Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Letter to Spring 2009 Students

One of my final tasks this semester was to write a letter to the next semester's participants to be put in their program packet, a task that was delegated to me, for some reason, by the rest of the group. It was actually pretty reflective of our experiences here as a whole, so I decided to post it. Here it is!

Dear Spring 2009 AU Abroad student,

Karibu Kenya! We’re all very excited that you’ve made the first step to an amazing experience, a step that most people will never take. Your fellow program participants all share one thing in common with you: they’ve chosen study abroad path that is anything but ordinary. We have a semester’s worth of advice to give you, but in reality it’s your individual imperative to create your own, unique experience in one of the greatest cities in Africa.

We could try to predict what your experience will be like, to get you ready, but every semester is different. So instead, we’re just going to tell you what we felt. We’ve discovered that Nairobi is a moody city, and there are days when we came home hating everyone and everything, and there were days when we came home never wanting to leave this place. We realized that this is a hard place to live, but that it made the rewards even greater and the memories even sweeter. We grew tough skin, laughed at things we couldn’t change, and fell in love with Nairobi and the people that live here. For the most part, we didn’t go to the gym enough, ate too much starchy Kenyan food, and didn’t call our parents enough, preferring instead to spend our time making the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So here’s our best attempt at giving advice for you: Dive in, immediately. It gets busy later on in the semester, and you’ll regret it if you spent the first month you were here watching Oprah reruns. Travel soon and often, even it means a two-day trip to Nakuru by matatu. Just get used to the dirt covering your feet everyday, it’s not going away. Use each other as resources; talking and even complaining is a way to process what you just saw. Expect bad days, they will come. At the end of those bad days, make brownies and eat the entire pan (calories don’t count when you’re studying abroad). Meet people, and realize that sometimes the people coming from the opposite backgrounds as you make the best friends. Laugh at the frustrating things, it makes life easier. Blog, or journal as often as possible. Be culturally sensitive, but remember that you can defend yourself, where you’re from, and what you believe in... it’ll make for great conversation!

Good luck and we wish you the best in your adventure,

- Girls of Fall 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Coastal Love

I finished my finals about a week ago, and my entire program went on a weeklong “end-of-program retreat” to Mombasa, Watamu, and Malindi. Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya (not much competition when there are three cities total in the entire country). It’s on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and is a completely different city from Nairobi. While Nairobi is fast-paced, developed, and dry, Mombasa is languid, less developed, and more humid than Missouri in August. This is where the original Swahili culture still exists, which is a mixture of Central African and Arab. This is a very Muslim city and there are mosques everywhere. We spent our time in the city center, where we stayed in a nice hotel with air conditioning. Air conditioning. I didn’t realize this until that moment when I felt the first blast of cold air, but I had not felt any air conditioning this entire semester, despite living in perpetual equatorial summer. It was a very foreign feeling. Most of us, including me, got congested sinuses and sore throats from the AC.
Overall Mombasa is a very cool city, one that is most easier to “handle” than Nairobi. You can smell the ocean everywhere you go (which offsets the smell of sweat and garbage normally found in African cities), the people are friendly and less opportunistic, and the city even had an Old Town, which was filled with adorable old crumbly houses that is more reminiscent of Europe. One night we went on a dhou (traditional Swahili boat) ride on the ocean and ate dinner under the stars, which you could actually see. Beautiful.
Despite Mombasa being a pleasant place, we were all ready to hit the beach and relax after a very intense semester! This was to take place in Watamu, a small city directly on the ocean, where we stayed in an all-inclusive (read: all meals, drinks, and water equipment) resort. It was absolutely gorgeous; the Indian Ocean was warm and very pleasant, we spend afternoons playing beach volleyball and evenings walking down the beach. There were, however, a lot of white people there, mostly British and Italian. It was uncomfortable for all of us; it’s a very weird sensation, not being the only white person among a city of Africans. It’ll be interesting to be back in the Midwest, that’s for sure. Also, over half the girls on our program had, to put it nicely, stomach problems because we were eating Western style food again. I haven’t had any processed foods in four months, so it takes a while for the stomach to get used to it.
This trip was fantastic and a wonderful way to end the program. I’m now in Nairobi until Thursday, after which it takes me five days and six flights to get home. Yay

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nile High Club

I’m back! I’m safe!
For all of you who are hopelessly unaware about the events of my life, I spent my self-created (read: skipping class) Thanksgiving break in Uganda with five friends, rafting the Nile.
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my short life. It took us about 26 hours to get there because we went with the safe route, taking an overnight, 15-hour train ($9 for a private sleeper) to Kisumu (home of Obama!, according to the locals). From there we peered at Lake Victoria and hopped on a matatu to the Kenya-Uganda border. After walking through the border and paying the very high white people visa price, we got on another matutu to Jinga, Uganda.
After a Thanksgiving Dinner of pizza and beer on a patio overlooking the Nile, we stayed the night at the rafting company’s river camp. The next morning bright and early we hit the water, taking a raft through Class 4 and 5 rapids all day (craziest experience ever). That night we relaxed by the campfire and ended up sleeping outside because the bunks were too hot. The next morning we went through more insane rapids, ate lunch on a rock, and then spent the afternoon river surfing, which is where you take a raft or boogie board into a rapid that constantly circulates and surf until it decides to suck you in and spit you out. There were crocs in the same river I was swimming in, a concept I still can’t quite get over. The rapids were so scary, but we couldn’t get enough of them. Also, there were several Ugandans in kayaks following us down the river to fish us out, find our oars, etc.
Then when we got back, because that wasn’t quite thrilling enough, I went bungee jumping over the Nile.
What a weekend.
Overall, I loved Uganda as a country. It’s being torn up with a terrible civil war to the north right now, but where we were it was gorgeous. Despite being much poorer than Kenya, the wealth disparity is much much smaller (no Nairobi equivalent to suck out all the wealth), the people there were much better off. I loved the place, I miss it even though I was only there for four days. If I come back to East Africa, I’ll come in the Nairobi airport... and then immediately bus out of it. :-)
We then took a overnight bus back to Nairobi to make it back in times for finals. In retrospect, that was probably much more dangerous than the rafting or the bungee jumping. We slept in shifts and were careful, but there was some hijacking risk (we had a police escort the whole time). Probably not going to do that again.
I’m trying to download the video of the bungee jump but my internet’s too slow. I’ll keep trying and post it when I get it!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

-I like to ride my bicycle-

It has been a while since I’ve updated, pole sana.

Today was wonderful. We went to Naivasha for the day (about one hour outside of Nairobi), to a cute little lakeside restaurant right on Lake Naivasha. We spent the day relaxing, and a several of us rented bikes for an hour and went off roading past donkeys and bathing children and fisherman to get a great view of the lake. It felt so good to get on a bike again, and it was beautiful! After a picnic lunch we all went on a boat into the lake, in which we saw several hippos. Unfortunately, we got sprayed with the lake water because of choppy waves, so here’s to hoping we don’t have bilharsia, a parasite that is in all fresh still water in East Africa and burrows into your skin, enters your blood stream, and sets up shop in your liver. Yay! :-)

Otherwise, I’ve been more stressed in the last week or two than I have been in my entire college career. Not that the work is harder than AU, but being in Kenya makes every simple process ten times harder than it should be. It takes me three hours daily to travel to and from school or work, and two days out of the week I don’t get home until 9pm, after leaving the house at 7am. And being in Town during rush hour sucks the life out of you, so by the time you get home you just want to watch some West Wing, drink some chai, and fall asleep. So I’ve been miserably stressed the last fortnight, and it looks like it’s not slowing down before I leave for travel.

There are some great travel plans in the making though! Next week from Thursday to Sunday I plan on going to Uganda, where I will be white water rafting Level 4 and 5 rapids on the Nile. Ahh! Me and five other girls are going over our self-created Thanksgiving Break—we only get Friday off, but we got excused from USIU by explaining that this holiday held “very important cultural meaning” to us. Then after finals the entire program is hopping on a train to Mombasa, the second biggest city in Kenya that is on the coast of the Indian Ocean. We will be staying for a week in a resort and finally being using those shorts we packed! Finally, after Mombasa I will be heading down to Tanzania with a couple of friends, where I will be spending a couple of days in Arusha. And no, I will have absolutely no money when I return to the States.

On the whole, this blog has been very positive about my experience here. And that’s because, on the whole, I’ve loved being here. But I think it’s important, since this is something I can look back on after I’m back, to record the frustrations I’ve been feeling. So here they are! I’m tired of being a mzungu, being a money sign, being a sex symbol. I want to walk down a street and just be Erin, or at least just be a person walking down the street. I’m tired of the rude gestures and comments that I experience almost everyday.
Also, I’m getting really really tired of the anti-Americanism. Now, I’ve never been much of a patriot, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike U.S. foreign policy. But I’m tired of being told I have no culture. I was in fact told this last week by a fellow intern who is French. She said this while listening to American rap music, a distinctly American cultural movement and followed up by saying that she really wanted to go to Canada. Also, Kenyans are outraged that America put a travel advisory (read: warning) on Kenya following the post-election violence. They think it’s because we hate Kenya. Actually, it’s because over 2,000 Kenyans were being slaughtered by their neighbors and police force. But I’m being sensitive at this point. Grr.
I’m tired of being in a place that doesn’t work. And it doesn’t. Development is never going to fully work and people are never going to escape poverty as long as there is no revolution here. The government is horrible, full of bribes and people that don’t give a shit about what happens to their people. People are resigned to it, there is no fighting spirit left in the population. Nairobi hasn’t had an urban growth plan in 30 years, and is growing at a rate too fast for any city services to function. When I return people will tell me I’m pessimistic, but this is reality, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Development is not what they teach in classes or put on TV. And I’m glad I know that even if it means I’m more cynical, because now I will approach development in a realistic way that might actually help some people.

West Wing time!

Friday, November 7, 2008

We are sisters now?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions regarding my election experience here in Kenya, so here it is...

Kenyans are the most politically aware people I’ve ever seen. It’s sadly ironic, considering that such an engaged and active population is stuck with such an unresponsive, old, and bigoted government. Kenyans don’t believe in their system anymore (how can you when people sell their vote for loaf of bread so that they can feed their children?), so they’ve been focusing all of their excitement on the U.S. election. To have a black man running the U.S., much less a ½ Kenyan, is the most exciting thing that’s happened here in decades!

For election day the students in my program were invited to the U.S. ambassador’s house, where he was having a huge party starting at 5am on Thursday (note time difference). They set up huge TVs all over the place and had food, drinks, and a mock election. We camped out in front of a TV and watched the results come in while explaining to the Kenyans sitting next to us what the electoral college is and what happens if there’s a tie. When Obama was announced the winner, everyone went crazy, shouting and jumping and hugging, Kenyans, Europeans, and Americans alike. As he gave his acceptance speech, we were crying. (Kudos for McCain’s classy concession speech, btw). Exhausted from staying up all night, we went for a nice American breakfast; as we walked through Nairobi, people cheered as we passed and shouted Obama! That night, we went out to celebrate, all wearing red, white, and blue. Anyone else who has lived abroad can understand how crazy that is; before that day, one would never ever even consider doing that. How freeing.

As I was walking to my internship later that day, an old Kenyan woman approached me, a “mama” as we call them. She quietly said Obama!, and I responded Obama! She smiled, held my hand, and said, “We are sisters now”, and walked away.

Yesterday was National Obama Day, so there was no work or school. Only in Kenya, seriously.

While I’m so happy that this barrier to understanding has dropped here in Africa, I’m quickly tiring of Kenyan’s narrow minded support of Obama. In reality, they would hate him if he wasn’t African. Most Kenyans think that gayness is an American disease and doesn’t deserve the time of day in politics, and that they don’t deserve rights (there’s an 8 year prison sentence for being gay here!). Obama disagrees. Most Kenyans don’t believe in abortion, and several thousand women die here every year due to poorly performed illegal abortions. Obama disagrees. It’s obviously so important for them symbolically, but I’ll be curious how they feel two years down the road when they realize he’s pro gay and women’s rights and when they realize he’s American first, not Kenyan. We’ll see.

In conclusion, this was an amazing experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’m so glad I decided to peace out of D.C. for the semester and have this once-in-a-lifetime event. And I’ll be back for inauguration in the spring yay!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Procrastination = Blog Post

I should be doing the following things instead of updating my blog: finding a job for next semester, finding an apartment for next semester, writing e-mails to women’s rights NGOs in Nariobi, or reading my book for a paper (“The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State”). But instead I’m writing, so feel lucky. :-) Thoughts:

1) I hope Obama wins. Regardless of how I voted, the rest of my stay in Kenya will be much more pleasant if he wins. If he loses, I will probably be stoned... just kidding. Kind of. It’s crazy, because Obama’s father came from Kenya, people here consider him “Kenya’s Son”. In a tribal mindset, it makes sense. If someone comes from your village, you are “related”. Therefore, Obama comes from the “village” of Kenya, and is directly connected to the people of Kenya. The less-educated of the bunch even think that Obama will solve all of their problems, because he will somehow care more about Kenya and give them money.
Regardless, it’s a conversation that comes up several times a day for me. They ask who I’m voting for, and insist that I tell them. Once I do, I get a broad smile, handshake, or even hug. Sometimes people don’t even call us “mzungus” on the street anymore, but just yell out “Obama!” as we pass.
It’s amazing to see how excited people are about him. And it’s not just because he’s Kenyan. I’ve had numerous people tell me that if even America elected a black man, then maybe there was hope. Hope. Even an ocean away, there’s hope that black skin will no longer prevent people from having chance at greatness.

2) It’s so shocking how self-aware advertising is here. I just came from the mall, and in that 10 minutes I saw two ads that made me stop in my tracks and stare incredulously. The first one had a picture of a lighter skinned African male. It said in huge letters, “For Men Who Want to Go Farther.” It was an ad for skin-lightening cream. It’s horrifying to me that anyone would want to lighten their beautiful deep brown skin, but it’s true. Men who are lighter to go farther.
The second ad was on television, and had an African woman walking through a village with a basket on her head. As the commercial went on, she moved through different backgrounds and ended up in a European looking city... with a cell phone in her hand. Interesting insights into the development equals modernity mindset, eh?

3) Other random things: My nose piercing got infected because of the water in Kitui. I’m registering for classes for next semester on Wednesday. I think I’m going to Nakuru this weekend, where I can see Lake Nakuru (flamingos!), Thompson’s Falls, and the Equator. It’s rainy season here, which means it rains every afternoon for an hour or so (less dust, tons of mud). I went to a children’s home with Jess this weekend for AIDs orphans who are also HIV positive, held an HIV+ baby, and didn’t get sad about it until hours later. I eat toast for almost all of my meals that aren’t out; I should work on that.

Comment and let me know how you’re doing!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nyumbani Village and Other Interesting Tidbits

It’s been a while. Life has been heating up, and I often find myself without the energy to cook real meals (yay bananas and peanut butter), much less write a coherent blog entry.

Today is Kenyatta Day, so our program took Friday off and went on a four day trip to Kitui, a rural district about 3 hours outside of the city. Kenya has two very distinct cultures, urban and rural. Each has a separate way of speaking, dressing, cooking, and living. Most people living in Nairobi grew up in their rural village (“upcountry”) and moved to the city for opportunities and to see the world. So we spent four days experiencing how the other half of the country lives!

We stayed in a place called Nyumbani Village, which is best described as an experiment in rural development. A Kenyan NGO started this village, which is completely comprised of grandparents and grandchildren. Sadly enough, most of the middle generation of parents have died due to HIV/AIDs, so this community takes the parenting skills of dedicated grandparents, gives them a well built house, land to farm, and clean water to drink, and groups them with ten “grandchildren” (real or adopted orphans with no real grandparents) to raise. It works. There are 27 grandmothers and 2 grandfathers and they work the land with their grandchildren, who are all going to a school in the village. This village is also sustainable, in that it is 100% organic and grows most of the food it eats. An amazing sight of people working together to erase the scars of a missing generation.

As for my personal experience, I took bucket baths (I did it wrong and had to be told how to do it properly), went to the bathroom in squat toilets (think latrine with no lid or seat), and ate nothing but beans, chapati and rice. I never considered myself incapable of living in a rural area, but man was it an eye opener to experience the sheer work it took in keeping yourself clean, eating, etc. when there’s no electricity. A fun fun experience, but not something I could do for long! This really isn’t nearly enough to describe my experience, but it’s the best I can do for now.

In other news, I’ve started to go into the slums with my internship, and I’m having a blast. I can’t really help it. I love seeing the women in their houses, conducting their own meetings, and really trying to change their own lives. The slums are hard, so hard, so desperate. But I can’t get one experience out of my head. I was walking through the slum Kiambiu as the sun was beginning to set. The children were coming home from school in their uniforms, mamas were cooking dinner, and babies were playing on blankets. And despite the fact that I was stepping over sewage pits and experiencing every sign of extreme poverty, it was home. Not for me, but for the people surrounding me. It felt like community and home I feel in the States. Heartbreaking, but so amazingly empowering at the same time.

That’s about it for now! I just had some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life at an Indian place we found down the street, and discovered that there’s a place in D.C. that sells Tusker, so I’m pretty happy.