Sunday, October 16, 2011

Once Around the Sun

It’s been just over one year since I arrived in Kenya. I can’t believe it. As one of my fellow volunteers stated, it’s been an experience “outside of time.” It’s crawled, it’s flown, it’s been joyful, it’s been treacherous.

I’ve already changed more than I imagined I would. This blog entry is an opportunity to reflect, and share my reflections on what has happened inside and around me this past year. It’s not exhaustive, but maybe it will provide a more complete picture of how far I’ve come, and what’s still ahead for me.

I’m a different person than I was last October. As strange as it sounds, I know it’s true. There have been quirky changes; for example, if I ever have kids, I’m pretty sure they’ll have a conversation along these lines:

Kid 1: Why does mom keep EVERY empty container? Everyone else’s mom just throws away the peanut butter jar when the peanut butter is gone.

Kid 2: I think it’s because she lived in Africa a long time ago. Maybe they don’t throw away jars there.

Kid 1: Oh. Is that why she always carries a roll of toilet paper with her everywhere too?

Kid 2: Yeah, probably. Maybe there was no toilet paper there, either.

Kid 1: And she’s really crazy about using too much water. And she likes lanterns better than light bulbs.

Kid 2: I don’t know any other mommies like that.

Kid 1: Yeah. Is our mom crazy?

Kid 2: I guess so.

Clearly, I’m pretty sure that many of the idiosyncrasies I’ve developed (such as extreme thrift and a mild obsession with conservation) will last a lifetime. The thought of waste makes me a little nauseous lately. Or maybe that’s just another parasite.

There have been some other changes that run deeper, though. My religious and political convictions have been affected. I have a different opinion on marriage and family life. Most notably, my plans for the future have evolved. When I left the US, I was pretty unsure about what I wanted to do for a career. I took the GRE here, in case I wanted to go to graduate school. I had some LSAT prep materials in case I wanted to become a lawyer, and I was looking into every program in the US that gives priority to RPCVs (Yes, they exist! Yet another reason to join the Peace Corps). I even considered an MFA in creative writing. But somehow, being a teacher has convinced me to be a doctor. I didn’t expect to find similarities between education and healthcare, but they’re closely related. They’re both about empowering people, through encouragement and genuine concern, to take their future into their own hands. Whether you’re trying to foster study skills and academic excellence, or a healthy lifestyle and mindset, you have to maintain a similar posture. And in that posture, I thrive. It’s something that, as scary as medical school sounds, I can’t avoid. So I’ve decided to take the MCAT as soon as I get home, and then get serious about applying for medical school.

I’m a lot more patient after a year in Kenya. I can wait for a vehicle to fill up with passengers for a good hour and a half before I start to get antsy. Five-hour staff meetings are par for the course. Any church service less than three hours feels rushed. I’m used to chores that last an entire day, and waiting for water to boil before I bathe. I do a LOT of waiting, but those are just opportunities for thoughts, plans and observations. Or for just quietly existing.

Maybe not all the changes are good. I have become more cynical about the way my home in the US interacts with my Kenyan home. Reading the news about poverty, aid and development while living on this side of the globe has been enlightening, in a sobering way. Although I sometimes resent how so many people here initially see me as a walking ATM because of my skin color (just today a stranger came up to me and yelled “We! Nipe kumi!” which translates to “You! Give me ten shillings!”), I have to acknowledge that a lot of the people back home see my friends here as underprivileged or needy just because they are African. Those kinds of misunderstandings are what hurt me the most. Many people here have a far higher quality of life than people I know in the US despite having no electricity, running water, internet, car, or prospects of a secondary education. But the worst part is that some people don’t recognize the beauty in their lives, because the world tells them they’re “poor” and they believe the lie. Of course hunger and poverty is a reality here, but it’s not everyone's reality. Besides, it's also a reality in the US, and all over the world. The causes are complex, and can’t be solved by merely throwing money at the symptoms. I’ve become aware of how powerful our collective perceptions are, and how dangerous they can be when they’re flawed. I will be forever careful of this. I’ve become convinced that monetary donations are used correctly in a shocking minority of cases, and that true understanding of one another and intentional, personal relationships are the only genuine ways to erode suffering. If cash flow is a result of those things, it can be an asset. But funds without friendship are useless.

In a nutshell, I believe that if we want to “help” foreign countries, the most important first step is to consider how we talk about those countries at home. Are they pitied? Considered weak, disease-ridden or poor? Such language is general. Saying East Africa suffers from famine (very common in the news these days) omits the reality of abundant food in the Rift Valley, for example. Such language breeds dependence, sickness and poverty. While the ills of society will always exist and should not be forgotten, let’s not remain ignorant of the rest. Let’s see the whole picture of foreign nations, including their cultures, their victories and their riches. Focus on the flip side of the coin for a change – It may surprise us. My new point of view has certainly surprised me.

Some of my changes are just realizations. I’ve been pushed to limits I hadn’t experienced before, and now I know a LOT more about myself. A few examples:

- I always thought I was infinitely tolerant of children, but I get really annoyed when the primary school kids STILL follow me home, trying to touch my hair and chanting “HOW ARE YOU, MZUNGU?!” in a nasal voice, meant to mimic an American accent. Visitors think it’s cute and play along with the kids, but I shoot them angry looks and say “WE! Jina langu si ‘mzungu.’ Ninaitwa Jennifer” (“You! My name isn’t mzungu. I’m called Jennifer”) until they show a little respect.

- I thought I loved all animals, but the mean, stray village dogs terrify me. So does the young bull at school, who charged me once, resulting in a shriek and a dash to seek refuge in the kitchen. And ELEPHANTS. I don’t want to run into one of those when I’m not in a car.

- I used to think it was noble to live without electronics, to shun Facebook and e-mail as unnecessary tethers to an impersonal virtual world, but I bought my first smartphone in Kenya and I love being able to stay more connected.

- I used to consider my identity as a US citizen as something circumstantial, and not that important. Now I’m proud of a lot of innovations, policies, cultures and realities that exist in and come from the US. It’s not a perfect nation by far, but I miss it every single day.

With all this lesson-learning, I'm surprised I had any time to TEACH any lessons. But it's a give and take, I suppose. Overall, it’s been a year of contradictions. Very high highs, and very low lows. But I’ve survived, and somehow thrived. I have no idea what this next year will bring, but I’m hoping it will be as eventful as this past year has been.

And of course, this Kenyanniversary wouldn't be complete with an appreciation for the people who have been on the receiving end of frantic e-mails when I just wanted to just go home, and talked me down. And for friends who send mail. And family members who call every week. And anyone else who's reading this and thinking of Kenya, or anything else this adventure/blog is about. You all go here with me, every single day.

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