Monday, June 18, 2012

The Days Are Running

Here in Kenya, when you want to say that time is going really fast, you say "the days are running." Sitting here looking at the calendar, realizing we're over halfway through June, I am convinced. The days are definitely running. Very, very quickly. There are less than five months left until I'm on a plane out of here - that thought simultaneously makes me feel queasy and elated. But lately, it makes me feel a little more of the former than the latter.

Term two is in full swing, and luckily it’s been more relaxed than term one. Of course I’m still teaching a full load of classes, afternoon KSL class for secondary students and another for community members, but at least I’m consistently leaving school before it starts to get dark, which is an improvement over last term. It affords me enough daylight to go on evening runs, which are a fantastic way to de-stress. Not to mention, they’re incredibly necessary – the half marathon is less than two weeks away! I am a little nervous about it because the terrain of the course is rough, there is no tree cover, and, well, it’s 21 kilometers long. But I’m up for the challenge. And my one consolation is that I’ve been training at an altitude about 300 meters (~ 1,000 feet) higher than the course. So, hopefully my red blood cells/hemoglobin will be at their oxygen-carrying peak.

After the run, I’ll be in Nairobi for close to a week, for a really exciting reason: I was invited, along with six other Peace Corps Volunteers, to the “African Conference on Volunteer Action for Peace and Development” (ACVAPD). It will take place at the UN Headquarters, and will feature influential leaders in politics, youth development, health, environmentalism, peace building, and volunteerism from East Africa and around the world. Participants are coming together for a few days to initiate the inception of an “East Africa Peace and Service Corps” that would be dedicated to fostering the spirit of volunteerism in East African youth. If you’ve been following my personal evolution of discovering how I believe we all should interact with one another, you’ll know that this sounds like a dream to me. Through experience and observation I’ve come to the conclusion that people, regardless of nationality, can realize their potential to make a positive difference in society through service without monetary compensation, and I believe that such service is one of the surest routes toward global understanding and peace. In Sipili, I see countless brilliant, disenfranchised young people every day. There aren’t enough local jobs for all these youths, which breeds desperation, and young people can be easily hijacked by ill-meaning individuals or organizations who recognize desperation and know how to manipulate it. Some girls who have finished high school but can’t afford college will sell themselves to men at the nearby military post. And young men in similar situations are, as we’ve recently seen, joining groups like Al-Shabaab with chilling frequency, lured by promises of financial stability and honor. Opening opportunities for young people to volunteer is an exciting if not necessary way forward, and I’m really excited to attend (and contribute to!) this conference.

The only downside? I’m going to need to buy some new clothes. And shoes. As much as I love them, I wouldn’t feel right shaking the hands of foreign dignitaries while wearing my Chacos.

In the meantime, life in Sipili is passing at its usual, leisurely pace. There was some excitement at the end of May, when four women from the US visited the school. Two of them have been in partnership with the school for a few years now, and they’ve worked on funding small-scale projects that benefit the kids directly (a cow that provides milk for the porridge, sweaters for the school uniform that the kids wear while they’re at school, etc.) It was really nice to visit with all of them and swap Peace Corps stories with one of the women in the group who served as a PCV in Kenya years ago. It was a lucky coincidence that they were here during my birthday, too! We had a lovely dinner together (at the infamous Olivia’s), and they even gave me some cards and a cake. It’s not always easy being so far from friends and family during birthdays (they’re not celebrated at all in Sipili), so it was really thoughtful and encouraging to have a little celebration with people from the US. Although I think I may be losing touch with home – when the ladies first arrived, I couldn’t keep up with what they were saying. People from the US really do speak quickly.

There is some bad news from the school, too. Last week, one of our two cows fell into an open pit, being dug for a latrine at the neighboring primary school, and died. No more milk from her, but he kids ate a lot of meat that week. Personally, I’m overjoyed the cow has been fully consumed and that we’re back to beans.

I feel like there a million other little updates that I could share (we have a new teacher at school, one of the other teachers just had twin girls, the weather is nice and cold, the bean and pea crops are almost ready for harvest, my friend’s grandmother’s burial was this past weekend) but it dawned on me that all the little things combine to tell a bigger story. I know I’ve written before about how integrated I feel (or don’t feel), and about how I constantly have to work to navigate my identities. When I first got to Sipili, I was “mzungu” to everyone. I made children cry from my appearance alone (which can do a number on one’s self-esteem, by the way), and people would charge me an inflated price for almost everything. Kids would use a nasal voice (because apparently that’s how American English sounds to them) to imitate me, and the greeting I heard was “Jambo!” Then, months passed, and people realized I was a fixture in town. They also learned I am a teacher, so I became “mwalimu” instead of “mzungu.” Greetings changed to the more natural “mambo” or “habari,” and the mamas at the market knew which vegetables I would buy when I approached their stalls. That was encouraging, definitely. But there was still something missing – people knew of me, but people didn’t really know me yet.

Now, finally, after over a year and a half in Sipili, I’m “Madam Jennifer” to almost everyone. I swap stories and news with the women I buy food from, and I shake hands with at least a dozen children on every walk home (and promptly wash my hands upon arriving to my house). When a child from another town is visiting Sipili and they call me mzungu, one of their local family members will turn and defend me, saying “hapana! Ni Madam Jennifer!” When I go on runs, people will join me for a kilometer or two here and there (even the grandmothers – these women are made of the strongest stuff) or cheer me on as they’re digging in their farms that flank the road. Now the greeting I get is “We mwega?” which is in Gikuyu, the local tribal dialect. And these days, I even know how to respond: “Nikowega muno!”

So, all the other little updates, too numerous to mention, are now part of my life because I’ve finally, fully become part of life here. I have the privilege of holding newborn babies, joining in prayers for rain, mourning deaths, and contributing to discussions about current events. And although this emergent property that arises from joining little instances together is difficult to describe, it’s the most important update I can communicate to all of you who have been with me on this adventure.

Before I sign off, I want to wish everyone back  in the USA (and especially Alaska) a happy summer. Congratulations to all the graduates (especially USD grads, my brother and three cousins – you guys are amazing) and I hope everyone gets a chance to take a vacation and enjoy the sun. Have a great 4th of July, too. If all goes according to plan, I should be celebrating Independence Day with the US Ambassador to Kenya. Who would have thought?!


  1. Jenny! this post brings me such joy. I cannot wait to hear all these wonderful stories and see the pictures when I get home! or better yet, hear your voice weave the stories and images in my imagination as we drink tea in our apartment. :D love you darling!!!

  2. My darling lover girl,

    First, as always, I miss you oh so much! This post makes me so happy for so many reasons. I can easily say that my greatest challenge when arriving in the DR was trying to integrate myself as a part of the community. So many barriers can come between you and natives when you are seen not only as "the American", but also as a person who is just going to leave eventually. I am so happy for you that you have reached that point and have not created barriers yourself or set yourself apart in the journey. I'm sure you know better than I do that that is the best way to enrich your experience. It was, at the same time, the most difficult part about leaving. You have reached a point where you are expected to be seen in the neighborhood, at the market, in the school, etc. and although you and the community are aware that your time there has an expiration date, I'd be willing to bet that it hasn't fully kicked in with either of you. I'm saying all of this because I want to send you a kernel of knowledge from my experience. I waited until my final days to let the fact that I was leaving settle in my mind. My departure felt apbrupt and painful both for myself and for those who had welcomed me into their family. We weren't ready, and while I know that moment of readiness will never fully come no matter how much you try to prepare your heart, you can still arrange yourself, your work, and the community in a way that ties up loose ends, and offers healthy goodbyes. That way, you can leave with a calm heart ready to take on the culture shock that inevitably will come as well.

    I apologize for the novel. I feel pretty silly trying to advise you in any way because I have always considered you so wise and I'm sure these are all things you have considered. If none of my other words are helpful, how about these; I LOVE AND MISS YOU SOOOO MUCH!!!