Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Final YAV Retreat

My year in Kenya is winding down to a close. For the grand finale we had a final YAV retreat which took place last week.

We spent the first two nights on a safari in the Maasai Mara. On the first evening game drive, we came across two male lions sleeping in the long grass. From what I've heard lions, especially the males, sleep for about 20 hours a day, (while giraffes only sleep for about 1/2 hour a day.) So it's a pretty typical sight to see these beautiful giant felines stretched out lazily enjoying the cool evening breeze coming off the savanna - It clearly pays to be at the top of the food chain.

After our time in the Maasai Mara we headed to Nyanza province in the southwest corner of Kenya. Nyanza encompasses part of Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world (2nd only to Lake Superior in my home state!) Nyanza is also home to the Luo community, and President Obama's heritage, but more about that later! There we stayed at the rural homestead of a very prominent Luo elder and long-time acquaintance of Phyllis, Professor Gilbert Ogutu. Once the head of the Luo Council of elders and a Ker, or spiritual/cultural leader, Ogutu was and still is a 'big deal' among the Luo. On the first morning of our stay at his homestead, Ogutu had his sons slaughter a ram for us as part of a morning ritual. Witnessing this was a very new, intense, and informative experience for me and others in my group. We ate the mutton later that night at dinner.

During our two-day sojourn in the village we did various projects at the local primary school. The most significant of these was painting the Standard 1 classroom for the youngest children. What I liked about this project was that my group didn't do it alone. We worked with the students and other people in the community to accomplish the task. I was grateful for the help of one man in particular who had a background in painting and construction. He taught me some skills in handling paint and paintbrushes, and his help made the project go much smoother and faster than expected. With everyone's help, we succeeded in painting the entire classroom, and even a large colourful mural on the back wall. Literally over night the classroom transformed from a dull and drab space into an environment suited for children's learning. And the entire experience was a great lesson for everyone about the power of volunteering when you work hand in hand with a community rather than working for it externally.

On the last day of our retreat, before making the 8 hour drive back to Nairobi, we stopped by the homestead of Mama Sarah Obama, President Obama's grandma, for a visit. Security is tight around her home, yet we had a connection through Prof. Ogutu, who knows Mama Sarah very well, and therefore had the honor of driving into the compound when other visitors must park outside and walk in. We first saw Barack Obama's father's and grandfather's graves, a very moving experience. And then we met Mama Sarah, who I'd describe as a no-nonsense lady with a great sense of humour. As we were asking her questions, she told us about Barack's father and about her grandson's visit home in 2006. Josh, another YAV, asked her which team she supports in the World Cup. And she replied with the wonderfully diplomatic answer, 'I support the team that plays the best and that is most determined to win.' We paid tribute to Mama Sarah with a goat, and also foodstuffs for the orphanage foundations she oversees. In return she gave us sodas as refreshments. I can say that relaxing on the lawn of President Obama's family homestead and sipping soda from his grandma is a memory I'll never forget.

So just like the first YAV retreat in Zanzibar, our second retreat turned out to be fantastic and a great way to draw this year to a close. I felt connected to the Kenyans we met in a very genuine way, through the hospitality that they showed us in the village and working hand in hand with the community to accomplish a shared goal. And of course I loved being with the other people in my YAV group, with whom I have shared so many experiences and adventures throughout this year in Kenya.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Someone needs a haircut...

... and that someone is ME! It's on the list of top priorities, but it just doesn't ever seem to happen. My sister would criticize me (big time) if she knew about this. I guess it's just part of being away from home. Your physical appearance, along with your perspective and outlook on life, are bound to change.

I have less than two months left in Kenya, and it's interesting now to look back on the year in retrospect. I've seen a lot of change and progress taking place. At work, I feel like I have accomplished good things, especially building and improving my organization's website (check it out: www.oaic.org). I've also gained confidence in everyday tasks... like cooking/cleaning for myself. And killing cockroaches. Seriously. Creepy crawlies including ants, cockroaches, and slugs have been a significant part of my living experience in Kenya.

Assertiveness is another quality I've picked up while living in Nairobi. Simple activities like boarding a bus or 'matatu' require a level of pushiness that never existed in me before. I've also improved my bargaining tactics, though I always hate doing it. I've had psycho shopkeepers literally yell in my face when I stick to the price I know is reasonable.

I wonder how the transition to life back in St. Paul, Minnesota will be when I arrive home in August. From my past travels I know that the culture shock upon re-entry can be worse than when you first arrive in a new place. Hopefully I'll be able to maintain the personal growth I've experienced in my year abroad. But I'm talking about growth in a conceptual way. When I get home, the first item on my agenda will be a hair cut!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mara in the Mara

Often when I introduce myself in Kenya, people ask me how I got my name. 'Mara' is a common word in many of the country's languages. It is also the name of a river that flows through Kenya and Tanzania, and the namesake of the popular Maasai Mara reserve. I just had the chance to visit the Maasai Mara, so now I can finally tell people that when they ask me about my name!

My parents just came to visit me for ten days, arriving in Nairobi on the 11th of May. I loved showing them around the city, and introducing them to my friends and colleagues. One highlight was when we visited a friend of mine from OAIC who lives with his family in Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums. I had been to Kibera once before, accompanying a social worker to do home visits to women in her support group. Yet it was an entirely different experience to visit someone I know very well, and the hospitality his family showed us (as well as the huge meal that they prepared) was very touching.

We also visited Nairobi's Giraffe Centre where we fed the giraffes, and it was amazing to see the beautiful animals up close and personal after having only seen them behind fences in zoos or in photographs. While in Nairobi we had several meals around town, both in people's homes and at restaurants, and of course had to visit a number of museums like many tourists do.

With Daniel in Kibera slum, Nairobi

Giraffe Centre, Nairobi

A few days after my parents arrived, we left Nairobi and headed southwest for the Maasai Mara! We flew there, which in itself was a new experience. Our plane was a ten passenger propeller plane with one pilot and no crew members. Thankfully it was a smooth flight, even when we landed at our safari lodge's dirt airstrip in the middle of an open field.

My parents and I stayed at a tented camp/lodge called "Kichwa Tembo" (meaning Elephant's Head in Kiswahili.) During our time there, we enjoyed the luxurious accommodations that included delicious food and comfortable safari "tent" rooms. Since arriving here last September, I have not really experienced the luxurious side of the country. Yet during our safari, I decided to just enjoy this different experience of Kenya for our two night stay.

We had an excellent guide named Sophie, who was one of only four female park guides in the entire Maasai Mara reserve. With her help we saw all of the so-called 'Big 5' (lion, leopard, cape buffalo, black rhino, and elephant) as well as many others.

Cheetah mother with 3 cubs

Sophie driving us through a pond that was blocking our path

Elephant herd with tiny baby

A stork eating a frog

Maasai Giraffe

The breathtakingly beautiful animals and landscape of the Maasai Mara really made it clear to me why tourists from around the world flock to the place in droves. The majority of people working in camps like "Kichwa Tembo" are Maasai, and they depend upon the tourism for their livelihoods. Unfortunately the recent post election violence in Kenya combined with the world-wide economic down-turn has severely impacted the tourism industry in Kenya, and the Maasai Mara was no exception. Things are looking up again now that more tourists feel safe and enthusiastic about coming to Kenya. Yet I question exactly how much of the revenue from Kenya's tourism goes to local communities, or whether it just falls into the hands of the fortunate few. Maybe this is my Anthropology of Tourism course background speaking, but it is an important question to ask all the same.

My parents flew home to the US a few days ago, and my life is getting back to its usual routine now that they're gone. We had a great time together, and I loved showing them around the city and country where I've lived for the better part of a year. Now I have only 2 months left, but having just visited the Mara for the first time, I realize that there are still many places I have yet to see and experience here before I go!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Maasai Cows & Ostriches

Imagine vast fields of long grass waving in the wind, stretching across an expanse to end in gentle blue mountains at the horizon line. 'This,' my friend David told me, 'is Maasai land.' Before the city of Nairobi existed, the area belonged to the Maasai. The name 'Nairobi' actually comes from a Maasai phrase meaning 'cool waters', because the city's location was once a watering hole for Maasai cattle. Over the years, the Maasai have lost or sold large portions of their land to other ethnic communities in Kenya such as the Kikuyu, and Nairobi has now become the cosmopolitan urban sprawl that it is today. Yet much of the surrounding land still belongs to the Maasai, even though other people have moved in to occupy the area.

David with his son Arvid.

I visited my friend David, a co-worker at OAIC, over the weekend in his home town of Kitangela located about a half-an-hour outside of Nairobi. As we drove out from the town into the beautiful countryside, I realized I haven't been out of the city for at least 2 and a half months! I appreciated the peacefulness of the farms, gentle bird songs, and the fields of long waving grass; peace and quiet is something you don't realize you miss until you experience it again.

After some time, David turned off the main highway onto a dirt road. We bounced a long on top of the potholes for a while, but had to stop suddenly. In front of us stood a large herd of Maasai cattle blocking the road with no herder in sight. It had been drizzling off and on that day, and so to avoid the cold grass, the herd was clinging fervently to the gravel, still warm from the sun. David 'hooted' his horn (as Kenyans would say), and we edged forward at a creeping pace until we were directly in the midst of the brown painted crowd of cows and bulls. They were stubborn and had no desire to leave their comfort zone. It must have taken at least five minutes of honking and creeping, honking and creeping, before we finally cleared the blockade.

Farther down the road, David stopped again and asked me if I wanted to drive. In Kenya people drive on the opposite side of the road, like they do in Britain. I was hesitant, but agreed, and had my first international driving experience on the left-hand-side. It felt really odd at first, like trying to write your name with your non-dominant hand. Yet even though I did mistake the windshield wipers for the signal blinkers, it was a successful endeavor!

We ended up at an ostrich farm/resort for tourists where we fed baby ostriches, and got to see adult ostriches running at top speeds. They are really ugly animals, but I think they're also somewhat charming... probably because I grew up with images of Big Bird in my head. David insisted that I try ostrich meat. I felt guilty at first, having just fed the babies, but the meat turned out to be delicious, like tenderly grilled chicken. It was outrageously expensive, so I only tasted a sample, but would definitely try it again if I have the chance.

Baby ostriches

Apparently 1 ostrich = a dozen chicken eggs

Yes, this is a somewhat cruel juxtaposition, but don't knock ostrich meat till you've tried it!

So I had a great weekend visiting David. It's true that new experiences are waiting just outside your door, or right outside your city's limits. It's only a matter of taking the plunge!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Planning a Visit to Kenya

Thought I'd write with a quick update on how things are progressing.

I'm getting very excited for my parents to come spend ten days visiting me here in May. We're planning to do all the touristy stuff you can do in Kenya ... a safari in the Masai Mara, a trip to Nakuru in the breath-taking Rift Valley province, seeing some sites around Nairobi etc. I'm also planning to introduce them to people at OAIC, and possibly take them to visit one of the OAIC groups I've mentioned at other points in my blog. I feel like it's important for visitors coming to places like Kenya to see all sides of the spectrum-- to balance being a tourist with just being a traveler who is there to meet people in a genuine way, learning from them as well as teaching. Kenya is a very complex country as you probably already know, or have picked up from reading my earlier postings. I can't wait to show my parents at least a portion of what is here. After now having nailed down most of the arrangements, I can relax and just look forward to their arrival in less than a month!

Other than getting excited about my parents' visit, I've just been working...working...working. I've been busy writing OAIC's first quarterly newsletter, and also designing a fundraising brochure to send out to our international partners. Hopefully I will get out of the office soon, either with a trip to Uganda to visit AIC's there, or to visit local groups around Nairobi. I hate being couped up in the office when there is so much life and activity going on outside.

Take care and always remember to be in touch :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Birthday Blog Post

I won't spend this entire blog post writing about my 23rd birthday, at the risk of sounding self-centered. But I just wanted to let everyone know that I'm having a nice day, even though it's Monday and I'm here at work, and thank you all for the b-day wishes :)

Life in Kenya continues to be good. The most significant event that occurred recently was OAIC's Executive Committee meeting, which took place on the 10th and 11th of March. You might be asking, what is an Executive Committee meeting and why is that interesting enough to be in a blog post? Well, read on anyway.

OAIC's Executive Committee meeting is an annual event bringing together all of the organization's top officials from around the African continent to discuss our current state of affairs. I met leaders from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, and people from other parts of Kenya as well. For most of the meeting I was the only woman present, so I'm thankful that at one point the leaders discussed the need for more female leadership at higher official levels of the organization. Yet I have to admit that it was an odd feeling to be a young American woman sitting in an official meeting with several older men from different parts of Africa. I did not let that intimidate me, though, and enjoyed getting to know each of the members. I was even asked to present in front of the Committee about the new OAIC website that I have been working to improve over the last six months. And after the meeting was over, I had the opportunity to conduct individual interviews with each of the Committee members to find out what is going on with OAIC in other regions of Africa.

One of the most interesting aspects of the meeting was hearing about OAIC's chapter in the DRC. The Committee member from the DRC is an elderly man in his mid 70's known as Papa Zeyi, who I have to say is quite a character. Claiming to speak only French, he showed up at the meeting wearing a short-sleeved pin-striped suit and leopard print sunglasses. When he spoke, his comments could easily turn into twenty minute long monologues, with the poor translator trying desperately to keep up. He talked about how African Independent Churches in the DRC are leaving OAIC because the organization has not done enough to support and engage with them. It is true that there is a definite language barrier within OAIC. Although it is an international, pan-African organization, the Francophone countries are often at a disadvantage and there is less programming in these places as a result. However, I believe that in the case of the DRC the major problem is a lack of funds, which the OAIC International Office encourages its chapters to raise for themselves. Papa Zeyi reported that the OAIC staff members in the DRC use his own house as an office, free of charge, because they do not have the money to rent their own separate building. Because of this lack of resources, there is not enough funding for programs, and thus the churches are leaving the organization. However, the General Secretary contradicted Papa Zeyi, saying that when he had visited the DRC last year, he had met several young church members who were very enthusiastic about joining OAIC. It is obvious that there is a clear divide between the older and younger generations within the DRC's OAIC chapter, and this needs to be addressed. Eventually after these discussions with Papa Zeyi, the Executive Committee decided to hold a workshop in the DRC sometime this summer to establish better footing, and to reinvigorate the organization within the chapter.

Papa Zeyi (left) with the leader of OAIC's Uganda Chapter.

Now that the Executive Committee is over, I have my hands full with writing stories and news updates to use on our website. Attending the meeting made it clear to me that my fieldwork and on-the-ground activities are not the only interesting aspects of work at the organization; even at the executive levels there is work to be done, problems to be solved, and stories to be written.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Six Months and Monks

Today marks six months since I arrived in Kenya. Has it really been that long? Half a year ago I stepped off the plane, exhausted after a day and a half of flying, hoping only for a bed to sleep off my jetlag. I told myself that night I arrived that I would just take it day by day, and not think about the overwhelming amount of time I would spend away from home in an unfamiliar part of the world. Yet it seems that time is a funny thing. The months have slipped away, and now I am waking up to realize that I only have five months left in Kenya. I'm more than half way through my year.

This past weekend I stayed with the other YAVs and Phyllis at a Benedictine monastery outside of Nairobi. We had come together for a meeting to reflect on these past six months in Kenya, and to discuss plans for our remaining time here and beyond. The monastery provided the perfect setting for reflection. Situated amidst rolling green hills of forest and farmland, the place is a haven of peace right outside a fast-paced and noisy city. I appreciated the overall quietness of the place, interrupted only by bird songs in the day, and the chanting of the monks in the evening at their Vespers service. Walking around the grounds of the monastery, I came across several statues of saints, and one glorious life-sized sculpture of Jesus Christ with a crown that I thought looked like a wedding cake. Though not part of my own faith tradition, these statues were powerful and seemed familiar to me. I thought back to the visits I made as a child to another monastery with my father when we lived in Wisconsin. Sitting high up on a forested hillside, we could climb the church's steeple and look out at the surrounding countryside. The Kenyan monastery I just visited this weekend had a similar connection to nature, and a stillness that brought peace to the mind and allowed room for introspection.

In our group discussion Phyllis asked the question, what in Kenya has effected you the most, and how will this remain with you when you return home to the US? One simple example came to my mind right away when she asked us this question. I thought back to the time I was cooking with a Kenyan friend of mine and using some oil. When it ran out I went to throw away the bottle. Yet my friend stopped me, saying, 'Why are you throwing that away? Some people in my village pay 30 shillings for those bottles so that they can gather water.' It struck me then that the lifestyle I'm living is extremely different from the majority of people in this country, and probably around the world. I have long since realized that there are two different economies functioning in Kenya-- one for the wealthy, and one for everyone else. 500 shillings that some people spend on one meal at Java House restaurant could feed an entire family living in a rural village for two weeks. Here in Kenya the division is clearly visible. Yet I know that there are people living in the US that experience this same inequality in lifestyle, and that the reality of this is not only far away in some developing nation, but close to home as well.

I have had some intense experiences over the past six months of living in Kenya. Visiting places like Kibera, Africa's largest slum, and hearing people's stories of struggle and survival through my work at OAIC have opened up my eyes. With these experiences fresh in my mind, I will probably find it difficult to travel home and live life again in the US. Yet I do not want to feel guilt for myself, nor be critical of my family members and others around me for the way we live. Instead I hope to use what I've experienced in a positive way, to tell the stories I've heard, and share what I've seen in order to create awareness and bring about change.