Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kenya - How Africa Changed Me

While traveling, it is the revelatory experiences that stick with you the longest. In the big ah-ha moments we become self-aware, shift our perspectives or discover parallels between travel and everyday life. These are the experiences that you did not expect to have, but then never forget as they become part of you.

The day before I left for my solo journey to Kenya my family learned that my mom’s cancer had likely spread to tumors in her spine. We had no other information, and I was distressed with the timing of my departure and this new development. A couple days after my arrival in Kenya I was at an internet cafĂ© when I got the email from her – things had indeed worsened and a tumor was growing in her spine at the base of her neck. She immediately began a heavy course of radiation as she was at risk for paralysis. I was on the other side of the world and overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness and grief. At home we have each other; in Kenya I had no one. I was able to fight back the tears and made it back to the apartment seemingly composed. I crawled in my bunkbed, turned on my iPod and cried myself to sleep in this moment of despair.

The following day was my first at Dorna Rehab Primary School in Kibera slum. The children at Dorna are either orphans by the US definition, meaning no surviving parents, or orphans by the UNICEF definition. meaning one surviving parent. Not only are they orphans, but they have nothing in the literal since of the term, nothing. Living in the squalor of open sewage, no electricity and much of each day with grumbling empty bellies, I met the most bright-eyed, enthusiastic, eager five-year-olds. Children whose faces light up with the simplest pleasure, like a single balloon, a piece of candy or a new song.

I have absolutely no experience teaching students so this was a real stretch for me. I was baffled by how to fill up each day with students who barely spoke English, no classroom supplies and a local teacher who brutally cained the kids for no apparent reason. In my classroom there were 25 students crammed around tables in a room about 10'x10'. To get out from behind the table the kids had to walk not only across the tables, but often times across each other leaving painful kicks in the noggin in their wakes. My curriculum of coloring books, candy bribery and mishmash of songs would have never been approved in the US, but was a hit in this African slum. I have this random propensity for remembering children songs I learned at summer camp and school as a child. So we sang. And sang some more. In fact if you go to Kenya and hear students belting out Old MacDonald and B-I-N-G-O horribly out of key, it’s because I was raising up a classroom of off-tune singers as I am absolutely tone deaf.

The song the kids latched onto more than any other was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” We sang it repeatedly; by the end of the day He had every animal and person you can imagine “in His hands.” After school I made the 15 minute walk back to central Kibera to meet my roommates, as it was day one we hoped that collectively we could wander out the maze of seemingly identical shanties and intimidating stares and find our apartment. It was on that walk down the railroad tracks, surrounded by roosters and long-jumping over sewage that I had one of these revelatory moments.

I had just spent the day with orphans, who by age five already lost one or both parents. Children who in the midst of extreme poverty and a seemingly hopeless life, experience the purest joy at something as simple as a hug. I began to reflect, was I really just feeling sorry for myself about my mom being sick? My mom, who even now that I’m an adult is in every way a parent and a best friend to me? A mom who cared for me when I was ill, cheers for me even when I fail, and believes in me the way only a mom could. I was suddenly ashamed of myself, feeling very ungrateful for the years I have had with her. Compared to these Kenyan children growing up in this abhorrent slum, I have been so blessed and fortunate. While it is still okay for me to be sad about my mom, it was a major mindshift for me to realize that all things considered, I have much to be grateful. My heart began to break for these kids in my class and I was overcome with contentment and gratitude of my abundant life.

It’s been months since I was spending my days singing off key and teaching the hokie pokie, but I still think about those kids often. I look for their faces on the news during stories of violence in Kibera and wonder if they’re still surviving life the only way they know how. I heard once that you can leave Africa, but Africa doesn’t leave you. On days when I’m feeling particularly sad about my mom, I pause to pray and thank the Lord for all the time he has given me with her and the luxury of having a mother that bountifully provided for me both physically and emotionally. Then I remember, He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Kenya - That Was Close!

It was my second day in Kenya and eager to get my feet wet in this far away land, my new friends and I decided to hire a driver for the day to take us to sites on the outskirts of Nairobi. Little did I know that by the end of the day I would be drenched in Kenya. This capital city really does not have any major sites, but there is a Giraffe Center, baby elephant orphanage and this cultural dance center (where I had hoped to see the African Ant Eater Ritual). We found the driver through the Hilton and he told us he would pick us up out front at 10am. So we were there promptly, not yet understanding what “African time” means. So for about an hour we watched the cars get checked for bombs as they pulled in front of the hotel, and waited for Bob the driver.

Once he picked us up, and totally unapologetic for the tardiness, he proved to be an informative and friendly driver. He even took us to Carnivores for lunch where I had my first sampling of Ostridge balls and crocodile (dining on Zebra has been outlawed in Kenya so we didn’t get to push to the outer limits of the African exotics). And while the giraffe center doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, it is worth pointing out that I did put a piece of giraffe nibble between my lips and this giant giraffe licked it right out of my lips. It was tongue unlike any I had ever experienced. Okay, so back to Bob. After a long day, we headed back into Nairobi where he was going to drop us off at a local Massai market (recognizing it would violate a cardinal tourist rule by buying souvenirs at the beginning of a long trip). It was rush hour, or as they say – jam. The jam seemed to clear up and we started very quickly picking up speed. “Watch out!” screamed Jodi from the backseat! Boom. Too late, we slammed into the truck in front of us. Bob looked over at me in the front passenger seat and says in a typical Kenyan English accent, “Whoah,that was close!” Close? Did he just say close? This word must not have universal meaning, because where I hail from, if you crash in to the car in front of you, and the hood of your car is smoking, that is beyond the threshold of close. We all just sat there, a little shocked at the turn of events. Then the instincts kick in and we quickly discussed which was more likely to result in our demise, staying in a smoking car or getting out of the car and standing on the side of the road in the most dangerous city on the continent, in which case we may as well put some kind of “rob us” target on our heads. So in the car we stayed. Bob swiftly put a orange flag on the road behind us to deter anyone from having a close call with us. In a matter of minutes Bob bribed the driver of the truck into not calling the police and settled the matter. Now if only our car would start…

Traveling in a third-world country is guaranteed to put you in the type of situations that your parents warned you about. Stranger danger, wreckless driving, drugs and thugs. Pretty much the full gamut. To survive, the key is to keep your wits about you and evaluate the situation quickly, then make the best decision you can based on the information you have. It’s not just about surviving, but about turning these experiences into a new adventure. After Bob pushed our smoking car to a place that was reasonably safe (so something along the lines of hanging at the El train tracks at 4am around the most dangerous stops in Chicago) we were able to go on foot. We gave Bob an extra big tip that day; after all, he just gave us a great story.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kenya - Howdy! (not nearly as cool as Jambo)

i re-entered the world yesterday and it sucks! stay in Africa!

I got home Sunday and about 3 hours after i got home was in the emergency room getting fluids and morphine. my whole body was cramped to the point i couldn't stop crying. There has to be a small animal in my intestines. it had to be that meal in the slum with my sponsored boy. i knew i was in trouble as i swallowed each bite. i slept 32 of my first 36 hours home.

so i gained 9 pounds in my 4 weeks there, definitely should have put some exercise on this trip. The scoopfuls of lard were more than I could metabolize!! Only i could go to a third world country and gain wait. i can't fit into any of my clothes so i'm in all knit. it is so special.

i'm thinking it best to ease back into work so i'm headed to the pool, gotta get some color before the big 3-0 festivities this weekend so I'm not fat and pale : )


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Kenya - Earthquake

hey there, just in case its made news there. we had a 6.1 mag yesterday, pretty nuts. but there is no reason to rush out, not that i could leave sooner than tomorrow anyway. but i did get a note from the embassy.

jodi and i are having dinner at hassan and naheed's house tonight, we are at a shopping center in the nice part of town where they live.

today meeting kennedy was really neat, can't wait to tell you about it.

my latest ordeal is that i was alone in a cab this morning going to the compassion center -which should have been totally safe - and this whole scene happened with my driver and the police and my taxi driver got arrested and his car towed and there i was on the side of the road with a cop screaming at me too. it was scary. but i managed to get him to call me another cab...i'll fill in the drama details later. i'm okay, it just sucked and i was nervous bc they love to arrest or extort money from americans, the police are so corrupt. they had no reason to arrest my driver. it was just nuts. anyway, it's like what accident, earthquakes, driver arrested. maybe i am ready to get the heck out of dodge!


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Kenya - In the Mara, the Mighty Mara, the Lion Sleeps Tonight

sasa friends! thought i would drop one last note as my time in kenya is coming to an end - can hardly believe i left home over 3 weeks ago. we got back to what we have affectionately named Nairobi Rob Kenobi today from four amazing days in southwest kenya at the masai mara reserve.

before i say a few a words about that - just a couple things about the first couple weeks. working in the school in the slum were pretty insightful. i'm really going to miss a few of the kids, especially the little Ndugu (About Schmidt fans) that i would like to bring home. the one thing i won't miss is the way the teachers beat (literally) the kids, it's so hard to watch. I had my share of wooden spoon swats on the butt as a child, but watching a 5 year old get struck all over his body and screaming in pain, all for missing a math problem, is too much for me take. i did manage to get through without falling into the great wide stinch - if the olympics ever add long distance sewage jumping as an event i think i can medal in it.

so just when i was getting used to not having hot water and having to remember to move the toilet paper before showering, we flew to masai mara, the huge game park that people come to kenya to experience. Four of us spent the last few days in utter luxury in these amazing tent bungalows at a brand new lodge and were waited on like royalty. at night after a four-course dinner we'd sit around the bonfire and discuss important things like did Johnny and Baby end up together, or was it just a summer fling that never really lasted. The stargazing was incredible and I got to see the Southern Cross.

The game drives were a lot of fun - especially with our goofiness. Jodi and I have fun talking to the animals like they're supermodels when we take their photos - you're fabulous, work it, amazing. We had an intimate encounter with 14 elephants that surrounded our jeep and saw just about everything else there we could see animal-wise. Yesterday I jokingly asked our driver, Vulture, if I could drive our massive 4x4 Land Rover open air jeep as and he said yes - so for about 30 minutes I off-roaded through the Mara on the bumpiest trails - it was so fun...although my friends may say it was terrifying! we were also INCREDIBLY fortunate in that the annual famed wildebeest migration started while we were there as they crossed over from tanzania (which we went into) and into kenya. it was such a sight - thousands of them everywhere. by far the coolest thing we did was a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the reserve, it was such an unparalleled view of God's wild imagination on display through His creation!

wow - just had ANOTHER earthquake literally as i write this. That is number 4 in the last 3 days. last night's in the mara was so bad it woke me up! it's been two years since they've had these and are speculating a really big one may be just about to happen....hopefully not in the next 48 hours while I'm still here.

One of my friend's and I got a room in town for the next couple days and tomorrow I'm spending the day with the boy (and his family) that I sponsor who lives about 30 minutes from town, then thursday night I'm off to London for a couple days before returning home. My diet here consists of the 4 C's, carbs, coffee, chocolate and cookies so it will be good to get home and back to normal and healthy eating!

thanks for all your fun emails and prayers - this trip has been amazing for me in so many ways and I feel like I have a new and much-needed perspective on many things.

Stefani (just like from Bold and the Beautiful as every Kenyan says to me)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kenya - So Tired

school got out early today so i decided to make my way to internet and in a few minutes i am off to have nap. i am so tired today for some reason!! im fine, just exhausted. in a couple hours we are going to junction where the nakumat - grocery store- and coffee house are. us girls are cooking dinner tonight for our hosts. each of us is going to make a little something from home that we like. i may try to make a mexican dip if i can find the ingredients! so we'll see, between my limited repertoire and the little selection of food there is no telling what i am going to come up with. yesterday evening we were at nairobi java house and there was huge group of folks from the US from student ventures - campus crusades HS group - and it was fun hearing about their mission trip over here.

i can't believe I've been gone for over 2 weeks already! nuts!

well, i'm off to nap and get some food from my snack bag. i sure wish i had brought more protein bars. oh well.


Monday, July 9, 2007

Kenya - Zebras and Giraffes and Flamingos, oh my!

Been a few days and a world of new experiences so thought i would check in with you guys. amazing how quickly i seem to be establishing a new normal. only 11 days here in kenya and already have a routine. things that seemed so foregin or shocking are now just part of the way things are here. we have also began to experience the kenya corruption tax, where we just have to be so carefull to not be taken advantage of since we are mizungus and it is assumed we are all wealthy.

school is going well, tiring. just finished a long day - i taught them some new songs today and did a lesson on animals. most are eager to learn and they are so easily excited it can be hard to introduce new things to them.

now on to the good stuff - this past weekend was a hilarious adventure. four of us girls, 3 americans and jessica the aussie set off on safari. three of us are all turning/just turned 30 and it's jodi's 33rd bday today, so we decided we must be on our one-third life crisis since we all came to africa not knowing a soul here. we spent our first day at hell's gate national park. we hiked this amazing gorge that has these steaming hot springs, and even did a rock climb - which i had to be talked into as it seemed way too vertical to do without proper equipment. but i made it with only a couple bruised knees and the view was great!

Hell's Gate is the only national park in Kenya that allows you to ride a bike through, so at my brilliant suggestion we rented bikes about 3 kilometers outside the gate. The bikes we rented were not quite up to par with what Lance Armostrong rides. Actually, they aren't event up to par with what your neighborhood teenage paperboy rides! The roads aren't paved, and instead are a couple inches thick of loose red dirt. Completely exhausted by the time we finally made it to Hell's Gate's entrance, we promptly turned around and rode our bikes back to where we rented them, negotiated a partial refund, and hopped back in our van!

There were some animals at Hell's Gate, but nothing compared to what we saw the next day at Lake Nakuru national park which was just beautiful. it is home to over one million flamingos which make the lake a sea of pink. it was an amazing site! we also got to have a rare encounter with a family of 5 white rhinos and watch the babies play in the mud. we saw two kinds of giraffes - one which is rare - and got so close to them it was unreal. zebras and monkeys were just everywhere, along with about 10 other types of animals. the baby warthogs may be my favorite - they have mullets and do this little waddle. adorable.

the roads to get there were just unreal - so scary here and like being on a really old, rickety rollercoaster. it's just really better not to look forward most of the time. the roads are so, so bumpy on some very long stretches that you actually catch air. we found if we act like a character from The Awakenings and sit totally limp the ride is a bit less painful. that, and we sang every song written in the 80s, and the funniest part about that is the aussie is the one who knew the most words - even willie nelson! our lazy driver forgot to put the pins in the back of the van to keep the trunk closed, so it opened and our bags flew out into the road. by the grace of god - it was on a non-highway part in a town so some nice people went and got them from the road so they didn't get run over, or we'd have been in real trouble! about an hour later we over-heated and we coasted into a little place on the side of the road and they had to pour water all over the engine. yes, that's what they call here africa time - nothing happens as or when you think it will.

just so you don't feel sorry for me over here, when we got back to town last night we went to the movies and saw John McLane single-handedly save the world again - complete with popcorn, rollos and diet coke, then went for a late dinner at java house and i had a plate of refried beans, mexican rice and guac! it was so yummy!!

love you guys!


Friday, July 6, 2007

Kenya - Payer Life

speaking of prayer life - nothing like being here to get you praying all the time! yesterday i had to take a matatu home from compassion. a matatu is like a small bus/van that locals ride and you just pay a guy that kinda hangs out the side of the van. muzungus dont ride much unless they are pros like me now - hee hee. they are ok, just two girls i know got pickpocketed on them just this week so you have to be super careful. they cram about 15 people in what should hold 7. so yesterday it was packed full, the only white person of course just holding on to my backback for dear life praying!! they get carjacked pretty regularly and whites get robbed all the time, but there arent that many other options. anyway, i made it back home safely, i was so proud of myself! i'm like, ive got africa down!! it is just so nuts here. just so unlike anything, i know i keep saying that but it is just unreal!! i haven't taken that many pictures yet so next week will load up. its so hard to get them at schools bc if you pull out the camera the kids rush you and they wont pose or back up they are so excited. and if the flash goes off they all scream and laugh, and they all are just so eager to look at the picture in the digital viewer. i tried so hard to get some to pose but they just couldn't contain their excitement. i have group photos, but have been trying to get some of just one or two kids and those are the ones that they all just pile in. its pretty funny.

anyway, ok. bye.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Kenya - Jambo!

habari gani? (how are you)

things are going great here. it is wonderful, heartbreaking and exhausting all at the same time.

what i have seen in the kibera slum i cannot describe, i will just have to show you pictures, which even then wont properly describe. amazing how quickly i am used to balancing on random pieces of metal to step over open sewage (coordination skills don't fail me now!) it is worse than anything i could ever imagine, seeing these small kids playing in piles of garbage and sewage. the homes are mud huts with metal tops i'm on the lookout for flying toilets thanks to the warning on wikipedia! everyone there is nice and many are content, it is their home.

I am assignd to a christian school in kibera that has 3 classrooms for orphans 2 - 6yrs, there are 100 kids total. each classroom is about 10x8 ft, the kids are so tightlypacked they ahve to walk on the tables and each other to get in andout of their seats. they have no supplies -literally nothing. no books, a few pencils, and a few pieces of paper. so they spend much of the time chanting american songs or poems that the teacher got out of her one nursery rhme book or being told to be silent. school is taught in english, and the kids in my class know many words but dont know what it is is associated with. you guys know i can't sing - and one of the teachers asked me to teach them all the tune to common american songs which is quite scary - if you come to kenya and hear them sings jesus loves me out of tune you can blame me! i brought balloons yesterday and they were so excited, and last night i went and bought a load of school supplies so today i was able to teach a lesson and giev them a coloring assignment. they were singing 'mary has a little dog" and one teacher ased me if i know it and i sad yes but we sing mary had a little lamb. she looked at me so puzzled and said - but lamb's don't follow people to schoool? i just thought well, you've got me there! the kids are very sweet and so easily excited by a muzungu (white person) and love to call me by that name. it is so funny. there are a couple boys i would bring home with me if i could figure out how.

i have to say one thing on the food - at the home i stay at i can endure it. rice or ugali (mayflower-nasty) with some green mashed unidentifiable veggies. but at school they prepare the food in dirty pots outside with dirty water. they insist you eat some - the first day i had a bite of what is the worst thing i have ever eaten and all the adults and cook watched. i was holding back gagging tears it was so gross - especially since i had seen where/how it was prepared. now i have a new methodology where i have one bite in front of them and then secretly divy it up among my kids. one of my roommates that has been here 3 weeks already got typhoid in kibera and has been so sick, so i'm just chancing being rude.

tomorrow night i am staying of my dads friends friends for '"a proper shower and meal" and then to the mosque with them tomorrow night for an event. i think i get to where a burqa which would be very cool. then on saturday and sunday i am going wtih 3 of my new friends to hell's gate national park and laka nakuru - we hired a driver and hopefully this one wont get us in another car accident! one was enough!

well we better get back so we don't miss dinner. we've been eating out of the same pot of green stuff all week and it just sits out all day - yum yum!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Kenya - First Day in Nairobi - June 29, 2007

hey guys, i promise i won't bore you guys with daily email, plus after tomorrow my access will go away. so i will bore you while i can!

so things are good. my flight here was good, i got bumped to business class and sat next to a british-educated nigerian that works in the UN in somalia and it was fascinating. eye opening.

we are at the hilton and first impression was different in that they search under cars for bombs before they can pull in and you have to go through a metal detector to get in. other than it is nice, not us nice, but nice. there are now 3 of us in the room, becky, jodi and me. we have a king bed a pull put coach so we are all set, in fact becky and i napped for about 2 hours today. we were so darn tired.

jodi, a lawyer that lives in brooklyn - and i went out exploring city center. i want to try to give you a feel but there is no way too. people everywhere. everywhere. sitting, walking, dirivng. busses every packed with people. we walked for about an hour before we decided to go have food in a cafe and we did not see one single white person. not one. now we know whats its like to be on the other side of that. everyone totally ignores you, we didnt feel unsafe or anything. we thought it sunny there are all these clean air signs, yet the exhaust is so bad that in some areas we could barely breath. black boogers for sure. everything is dirt cheap, i had a burger fries and diet coke for like 5 bucks.

tomorrow we have a tour booked of some nearby sites. we are going to an elephant orphanage for baby elephants, then to the giraffe center, than on a bomas tour, which is a cultural village. the village is tourists, but still supposed to be a good insight to kenya life. for lunch tomorrow we are going to this place that is supposed to be a must-do, where they serve zebra and all sorts of strange animals. you will be proud, i am so going to try the zebra. tomorrow night a whole bunch of us are having dinner at the thorn tree cafe which is really famous. our program starts at 745am on sunday.

well we are headed back across the street to the hilton. love you all.