Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Typical Day?

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savour you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky, and want, more than all the world, your return. ~Mary Jean Irion

In one of my first blog posts, if I recall correctly, I included a short bit about what a typical day was for me. A lot of things have changed since that post so I think it's about time for an update on what a typical day for me looks like.

Now lets begin by saying that there is no such thing as a typical day. If there is no such thing as a typical day, then how does one describe a typical day? Well right now the school is still on holiday which means that a typical day during the school holiday is different from a typical day during the school term.
Note: In Kenya the schools are closed during the months of April, August, and December. The school term lasts 3 months and one month for holiday.

Well during the days of school holiday, a typical day looks like this:

Wake up casually at any given time and spend the day walking around town. Usually I will have discussions with people I've met - such as students from any of the given post-secondary institutions in town, shop owners, community development workers (i.e. NGO workers), etc. I also tend to end up meeting new people and having talks with them also.

Typically, the conversations include information about what I'm doing in Kenya, where I come from, how I learned Kiswahili, etc. The subjects of the conversations tend to vary from person to person. Sometimes we will discuss HIV/AIDS and prevention methods, other times we will discuss perceived problems in the community and what can be done to solve the perceived problems.

No matter who I talk to or where I go, I almost always walk (sometimes I will take a matatu if I'm traveling far). My walks around town are by far the most typical thing.
In my walking, I typically see many things which may be considered abnormal back home.
A lot of roads in town are not paved so I tend to walk on sand and dirt while walking from one place to the next. (I wear sandals every day :D )
Typically, I will see herds of sheep resting around town. Sometimes there will be may be 6 or 7 sheep resting in the shade underneath a broken down truck. At other times, there will 2 or 3 sheep on the road (occasionally in the center) not going anywhere.
Also, typically they there are storks to be seen. The storks around here are quite large birds - in fact I've seen some that are as tall as me. On occasion the storks can be seen flocking together near an intersection on my way to work. At other times, the storks can be seen flying around a bit or they will be in the trees enjoying the cool breeze.

Typically there will also be herds of goats (and/or sheep) that will walk around town. Sometimes the herd will be lead by a kijana (young person), sometimes the heard will apear to be walking as if they are not being lead by anyone. Sometimes the herd of goats will cause a brief traffic slowdown which will result in loud horns being honked, and on occasion a goat will be (gently) tapped by a vehicle as a signal to get "off the road".
Typically there will also see a few donkeys near the end of town.

I will also typically see some dead animals or at least parts of dead animals as I walk. For instance, I tend to walk by at least one piece of a goat's leg almost daily (though the location where it may be can vary). On a few other occasions I've also seen the skeletons of goats and small birds in the particularly sandy parts of town as I walk.

However, considering that there is no such thing as a typical day, what I see and who I talk to on each day varies with each new day. Each time the planet spins and brings about sunlight once more, a new day begins and each new day brings new adventures, new friends, and new insights.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The best of all medicinces is resting and fasting. ~Benjamin Franklin

"Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar...It is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured; from dawn until dusk. Fasting is meant to teach the Muslim patience, modesty and spirituality. Ramaḍān is a time to fast for the sake of Allah, and to offer more prayer than usual. During Ramaḍān, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. As compared to solar calendar, the dates of Ramadan vary, moving forward about ten days each year. Ramadhan was the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed[Qur'an 2:185] to the Prophet Muhammad." (Wikipedia - yes I know its not a real reference, so you can look up the real references on the Wikipedia article)

A few days before Ramadan began, I was invited to attend the kickoff of a new project called Twaweza tukiwa pa moja (literal translation: We are able/We can if we are together). At this event, community elders and religious leaders were invited. There were some religious leaders who even came all the way from Mombasa (10.5 hours away by public transport).
At any rate, at this event, I got a chance to meet people who work with organizations like Aphia II, the World Food Programme, local clinics, the Kenya Red Cross, etc.

As there were religious leaders and community elders, a lot of the gathering took place in Kiswahili and in another language - I think it was Somali. Unfortunatley, I didn't understand a lot of what was said in Somali. I did understand what they were talking about though and I do have faith in this new project.

Anyways, this blog post is not about the project, its about Ramadan so lets get back to Ramadan. At this community gathering, the religious leaders mentioned the upcoming Ramadan. Since I didn't know much about Ramadan, I did what I thought would get me the most information without appearing to be ignorant: I googled it. After I had some basic information about Ramadan I asked some people in my town for further information in regards to how it would affect the town.

In a nutshell this is what happens: everything shuts down. OK not everything, but my favorite hotelis (small restaurants/cafes) are closed. It would be ignorant on my part to say that everything shuts down as the population here is not entirely Islamic.

As part of Ramadan, fasting takes place from dawn til dusk which means that there are no hotelis that will have food or drinks available until dusk. It is safe enough for me to walk from a few hotelis that are not too far if I want to eat out, but my favorite hotelis are much farther away and I would probably spend more money on a taxi back than on the food itself. Its only for a month so I suppose I will survive.

Also related to Ramadan, though not related to the aforementioned event, last week at the Cross Sector workshop (see previous blog posts) I met a gentleman named Said who said he's going to get me some reading materials. Included in those materials will be an English translation of the Qur'an and the Hadith.
Said also recommended that I try fasting during Ramadan to further integrate and better understand the community.

I have been following his advice (though not only because it was his advice). In part, I was following his advice, but at the same time I was more interested in what it would be like to fast. On top of it all since this is my first time living in a predominantly Islamic community I thought it would be a good idea to fast with them.
I realize of course that not the entire town is Islamic yet I want to learn as much as I can about their culture and make the most of my time in this community.

I also want to mention that since Ramadan has started I've had more invitations to join Islam than I've had in the rest of the time I've been in this community. In fact, today as I was making my way to the Kenya Red Cross to offer myself as a volunteer I had three invitations to join Islam.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting tested

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ~Anais Nin
Triple post day! Please don't forget to read 'em all ;)

So a big part of what we do in the community as volunteers is encourage people to get an HIV/AIDS test to find out what their status is.

During the past week while we were in Mombasa town for a cross-sector training, I got tested.

The act of getting tested itself can be particularly scary. I will try to the best of my recollection describe the testing procedure in this blog post.

Let's start at the beginning... (The cross sector workshop itself will be described in a different blog post)
During our cross-sector workshop we had the opportunity to attend the Mombasa Trade Show.
At the Trade Show, we had an opportunity to speak to representatives from the (Kenya) National Aids Control Council (NACC). NACC had a large booth at the fair. On one side, NACC had information about HIV/AIDS in Kenya providing detailed information about what NACC does in the country and their measures to help fight HIV/AIDS.

On the other side of the building where NACC had their booth, there was a station for blood donation as well as several small rooms set up for HIV/AIDS testing and counseling.
In case you don't recall, in Kenya there are many many VCT centers (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) where people are able to find out their HIV status and also provide counseling services for people who are HIV positive and even advice as to how to convince your partner to get tested also.

Now, I had donated blood the week prior at the Agricultural Show of Kenya in Garissa before going to Mombasa for the cross-sector workshop so I was unable to donate blood on this particular occasion.

Instead, I chose to get tested. I figured it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to encourage other people to test without even knowing the testing process. So here goes:

I entered the VCT and upon entering I was asked what the purpose of my visit was. I said I would like to get tested. After a few minutes, a counselor was ready and took me to a private room which contained a small table and two chairs.
On the table there were several items including: alcohol wipes to clean the finger in preparation of withdrawing a few drops of blood for the test, small plastic lancettes used for pricking the finger, small plastic tubes used to collect the blood from the finger and then to place the drops of blood on the test, a box of rubber gloves that the counselor would use prior to drawing blood for the test, a bag of condoms on the table that are given away as a method of HIV/AIDS prevention, two different HIV tests and a paper form and a pen.
Underneath the table there was two cannisters: one for biohazard materials and another for garbage.

So it begins...

First of all, the counselor asked me some things to gage how much information about HIV transmission I know. The counselor asked me "how many ways can HIV/AIDS be transmitted?" To which I replied something along the lines of sharing needles, blood transfussion, unprotected sex, mother-to-child transmission. The counselor then continued to ask for some information to fill out the form. I think this is a good time to note that the testing process is anonymous - I think a large part of the information gathered is for the purpose of statistics.
So to fill out the form, the counselor asked me my age, my profession, education, the reason for testing, the number of sex partners in the past year (specifically the number of heterosexual sex partners and homosexual sex partners), the number of "one-night-stands", if I had been tested before - if so the results (positive/negative).

Following the information gathering phase, the counselor proceeded to explain how the test would proceed - first comes the blood withdrawl, then the blood is placed on a test, if the test is positive, a different test will be performed to confirm the first test. (It is my understanding that there are three different HIV tests which vary in cost and therefore the least expensive is used primarily and a second is used to confirm the first test).

The counselor begins by putting on gloves and geting the lancette ready for blood withdrawal. The lancette creates a miniscule puncture in the finger and therefore the counselor had to squeeze my finger to encourage the blood flow so that enough blood is drawn to perform the test.
The blood is collected into a small plastic tube that is then used to place the drops of blood on the test kit.

The waiting game begins...

The most challenging part of the test was waiting. The blood is placed on a test kit and a drop of a liquid solution was added (I didn't ask what was added to the blood). The liquid seeps into the test kit and by careful examination you can see how far the liquid has traveled on the test kit.

Waiting and waiting continues. During the wait, I recall the counselor asking what I would feel if the test was positive.

Now I think its important to clarify something with the perception of having HIV/AIDS. I think up until recently, I had this perception that once a person has HIV/AIDS they are living with a death sentence. As if merely having HIV means the person's life is over. In reality, it is possible for people to live full lives with medication.

Back to my test:
At first I thought "It would really suck if I tested positive. How would I have even gotten infected?" As the waiting game progressed, irrationall, I grew more and more concerned about the posibility of being possitive. I was especially concerned about what would happen in regards to my volunteering in Kenya.

After a little bit more waiting, the test results were finally ready.
The test showed one single line. The line looked like a minus sign and so I immediately thought I was negative on the basis that the line was a minus sign.

The counselor said I could look at my test. The counselor asked if I knew how to read the test and I said no. The counselor proceeded to explain that one line means negative and two lines means positive.
So it was that with a giant sigh of relief that I found out the results of my HIV test.
Having tested negative, the counselor and I discussed some things I can do to make sure that I remain negative.
Shortly thereafter, I was given a small yellow piece of paper that had some numbers (to provide anonimity) and a date three months in the future - which represents when I should be retested as I could be positive and be within the window in which it would not show on the test.
In three months, I will go take the test again. I can only imagine what I will be thinking/feeling at that time.

At least now I know what the process entails and I can gander how much more terrifying it can be for someone who has more of a reason to think they have contracted HIV.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cross-Sector Training

On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Triple post day! Please don't forget to read 'em all ;)

The purpose of having more training is so that it can be applied right? I mean we are all life-long learners. Who ever said that life-long learning only applies to school-related topics? No one, I hope.

This past week we had a cross-sector training in the gorgeous town of Mombasa. The focus of the workshop was HIV/AIDS.

The workshop was held at a Sea Lodge, which, as the name implies, gave us the opportunity to enjoy the beach and the beautiful Indian Ocean during the evenings following the workshop sessions.

We began on Sunday morning with Kiswahili language (I am still looking forward to learning Somali next month). We got to chose the language groups we were in so I chose to learn further from Sam. Now Sam had worked with me, Gavin, Leah, and Pat earlier this year when Leah hosted a Kiswahili language workshop at her site so I was thrilled to continue my learning from Sam. The language continued through Monday.

For those of you who follow me on Facbeook, you may have seen a status update during this week that said something along the lines of "Daniel has been officially renamed Abdul by the Peace Corps staff." The reason for that status update is because during the week long workshop, after the sessions, I would proudly wear my Kikoi and I was also wearing a small kofia (hat) to fully represent my community. I'm hoping to be able to upload pictures of me wearing both the Kikoi and the kofia to my Picasa Web album in the near future. [For the mean time, you can look at other photos of my life in Kenya on my Picasa Web album found at ]

Aside from just Peace Corps Volunteers, we were also joined by several counterparts and supervisors from our respective communities. Not all PCVs were able to bring a counterpart or supervisor, but I feel the group was a good mixture nonetheless. I was able to attend the workshop with my counterpart Timothy.

During the week's activities we had different sessions and discussions to learn about HIV/AIDS in Kenya. We talked about statistics, we learned about prevention, and we had some great discussions on various topics.

Particular emphasis was given to Mother-to-Child transmission (MTCT) during the first session. Once we learned about MTCT, the real fun began. The session we had on MTCT was in the form of a traditional presentation - one presenter leading the discussion on MTCT.
Aside that presentation, it seemed to me that the rest of it all was much more focused on group discussions without a rigid structure as the aforementioned presentation.

On one of the training days, we learned to play different games which aim at HIV/AIDS education. Such games will certainly come in handy during large events such as the Agricultural Show of Kenya that recently passed and the World AIDS Day celebration in December.

On another day, we had the opportunity to come up with discussion topics and our group broke up into smaller groups to discuss such topics as the impact of religion on the perception of HIV/AIDS, information and communition technology in relation to HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and discussions on effective counseling techniques.

On another day, we had the chance to travel from the sea lodge to Mombasa town to visit one of two locations: a Mombasa youth VCT center and Kamara. At MYCC, where I went, we recieved a tour of the facility and also discussed ways to involve the youth to not only know their status, but also to make the correct decisions to prevent the spread of HIV. The rest of the group got a chance to visit the office of Kamara - an NGO that helps educational institutions with computers.

On top of the training, we had a chance to visit with other PCVs we had not seen in some time. We also had the opportunity to have som fun (on top of the games we played learnin about HIV/AIDS). Every day the sea lodge had beach volley ball at 5pm as well as having free time to swim in the Indian ocean or one of the two pools at the lodge.

Best of all I think was the people that were there. It was certianly nice to have the Indian ocean just there to enjoy it after the workshop sessions. Even still, I think it was the group that made the workshop worthwhile and not the location per se.

Now I'm back at site and I'm going to have several meetings during this week to see what ideas can be implemented at my site and how.

The purpose of training is not to store knowledge, but to share/apply it in the most effective way.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The many masks of a PCV

Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role. ~Confucius
Triple post day! Please don't forget to read 'em all ;)

Every Peace Corps Volunteer ends up wearing many different masks to fit the occasion.
Each case of course is unique and every PCV wears a different mask depending on the circumstances they are living with. In my case, I wear several masks each day.
I wear the mask of a professor at a tertiary institution, I wear the mask of a student, I wear the mask of a volunteer, I wear the mask of an American, but most importantly I wear the mask of Daniel.

My primary assignment is teaching in the IT department at a tertiary institution in the town where I live. As such, I wear the mask that identifies me in the community as a mwalimu (teacher). Being a teacher in a community, especially as a mzungu (foreigner), means that I am seen as a community member.

I wear the mask of a student every day as I continue to learn something new every day. With each passing day, I continue to remember what Mrs. Rosenberg in chemistry used to say all the time. She would continue to say "Learn something new every day." In fact, whether we realize it or not, we do continue to learn something new each and every day.
In most cases, what I learn each day is a new piece of vital information that helps me better understand the community I live and work with each day. For instance, I continue to learn about things that are appropriate and things that are not appropriate given the cultural context.

The mask of the volunteer is one of the more important masks to wear. As a volunteer working in a community that has not had a volunteer before, it is especially important that I do my best to make a good impression about volunteers, and more importantly about Americans.
Being a volunteer means that I need to take extra attention to my actions to make sure that I do not do something that may give the wrong impression of what a volunteer is.

The mask of an American is also an important mask to wear. This mask is particularly unique. Each individual volunteer has a different mask of their America. My America is comprised of not only my experiences in the U.S.A. prior to coming to Kenya, but my America mask is also heavily influenced by the regions of the U.S. where I lived, studied, and worked.
After all, each part of America is different from another. Each city or town one lives in provides different experiences, which also differ person to person. So my America mask differs from that of any other American. As such, it is important for me to share American culture and my experiences with Kenyans (and other foreigners) while keeping in mind that making any generalizations I make can create incorrect stereotypes and misrepresent America.

The last of the masks is that of Daniel - me, myself, and I. This mask is probably not a mask but the face that lies beneath all other masks. The mask/face of Daniel (yes i know its a tad weird for me to write about myself in the 3rd person but its for perspective sake) is comprised of my personality and my experiences as a whole. Up to now, I have yet to mention growing up in Mexico. That is a large part of my personality, in conjunction with all other experiences I have had. But very important to point out is that because I did live in Mexico, an important part of my personality was shaped by a different culture than that of many if not all the other volunteers that are serving with me. [Granted because of sub-cultures and the uniqueness of each individual person each personality is also going to be unique. However, it is also important to note the difference between sub-cultures (within the U.S.) and cultures (outside of the U.S.)]

Even with each of the masks and potentially the face beneath all the masks, it is important for me to keep in mind that it is very possible and even likely that several masks are worn at a time.

So it is that I try not to worry or focus on the mask(s) that I wear at any given time. Instead, I try to focus on the proper role for me to play at any given time.