Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Highway Butchery, I Tell You!

This joint is on the main drag in our town.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New, More Upbeat Famine Relief Video!

BEADS asked us to make more hopeful video about what people can do to help! Here's what we came up with:

If you are so moved you wish to make a donation, try the functional beta of my new, supereasy, user-friendly BEADS for Education Famine Relief Donation Page!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Singing Club's First Song!

As a break from "look how different Africa is!" posts and depressing famine-related video, I offer you the first recording of the Top Ride Academy Singing Club!

You Won't See Me

Be patient... the first eight seconds are silent.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Safety First

There are a lot of things that are different about the way children are treated in Kenya. Almost every day Jeremy and I go “Oh, my god, I can’t look at that” as we watch three-year-olds clamber up a pile of precariously balanced building materials, or two-year-olds in soiled miniature prom dresses holding hands while walking unattended down the road as a truck comes careening over potholes and speed bumps directly at them. I do a double take when I see the children in first grade grasping at their neighbor’s hand which clutches the double-sided razor blade they use to sharpen their snacked-on pencil stubs.

I ran into a friend yesterday who said she was checking on her daughter, just 'cause she recently got Typhoid. When I expressed condolences she seemed aware but unfazed. She assured me it was just because the small ones put so much dirt in their mouths, and they play around the latrines and whatnot, and she assured me her daughter was better already -- as if I needed to be reassured rather than her. I sometimes conjure up the ghost figure of a Manhattanite Jewish mother and imagine what she would say/do if she could get a load of her child doing any one of these things -- or even what I would do if I felt their well-being were actually within the sphere of my responsibility. I think I would never cease saying “no” and/or “stop.” And yet, the children seem to generally be just fine. On a campus of 401 kids, many of whom are under 10, or on the streets of Isinya, or around the rubbish-pile playgrounds, you almost never hear a child crying. They smile up at you from their dirt-castles, run after you calling “wazungu!” like you are a circus train pulling into the station. They seem so… happy. Strange, isn’t it?

Dueling Famine Videos!

Bridget and I made our first lo-film -- that is, a video self-shot with no plan, self-edited, and released to the public within days. Morgan reminded me that this is the kind of thing to mention on the blog.

It is a little darker than your typical lo-film, but it is for a good cause. We made two versions. We don't care whose you like better. We like both.

Coming soon: an EASY way to donate money to BEADS for Education towards its famine relief project.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Religion, rain, and the snake story

Yesterday, while the bulk of the students in my scheduled singing group attended the biannual Catholic Mass that happens when the priest decides to visit the town, I spoke at length with a teacher named Cecilia about rain, religion, and animals.

It was a little weird to talk about religion; in fact, Bridget and I had decided we should maybe avoid the topic. But when someone asks "what is your religion?" it's hard to just say "I'm not comfortable discussing it." The thing is, when people here ask what your religion is, they really seem to be asking "what kind of Christian are you?" Since the closest answer I could give to that is "Quaker" (or maybe "Unitarian Universalist") I usually say that. But despite the fact that Wikipedia says Kenya has more Quakers than any other nation, there is no Quaker meeting house in Isinya (there like 50 other little corrugated-metal churches) and a lot of people here seem dubious when Quakers come up, like they either haven't heard of Quakers, or they don't like what they have heard. So maybe I'm going to stop claiming to be Quaker.

Anyway I changed the subject to rain, because the lack of it is always obvious. We talked about how the drought affected the animals around here, how cattle were dying in droves. Then she told me about her cow.

(NB: Keep in mind that many of my stupid-seeming questions arise from the language barrier. Almost everyone speaks fluent Swahili, some English (with British flavour), and a tribal language. But it's common enough to ram up against some misunderstanding or mistranslation -- Bridget listened uncomprehendingly while her students repeatedly described a person in a book as wearing "spectacles"; when I asked shopkeepers in town if they sold "butter" they kept quizzically replying "what size bottle?")

CECILIA: I had a cow. But it died. It was walking around the compound and it got bitten by a snake.
JEREMY: I'm so sorry. When was this?
CEC: Last week. I was very sad.
JER: It was a small cow? A calf?
CEC: No. A grown cow.
JER: Geez. How big was the snake?
CEC: Very big snake. (Makes vague "big" gesture)
JER: How big?
CEC: Very big. Sometimes they eat sheep.
JER: Like, baby sheep?
CEC: No, grown sheep. After they bite, they wrap around you and crush your bones so they can swallow. (Makes much more vivid enveloping/rending gesture.)
JER: ...
CEC: (Sighs.) They killed the snake after it bit my cow. They had to use an excavator to kill it.
JER: An excavator? Like a shovel?
CEC: No, no. Very big machine. A... tractor.
JER: ...
CEC: And the snake, he still try to fight the tractor.
JER: The snake attacked a giant steam shovel?
CEC: Yes. And if had bitten the driver, he would have died.
JER: Wow. Well... Isn't there an antidote for the bite? Anti-venom?
CEC: No. Your only hope, if you get bit? You must be rushed to the hospital, where they must amputate the leg that was bit.
JER: I see.
CEC: Yes and there are many Hindus in that area, who will not kill the snakes because they worship snakes.
JER: Hrmph. Is this nearby?
CEC: No, no. On the other side of the greenhouses. (She points to the flower farm's greenhouses, less than a mile away.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I have a good story about a snake, but....

...I don't have enough battery to type it today AND watch Kill Bill Part 2 tonight. I will type it tomorrow. In the meantime, I will just gloat about another home-cooked meal.

I know this shit is boring. I've read food blogs before and wanted to fork my own eyes out. But when you make peasant food in New York it's different from when you make peasant food because you have no choice. So! Tonight I made gnocchi and Bridget made a sauce out of butter and the rosemary that grows in front of our house. Bridget steamed up some unidentifiable greens we got for 5 Kenyan Shillings (about 7 cents) and I sliced a tomato. It was alllll delicious.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Baby Animals are Being Born in our Backyard

Today we spotted a herd of cows in our backyard. See, last week some workmen unstrung a bunch of our barbed-wire fencing -- we presumed to fix it in some way, though what was wrong with it we could not say -- and they have yet to finish their task and restring our wire. But who knows, maybe unstringing it and making a big hole in our fence WAS their task. They're not telling; we haven't seen them in four days.

Anyway so there was a herd of cows back there. Cows are big. We waved to the old Masai herdsman (mzee is Swahili for "old dude") and he waved back. But when he saw me taking a video of the herd, he excitedly waved us back outside and made a series of confusing hand gestures and we were mightily confused, at a communicatory impasse until, with good old fashioned figure-it-outiveness, Bridget divined that a baby cow was just over yonder.

Here is a video of that cow:

But that wasn't all! He then urged us to trudge just a little farther into the hot, dry flatness and we were rewarded with a view of this freaking just-borned baby goat! Feast your peepers:

Africa is freaking CUTE.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gender Bending Couple Shocks African Town

When Jeremy was first coming to visit me in St Thomas, my friends liked him a lot. They told me what a great guy he was, and always invited him to be the sole guy at girls' night out and stuff -- but one day, a friend of mine told me, "It's cool that you and Jeremy are going out, but you do realize that he's gay, don't you?" No matter what I said, I couldn't convince her that a man who can talk about feelings, cry at a movie, and doesn't consider fixing a leaky faucet the extent of his commitment to housekeeping could also be a heterosexual.

Interactions like that, even amongst people who are from essentially the same culture as me, remind me that our relationship doesn't really fall within the bounds of the stereotypical, gender role-wise. Here in Isinya, it's more pronounced for both of us. I think I am the only woman in town who wears trousers. When I wore a dress the other day, I was greeted with "you look smart!" and nearly audible sighs of relief from teachers, who just seemed kind of unsettled, rather than actually offended, by my insistence on dressing like a man from the waist down -- like seeing some hapless foreigner wandering your town with their shoes on the wrong feet or mittens on their ears or something.

The other day Jeremy went to pick up some groceries at the stalls of the "mamas" in town; when our friend Jacky at the Mpesa phone store saw him, she left her store -- you know, to keep him company during his errands, giving him helpful pointers like "put your yoghurt in your bag -- don't just carry it around in your hand," by which we later realized she meant to save him from the embarrassment of being a man buying foodstuffs (other than a side of goat).

Last night we brought dinner over to eat at Jacky's, where she lives at the back of the phone kiosk. We were talking about our one month anniversary, and responding to her question about how our marriage is "going," when a couple of male friends of hers stopped by. I was saying how my wonderful husband brings me coffee in the morning, and we almost made the guys barf up their nyama choma. More than disgusted, they just seemed... well, baffled. David, a Masai, said "in my culture, a man never cooks for his wife -- even if she is sick, he can call his mother and have her do it. If my father saw me in a kitchen, he would ask me if I had lost my mind." And my wonderful husband said, "if my dad saw me in the kitchen he'd ask 'What's for dinner?'" David told us that in his culture, a man's wife is like another child, which seems to me like it would just be sort of boring. Who wants to have only other children to talk to? All in all, it was a really interesting conversation -- no rancor, no problem (which actually is hakuna matata in Swahili). It was just some people chatting about the different ways of seeing a thing like marriage. As we walked home arm in arm in the spectacular moonlight, talking and laughing together, I felt so grateful that we got to be who we are -- husband and wife because we are partners and friends first.

We Eat Better Here Than We Used To

Seriously. Check out tonight's dinner:

...All homemade from local produce, homemade by US, without help! By lanternlight! Clockwise on the plate: a pile of fresh avocado chunks; a vegetable curry topped with homemade onion relish; sukuma wiki (sauteed kale); a Kenyan spiced rice dish called rice pilau.

To give you and idea of how cheap this all is, the avocado cost us about US $0.20 and the total cost of the meal's ingredients must have been under $5. And it was freaking delicious.

Most importantly, however, I feel like I am learning how to cook for myself in a way that I have always wanted to learn, but was too lazy (scared?) to try. You listening, Paula? I have a newfound respect for the way that you cook, with your "buying vegetables" and "making food out of them." Hooray for learning!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Time Moves Quickly!

How much do I hate it when I write a big, funny post only to have it get gobbled up by the internet? I hate it a lot. But no worries. I remember most of it! Ahem. Begin again.

I bragged when we arrived about how I was impervious to jet lag, but apparently mine was just a late-onset variety. For the first few days in Isinya I would be overcome with fatigue in the middle of the day, passing out for an hour at a time, unable to be roused. I had trouble falling asleep at night and I woke frequently to the sound of a single helicopter-loud mosquito (mbu in Swahili) on the other side of the net. Per my travel doctor's orders, we had dipped the net (as well as all of our clothes) in a solution of Permethrin, which is supposed to kill insects on contact. But they seem gleefully undisturbed by it.

Since then we've settled to a good sleep pattern. Sleeping late is not very easy because on one side of the house the sun rises with the strength of a hammer hitting an anvil, and on the other, the first shift of flower-farm workers (1,500 strong) uses the road right on the other side of our fence, and they are very chatty with each other. But that's okay; we don't need to sleep late. We have opted for the sun. Clang!

Many people shared their horror stories about nightmares caused our antimalarial drug, Lariam (aka mefloquine), which we take weekly. My friend Kate told us of an acquaintance who woke to find herself being strangled by her spouse, who was in the grip of particularly bad Lariam-induced night terrors (which: thanks Kate!). But so far, we have experienced nothing scary except for Stephen King's The Shining, which I am reading aloud to Bridget a chapter or two a day. Other friends, concerned for our sobriety as well as our sanity, warned us of mefloquine's hallucinatory effects, but so far we have seen nothing remotely trippy. So what gives? Did we get a dud batch? We bought it stateside so we're fairly sure it's not counterfeit. I guess we'll just see if we get Malaria.

We are learning to cook with the locally-available produce, which does not offer a huge variety. But we can get and cook with tomatoes (nyanya), carrots, onions, potatoes, rice, dried beans (soak for six hours, cook for 1.5), kale-like greens (sukuma wiki), and tiny hot peppers (pili pili). UHT milk needs no refrigeration, and we use a mountain-climber-style french press for our coffee. My doctor (who Bridget thinks is an overly fussy alarmist, probably of weak moral fiber) also advised us to soak local produce in a dilute bleach solution for an hour before eating it. Unless, of course, we boil it. Anyway -- we are eating well and have suffered no drastic gastrointestinal distress.

Ah yes, the entire purpose of our visit! This topic deserves its own post -- probably several. I will just say that I am excited about having gotten myself up and running to the point where I can now reliably connect to the internet, keep my computer charged, and even print out documents on the one local (laser!) printer. The local PCs still need a lot of work and care, and hopefully some of them can be resurrected.

Tonight, I will teach my first special class (i.e, not just guest-teach an existing regular class). We announced our extracurricular offerings yesterday (which the kids will have to take during the afternoon "games" period) and my Tuesday singing class drew a huge crowd. Our first song will be "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles. I am nervous! Wish me luck!