Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lessons Learned

I can hardly believe it, but it has been four months since I first landed in Kenya. That’s exactly seventeen weeks, 1/3 of a year, and 2/13 of my service (but who’s counting?). As I mentioned in a previous post about my perception of the passage of time, I can’t determine whether it feels like it’s been far longer than four months or much, much shorter. But I can breathe a little easier now that a sizeable amount of time has passed, now that I have some experience under my belt. I find myself speaking in a friendly Kenyan accent even when I’m talking to Americans, and the amount of livestock and poultry wandering through town doesn’t faze me anymore. I’m feeling more settled every day.

Since the last post, there have been a few notable events, and the MOST notable was Ian’s visit. For those of you who don’t have the pleasure of knowing Ian, he’s one of my best friends from Alaska who has been in Kenya since late December, volunteering at an orphanage on Rusinga, an island on Lake Victoria. There are no words to express how awesome it was to see a familiar face in a sea of strangers as he got off the matatu. Plus, he had brought news from and about loved ones, gifts from home, and bear hugs. It was one of the best moments in Kenya thus far.

Ian and I spent the weekend in Nyahururu catching up with each other, talking about Kenya and about America, and seeing the sights in town. And by “sights” I really just mean the singular sight, Thompson Falls. The falls are lovely, and it’s not difficult to get to the base. There is a fancy tourist lodge right next to the falls, but it was out of our price range so we stayed in one of the smaller “hotels” in town. There were no frills and the time was short, but it was fun to be in a bigger town, away from work. After mass on Sunday (there was an English service! Mass in Sipili is only in Kikuyu) Ian and I took a matatu back to Sipili so he could meet the kids at school. The kids loved him, and liked that his name is short and easy to finger spell. They even gave him a sign name – you bring your thumb and other four fingers together like you’re grabbing the brim of a baseball cap next to your forehead (meant to represent his hair, which is different from hairstyles they’re used to seeing). Even though he left about a week ago, the kids still come up to me, sign his sign name and then sign “where?” I think they miss his company and Frisbee skills.

Ian also helped Jessica and I with our weekly “guidance and counseling” session at the secondary school (it’s always a little weird for me to go there and teach kids who can hear). We tell the students to pretend like we’re not teachers, just for the hour, and to ask us anything they want to ask. Usually it’s related to life skills (drugs, alcohol, STDs, etc.) but sometimes we get really great questions about America (and requests for our phone numbers), or get a chance to dispel a particularly ridiculous misconception about HIV/AIDS. It’s a fun weekly event. Despite its simplicity (or maybe because of it) I think it helps the students.

Once Ian departed to continue his adventures (including a Kilimanjaro climb!), it was back to the normal routine. During the weekend, I visited the school that the kids on the compound attend and met their teachers. Here in Kenya, most kids go to school on Saturdays – it makes me appreciate the fact that I’ve always had free weekends. Then on Sunday I went to church with the grandfather of the family I’m staying with. He lives less than a kilometer down the road from our compound, so he left his house a bit early and picked me up on his bicycle at around 9:30 AM. I figured we’d be at church for a few hours, three at the most. I told the older girl on the compound that I’d be home in the early afternoon to do some washing, and we made plans to wash clothes at the same time and keep each other company. But now as I look back, I should have remembered the one truth that has been reinforced over and over throughout my Kenyan experiences: an invitation is never as simple as it sounds. Lunch is never just lunch, a meeting is never just a meeting, so why should I expect church to be just church? When we arrived, I found out that it was "pastors’ day," so the church had about six visiting pastors, all of whom made speeches throughout the course of the service. The pastor gave me a chance to deliver a speech as well (probably because I stuck out like a sore thumb and was most obviously a visitor), so I said a few words about my job, etc. During the main service, there was a bible study, the usual preaching that I had expected, and of course singing and dancing (including a bunch of elderly Kikuyu mamas doing the electric slide – a great sight to see). Once that was all over I thought we were finished, but it turned out to be a special fundraising day where a representative from each family in the congregation (no less than 100 people) came up one by one and announced their contribution. Finally we finished, and we were served lunch. We ended up leaving the church around 3:30 PM. I had to laugh to myself a little for vastly underestimating the time commitment I had inadvertently made, but I just filed it away as a lesson learned. I think from now on I’ll stick to the Catholic church – even in Kenya we’re usually in and out in under 2 hours.

The other recent excitement was our site visit by Peace Corps staff. During the first term of teaching, they make a point to visit all the volunteers at our sites and make sure we’re doing well. Since they drove to us from Nairobi, they were able to bring all kinds of fun things (American candy, fruits, and mail that had come to the Nairobi training address after we were posted at site) It was nice to see the staff, and even nicer to finally get my Christmas package from home! It actually looked like Christmas morning in my house after I opened the package – there was wrapping paper everywhere, and the PC Medical staff who came had brought oranges, which are always in my stocking. It was definitely a great mental health day.

Aside from all the excitement in the past couple of weeks, teaching is still going pretty well. I can see a bit of improvement in some of the kids (especially in class 8 English), but there are still challenges. I’m learning how to cope with the frustrations I have with how the school is run, and I’m trying to focus on being grateful for the things the other teachers do to help me out. There’s one teacher who sympathizes with my frustrations (and who can tell when I’m reaching the end of my rope) and reminds me that any meaningful changes will take time. Another teacher always invites me to her house for tea and a homemade meal. Those small moments of compassion and concern that they show me are good reminders that it’s not fair to fly in from America and dwell on the things in the school that don’t work. At least there IS a school. At least the kids have a bed, food, clothes and teachers. Everything else is variable, but even those basics weren’t available to them ten years ago. I’m not getting complacent and of course I want to encourage positive change, but at least I’m not so overwhelmed.

Oh, and I do have a fun anecdote. The other day, I was eating my usual githeri for lunch at school (githeri is the staple Kikuyu dish, essentially a mixture of maize and beans), and I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. I’d always assumed that the dark specks in my githeri were pieces of burnt beans or some other byproduct of cooking, but upon closer examination I realized that they were, in fact, bugs. I have eaten githeri almost every day for lunch since the term began, so I have no idea how many bugs I’ve accidentally eaten since then. I mentioned my discovery to the students, and they just thought it was funny that it bothered me. According to one of the boys, the bugs just make you stronger. More protein, I guess. Life in Kenya is full of surprises – I think I’ll only continue to discover metaphorical bugs in the metaphorical githeri of my experience. And I think that they will, in fact, make me stronger.

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