Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alone in the Crowd

On my walk home from work today, I noticed a strange site on the opposite side of the street.  There was a man laying face down on the sidewalk.  This is on a busy sidewalk flanked by a highway and a local street where thousands of people walk daily to get on buses and matatus (minibuses) to get all over the city.  He was already on the ground when I first spotted him, so there must have been at least a hundred people that walked around him on this small sidewalk before someone started staring at him from a distance.  I walked across the street, crouched down and asked “are you ok?”  He responded in Swahili, and I quickly realized I was not going to be very helpful to him. 

It seemed as if he was having a seizure and was convulsing on the ground while staring at a small brown paper bag.  The man staring at a distance crouched down next to me and took some pills out of the bag to show to our patient.  More mumbled talking commenced before the man took two pills and delicately placed them in his mouth.  Then, he and another man in the growing crowd around us picked the fallen man up and sat him down on a small burm next to the sidewalk.  Seeing as my usefulness in the situation as a flag-raiser was over, I left the crowd of thirty people and a taxi that had stopped to ask about our patient.  He seemed to be ok now that he was not prostrate.

Sometimes I feel like I need someone to ask “are you ok?” even if it is in the wrong language.  This morning, the first thing my coworker, Michael, said to me when I came into the office was, “You look tired.”  He didn’t exactly ask if I was ok, but it was assumed that I would explain my new look.  I didn’t even realize I felt tired, let alone looked it.  I told him I had been up late reading a book and would wake up soon.  As the day drug on though, I realized I was tired.  I was also distracted from every task I tried to accomplish.  I started working on all five articles I am writing about various programs at Church World Service for the East Africa Review that I am publishing in January.  I kept floating from one subject to the next to feel busy, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I looked up and another of my coworkers who had arrived late asked why I looked so tired.  Do I really look that bad?

After a little more squirming through information on my computer, I decided these warning signs couldn’t be ignored.  I needed to do something about this tiredness!  I bolted out of the office in search of a future running path on our compound.  I have been looking for some regular source of exercise since arriving in Kenya, but nothing has really stuck with me.  You can’t really run on the streets during the day and there are no parks or affordable gyms near my apartment.  I walked past a flock of kindergartener sized, ugly-headed, long beaked birds that were milling in the trash pile at the back of the office compound.  Some flew away when I walked by which was a bit startling because their huge wings made a really loud flapping noise as they ascended into a neighboring tree.  Figuring out that there was no good place to run at my office was just the first in a string of events that I undertook today to establish more concrete “self care” strategies for my year here. 

My fellow YAV, Michael and I discussed how after going to the same church for two months, it still feels like we are visitors.  We are still getting to know the friends we have met there, we are still getting used to making the journey to the church early Sunday morning, and we are still trying to pay attention to the 45 minute sermons that accompany the wonderful half hour of praise music we are trying to learn.  What is hard to realize is that we really are still visitors in this country.  We are still new immigrants to a place that demands to be treated differently than the places we came from.  There are many things that I still haven’t done successfully on a regular basis: buying affordable groceries at the market in the nearby slum, exercising, washing clothes to name a few.  I still don’t have a regular routine. 

I am glad I am not alone here.  I have friends from work and church, my group of young adult volunteers, and other people all over the country and the world to talk to each day.  I don’t even have to speak the right language, and I can find someone to help me take care of me.  But I do have to do something to catch someone’s attention.  Luckily, this morning I didn’t have to wait until I was wriggling face down on the floor for someone to notice I looked different than “normal.”  Now I have the next 8 months to ask for help to identify what I need to do to function properly.

For most people, immigrating to Nairobi is not as easy as it has been for me.  The typical immigrant is a poor villager moving to the city to find a job to support his/her family.  Finding shelter, securing food, meeting new people, and beginning to look for a job is much harder when no one is helping you and very few people understand the language you are speaking.  The slums we marched through with Henry’s church last month are filled with millions of people who are living alone on the edge of starvation and may never feel at home there.   They live without electricity, running water, toilets, trash collection, secure housing, and opportunities for education.  To them, globalization has nothing to do with lightning fast internet, bananas from Peru, cars from Japan, and scissors from China.  Globalization is fishing them out of their secure village life and forcing them to look for a new way of life in a place much more foreign to them than it is to me.

Even with millions of people with the same human issues walking past you every day, you just need that one person to recognize when something is amiss.  I am glad I could at least ask the first question that led to my prostrate patient’s recovery.  I am grateful that I have people checking up on me in Kenya to figure out what is going on inside me.  I pray that everyone has someone that will stop to ask “are you ok?”

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Importance of Playing Checkers

Kadakoi is a small pastoral community in the heart of East Pokot, Kenya.  This is an area that has been plagued with drought over the last ten years because of climate change, but has been traditionally arid throughout history.  I visited Kadakoi as part of a video project to shed light on the success of Church World Service’s Water for Life program.  The program director would like to expand the program internally by being a better fundraiser and externally by making proposals to the Kenyan Government to expand funding of rural water projects with the Millennium Development Goal financing they have available.

Our visit to Kadakoi was different than other Evaluation and Monitoring visits I have been on so far.  Typically, I have been in a group of visitors including local program staff and CWS staff on a scheduled visit to many communities in a region in one day.  They welcome us warmly, show us the results of our project implementation, have a meeting to discuss future plans, and quickly leave after dancing in celebration to the local songs and drums.   This time, we spent two days with the same community from sun up to sun down.  The video crew preferred shooting during those times because the lighting makes images look natural and easy on the eyes.  At first we sat through a meeting with the whole community, which consists of some Christians who are a minority to those who practice the traditional religion of the village.  The pastor prayed and led the meeting with a speech about what has happened since CWS came to work with the village to establish a local water resource.

In this region of East Pokot, the only viable way to retrieve water is to drill a bore hole to establish a deep water well.  The first location that local surveyors determined to drill ended up having no water, but the disappointment was overcome by drilling a second bore hole that was successful.  This work was mainly done by our partner organization in the region, Farming Systems Kenya.  Drilling bore holes is expensive – up to $10,000 for one hole – because of the drilling equipment and, in this case, the remote location.  The community was responsible for providing local materials such as sand, stone, and water to construct the well and dig the trench to pipe the water from the bore hole to a central location.  Now anyone in the community can pay two to five shillings (2-5 cents) to get water for cooking and cleaning for the day locally.  Previously, women and children were responsible for collecting water in 20 liter jerry cans from polluted water sources over 10 kilometers away.  This took eight hours out of a woman’s day which was also filled with normal chores of cooking, cleaning clothes, building a home, and caring for livestock.  Needless to say, these women and children were constantly tired, easily got disease from contaminated water, and never had an opportunity to consider an education.

Now that these women can easily retrieve clean water within their community, they have eight extra healthy hours in their day to commit to other activities.  Children have been encouraged to go to school by their parents – instead of girls fetching water with their mothers and boys herding goats and cows.  A hotel, a restaurant, and a general store have all opened up around the new water point.  All these businesses are managed and operated by women.  There were many healthy babies being carried around during our visit, which is evidence of the health of the women and community as a whole.

During the day, we were not responsible for any official documentation, so I took the time to get to know some of the community members.  It was culturally appropriate for me to talk with the men first, so I joined a small group of men congregated next to the water point.  Some men were reading the newspaper, some were chatting with each other, and others were playing a game that I thought was checkers.  It ended up being a slightly different game, although I was able to beat one of the guys at it after figuring out the rules!  I played a few rounds while asking questions and then taught them how to play my version of checkers.  The guys I was talking with were either in school or had completed high school.  Luckily for me, this meant we could talk in English.

After narrowly defeating one of the guys at both his version of checkers and my own, I ventured out to talk with other members of the community.  I met a group of women grinding their local crop of corn into flour with a posho mill, a woman selling goods at her general store, a large group of women weaving baskets and selling vegetables from their gardens, and even a three year old girl collecting firewood for her mother’s restaurant kitchen.  None of these women had any advanced education like the men, and yet they looked as though they understood much more about community, business, and the products of their labor.

Many people in Kenya consider these Pokot men to be lazy.  They sit around on their elders chairs and watch the women do all the work – even building their house.  My coworker, Sammy, is not one of those people.  When he was visiting some of our partner communities in West Pokot two years ago, a group of cattle raiders crossed into the village where he was staying.  From the top of a hill where his guest house was located, he watched all the village men come together with their own AK47’s to protect the village from the raiders.  These men were able to hold off the raiders long enough for them to decide to move to the next town.  He points out that no women were involved in this dangerous mission.  “If you were to ask a Pokot woman if the men in her village are lazy, she will just laugh at you.”  This is because they consider these men very important for protection as well as for guidance.  During the long hours of sitting in the elder’s chairs, those men are discussing important business, marriages, and the effects of predicted weather patterns and government policy. 

So, playing checkers is very important for the survival of the entire community.  My question is why does it have to be only the men?  The water committee developed to oversee the continued maintenance of the water source is required to have equal numbers of men and women.  This has allowed women to take on a new role of leadership in a project that directly affects their lives.  The water committee members are all Christians in this particular village where the majority is not.  This has irritated existing views of the church in Kenya as being corrupt.  A lack of trust in the leadership of the community and their new resource is sure to cause problems in the future.  Perhaps a game of checkers could lead to a peaceful resolution.

For more images from this trip please visit my facebook photo album.