Thursday, September 8, 2011

August Adventures

I can hardly believe  it’s September already. Facebook reminded me today that exactly one year ago, I was heading back to San Diego to visit one last time before I left for Kenya. That seems impossible – wasn’t that another lifetime? I suppose that in some senses, it absolutely was.

Since I wrote last, I’ve completed all scheduled travel/exams/activities, and am now back in the staffroom at my dear Sipili School for the Deaf. But I won’t gloss over my August adventures. There were some incredible experiences, beginning with my trip to the coast (which started right after I last wrote). The bus ride from Nairobi to Mombasa started out chilly (as is typical of Nairobi this time of year), but we could gauge our proximity to the coast by the temperature, which slowly increased as we approached Mombasa. By the time we arrived, I thought I was in a different country altogether. The first things (aside from the heat) I noticed that seemed out of place were all the palm trees. If I looked up without observing any of my surroundings other than the palm trees against the blue sky, I could easily pretend I was back in southern California.

The hotel where we stayed for the Cross-Sector Workshops was absolutely incredible. There were about 6 of us volunteers who had all traveled together to the training from Camp GLOW, and we’d been on the same bus for eight hours, which meant we were all pretty dirty, disheveled and tired by the time we got to Bamburi (just north of Mombasa). When we entered the hotel we’d be staying in for the next week, we felt COMPLETELY out of place. The lights were bright, the floors were clean, and we could see a pool outside. Someone came out of nowhere when we were checking in to bring us chilled pineapple juice. There were carts for our bags, and when we got to the rooms we discovered bathtubs. It was surreal. And right next to the beach! Looking back at it objectively, there are definitely nicer places in the US (Hotel Del Coronado, anyone?) but getting to this resort-style hotel on the beach after life in the village and roughing it at camp was a HUGE shock. There were two amenities in my room that I was especially excited about (because I hadn’t seen them at all in Kenya yet): air conditioning, and a hair dryer. Since the whole hotel experience, I have amended my opinion regarding the best aspect of modern technology. Before, I would have said I most value the ability to control the temperature of liquids (cold drinks and hot showers are FAR better than the opposite). But after my cool room and blow-dried ‘do, I no longer take for granted the ability to control the temperature of gases either. Actually, temperature control in general is pretty fantastic.

Not only was the hotel great, but the content of the seminar was very helpful. All us Peace Corps Volunteers had each invited two Kenyan counterparts to come with us for the seminar, so I met two of my coworkers as the sessions began. The first day was one long Kiswahili lesson for us volunteers, which totally whetted my appetite to keep learning (more on that later). The rest of the week focused largely on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in Kenya, and what we as Americans and Kenyans can do in our communities to combat its spread. The information was great, and we were able to get in discussions with our Kenyan coworkers about issues that tended to divide us culturally, but taught us a LOT about one another. In the course of the sessions, I heard something that really resonated with me. A lot of people are afraid to go to a Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) center to get an HIV test, because the prospect of finding out they’re HIV positive is terrifying. But one man explained it really well: of course it’s true that you shouldn’t be afraid of getting tested and finding out you’re positive, because testing doesn’t MAKE you positive, it just makes you aware of your status so you can take the best next steps. BUT the flip side of the coin is just as important. People shouldn’t freak out or be afraid of getting tested for HIV, because in reality, most people are negative. Even in Kenya. Even in all of Africa. MOST people do not have the virus, and once you know you don’t have the virus, you can be intentional about protecting the health you know you have. Some people tend to be fatalistic when they hear that Kenya has such a high incidence of the virus, and assume they probably have it. And yes, a 6.8% infection rate is a crisis. But instead of throwing your hands up, refusing to get tested and leaving it up to fate, it’s much more empowering for those who are HIV negative to know they aren’t infected, and make sure they keep it that way. All the other sessions were equally thought-provoking, and my coworkers and I all went away with some ideas for HIV/AIDS awareness activities to do in our school and community.

In some of our down time, we were able to travel into Mombasa town and see the sights. There is an old stone fort called Fort Jesus which was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, a fantastic market, beautiful fabrics (called kikoys), spicy street food (gotta love shwarma), and a very strong Muslim presence. Old Mombasa (where Fort Jesus is located) reminded me of Europe in some ways, with high apartment-style buildings built close to one another with small, winding alleys between them, and iron balconies jutting out from the upper stories. The mosques are majestic, and the call to prayer (adhan) is hauntingly beautiful. The adhan happens five times a day, and it pours out from a loudspeaker in the minaret of each mosque in town. Even if I was in the middle of bartering in the market or in a vehicle traveling down Mombasa’s cosmopolitan streets, the undulating, recording of the adhan immediately transported me to some ancient place in my mind, and reminded me of Mombasa’s historic importance. It also elicits an unexpectedly deep spiritual feeling. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I think it’s one thing I’ll really miss about Kenya. There’s not a large enough Muslim population in Sipili to have a mosque, but I look forward to hearing the adhan whenever I travel.

After the training in Mombasa, I spent a day in Kilifi (about an hour north of Bamburi) at a fellow volunteer’s site. She took us on a snorkeling trip on a wooden dhow in the Indian Ocean, which was incredible. Somehow, it was simultaneously exhilarating and tranquil. The slow pace and lovely sails over blue-green water was gorgeous, and the things we saw under the water were insane! The highlights include an octopus, countless bright red starfish, baby clownfish in an anemone, and an eel. The highlights do NOT include the nasty sunburn I got. My knees are still peeling.

After the coast, I took the train to Nairobi for a complete change of pace – the GRE. Not much to say there. It was a standardized test, and I was glad when it was finished. I took it with a friend, and we stayed with a teacher from ISK (remember? That international school I visited back in April? Who’s been keeping up with my blog?) for a few days. After the test, I was involved in the planning meeting for October’s PST. Finally, almost a month after I’d shipped off to Kisumu, I headed back to my village. Good ol’ Sipili hadn’t changed much, apart from becoming a muddy soup due to late heavy  rains. Also my cat (who, I’ve discovered, is definitely male and is thus referred to as “Jay Jay” by the kids now instead of  “Kiki”) was pretty sick when I first got home. He’s since recovered. And we have a new Peace Corps volunteer in town, who will be working at the computer center! It’s unusual to have 3 volunteers in one village like we do, but I’m not complaining.

Despite being home, it wasn’t quite time to rest. I did a thorough cleaning of the house, inside and out, to prepare for visitors… three volunteers who were coming to my site for Kiswahili immersion! As I mentioned previously, the little training we got in Mombasa made me very enthusiastic to learn more Kiswahili, so a few of us volunteers opted to take Peace Corps up on its offer to provide intensive instruction. We somehow packed everyone in my little house, and took five days of Kiswahili classes from a trainer who came and stayed in a hotel in town. It was incredibly helpful. I’m still pretty dismal when it comes to fast, conversational Kiswahili, but I can read and understand a lot more than before, and I can understand what people are saying much more easily. I also feel like it’ll be a lot easier to do self-instruction now that I have a lot of the grammar rules under my belt. It’s a very different language from English, but it makes a lot of sense grammatically. Actually, that’s one of the reasons it’s a very different language from English. As a side note, one of our “cultural activities” during the instruction was to help construct three mud huts with the family on my compound, along with half the residents of Sipili. Talk about messy. And FUN.

Now, I’m finally back to my usual routine, which is a bit of a relief. Although it’s not COMPLETELY normal; The Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) is on strike due to a disagreement with the Ministry of Education (I even found a blurb in the NY Times: So, since the other teachers aren’t teaching, I’m not either. And that’ll be how it is until it’s resolved, which will hopefully be soon. But I’m still playing games with the kids, mostly because I can’t help myself – I missed them SO MUCH. Some students still haven’t come back, so I’ll be back here, in the staff room, bright and early tomorrow to see who else shows up. There’s no better feeling than seeing all their shining faces again. I don’t think I’ll ever be a teacher as a permanent profession, but I can understand why people who are teachers love it so much.

Gosh, that was a long update. And I’m just gearing up some new projects, so stay tuned for what’s lined up for Sipili School for the Deaf! I’ll give you a hint: there’ll be school visits, donations, media involvement and exam preparation. There’s never a dull moment around here! Except for when it’s too cloudy for my solar panel to charge because it’s rainy, causing my lone light bulb to die, and I don’t have any kerosene for my lantern or any candles. That’s pretty dull. But it inevitably picks up again, as life tends to do.

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