Friday, July 27, 2012


Looking back, I can’t believe how much happened in the last month. I knew it was all going to happen, but it’s a little disorienting to be on the other side of it all. The experiences were eventful, so this update might take a while!

The Lewa Half Marathon was incredible. To risk sounding dramatic, I’d say it’s one of my top ten life experiences thus far. Lewa Downs is a little more than halfway between Nanyuki and Meru, and it’s a gorgeous conservancy. It’s exactly what one imagines when thinking of African grasslands, with its shallow undulating hills and golden vegetation that waves in the warm breeze. The color of the grass camouflages the ubiquitous impala, but you can spot their dark spiral horns that stick out above the grass, while the zebras’ stark stripes stand out against the beige background. Acacia trees are bunched in sparse clusters, where you can find the giraffes reaching for the top branches with their prehensile tongues. Just riding into the conservancy on the afternoon of June 29th was awe-inspiring, I couldn’t believe I’d be running through the picturesque surroundings the next morning.

There were six Peace Corps volunteers running the race, and a couple other friends with us. We set up camp at the self-catering campsite area . The rich wazungu who had flown here for the race had their own set-up with fancy accommodations and food, but we were on a volunteer budget, so we brought our own tents, sleeping bags and gas cooker, and made an adventure of it. After a quiet spaghetti dinner under the stars at our campsite, we all went to bed early with our running gear laid out for the next day. We woke up slowly in the chilly morning on the 30th, a couple hours before the race was scheduled to start, and we couldn’t tell if our shaking was from shivering or from nerves – or a mixture of both. About 20 minutes before the race, I realized I had lost the safety pins for my running bib, so I was running around asking everyone if they had extras. No one did, of course. Luckily, I had the genius Anna Martin by my side, who suggested I use my earrings to pin my bib to my shirt. Leave it to PCVs to find a resourceful solution in a pinch! It worked great.

The race kicked off at 7:30 AM (right on time! I couldn’t believe it) and the whole setting was perfect. It was about an hour after sunrise, and there was still a slight dewy chill, but the sun was already starting to warm us up, and running took care of the rest. Those hills that looked so beautiful as we drove in proved to be a little less inviting as the course climbed their slopes, but it wasn’t really that bad. I’d made the perfect music playlist and I had prepared adequately, so I was able to keep my pace for the majority of the run. I can’t explain the feeling of seeing the sign toward the end of the race “500 M to the finish.” It was right next to a sign for the full marathon runners: “for 2nd lap, turn here.” At that moment I had infinite respect for the runners who were doing the full marathon. I couldn’t imagine running the course I’d just run AGAIN. I was relieved to make my turn, and cross the finish line. My legs felt like rubber and my insides were all jostled, but I’d finished. It was an awesome feeling.

Not four hours later, I was on a matatu back to Nairobi for the conference at the UN. I had a couple blisters and one black toenail (it’s still black, nearly a month later – not really sure about what happened there), but I slipped on a pair of pumps and a blazer and changed roles completely. It was time to be professional and quick thinking, which was an incredible change of pace. My job in the village is by no means easy, but it is much slower-paced than any activity happening at the UN headquarters in Nairobi. It was fun to think quickly on my feet and rush from one session to the next, take notes and synthesize them into summaries. There were people from all over East Africa, and there were so many good ideas about how to get East African youth interested in volunteering. There were some interesting counter-points, though – a lot of youths here view “volunteering” merely as thinly veiled free labor. There is a good deal of mistrust of government and NGOs on the part of the youth, and honestly, it’s not unwarranted. Even in my own job, I find that many “reputable” organizations are doing things completely contrary to the needs of my community (read on for a recent, specific example). I’m excited for the way that Peace Corps can partner with the people who are starting the East Africa Peace and Service Corps to address some of the concerns, since we have the unique privilege of working one-on-one with rural youth. Because as amazing as it was to be at the UN, it is SO removed from the reality of the people and groups who will be the largest stakeholders in the project. Anyway, the bottom line is that we had a productive and fun time, and I’m excited to see what comes out of the conference in the coming months. Also, the 4th of July party at the US Ambassador’s house was pretty incredible. There were hot dogs flown in from Michigan, wines flown in from Napa, and all kinds of interesting people. Not to mention gigantic American flags and a jazz band. It was a really good reminder that although we have our own issues and challenges in the USA, I have developed a deep respect and gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had thanks to being a US citizen. It’s easy (and I’d argue, important) to criticize the things we do wrong as a nation, but it’s equally important to recognize and appreciate that our right to criticize is fiercely defended. It was also a good personal reminder toward the end of my service here, as I look toward a future career, that with great privilege comes great responsibility.

One other fun fact – the ambassador’s son lives in Alaska! I spoke with the ambassador’s wife for a few moments, and she said he lives in Eagle River. It was really nice to feel a small connection to home, even while thousands of miles away.

After a couple of weeks away from site, it was so nice to come back to Sipili. But the relaxation was short-lived. I got back on a Sunday, and there was a field trip for the whole school the following Tuesday. This wasn’t a field trip I was excited about, though. We were going with all of the kids to pick up the hearing aids we’d been fitted for last term. Sure, it was nice to take the kids to Nakuru, especially the little ones who had never really been on a big trip. But, the whole event was a disaster. As much as I try, I can’t think of too many redeeming qualities of the day. Maybe it was nice that the donors had good intentions, but I have very little patience for that being an excuse for a poorly planned and executed event. It’s obvious how I feel about it, but let me attempt to explain the proceedings without using biased language, and maybe you, reader, can see where my frustration stemmed from.

Last term, two Kenyans (a head teacher from Ngala School for the Deaf, and a doctor) came to take ear molds of all the children in my school. There were no audiograms taken before this visit, so the children who are profoundly deaf got ear molds, as did the children who are hearing but have no speech. There was minimal sign language explanation of what was happening. The process of taking ear molds includes inserting small cotton balls into the ear to block the canal (so the mold material doesn’t go too deep into the ear) and then an “injection” of a rubbery substance into the ear that hardens and creates the mold, from which the earpiece of the hearing aid will be made. This mold ensures a specific fit for each child’s hearing aid(s). Molds have to be updated for each child as they grow, because the ear shape changes as the child ages. After the molds were taken for each child, the two men left with the molds, which would be shipped to the USA for manufacturing of the earpieces.

Fast forward to our field trip. We arrived at Ngala School for the Deaf (where the hearing aid distribution was taking place), and there was one large red tent with about eight stations manned by red polo-clad volunteers from an organization called Starkey in the USA. The volunteers did not know Kenyan Sign Language. The Deaf kids sat in an assembly line, with the earpieces (made in the US from the molds, and distributed upon their arrival) inside their ears. They, one by one, sat in a chair with an American volunteer who spoke to them, saying “Hello, my name is ____. Tell me if you can hear this.” The volunteer then attached a hearing aid to the earpiece, stood behind them and said “ba ba ba ba” or some other repetitive sound. Then using gestures (not Sign Language) and spoken English, asked “do you need it higher or lower?” Based on the kid’s response and the volunteer’s interpretation of that response, the hearing aid was adjusted or replaced with a different hearing aid, until the volunteer was satisfied with the fit. I saw a couple sign language interpreters, but they were not actively involved in the process. After being fitted with hearing aids, the kids moved on to a booth where they were given a small packet containing a few months’ worth of batteries, and a sticker for a job well done.

My emotions were very high throughout this whole ordeal. I had no power to make any changes to the procedure, so I did my best to improve the experience by interpreting for my students, and explaining what was happening, because there was a LOT of confusion and miscommunication. I also made it very clear to my coworkers that although I am from the USA and the volunteers from Starkey were from the USA, we don’t  have the same philosophies on how to work with Deaf kids. We also briefly discussed whether it’s appropriate to just accept any donation that comes along, or if we should think critically about whether it would actually help our students and react accordingly. I also got into a few conversations with some of the volunteers from Starkey. They noticed I was interpreting, so they’d call me over to help them ask the kids whether their hearing aids were too high, too low, or just right. It was a tough job, even knowing sign language, and the whole thing  was rushed. A lot of the kids were confused, scared, or unsure of what to say. Some of the kids didn’t even have any KSL skills, so even my signing wasn’t helping them to communicate. Finally after about an hour of my help interpreting, one of the ladies said “gosh, thank you! Maybe I should know some sign language…” I just smiled and nodded, which was all I could do to keep from shouting “OH, REALLY? YOU THINK SO??” and embarrassing myself. I moved on to ask the people handing out batteries where the kids could get more when these ones ran out. They said they didn’t know. I also asked about how the kids were supposed to get updated ear molds. They also didn’t know.

Perhaps the most frustrating moment of the day was an interaction I had with one of the kids (he was 10 years old) who was with Starkey. He was the son of one of the volunteers, and he knew the ASL alphabet, how to say his name, and use some very basic signs. This made him the resident sign language expert. However, the only difference between the ASL alphabet and the KSL alphabet is the letter “t.” In KSL, the ASL sign for “t” is vulgar; it’s the sign for a certain part of female anatomy that is not discussed in polite society. Of course, the boy’s name began with the letter “t.” So every time he introduced himself, he shocked all the Deaf kids. He also misunderstood most of their signs. One of the Kenyans asked him if he liked Kenya and why. He said “yes! I like being here, because I get to help people!” I think that served as a pretty good metaphor for the whole day.

Once the whole process was over, we got back on the bus, everyone armed with new hearing aids and a few batteries. Almost immediately, some of the hearing aids started to make feedback sounds. You know, the sound a microphone makes when it’s near a speaker, or that hearing aids make when they're not fitted or used properly. Not annoying at all. By the end of the bus ride, most of the hearing aids had been taken out. Over the course of the next week, most of the smaller kids’ aids were broken, the bigger ones weren’t adjusted properly, and most kids admitted they didn’t help them hear. Probably a total of eight hearing aids (in a school of about 70 kids, who each got two hearing aids) are helpful, and are still being worn, maintained and used properly. But they will be rendered useless once the batteries run out and/or the kid outgrows the ear mold.

The real kicker? One hearing aid costs tens of thousands of Kenyan shillings. I can only dream of the teaching materials, books, uniforms, play equipment and other useful things that could be purchased with the same money spent on the hearing aids.

For the record, I have nothing against hearing aids, if the decision to use them is made by the student and the parent together, with appropriate support from the teacher. I also believe that poverty should not be a barrier to accessing such devices, if they are in the best interest of the child. However, I am very much against irresponsible spending, cultural insensitivity, unsustainable projects, and reinforcement of the donor/beneficiary relationship between industrialized nations and the global South. I am offended that although there is no excuse for donors to remain ignorant of the places they are going to “help,” there is oftentimes no effort to educate oneself about the environment they’re entering into, and that remains culturally acceptable. It’s neo-imperialism, it’s self-serving and it’s incredibly embarrassing.

Excuse me as I get down off my soapbox now. I could go on forever, but it’s time for some less emotionally-charged news.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty quiet (minus the occasional chorus of feedback playing from the few remaining hearing aids), which has been nice. I’m excited for August, because I’m climbing Mount Kenya with some PCVs, and my dear friend Kelsey is visiting along with her mom and her sister. They’re like a second family to me, so it will be incredible to see them. In the meantime, I’m continuing to work with my community KSL class, who will be taking their exam on August 4th. I have high hopes for them – they’ve been preparing diligently! But the strangest news from the last couple weeks has to do with the weather. It’s been hovering around 18 degrees C, which is uncommonly cold for Sipili. It also has me deeply worried, because I’ve been absolutely FREEZING. I’ve been wearing scarves, multiple jackets, wool socks, the works. It seems I’ve completely acclimated to this region, which is not good news for my return to Alaska. Especially since I’ll be getting back in the middle of the winter. It may get ugly.

As I move into the last couple weeks of this term and my last school break before heading home, I wish you all (in the US) a lovely second half of summer. Also, for anyone who may have stumbled across this blog who has gotten their invitation to be a Deaf Ed volunteer arriving in Kenya this October, feel free to get in touch!! I’ve heard that some people are already getting their notification. They’ll be our replacements. How time flies…

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