Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gunshots in the Night (...Not what you think)

The other night, I was sitting with some of my friends watching a scary movie when all of sudden we heard eight, nearby gunshots. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Terrified, we quickly locked all the doors and silenced the movie. Waiting, not-so-patiently, to hear signs of what was happening, thoughts ran through my head - robbery, murder, terrorism - what the hell was happening? Soon enough, we got word from our neighbor, that it wasn't a menace of human nature, but rather a menace of hippo nature. Yep, a wild hippopotamus from Lake Victoria, just down the block, had moseyed on up the street and was blocking traffic, like it was no big deal. The shots were fired from local security guards to try to force the hippo out of the street and back into the water. The hippo was not budging, and unfortunately, more gunshots were fired, but this time to kill the animal. Then, there was a great deal of commotion - cars honking, people yelling, drumming. There had been a great race to the meat, so crowds formed around the hippo, machetes flying to get a piece of the sweet traffic blocker.

Where am I???

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kenya & Salone, Two Very Different Countries on the Same Continent

I’ve been in Kenya for about seven weeks now and I still seem to be thinking about Sierra Leone. It’s hard to shake the two years of memories, especially in a place that reminds me so much of my second home. But there are definitely differences – whether it be the difference between East Africa and West, or the two countries themselves, the longer I spend here the more differences I seem to recognize. 

When I first moved to Sierra Leone, I remember thinking “or yea, it was the same in Tanzania.” As I continued my time there, I started to understand the differences on a deeper level. The same thing is happening here, which is fascinating. Is it human nature to first recognize the similarities between countries, people, and culture and then the differences? Is this something that carries into every changing aspect of our lives? Or is this a learned behavior? Something to ponder on…
Anyways, I started to make a list of the differences between Kenya and Sierra Leone, because I’m addicted to making lists. (As my dear padis, Krim and Rat, know well, when they pulled a prank on me and hid my list book… devils.) Here’s what I got thus far:

How Kenya is Different than Salone:

Economic Development. Kenya is in many ways more developed than Sierra Leone. The unemployment is lower, the items manufactured locally is higher, general access to running water, electricity, and internet are higher, and the education system seems to be of higher quality. In fact, Kenya sends the most students abroad for higher education than any other African country. (Although I’m unsure how many Kenyans come back to work in their home.) At least the government is investing in education in some way and, in my humble opinion, the best way for a government to spend their bucks. This does not mean Kenya is not short of its own problems, but viewing the country from a macroscopic scale, they seem to be doing some things right.

Tribes. There are more tribes here. Although the number changes slightly depending on who you talk to, there are about 42 tribes throughout Kenya. (There’s about 15 in Salone.) That’s a heck of a lot of languages! Through conversations with Kenyans, I’m starting to pick up some differences between the tribes, but to fully understand them I would need A LOT more time here. 

Religion. About 78% of the Kenya population is Christian, with about 10% Muslim and 10% traditional beliefs. Religion here compared to Sierra Leone is quite interesting. I haven’t once been asked, “Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” or actually, anything about my religious beliefs. (Although one guy asked me what church I like to attend.) There have been few opening prayers – a couple of people have prayed before chai, but I haven’t had any before a meeting or other events. I asked our project coordinator the other day if people use toilet paper or water to go to the bathroom and he said that only the Muslims use water. In Sierra Leone, it didn’t matter if you practiced Islam or not, everyone used water to do their business (if you know what I mean). I wonder where the balance is between culture and religion. How much do religious beliefs affect cultural practices, and vice versa? Either way, I’ve been missing my regular call-to-prayer wake up calls. 

No secret societies. As far as I’ve heard, there are no secret societies here. In Salone, there were groups that were distinguished between tribes and between sexes. People’s initiation and participation in these societies were anonymous and group activities and traditions were not talked about in public or with people outside of their society. 

Diet. There is much more diversity in the diet here. Although the traditional food is ugali (pounded corn mass) and sikumawiki (colored greens cooked in tomatoes, oil, and spices), there is plenty of chipati (similar to Indian naan), sautéed cabbage, rice, millet, fish, eggs, and bread. Although Sierra Leoneans had most of this in their diet as well, there doesn’t seem to be the practice of eating rice for every meal, every day. Two of the main staples in Kenya are corn and tea. OMG the chai is awesome – I’ve been averaging 4 cups a day. :-)

Traditional Clothing. People mostly wear Western clothing sold second-hand from the local markets. I’ve encountered few people wearing the traditional clothing as many did in Sierra Leone. In fact, I observed more women than men wearing the Africana clothes in both countries. I wonder what this means in terms of globalization and dependence on high-income country imports.

M-Pesa. Kenya has this fantastic program, where people can use their cell phones like debit cards. There are little stands everywhere where they can buy M-Pesa credit and then pay for groceries, bar tabs, rent, bills, etc all through their phones. They are also trying to implement this system on public transport. People pay for their transport on the matatus (the crowded buses and most common form of transportation) with shillings, but if they pay with M-Pesa, it will result in a reduction of corrupt overpricing and better enforced tax laws.

Tuk-tuks. Something that Sierra Leone was lacking was tuk-tuks, which was difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers (because we could not ride motorcycles). In Kisumu, you can hitch a ride with a matatu, tuk-tuk, piki piki (motorcycle) or a bota bota. The last is my personal favorite – it’s a bicycle with a little seat attached to the back. Yes, the drivers physically bicycle their passengers around town. I haven’t ridden one yet, but I’ll have to hop on one before I leave. 

Speed bumps. There are more speed bumps here in the city and on the highways. I’ve been driving a decent amount here. How am I supposed to cruise, pass, and merge like Nintendo Mario Kart when they got these speed bumps messing up my groove? 

SO, those are a few of my observations. People, if you are Sierra Leonean, Kenyan, or have been to either of those countries, please do not correct me. These are differences from my perspective and I know they are not 100% complete or accurate across the entire countries. In fact, here are some differences between my time spent in each place: (I <3 LISTS!)

1. I was living in a rural, small town in Sierra Leone. In Kenya, I’m staying in the third largest city in, what I believe to be, one of the nicest apartments in the city.
2. In Kenya, I’m working as a researcher, mostly speaking English with people, and living more of the ex-pat life (shopping in grocery stores, taking private transport, hanging with the other whities in town). In Salone, pretty much everything was the opposite of that.
3. TIME! As I mentioned in my last post, time is the weirdest thing ever. I’m going to spend a whooping two months in Kenya, which is about the same length as my training for Peace Corps in Salone. I developed much deeper relationships in Salone and have gotten to know the culture and lifestyle on a less superficial level. 

The last statement has made me think a lot about my future career. I’ve developed so many critical skills in Sierra Leone – many that can be transferred to other parts of the world, but also many that are only applicable in that country (i.e. language, relationships/connections, cultural understanding, etc). There’s much of the world to see, but maybe I should consider solely working in Sierra Leone (and the US – don’t freak out Mother). If I chose to use my skills in this way, I could possibly be more effective there than any other “international health” arena, thus making my time/work more fulfilling.

OK, I’ll sleep on that. Asante sana for stopping by. 

Keep it real peeps.


Political Correctness - “It’s a very well-crafted tool to distract us. A very self-centered activity. Clean up your own vocabulary so you can show everybody you have the social capital of having been in circles where these things are talked about on a regular basis.” - Jim Kim, Mountains Beyond Mountains

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Time is the weirdest thing ever.

Sasa? (Wazzzup?)

I am currently on the bumpy dirt road on the way to the lowlands site. I’ve been coming here every day for the past week, thus my boredom of the road and usage of the computer distraction. I have been working on the particulate matter portion of the study, which means I go to the field every day and place smoke detector monitors in a house and a kitchen. Smoke/dust repels mosquitoes so my professor and her PhD student are investigating essentially how much smoke is needed for this to happen. I’ve also completed all 12 of my interviews in the lowlands, which was a great feeling. I interviewed the 6 positive deviant (PD) families (families with low incidences of malaria) and the 6 non-PD families (high malaria). The community health workers and the research field assistants helped me to identify these families, but that process was a challenge in and of itself. Of the 6 PD families, there is one that holds true to the criterion and definition, which at first frustrated me and then excited me. The PD approach outlines how difficult it is to identify these very few individuals, and in my short time here, I was able to identify at least one family! Next week, I’ll be heading to the highlands to conduct 12 additional interviews there. We’ll see how it goes.

 Bednet Action

I’m trying to think what else has been happening  - it has been a long time since I’ve written. Sorry-o! A couple of weekends ago we headed to our project coordinator’s village. There was an event, Saba Saba, happening which is the day the current opposition holds a lot of rallies. So it was suggested that we get out of town, just for extra security measures. On the way to his village, we took a ferry to Rusinga Island, beautiful little place on Lake Victoria, and later stopped at President Obama’s grandmother’s house. I was skeptical of this old ma, so I Wikipedia-ed the info and she’s actually Obama’s paternal grandather’s third wife… close enough. She was funny though – didn’t speak a word of English. In the local tribal language, she told us that she was going to give us her sons to marry (i.e. Obama’s uncles) and that education is the most important part of life. I informed her that I wanted to be the first female president. She wished me luck in my pursuits. :-)

Mrs. Obama and us whities

My project coordinator’s home was absolutely beautiful tucked away in green and yellow mountains with a stunning view of Lake Victoria. We spent the day milling about, greeting all of his relatives (which seemed like the entire town) and enjoying the company of our hosts. It was a nice reminder of what life was like in Salone for me. We headed back to Kisumu and finished up the work week.
During my week of long drives, I’ve been reflecting on the past, present, and future. I think too much. Oh well… Here are some of my thoughts…

Maurice's Beautiful Compound
Lake Victoria Bluffin'
 The best dinner ever - fresh Tilapia, tomato sauce, cabbage and ugali

My friend and workmate, Elise, just got her invitation to serve in Peace Corps Burkina Faso. I’m so excited for her! Being with her during this time (and on top of that, back in Africa) has allowed me to process what my service meant to me. For starters, I’m definitely more cynical – an attribute I hardly had before PC. I’ve also realized how much I’ve grown and how much confidence I’ve gained since PC. The experience trained me to see people for people despite culture, environment, etc. I’ve learned to empathize instead of sympathize, and through these emotions and a significant reduction in shocks and surprises (had those in my early days of PC), real work can be done. Instead of feeling sorry for people, I feel like I can truly work with people in low-income countries and empower them to find solutions to their own problems, which is to avoid the top-down and outsider-over-insider approaches. I’ve realized that this is truly the field I should be working in, because it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve also realized that even though I lived in Africa for two years, it doesn’t mean I know everything about Africa. It sounds obvious but coming to Kenya has continued to humble me and allow to me realize that there is always room for growth and learning regardless of your past experiences. 

It’s interesting being in Kenya, another African nation dominated by poverty and corruption. I sometimes wonder how I maintain any ounce of hope in situations so (what seems) dire and complex. I’m not ignorant of the wars and the ugliness of the world we see every day in the headlines, but I still seek to understand them and be a part of some sort of change. CRAZY! I feel like my mom dropped me on the head when I was baby…

In Kenya, I’m constantly reminded of my status as an outsider by the little nuggets screaming “mzungu” (“white person” in Swahili). The same name I had heard before, apoto, puerto, gringa – different words with all the same meaning. I’m reminded that no matter where I go, for however long, I will always be an American and despite the many faults of my country, I am proud to say that I put my hand of my heart for the red, white, and blue (Is that a song??).

I spent a great deal of time this past year trying to figure out who I am back in the U.S. and I think it took coming back to Africa to realize who that person is. My relationships with family and friends had changed from my two years away – not for the worst, just different, because I was different. I spent a lot of time trying to hold onto this new person and trying to incorporate my old self. A lot of my graduate school friends actually thought I was older than what I actually am, and despite the maturing that took place in PC, I was additionally trying to act older – grow up too fast. And for anyone who knew me before PC, you would know that one of my greatest fears was getting older. I now realize that it’s all based on your perspective and anyone older than 24 will probably say I’m crazy for even thinking about age. Well, I’m a thinker, so I can’t help it. :-)
Next year is the first year in my life that I don’t know what is going to happen. I tried to fight it looking into Fulbright and Peace Corps Response, but I think it’s time I let nature take its course. Nature could be moving to Hollywood and fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a famous actress. Da sky’s da limit! My life has been so overwhelmingly blessed and aligned – high school, college, Peace Corps, grad school. This path is often the path a parent would dream of for their children – one full of education and experience, but what many people have trouble realizing is that everyone has a different path and a different time line for that path. There’s no formula, there’s no “right” way of going about life. This is an important realization as my 25th birthday is coming up next week. What does it mean to be 25? To be half way to through my 20s? There are so many conceptions about what one should have achieved by this point. I now know that it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. I’ve had a poor attitude about this past year of graduate school – the boredom/monotony of classes, the thought that more learning comes through experience and not books, but if I look at school as a way to expand my thinking, my disposition changes and this next year seems more achievable. 

Well, my friends and anonymous, avid readers (if any… womp, womp), I’ve given you a life update – how I’m feeling about being back in Africa, aging, life courses –  we’ve covered a lot. 

I hope you all are given the opportunity at some point to think about these things. If not, turn the screen off (any and all of them), go for a drive down a long, dusty road, and let your mind wonder – you might just surprise yourself. 

All my love and more.

"Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity." - Aristotle

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Great Lights of Nairobi

This past weekend, I boarded the Easy Coach Express and headed East to the great capital of Nairobi. First impression, this was no Freetown. A western-style city nestled into an African backdrop - I couldn't help but be enthralled by the street lights, the malls, the LAWS! I was happy I got to see some of the sights and experience the late night hours and the late night characters of Nairobi dance clubs. Here are some pictures from the weekend:

If you run into Tour Guide Johnstown, be sure to ask him about the gorillas and their imminent threat in replacing local housewives. 

Jump on to Matatu 126 and jump off at the sign for "Carnivore". You won't be disappointed by the mixed flavors of osterich, crocodile and oxen balls. 

Get picked up by Robert in the Parklands Neighborhood and he will tuk tuk you all the way to town.

And in ending, I want to wish all Kenyans a peaceful holy month of Ramadan!