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...

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