Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Exactly six months ago, as hard as it is to believe, I sat across from a series of administrators in the Peace Corps Kenya office in Nairobi. I shuffled through a stack of papers at each of their desks, quickly signing dotted lines and handing over medical forms, proof my bank account had been closed, and my beloved (yet nearly destroyed) red volunteer card. Once everything was in order, the country director shook my hand and gave me a little pin with the Kenyan and American flags crossed over each other. "Thank you for your service."

Then, it was over, far faster than it had started. Pre-Service Training had felt like an eternity, but Close of Service activities took no time at all. Before I knew it, I was having my last Tusker, riding my last matatu, and getting caught in my last Nairobi traffic jam (I actually almost missed my flight, truth be told, having adjusted a little too well to Kenyan time, and not being quick to say goodbyes).

As I recount this, I almost don't remember the purpose of sharing my perspectives on this side of my experience. Maybe that's why blogs typically end with the last day of the adventure they are meant to chronicle. But in my last entry in Kenya, months ago, I mentioned that I'd come back and post one more time, after the dust had settled and I'd been in the US for a few months. I hope this can serve as an insight for current volunteers who are about to COS (since that's a special stress all its own), family and friends of returned volunteers, and future volunteers who are curious about what the rift between "before" and "after" will look like. I hope it also speaks more generally to anyone who's attempting to adjust to something different, new and undoubtedly scary.

I was talking with another RPCV the other day, and we laughed at ourselves when we agreed that almost everything the administrators in Peace Corps had warned us about readjustment to life back home had happened. But it looked differently than I thought it would. Even though I spent my first few days stateside in New York City, I was pretty able to handle the intensity. In fact, I found myself more independent and capable than I had been when I left the US, just because nothing phased me. A subway? It leaves when it says it will, consistently follows the planned route, and probably won't break? Bring it. That's easy. Maintained sidewalks and roads? Awesome, I won't accidentally fall into a ditch or break a shoe. People speaking a language I understand? Cool, I'm fairly certain they're not talking about how ridiculous the mzungu looks, since I can hear them discussing a movie. It felt like a game where I knew all the rules, and it was strange to feel so comfortable so instantly.

But it was a false sense of security. I found that the strangest moments triggered anxiety, confusion and even anger. I got home at Christmas time, and I didn't care about the holiday much at all. I hadn't exchanged gifts in a couple years, and I couldn't compel myself to get excited about getting anyone anything; I really just hoped I'd brought enough souvenirs to satisfy friends and family. But when I walked through Macy's in NYC, I almost jumped off the escalator just to escape the feeling of manipulation. There are advertisements in Kenya, but I had forgotten how much brands, images and messages permeate the culture of the US. And then there was the man sitting at the next table over during dinner who distracted me to the point of silence, talking about "helping Africa" in some of the most infantilizing, ignorant terms I could imagine. The weirdest experience I had in those first couple days was standing alone in the post office with a huge box of things I needed to mail home. I was incredibly anxious, because I didn't know where I was supposed to stand, or if people thought I was weird with my gigantic parcel, or if they could tell I was confused - it spiraled into a near-meltdown. At the post office. Come on.

And it's funny, the things that every PCV talks about looking forward to when they get home are the first and easiest things to get used to. Cold drinks, familiar food, showers, comfy couches, internet. It's pretty easy to slide back into the patterns that you'd lived with for years before leaving. So, even if you have a new little voice in the back of your head that cheers when you put laundry in a machine and don't have to scrub every shirt, or when you turn the tap and water comes out, there's an anticlimax. Because no matter how awesome modern conveniences are, they are nowhere near as great as PCVs make them out to be. Of course they're romanticized when you don't have access to them, but then it's confusing when you get back and appliances aren't miracles. They're things, and they have (and cause) their own problems. So even though those seem like the most important things of reentry, they aren't. They're distractions.

So, after the initial shock of reentry, I pretty quickly found an apartment and a job. I studied for and took the MCAT. I connected with some old friends, but not others. I met people. I clashed with people I love, I relied heavily on friends, and I stood up for myself more than I had before. I went out dancing a lot, and took a good deal of alone time, too. It was hectic, scary and emotions ran high.

But, deeper than the symptoms and manifestations of my changes, were the changes themselves. They're what's endured after the tumult has calmed, and what should be the focus of coming back home. What can I bring here? What conversations can I have with people that will give us both new perspectives? It's important to identify, nurture and tell people about the ways you find yourself changing during any time of transition or adjustment. For me, it looks like increased confidence and honesty, as well as a critical (some may say cynical) eye. But it also looks like patience and passion and an open mind.

The take-away message from my readjustment is, beautifully, the ultimate lesson I needed to learn from my Peace Corps experience. I needed to learn to let go of fear. I think this is important for any time of concentrated growth and change, so here's my advice for anyone in the throes of deep transformation: Don't be afraid to be confused about what you should be doing, sad about missing people and places, and discontented with the way things are. Don't be afraid to tell people what you need. Don't be afraid to tell them to ask you for what they need. Don't be afraid to be happy with a crazy decision. Actually, just don't be afraid to be happy, period. Don't be afraid to say yes, and don't be afraid to say no. There was a lot of fear before and during my reentry, but sometimes it disguised itself as excitement and I didn't address it. Don't let fear do that. Take stock of the steps you're taking, and even if you lose track of them for a bit, don't be afraid to reroute yourself. As your new environment and your new self get to know each other, be patient. Don't be afraid. If you let go of fear, you may seem strange, opinionated or even a little selfish. But you're not, you're just fearless.

Over the past couple months, life has evened out a bit. I've seen some of my fellow PCVs, and I've kept in touch with my friends in Kenya. Life is different than it was when I was living thousands of miles away, but it's just that: different. No better, no worse. I miss my students every day, and I'd do terrible things for a fresh mango. But here in Alaska I get to hold my baby nephew and go fishing in the endless sun. The only barrier to contentment was fear, so I've made the decision to leave it behind. And if that's in the past, I cant wait to see what's in the future.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wrapping Up

I don't know how I keep missing it, but there's one lesson that Kenya has been trying to teach me since I arrived. I say I've learned it from time to time, but clearly it hasn't been entirely internalized because I keep ignoring it's inevitability. The lesson is this: no matter what you plan for and no matter what you think will happen, things here will never materialize in the way you expect. It may be for better or worse, but it won't be what you anticipate.

This truth has manifested itself in small ways throughout my service. Maybe an event is rescheduled at the last minute due to rain or transportation issues or for the mere sake of convenience. Maybe there is an expectation of how long a church service or staff meeting should last, only to find that it's surpassed that expectation by five hours. And maybe after weeks upon weeks of the kids in class four writing sentences like "the bannana is purble" or "me name is house", they all surprise you on the same day with proper grammar and spelling. Between vehicle breakdowns, cultural differences, small miracles and baffling inconsistencies, things often appear chaotic. I thought I'd gotten used to it, that I hadn't been holding on to plans too tightly. But last week, I was reminded of how I still expect things to go a certain way, and how futile it is. It was a tough reminder.

I had high expectations for my last few weeks in Sipili. I had almost every day booked solid, every space in my calendar was filled. I'd assigned time to reviewing class material with my students, finishing up a few Peace Corps reports and projects, visiting friends to say goodbye, and even taking a trip to see the rainforest in Kakamega that I'd been dying to see. I should have known that as soon as I made so many plans, they'd be turned upside down. And of course that was the case; last Saturday I was called into Nairobi because of a serious security incident in Sipili. It was unexpected and shocking, because I've always felt safer in Sipili than any other place I've lived. It was also heartbreaking to be called away from my work, my home and my students just a few weeks before I was due to leave anyway. I had so many unanswered questions - how will the issue be handled and resolved? How long will I be away? Will I even be back in Sipili, or will Peace Corps send me home? I stayed in Nairobi for about a week, as the security staff visited Sipili to assess the security of Jessica's and my sites, and I tried to be patient. Each day I looked at what I was supposed to be doing in my calendar, and felt guilty that I wasn't there to teach or to fulfill my plans.

The unexpected beauty in it all though, was the grace of my community. I got daily phone calls and text messages from neighbors and coworkers who were worried, who hadn't seen me around and had heard rumors that I'd left. And even if I haven't internalized the lesson of "letting go" and not having expectations, my Kenyan friends have. They weren't worried that I wasn't in class or that I had to cancel plans, they just wanted me to take care of myself and hurry back whenever I could. It was humbling, and I've never felt as close to my community as I did when I was far away from them. When I returned on Saturday after getting the go-ahead from Peace Corps, everyone had something to say. I was stopped on the street, in the shops and the market with cries of "umepotea!" or "you have been lost!". Everyone had heard about the incident, and were quick to offer a "pole" ("sorry") and kind words about being happy for my return. The best reunion was with the kids, though. I'd felt like I had abandoned them, but they were quick to erase my guilt with huge smiles and an excited welcome. I explained why I had left, and that I would be back in class until school closes. It was a great restoration - I've rarely felt as content as I did with all the kids sitting around me, catching each other up on what had happened in our lives during the week when we were apart.

As I sit now and reflect on the unexpected chaos of the past week, I am once again dwarfed by what I have learned by not being in control. Despite a terrible situation, I learned about my community and how I have been surrounded by their care and concern. And even though it was painful, I got a taste of what it will be like to leave my students and coworkers for good. It's hard to accept, but it's a reality I'll have to face in a few short weeks. I'm better off now that I have an idea of what to expect. I am even more thankful for these last few days at my home, because I missed it so terribly when I was away. The moment of stepping off the matatu into Sipili when I returned almost brought tears to my eyes - this place has grown and molded me into someone I am grateful to be. Although the two years here are nearly finished, this place is determined to keep teaching me lessons and challenging me to grow until the very last moment.

I spent all Sunday cleaning my house and packing. In the short time I had been gone, a rat and a snake had moved in. I had to evict both of them, using a broom and a lot of yelling. The packing is strange - I'm trying to fit everything into the same two bags I brought with me. I'll end up with what I started with - an empty house, and two bags packed to the brim. Although now my hair is longer, I'm a lot less idealistic, quite a bit more cynical, more patient, and deeply touched by people who used to be strangers, but who I now consider dear friends.

Now I'm also starting to think about what I'm going back to. My mind is here and there simultaneously, coexisting in my two homes. I've been on craigslist a lot lately looking at apartments in Anchorage, and I finally registered for the MCAT in April. I have a couple weeks of travel throughout the US starting on the 28th, visiting friends and family on both coasts and ending up in Alaska. I'm getting nervous as it approaches, because over the course of two years, the US has become a sort of mythical place, and I honestly have forgotten a lot of what it's like to live there. Maybe you think I'm exaggerating, but I'm dead serious, and I'll say it again: I honestly have forgotten a lot of what it's like to live there. I can't imagine constant power and running water, sidewalks, refrigerators, microwaves, hair dryers, fast food, driving, and snow. I'm excited about it, but I anticipate it will all be quite overwhelming. I'm counting on patience and support from friends, especially when I do really weird things like respond to a question in Kiswahili, use my eyebrows to say yes or my lips to point instead of using words, or say things like "nice time", "hellos" or "slowly by slowly". I also may have a meltdown when I am in the grocery store for the first time - I've heard cautionary tales of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers being rendered immobile in the middle of the aisle by the number of choices of things like cereal or soup. I also might do that annoying thing where I start every sentence with "Well, in Kenya..." or withdraw whenever I miss the things that have become so familiar. It will be an adjustment, but I suppose it's all part of the adventure.

As I enter into this final chapter of my wild experience, I'll do my best to really remember the most important lesson Kenya has offered me. I'm not in charge, and plans are never set in stone. There's always room for the unexpected, and it's better to embrace it than to fight it. It's freeing, if you really think about it.... 

Ok, so I'm going to call it now - this is my final blog entry in Kenya. I'll write one more in a couple months, to reflect on the end of everything, and to chronicle my experience of re-entry into the US. But to all the people who have read what I've written over the past two years, thank you. Thank you for being part of my story, and for making my experiences richer by sharing them with me. Stay in touch, keep following your own adventures and always live life to the fullest.

Asanteni sana!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Highs and Lows

Well, look at this. A bonus blog entry for September! I've had a lot of free time on my hands (to be explained in this entry) so there was a chance to do a little extra writing.

One of my favorite ways of catching up with friends after being away for a long time is playing a round of “highs and lows”. It’s been just over a week of life back at site full-time, and even though I’ve been living here for almost two years, I find myself having fresh, surprising and challenging experiences every day. I figure the best way to share them this time is through a round of highs and lows. As tradition dictates, I’ll start with the lows, so I can end on a high note.

  • A nation-wide teacher’s strike started at the beginning of the term, and lasted for three weeks. Considering it’s only a nine-week term to begin with, the strike cut out a huge chunk of learning. We'll have to make up the weeks at the end of the term, so I'll be teaching pretty much up until the day I get on the plane. Plus, it was mind-numbingly boring to sit around in Sipili without being allowed to teach. I probably cleaned my house ten times, just because there wasn’t anything else to do.
  •  Bats have moved into my choo. If I haven’t explained it before, a choo is like an outhouse, but with no toilet seat. It’s essentially a shack with a hole in it. I guess it wouldn’t be so gross if the bats just hung out on the ceiling of the choo and flew away when I opened the door, but I’m not so lucky. Instead, when I open the choo door in the afternoon, I’m greeted with 4-5 little bats hanging upside down from the ceiling, who all briefly point their little bat faces and little bat ears in my direction before swooping down INTO THE HOLE. Yeah. They live IN the hole. Maybe this is too much information, but it’s hard to bring oneself to use the facilities with the knowledge that there’s a family of bats living inside the hole that could fly out at any minute.
  • The other day, while reading in my bed with my headlamp, I saw one of the most gigantic, hairy spiders I’ve ever seen with these weird pincers – scurrying across my bed sheets. Now, I’m usually pretty mellow when it comes to bugs. I don’t usually kill spiders, because I know they feed on mosquitoes and other pests. But that guy elicited an embarrassingly shrill scream, and an immediate smackdown from the book I was reading. That experience paired with some suspicious-looking bug bites on my legs prompted an immediate disassembly of my bed and a dousing of all the parts with bleach water (in the middle of the night).
  • Also recently, while cooking breakfast, I cracked an egg into the pan. However, instead of the usual egg I was expecting, there was a partially formed chicken embryo. That prompted another scream, mostly from surprise, but also because it was just as gross as it sounds. (All this recent screaming has got to have my neighbors wondering what is going on at my house.) I think the most humorous aspect of the experience was my reaction after the initial shock wore off. I turned off the stove, set down the spatula and just stared at it in the pan for a good few minutes thinking to myself, “well… now what?”
  • I’m starting to realize that my goodbyes have already started. There are people here who I see only every few months, or who are moving somewhere new for a job and won’t be back to Sipili until the holidays. By then, I’ll be back home. It’s draining to think I’ll be feeling this deep sense of loss, pretty much constantly, until I leave.
  • I left the house the other day wearing an ankle-length skirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a fleece jacket and a scarf. It’s currently about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Based on this overcompensation of my adaptation to the weather here, I am genuinely concerned for my health and ability to function at sub-zero temperatures within a couple of months.
  • One of my closest friends in my village, Dorine, passed away during the August holiday. She taught at Jessica’s school, and it was because of her encouragement, knowledge and friendship that I started coaching drama at my school. She invited went with me to the drama workshops, and talked me through my frustrations and questions I had as I put our drama performance together. I stayed with her family in Nakuru one night when we were there for a workshop, and she was always so generous and giving. I never felt like a foreigner with her, she took the time to know the real me, past my nationality. It was a total shock to hear she had passed, and it was even more bitter when I thought about her very young daughter back at her home. It still hasn’t completely sunk in – I will really, really miss her.


  • Two of my students from last year, who are now in secondary school, came to visit Sipili School for the Deaf yesterday. They both had rocky starts at their new school, but now they’re almost finished with their first year and are excited for the second one to start. They’ve matured in their attitudes, behaviors, breadth of expression, and abilities to dream and plan. I spent a good few hours with them chatting about life at school and home, until we walked over to the classroom map and talked about traveling. Some of the younger kids were there too (the older students who are back visiting are always surrounded by younger admirers) were asking questions like “how is it night in America right now, but it’s day in Kenya?” and “are there Deaf people in Canada?” It was heartwarming to watch the two older students answer their questions confidently and correctly. Although I don’t see myself working as a teacher in the future, it’s those kind of moments that make teaching the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I’ll see those old students again before I leave Kenya, but I have a feeling our paths will cross someday in the future.
  • I started packing up a few things in my house, just to see what kind of room I’ll have in my bags, and because there wasn’t anything else to do (told you, the strike was SO boring). I came across a whole folder of papers from staging, which was our one-day orientation in Philadelphia back in 2010 before we all flew to Kenya. It was the first time I met my fellow volunteers, and it was the true beginning of this adventure. One of the items in the folder was a workbook we’d filled out during staging, full of questions about our hopes and dreams for our service. It was humorous to go back and revisit the expectations I had before I left, but there was one  question, and my written answer, that really struck me. It read “I will feel successful as a Volunteer when…” and I wrote “I see my students use a skill outside the classroom that I taught them, or when I feel like Kenya is home.” That reminded me of all the moments I’ve nearly burst with pride while watching a student mature in their actions, and the feelings of comfort and safety I have here, at home in Kenya. It seemed like such a distant hope in Philadelphia, but it’s somehow, slowly and imperceptibly, become a reality.
  • I'm attempting to download the new Mumford and Son's album. I've been waiting months for it's release. Of course, since I'm in the village with terrible internet access it may take multiple days, multiple swears, and a few failures and restarts, but I have faith it'll happen. I'm really, really excited about it.
  • Remember that KSL class I was teaching for community members? All nine of the students took their exam at the beginning of August, and we’d been waiting for the results ever since. So, during my last trip to Nairobi, I met up with the examiner who delivered the certificates to me – and everyone passed!! All nine people are certified proficient in basic sign language. I’m so glad the project was successful, and I’m really proud of the effort put forth by my coworkers to show solidarity with my students by learning their language and getting certified. It makes it easier to leave, knowing there are people outside of the school who genuinely love the students and their language.
  • The toddler daughter of the storekeeper at my school has always been afraid of me, ever since I got here. I think my skin color scares her (it wouldn’t be the first time in Kenya). I’ve tried to talk to her and pick her up, but she always ends up crying. Yesterday, she walked up to me, and held out her hand to greet me. Then she smiled. I tried to play it cool and shake her hand her like it was no big deal, but I felt pretty triumphant inside.
  • The pineapples are ripening in the garden, and they seriously taste like candy. I’m afraid I’ll dissolve my teeth from the acid exposure that I fear may come from overdosing on pineapples.
  • I visited my coworker and her baby twins on Saturday, and they are still adorable with their little nails and soft, curly hair – I almost agreed when she asked me if I wanted to take one home with me when I go.
Now that the strike is over, it's time to get back into the classroom and get everyone ready for exams. I know there's not much time left for me over here, but I bet there are still lessons to learn, failures, successes, and probably some ridiculous anecdotes bound to play out that I can't begin to imagine now. So, stay tuned for all that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On the Move

Although the school term should have started last week, there's not a lot happening in any of the schools in Kenya these days. All of the major teachers' unions are on strike, which has paralyzed learning completely. That's bad news in any case, but is especially problematic this year since under the new schedule, term three is drastically shorter than the other terms. I have a feeling that once this all gets resolved, we're going to have somewhere around seven weeks of instruction time before the kids have to start their exams. Here's hoping that we can blast through sufficient review to get the kids good scores despite the time crunch! And if this sounds like déjà vu, it is. The same thing happened last year.

In the meantime, I'm in Nairobi getting medical clearance to return to the USA. So far it's all good news - no tuberculosis or anything.

Strikes and shots aside, the last month has been pretty incredible. After the mountain, Kelsey, her mom Carla and sister Julia made the transatlantic journey to Kenya. Their visit was fantastic! After a couple of days in Nairobi to see some sights, acclimate and get over jet lag (during which I dragged them all to see Brave in the theater - my second movie in the same number of years) we flew to the Masai Mara for a safari. I went on safari last year with my family, but it was just as amazing as it was the first time around. It's mind-boggling how visible and accessible all the animals are, even the relatively elusive ones. But they weren't my ONLY source of entertainment - during our game drives and back at camp, I constantly tried to make conversation with our guides in my meager Kiswahili. We could get a few sentences into a conversation, and then they'd start to talk a little too fast or drop a verb that I didn't know, and I'd just stare blankly and smile, saying "uh... nini?" which means "what?" That always got laughs. I did learn a few new words, though, and it's always fun to laugh at yourself, so I'm glad I wasn't afraid to make a fool out of myself. In all seriousness, that's one of the most important things I've learned in Kenya - never be afraid to look ridiculous. I constantly look ridiculous as a foreigner struggling through life in a different culture anyway, so why not just do whatever makes me happy without worrying about how it makes me look?

After the Mara, we headed to the coast, where we enjoyed lounging by and swimming in the Indian Ocean in Kilifi before Julia had to leave to go back to school. The three of us remaining made our way to Watamu where Kelsey went diving, and then continued on to Lamu. I'd been looking forward to visiting Lamu ever since I heard about it from a fellow volunteer toward the beginning of my service - it's an island off the Kenyan coast, about six hours of driving north of Mombasa. There are no motorized vehicles on the island (just donkeys!) and you have to take a boat from mainland to the jetty. Also, the culture on the island has a very strong Arabic influence, but is distinctly Bantu as well. I suppose that's typical of many Swahili areas on the coast, but the art, architecture and prevalence of Islam is is much richer on Lamu than other Kenyan towns. Paired with the laid-back coastal attitude, antiquated transportation methods and small-town feel (although it was full of tourists), it's so distinct, so unique. I could have stayed there for a month. It's as though time stops as soon as your feet hit the ground on the shore of the island. During our time there we took a dhow (old wooden sailboat) ride to an empty beach, ate seafood and spicy Indian-influenced concoctions, bought beautiful fabrics and admired all the woodwork throughout town. The boats, doors, signs and buildings all feature gorgeous carved wood, with a bit of a nautical feel to it. The old buildings are all stone, with high walls, and the narrow alleyways that weave between them feel almost European. It was rejuvenating to be surrounded by so much beauty - not to mention the ocean, the full moon one night, and great company.

After Lamu, which was hard to leave, we headed to Naivasha for my Close of Service (COS) conference. Kelsey and Carla were able to go to Hell's Gate and Crescent Island during the days (which I'd done last year with my family), while I sat in a conference hall, facing the reality that I'm almost finished here. Our whole education group was there - everyone still left in country who'd flown here together. We reminisced about the start of our service, talked about how our attitudes and outlooks have changed and evolved, and dreamed about our next steps. We had lectures about all things surrounding our re-entry, from reverse culture shock (I, for one, am not ready for touch screens on every dang thing) to marketing our PC experience during our job search, to insurance and other fun bureaucratic paperwork. It was really sobering to get everything set in stone, especially travel plans. The exciting (and scary!) news is that I'm officially flying out of Kenya on the evening of November 28th. For those of you not counting, that's 76 days from now. A blip on the radar of two years. I'm going to try not to think about it until I absolutely have to, because I'm not so sure I'm ready to say goodbye.

After Naivasha, Kelsey and Carla got to see a little bit off Nyahururu and Sipili. It was great to have them up in my neck of the woods, even though it was brief. Unfortunately not many of the kids had shown up to school because of the strike, but there were a few! Plus, all of the playground equipment that had been in disrepair had been fixed over break, so we taught the kids how to use the swings and the see saw. And to Kelsey's great credit, at the very end of her visit, she took the matatu ride from Sipili to Nyahururu! From what I hear, it's not for the faint of heart.

To see some pictures from the trip, click here!

Now that we're halfway through September, I'm ready to get back to Sipili and into the classroom. I don't plan on leaving the village much at all until classes end. I want to spend as much time as possible with my students, coworkers, friends and family there. Sipili really is home. 

In my downtime these next 11 weeks (when I'm not studying for the MCAT, which is my first priority), I'm sure I'll be working on my itinerary for when I get back home. New York, DC, San Diego, Portland, Alaska... they all seem like a fantasy, but I'll see them soon enough! Both studying and planning will be much easier, because I'll be able to use my computer - I now have power IN MY HOUSE! It still cuts out sometimes, and I can't get an internet connection, but it's a help nonetheless.

Oh, and Alaska friends, I'm sorry for the termination dust on the mountains. I'm getting so excited to see snow again that I may have willed it to fall. Sincerest apologies.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

To the Summit

I'm sitting in Nairobi again, and it's a rainy afternoon. My lungs are full of oxygen, and my calves are sore. Yesterday I finished the long descent from Mount Kenya, which I started climbing with eight other friends on Sunday, August 12th. We met up on the evening of the 11th in Naro Moru, just outside of Nanyuki town, at a fellow volunteer's house to divide up our gear and make sure we'd packed everything we needed. We were a ragtag band of American travelers, made up of six Peace Corps Volunteers, two visiting family members, and one Fulbright Scholar. Some of us knew each other before we started the journey, but there were a lot of new acquaintances and subsequent friendships. The journey was incredible, definitely not one I'll soon forget.

On the morning of the 12th, we traveled into Nanyuki to meet up with Charles, who coordinated our whole excursion. We divvied up rental gear, picked up some medicine for altitude sickness, got a good breakfast and hit the road. We drove about an hour to the Mount Kenya National Park, at the Sirimon Gate where we met our team. There were two guides, Mike and Gertrude, a cook and his assistant, three porters to carry personal belongings, and five porters to carry food/other gear. (Side note: these porters were some of the strongest humans I'd seen, flying up and down the mountain with ease, and chain smoking at every camp. It was baffling, and frankly impressive). After a quick picnic lunch, we all eagerly started our 9k hike at a gradual incline. It was the first day, so we were all bright-eyed and energetic, and took a quick pace. The weather was nice and warm as we passed through tall, dense forests, and then into bamboo forests as we climbed higher. We reached Old Moses camp in the evening, in the midst of a light drizzle. We played games and ate a warm, delicious meal prepared by the cook. It was so quiet, such a nice change of pace from our daily negotiations of responsibilities, cultural exchanges and routine. We went to sleep with a feeling of excitement for the next day... but sleep didn't come easy. We'd rented two four-person tents from our company, but instead we got two three-person tents. We had brought one 2-3 person tent of our own, occupied by two people, and one of the rented three-person tents held the appropriate three people. But we had stuffed four people in the other rented three-person tent, and I don't think ANY of us got sleep that night. Although, it did break down some barriers in getting to know one another! Luckily, we fit another person in the smallest tent after the first night, so we were able to get rest after the initial disaster.

Day two and three followed a similar schedule - an early morning breakfast and departure from camp, and arrival at the next camp in the early afternoon. Each day we hiked about 7 km, and we went through a few other vegetation zones as the altitude changed and became too high for trees. It was incredible to feel the changes in our bodies as we adjusted to the altitude. A short distance of hiking would leave us out of breath, hearts pounding. We kept the pace slow enough to sing some trail songs together without getting too winded, though.

On the morning of the fourth day, we woke up at 2 AM to the most magnificent night sky. The air was biting cold, and we all silently bundled up, rolled up our sleeping bags and filled our backpacks in nervous anticipation of the hardest part of our climb. We were scheduled to head out at 3 AM, but due to some nausea and some dead headlamp batteries, we were delayed until about 3:30. At that point, we set off with a shiver and a little prayer. We were thousands of meters above sea level, the oxygen was thin, the rocks were frosty and our muscles were sore, but we moved as a team. We slowly climbed the craggy side of the mountain in a race against the sun that was going to rise. We took water breaks, we passed labored whispers of encouragement to one another, and we climbed. We passed climbers who had gotten sick and others who couldn't catch their breath, but still we climbed. We looked to the left, and saw the waning moon above the patches of snow and jagged rocks. We followed our guides slowly, and we kept our eyes focused upward. Finally the sun began to barely lighten the sky, and we knew we didn't have much further to go. We pulled ourselves up, gripping cold stone, until we were walking on snow. It was 6:30 AM. Then, a few more meters. And a few more meters after that. A small iron ladder embedded in the rock, and then we could see it: the Kenyan flag on the summit. We were drawn to it like a magnet, and our windburned and sunburned faces softened into smiles. We cheered and we shivered (I cannot express how cold it was on top of that mountain) while we took pictures and sips of brandy. I wish we could have stayed up there longer, to watch the sun complete its journey into the sky, but it was freezing, and we still had a long way to hike. So we looked out over Kenya from above the clouds, took a moment to understand and appreciate where we were and how we'd arrived, and for the first time in four days, took some steps downhill.

We descended the mountain over the course of the next two days via the Chogoria route. We toasted some champagne on the last night, with a bottle that had made it to the top of the mountain and back (without bursting, which has to be some kind of miracle) just like all of us. Yesterday we rode back into Nairobi, and now I'm sitting at a table in a restaurant with wireless internet. I can't believe that only a few days ago I was on the top of the world, and now I'm back to reality. But, I know those memories, struggles and friendships will stay with me long after the windburn has healed.

I know I'm constantly trying to pull metaphors out of my experiences here, and I know that sometimes they're tenuous. But the experience of climbing the mountain helped put me at ease as I start to think about my last three months in Kenya, and what kind of posture I should take toward the endless unknown that I'm approaching. Sometimes we take a hiatus from what's expected of us. And instead of taking it easy, we go somewhere or do something challenging. It tests us, it changes us, and it's something we choose because we hope we're molded into something better than we were before. There's also a selfish element, a desire to become more interesting by virtue of a unique experience or accomplishment. But in the end, I find that both in the shadow of Mount Kenya and in my 23rd month of Peace Corps service, I am the one humbled and dwarfed by the very things I expected to conquer. It was never about me - it was about entering into something enduring, something that will remain long after I've left. It's about letting my interactions with those things change every perception, limit, and fear I've ever held.

Through my time here as a whole and the experience of climbing in particular, I have watched myself do things I never believed I could do. I don't mention that because I think it says anything about me - it's not to brag. I mention that because it's helped me realize how deeply powerful we all are, by virtue of being human and being able to challenge ourselves. Because we have the ability to imagine a reality, we have the ability to manifest that reality. I have had a lot of conversations in the past where I've said "If only I had this, or knew this, or was this kind of person... well then surely I could make this happen!" I still hear the same self-imposed limits when I talk to people at home who say "I wish I could travel like you do." Or when I hear Kenyans say "I wish I could visit your country" or when some of my students say "I wish I could go to high school." It's not fair to dismiss any of those comments with a cavalier attitude, brushing people off by saying "well, you can make it happen if you work at it." But I would say that in my experience, my deepest, most crippling limits were all self-imposed. And they have been uprooted not only through hard work, but by throwing myself into scary, difficult, strange situations. Sure I've behaved foolishly, I've made mistakes, and I've been deeply frustrated and disappointed along the way. And on that mountain, there were moments when I would have done anything to turn back, to fill my lungs with oxygen and feel warm again. But if I had, I would have never seen the top. And you know what? Because I kept trying to do things I never thought I could do, I've "summited" back at site, too. I've watched coworkers and friends fall in love with the Deaf students I care for so deeply. I have absolutely no fear for them once I go. I know they will still be loved and remembered by their community. I may have had a very small part to play in them, but those changes happened organically. That's how I know they'll last.

I share these reflections because there are a lot of changes ahead for me. But that's not new - there are always a lot of changes ahead for all of us. I'm just trying to keep in mind that if my plans aren't scary, they're not big enough. And that's not just true for me, that's true for everyone.

Now, the REALLY exciting news is that Kelsey and her family get here in two days. I have a little bit of time to catch up on work and e-mails, and then I'll be off on adventures with them until the beginning of September. I can't wait to share my home with people I love - it's always a real treat. And as we head into the downhill of August, I have my head and heart focused on fully engaging in this final term of teaching. I have very lofty goals for my students in these last few months, but I'm confident we can make them happen.

Until then, go climb a mountain. Figuratively, if you'd like. Either way, the view from the top is amazing.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Looking back, I can’t believe how much happened in the last month. I knew it was all going to happen, but it’s a little disorienting to be on the other side of it all. The experiences were eventful, so this update might take a while!

The Lewa Half Marathon was incredible. To risk sounding dramatic, I’d say it’s one of my top ten life experiences thus far. Lewa Downs is a little more than halfway between Nanyuki and Meru, and it’s a gorgeous conservancy. It’s exactly what one imagines when thinking of African grasslands, with its shallow undulating hills and golden vegetation that waves in the warm breeze. The color of the grass camouflages the ubiquitous impala, but you can spot their dark spiral horns that stick out above the grass, while the zebras’ stark stripes stand out against the beige background. Acacia trees are bunched in sparse clusters, where you can find the giraffes reaching for the top branches with their prehensile tongues. Just riding into the conservancy on the afternoon of June 29th was awe-inspiring, I couldn’t believe I’d be running through the picturesque surroundings the next morning.

There were six Peace Corps volunteers running the race, and a couple other friends with us. We set up camp at the self-catering campsite area . The rich wazungu who had flown here for the race had their own set-up with fancy accommodations and food, but we were on a volunteer budget, so we brought our own tents, sleeping bags and gas cooker, and made an adventure of it. After a quiet spaghetti dinner under the stars at our campsite, we all went to bed early with our running gear laid out for the next day. We woke up slowly in the chilly morning on the 30th, a couple hours before the race was scheduled to start, and we couldn’t tell if our shaking was from shivering or from nerves – or a mixture of both. About 20 minutes before the race, I realized I had lost the safety pins for my running bib, so I was running around asking everyone if they had extras. No one did, of course. Luckily, I had the genius Anna Martin by my side, who suggested I use my earrings to pin my bib to my shirt. Leave it to PCVs to find a resourceful solution in a pinch! It worked great.

The race kicked off at 7:30 AM (right on time! I couldn’t believe it) and the whole setting was perfect. It was about an hour after sunrise, and there was still a slight dewy chill, but the sun was already starting to warm us up, and running took care of the rest. Those hills that looked so beautiful as we drove in proved to be a little less inviting as the course climbed their slopes, but it wasn’t really that bad. I’d made the perfect music playlist and I had prepared adequately, so I was able to keep my pace for the majority of the run. I can’t explain the feeling of seeing the sign toward the end of the race “500 M to the finish.” It was right next to a sign for the full marathon runners: “for 2nd lap, turn here.” At that moment I had infinite respect for the runners who were doing the full marathon. I couldn’t imagine running the course I’d just run AGAIN. I was relieved to make my turn, and cross the finish line. My legs felt like rubber and my insides were all jostled, but I’d finished. It was an awesome feeling.

Not four hours later, I was on a matatu back to Nairobi for the conference at the UN. I had a couple blisters and one black toenail (it’s still black, nearly a month later – not really sure about what happened there), but I slipped on a pair of pumps and a blazer and changed roles completely. It was time to be professional and quick thinking, which was an incredible change of pace. My job in the village is by no means easy, but it is much slower-paced than any activity happening at the UN headquarters in Nairobi. It was fun to think quickly on my feet and rush from one session to the next, take notes and synthesize them into summaries. There were people from all over East Africa, and there were so many good ideas about how to get East African youth interested in volunteering. There were some interesting counter-points, though – a lot of youths here view “volunteering” merely as thinly veiled free labor. There is a good deal of mistrust of government and NGOs on the part of the youth, and honestly, it’s not unwarranted. Even in my own job, I find that many “reputable” organizations are doing things completely contrary to the needs of my community (read on for a recent, specific example). I’m excited for the way that Peace Corps can partner with the people who are starting the East Africa Peace and Service Corps to address some of the concerns, since we have the unique privilege of working one-on-one with rural youth. Because as amazing as it was to be at the UN, it is SO removed from the reality of the people and groups who will be the largest stakeholders in the project. Anyway, the bottom line is that we had a productive and fun time, and I’m excited to see what comes out of the conference in the coming months. Also, the 4th of July party at the US Ambassador’s house was pretty incredible. There were hot dogs flown in from Michigan, wines flown in from Napa, and all kinds of interesting people. Not to mention gigantic American flags and a jazz band. It was a really good reminder that although we have our own issues and challenges in the USA, I have developed a deep respect and gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had thanks to being a US citizen. It’s easy (and I’d argue, important) to criticize the things we do wrong as a nation, but it’s equally important to recognize and appreciate that our right to criticize is fiercely defended. It was also a good personal reminder toward the end of my service here, as I look toward a future career, that with great privilege comes great responsibility.

One other fun fact – the ambassador’s son lives in Alaska! I spoke with the ambassador’s wife for a few moments, and she said he lives in Eagle River. It was really nice to feel a small connection to home, even while thousands of miles away.

After a couple of weeks away from site, it was so nice to come back to Sipili. But the relaxation was short-lived. I got back on a Sunday, and there was a field trip for the whole school the following Tuesday. This wasn’t a field trip I was excited about, though. We were going with all of the kids to pick up the hearing aids we’d been fitted for last term. Sure, it was nice to take the kids to Nakuru, especially the little ones who had never really been on a big trip. But, the whole event was a disaster. As much as I try, I can’t think of too many redeeming qualities of the day. Maybe it was nice that the donors had good intentions, but I have very little patience for that being an excuse for a poorly planned and executed event. It’s obvious how I feel about it, but let me attempt to explain the proceedings without using biased language, and maybe you, reader, can see where my frustration stemmed from.

Last term, two Kenyans (a head teacher from Ngala School for the Deaf, and a doctor) came to take ear molds of all the children in my school. There were no audiograms taken before this visit, so the children who are profoundly deaf got ear molds, as did the children who are hearing but have no speech. There was minimal sign language explanation of what was happening. The process of taking ear molds includes inserting small cotton balls into the ear to block the canal (so the mold material doesn’t go too deep into the ear) and then an “injection” of a rubbery substance into the ear that hardens and creates the mold, from which the earpiece of the hearing aid will be made. This mold ensures a specific fit for each child’s hearing aid(s). Molds have to be updated for each child as they grow, because the ear shape changes as the child ages. After the molds were taken for each child, the two men left with the molds, which would be shipped to the USA for manufacturing of the earpieces.

Fast forward to our field trip. We arrived at Ngala School for the Deaf (where the hearing aid distribution was taking place), and there was one large red tent with about eight stations manned by red polo-clad volunteers from an organization called Starkey in the USA. The volunteers did not know Kenyan Sign Language. The Deaf kids sat in an assembly line, with the earpieces (made in the US from the molds, and distributed upon their arrival) inside their ears. They, one by one, sat in a chair with an American volunteer who spoke to them, saying “Hello, my name is ____. Tell me if you can hear this.” The volunteer then attached a hearing aid to the earpiece, stood behind them and said “ba ba ba ba” or some other repetitive sound. Then using gestures (not Sign Language) and spoken English, asked “do you need it higher or lower?” Based on the kid’s response and the volunteer’s interpretation of that response, the hearing aid was adjusted or replaced with a different hearing aid, until the volunteer was satisfied with the fit. I saw a couple sign language interpreters, but they were not actively involved in the process. After being fitted with hearing aids, the kids moved on to a booth where they were given a small packet containing a few months’ worth of batteries, and a sticker for a job well done.

My emotions were very high throughout this whole ordeal. I had no power to make any changes to the procedure, so I did my best to improve the experience by interpreting for my students, and explaining what was happening, because there was a LOT of confusion and miscommunication. I also made it very clear to my coworkers that although I am from the USA and the volunteers from Starkey were from the USA, we don’t  have the same philosophies on how to work with Deaf kids. We also briefly discussed whether it’s appropriate to just accept any donation that comes along, or if we should think critically about whether it would actually help our students and react accordingly. I also got into a few conversations with some of the volunteers from Starkey. They noticed I was interpreting, so they’d call me over to help them ask the kids whether their hearing aids were too high, too low, or just right. It was a tough job, even knowing sign language, and the whole thing  was rushed. A lot of the kids were confused, scared, or unsure of what to say. Some of the kids didn’t even have any KSL skills, so even my signing wasn’t helping them to communicate. Finally after about an hour of my help interpreting, one of the ladies said “gosh, thank you! Maybe I should know some sign language…” I just smiled and nodded, which was all I could do to keep from shouting “OH, REALLY? YOU THINK SO??” and embarrassing myself. I moved on to ask the people handing out batteries where the kids could get more when these ones ran out. They said they didn’t know. I also asked about how the kids were supposed to get updated ear molds. They also didn’t know.

Perhaps the most frustrating moment of the day was an interaction I had with one of the kids (he was 10 years old) who was with Starkey. He was the son of one of the volunteers, and he knew the ASL alphabet, how to say his name, and use some very basic signs. This made him the resident sign language expert. However, the only difference between the ASL alphabet and the KSL alphabet is the letter “t.” In KSL, the ASL sign for “t” is vulgar; it’s the sign for a certain part of female anatomy that is not discussed in polite society. Of course, the boy’s name began with the letter “t.” So every time he introduced himself, he shocked all the Deaf kids. He also misunderstood most of their signs. One of the Kenyans asked him if he liked Kenya and why. He said “yes! I like being here, because I get to help people!” I think that served as a pretty good metaphor for the whole day.

Once the whole process was over, we got back on the bus, everyone armed with new hearing aids and a few batteries. Almost immediately, some of the hearing aids started to make feedback sounds. You know, the sound a microphone makes when it’s near a speaker, or that hearing aids make when they're not fitted or used properly. Not annoying at all. By the end of the bus ride, most of the hearing aids had been taken out. Over the course of the next week, most of the smaller kids’ aids were broken, the bigger ones weren’t adjusted properly, and most kids admitted they didn’t help them hear. Probably a total of eight hearing aids (in a school of about 70 kids, who each got two hearing aids) are helpful, and are still being worn, maintained and used properly. But they will be rendered useless once the batteries run out and/or the kid outgrows the ear mold.

The real kicker? One hearing aid costs tens of thousands of Kenyan shillings. I can only dream of the teaching materials, books, uniforms, play equipment and other useful things that could be purchased with the same money spent on the hearing aids.

For the record, I have nothing against hearing aids, if the decision to use them is made by the student and the parent together, with appropriate support from the teacher. I also believe that poverty should not be a barrier to accessing such devices, if they are in the best interest of the child. However, I am very much against irresponsible spending, cultural insensitivity, unsustainable projects, and reinforcement of the donor/beneficiary relationship between industrialized nations and the global South. I am offended that although there is no excuse for donors to remain ignorant of the places they are going to “help,” there is oftentimes no effort to educate oneself about the environment they’re entering into, and that remains culturally acceptable. It’s neo-imperialism, it’s self-serving and it’s incredibly embarrassing.

Excuse me as I get down off my soapbox now. I could go on forever, but it’s time for some less emotionally-charged news.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty quiet (minus the occasional chorus of feedback playing from the few remaining hearing aids), which has been nice. I’m excited for August, because I’m climbing Mount Kenya with some PCVs, and my dear friend Kelsey is visiting along with her mom and her sister. They’re like a second family to me, so it will be incredible to see them. In the meantime, I’m continuing to work with my community KSL class, who will be taking their exam on August 4th. I have high hopes for them – they’ve been preparing diligently! But the strangest news from the last couple weeks has to do with the weather. It’s been hovering around 18 degrees C, which is uncommonly cold for Sipili. It also has me deeply worried, because I’ve been absolutely FREEZING. I’ve been wearing scarves, multiple jackets, wool socks, the works. It seems I’ve completely acclimated to this region, which is not good news for my return to Alaska. Especially since I’ll be getting back in the middle of the winter. It may get ugly.

As I move into the last couple weeks of this term and my last school break before heading home, I wish you all (in the US) a lovely second half of summer. Also, for anyone who may have stumbled across this blog who has gotten their invitation to be a Deaf Ed volunteer arriving in Kenya this October, feel free to get in touch!! I’ve heard that some people are already getting their notification. They’ll be our replacements. How time flies…

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Days Are Running

Here in Kenya, when you want to say that time is going really fast, you say "the days are running." Sitting here looking at the calendar, realizing we're over halfway through June, I am convinced. The days are definitely running. Very, very quickly. There are less than five months left until I'm on a plane out of here - that thought simultaneously makes me feel queasy and elated. But lately, it makes me feel a little more of the former than the latter.

Term two is in full swing, and luckily it’s been more relaxed than term one. Of course I’m still teaching a full load of classes, afternoon KSL class for secondary students and another for community members, but at least I’m consistently leaving school before it starts to get dark, which is an improvement over last term. It affords me enough daylight to go on evening runs, which are a fantastic way to de-stress. Not to mention, they’re incredibly necessary – the half marathon is less than two weeks away! I am a little nervous about it because the terrain of the course is rough, there is no tree cover, and, well, it’s 21 kilometers long. But I’m up for the challenge. And my one consolation is that I’ve been training at an altitude about 300 meters (~ 1,000 feet) higher than the course. So, hopefully my red blood cells/hemoglobin will be at their oxygen-carrying peak.

After the run, I’ll be in Nairobi for close to a week, for a really exciting reason: I was invited, along with six other Peace Corps Volunteers, to the “African Conference on Volunteer Action for Peace and Development” (ACVAPD). It will take place at the UN Headquarters, and will feature influential leaders in politics, youth development, health, environmentalism, peace building, and volunteerism from East Africa and around the world. Participants are coming together for a few days to initiate the inception of an “East Africa Peace and Service Corps” that would be dedicated to fostering the spirit of volunteerism in East African youth. If you’ve been following my personal evolution of discovering how I believe we all should interact with one another, you’ll know that this sounds like a dream to me. Through experience and observation I’ve come to the conclusion that people, regardless of nationality, can realize their potential to make a positive difference in society through service without monetary compensation, and I believe that such service is one of the surest routes toward global understanding and peace. In Sipili, I see countless brilliant, disenfranchised young people every day. There aren’t enough local jobs for all these youths, which breeds desperation, and young people can be easily hijacked by ill-meaning individuals or organizations who recognize desperation and know how to manipulate it. Some girls who have finished high school but can’t afford college will sell themselves to men at the nearby military post. And young men in similar situations are, as we’ve recently seen, joining groups like Al-Shabaab with chilling frequency, lured by promises of financial stability and honor. Opening opportunities for young people to volunteer is an exciting if not necessary way forward, and I’m really excited to attend (and contribute to!) this conference.

The only downside? I’m going to need to buy some new clothes. And shoes. As much as I love them, I wouldn’t feel right shaking the hands of foreign dignitaries while wearing my Chacos.

In the meantime, life in Sipili is passing at its usual, leisurely pace. There was some excitement at the end of May, when four women from the US visited the school. Two of them have been in partnership with the school for a few years now, and they’ve worked on funding small-scale projects that benefit the kids directly (a cow that provides milk for the porridge, sweaters for the school uniform that the kids wear while they’re at school, etc.) It was really nice to visit with all of them and swap Peace Corps stories with one of the women in the group who served as a PCV in Kenya years ago. It was a lucky coincidence that they were here during my birthday, too! We had a lovely dinner together (at the infamous Olivia’s), and they even gave me some cards and a cake. It’s not always easy being so far from friends and family during birthdays (they’re not celebrated at all in Sipili), so it was really thoughtful and encouraging to have a little celebration with people from the US. Although I think I may be losing touch with home – when the ladies first arrived, I couldn’t keep up with what they were saying. People from the US really do speak quickly.

There is some bad news from the school, too. Last week, one of our two cows fell into an open pit, being dug for a latrine at the neighboring primary school, and died. No more milk from her, but he kids ate a lot of meat that week. Personally, I’m overjoyed the cow has been fully consumed and that we’re back to beans.

I feel like there a million other little updates that I could share (we have a new teacher at school, one of the other teachers just had twin girls, the weather is nice and cold, the bean and pea crops are almost ready for harvest, my friend’s grandmother’s burial was this past weekend) but it dawned on me that all the little things combine to tell a bigger story. I know I’ve written before about how integrated I feel (or don’t feel), and about how I constantly have to work to navigate my identities. When I first got to Sipili, I was “mzungu” to everyone. I made children cry from my appearance alone (which can do a number on one’s self-esteem, by the way), and people would charge me an inflated price for almost everything. Kids would use a nasal voice (because apparently that’s how American English sounds to them) to imitate me, and the greeting I heard was “Jambo!” Then, months passed, and people realized I was a fixture in town. They also learned I am a teacher, so I became “mwalimu” instead of “mzungu.” Greetings changed to the more natural “mambo” or “habari,” and the mamas at the market knew which vegetables I would buy when I approached their stalls. That was encouraging, definitely. But there was still something missing – people knew of me, but people didn’t really know me yet.

Now, finally, after over a year and a half in Sipili, I’m “Madam Jennifer” to almost everyone. I swap stories and news with the women I buy food from, and I shake hands with at least a dozen children on every walk home (and promptly wash my hands upon arriving to my house). When a child from another town is visiting Sipili and they call me mzungu, one of their local family members will turn and defend me, saying “hapana! Ni Madam Jennifer!” When I go on runs, people will join me for a kilometer or two here and there (even the grandmothers – these women are made of the strongest stuff) or cheer me on as they’re digging in their farms that flank the road. Now the greeting I get is “We mwega?” which is in Gikuyu, the local tribal dialect. And these days, I even know how to respond: “Nikowega muno!”

So, all the other little updates, too numerous to mention, are now part of my life because I’ve finally, fully become part of life here. I have the privilege of holding newborn babies, joining in prayers for rain, mourning deaths, and contributing to discussions about current events. And although this emergent property that arises from joining little instances together is difficult to describe, it’s the most important update I can communicate to all of you who have been with me on this adventure.

Before I sign off, I want to wish everyone back  in the USA (and especially Alaska) a happy summer. Congratulations to all the graduates (especially USD grads, my brother and three cousins – you guys are amazing) and I hope everyone gets a chance to take a vacation and enjoy the sun. Have a great 4th of July, too. If all goes according to plan, I should be celebrating Independence Day with the US Ambassador to Kenya. Who would have thought?!