Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bikes, Women and Mosquitoes...Kisumu

I went to Kisumu this week with Shelter Forum, where I’m interning, which was generally pretty cool. I had some interesting cultural clash experiences but I’m still really glad I went. I didn’t see as much of the lake as I had hoped, but at the same time it wasn’t really supposed to be a vacation so I can’t complain. I did get to tour some of the projects that Shelter Forum is sponsoring which was cool. It got me out and about as well as able to see some of the more environmental projects they are working on. I toured this awesome recycling project called BaMaTo (a combination of the Swahili words for Father Mother and Child). They pay youth to gather plastics, then sort them and crush them. These pieces are then sold to manufacturers to recycle them. They don’t make a lot of money, but some anyway. They can’t recycle plastic bags so instead they are making pillows and mattresses out of them instead. They also make beads out of the recycled paper. Basically awesome. I also walked along a stretch of the Kisat River and leaned a lot about the pollution of the river and hence the lake, as it drains straight into Lake Victoria. It was nice to see things in person that I have been reading about in reports and grants.
There were so many bicycles there, it was so cool. They are called Bodabodas an dare basically used like taxis. There is a seat attached to the back and you pay the person to peddle you around. There were more bikes than cars by far. I really wanted to ride one, but never got the chance.
The whole reason I was there was to help out at a women’s forum that SF was sponsoring. Basically women have no rights at all to land. If their husbands die, they are forced off their land, their home is taken away, and they and their children are driven back to their parents, where they are often not welcome either. Their possessions are often taken as well and they are left with pretty much nothing. It basically sucks in all ways. There is anew draft land policy going to Parliament that, among many other things, attempts to deal with some of these issues, trying to at least give women rights on paper, which they legally don’t have right now. So they were holding a forum for women who were leaders in their community, to sensitize them to the issues so that they could go back and advocate for the passing of the policy. It was really exciting to see a room full of 60, empowered, strong women, together, dedicated to advocating for women’s rights. They were all strongly African, very connected to their community and culture, but this didn’t stop them from being strong women. People often assume that “rural women” are extremely disempowered and are dominated by a male culture; it was refreshing to see women that were clearly living a fairly rural life but were fighting hard and openly for their rights. They may not have them but they are willing to and actively demand them.
It was also really interesting to observe how people interacted with each other. It was really hammered home to me how important introductions and closures are in Kenya. Every time someone new spoke they introduced themselves and said what they were going to talk about. At the end, everyone was given a chance to speak and unlike in the US, many people took advantage of this invitation. Everyone wanted to greet and then thank everyone else. It as really interesting. Response was also a really important part of the conversation. Every single time that someone said “good morning” everyone said it back. Every time a speaker said “isn’t that right” there was a chorus of “yes.” I was just very different from conferences in the US that I’ve been to. I’m really glad I went.
Some really odd things happened too. Not huge things just a little awkward. By boss made several overtly racist things toward Indians, which was uncomfortable for me. It was Diwali on Tuesday so everything was lit up and celebratory, and she made this comment about how Hindus only go to temple at night. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but she continued to claim that the only type of person who would only set foot in their place of worship at night are devil worshipers, especially when all they do is chant. It was awkward in the extreme. We also had some confusion about where we were going to eat one evening, and first of all one of the other interns just sat down and ordered her food before the rest of the group was ready, which was kind of odd in the first place. But then when the rest got there, they actually wanted to go to another place so we were going to try to cancel her order. But they had already put it in so they said all we could do was take it to go. And everyone got all upset, as if that were a really rude thing to do, and how couldn’t they just give the chips to someone else, someone would order them soon, it wasn’t a big deal. But really that’s not something you do; once you’ve ordered, it’s completely legitimate to say that you have to pay for it. And it just got more awkward. They basically picked a fight with the waiter, and then asked to be served by someone else. At which point our food took like half an hour to arrive. I felt like such an idiot.
Overall though it was really good, despite the weirdness. I forgot bug spray and therefore got eaten alive by mosquitoes which was really unfortunate. Thank goodness for malaria medications, my spleen is probably full of Malaria right now...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Long and Overdue....oops

We went to this second hand market on Saturday, which was pretty much heaven. I didn’t get that much there, and I probably paid too much for things, but it was fun anyway. I got a skirt that I’ll be able to wear this weekend when we go to Kitui which is very rural and pretty conservative. And then I got a purse, that I’ve been needing pretty much since I got here. It’s pretty big and zip and stuff, so I don’t have to take a backpack places anymore. I don’t like backpacks because you can’t see them when you walk, so anyone can come up behind you and get into the pockets. I walk with mine on one shoulder which makes it a lot safer, but it’s just annoying, This one I have across my body and it zips and has a flap over the zip, so there is little to no chance anyone could get into it without me noticing. It just makes me feel a lot more secure. But there were just piles of clothes there. A lot of the shirts were 100 shillings which is about $1.40. You can’t really beat that. There was a lot of stained stuff, so you’d have to be careful, but there was a lot of really nice stuff too. It was exciting. I definitely want to go back.
I also had my first encounter with tear gas, which is actually apparently rather common here. We were walking through the market and suddenly our throats and eyes starting hurting and noses started stinging and running. We asked someone what it was and apparently the police had sprayed tear gas near there a bit before to try to remove the hawkers that didn’t have licenses to vend. It must have been a lot worse a bit earlier, but even so it still hurt. It also made me sneeze a lot too, which I thought was bizarre. I guess it’s your nose’s response to having something painful in it, it runs and tries to get you to sneeze it out. But other than that part, the experience was pretty fun. I’m sure they inflate prices like all kinds to white people, and I could probably have gotten things cheaper, but I got an unstained linen skirt for $4. I’m not going to complain. When push comes to shove, I can afford to pay more than the average person shopping there, so if they get a little more money off me than someone else, I’m kind of ok with that. I bargained down to what I thought was a reasonable level and that’s good for me.

It has been a while since I wrote anything. I guess I’ve been feeling a little too overwhelmed to even get my thoughts down on paper. Life is just really freaking overwhelming here, there’s really no other way to put it. School is getting pretty intense, which is kind of acceptable, but somehow I’m much less prepared for it to be this stressful. At school I accept that I’m busy and working pretty much all the time, and most of my weekend days are spent doing work. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings are pretty much all homework all the time during this time at AU. But here it is just so much harder to deal with. I’m having a hard time differentiating what part is me being lazy and what part is me being overwhelmed by life. On the one hand it is true that I really don’t have much time during the week. Going to class and internships takes a lot more of my time here than it does in the US. Transportation is a big hassle. But on the other hand, I do have some time. I have this morning, for instance, which could be used to study Swahili and instead I am writing in my journal. But when I start doing work, I just get so bogged down in the sheer amount of work I have to do that I just can’t continue. This has never really happened to me before. I just sit there and look at all the work I have to do, unable to begin any of it. It’s really bad. I'll get it together I'm sure, I just have to buckle down. This weekend is a work weekend.
I’ve decided that my life here is modeled on a pendulum. I am very rarely in a balanced, stable state of mind. I go from periods of ‘holy shit, I cannot deal with life and how much time it takes to get nothing done, please just end this now,’ followed closely ‘holy shit, I can’t believe I am still in Africa, look at me I’m sitting in traffic in tiny hot, cram-filled public bus, IN AFRICA. How can I be a person lucky enough to be having this experience?’ It’s all very confused; there’s definitely time where I’m not at those extremes, but generally that’s just when I’m in denial and too busy just getting through the day to even think past the ordeal of getting home or some such thing. It’s kind of exhausting.
We had a little bout of relaxation this weekend, which was definitely needed. We went out to Kitui, which is a very rural, very dry area of Kenya, about three and a half hours outside of Nairobi. It was nice to get away for a while, even though it was pretty uneventful. The dryness kind of reminded me of home. The sun was really really intense. I got sunburned in the 20 minutes that I was outside before I put sunscreen. It was nice to feel heat like that again, it was very familiar. We stayed in this village-experiment type thing that was started by an NGO to give children whose both parents have been killed by AIDS. grandparents and foster grandparents live pretty much exclusively in this village, and they raise a whole ton of children. And even cooler, they are like uber sustainable. All their electricity (which is extremely limited admittedly) is solar, they recycle all the waste from their toilets into manure for their certified organic fields, where they grow like 70% of everything they need. And on top of all of this awesomeness, they also had these super crazy dam things that raise their water table and protect them from the droughts that happen like every other year. They put this little wall of concrete in river that only runs when it rains. But when it does rain, sand builds up behind the wall and water can seep into the collected sand, and it keeps a small fraction of the water from washing downstream. Instead it seeps down through the sand and raises the water table. Being the awesomely cool person that I am, I was pretty excited. They didn’t look like anything, just a wall and a lot of sand, but they were awesome nonetheless. I took a picture for Dr. B, my water resources professor. I might send it to her as a post card, not going to lie. So that was pretty cool. The rest of the village was pretty uneventful, we just sat around a lot and chilled with the children and the old grandmothers, very few of which spoke any English or Swahili. They all spoke Camba, which is the native language there. It was nice in general. People were rather unhappy with the squat toilets I think, but as far as squat toilets went, they were pretty nice. I was impressed. I’m glad we went away for the most part. Part of me wanted to go somewhere more touristy and fun as one of our two program paid for trips, but at the same time I did learn a lot and saw a part of Kenya that I had never really seen before so that was good. It made this week kind of stressful, but the weekend was relaxing for the most part.
Getting there was kind of an adventure. We took a country bus, which entailed showing up at a really overwhelming bus depot and then waiting for an hour and a half for our bus to fill up, because they have no leaving time, just when the seats are filled. The same happened on the way back except we had to sit by the side of the road for two hours waiting for a bus to pass. Good experience, though, because we want to take some long buses other places, and now we know how it works more or less. It’s still kind of scary, but we have more experience. Back to the grindstone now.