Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Day in the Life

I was really tempted to start this blog entry by complaining.

It's true, things have gotten challenging lately. I had my first "forget this, I'm getting on the next plane back to America" moment (that actually lasted a little longer than a mere moment) of my service. But something tells me that turning it around will take a certain level of mindfulness, especially in the tone I use as I continue to tell my story.

Usually I tell macro stories, spanning weeks between entries. Stories of where I've gone or what I've seen, but tonight I want to tell the micro story of where I am right now, today. Stories of the moments that keep me from calling my boss and telling him my bags are packed.

Today we had a "general cleaning" day at school, because we're going to have some visitors arriving on Sunday, teachers from the UK who work in our partner school. The school day started at 8ish, as usual, with "parade." It's essentially an assembly where everyone lines up around the flagpole, and the teachers make any necessary announcements. They stand in class order, the little ones fidgeting and chatting with each other, the older ones looking more grown up every day. It's like a mismatched Christmas - some kids in red sweaters, others in green, most of them torn at the elbow or wrist. But they are always scrubbed and clean and ready to learn. Today we made the announcement that visitors were coming, which got the kids pretty excited. They were less excited when they learned they'd be cleaning most of the day.

Classes were what you'd expect, as was cleaning and lunch (beans!). By the end of lunch all the cleaning was done, but classes weren't technically in session. I was bored sitting in the staff room with the national news in Kiswahili blaring on the television, so I decided to go see what the students were up to. I walked across the dusty compound, under the oppressive sun, into class eight, and found half of them sleeping (food comas, most likely) and the other half telling stories. Pauline was laying on the desk, looking at her watch and counting along with the seconds as they passed "one, two three..." She was born hearing, and became deaf after learning speech, so she has some residual speech. She doesn't use it for communication, but she uses it to entertain herself. Margaret was sleeping with her head on the desk, Rahab had her nose deep in a book. George and Michael were half-dozing, but perked up when they noticed I was there and had started talking to Pauline. We discussed the visitors coming, the past week, going to games this year, and how some of the kids in class six have been fighting a lot.

After those topics were exhausted, Pauline got off the desk, walked over to me, and started undoing my braid. The girls love to play with my hair. This started a new discussion: "Your hair is so much longer than when you came! Why is that?" "Do people in America ever shave their heads like we do here?" "You know, you'd look much better with cornrows or dreadlocks." Pauline pretended my hair was her hair, draping it over her head, and smelling the shampoo I use. She wants to grow her hair out, but her parents want her to keep it shaved because it's easier to handle. She's always admiring the other girls with long hair, even though I assure her she's gorgeous with a bald head. Which is true, she's lovely.

By that time, about five other younger kids had discovered our powwow. They love to come and hang out when I'm spending time with the class eight kids. Cecilia braided my hair again, Cheptios sat next to me and started showing me pictures from a book, and Magdalena asked me how big my cat has gotten. She asks me that question every day, and has since I brought my cat home almost a year ago. Paul and Patrick, the dynamic duo from class six, wanted to be a part of whatever Michael and George were doing, so they started to ask me questions about soccer, and who would get to go to Nakuru for games this year. Of course I made no promises, because of last year's fiasco. At that point, Patrick started showing off his spelling skills, signing something like "bird" or "chapati" and then spelling them perfectly in English. He's the spelling wizard of the school.

Those impromptu moments are the times that keep me going. Sitting with the students, learning about their hopes and dreams, their likes and dislikes, their individual personalities. Laughing when Cheptios makes a goofy face because she can't remember how to sign "passionfruit," cheering for Patrick when he spells "antelope" correctly on the first try, acknowledging and appreciating Michael when he says he's really trying to get the younger kids to stop fighting, and assuring Pauline that I think she's gorgeous no matter what is or is not on her head. We have serious moments (I recently had a discussion with all of them about how some Deaf girls in the region couldn't go to secondary school because they got pregnant, so they need to be careful), lighthearted moments (we have competitions for who has the best silly dance) and loving moments (a lot of kids are orphans, and need a little extra TLC).

After school, I went on a run with the kids. Once we were done, it was time to head home. I promised the kids I would be there tomorrow, even though it's Saturday. I usually go to the school on the weekends so they can watch TV and maybe play some volleyball or soccer. When I passed through the school gate and left the compound, a load lifted from my shoulders. I had officially made it through another week. But the serenity was shortlived - I was met by about 30 little kids from the neighboring primary school who followed me for the first quarter mile, and had to tell them not to call me mzungu a few times. But they're getting better at saying "Madam Jennifer" instead these days. I stopped by "Tumaini" (translation: we hope) shop, right at the corner where I turn to head to my house. I greeted Mama Grace, who greeted me in return and promptly told all the kids who had followed me to go along home. If she hadn't, they all would have waited in a swarm outside the shop until I was done with my purchases. I asked how the day was, and she said "Very... cold. No, HOT!" I laughed, agreed, and asked her how to say it in Kiswahili. "Ni joto," she said. I asked for my four eggs, paid the 48 shillings (about 50 cents) and left. Of course most of the kids she'd shooed away were waiting just out of sight, and the continued to wait for me as I stopped by the produce stand to buy a couple of mangoes (4 shillings each - less than a nickel). Lucky for me, I have longer legs than most seven year olds, and outpaced those kids in a matter of minutes once I started walking home.

The walk home took about 20 minutes, and I peeled one of the mangoes with my teeth as I walked. My hands were sticky and dirty by the time I got home, but I was happy. The whole weekend was ahead of me. I rested in my house, unpacked some things, and changed out of my work clothes. Then I went to the outdoor kitchen, where Mama was cooking. We had a cup of tea together, and talked about our days. She'd been to fellowship - she goes every Friday. I shared about our cleaning day, and my plans for the weekend. Little Ivy and Paul came through the kitchen like tornadoes, saying hello, and telling me about their days at school. Baba stopped by the kitchen to get a bucket for milking the cow, and greeted me with the usual firm handshake and big smile. After our tea, I insisted on cleaning the dishes while Mama finished cooking. It was one of my biggest accomplishments when Mama first started letting me wash the family's dishes - it made me feel like I was no longer a guest. I belonged. And I continue to belong, because I help wash dishes/winnow maize/shell peas whenever I get the chance.

By the time dishes were clean, the darkness had fallen, and I said goodnight to the family. I came over to my little house, and lit my lantern. I washed some of my own dishes, and made a simple dinner of rice and ndengu (little lentil-like legumes), which was made much more exciting by some hot sauce that I bought in Nyahururu last weekend. I sat on my couch with my plate and listened to a new reggae dancehall song that I'd seen on Kenyan TV the other day when Jess and I went out for drinks. After finishing, I treated 10 liters of drinking water, and poured it into bottles that had been emptied this week. They don't last long these days since it's the dry season - it takes a lot more to stay hydrated. By the time everything was done, the crickets were (and still are) singing loudly, and the moon was (and is) shining through my window, competing with the lantern light.

For all the frustrations and complications that arise in my job and my life here, there are such joys that I have to keep reminding myself about. There is always something to do, always something to learn. Tomorrow morning I'll attempt an 8k run as I continue training for the half marathon in June, and then wash my clothes by hand. Those things don't solve the problems I encounter, which I'll describe more someday. But they realign my head and my heart, and remind me of the reason I'm here. Upendo, remember? They're the things that have changed me, and that I will miss when I leave. Now is the time to absorb them completely.


  1. Jenny, you are truly fantastic. I literally just submitted my grad school application and had my first free time on an internet connection stronger than dial-up in what feels like months and I am so glad I decided to read up on your journeys :) So many things I can relate to, and so many others I can only imagine. Your moments spent with the kids remind me so much of my afternoons spent at the orphanage.
    And let me tell you, getting people to finally allow me to do the dishes and brew them coffee was my best accomplishment in my first few months!

    Miss you like crazy and think about you ALL the time!


  2. This is beautiful, Jen. And really just like your blog, its these little moments that are the brightest. Each day brings a gift that we so easily take for granted, but its those little moments of feeling at home and settled that we need to remember and hold the most. I've forgotten many of those moments already from peru... but this post serves as a great reminder. I'm always holding you in the light, and wishing to be closer to you. <3
    Love you