaviour change? Can education reduce HIV related stigma? Can I do really do any of this in the short time I have here? Can I???

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I’ve realised that there are just a few things that I need to keep me happy. If you had asked me to make a list a year ago I’m sure it would have been a bit longer and would have included things like Pinkberry or shopping on Melrose. But, things have changed. And I’ve come up with this short list of things that keep me happy whilst living in Kenya:
1. My puppy, Nala: While she does make me mad at certain times (like when she decided to pee on my pillow while I was sleeping on it), she is the best company. Living alone has been a lot easier than I would have imagined now that I have a dog to entertain me. She’s awesome and understands Swahili commands like Kuja (come). She also comes to school with me everyday and is good company on our 45 minute walk each way. However, Kenyans think I am crazy for giving her so much attention and (gasp) walking her on a leash! Here she is…isn’t she cute?

2. Red wine: During college I lived of Trader Joe’s two buck chuck wine and now, seeing as I’m a classy university graduate, I have upgraded to 500 shilling (7 dollars) box wine. After a 12 hour day, a glass of red wine while cooking is necessary and relaxing.

3. A kitchen: In the states, kitchens were always my favourite room of a house. Especially when they smell yummy like fresh baked cookies or thanksgiving. Anywho, while my kitchen here doesn’t quite compare to one back in the states, I still enjoy being in my kitchen. There is something strangely soothing about chopping sukuma wiki (kale) after a long day, sipping wine, and waiting for my house to fill with the smell of roasting garlic. I’m hoping to build a jiko oven soon so that I can start baking again. I miss baking cupcakes and cookies and decorating fondant cakes. Hopefully I’ll be able to soon because kitchens make a home smell like, well, home. This is my friend Emma teaching me to cook traditional Luo food (tilapia and ugali) on a Sunday afternoon.

4. Correspondence from friends and family: I don’t know if you all know just how much I appreciate hearing from you whether its in the form of an email, letter, package, facebook message, or phone call, but I really really really love it! I realize that my place of living makes it quite inconvenient for reliable communication (seriously, could the Kenyan postal system be any slower????!?!?), but when it does happen I am so happy! So thanks to all of you that write/call me…it makes me happy, happy enough to put on my happy list!

So there’s my list. Four things that keep me content in Kenya. And I’m glad to realize that these four things would be relatively easy to have any where in the world. So wherever I live in the next chapter of my life will have to be dog friendly, red wine stocked in the kitchen, and a post office nearby…easy enough, right?