Saturday, November 21, 2009

Oh the life and times

I board a matatu first scoping out my favorite seat- it is taken this time, so I settle for a window seat. As I sit a crowd of grown men gather and start tapping at the window. Tap Tap "Hello Sister" Tap Tap " Mzungu" Tap Tap " Promote me today". At this point I realize I will never own a fish again. The tapping reminds me of playing with my Beta fish Fred, trying desperately to get a reaction from him ( sorry Fred, R.I.P). After living (close too) this town for one year, I imagined this would stop; it has not. The town is just too big, and mzungus too few ( I've counted 12 in the past year, most just going to the supermarket) I am a main attraction. I have learned to take these reaction with a grain of humility and humor, but it is still difficult ( I have had my first gray hair to prove it)!

As we begin the journey multiple people are literally breathing down my neck, I become a contortionist, as I twist a turn, fitting more and more people into the vehicle. Arms tucked in, neck turned to one side, balancing my bananas on my leg, matatus are never full; there is always room. I look out the window to the rolling mountains and changing sky. My mind runs through a labyrinth of thoughts, my eyes traces the shambas, the mountains, the jacaranda trees, the maize stalks, the clouds, I am in my own world, fully present but magically gone. The driver stops in front of the sign St. Luke's Special School and again somehow weave myself out.

Here it is among the watchful eye of Mount Kenya looming in the West tucked in between the hills in the distance, my own personal slice of happiness. The students perched on top of a termite hill point and sign my name, the race begins. Three young boys race to help me with my bag, Ken the fastest little kid always wins out, but I always find something for Paul and Martin to carry. I always pass Bernard sweeping the dirt, his smile would melt even the hardest heart.When we reach my house the crowd has formed- asking me to play frisbee or catch or color or read. I tell them in a bit , and hurriedly unpack my things and head out.

Jackline and Faith spot me in the distance and they come running towards me with arms open hugging my legs as I approach. Rebecca and Stella now spot me and each grab an arm, I twirl them in circles until the giggle with dizziness. Others join we play, we dance, we climb trees, we practice sign language, we practice spelling, we throw balls, we chase, we fall, we are happy. The wind whips through the grass and it tickles are feet. The evening is approaching and we watch the sky change colors.

My one year in Kenya has been a tapestry of thoughts, stories, feelings, awareness, but the common thread of happiness has been my students. They define every moment, this school has given me, a place to be.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I am not a farmer, but I pretend!

Sarah: The kids have no pencils.
Me: I just gave the whole school pencils a few weeks ago!
Sarah: They probably ate them, these children eat everything.
Me: A whole pencil...they would eat it.
Sarah: Yes.

This was not a signed conversation but I thought it was amusing; in fact I have many of these conversations through out the day which are always funny!

So the rains have begun, finally after nearly a year of living in Kenya I have yet to experience the full rains...until now! Everyone is very happy, and are even thankful for the tons of mud stuck to their feet! I told my students how in America we sing song for the rain to go away! A few of my students were curious to know the song, but others refused to sign the song because rain means that food grows, without the rains there is no food, its interesting the lesson you are taught by a 10-year-old.

Since everyone in my area is busy planting and tending to their farms I decided I should do the same. I am currently attempting to grow tomatoes (Nyanya), green pepper (Ho Ho) and cilantro (daniya). So far the chickens have learned to scale the gate I built in August, although I did not see the chicken myself the children reported back to me; Ginnie: 0 Chicken:39,876. I love eating chicken now but merely for vengeance! We will see how or if I get any food from this shamba but working with the kids with it has been fun at least.

Another result of the rains is having no dry clothes! I have been attempting to dry my jeans for 3 days. Today I just got greedy, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, they were basically dry except for a few inches, I thought " hey why not", torrential down pour...that is why not! So I guess it is getting another rinse, along with all my other clothes!

The rains also bring bugs, so many bugs, good thing my bug tolerance is at an all time high, now I days I casually pick the beetles off instead of flailing to get them off. Of coarse at first when I jumped from a beetle attack the kids laughed and then ate the beetle, go figure. Catching flying termites is the new past-time at my school. The termites come from the ground and normally the kids just find the hole and pop one in, just like a candy, right? There is also a method of hitting your sweater against the ground which somehow gets the termite? I have to be explained this again, I think. I will fully admit I have eaten termites myself (this somehow reminds me of the 2nd grade when people use to tease "Ginnie eats bug" now I can say yes I do) they are not bad, kind of taste like fried eggs.

The term is wrapping up as we prepare for the KCPE, the final exams, essentially. I am busy with reviewing, and also trying to pull things together for the new group of Volunteers coming in tomorrow! We are planning an HIV/AIDS camp and 4 of my students are going! I am very excited to meet the new group, and have my kids participate in the camp!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Kenyan Birthday

“And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.”
Abraham Lincoln

Patrick, the bravest 3-year-old you'll ever meet ( and chronic dirt eater)! This is my door he is looking up into, he was attached to my leg the first 2 weeks of school.

Embu Town from my birthday hike, and you can see the edges of Mount Kenya, and if you look closely the purple circle of Jacaranda trees .

My birthday cake and celebration!

Once a year a day rolls around—some dread it, other relish in it, but to me birthdays are meant to be celebration of another year lived. This month has not been the easiest for me, I’ve spent more time in the hospital then I care to mention, and outside of the hospital in bed, sick. So this week when I finally felt better, (after nearly 3 weeks of being sick) I decided I wanted to celebrate and appreciate my health on my birthday. Birthdays aren’t really celebrated here, in fact most of my students don’t know on which day, or even which month they were born! Naturally I didn’t expect much when I told my neighbor my birthday was coming up; yet while I was at the hospital I received warm text messages that I should have “a quick recovery, that my birthday celebration was being planned”.

I finally returned to school I knew what I wanted to do for my birthday; climb a mountain. Behind my house there is a mountain in direct view, I love watching the sun travel around the mountain; changing the colors of the sky and the mountain itself, blue in morning, sweltering red in the evening, and finally a deep purple, before darkness covers the land like old familiar blanket. I stare and admire this mountain constantly, so naturally this would be my birthday gift to myself! My friend and bike partner (the school’s watchman) agreed to climb it with me. To my surprise he arrived right on time to hike, I was on Kenyan time and had not yet eaten. I made my favorite dish quesadillas (I even sprung for cheese in town) with mango salsa! The watchman had never had cheese before, and I tried to explain it was not butter! So we enjoyed our meal and headed out.

We hiked past the river—full from the rains, which have begun. Walking through shambas greeting children, and nearly everyone who crossed our paths. I could tell a few minutes into our journey that I had made a rookie-hiking mistake: wore the wrong shoes. I had never wore these shoes before, but I felt my hiking boots would be to heavy especially since I had been assured that this hike would be an hour ( of coarse all of our trips are always supposed to be an hour, but normally last 5, I should of known). I continued on with the discomfort, but aware of a possible problem ahead. We climbed up gently sloping hills; green from the recent rain, admired valleys dotted with farms, all while under the watchful protection of Kirinyga ( or more commonly known as Mount Kenya). The sun seemed closer, an intimate friend tapping on our backs trying figure out where we were going. A gentle breeze whipped through and provided much needed relief. The sky was the most vivid blue, speckled with puffy white, endearing, clouds. We hiked on dirt roads that I assumed would lead us straight to the top. We stopped at a farm to confirm the route. My friend spoke in Kiembu but I could make out the family pointing into the bush, yes, technically I could see a path, but I could also see how one could not even walk standing up through this path because a canopy of thorny bushes was arched together. I decided we should try a less menacing route. We walked up the road until we found a more open path and continued upward. From this height I could see the town of Embu; protected by a circle of purple (Jacaranda trees are in full bloom this month). Behind the town the expansiveness of Mount Kenya was overwhelming. To the East I could see my school; which was just dot amongst the rolling green hills. At this point my feet were throbbing with pain, I check and confirmed that my toes were raw-- blisters popped. We continued upward but the path we followed just disappeared! We would scout path, after path only to find it leading straight into thorns. We tried several different paths finally deciding to descend, to avoid going further and further into the bush. On our way down we encountered the same problem trails leading to oblivion of thorns. I began evoking my “ Man Vs. Wild” skills which I soon realized were few ( its been too long since I’ve seen it!). To make things worse descending only made my toes beg for mercy, the pain was overwhelming I had to remove my shoes—because of this my feet were exposed to thorns and other things on the forest ground, but I preferred that to excruciating pain of wearing my shoes. We continued through the bush, pole pole
(slowly slowly) until we were surrounded by bush, but we could tell the road was close—we finally decided we would have to crawl through an archway of thorns to get out. Ginnie Vs Wild, I seriously looked like I got into a fight with a tree, twigs poking out of my hair, dirt on my face, and scratched on my arms and legs, but we were free! We reached the main road again and I walked barefoot through the village, my feet pounding on the red cracked dirt. Most people in my village cannot afford shoes and most walk around barefoot anyway, although seeing a “mzungu” without shoes was truly a shock! Losing the path had taken a lot of time, now the sun was setting I could see it transforming the area to a peaceful purple, yet the sun itself was a perfect ball of orange adjacent to the mountain. Finally we arrived to familiar land by nightfall, taking each step into complete darkness, I made it home.

I quickly examined my poor feet—luckily due to nearly a year of solely wearing open toed shoes the bottom of my feet are like steal, if only that could be said about my toes, I’ll spare you the details but it was gross! My neighbor’s children came to inform me that I should come over in one hour’s time for my “party”. I showered, and prepared myself and headed over. I could see a table with cake with pink frosting with the words “ happy birthday” written on top! I smiled with excitement and joined my neighbor’s family and a few staff members at the table. I was meant to cut the cake with my “best friend” I choose my neighbor’s small daughter. We cut the cake and was informed I was to be feed—this 9-year-old with fork in hand choose the biggest piece that I was eat in one bite! I did my best and then was informed she had to serve me a drink, this cup being pushed towards my face I feared I would choke, but ended up fine! I was sung happy birthday many times and given a nice card, and of coarse as with every Kenyan celebration we ate….goat.

My first African birthday was a success! I am truly grateful to be healthy once again, to have so many wonderful people who care about me, and of coarse indebted to my parents for raising me (I think we should celebrate “mothers day” on our birthdays whew 9 months of pregnancy)! Getting older for some people is difficult, and yes getting older brings a variety of emotions about life, but when I think of what a crazy, beautiful, hilarious adventure my life has been thus far, well I say bring it on!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Juma nne

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
Maya Angelou

(pictures of pencils that my friend sent from the states, which my children loved!)

This is the last term of the year, but it has been the most unusual term for me thus far due to series of illness. I'll spare you the details, but it included being the potential 1st volunteer ever to have swine flu; which then to come find out I don't have, but rather just the normal flu.

Being sick and far away from home is an interesting experience, and something that has happened often. In Ghana stuck in my dorm with malaria scare,in Bolvia with dysyntery, and now in Kenya with everything under the sun! Health care varies place to place, but I think the most telling thing about being sick is where you long to be instead of the hospital. I spent two days in Nairobi hospital; and every minute I wanted to be back at my school.

I've spend nearly one year here in Kenya and everyday I forget any other way of life. Bucket baths, purifing water, everything starting hours late; all seem normal to me! Being stuck in the hospital really made me appreciate how much I love my job and how I long to be back "home". This term I teach nearly double what I have before, and it has been a challenge. Most of my students cannot read, or write. I handed them a blank map of Africa and only one knew where Kenya was. I feel so disappointed in the system that had failed these children, but more then that I feel a great challenge in myself.

Somedays I want to cry for these students but I know by just expecting more from them they are growing. One of my students always comes from home with a frigthened look on her face. She seems very uncomfortable with human interaction-- but she lights up with excitment if you ever praise her, and to me moments like that make all the difference. I have seen real progress in a few of my classes-- my KSL class is now, number two for languages in the whole district. I have seen their confidence and curiousity expand and it makes me so proud! Now all I have to do is get healthy so I can return to teaching.

In the past month I had some friends visit from the U.K., I met them in Ghana when I studied there almost 3 years ago. I was very happy to see them after so long and surprised how I felt as if nothing changed. Ghana was an experience that really shaped my life, and it felt "full circle" to showing them around my home in Africa. We exchanged stories from the years gone by and it I showed them my glamous life style! They were blown away by my ability to sleep on a matatu. They said they were saying their prayers and I was dreaming! They tend to be over crowded and therefore stuffed and with all the potholes its like being rocked in a crib, alternatively people has described it as "near death", but I guess its all up to interpretation!

So far less interesting stories here in Nairobi! I have been eating very well and enjoying the company of other Peace Corps volunteers, and the awesome medical staff here, but I hope to be back home soon!

Monday, September 7, 2009

What is your Tribe?

A few weeks ago I was asked this question by an official Kenyan enumerator as part of the census which was occurring. I was taken by surprise because I have never been questioned on my “tribe”, I haphazardly replied “American?” and the census taker marked a number. I left feeling a bit overwhelmed, “what tribe was I?” I repeated in my head. I knew just “American” would never fly in the States, but I have never been sure the answer to this in the states either.

Tribe is a loaded word here in Kenya. After the post election violence where many people suddenly saw each others “tribe”, people who lived and as neighbors for years suddenly became enemies. Teachers attacked their students, the line of friendship and humanity was now blurred between my tribe or not.

Tribe is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader” I am not sure I could say my community is very “traditional” but then again what does that mean, they keep traditions? From what I can see the Embu people have variety of economic, social, and religion within their tribe, and this is one of the least populous tribes in Kenya. What makes us belong and others not?

When I came to Kenya I expected to come across a lot of resentment amongst people from different tribes—but what I have encountered is almost the opposite. My neighbor commented that she did not want to reveal she was a Kikuyu on the census. Living in a Kikuyu dominated area, I ruled out the possibility that she feared discrimination from others. She simply said, “ I am a Kenyan, and I am teaching my children they are Kenyan”. This is a statement heard across the board from people in my area. This proclamation makes me hopeful about the future of Kenya, but also a bit rueful.

While in the Peace Corps office I stumbled upon a book “ Embu historical text”, it was accounts from village elders who described the oral history of the Embu people. The teachers at the school saw me reading the book and told me how I probably knew more about Embu then the Embu themselves. I tried to discuss the practices the book described and was told “ oh I think my grandfather told me about that, but we don’t do that anymore”. They seemed remorseful for not knowing more, but suggested that modernizing meant change. Is losing culture the price for a better, cohesive, society?

In the U.S I have come across so many bubble sheets questioning me on my “tribe”, I mean “race”. I have always felt uncomfortable answering these questions. I read each bubble looking for my place. My father is from the U.S would that make me white? The text next to White ( not of Hispanic origin), but that would be a lie. My mother is from Guatemala. I would fill both out and was reprimanded to “choose one”, but both felt like a betrayal to the other.

Coming to Kenya, has changed the way I think about “ races” and “tribes”. I can easily say to Kenyans “ I am American” without further questioning; which is impossible in the states. In a way its freeing to not explain “I am half this, half that”, and sometimes feel I am proving my “Americaness”. I also feel a pang of loss, I am part Guatemalan, a rich culture that I believe sometimes more closely resembles Kenya then the States. Is cultural ambiguity the answer, or is there a balancing act of holding on and letting go?

In my experience living amongst other cultures, I have also noticed despite the extreme variation in culture, there is a common thread of humanity that transcends all else. Sharing a belly laugh with Chinese friends in Shanghai, being moved by the kindness of a Bolivian postal worker, sharing a gaze and moment of understand with Ghanaian woman out the window of my tro tro, feeling unconditionally loved by my family in Guatemala, there has to be something said about our ability to see each other as one tribe-- of humanity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fast News

Pole sana for the lack of posting. I have been quite busy with training and various meetings and due to power rationing in the country have had a difficult time connecting. Here are some quick updates on my life.

1. I am very happy and proud to be a first time aunt to my beautiful new nephew! It's an interesting experience to be abroad during the time, and of coarse there is a hint of sadness to being so far, but it gives me a reason to go home in 2011.

2. I have restarted my shamba! Few friends and myself built a gate to keep animals out, the process involved climbing tree and cutting off branches to make the posts then buying chicken wire to close it up. This I hope will inspire me to keep it up during the school year). I also (in a fit of boredom) painted all the rocks outside my house bright green, I'll post pictures soon!

3.I have finished an amazing book The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. I highly recomend this book to anyone working in Africa or anyone interested in HIV/AIDS in Africa.

4.I am very excited to have people visiting me within my service! I cannot wait to make plans and see loved ones and share what has become such a huge part of me.

Monday, August 10, 2009


“Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.”

It’s been awhile. I think as time flys by—things that may have once felt new and exotic; become normal, which makes it difficult to write often, and I am not able to access the internet as often any more as well.

May things have occurred, for one the Deaf Beauty Pageant. The whole day was very fun, an exciting celebration of the Deaf. I met many Deaf people from all over the Kenya ,Tanzania, and Uganda. Thanks to some friends who visited, the whole day ran smoothly—but on Kenya time (very late).

School is closed for the month of August. I miss my students; the school without the students is lifeless! They completed their exams; I awaited their results anxiously. My class 5 KSL did excellent—they are able to do so much, one student even got 100 percent! Class 7 social studies, was not as successful. I know they have learned a lot but the many challenge is still reading, they may know the answer to the test when I sign it, but when it is on the paper they cannot read well enough to understand the question—I have a lot of work for next term. Next term I requested to teach more, so my classes will double—I am excited because I love being in the classroom. I watch them go home with a heavy heart, knowing they may have no one to talk to in their family, or maybe no one who believes in them. September will come soon!

Now that I have had some time off I have finally gone on Safari! I took a trip to the Rift Valley—where all of humanity began! Thousand of years ago from the volcanic valley, modern humans developed, struggled to survive and to my surprise, still do. The area was a contrast to the lush farm land or the central highlands—instead the rain failed, and it is impossibly dry. The area is still beautiful, the valley is deeps with rolling hills, soda lakes, millions of flamingos, and overflowing with animals. I visited Lake Nakuru National Park, which is known for flamingos,and rhinos. Rhinoceros are one of the most endangered species in the world, so I surprised to see so many around the park. I felt unfeasibly small compared to this massive animal, which resembled something from Jurassic park, rather then the world I live in. The park also had many water buffalo—which was also huge- with their large horns and massive weight I was told they actually rule the park. We approached two in our car and I guess we got a bit too close; the water buffalo looked me straight in the eye, and there was no question we knew what he meant; get away. In the park were many baboons, zebra, giraffe, and antelope. The beauty of nature, leaves no question the importance of conservation to ensure the survival of these species.

I also went on safari on Lake Navasha; which was quite different the Lake Nakuru. The place is called Hell’s Gate; it is the only animal park you can walk or bike through. It is one thing when you have comfort of a vehicle giving you (maybe false) security—but when you’re biking there is no question who rules the roost. The landscape was captivating; great valleys, cliffs, and towers of rock. Biking with zebras, giraffe and baboons, one of the humbling and unbeatable experiences thus far. At one point my friends and I approached a family of water buffalo very close to the road. We were standing upwind so, they were unaware of us; for the moment. Our guide spotted a baby—so we knew they would not want us hanging around. We were all advised to ride past as fast as we could, we prepared ourselves and began riding, pumping our pedals, slightly glancing at this massive animals; it was now aware of us and stared at us. It was up to them now whether they perceived us as a threat or not. I spotted a young calf at it side as I speed by; practically holding my breath! It continued to stare as we biked but decided to let us pass. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and giggled with anxious tension.

After biking for a few hours, we decided to hike in a gorge. The whole area is full of geothermal activity—which is constantly changing the landscape. We hiked into a narrow space and clung to the walls as we weaved our way through the small space. A boulder fell blocking the path and accumulating water, which we hiked through and over and revealed, hot springs. I washed off some of the dirt, I was covered in and continued. The gorge opened up to a huge valley. Our guide took us up Massai grazing trails and we saw manyata ( massai home made of wood and cow dung) and got amazing views or the whole gorge. I was with two great friends so, the whole day was unbeatable.

The rest of the month, I am taking it easy. I am trying to arrange a video on HIV/AIDS for the Deaf, and maybe start shooting. I have also begun working with a children's home for HIV positive children, and possibly assisting with income generating activities, and of coarse playing with cute kids! Time is going so fast at times I wish I could just slow it down, but I do my best to just live each moment to the fullest.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July July

This month has been flying! The first picture is from another volunteer's Deaf School, he organized a field day and this was the water balloon toss, I was the last team purple standing.I want to organize one of these for my students next term! The rest of these pictures are from my semi-regular bike adventure with the schools watchman. They normally start with a conversation telling me of a cool site 30 minutes away, that evolve into 6 hour epic journeys of pain! I always enjoy myself though! This latest one involved riding through the rolling green hills, Savannah grasslands, helpful watoto (children). The highlight was the view from the top of the exposed rocks. I could see my school, Mount Kenya, hundred of shambas( farms), the sky extending to the ends of the earth. The lowlight was wiping out! The road could only be described as red dust in which my tire dug into, and I flipped over. I have some cuts and scrapes but I kept on going. I have now earned some "cred" with my students for my scars, so its ok!

Teaching the students how to write is still my main focus, and I see progress polay polay ( slowly slowly). I've been also keeping myself busy with upcoming events with the Deaf community. The main one is next weekend is Mr. and Miss Deaf Beauty. The event will be held at the hotel in town. The main goal in all of this is to promote Deaf pride and culture. We want to expose this pride to the hearing community and encourage parent to send children to school. I am also working on a skit or presentation on HIV/AIDS in KSL and English ( for the hearing who will be there) I hope this will be a good opportunity to spread awareness and lessen the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to share American culture with Kenya and Kenyan culture with Americans. I am always talking with my friends here about America and dispelling rumors ( We eat snakes, we leave TV's on the street, everyone is rich) but I feel maybe I should give more detail to life here in Kenya. So here are the most common questions I get about my life in Kenya.

What do I eat? I eat a lot of vegetables. My situation is a bit different then most volunteers because I do not eat a lot of Kenyan food because the location of my school. I live in the middle of nowhere-- the nearest place to eat is about a 2 hour walk. I can take a matatu into town but its expensive and really not do-able unless I plan to spend some time in town. So I cook my own food. I don't have a refrigerator so I tend to buy food that won't go bad quickly so potatoes and onions! I do eat more then just that, but I do have to plan out my meals for the week based on when I will be able to go to town and when things will go bad. I've made some awesome meals, but I am basically a vegetarian again; no butcher around so I'd have to kill my own food, which takes too long. In fact I am slightly vegan no milk is sold around here so no dairy! Although when I go to Nairobi I eat cheese and bacon like there is no tomorrow so I don't know if that makes me Nairobitarian?

How do I get around? Matatu. Oh Matatus. Imagine a van with 14 seats, now imagine 24 people in this van, many chicken, even more babies, and possibly a goat-- tah dah...matatus! I've gotten used to them for the most part, but there is the occasional day where the chickens scare me or I am smooshed beyond belief, that I want to kick the chickens and jump off, but I don't.

What is the weather like? I live in what is considered the central highlands. It is technically mountain climate area but I am on the Savannah the lowest point on the mountain ( can you tell I am a social studies teacher?) Generally my weather is awesome! Imagine a spring-like weather in the morning and a sunny afternoon. We are now in winter, which means for a few hours in the morning I could technically wear a light sweater, but then it gets sunny again!

How is my farm? Farm is not so good. Lets just say the crops were not chicken proof. The only thing that is surviving is onions! I am not much of farmer, but I am going to build my own fence and try again next rainy season.

What do I do? Most of the time I am a teacher. I don't teach all day like other teachers so I have free time to work on HIV/AIDS projects. I try to spend a lot of time revising my lesson plans and evaluating each student on what worked and what didn't. After school is playtime, I normally color, dance, or read books with the younger children( I teach the older ones).I also read a lot, I actually need to slow down because I won't have much else to read. I can polish off a novel in an afternoon! *shameless plug if you would like to send me books my address is on the side*. I also spend a lot of time just maintaining my household; hand washing clothes, cooking meals, attempting to care for my shamba, scaring the evil chicken away, cleaning everything to keep the ants at bay.

The biggest difference is how simple life is. I'm not sure if it is a change within myself, or if it is Kenya, but life is beautifully simple. I have time to think and enjoy things like never before. I appreciate the smallest things like water,electricity, success in the classroom, or a letter from a friend. I hope this gave you a bit of glimpse into my life in Kenya. I welcome more questions too!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Signed Conversation:
Me: Electricity finished?
Thomas: Electricity go to Embu, lunch time. (mimics getting into a matatu and eating lunch).

Teaching is strange and wonderful thing. What is it to teach? What is it to learn? I have spent the majority of my life in a classroom—but standing on the other side I imagined would be completely different although I find that its not. As a teacher I also want to be a constant student—always looking for new and different ways to learn. I feel comfortable in front of the classroom; and that is most likely because I know my students. From sweet and shy Silas when he answers a question correctly smiles into his shoulder, class know it all Dennis, to the hilarious Pauline, this is not a mass army staring and judging ( as I imagined it would be) but rather a group of students who want to learn. I am inspired by their curiosity and wit.

My most enjoyable times I’ve had teaching have been showing them a different world outside their own. I show them pictures and books from the far reaches of earth. I can see their eyes—discovering these whole new worlds from the comfort of the classroom. Every Sunday I try to have a “lab” day where we have class, but try to do something that the 35 minutes would not allow. I had a few back issues of National Geographic sent to me, but surprisingly most of the topics I was covering were inside the covers. I can sign about what the ocean is but to children who have never seen an ocean—its the equivalent to signing about dragons or mythical lands, but with these magazines I can show them a four page spread of oceans, icebergs, and deserts! More then anything I encourage their curiosity about the world around them, because it is curiosity that has taken me to 5 different continents and here to Kenya. It is this unexplainable feeling when you can see minds at work, a deep and resounding joy that radiates. When we are done my students all sign “thank you for teaching” and at that very moment everything seems to fit.

Another step I’ve taken as a teacher is devote time to instilling confidence. Many people in Kenya believe Deaf people are dumb, even a common name for the Deaf ‘bu bu’ means dumb in Kiswahili. I know the students internalize some of these cultural thoughts, and I have been trying to change that. I made posters that say “Yes I Can” and had students write their names and draw pictures of their desired future professions. The class normally stands and signs “Hello Teacher” when I enter the room but I have changed the greeting to “Yes I Can” before we start class—and remind them when they approach a difficult task. And it has been difficult! Many of my students cannot read and very few can write. I have spoken to teachers who have alluded to the fact that they have “sort of given up, teaching writing” focusing rather on reading comprehension. I tried to jump into writing short stories and then realized we needed to start from square one, what is a noun, verb, and object? I know I am asking them to try something new, and I realize how difficult it must be, somehow through all of this I have found a patience, I never knew I had. Perhaps it comes from memories of my own struggles in school, until one day something just clicked. I’ve spent the last two months encouraging and explaining, but I do see progress! I am lucky to have such a fulfilling job. Working with children, I am guaranteed a laugh, a hug, and satisfaction in a day of work. Do I need to mention the cuteness factor—look at those faces!

I have also been busy with the Deaf adult community. In the past month I have attended two Deaf leadership seminars and unbeknownst to me was also a speaker at the events! I gave impromptu speeches about being a leader, and peace. Both I sort of rattled off things about Obama (a sure crowd pleaser), the goals of the Peace Corps, and volunteerism. My speeches were very short, but I think enjoyed! The most rewarding part is meeting some very charming and clever people, that I am happy to call friends now.

I have been working closely with the prime organizer in these events. He is a Deaf man from Embu who received a scholarship to study at Gallaudet University, he is back for a few months working on research but also organizing events. It has been a pleasure to work with someone who is enthusiastic about change. Working with him as given me an instant “in” to the community where otherwise I would be pegged as an outsider. Some of the projects include an early assessment center in Embu, where young Deaf children can be evaluated, and a Deaf beauty pageant (the goal is really to instill Deaf pride and expose the Deaf to the hearing community). It is also nice to work with someone who understands American culture, and can sympathize with being far from home.

Being here is often a rollercoaster of emotions. Born from romantic ideas of distant lands and far off places. At times I am alive with curiosity, and wonder, other times alone with just my thoughts. I am realizing there is more too it then just living here. A place or home is not anything until you invest something into it, live it completely; the pain the pleasure, and all the questions. It is bigger then the romantic ideals, or stories, or blogs I can throw together. I am far from everything I have known—but not lost, or maybe just not wanting to be found. This is my home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Adventures in Teaching

I wrote a long entry but left it at home, so I will post more later! For now enjoy some pictures!

Crossing the river by my house.

The kids working on my farm.

Rebecca(whom everyone calls my baby) and Eunice from nursery class.

Nursery and some of class one!

Rebecca and I.

That is the Chruch and Mount Kenya in the background.

Sunset outside my door.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ashes To Ashes, Dust to Dust.

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Genesis 3:19

Standing in the Embu mortuary, surrounded by teachers from my school my stomach fell to my feet.

We were all there for a former student; James who attended the school for 10 years and later went on to vocational school near by. Both of his parents had died when he was young and he was working in Embu as a mason to support his younger brothers. I only met him once, at the Deaf church in town, but I remember being moved by his kindness. He was struck by a van in town—despite the many speed bumps they move a dizzying pace. He was only 20-years-old. Although the remaining members of the family loved him, no one could afford to bury him.

At school my friend and fellow teacher Michael, instantly knew what he had to do. “ He is our boy” he would say again and again as he left the school to make arrangements. He worked at day and night visiting the police, insurance office, hospitals, and carpenters to “make it right” he said. All of this was done with out a second thought, or even a complaint. He hired a Deaf preacher from Nairobi to lead the service, paid for Deaf community members to travel, all in the hope to try to share James’ culture with his small village. He encouraged the teachers to chip in and pay for James’ coffin, and attended the funeral ourselves. This is a family.

At the mortuary, I shifted nervously back and forth, unsure of where to stand, what to do. We all viewed the body and I watched the preacher sign the sermon. I felt instantly calm, “ he is our boy” I said in my head, because it is the truth. The students at our school are ours, in most cases all they have for guidance, or role models. Even though James wasn’t my student in a way he was.

We all piled in the car and headed to Ishiria the home of James. We were driving into a place so unfamiliar to our lush farming town, despite only being 40 minutes away. The area was hot and dry, trees were jagged and fought one another other for life. The preacher joked that we took the wrong road and were in Mombassa. There was curious sad beauty to the landscape; deep red soil, patches of cactus, and babaou trees all placed against gently sloping hills—green. The sun was unforgiving, and challenged all those there to exist.

We finally arrived to James’ home. Many villagers watched as we entered, Michael told me that this was probably the first time seeing a mzungu (foreigner). The Deaf preacher gave his sermon and because most did not know English 2 interpreters were needed to change the sermon from KSL, to English, to Kimberre. Many people hide their Deaf children, ashamed of their Deafness and often times thinking witch craft is involved, many Deaf children are kept hidden their whole lives. Michael gave his eulogy in Kimberre and sign language and expressed the importance in accepting the Deaf, he made a point to introduce all the Deaf people and expound upon their successes.

After a quick introduction of village elders, remaining family members, and church leaders it was time to lay James to rest. Outside of his home, the red dirt, thorny plants sprawled over the land, as a sadness hung—which was all too familiar to this family. The sun was setting and changed the sky to a light purple, as the light highlighted varying parts of the hills, revealing gentle slopes. Burial songs were sung by the eldest villagers, all women. Their colorful head wraps swayed back in forth as red dirt was flew all around at rapid pace. When the burial was finished, three plants were planted on top of his gave and a cross-placed at the top. The sun had now moved beyond his grave illuminating the cross and the arresting land.

We said goodbye to our boy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On the farm

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

I have returned to life in my farming community. When I first arrived I nearly let the matatu driver keep driving because I did not recognize it! Gone are the fields of yellow, a product of rains that just refused to come; now green, lush farms cling to the hills. There is an ambiance of hope shared amongst people, and true appreciation of the rains that usher in new possibility. Everything is alive.

With this new sense of life, I have decided to give my shamba (farm) another shot. Last term I planted late and did little more then stick some seedlings in the ground, and to my dismay the many chicken that reside at my school promptly ate them. This time I have sought advise from my lovely neighbor who suggested some plants that (supposedly) chickens don’t eat. I am certain I provided entertainment for the school when I asked for a hoe and began working. The crowds gathered to watch the mzungu farm—luckily the students finished class and they all wanted to help me. They all took turns plowing the soil, dirt flew all over us all and as we picked through the weeds--tilling, ripping and scratching the earth soft. We finally unearthed a soft and quaint shamba! I never really pictured myself the farm type, but with dirt everywhere and a piece of straw hanging from my mouth, it certainly fit the bill. I have to say there is merit to a hard day of physical work, a pride that no one can diminish.

Well I guess I was on what you could call “farming high” because I decided to continue my manual labor. My area is known for snakes, so much so that the Sign for Embu is basically mimicking a snake biting your hand. The grass has grown to at least 4 feet—I am almost unable to see the school! This provides perfect cover for my snake friends. Luckily medical has provided me with a venom sucker that will basically suck the venom from the wound if I am bitten, but like that saying, “ an ounce of prevention is worth a pound in treatment” I decided to take away their cover (at least close to my house). Cutting the grass has a taken on a whole new meaning, as I literally had to cut each blade with a machete. Gone are the days when I have to hear “ back in the day I used a push mower, now that was work” standing bent over thrashing at grass for hours—that is work! My watchman friend helped me after awhile and we got a good portion my “yard” to a reasonable size—lets just hope the snakes get the hint. After detoxing from my farming high came the pain! My hands swollen with blisters, my back rigid, arms shaking uncontrollably, still I was triumphant.

On a completely different note:
I would also like to offer my sincere and deep appreciation to my family and friends Francine and Carly for sending me packages. Already the materials I've received have helped tremendously in teaching, and the students are so appreciative and excited to have colorful and different teaching aides. More then just the items to know the thought and time placed in sending them makes me realize how fortunate I am to have people who love and care about me; which really makes a difference out here. With that said another thanks to everyone who has written; I am one very lucky, ridiculously happy Volunteer.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Coast and such

Scuba Diving close to Kilifi
Thanks to Matt's underwater camera!

One Love Island Sunrise


Fort Jesus by night

Indian Ocean and Fort Jesus

Walk to the Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi

Orphan Elephant

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fast as you can

"Always remember that the future comes one day at a time. "
Dean Achenson

My school is out for the month of April, and I have to say I miss my children dearly! I did travel with a few of them for the Deaf Games in Machakos-- where I am proud to say both my girls and boys won..... the power walking competition. We never practiced this and I thought it was a joke when I first heard of the race, but its actually difficult to not just run!Either way I was very proud of my students and I know just the experience of being outside our school was great for them! On the way there we passed an airport and they all questioned me again about the hippo status and if I knew the people on the planes.

After the games I had a few old friends join me at my site you can check out his thoughts on my site. Then I was off for more training in Nairobi.Being in Nairobi-- is something you must truly experience and is hard to explain. I feel as if I spend a lot of time in the states dispelling rumors about Africa, but Nairobi has them all. For example driving down one road where I was in a cab surrounded by BMWs and fast food restaurants, I saw a family of baboons jumping over a fence, and then literally minutes later Kibera ( the largest slum in the world). Africa and it juxtapositions...I could go on for days.

Training is an interesting experience, a mixture of Peace Corps policy, medical training, and sector specific training. I have to say what I am most excited about is starting my behavior change communication work. I was told I was selected mostly on the basis of making Deaf friendly materials to stop the prevention of HIV/AIDS. This involves making movies or posters to distribute through out Kenya hospitals and testing centers. With my past experience in the broadcast field, I am very excited to start working. While I was at the Peace Corps office I picked up a few posters with a few signs, the alphabet, and numbers. These were created by former volunteers. I took a lot because I want to make sure places in my town have them for example the hospital, the police station and the HIV/AIDS testing center ( VCT). I was able to talk to a hostel owner in Nairobi who I normally stay with when she told me she just hired a Deaf man, the brother of an employee. I offered her a poster and she showed all the workers. She later expressed to me how happy the brother was to actually communicate with his brother for the first time in 20 years. Moments like that give me the chills! I am beyond excited to start working on my own ideas.

Right now I am enjoying a much needed vacation. I am in Mombasa a sand swept island city- where I spent my first week in Kenya! Coming back nearly six months later really makes everything surreal. Six months ago, everything felt so far, now everything feels my own. Although more familiar I can still gawk at the beauty this country has, and feel so small within its ancient landscape, or humbled by small acts of kindness. The changes do not stop at the way I feel about the country but also myself. I hope to always be able to feel so large and small all at the same time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hearing with my Eyes

“Words convey the mental treasures of one period to the generations that follow; and laden with this, their precious freight, they sail safely across gulfs of time in which empires have suffered shipwreck and the languages of common life have sunk into oblivion.”
Tryon Edwards

An old friend once told me that when you learn a new language you gain another soul. I live this expression everyday. Growing up in bilingual house took away the “foreign” notion of flowing in and out in different languages. I’ve always loved learning languages and how words carry different meaning, and if you learn a different language you are able to express yourself in a whole new sense. More then just translating back into English—thinking in a different language. Understanding there are words that only exist in their own context. Learning Sign Language has opened up a whole different world of thoughts, expression, and feelings. I can hear with my eyes.

Finally grasping KSL was equivalent to turning on a different part of my brain. I see hands moving—but in my head I hear their meaning. Signed Language is such a beautiful way to express yourself. It also carries with it the little details that all languages have making each one peculiar little masterpiece. Facial expressions are periods, question marks, exclamation points. Signing has demanded an honesty that is sometimes refreshing and frightening—it equivalent to something being written on your face. Interacting with my students has allowed me to realize how perceptive they are. They know when I am tired, happy, and some can tell when I am feeling downright confused—even when I don’t know what I am feeling.

When they are signing they make each story come alive. They describe details using their hands, their face, and their whole heart. I love to watch them sign stories and hear them flowing with my eyes. I know when I am signing I am able to animate my thoughts and feelings in a way I could never imagine before—and perhaps gained a whole new soul.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

On my own

Card for Mrs. Reep's class

I had an opportunity to attend a re-opening ceremony of a nearby Deaf school on Friday and had an amazing time. The school has a foreign sponsor and received all new buildings and funds for activities. Many people attended the event including my Deaf friend who is alum of the school. I had the opportunity to meet other alum from the school and was amazed by their stories. Many of the former students are professionals working for various organization in Nairobi, they even told me of a former student who is in the process of obtaining their P.H.D.! Seeing all these students really reaffirms the confidence I have in my students. I know how capable they are, and I hope some day they will return to St. Luke's with fond memories. With that said I know my school has a long way to go, looking at the staff and the whole atmosphere at this school. I feel a sense of optimism, there are a lot of difficulties, but I can see the opportunity for change in each of them. I also met with the school’s sponsor and tossed out some ideas for Deaf Leadership Camp, to instill pride in Deaf culture and inspire students. He seemed very interested and I will begin to get the ball rolling on that—now!

Most of these pictures are of my students except for the ones dancing (performance at the school reopening) they are Deaf dancers! The very first picture is the view from my house and the second is my neighbor Mt. Kenya. This is the last week of school and then I will be off for the month of April. I will be so sad to leave my students for a whole month I miss them if I leave for one weekend! Although I hope to come back with new and creative ideas for teach the next term.