Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Volunteer Status


This past week has been the most eventful since I got to Kenya, and I've been waiting until today to post an update for reasons that will become clear as you read on. But before I get to the most recent excitement, I'll pick up my story where I left off.

We trainees said goodbye to our host families in Machakos last Saturday night, which was bittersweet for most of us. We all recognize that it's an accomplishment to be finished with training, but through countless awkward moments, stories of our lives and hard work (mostly learning how to wash clothes by hand, cook on charcoal, barter at the market, etc.) we had built a home and strong relationships with our host families. I felt as though my Mama here in Kenya was like a second mother, and my brother and sister felt like my actual siblings. It was difficult to part ways, but the next stage of this journey was beckoning. So we packed up ALL of our luggage again (along with the 7+ new manuals/books/packets of information Peace Corps had assigned at some point during training which are causing our bags to explode) and left on Sunday morning for a hotel in Nairobi.

Nairobi was (and continues to be) a bit of a culture shock for many of us. On Monday we visited a mall called "Westgate," which is so modern that it could be a mall in America. When we visited, there were Christmas decorations all over the mall, and there were clothing stores, coffee kiosks, a Nakumatt (a Kenyan Wal-Mart of sorts) and more mzungus than we had seen in our entire Pre-Service Training. We came to the consensus that we have no idea how we'll be able to handle reintegration into American life once our Peace Corps tour is over, because after only 2 months we are already completely overwhelmed in such a Western-influenced environment. But we were all able to purchase a few items that we needed (I got batteries, an external CD drive, orange juice and fruit roll ups to share with my fellow trainees - a little taste of America). After our excursion, we went to a restaurant called Pizza Garden and had actual brick oven pizza. Most of us got sick after that since our bodies haven't encountered cheese or spices in weeks, but we decided it was worth it.

On Tuesday morning, we were still feeling a little sick to our stomachs, but this time it was due to nerves instead of pizza, since the first item on the day's agenda was the supervisors' workshop. All of our supervisors-to-be in the schools where we will be teaching had traveled to Nairobi to participate in the workshop with us, so this was our very first opportunity to meet them. After the initial awkwardness and difficulty in communication, we were able to ask all of our burning questions about our communities, our schools, and our houses. My supervisor is incredibly friendly and helpful. He told me about the home I'll be in, and I felt my excitement and anticipation growing as he explained the setup. I'll be living on a family compound, which means that I am living with a family but I'll be in a separate house. My house is modest (there are two rooms and it has no electricity or running water) but according to my supervisor the family is incredibly kind and welcoming. Also, their entire estate is full of every different kind of fruit! Passionfruit, mangoes, bananas... you name it, they have it. I'd take that over a flushing toilet any day.

After a day full of activities with our supervisors, we all went to bed early so we could rest well for our big event today: the swearing-in ceremony. Since the day is now over and I have been sworn in, this is my first blog post as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!! I know it's just semantics and that there isn't really a huge distinction between a trainee and a volunteer, but there is at least a slight difference. It is an indication that we've adapted to our surroundings enough to stay in the country for 2 months and that we've become proficient enough in our language to be entrusted with the job of educating youth in Kenya. I still feel under qualified, but now that's just an incentive to work even harder than if I was feeling completely prepared.

The ceremony was held at the residence of the Deputy Chief of Mission (the second-in-command to the US Ambassador to Kenya). His home was incredible. As the ceremony began, we heard remarks from various people who had been instrumental in the training and placement processes, as well as the Peace Corps Country Director for all of Kenya and the Deputy Chief himself. The remarks were all well presented and poignant, reminding us all of the opportunity we have in front of us. One of my favorite moments was when the DC told us that "the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose." It was a fantastic reminder for all of us - we've been spending so much time in the trenches already, trudging around our training towns and working hard to learn languages and integrate into the culture. But of course there is a larger vision, and we're all working as a part of a movement in Kenya and the world to increase friendship and understanding between nations. It was a moment to pause, reflect on our motivation and poise ourselves for the long journey ahead.

After the remarks, we rose our right hands and took the same oath as the president of the US takes when he takes office, to "solemnly swear to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic," among other things. At the conclusion of the oath, we all became official volunteers. Then we were officially accepted by the Kenyan Ministry of Education as teachers in Kenya, and received certificates alongside our supervisors. The entire ceremony was short and sweet, and more meaningful than I expected.

Me and my supervisor during the swearing-in ceremony

The reception that followed was a real celebration - there were American refreshments (if you're noticing that Peace Corps volunteers get disproportionately excited about American food, you're right. But try eating ugali and kale for two months and then see how amazing a Christmas cookie sounds to you) and photo ops galore. It began to sink in as we mingled with our newly sworn-in colleagues and our trainers and the supervisors and dignitaries - we're finished with this phase of our Peace Corps experience, and we're about to start the next exciting chapter. Tomorrow morning we'll say goodbye to the friends we've made in training. That will undoubtedly be difficult. We've all become so unexpectedly close, and we know we can rely on each other to get us through the difficult moments when Kenyan life is too overwhelming. But we just have to remember that those friends are always a phone call away (provided the phone networks are working) and we're about to meet a new community of friends who will be a support system as well.

Before I sign off and re-pack my bags for the trek to Laikipia district tomorrow (only about 4-5 hours of travel - much luckier than the multi-day trips for the folks going to the coast), I want to share an anecdote that gives me a bit of hope for the next couple of years:

When we first landed in Nairobi eight weeks ago, the very first thing we did after collecting our bags at the airport and loading them onto a matatu was to drive to our hotel and dump our things in our room. After two nights in the hotel, we again loaded up our luggage and went to our training sites and our homestay families. Once I began unpacking my things in my room at my homestay, I realized that I was missing one of my most essential pieces of Peace Corps gear - my new blue Chaco sandals. I had bought them in Seattle on my road trip with my close friends this past summer with my Peace Corps service in mind, so they were both functional AND had sentimental value. I knew I must have left them in the hotel in Nairobi. At that point I was so overwhelmed by the new things I was learning and experiencing that I didn't know who to ask about my sandals, and I assumed they would be gone. I said a sad goodbye to them in my mind and left it at that.

Fast forward to this past Sunday. When we arrived to Nairobi, we checked into the same hotel we stayed in during our first couple of nights in Kenya. I decided to take a shot in the dark and ask the front desk a question that even sounded funny to me: "do you know if there was a pair of sandals found here... about 2 months ago?" I expected a laugh and a "No," but instead I got a smile and a "yes, I think they are just here!" and my Chacos were brought out from a cabinet. This whole experience challenged my expectations, especially in Kenya. During our training, before I left America, and throughout almost every conversation I've had with someone about living in Kenya, I have been met with the advice to "stay safe" and "be very careful, people in Africa are different than people in America." Now I know how true that statement is. After all, I am almost certain that two months after leaving something in a hotel in America, it would be long gone. And in Kenya, a nearly-new pair of Chaco sandals could have fetched a good deal of shillings from any roadside shop. But the caretakers of the hotel held onto my sandals, tucked away in a safe place, in case I ever returned and asked about them. They had no obligation to keep them for me, and yet they chose to do so. Maybe it's an insignificant incident, and I'm just lucky that I have my sandals back. But I choose to think that this is a good reminder that Kenyans aren't "dangerous" just because theft and burglary rates are high. Maybe there are other motivations, misconceptions or needs behind those actions. Most Kenyans I have met are eager to help, teach and care for the people they encounter, just as much (or more) than any American. That was always something I imagined was true before I came here, but this incident reminded me to stay positive in the situations I encounter here, and maintain hope. People and situations may be surprising.

So now, as a PCV, I'm off to my new home. I have no electricity, but I'll do my best to stay in touch! Happy Holidays to everyone, good luck with finals to those who are in the middle of tests, and travel safely to those who are visiting family!


  1. The story about your shoes made me smile :) Congrats on completing one part of your journey, and good luck on the next! Miss you!

  2. Incredible! Loved reading this and am excited for you to start your next journey. Love you!

  3. It's amazing how many parallels there are with your experiences in Africa and mine in the Dominican. Although I am certain there are a TON of differences, I love reading your perspective on our shared experiences. I head out for the DR in less than a week to spend Christmas with the kids and I plan to take your thoughts and perspectives with me as I embark on new experiences. Miss and love you so much!

    P.s. You have already been there longer than my entire time spent in the DR. I can't imagine how impactful your relationships and experiences will be after a full two years!

  4. People see what they look for. You, my love, look for beauty, so it is beauty you shall find! I love you so very much and will send a letter very soon.