Monday, November 29, 2010

You Know You're a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa when...

"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy... ... it will be rich and satisfying..." ~John F. Kennedy
quote taken from longer quote found on this link

There is a YouTube video entitled You know you're a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa when...
The following is a transcript of the video (with some of my commentary in parenthesis following some of the statements).

..walking around holding a roll of toilet paper seems like a completely normal thing to do.
..Sitting under a tree watching goats graze is considered a "productive day" (or Camels, camels are people too.) stare when you see a white person you don't know (My favorite game to play in town is Mzungu spotting - which is to say spotting the foreigner I don't know and speculating about who they are and what they're doing. I try to introduce myself when possible too to get the scoop.)
..the length of time it takes you to walk anywhere is wholy dependent on how many people happen to be in their yards along the way
..knee length skirts are shocking, but toplessness is not (toplessness is not a thing in Kenya but knee length skirts are rather shocking to see.)
..two weeks, three countries, and three changes of clothes in a backpack seems about right (100% true; in fact one week's travel is about 2 shirts and 1 trouser in the backpack )
..seeing a movie in a theatre is a good bargain, but buying a book is an unthinkable expense (well usually yes, but it's because books are ridiculously expensive, as compared to watching a movie. plus we've got a nice library in the PC office and books are traded regularly between PCVS) have come to realize that the monkeys in the park's play pretty much the same role as squirrels in America but you persist in taking pictures of them anyway (they're just too quite!)
..there is a rooster you would like to kill, if only he weren't dangerously close to your size (I wouldn't kill it but maybe duct tape its beak shut in the morning...if it wasn't "dangerously close to my size"...) are considered the eminent expert on professional wrestling dispite being able to count you're WWE viewing sessions on one hand are outraged whenever the fare for a 30 minute taxi ride goes up 30 cents US dollars are not outraged whenever your 30 minute taxi ride takes 2 hours are stuck in an overcrowded bus for 10 hours in 120 degree heat and no one is willing to open the windows for fear of catching the flu can identify an otherwise unmarked stretch of road by the pattern of the potholes
..when walking down the street, small children shout "white person" and point at you but as you walk towards them they run away screaming in terror find government employees sleeping on the floor of their offices in the middle of the work day
..when buying clothes you think "how hard would this be to wash in a bucket?"
..the fact that peptobismal turns vomit black is a standard and essential element of your knowledge base
..showering every day seems like a decorative vacation live in an almost constant state of existential anxiety about whether or not you are driving on the wrong side of the road no matter which side you happen to be on're cognizant of being the worst dressed person in your village and you don't care double up on words beyond the standard shop shop and now now so that such phrases as soon soon, past past, long long, and hot hot are part in parcel with your everyday vocabulary
..if you have to choose between whether you would rather loose your passport or your adapter you would choose the passport (I can see why this may be the case in general, but in my circumstances it's just too much hassle if I loose my passport)
..30 kilometers is considered a pretty short distance don't think twice about going potty in a plastic bag at night as a way to avoid leaving your hut have so many random bags that when you travel you look like a gypsy will drink and enjoy anything that is cold (including: camel milk, goat milk, cow milk, water, fruit juice, etc.)
..if you're taking public transport and your lap is empty, there is always room for more people immediately loose your ability to estimate distances and waving your hand towards a certain place is considered giving directions
..if a problem arises, your first reaction is a single big long sigh secretly enjoy African pop music including Klito (sp?) and KwasaKwasa (sp?) enjoy eating maize meal and even order it at restaurants're menstrual cycle coincides with the moon cycle
..basically, you have no shame can never act more crazy than your African counterparts already think you are
..spiders are no longer the enemy, but your trusted ally in the constant battle against bugs let complete strangers crash at your place just because they speak English (yes I am a member of CouchSurfing so that if sommeone who speaks English happens to stop through town they can crash with me for a day or two)'ve lost track of how many marriage proposals you've received. know how to make alcohol with local ingredients
..a long work day is six hours distinguish between your Peace Corps family and your American family
..those eggs have been sitting out in the sun all day, sure i'll take two realize that every village must have its token crazy person stare at foriegn tourists as much as the locals
..when you actually realize you miss having a salad
..when you know if someone at your site says "yes" it means "definitely not", "maybe" means "probably not" and "no" means "no"
..when you have a story for every possible topic in life that starts with "when I lived in Africa..."

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Camel Bookmobile

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” ~Dr. Seuss

I finished reading a book called The Camel Bookmobile which is, as the title suggests, about a mobile library on a camel. The novel takes place 3 hours north of my site (the community where I live) by camel. Yes that’s right, the book’s main story takes place 3 hours north traveling by camel.

The story is a very interesting one, and I wont ruin it for you by telling you how it ends or even telling you most of the story line. Instead I will just highlight some of the more important themes of the book.

The book is about a project in which a librarian from the U.S. comes to Kenya’s North Eastern Province with a project: to bring literacy to the children of the hardest to reach areas in Kenya.
The idea of the project is simple: get a native animal (a camel) as a means of transport and set up a system whereby the Camel Bookmobile travels to various small villages in the province every so often with books that the residents would check out for a period of time and return them the next time the Camel Bookmobile comes.

Now the main theme of the book is something most Peace Corps Volunteers are very likely to face: the western world’s perspective as it differs from tradition. Upon arriving to our countries of service each one of us future volunteers is overly ambitious about ‘changing the world’. Yet real, lasting, change takes a very long time and in all likelihood we are not going to change the world. Instead, we can change a small part of the world. We can bring small changes to the communities we live in setting the stage or foundation for future more lasting changes to come in the future. I remember one day last year I had dinner with a Somali and a member of the US military; a Somali, a Mexican-American, and an American soldier having dinner. How often d you think that happens?

During that dinner we discussed the differences between the youth voice and the elders’ voice and how they often conflict. The youth will come with ideas about a better way of life – for example in the book, a member of the tribe was sent to the Distant City (Nairobi) for schooling. Upon return to his nomadic village, the young man brought with him the idea of using buckets and hoses to take more care of the limited water available to their small community. In response, the elders of the tribe thought that ‘tricking’ the water was beyond madness. This is, of course, an extreme example but the principle holds as it is something that volunteers may face.

(Please note that we do receive training on how to approach issues with the community to help community members to become aware of the challenges and come up with a way to address them. The training includes working with the community leaders, etc.)

Though we are not likely to face such extreme opposition as was illustrated in the book, we are likely to experience some.

[PS the Camel Bookmobile is a real effort to bring literacy to Kenyans. For more info visit]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Light on Death

“Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.” ~Eskimo Proverb

Death is a completely different concept in Kenya. Recently, I was reading an article by Ajahn Sumedho (onthe website Inquiring Mind) where he explained that when he went to his mother’s funeral he remained after the ceremony to help with the burial. He writes:
“I decided I wanted to help bury my mother, so I stayed. The men in charge, the gravediggers, came over to me and said, “You have to go.” I replied, “I’d like to help bury her.” But they insisted, “No, we can’t lower the coffin into the hole until everybody’s gone. That’s the rule.” This is how Americans are treated—like it’s beyond our ability to endure such traumas. If we were to see the coffin going into the grave, we’d faint or have to spend the next twenty years in therapy.”
It is interesting how in the U.S. death is not something that is encountered, by most people, on an even somewhat potentially regular basis, the only exceptions might be those in medical health professions (eg medical doctors, coroners, nurses, EMTs, etc).
Think about it: when is the last time you (assuming you are in the U.S.) saw a dead body – even at a car accident site. Usually the paramedics and police show up and haul away the bodies before too long, probably within minutes of the accident. The bodies are taken with great care, in case of fatalities, from the site of the accident and people are kept at bay.
Even dead animals are quickly disposed, generally, stateside. Some animals, particularly pets are even treated like family members, and buried in animal cemeteries.

In my community, animals are not generally treated with such equality or respect. In fact, I’ve been yelled at for having dogs inside the house. I’ve seen people throw rocks at my dog Baraka. Daily, I see how donkeys are badly mistreated.

Now, going back to the main theme of this blog post, it is not uncommon to see a dead animal (in some cases a dead human being) on the side of a road. There is no animal control vehicle or ambulance rushing to come and take the body away… In fact, most people just simply pass by as if this particular sight is of no importance. What else would we expect in a society where death is not hidden away? A society where the concept of old is not hidden away by creams, lotions, superficial surgeries to try and preserve the “ideal” youthful look. Instead, we find that in this society people who are old, wazee (elders) as they are known, are respected members of the community.

In this society, death is a very real thing – in many places it is a real threat every day. I, thankfully, am not threatened by not having water or food on a day to day basis. Yet at the same time I have experienced more death here than I did in the U.S. In one single day walking from my school to my home I saw and walked by a dead cow, a dead camel, a dead goat, a dead cat, and a dead stork. All of these animals were just dead on the side of various frequently used roads.

Death is a natural part of life, is it not? Everyone who is born will one day die. In the U.S. there are many phrases used to lighten the grimness of death – passed on, kicking the bucket, moved on (to a better place), etc. The question in my mind these days is why is death feared in the U.S.? I, too, feared death – the prospect of dying. These days I’ve come to realize that all is impermanent – we live, we die. It’s a part of the natural cycle of life. To deny that death exists is to deny that life is meant to be lived to the fullest – for how would we truly live if death was not a real thing?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Times are a changin'

Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep
it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it you can never get it back. ~Harvey MacKay

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to return to Oloitokitok (or the 'Tok for short) where just over 2 years ago to date I began my training to one day become a Peace Corps Volunteer. In the last 2 years, I had not had an opportunity arise when I could make the long journey as the road used to be difficult and travel to the 'Tok would have required at least 2 days in each direction. Times are changin', however, and now there is a tarmac road that goes from Emali (on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway) straight to the 'Tok. Total travel time from Nairobi is about 3.5-4 hours these days. As a result of this new road, I was able to travel to my training site from my home in one day - a feat I would not have thought possible when I first arrived at my site.
Image: Mt. Kilimanjaro as seen from Oloitokitok.

In Oloitokitok, I had an opportunity to meet the new Math/Science Education Trainees (soon to be Volunteers) as I was part of a group of current volunteers - we had a small presentation on what the Diversity and Peer Support committee does, of which I am a member.

The trainees' enthusiasm for their upcoming swearing in, as well as sitting through and reminiscing during the sessions about the "roller coaster" that is Peace Corps I could not help but reflect on what I've seen during my 2 years of service in Kenya.

In my 2 years as a volunteer I have seen many wonderful and amazing things: I have seen countless wild animals in their natural habitats (rhinos, lions, warthogs, giraffes, water buffalos, zebras, etc.); I've seen how the eyes of young children brighten up just from a simple greeting; I've seen a Solar Eclipse without obstructions blocking my view.

I have also seen some very important changes in my community: I have seen youth start their own (successful) businesses; I have seen my students learn and understand how to use computers; I have seen other students understand concepts of psychology - in fact today one of my former students told me "we all did very well Mwalim (teacher). All of us passed the Human Growth paper." [Note: Human Growth is the overall topic of which I teach introductory psychology and developmental theories]. I have seen my town start using old oil drums cut in half as public trash bins; I have seen my school more than doubles the number of computers available to our students' usage.

All the wonderful things I've seen, the places I've been, the things I've done. Does it all matter in the end? Well, yes it certainly does. Experience is one thing that cannot be taken away from me - even if one day I will be bankrupt and loose all my material possessions, or (more likely) if I joined a monastery and gave up all my material possessions - my experiences will always remain with me. And what's more, my students will have with them the experience of having been taught by a person from a foreign land - a foreigner, become local, who has taken time to live in what was once a different culture to show he cares about their well being and advancement.

Alas, the times continue to change... soon I will see most of my fellow volunteers, whom I trained with, heading back to the States, whether directly or after other travels, and I will remain as one of the few wazee (lit: elders; in this case referring to 3rd year volunteers) as I will continue to serve my students, my community, my school, myself for an additional year as a Peace Corps Volunteer.