Monday, May 14, 2012

Soundtrack of My Life

I know it's been a while since I gave an account of what's been happening over here. I'll sum it up in bullet points, and then get to the real substance of this blog post:
  • Term one (January-April) was insanely busy, getting prepared for games (we actually got to go and compete in the provincial competition this year!!) and drama (something new to our school, that I jumped into headfirst as the coach, without having any idea what I was getting myself into), and I found myself at school almost seven days a week, from morning until evening. I don't know if that will be the case this term, but I hope I can dial it back a little!
  • In March, three teachers and I traveled to Kericho with the drama team (ten kids), along with all our costumes and backdrops for the10-minute mime performance I'd written, directed, and had spent the past few months coaching. We competed in the provincial drama competition there, and won first place in our category! That qualified us for the National Drama Festival in Kakamega, so we traveled across the country to Western Province as soon as school closed, and performed on April 10th. The kids absolutely rocked their performance, and I sat in the audience almost in tears - I was so proud of all their work. They ended up getting second place in their category, and we also got awards for Best Actor, and Best Script/Choice Mime. I went to Nakuru last week to pick up the three trophies (of course they were super bulky and I had to schlep them around in torrential rain) and certificates, and  the kids have been admiring the trophies with wide eyes as they get to school. I hope they can get first place next year!
  • Also in April, I attended and helped facilitate a workshop for the parents of our students. We talked about the causes of deafness, how to support kids who are Deaf, and we had a few basic KSL sessions. It was a sometimes confusing (the facilitation switched between four languages - Kiswahili, Gikuyu, English and KSL) but incredibly heartwarming few days - definitely a highlight of my service. About 20 parents were there, and were genuinely interested in learning about how to support their kids. They got contact info from one another, and plan to start a parents' group of their own. I hope we can have at least one more similar session before I leave. I know it was a success, because some of the kids have shown up to school saying "Did you teach my mom how to sign?? She knows how to ask me questions and spell my name! Can you teach her more??"
  • During the first month of May, I held a one-week intensive KSL class for some teachers from neighboring schools. It was a blast - I think they'll be joining  the KSL class I teach for the secondary school students twice a week. Our goal is to be proficient enough by the end of the year to get a certification in KSL, hopefully opening up job opportunities for the people who get the certificates, and spreading general awareness of KSL.
  • After all the excitement of April and early May (there was a trip to Nairobi in there somewhere, too), it's time to get back to school. The kids are slowly trickling in, and we're starting to teach here and there. I expect we'll be back in full swing by mid-week. I'm also glad games and drama are over, because I have other things to focus on this term. Most importantly, I have to get extra serious about preparation for the Lewa half marathon I'm running at the end of June. I told the kids they're training with me - that means running after school every day! They're all on board, and genuinely excited about it. Chances are, they'll kick my butt. I'll just try to keep up with the third graders.

Now you're caught up. And now we can talk about something a little more interesting.

I know saying "I love music" is like saying "I love puppies" or "I love chocolate chip cookies". Sure, there are people who don't care for music, but I think it's a nearly universal human experience, and it's been one of the most fun things to experience in Kenya. I've talked a lot about some of the other cultural experiences I've had here regarding the food, the languages, and the lifestyle. But I was thinking about it today, and I couldn't believe that I hadn't said much about the music here.

So, let's take a little tour through my Kenyan music experience, starting with my arrival in Nairobi that fateful night in October 2010:

1. When I landed in Nairobi, half asleep and really disoriented, the first thing we encountered right out of baggage claim was a group of Kenyans, singing and beating drums with really big smiles. As far as I could tell, they were dressed in "traditional" clothing, and singing "traditional" music, despite a lot of "Jambo Kenya!!" and English lyrics, too. We all got halfway into the spirit as we hauled our bags to the bus that would take us to our hotel. It was actually kind of exciting - it made me feel like I was finally in Africa. Going back over a year later to pick up my parents, though, I saw the same guys. Let's just say they're not as "traditional" as they seem.

2. During my time with my host family, I heard a lot of American music, because my host mama had DSTV. There were more channels on that TV than I'd ever had before, and my host brother and sister liked to watch American music videos. But there was one moment on a bus while I was traveling with my mama, when I heard a song that got stuck in my head. I had no idea what the lady was singing about, but I liked her voice. So when I heard one of our language trainers playing it on her laptop later that week, I had to ask the name of the song. And this was the first Kenyan song I downloaded:

I didn't know it was a gospel song, and I didn't know she was from the coast. It just sounded nice to me, and I could pick out a Kiswahili word I knew here and there. Another memory from Machakos was my host mama's ringtone. She's since changed it, but I'll always think of her when I hear this song by Wahu, which is a Kenyan favorite:

3. After swearing in, Jess and I took that crazy trip to our site. I met the family I would spend the next couple years with, and I was kind of overwhelmed. I slowly amassed some furniture, and read a lot of books, since I had no work yet. I tried to get to know the family, and we opened up to each other as the weeks passed. Within those first few weeks, I'd gotten a jumbled folder full of Kenyan music from Jess, and after sorting through it, I kept a few of the songs I recognized. I'd heard them on the radio that played all day in the kitchen, ten feet from my house. I put the music on my ipod, and listened to it while washing the dishes in my house. One day I got brave enough to show Joyce (the niece of the parents on my compound) my ipod, and she asked if I had any Kenyan music. When I played this song for her, her eyes lit up, and we sang it together. Then it was official - we were friends.

4. One thing people will tell you about music that plays on Kenyan radio, is that about half of it isn't Kenyan, or even East African. There's a good deal from Jamaica, which I love. Another large chunk is from the US - but not contemporary music. Occasionally you'll find a radio station with Top 40 hits from the US, but much more frequently you'll hear Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Celine Dion, Phil Collins, Shania Twain, Westlife, Michael Jackson, and other artists who reached their musical peak 20-30 years ago. But there's this really magical fusion that happens, where Jamaican music and old-school music from the US meet. And of course, since it's the best of both worlds, Kenyans love it. This song has been playing regularly since I got here, and doesn't show any signs of letting up:

There are tons of other mashups like this. I can understand why - everything sounds better with a reggae beat. Even The Commodores and Phil Collins.

5. At some point last year, the teachers at my school decided that we should have a TV in the staff room. I was never a fan of the idea, but one against seven doesn't hold much weight. So, we got a TV and a DVD player, and the rest is history. From then on, the TV is either playing Kenyan news, Nigerian films (cleverly coined "Nollywood" films... do yourself a favor and watch one if you can, they all feature an evil mother-in-law) or Kikuyu music videos. I don't know how, but one of my coworkers has a seemingly endless supply of Kikuyu music video DVDs. His very favorite artist, based on the frequency with which his videos are shown, is Franco wa Sabu. Now, this is a big shift from the other songs I've listed previously. Most of those are played internationally, and have mass appeal. Franco, on the other hand, has a lot of... let's call it "local flavor". He sings in the tribal language of my region, Gikuyu, and his videos are very low-budget. At first I couldn't sit through one without laughing, which made me look like a jerk in front of my coworkers. But now, when I get back to Sipili after a long time away, I love hearing the high pitched "gling gling gling!" sound that is characteristic of Kikuyu music. Franco is the quintessential example of the kind of music you hear in my village 24/7.

Side note: "bibi" means girl. This song is essentially about a guy who has a girlfriend who becomes such a huge pain, that he is "forced" to find a second girl - his "bibi no. 2". Once I made a comment in the staff room about how I would never be anyone's bibi no. 2. This was met with thunderous laughter, and one of my male coworkers saying "Oh yes you will. You just won't know it!"  

6. I don't know when, how or why it happened, but there came a time (last August, I think?) when a certain song TOOK OVER Kenya. No matter where you were or who you were with, you would hear this song about five times a day. It's a Nigerian song, mostly in Igbo, and it's actually quite racy. However, Igbo isn't spoken in Kenya, so everyone considers it pretty harmless. In fact, the words in the song's chorus (Sawa, sawa, sawale) are nonsense, filler sounds in Igbo that are meant to indicate someone walking, but it sounds like the word "sawa" which, in Kiswahili, translates to something like "ok" or "cool" in English. Kids love to sing the song, which makes me smirk, because I looked up the Igbo meaning, and the song is about a "lady of the night". There's no denying it's incredibly catchy, though!

7. Speaking of insanely popular songs, this list wouldn't be complete without the most popular gospel song in Kenya. I know some people (especially Peace Corps Volunteers) who want to scream whenever they hear this song because it's so ubiquitous, but it just reminds me of the kids who live on the same compound as me. They love to sing it, and it's adorable.

8. The start of 2012 was pretty exciting. I was with my family, I had survived a FULL YEAR of teaching, and I was seeing a side of Kenya I'd never seen before, full of giraffes, lions and fancy hotels. I knew it would be back to the daily stresses of teaching in the village soon, which was a daunting thought. And I knew I'd be facing the challenges without one of my coworkers, who had been transferred to a different school. He'd always helped me feel integrated, and I knew I'd miss talking with him - plus, us teachers who were left behind would have to take his work load. I was looking down the barrel of a rough term. During one of the last days of the holiday, I was thinking about the idea of new beginnings, and I came across a Kalenjin song that had actually been my coworker's ringtone. Not only that, it had a really good message for the new year. This song was my new years resolution song, and I continue to listen to it whenever I get stressed out or bogged down. 

Side note: the Kalenjin tribe was pitted against the Kikuyu tribe during the post-election violence in 2008. The fact that my coworker, a Kikuyu, had this song as his ringtone, continues to inspire me. He lost his home in the deadly clashes, and his mother is still displaced. But he always preached (and practiced) acceptance and reconciliation between tribes.

9. It's no secret that it's difficult to live isolated from the people and culture that you're used to. It's hard to always feel like a foreigner, and no matter how integrated you are, you will always be a foreigner when you look, speak, think and act a little different from everyone else. So I consider myself incredibly lucky, because although Sipili is pretty remote, there is another Peace Corps Volunteer here with me. Jessica's house is roughly a 15 minute walk from mine, and her school is neighbors with mine. She's the best site mate - laid back, friendly, hilarious, and always up for a weekly beer at Olivia's. When I say Olivia's is a hotel, I'm probably stretching the term (just ask my mom), but it's the fanciest place in town. The beer is sometimes a little cooler than room temperature, and they have a TV. Jess and I go there about once a week to have an Allsopps (500 ml of warm, sub-par beer for 110 shillings - about $1.50), and shoot the breeze. We talk about frustrations in our jobs, ideas about how to improve our schools, plans for life post-PC, and whatever else is on our minds. She doesn't mind when I zone out (something that happens to a lot of us after being in the village a long time), and we both stare at the TV when it's playing music videos. When it's Rihanna or Drake, we gripe about missing the US. When it's Justin Bieber, we thank our lucky stars we're over here. And when it's Kenyan music, we laugh or take notes, depending on whether it's a song we want to remember, or just another insane mash up of poorly edited dancing. These next three songs remind me of Jess. The first one is her jam, and the second two are songs we discovered while in our Allsopps/equatorial sun-induced stupor one Thursday afternoon:

Please notice the random mzungu in the last video. This is a common theme in Kenyan music videos. In fact, the PCVs up in Maralal were approached by a group of people shooting a music video, and ended up in TWO Samburu music videos. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for anything similar happening around these parts. Maybe I can weasel my way into a cameo.

10. Now I'm in the downhill slide to the end of my service. It's weird, because I've gotten really used to life here. I had a moment the other day when I realized that when I go, I'll actually miss Kenya. Not just the kids, and not just the family with and their awesome fruit farm. I will miss sitting in a matatu with nowhere to put my feet, because there are dozens of chickens underfoot. I will miss people asking ridiculous questions like if I know Obama, why I'm not married, or if I'm immortal because I'm white. I will miss the rains after months of drought. I will miss the way little kids look at their palm after we shake hands, to see if some of my (lack of) color wiped off on them. I will miss the languages, the towns, the long skirts and the animals. But I'll really, REALLY miss the music. I was listening to this song as I had that realization:

This song reminds me of my time here, because it's a mixture of English and Gikuyu. It's modern, and it's a throwback. I can dance to it like I would in Nairobi, but the old Kikuyu man reminds me of Sipili. It's going to be hard to say goodbye to all of that, but I guess I can just be grateful that's still six months away.

And on that note, let me leave you with some Franco. Because, let's be honest. This dude can rock a cowboy hat.


  1. loved this post! I'm gonna say Mwanake was my favorite, although you're right; the Franco wa Sabu one is laugh-out-loud funny. Awesome job with the drama team by the way.

  2. jenny! I'm so glad you put all these videos into one blog post so I can jam out and think of you so much easier!! I have three requests

    1. I want to the links to those PCV music videos! Mostly because it reminds me of peru: i could be rollin' up in sweatpants, having just vomited, not having eaten in days, and i'd get whistled at on the street. so ridiculous and wrong, but hilarious.

    2. make a list of all the kenya club songs that you are listening to so we can properly jam and dance when you get back!!

    3. i think its time for another post!!

    love you
    PS when you first sent me the bibi no. 2 video, i watched it on my phone with chris. I sent it to him again today as a reminder of how that's not okay yet hilarious. LOVE YOU <3