A Travellerspoint blog

Rescue Mission

Yellow seems to be my color these days. On my left wrist, two filthy yellow bands. The thin strip of fabric from “Our Lady of Salvation” Cathedral in Rio De Janeiro was in a bundle of small gifts I received from my friend Kevin before I left home. Each of the three knots I have tied in it represent a wish. When it breaks, they will have come true. So far, it’s been on for eight months. The other is the nylon string I took off my Peace Corps Issue Rape Whistle (which I thought myself unlikely to use) and a small silver ring given to remind me that I am part of a circle – a family – no matter how far away I am. On my right wrist is the triple wrapped length of yellow nylon twine that our evacuation and Interruption-of-Service coordinator from DC used as a closing ceremony. Eileen was sent by Peace Corps Washington to assist partially because she was a volunteer evacuated from Thailand when she was around this age. We passed the length of twine around our circle. We each wrapped it once around our right wrist and then we gave it a tug. We cut for one another and tied for one another. To show we are connected, wherever we go; to keep us safe until we get home. And now, at my feet, lie my packed bags, a string of yellow yarn on each. Before we left staging in Philly, I helped hand out the yarn. The idea was to mark our bags, make them immediately apparent as our own. Given that its just yarn, it has far exceeded my expectations in terms of durability.
Were I still a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would be in violation of policy; you can’t return to your site if it’s been closed, particularly if it’s in Upper Rift. It’s my house, even though I only had it because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, which I now am not. I guess that makes it some kind of de-militarized zone now.
If you end up with Interruption-of-Service (IS) Peace Corps sends a car to your house and they ship home one hundred pounds of personal items. All you have to do is remember everything that is in your house, each desired item’s exact location and a fairly precise estimate of its weight, since anything over a hundred pounds gets left behind. Do you want your books or your hiking boots? Your sketchpad or your journals? That jar of peanut butter or the oranges you imagined would be pleasantly ripe when you returned from Christmas but have now created their own ecosystem in the plastic bag they are sitting in on the kitchen table? (Given the smell coming out of the bag, I would take the peanut butter if I was you) Then it’s a simple matter of hoping that the security situation improves to the point that Peace Corps feels it is appropriate to send that oh-so-conspicuous white Land Rover up to your briefly adopted home.
Remember before service where Peace Corps kept telling you to get personal item insurance? Too late.
What I have been thinking about is this: there were 30 of us in Dar and another 20 or so here in Kenya, all removed from our sites without warning and given a ticket home without a chance to go back. Let’s be generous. Let’s say that only 40 of those people want things picked up from their site. Each pickup crew consists of a staff member from the office and one of our drivers. There are less than ten drivers. The sites that have been closed are all in Western, Nyanza and Rift; provinces that fill out the larger western end of Kenya. My site is one of the closer ones, midway between Kisumu and Nairobi. Traveling here from Nairobi today took me almost nine hours. Imagine trips twice that length. Now imagine doing that 40 times. Did I mention that you can only send drivers who are the appropriate ethnicity for the area where the volunteer’s house is located? Are you beginning to see why I am here? Why I have a little less than complete faith that Peace Corps will ever get up here to find that my stuff is already gone? Who pays the rent for a volunteer who is no longer working for their organization? Who pays the power bill? Who watches the house to prevent break-ins? Exactly.
So I came. And now, I’m sitting in the dark of the sitting room, staring down at yet another tiny strip of yellow hanging off each of my packed bags.
I got this couch the weekend before we left for Christmas. I can count the number of times I have sat on it on my ten fingers. To my left is a massive stack of books and notebooks, manuals and steno pads. On the cushions next to me a pile of clothes that didn’t make the cut.
Kip-Rotich, perhaps my most consistent companion here at site, came by earlier when he saw the light on for the first time in a month and a half. I like him. He’s a good kid. Smart, good humored, caring, enthusiastic. So I told him to pick some stuff that I was leaving behind. I gave him my radio, a box of pencils, blank notebooks, a map of Kenya, one of my Kiswah dictionaries. And before he left I asked him to keep the things that I gave him to himself until I was gone tomorrow. In my mind, I was thinking of the physical violence that resulted at Whitney and Brad’s site in Taveta last week when they simply laid out all the extra stuff on the lawn and told people to take what they wanted. Evidently, it is good that he took the dictionary, since he clearly didn’t understand the words I used to phrase my request that he not advertise that I was giving things away.
I don’t blame him particularly. I remember being his age; how it felt to get cool new things in a sudden surprising way. Needing to show someone. Forgetting the obvious followup question: “Where did you get that?” All the same, if he did understand my request and couldn’t help himself, he certainly didn’t struggle for very long. This time there are three kids at the door, mouths hanging open at the pile of books, unused computer cables, and half finished crosswords. Dennis, from next door, is actually drooling a little. I stop them at the door, suddenly very aware of just what I have done by being generous with Kip-Rotich. The sight of Dennis’ parents and two more adults from the next house over appearing behind the boys, quickly downgrading from a rapid jog to a casual saunter, reinforces my growing sense of dread. My, they seem cheery for 8:45 on a Wednesday night.
My plan was to give everything to my neighbor Alice, the nurse at the dispensary. She is a single mother, who has raised/is raising four kids. Her daughter is at university, her first son at secondary, and still around the house she has two more in Primary. Alice cares about me. Not about what I can do for her, not about the novelty of my skin color or accent. She has never asked me for a thing and if she ever did, I would want to give it. She is kind and hard working and has been generous of spirit, knowledge and time. I want Alice to have first dibs. I want her to get a break for once.
At this point, what I have actually done is made Alice the focal point of a community angry to be left out of free stuff from the mzungu. It’s not giving or not giving the stuff away that bothers me, it’s the idea that they are going to cause problems for her because they are angry with me and my choice. If I hadn’t started with Kip-Rotich, she could quietly absorb things without a great deal of attention. Now I have seven people of varying height and age peering avariciously over my shoulder into my slowly deflating home. I send them away. I tell them I am packing and we will sort it out in the morning. I will leave things outside the door. I will do anything. Please just go away.
They go.
Alice comes by later and is characteristically herself. She tells me not to worry. She will take care of it. It’s no problem. She will explain it. Alice reduces my stress level, she doesn’t exacerbate it. This is why I want her to get first dibs.
I hadn’t considered coming back to site before Rachel suggested it over the weekend. I had locked this place off in my mind. There was no coming back to it. So to have any sense of closure feels surprising. All the same, the closure I’ve found is remarkably unsentimental, remarkably unremarkable from the daily life that I lived here before the election. The people to whom I have explained my departure express sympathy, but there was more interest, more deep feeling when I had to explain cutting my forehead on a nail stuck in my choo door. That day, everyone wanted to hear about my problems.
The mad dash for free stuff, the total divorce from any thoughts of the propriety of taking things that my circumstances are forcing me to leave behind - the mob looting a corpse - doesn’t seem particularly crude to me. I can see phrasing it that way, portraying my struggle and sadness with leaving (which we are aware is minor) and the harsh inconsiderate carnival like atmosphere that ‘Mzungu Giveaway’ cultivated in a matter of minutes as hurtful. But it’s not really.
My frustration is mainly logistical. I knew that this reaction would occur. I simply let myself slide into doing something I had specifically planned to avoid. I guess, I am mainly concerned for my friend.
It’s so hard to separate the symptoms and the illness. Why do I only have one person here who I really want to give to? Did I want to be done because I didn’t integrate, or did I not integrate because whatever this experience is, it wasn’t for me? In Tanzania, our regional head health officer, Dr. Patty, told me that people put all their focus on the two years. That Peace Corps comes out of their brains more like a prison term than what it could be. Peace Corps is as long as you need it to be to get what you need to get. My presence here and the experience others have had of my presence can’t have made the world or me worse off. There’s nothing magical about exactly two years. When you go home is when you go home and says nothing about your success or failure unless you choose to define it in such narrow and empty terms. (If she lived here, I would also give Dr. Patty first dibs. And I would have her bake me more of those chocolate chip cookies.)
I have had a number of Déjà vu moments in the past week or so. Like right now. My laptop on the low table in front of the couch. The dark room and light cast diagonly across the floor from the open kitchen door. It’s a sense of remembering a moment before I experience it as happening now. I had the same sensation handing Anne Haviland my finished Description of Service in that stifling conference room at Peace Corps Tanzania.
In some sense, the feeling that I dreamed this before now – that it was a moment that had to come – is reassuring. Whether I didn’t work hard enough at this, or whether it could have turned out differently is of little consequence. The present is too strong a force to worry too much about the things that might have been. It has turned out this way. It is enough to say that things happened as they did. That I acted as myself. That I did the things I thought were right when I thought they were that way. I would like to think that I would never ask more than that of another person.
I spent a year preparing to come here. A job that bored me, a job I hated, a job that dulled my brain; simply treading water as I waited for departure. I traveled for weeks to say goodbye to this scattered network of important people. If there was one thing that I expected above everything else, it was to be gone for longer than this. And yet, I’m very happy with where this time has left me. Which, in the most dynamic and basic sense, is nothing more than somewhere different. I came because I knew that I would end up different, but I couldn’t stop myself from imagining the end as that same person.
Baclav Havel said that hope is not the conviction that things will turn out right, but the certainty that, however they turn out, they make sense. For me, that’s just another way of saying: wherever I end up, no matter how confusing or unlike my imagined end, its being able to figure out how I got there that matters most. Our sense of progress, satisfaction, growth comes from looking back and seeing things fall gestalt-like into place. Besides, if we always ended up where we imagined, I would be at Clown College. Which is something I may look into again in the coming months.

Posted by Natyb25 22:09 Comments (3)

Nairobi 2 of 2

Charle’s house has that characteristic Peace Corps design motif wherein anything you find goes up on the walls. Hanging around the serving window between kitchen and sitting room, there are some pieces of yellow ribbon that came in a package as well as the hand addressed pieces of cardboard that came on the bikes shipped to us. Marching around the room atop the window frames – like a bizarre informal calendar - is a lengthening procession of empty wine bottles. On the desk are a set of British FHMs (the version with nudity). Published in 2004 they must have moved in and out of the Nairobi office repeatedly, the worn covers and taped pages reminding me of paperbacks in a prison library. With our pasta dinner, Charles adds his primary protein source: soy chunks. Their consistency is best described as wet sponge chunks. I kind of like it. I sleep full clothed on couch cushions pushed together with a towel for a blanket.
Awaking in the morning carries with it that strange perspectival adjustment of seeing in daylight a place you arrived at in the dark. Without the lengthening shadows, buildings shrink, distances reduce. Charles lives on the compound of the dispensary with other health workers and their families. The maternity building here has ceased construction just like the one at Patrick’s site. Both are funded by Constituency Development Funds. Essentially Aid money received by the Kenyan government and then dispersed by district, it has been frozen in the presence of the coming elections. This is to prevent it from being used to influence voters. The distinction is slight; you can’t move the money around, but you can still promise to move it once it’s unfrozen. Democracy is complicated enough without massive piles of free money to be waved around like a golden carrot on a stick; given the hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into third world economies, the legacy of poor government, corruption and violence in these countries is unsurprising.
This maternity ward is being paid for by foreign funds earmarked for infant mortality and as a result is, like Patrick’s, bigger than the dispensary itself. Supposing it does get finished (they often don’t, as the budget springs holes that leak into the pockets of enterprising bureaucrats and contractors) it will be essentially obsolete when (and if) they tarmac the road in the next few years. Nairobi and superior facilities are only a half hour away over better roads.
In the early days of international aid, it was given absent any strings. One of the solutions to the astonishing graft that resulted was to earmark money for specific goals dictated by donors (corruption continues but now requires receipts). These C.D.F. funds are for infant mortality, so regardless of future obsolescence (or current needs in this particular location), the maternity ward will be built. Or at least half built: the one at Patrick’s site was supposed to be finished over two and a half years ago. In the afternoon – sitting out front of his house – you can hear a loud and rhythmic metallic thumping as the wind gradually pulls out the nails holding the half finished roof on.
It’s a half hour matatu ride into Nairobi. We check our luggage at the Nakumatt. We will leave our bags here for several hours. We may or may not actually buy anything in the store. There is a bar just down the block with what appears to be a facsimile of the Taco Bell logo; the bar is called ‘Tacos.’ Like so many things in Kenya, it is a half complete reproduction of the original, unclear on the convention they are attempting to mimic. There is no Mexican food, it’s a Kenyan bar and restaurant just like all the others. The sign is just enough to draw us in as we search for a place to watch the Saturday afternoon football match. What appears to be cheap and lazy duplicating of an international trademarked brand reveals itself to be astonishingly effective mzungu marketing: we meet another group of volunteers midway through the game. They ask: “How do you guys know about ‘Tacos?’”
Charles and I, possessing our own pie-in-the-sky ideas about quitting Peace Corps and opening a campsite on the Coast, interrogate Mike, a Small-Enterprise-Development volunteer who is opening a campsite as an income-generating-activity in his community, south of Mombasa. With a scraggly Fu-Man-Chu and unkempt curly mop of dark hair, bronzed blonde at the edges, it becomes clear that Mike is very high. As he ruminates about his work and experience, I can see him enjoying being the older, more experienced purveyor of wisdom. Attaining competency here and being given the opportunity to self righteously educate others is one of the most satisfying aspects of watching the months roll by. It is the ultimate reward for the months of clueless flubbing, heatedly argued misunderstandings and continual asking of stupid questions. I routinely fantasize about bringing family and friends here primarily to watch their eyes fall out of their heads at the site of a bustling market or stage as I quietly, calmly and confidently navigate – lead them through – the chaos. A visit to the restrooms on the way out reveals the same uninventive graffiti here as in America: “Nipo Hapa.” I am here.
The Masai Market moves throughout Nairobi over the course of each week. On Saturdays, it’s very close to the city center occupying the parking lot of a Ministry of Justice building. This parking lot has the advantage of possessing only one entry and exit gate, creating a gauntlet of hawkers along the path between the two and ensuring that visitors must walk through the entire market before they can leave. We join the parade of tourists being herded into the gate and down the processional space. Separating from the stream and moving on my own through the craftsmen and their blankets of carvings, jewelry, paintings and dishes, I find them to be as kind and approachable as any of the other Kenyans I have met. A little humanity, an effort to engage them, is all that’s needed to move past the pushy salesmanship that my skin color naturally draws.
Killing with kindness is certainly something I have had to learn to do. Hawkers and beggars here are pushier than the US: telling them no takes longer. However, they receive ‘No’s much more graciously than salesmen and beggars in the US. It reminds me very much of the requests for child sponsorship I get as I walk through a new village; possibility without entitlement and so refusal without frustration. Charles stays outside the market, the hostility he has encountered at his site, at the stage in Limuru, and on his visits to Nairobi has drastically lowered his tolerance for the kind of pressure that the market exudes. I can’t say I blame him.
We walk through Uhuru Park towards Upper Hill Campsite, where we plan to stay for the night. On my final tour through the East Coast before I departed the states, I spent several days in NYC. I would never have thought that the endlessly forking paths of Central Park were distinctly American, but they are. The park as a journey, as an experience to move through is nothing like the layout of parks here. Uhuru is laid out just like the parks I have seen in Kericho and Kisumu. Wide open spaces, lacking paths, geometrically planted with a single tree equidistant from every other. The effect is of a set of individual plots of land, like a massive farm. Their use mirrors their layout: Kenyans sit in small individual groups under their respective trees. There is no one traveling through, no one using the larger space for a larger purpose, only individual plots used in individual pursuits. People in pursuit of individual space, instead of a larger space to share as a group.
Upper Hill is ideal. The shower – while still a rigid set of rusted pipes in a crumbling concrete cube – is the best hot shower I have had in six months. For 300 bob we get a mattress, sheets, pillows and mosquito net in the loft above the main dormitories. There is a large covered patio area with wood frame couches piled with overstuffed, lumpy pillows, low coffee tables and a wide assortment of card and board games. The bar, while not cheap, is reasonable for Nairobi. After six months of hotelis serving only ugali or rice with stew, the menu has a staggering variety of food. We have some drinks, we play Rummy and eat and go to bed happy.
In the morning, I watch the departing overland tour groups. If I take one thing from my Peace Corps experience, it will be how to pack for a trip. For this three day excursion, my backpack is actually too large. It takes a trip of more than three weeks for this bag to feel too small. The American’s, Aussies and Poles coming out to meet their drivers drag two and three massive rolling carryalls behind them leaving long trails in the gravel of the parking lot. They struggle and negotiate to fit all of their bags into the car, squeezing themselves in wherever they will fit, as though it was the luggage that was taking the trip instead of them. The Masai Mara is about seven hours away. Any upgrade in comfort that a private car might have offered over matatu is lost as they wedge themselves in between dusty hard edged carryalls, digging under eachother for seat belts, each with a backpack of “essentials” on their lap.
We wander down into the city. Javahouse is like an upscale IHOP. The prices are outrageous (at least on our salary) but the variety is astonishing. I typically give up trying to choose what I would like best and just order whatever I see first. Today it’s a bagel with cream cheese. I’m suspicious that it doesn’t taste quite right, but it’s been so long since I had a proper bagel or cream cheese that I can’t tell. I assume that when I finally return to the States and sit down to have a bagel the experience of feeling uncertain of whether I like it will be the same.
One goal of this trip is to familiarize myself enough with Nairobi that I don’t require a guide like Chuck. So we wander all over, following streets and noting landmarks. We wander into the “Nakumatt: Lifestyles” and sit on a couch costing the equivalent of twenty months salary. We see a sign for Heineken and go up for lunch. They don’t have Heineken. The waiter is surprised to find that Heineken is a beer. He thought it was a soccer club. This is tragically unsurprising.
The Peace Corps has three goals: learning about a foreign culture, sharing American culture and assisting development. Ordering ugali and stew, I note that because I spoke American English ordering Kenyan food, I have fulfilled two of the three goals. 66% is technically a passing grade. We pay more than the price of our accomadations for the evening to see “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Prior to the film they splice in an ancient scratched clip of a Kenyan flag waving in the sun as a brass band plays the national anthem. No one stands.
Back at Upper Hill we meet another group of volunteers staying the night. Mary has brought along a friend from her site, another American named Christy. She has saved for the last three years to finance this year long trip through East Africa. She has a chain of teaching jobs taking her through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Her budget for the year is $30,000. This is 2.1 millions shillings. I mention that she should buy this couch I tried today. We also meet Randy. I don’t like Randy.
He reminds me of the kid at the concert wearing the T-shirt of the band he is seeing. Someone for whom the symbols they have acquired simulate for them the experience they think they should be having. Closing in on forty, Randy is covered in tribal tattoos and has his thinning hair pulled back in a pony-tail. He has been working in various aid jobs for the past eight years. With Randy, everything is a foregone conclusion; he knows what you are going to say and ‘dude…’ He won’t put his shirt on and talks to us about how being in Africa has to be more than an experience, it has to be a chapter of your life. I’m wondering how long it will be until he feels compelled to go smoke pot in the parking lot again.
Another volunteer, Carlos, told me this morning over coffee that two of the three dogs who make their home at Upperhill used to belong to Peace Corps volunteers. There is an overweight, over-furred Golden Retriever mutt. In the same state (I believe) that all whites in the tropics arrive at eventually, he looks genetically predisposed to suffer here, sweating under his thick fur and fat reserves whose only use would be surviving a long, dark winter. His contrasting counterpart is a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback, reminiscent of a lion with his taut rippling muscle under a fine thin coat. The name comes from the line of hair along the back and neck that stands in opposition to the dog’s foreward motion. Regardless of the physical difficulties they may or may not be suffering living on the equator, they are constantly surrounded by slightly intoxicated tourists whose only desire is to pet them and give them table scraps. They lead as ideal of a life as I could imagine for dogs. I can only guess that shortly after being abandoned by Peace Corps Volunteers - people whose thought process was: “I want to love something!” without conscious consideration of the circumstantial suffix “…for two years!” – they realized that what might have seemed like heaven, was nothing more than a pale imitation.
In the morning, during check-out, I meet Jorge, a Puerto-Rican traveling with his wife. He is on sabbatical from MIT and he and his wife are at the end of year long trip starting in Japan, moving through China, India and here before they head back to Boston. I make a note-to-self to acquire a life similar to Jorge’s.
Charles is planning on coming up north to visit us and wants to see the stage. For the first time, we will guide him through Nairobi so that he knows where the location of the Nakuru stage. We fail almost completely to live up to the remarkable standard he has set. James (the one with a declared knowledge of ‘exactly where the stage is’) has apparently demarcated by it’s proximity to a large red building. This presents two problems: 1) around said ‘red’ building, there are 360 degrees of possible location and 2) most of the buildings around River Road are red.
Wandering back and forth as we attempt to use Jame’s crimson-compass, we see ahead of us a gathering crowd. At the intersection of an alley and River Road, we come upon a dead man on the sidewalk. Struck by a matatu speeding out of the alley onto the street, his head is split open. I manage to combine my first image of a violent death with my first image of a human brain. It has happened recently enough that the police have not arrived. Then again, this is Nairobi. The fact that the police have not come says nothing about how recently it occurred. However, the brilliant red of the blood and its glossy wet surface as it spreads in a pool across the sidewalk is good indication that it has been a recent event. It occurs to me that he is probably like thousands of other young men here in Nairobi: family in Meru or Migore, Kisii or Busia to whom he sends a monthly check. They will wonder why they haven’t heard from him; they will hope that he’s okay. Wandering about, peering intensely at every visible red surface is suddenly very frustrating. I leave the group and ask at three consecutive storefronts for directions. Redundancy comfortably in hand, we finally work our way to the stage.
Sitting next to me in the matatu is Mama Suzanne. She lives in Nairobi but works in Nakuru as a hairdresser. Four times a week she squeezes into a matatu with both of her pre-schoolers for the 3 hour ride. She feels lucky to have work that provides for such a schedule of travel. As the ride goes on, she resembles furniture more than anything else as her children rearrange her arms, her bag, her hair to find a comfortable nook in which to lodge their heads and chests. A cushion against the jarring road and whistling wind.

Posted by Natyb25 22:09 Comments (0)

Nairobi 1 of 2

(This is a travel narrative from a few months ago)

[quote]The work I feel best about here is the work with kids. This is both because it’s the most entertaining and fun and because it feels less a part of this larger fucked up system. It’s direct: they ask, I answer. So it says something that the very first chance I have to do exactly that is discarded so easily. The first impression the kids of Talai Primary will have of me will be that of an unscheduled absence; a broken promise. The urge I have been fighting for a week is surrendered to in a half hour: I’m going out of site. Again.
In one sense, I recognize that releases like this are necessary. It’s easy to tally up all the things that I have going for me – the trappings of material life that I enjoy with such ease, the minimal obligations and time required of my work – and question what I could possibly need a break from. Pleasure reading? Ten hours of sleep a night? All the same, I know that I need to forgive myself for feeling an urge for effortless conversation and for the easy and immediate empathy of other volunteers. I feel guilty nonetheless. Though I suppose if it really bothered me, I wouldn’t go.
As the matatu from Talai bounces up and down the rutted track towards Kabartonjo a shiny, well maintained Land Rover comes barreling up the road behind us at a speed possible only with US funded and maintained shocks. The presence of my white arm, frantically waving from a matatu full of dark faces is enough for it to stop. This is the reality of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If Aid work attracts ignorant idealists, then the Peace Corps attracts the subsection of that group who also like hardship. Or at least – it becomes clear as I climb into the front seat of the air-conditioned car – the idea of it.
It’s a frustrating decision, but not really a decision at all. We congratulate ourselves constantly on our use of public transport, on living at the level of those we are supposedly here to help; Peace Corps “integrates” at the most basic level. The falsity of this pretension is never more apparent, more visible, as when I am crawling over people out of the back of a matatu to claim my seat in a passing luxury vehicle.
The virtue of “ground level” work – of joining a community – is never really available. If I get sick, they send a car for me. They’ve shipped a bike from the states for my use and I don’t even want it. In the unlikely event that I got pregnant they would pay the flight home and back, though the cost of terminating the pregnancy would be up to me. I have vacation days and zero dependants and a free ticket home the instant I decide I’ve had enough. The Peace Corps is stepped down from the World Bank consultants writing reports by the pool at the Nairobi Hilton, but our “integration” is most strongly evident in the minds of those who will never really experience this place. Living here, even for a short time, lays plain all the things that slip below the radar of my daily concern; the laundry list of issues most Kenyans face that do not concern me or enter my life here. And when the opportunity comes for a free ride in an air conditioned SUV with working seat belts, we take it. Or at least I do. And though the decision saddens me, there was never any question of anything else happening.
Timothy Kibet, my director, is in the car. They are coming up the mountain from visiting Patrick’s site and giving him a ride to Kabarnet on their way back to Nairobi. Kibet came to my site last week. All the volunteers in my class are still on quarantine: unable to leave site for our first three months. The frustration of such forced isolation is good indication of its common sense. The ups and downs of total cultural immersion and sudden and complete isolation are difficult enough without the option of escaping to Nairobi or Kisumu every weekend. It is a good thing that Patrick and I are headed into Kabarnet to ‘go shopping.’ If Kibet wonders why our bags are already completely full, he doesn’t ask.
In the past I have heard people use experiences like this one as evidence that Kibet is clueless or simply doesn’t care. In fact, Kibet is merely an old hand at a game PCVs are only beginning to play. It’s called: how to keep your job while not doing any work. Kibet has a harder time of it than we do. Keeping my job means dealing with people basically unsure of what I am doing or why I am here and whose own jobs are laxly supervised and defined. Kibet has the challenge of dealing with over-entitled, anxious and youthly-self-righteous Americans. He has mastered an elegant balance between fulfilling his basic duties and providing us with as wide a berth as possible. His passing leaves no wake, ruffles no feathers. Were I he, I would do the same.
Peace Corps employees in Nairobi enjoy all the same benefits I do in terms of health care and drivers. They also receive off American and Kenyan holidays and earn a Western salary in a 3rd world economy. I currently pay for everything I need – including travel, drinking, eating out – on 15,000 shillings a month. The entry level sales job I held in the states before leaving paid the equivalent of 180,000 shillings a month. Kibet likely makes three times that. There is also the car allowance and security allowance given to US employees living abroad. A job like that doesn’t come along very often.
In Kabarnet, we halt short of having him actually drop us at the stage. James hasn’t arrived from Kimegul yet, so I take Patrick to see the city library for which I have recently acquired a membership. The only architecturally distinct building in Kabarnet, it’s a hold-over from Moi’s era. His Presidential Palace is just up the road, four stories, two wings with banquet hall and motor pool all surrounded by the tin metal shacks and sparsely planted shambas of apparently less important, less deserving Kenyans.
Reuben, the head nurse for the dispensary in Talai, has remarked several times that a library is needed to help the children to reach their potential. He ends his description of their glowing faces and sky-rocketing careers with the same lowered tone and breathy phrasing that accompanies most requests for money or favors here: “…and perhaps your friends in America, they will donate books.”
The requests and suggestions I receive here are often fairly pie-in-the-sky. Laptops for the primary school kids. Paving all the roads in town. Bringing modern large scale farming equipment for free use by farmers. They are proposed with a blind faith in Western wealth and power and with the first hand memory of the immense amounts of money that Aid has suddenly and surprisingly injected into minor and neglected corners of life here. Past experience shows that the possibility of winning the lottery – of asking for something huge and unreasonable and finding that the people of Norway or a group of churches in Georgia want to give it – is real. Projects like a library are typically proposed with so little thought to the actual obstacles in accomplishing them that I have adopted a blanket sort of optimism when responding. Asking why such equipment or facilities are necessary or how they will be constructed and then maintained is an inevitable dead end. These “What if…’s” are mentioned to me precisely because the people proposing lack the time, interest, knowledge or resources - or all of the above - to put it together themselves. In short they lack every aspect of the project that might prevent it from becoming just another poorly planned example of international aid throwing money at a dimly perceived community need.
The library Reuben has proposed is such an idea. He doesn’t have a clear idea of where it would go, or who would want to use it. He hasn’t thought about who would manage it once open or where money for maintaining and growing it would appear. All the same, I agree with him, a library couldn’t hurt. However, I have been pleased to inform him (several times now that I think about it) that the idea of getting books through donation is one about which I have a very definite and very negative opinion.
There are 36 branch libraries in Kenya (as well as a traveling donkey cart and camel caravan division for isolated areas). The library in Kabarnet (the largest and best in my district) is the source of my cynicism. It is full of donated books. Donated books are like donated canned goods. For every can of Hungry Man stew, there are eight cans of Purina Cat food (whether people intend this for starving pets or just think beggars can’t be choosers, I don’t know), four cans of pumpkin pie filling (probably the ones you forgot you had leftover from last year’s Thanksgiving when you went shopping this year) and two cans with the labels missing (presumably intended for famine victims hungry for a surprise).
I got a card because there are a few old editions of classics with cracked spines as well as a fair-sized section of children’s Kiswahili books, perfect for the aspiring language student. Most of the rest is trash. Which makes sense, since the books that are given away are typically ones that - if they weren’t something as inherently useful and valuable as a book - we’d just throw away; there’s an anthology of religious pamphlets spanning a half century, stacks of faded and torn National Geographic, trashy romance novels, spy thrillers. If it was overprinted: its here. It makes the rising literacy rate impressive; if this is what I thought reading made available, I don’t know that I’d be in such a hurry to learn either.
However, a book here – any book – is precious. The total book stock for the Kenyan National Library System is 800,129 for a population of around 37,000,000. (My alma mater in the states has 1.1 million volumes for less than 3,000 students.) Getting a card requires a letter of recommendation, proof of employment, and (in the case of a non-permanent residents like myself) a hefty deposit. There are two check-out desks and each book is recorded twice before being allowed out the door. Beyond that they routinely pat you down as you leave (unless you are white, in which case they just wave you through). I return a Bill Bryson book and some Hemingway. I check out Ender’s Game for Patrick who has never read it. James calls us from town and we head to the stage.
If I had stopped to consider for a moment longer before abandoning a school full of children actually interested in learning about public health, I would have realized that this trip to Nakuru assumes hosts whose presence is actually doubtful. The Barton’s are working in El Doret this month. Their original job in Nakuru ended after they tried to stop other employees (also earning a 1st world salary in a 3rd world economy) from stealing food meant for the poor. They were accused of racially slandering the thieving employees and changed jobs shortly after. At their new job, they haven’t seen their new supervisor in three months. Such is the bureaucracy of Peace Corps that they are secretly living and working in El Doret half the time: assisting their former supervisor, an ex-pat also dismissed because –as we will recall – his employees are thieves.
In the matatu headed south, already committed, we discover the absence of our hosts. Charles, another volunteer from our class, lives just a few hours south of Nakuru in Limuru, just outside Nariobi. A brief conference with him and we’re decided: it’s a weekend in Nairobi, not Nakuru. At 4p on Friday, he agrees to sleep and feed three and to guide us around Nairobi for two days. As much as PCVs (especially those in the throes of culture shock their first few months) may be suspicious or tired of neighbors, townspeople, children or drunks constantly pushing their heads thru curtains, knocking on the door far too early or late, and handling the dishes left on outdoor dish racks – I can only assume in the mistaken belief that I use my tea kettle as a secondary wallet - other volunteers are always welcome. It is an aspect of African culture that we shamelessly use and enjoy: circumstances over plans, guests over work.
Despite the copious anxiety that accompanies any initial journey to a place, the presence of the only white face (outside passing Land Rovers) standing on the side of the road is a guarantee that we have arrived in Limuru.
Charles is waiting with Aron, a Kikuyu youth who has been helping out with his after-school soccer club. Aron has insisted coming along as the encroaching twilight heralds danger for us whiteboys with full backpacks. Talking a bit on our way to get groceries, Aron mentions that he actually doesn’t feel safe by himself in Limuru after dark. I joke that if he’s not safe on his own, then parading around with four white boys with overstuffed bags must seem like a death-wish. He nods.
Laden with groceries and liquor, we arrive at the stage as the last of the light fades from the sky. Twenty minutes ago the sidewalks and streets were packed with bikes, donkey carts, hawkers and cars. Now things have emptied out and only those with nothing to lose or nowhere to go remain. Oh, and us, of course.
Charles stands on principle and refuses to board a matatu to his village at two times the normal price. In protest of a sum less than a quarter, we stand in the growing darkness waiting for the touts resolve to soften. The voices in the dark, the shadows from the colored fluorescent tube lighting that illuminates the inside of the matatus seem more threatening, more vicious in the dwindling twilight. Even separate from Aron’s warning, I have the distinct impression that we are, in fact, not particularly safe here.
At every matatu stage, our skin color entitles us to shouts and whistles, even the occasional grab (we are, after all, often the sole person who clearly doesn’t belong and therefore must be either coming or going) but usually these are directed at us. They are, in some sense, desirous of our attention. If not respectful, they at least address as people. Here, the comments bounce around and above us, flicking in and out of English, Swahili and Kikuyu. They aim to pull responses from eachother, not from us. We are rapidly beginning to resemble balls, tossed around for amusement. One trio, whose eyes I accidentally catch while avoiding someone else’s are thrown off balance when I respond in Swahili to their break-neck Kikuyu. As the two on the sides laugh at their friend’s sudden silence, I say again that I can’t understand when he speaks so fast. He stands and point at me, jabbing his fingers in the air. Deliberately speaking faster than before, his voice heightens in pitch and volume.
There are magic numbers when it comes to traveling with whites in a majority black country. Alone, I experience the highest level of available intimacy. People speak to me; they will speak with me and real conversations do occur. Two mzungu: I’m still welcomed, but it takes time and effort to move past the hawking or serving manners kept in store for visitors. Three: you are generally just left alone. Four, I realize as the blood rushes to my ears and I stammer out a reply whose phrasing accidentally takes the tone of: “I guess you don’t hear so good, huh?” looks like a gang. And here, in the dark, burdened by American made backpacks and sacks of groceries, our gang is outnumbered and clearly out of place.
Around this time (and partially at my urging) we board a matatu and taking advantage of experience, don’t mention the fare. Especially in the bigger cities, you often see wazungu with their quick-dry shorts and hiking-socked Merrils arguing with touts who are trying to forcibly pull their backpacks off and herd them into the vehicle. The secret is that those who know the fare don’t argue it. They simply hand over what they know is the proper amount and refuse to give more. Whether its because its after dark or because we’re a half hour out of Nairobi or – as Charles will insist later – it because, they are Kikuyus, this strategy doesn’t work tonight.
Aron and I are sitting at the back of the van as the three boys in front argue and curse at the tout. I attempt to interrogate the woman next to me as to the price she has paid. In a remarkable display of on-the-spot diplomacy – motivated by a desperate desire not to be involved – she says to ask the tout, as he will know the price. “True,” I say. In an unintentionally devious way, the argument at the front distracts him from charging Aron and I in the back.
Dropped by the highway where we arrived, we hurry up the embankment before the tout realizes his mistake. As we search for a cab to go the rest of the way to Chuck’s I repeatedly imagine the matatu screeching 180 degrees, careening across three lanes of traffic as the tout, his face cast in the blue glow of fluorescent leans out the open door with a machete, ready to panga our heads from our shoulders.
The only cab we can find, with seats like a twenty year old couch whose springs have collapsed, will take us as soon as the driver finishes the game of craps he is playing. They play on an overturned coke bottle carton between abandoned truck trailers by light of a pile of burning trash. He loses. I can’t help buy imagine that this will affect the price.
On the way back Chuck lays out the timid and pale character of the hostility we survived at the stage and the darker examples he’s experienced. His story of being hit by corn cobs and bottles while running reminds me of my own time on the Hopi Reservation in north-east Arizona. Being hit by a quarter full can of Schlitz as I ran along the embankment of a desert ridge, my immediate and overwhelming reaction was confusion; as though they certainly wouldn’t have thrown it if they knew who I was. It’s happened often enough to Chuck that the question of why is no longer compelling.
None of this was mentioned to Anne, Charle’s director, when she visited last week. This mirrors my experience of Kibet’s visit to me. I believe that the Peace Corps staff really does care about us, about our experience, our comfort, but the overlap between the things that negatively impact our lives and the things that happen to be under their control is minimal. Our problems mostly involve (at least from our perspective) not having enough money, something they can’t change anyway. The only card the administration really has to play is changing our site, a process so protracted, difficult and frustrating – since it mostly means starting over again all the processes of integrating that are frustrating you to begin with – that many volunteers choose to go home before being moved. And so we seldom mention difficulties to our directors due to a sense of it being a fruitless, time consuming endeavor to do so. Better to grin and bare it.

Posted by Natyb25 22:05 Comments (0)


Nothing in Peace Corps is a secret. We enter in classes, 30 or 40 at a time and spend two months as a group before splitting up for site. These friendships interweave with others we meet later: volunteers in our area and those we meet at cross sector meetings. The result is a strong and flexible net of relationships that serves to share information far more effectively than any calling tree or email list. Each of us possesses one or two friends in every sector of work and region of the country that could be privy to information ahead of another and so the prospect of keeping information quarantined or isolated is more than challenging, it’s almost impossible.
In this case, we know we are being sent back to the States a half hour before the director in Dar Es Salaam calls to tell us that we need to have an ‘emergency meeting.’ As it happens in this case, the link that puts us one step ahead of the administration is mine. Rachel, having been shipped back to her site from Dar last week, texts me from Voi. Our director, Timothy Kibet, has just called her to let her know that the folks in Dar are being sent back to the states on Saturday. Why volunteers in-country merit this information before the actual individuals being shipped home is yet another mysterious facet of foreign federal bureaucracy. As we head towards a visit with a youth group in Dar, her text elicits a yelp of alarm; an exclamation of significance sufficient to immediately elicit probing by the others in the car. There are few people I trust here as much as Rachel, but such is the tremendous impact of this information that I feel compelled to call to confirm.
I miss Rachel. Phone calls are expensive here and I miss the sound of her voice, but the expressions on the faces of the others in the car cut the call short. Within a bureaucracy decisions are often opaque and sudden; in the effort to predict what is likely, we cling to even the most minor scraps of information, building vast chains of inferences out of tiny bits of data. In such an environment, the expression on my face is enough to quiet the car, to create such a tangible desire to know that the air seems pregnant with anticipation.
Talking to Rachel later in the day, she asked me how everyone took it.
“Like themselves,” I answered.
Each of us has our own manner of thinking these things through, of finding some mental ground to pace or dig or pile as we process any fact that carries so many others in its wake. Fact: I am going home. Fact: I will not be getting my stuff from site. Fact: I will not see my neighbors or friends in Kenya again. Fact: I will have spent a year preparing to come here and only 8 months in country. Fact: It is January in Chicago and the warmest clothing I have is a collared long sleeve shirt.
It’s only been three weeks of uncertainty. Not even a month since we had to begin adjusting our assumptions of the following day. (Strangely, the shift from circumstances dictated by the mob, to circumstances dictated by my government, made little difference in my own experience of personal impotence.) In such a short time, we have adjusted; we have begun to sit comfortably in a total vacuum of known facts, watching the possible futures fork out and over one another in an endless cluttered knot.
And so we each cope however we normally do as this fact forces us to adjust yet again. There’s unbridled optimism. Sarcasm and frustration. James and Marcus take the front seats, put on their headphones and go to sleep. I make to do lists in my head. I keep thinking of bank-robber movies, of tumblers in a lock falling into place with a sudden and unexpected click-clack, this massive and impenetrable vault sliding open with a slow, smooth, mechanical motion of inevitable finality. Suddenly things are tremendously clear, at least in comparison to an hour before.
Our visit to the youth center is perhaps the most awkward half hour of my life. It starts with each of us saying our names and where we are from. For the first time, in the past tense.
“My name is Nate and I used to work in Kabarnet.”
After that comes a question and answer session where our natural sense of conversational equilibrium kicks in only intermittently. In between staring vacantly into space, wondering about how much snow there is on the ground right now at our home of record, we stammer out a series of pointless and vague questions. We do not listen to the answers. We are rude. We do not care.
They ask us about language. Does anyone speak Kiswahili? Almost every day for the past 5 months, I have done flash cards twice a day. I have almost 1000 of them sitting in a tin box on my desk in Talai. I have filled two notebooks with exercises from Simplified Kiswahili. I spent the first two months in my village refusing to speak in English, training my neighbors and co-workers to speak to me only in Kiswahili. I was very lonely during that time. I wasn’t capable of having a satisfying conversation. But I stuck with it because I wanted to learn the language. I caused trouble for friends I visited at their sites.
“They keep asking about you. They want to know why I don’t speak Kiswahili. You’re a pain in the ass and you were only there for half a day.”
Answering questions in Kiswahili, it occurs to me that this will be one of the my last chances to use this thing I have worked so hard to acquire. In the grey, dark cold of a Chicago winter it won’t take long for verb conjugation, adjective ordering, and possessive prefixes to decompose in my recollection. I imagine a day far in the future returning here and stumbling over the phrases and accent that flow so easily through me now, like an runner gasping their way to the top of a hill, remembering their younger self and the easy strides that carried them.
Our meeting ends unceremoniously and we pile back into the vehicle to return to the Peace Corps Tanzania office for our ‘emergency meeting.’ We all move through cycles of silence and action. Speaking aloud to ourselves as much as to others.
The difference between potentiality and actual reality is astonishing. I had decided a month ago that I would likely be going home by summer. Before the election and the consolidation, the evacuation, I knew I was going home. So I have an easy time of it compared to my friends and colleagues in the car next to me. They weren’t prepared to make this decision, much less have it made for them. All the same, I am astonished at the endless set of options that have collapsed into one irreducible set of facts and the tremendous and wide reaching consequences of cementing even one thing. I’m already thinking through job options and unpacking my clothes from the basement. Eating stuffed pizza and walking the dog. Organizing my photos. Reacquainting myself with my music. Getting a new cell phone. Can I get my old number back?
When leaving for Kericho before New Year’s, I specifically chose to lighten my bag as much as possible. Stuffed into rusted out Nissan Mini-buses, knees jammed into seat backs, head brushing the ceiling, the equatorial sun glaring through the window: the comfort a second bag affords you when you arrive isn’t worth the cost of getting there. I neglected to even bring the charger for my phone or camera batteries. I will arrive home with one standard sized backpack. And only three quarters full. I won’t have to check any baggage. So there’s that.
I imagine walking thru O’Hare. I already know what outfit I will be wearing (since there aren’t many options). My shoes coated with dust from another continent. My hair lightened by the sun. It’s funny, but I am starting to realize that I imagined coming home much more clearly than I imagined my time here. Though I never imagined anything like this.

Posted by Natyb25 00:58 Comments (1)


This may be our last day in Kenya. The cars are supposed to arrive around ten to take us to the plantation air strip. A private plane has been chartered to Kisumu and then to Dar Es Salaam. Thus far, I am the only one up. Pushing aside the dirty plates and vegetable peelings, I brew the first of the three pots of coffee we will drink before departing. The kitchen is a mess. The night before last we made a large and luxurious meal to celebrate our arrival: chicken stew, coconut rice, sikumiwiki and cabbage. Discovering that our second night was also our last inspired another bout of Dionysian excess. We split and carried in several days worth of firewood that had to be burned. All the veggies and liquor and cheese we bought will go to waste if they are still here when we leave. We are trying to finish everything.
The day before yesterday the Stagematt in Kericho was open for the first time since the problems began. Hannah and Rachel went into town for us and bought supplies for a week or two. We had assumed that we were going to be here for a bit longer than two days. The line stretched out the door and around the block: scores of people who have spent the last week or so locked in their homes, rationing slowly dwindling supplies. The unctuous deference that so often accompanies white skin here was absent in the long line of anxious Kenyans awaiting entry in small groups. Guards carrying fully automatic weapons stood at intervals on the sidewalk, doubled up at the door.
When Anne called yesterday to see who had their passports with them we tempered our sudden excitement by arguing that it was preparatory more than anything else. Since preparation – by definition - always precedes action, I guess we were right, albeit with a shorter time frame than we expected. The others awake. We check news with the house’s satellite internet, take turns emailing family and friends to explain that this evening will find us in Dar Es Salaam. The drip brewing coffee machine in the house is the first that I have encountered in the past seven months. I add fresh milk to each of my three cups. I had kind of hoped to make milking the cow at dusk a routine, like splitting wood for the fire or making my bed each morning. Routine has a strangely vivid appeal in the face of this continual uncertainty.
Doug arrives with the vehicles; again the sterling white doors and fresh new tires of foreign funded transport. Driving to the airstrip he explains the passing convoys of tractors, their trailers packed to overflowing with dark faces. Members of the Kisii tribe have volunteered to leave the plantations in the hopes of avoiding violence. The explanation of how their presence might inspire such a problem is murky. Tribal rivalries, assumed political affiliations, language barriers: the common denominators of all conflict here.
The airstrip is on the crest of a hill; a single long strip of tarmac and a tin metal warehouse plastered with “No Smoking” signs. Climbing out of the SUVs into the sun, my stomach has a sickening boiling sensation: I haven’t had this much caffeine in months. From here we can see the tea fields stretching off to the horizon. The James Finlay Plantation employs 70,000 people; with their families, the total worker population is over 100,000. Marcus said that a few weeks ago he taught a class in a town an hour from the guest house. The entire drive there - and the visible horizon from the school – was tea. The plantation is large, and – from this vantage point – peaceful. Life here has continued much like normal, even as Kericho has filled with soldiers lobbing tear gas and shooting looters.
The plane is a twin prop. Fifteen seats. The pilot is Ugandan; he flies for an International NGO that brings doctors and medical supplies into impoverished areas. Whether the US Government is trading favors or paying cash, I don’t know. Given that Kenya Airways has halted flights out of Kisumu because of fuel shortages, it can’t be cheap to fly us in and out again.
The rich and vibrant green of Kericho’s fields and shambas gradually fades to a dry and dirty brown as the grasslands descend towards Lake Victoria. As the ground grows less fertile there are more and more abandoned dusty plots. Rough and rusted roofs in the center of compounds surrounded by rings and squares of trees appear like massive pupils staring up at us as we pass over. As we approach Kisumu we look for the greasy black smoke that marks the improvised road blocks we are flying to avoid. From this height the only real evidence is the black scorch marks of burned tires that stain the tarmac.
Touching down, we see what appears to be a stream of volunteers coming out to greet the plane. My friend Faith, having experienced riots and violence in Homa Bay during Parliamentary nominations a month ago, came to Kisumu for elections because she thought it would be safer. This did not turn out to be the case. She looks grim. Apparently she is one of the volunteers who is lacking their actual passport. The photocopies faxed by Peace Corps are causing problems with the customs officer. He has been threatening to prevent them from boarding the flight to Tanzania. I don’t blame him, but I don’t particularly like him either. I greet him in Kiswah. He feigns deep immersion in his work. During our interview he continually refers to my “tour group” and stops to send text messages on his phone. No doubt he lives in Kisumu and has much more pressing concerns than the stampede of rich whites attempting to flee the country. All the same, his disregard for the feelings or emotions of those under his jurisdiction is frustratingly typical of bureaucrats here.
Sitting in the lines of molded plastic seats that make up the terminal, a flat screen TV on the wall is tuned to CNN. The sound of jets cycling their engines periodically drowns out the American Presidential Election coverage. It’s -12 in Chicago. Blizzard conditions across the Western states. Obama has won in Iowa. I am delighted. For months I have been telling people in matatus and hotelis that I don’t think Obama will be able to pull out the win. International Newsweek is probably giving me Clinton-skewed information. Britney Spears had a four hour standoff with police. This tidbit and the grainy, poorly lit footage of someone being wheeled out of a comfortable looking Hollywood home is recycled every 15 minutes or so. In the midst of political unrest, as fuel and food supplies dwindle across the country and the word “genocide” is already being irresponsibly thrown around by politicians and journalists eager to start a fire, the event that I am most able to get information about concerns one woman’s inability to cope with her tremendous success, wealth and fame.
Walking to the hoteli at the edge of the parking lot, we pass seven EU Election Observer vehicles abandoned in the parking lot. The serious irregularities that they reported are the very source of the circumstances for their evacuation. I wonder who will come to fetch these cars; whether they will sit until a mob sets upon them. The waitress at the hoteli is as frazzled and impatient as all the other employees at the airport. No doubt the fact that their job becomes more pressing and stressful the more things fall apart around them is a potent cause for exhaustion. Marcus texts me and tells me that the plane has arrived. As we reenter the terminal I can see an old Russian military helicopter offloading another squad of soldiers.
The pilots, both Australian, have been flying a relay between Dar and Kisumu for most of the day. We are their fourth group with three more to go. In total there are almost 40 volunteers being shipped out to in groups of six and seven. I have never been on a private jet. The seats are hand stitched leather. We are offered snacks and use the power plug and fold out table to power Marcus’ laptop while we play a round of Tiger Wood’s PGA Golf. Flying out of Kisumu, over Lake Victoria, we can see the Laison that has choked the bay. A non-native water plant whose thick roots and leafy, floating top growth have crippled numerous sectors of the economy here, it lies in a field of brilliant green not unlike the tea in Kericho. It has choked the harbor preventing the movement of boats for fishing, transport and tourism. From here it appears as a field of solid green, like a tremendous flat soccer pitch planted at the edge of the water.
It’s a short flight in our twin engine private jet. I am boggled, yet again, at what it means to be a citizen of the richest country in the world. To find myself under its’ protection, to have its’ resources mobilized in my favor. In the space of two days, two sets of private planes were organized to evacuate me from a relatively luxurious and safe locale. Customs practices and proper documentation have been thrust aside; within the large list of people attempting to extricate themselves from troubles, our names have floated to the top by virtue of the place we were born. There is no deserving this. No earning it. Touching down, I am struck by the fact that I came here to try and see the other side of the order, to understand what lies at the bottom as I float at the top. I was hoping to find a way to make what I had meaningful, to give it purpose; to be able to congratulate myself on my insistence on earning what I’ve been given. On being a moral recipient of privilege.
Thinking of AIDS orphans, camped in the sun outside the Catholic Diocese in Kericho, waiting for food or water in the afternoon sun, it seems to me that the concept of earning anything – the idea that things happen for a reason – is yet another luxury I had easily assumed away as truth within the soft and easy choices of a Western life. In a certain sense, it easier to realize this than it is to maintain a sense of order. Increasingly I feel compelled to deny merit as a salient force.
We exit into a moist oven of tropical air. There’s another group of helpful Peace Corps staff to whisk us through customs, help us change money, offer phones for calls home. Our multiple entry visas to Tanzania are a hundred dollars each. Pat, the Tanzanian Country Director, peels out seven bills from a thick envelope of cash. With the stamp in our passports we are officially refugees. Like almost a quarter million true Kenyans, we have fled out homes in response to political unrest. It is a semantic coincidence that we can be labeled as such. For the seven of us, as things have gotten worse, our circumstances have only improved. From Marcus’ house in Kericho to the plantation cottage, a private jet and now, the Jangwani Sea Resort Hotel.
Sitting in the volunteer lounge at the Tanzanian Peace Corps Office, someone has looked up the resort on the internet. Two swimming pools, a 24 hour bar and restaurant, a private beach. Air conditioned rooms with mini-fridges and satellite TV. Free internet. We are given spending money, free rein in the volunteer library. A few of our group walk with Tanzanian volunteers to a neighborhood bar.
The excitement of a new country is a raw buzz against the dusty, aching tiredness of the day’s travel. We sit facing eachother on long benches in the back of yet another white Land Rover, crawling slowly through the Friday night traffic. Finally passing a minibus broken down on the side of the road, I realize that I was expecting a road block, a burning car, a crowd of people held at gunpoint by police. It strikes me for the first time that things here are precisely and mundanely normal. When things will return to such a state in Kenya is unknowable.

Posted by Natyb25 02:15 Comments (0)


The three pieces below are from the past few weeks. I never got around to posting them. Approaching departure here, I don't know when I will next be able to put them up. So, here they are.


Posted by Natyb25 21:54 Comments (0)

Personal Politics

Raila and Personal Politics

Raila Odinga visited Kabartonjo today. I saw him speak before more than a thousand people on the field of the primary school, just like I saw him a few weeks ago in Voi. For the Presidential candidates here, in Kenya, this week contains the sort of frenzied campaigning that Americans will experience in that final weeks before November next year. Kenyans head to the polls just after Christmas for the second free elections in their country’s history. If Raila Odinga defeats Moi Kibaki, the incumbent, it will be the first time in Africa’s history that a president has failed to be elected to a second term. A major accomplishment, since here the second term has historically led to a further consolidation of power making a third, a fourth, and an eventual moratorium on multi-party elections (such as the one repealed here in 1993) that much more likely.
I met James, the volunteer from just down the road in Kimegul at the rally. We talked about the coverage of Mitt Romney’s speech at Texas A+M, James’ alma mater. Relieving anxieties about his religious convictions, the clips and pictures we have seen here show Romney in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd. The message was apparently effective, giving Romney a jump in the polls as people gain increasing confidence that Mormonism isn’t a cult. James was telling me that the room in which Romney spoke holds, at most, three hundred people; hardly a number that would account for any change in national polls.
It is unlikely that Raila’s speech today -to more than three times that number - will make national news in Kenya. It certainly won’t merit mention on CNN.com or Bloomberg. Even if it did, even if it was in every national and international media outlet in the world, it would be impossible for it to have the kind of effect on Kenyans that Romney’s speech has arguably had on Americans. Many Kenyan’s lack the electricity (and the TV) that would be necessary to watch the news coverage. Few know how to use computers, even fewer have access to one with internet. And despite relatively high literacy rates, a significant portion of the population lacks the disposable income to buy a newspaper (supposing they even live somewhere they can get one). Here, the message that gets across is the one coming straight out of the candidate’s mouth as they speak, face to face, at fairgrounds, stadiums and even primary school soccer fields.
They say that all politics is local. Here, that is inescapably the case. Every one that saw Raila in person today is potentially one more vote for him come the 27th. In America, the politician who shakes your hand - who meets you in their ‘casual’ pressed khakis and button-down polo - needs to care more about the camera than the people they meet. They need three hundred people to look like a lot more. If you don’t like them after you see them in person, that’s okay, as long as the people who see the pictures do. It’s more important that it come across as a positive interaction, than that it actually be one.
In Kenya, the presentation and the reality have not yet parted ways. It makes it easier to grasp why African politics have for so long been decried as ‘charismatic’: the first hand experience of seeing a politician is often the only experience of them that people get. Politics is personal because it has to be.
The problem with such a system (so I am told) is that people never learn the issues. A half hour of face time can’t possibly leave a citizen informed enough to make an intelligent decision about where to cast their vote. Understanding the distinctions between candidates – knowing the issues - requires precisely the kind of access to newspapers, TV and the internet that most people here lack. This may well be true.
The people in my community – strongly in support of Raila – seem to be basing their decision mostly on a concept that change is good. This being only the second time they’ve have had such motive power, they are excited to use it in its most determinative form. Very few people have any idea how Raila will handle Kenya’s international debt, or what Kibaki will do about the crumbling colonial infrastructure. However, what is lacking in information, is more than present in enthusiasm.
For months, the primary topic of discussion as I have ridden in matatus, eaten in hotelis, and waited at the post office has been the coming election. From mamas selling bananas and guavas in the market to elderly folks lined up on benches in the town center, Kenyans are passionately involved in their politics. Raila’s presence in town today stopped everything. Shops were closed, the market was empty and throngs of people – dressed in their Sunday best – crowded the roads. Perhaps they aren’t informed about the issues (most Americans aren’t either) but every one I have talked to is eager and ready to cast their vote, whereas come November, vast numbers of Americans with the right to vote will neglect to do so. The endless photo ops and sound-bites, Youtube debates and editorials will fail to motivate most Americans to take an hour out of their day to engage in the simplest and most basic act of representative government.
Watching today it occurred to me that ‘charismatic’ politics are exactly what makes democracy here such a celebrated and important thing. It’s what makes Raila’s visit an event significant enough to put everyday life on hold and what ensures that next week the vast majority of Kenyans will use their voice and cast their vote. The memory of political corruption and repression certainly adds emphasis, but that’s because it reinforces the notion that this election isn’t just a show. It’s not just a massive public relations campaign centered around candidates interested in looking good first, and being good second. The simplicity and the vitality of Kenyan democracy comes from the fact that most Kenyans will only see their candidates face to face. It has to do with the fact that here, the presentation and reality remain very much the same.

Posted by Natyb25 21:52 Comments (0)


Mercury is a nicer bar than I ever went to in the states. Softly curving upholstered walls. Marble bathrooms. The spirits geometrically laid out on a backlit glass wall. Outside, in the parking lot I ask the guard if it will still be possible for us to get a matatu. It is, after all, almost 9p.
What we actually get on is a bus. I’ve traveled this route during rush hour: matatus packed full of uncharacteristically thorny Kenyans, fleeing city center back to slums at the edge of the grid. This is the same, but the silence is permeated with exhaustion of a more physical kind. It’s unlikely that these people started work any later than those I crammed in with this afternoon. These are ‘night jobs’; they start before it’s light and finish only once it’s dark again. The bus is dark and the street lamps bring an intermittent brightness, like a passing search-light, that lengthens and then shortens the shadows over their faces.
Tired though they may be, the entrance of three whites onto a bus already filled to standing room leaves a sudden sinking silence in the air. As though we’ve caught them doing something improper followed – in the same breath – with a realization that they aren’t the ones out of place.
The first quiet comment comes across my right shoulder.
Muze keti chako. Sell him your seat.
I turn. Sitaki kuketi. Si mbali. I don’t want to sit. It’s not far.
Thinking of being in New York before I left, it’s always astonishing to me how immediately people here will drop their barriers. It’s a tribute to the social nature of everyday life in Kenya, to the extent to which people interact and connect easily, continually. In this case it’s also a shameful reminder of how little effort whites have ever needed to make to adapt to the culture and life of people for whom this is not an adopted home. To find a white person who speaks even a little of the language that has grown and developed and lived in this place for a millennia is a novelty that’s usually taken as a compliment.
We talk a bit. He hands me a card: a smartly creased and clean version of the same political fold-outs that litter the sidewalks and streets here in the face of the approaching election.
Unmajua? Mtu na nguvu. You know him? A man with strength.
I wait for the pitch that always comes when someone mentions a politician to me. The fact that I can’t vote seems to make my support more desirable than is logical. An outsider, with no personal bias, makes a clear sort of moral victory when swayed to your side.
He holds out his hand. I return the card and he carefully places it back in his front shirt pocket. Getting off and walking back towards our hotel, it occurs to me that I don’t ever recall experiencing something like that before. Not here, not at home: never.
Democracy. A system where people are represented in a manner that broadens their dignity. Where they feel proud of those who carry their voice and those who work for them are honored to be chosen for such a task. I have often thought about whether a representative is chosen to act their conscience – to stand above the passions of their constituents and do what seems right for all – or to stand squarely with their supporters, to act their voice above all else. But I’ve never really considered that a politician might function to unite their supporters; to bind them together by becoming something that each person is proud of.
Sitting in a quiet darkness of a mutual exhaustion. Tired, sore from twelve hours of work. The same tomorrow. But tucked into your front pocket, a small warm piece of pride. A sense of being a part of something bigger, stronger than this quiet dark and a chain of equivalent tomorrows.

Posted by Natyb25 21:50 Comments (0)

Birds or Prey

Just a few minutes ago, as I sat on my front stoop reading, an eagle or a hawk – some bird of prey – swooped down and lifted away one of the four chicks that have been ambling about the yard for the last week or so. My neighbor Alice had her son build a chicken coop over the last school holidays. This is the first set of new chicks. I have enjoyed watching them wandering about in formation behind their mother. I have attempted to stop them from eating Styrofoam. I have enjoyed – ever so slightly - the prospect of doing dishes because I know that once I sit down with the basin I use for cleaning, they will make their way over, awaiting the dumping of the inevitable bits of soaked rice or beans that stick to the bottom of my pots.
One of them is gone now and I have never seen such behavior from these chickens. Three of them ran under my legs and into my house in the aftermath; it took ten minutes and a broom to get them back out.
Generally, I was under the impression that the chickens had a pretty sweet life here. They wander about the compound. They peck at nothing. Sometimes they run rapidly from one end to the other fleeing some imagined danger that I cannot perceive, much less imagine. They eat, they poop, I would assume they sleep, though I have never actually observed this first hand (Alice assures me that it does occur). Periodically, it seems, they also watch their offspring get plucked off the ground and carried away into the air to be devoured in a tree. I find it ironic – given that they are birds, but because they are chickens– that neither the air nor the tree that figure so prominently in this fate are in any way conceivable to them. They are, after all, flightless birds who live in a box.
It’s clear – from their retreat to covered space of my own home – that they don’t imagine being plucked away into the sky is good. They didn’t watch it with that brainless, steady stare that seems to characterize most of their day. But I can’t see how they could know exactly what has occurred. They don’t hang out at bars with other birds who might be able to explain to them what a hawk is or where they live or how they hunt. (Unless they are sneaking out late at night when I am already asleep.)
As I write, they have regained their composure, collapsed back into their habits. I wonder if they are noticing that it is slightly easier to find food now that there is one less mouth. In any case, the event itself, is over. Little Cornell – as he may very well have been named – is gone. I somehow doubt that his sudden reappearance would engender a response anything like the one that accompanied his removal.
And I must say, dramatic though it may be, I find the return to normalcy rather comforting. For those that remain, the exigencies of their daily life will not wait. The extent to which they understand that Cornell is dead or dying - that one of the beings with whom they have spent every single moment of their brief little lives is gone and will not return - is meaningless. Whether they grasp it or not, whether they have little chicken tears welling up in their beady unblinking eyes, this fact is secondary to the fact that they are, frankly, still kind of hungry.
Life isn’t cruel so much as it is ongoing. There is a comforting certainty for me in the fact that in the long run, the basic overwhelming needs that drive life also ensure that no tragedy can be too overwhelming. No matter what else is lost or taken away, no matter how shocking or dark an event may be, I will probably still like bacon an awful lot. The tremendous towers of anxiety and fear and joy and confusion that I build as I attempt to create meaning in every individual happening of my life cannot dispel the fact that I need to eat, I need to sleep. That, right now, I kind of need to pee. And I know I’m just building another tower here, but this one has a stability I find soothing.

Posted by Natyb25 21:49 Comments (0)


The seven of us here in Kericho, along with volunteers from two other locations in Kenya, are being evacuated to Tanzania for two weeks (at the minimum).
It's so that we can 'decompress.' If you have been reading, then you are aware how little in need we are of this (especially with our current resort style living).
All the same we are very excited to be seeing a new place and (of course) increasingly guilty about the treatment we are receiving.
I will update once we have arrived.

Posted by Natyb25 08:37 Comments (4)

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