Time makes very little sense in Africa.
There's obviously nothing about Africa itself that alters the normal passage of time, but it's disorienting for me to think about how just eight weeks ago, I was in a different hemisphere. Sometimes the days crawl by, but now, as December is beginning, it seems like time has flown since we all first landed in Nairobi. But, although it's gone by faster than I expected, it seems like I've known the other trainees forever and that I've lived with my host family for ages. As we all prepare to say even MORE goodbyes (seriously, the word "goodbye" is the theme of 2010) and travel to our homes for the next two years, it's interesting to look back over training and really see how far we've come.
First of all, we can all now communicate in Kenyan Sign Language. Some trainees came to Kenya with a pretty high proficiency in ASL, but all of us were starting from square one in KSL. But, after weeks of language training (that oftentimes tested the limits of our patience) we're all to the point where, this week, we have all been teaching in a mock classroom setting to primary students who are deaf. And the kicker is, they all understand us!! (At least, they usually do). Today I taught a math lesson to Class 5 students (parallel and perpendicular lines), an English lesson to Class 4 students (vocabulary relating to things you find on a farm), and a "Life Skills" lesson to Class 6 students about disease prevention and how to stay healthy- that one was definitely the highlight of my day. Teaching in sign language is a total blast, too - it's a great excuse to be totally dramatic and overact, since all communication is visual.
We've also become accustomed to the Kenyan pace of life. Nothing has a set schedule, and everything happens at an easy pace. Although that was hard to adjust to at first (it's easy to get frustrated when class was supposed to start at 8 and doesn't actually get going until 11), I'm finding that it makes a lot of sense to do things the Kenyan way. People spend more time with one another, and don't allow schedules or clocks to control their actions. Conversations are intentional, and relaxation time is taken seriously. It's common to take two or three tea breaks during a work day, not including lunch. And every tea break includes tea, which means time to cook, cool and drink the tea. On a related note, I don't think I've ever drunk more tea in my life than I have these past two months.
Finally (and most importantly) since our communication skills have grown and our patience has increased, we've all gotten used to being the person who, in any group of Kenyans, is different. We have even learned how to deal with all the "unwanted attention" (the Peace Corps term for anything from being asked for spare change to unexpected marriage proposals). At first we were annoyed with all the attention. It was hard to say "no" to everything anyone asked for - It was hard to explain why I, as a person from America, don't actually have tons of money to buy someone a car, or why I, as a young woman, am not interested in finding a husband yet. But, the cultural misconceptions on BOTH sides were (and still are) huge. For the most part, Americans don't understand Kenyans, and Kenyans don't understand Americans. But I've started to change my own mindset, and now, even though I don't completely understand the culture, I understand my Kenyan mama. And I understand my Kenyan language trainers. And I understand some of the Kenyan people I interact with on a daily basis. And I think they're starting to understand me, too. It takes time and I still get a little frustrated when someone assumes I'm made of money or asks me if I want to marry their son, but I understand that it's all part of the experience. And now that I understand the motivation behind the "unwanted attention," it's not so scary to walk through town like it was in the beginning. In fact, it's become one of my favorite parts of the day.
Of course, just as all these adjustments are settling in, we'll be leaving for Nairobi. But I think we now have the skills to easily adjust when we arrive at our sites, and we're all so excited. In the meantime I have to run - a new supermarket just opened in town, which promises to be the Machakos shopping event of the year.
Thank you again to everyone for mail - I just posted a couple of replies, so keep your eyes on the mailbox!