Monday, February 11, 2008

Out of Africa

Peace Corps has decided to temporarily suspend its program in Kenya after weeks of post-election unrest. Volunteers in Western parts of the country were evacuated first, but last week us remaining few were given 24 hour notice to pack our stuff and leave our sites. Technically we've all officially completed our service, which included a comprehensive medical exam (no parasites getting a free trip to the States on my watch!) in addition to mounds of paperwork. If I ever thought it was difficult to get into Peace Corps, I've found it's even more difficult to leave. In more ways than one.

The situation in Kenya will be re-assessed in 3 months to determine if and when we can return to our sites and our projects. I'm optimistic, as my time here has shown me that Kenyans are very hopeful and resilient, even in the face of mounting adversity.

In the meantime, I'm trying to brace myself for February temperatures in DC and not February temperatures in Mutomo.

Stay tuned for more updates, and enjoy some newly uploaded photos.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I've Been Lost

"Umepotea!" is the first thing I am greeted with when I say stop in to say hello to the locals back in Mutomo. In Kiswahili it translates to "you've been lost", which is a common Kenyan greeting when reuniting with someone you've not seen in a while. I usually respond with "but I've been found!", because my less-than-perfect sense of direction is common knowledge around these parts, and it's safe to assume I've just been lost because usually it's true.

Despite the fact that I knew where I was the entire time (and therefore not lost. Just wanted to clarify that.), I've finally returned safely to Mutomo. Now begins the task of making amends with my favorite fruit mamas and shop owners, all of whom will want details on where I have been and what I've been doing. It's nice to be missed.

Having been away from my site and spending time at a fellow volunteer's home for our extended vaca following post-election unrest resulted in getting to know the locals and the neighborhood as if it were our own. Granted, 5 new and freshly tanned foreigners would cause quite a stir in any village, including the one we were inhabiting. But before long we all had our favorite mamas selling fresh coconut who we'd count on for the local gossip; we quickly learned shortcuts to and from the beach, causing a small stampede of children running from their homes in droves to greet us; even the local juice bar employees started to treat us as regulars and had our favorite drinks committed to memory. Amid the uncertainty and underlying tension gripping the nation, (even we were not immune- do you have any idea how difficult it is to ration sunblock out each day?!),we managed to make the best of being stranded at the beach and embracing our new community. I certainly didn't feel lost.

As schools reopen and things start to get back to normal for me, the future of my Peace Corps friends and colleagues remains unclear. Depending on the location of their site placement, they may or may not get permission to return due to safety and security concerns. So we patiently wait.

In the meantime, I've uploaded some new photos. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Extended Vacation

Happy New Year! Due to the election outcomes and some travel restrictions that followed with regard to various states of unrest across the country, I've been holed up at a fellow volunteer's house near the beach with access only to white sands and clear water but no computer. Sorry for the delayed "I'm okay" update…FYI, I'm okay.

The area in which I was vacationing saw little activity with regard to violence, although we did feel the pinch of food shortages and inflated prices for the few vegetables that remained in the market. A little creative cooking, food rationing, and a lot of patience was required, but myself and my 4 colleagues remained unscathed from the entire ordeal. This is quite a feat considering how quickly boredom sets in and people quit being nice and start getting real. (MTV's Real World would be a cake walk in comparison).

I'm now in Mombasa to return to Nairobi at the end of the week. Hopefully I can return to my site soon with the blessings of the Peace Corps and resume the hygiene lessons in the schools. I shudder to think about all of the unwashed hands that are roaming around Mutomo. More updates (and pictures!) soon.

Hope the holidays were safe and happy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like...

...matumbo? -The Swahili word for goat intestines, which are a popular dish in Kenya.

Not to be confused with Mutomo.

Last week was another public holiday, so we decided to throw an early Christmas party, complete with roasting a goat and his innards.

See exhibit A (top right) for the before pose and exhibit B for the after. The goat was purchased at the market that morning (to ensure freshness), tied to a tree with rope, and was nibbling at the grass enjoying it's last meal and whining in protest rather loudly. Suffice it to say,
the meat tasted a little sweeter after enduring this.

The food is roasted over an open fire. Instead of chestnuts this holiday season, we had goat meat. As you can see, I am eating with my hands, which is not only lots of fun, but also culturally acceptable. I'm integrating into the community as best I can. Before digging in, I made certain we all washed our hands thoroughly with water poured from a pitcher over a basin. They don't call me the Health and Hygiene Promotion Advisor for nothin.

This year, my holidays will be spent at Tiwi Beach, just south of Mombasa on the coast of Kenya. Since several different forms of public transportation are required to reach my destination, some entertaining stories are sure to result. Kenya are holding their presidential and parliamentary elections on the 27th of December, but if all goes according to plan, I'll be lounging at the side of the Indian Ocean, toes in the sand, avoiding sunburn under the shelter of an enormous paper umbrella floating in an equally enormous cocktail.

Safe and happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

November Rains

Mutomo has finally entered the "short rains" season. This was scheduled to come mid-October, but they work on their own time, which seems to be whenever is most inconvenient for me.

Here is a typical scenario describing the rains and my misfortune:

  • The skies are completely clear and bright

  • I decide to run some errands in town

  • I leave behind my raincoat and/or umbrella (this is sub-Saharan Africa- I don't want to draw more attention)

  • Due to the scorching heat, I'm usually wearing cool and light colors. Such as white.

  • At the exact moment that I am as far as possible from any sort of shade or shelter there comes a downpour of rain

This rain is so fierce that it actually stings. There isn't much I can do but stand there and suffer through it, or seek some cover under a leaky tarp from a mama selling overripe bananas. Although they don't look appealing or fresh, I buy a few in exchange for preserving what is left of my dripping wet dignity.

Along with the rains come a whole host of new bugs and insects that seem to want to make my acquaintance by inviting themselves into my room, without giving me time to adequately assess their potential danger or intimidation factor. It's a jungle in there.

Last week we finally completed our handwashing lesson at three schools. In total, over 1,000 students received the hygiene message, so I expect by the time word gets around during our next set in January, we'll need to arrange for crowd control. These Peer Educators are a hot commodity. Check out the pictures.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Destruction Hits Mutomo

Over the weekend Mutomo experienced some rain and high winds which resulted in a mini-tornado that ripped the roof off six classrooms at one of the local schools. Luckily nobody was injured, but this was the school that was going to get the first hygiene lesson, so we obviously had to reschedule. Something tells me that hand washing wouldn't have been a high priority without a roof over their heads. Unless we adjust our lesson to include classroom renovations. We might be good, but not that good.

While Mutomo was dealing with Mother Nature's antics, I was in Kitui meeting up with some fellow Volunteers and of course to see my host family who was hosting a party. There were lots of people and lots of food and my host brother was the first to greet me, grinning and showing off the progress of his growing front teeth. He'll need a new nickname since mapengo (affectionately translated to "toothless") is no longer accurate.

I stayed with a nearby Volunteer, who lives only about 8 kilometers out of Kitui town, but with public transport this ride is usually 15-20 minutes long. After I boarded and crammed in, we cruised around looking for more people to pickup until the matatu was more than completely full, then promptly got pulled over at a police checkpoint. The obligatory handover of kitu kidogo (something small) was exchanged for a turning of the back to all of the number of rules we were violating. It must have been a sufficient payoff, since the AK-47 remained untouched, slung over the officer's shoulder as he wandered around the car and waved us on. Weaving through the large metal spikes in the road, we were finally on our way. But not before stopping for petrol on the edge of town, the tout hanging out the sliding door window, slapping the roof, calling for more passengers as we passed them on the road. Not sure where he was planning to fit them, but I guess he'd worry about that upon arriving at the next police checkpoint.

When I arrived back to Mutomo, I ran into my neighbor kids as I was walking to my room. I was happy to see them, but they peered at me suspiciously and, hands on hips, the 8-year old ringleader asked where I had been all weekend. I realized I hadn't cleared my travel with her. Guilty, I hung my head and murmured, "Kitui". Unconvinced, she narrowed her eyes, looked me up and down, and asked where my bags were. I pointed to the bag on my back. She nodded her head in approval and let me continue, calling out after me that they missed me while I was gone. Looks like I'll need to fire up the popcorn this weekend to put this little misunderstanding behind us.

Happy (early) Thanksgiving! A turkey can be pardoned for me, since I think it looks like roasted goat meat or chicken in my future. I'll let you know how Kenya celebrates.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Sounds of Mutomo

Sunday 6:57am:
The Muslim call to prayer can be heard through the loudspeakers. A baby tests her lung capacity by screaming outside my window. Gospel music echos from the nearby church. A baboon does what sounds like an aerobics class on the tin roof above my head. Then a rooster crows, getting louder and louder until it sounds like it has snuck into my room and is crowing directly into my ear.

In an unprecedented team effort, the community of Mutomo has come together to disrupt any hopes I had of sleeping in on the weekend. These creatures do not observe Sundays.

Arising early on the weekend means I can feel smugly productive and accomplished for the rest of the day, but then I realize all the mamas have been up since dawn cleaning, feeding their family, looking after the children, as well as running the entire household, and they still find time for church, so I really can't compare. But getting up that early does minimize the guilt if I decide to doze off later while reading a book.

Five primary schools are nearing completion of their pit latrines, so next Friday my peer educators make their debut hand washing lesson at the first school. It's already been made clear that I am their agent and manager to book their gigs, and any offers for additional promotions or endorsements need to go through me first. I know a good thing when I see it.