I am alive and borrowing a modem!

Ok, so I am writing this on New Years Day here in Kenya.  Like most all posts I have a desire to get certain things out in writing and disseminated to the masses who read my rantings, but also like most things I do, I will probably end up on a tangent about one thing or another and lose my train of thought and subsequently not say everything I had initially set out to say.  So I apologize if my posts leave some seemingly obvious gaps in content.  Of course an obvious solution to this problem would be to outline my posts, but that would deprive you of the spontaneity of thought you have all grown accustomed to in me.  It’s a trade-off.  I figure we can all deal with it reasonable enough.

So where to begin?  Well, how about I wish everyone a happy new year, a belated merry christmas and a happy holiday season.  Now I will go backwards in time and start with that which is freshest in my memory.  Last night was a good new year’s eve.  The day was spent at our training hub, the local Outward Bound center, taking our Language Proficiency Interviews (LPI’s).  These are the measures by which they gauge our understanding of Kiswahili.  I feel like I did ok, and I am fairly confidant that I “passed,” in the sense that I will not need to take it again to prove I am decently competent enough in the language.  Should you not be able to prove this, you have one more chance to take it before the end of training (in a week as of this writing) and even then if you do not pass you can take it before your Completion of Service (COS).

For me however, I wanted to do fairly above average because those of us who demonstrate a slightly more substantial understanding of the language have an increased chance of being placed in a Swahili-speaking area.  This would be excellent for me for two reasons.  The first: most Swahili speaking areas are rich in Swahili culture in which the historian in me has an extreme interest.  It is this bizarre mix of Arabic, Bantu, Portuguese and other trading cultures all thrown together and today is remembered in the lavish structures and funny little trade battles between the various sultanates and city-states that existed along the coast at the time.

Secondly, Swahili-speaking areas also tend to be a tad more developed and along the coast.  I am not going to lie, the thought of spending the next two years living in a town that most foreigners go to for vacation and holiday is actually quite a draw when compared with some other options, such as living in mud huts and whatnot.  Now I know everyone suspected I would hate the living in a mud-hut lifestyle, and especially after my previous statement of wanting to live effectively in a resort town no one would believe this, but there are merits to the more simple life and believe it or not I could see myself in a more rural area than on the coast.  And also, even if I am living on the coast, do not assume amenities at all, for I do not live like a tourist in this country, I live next to them.  The chances are still highly probable that where I end up will not have running water/indoor-plumbing or electricity.  But there would be more access to other western-niceities like good coffee and diversity of food.  Something which non-swahili areas of the country are severely lacking.

But as I feared, I digressed.  So after my LPI was finished a bunch of volunteers got a chance to talk to our training manager about next weeks excursion to Nairobi.  I leave my home-stay on Monday (Jan 5th) morning, and we head off to Nairobi to finish training by meeting our new supervisors at site and swear-in as official volunteers.  Much to our dismay we discovered that we may be kept on shorter leashes financially and privileges-wise in nairobi.  There was even hint of curfew, but nothing is set in stone.  However, this is why you are getting an email now and not next week, because I may not actually have free time next week in nairobi to actually communicate with anyone.

At the very least, I hope to be able to pick up a broadband modem for my computer so that at site I will have access to affordable internet on-demand.  Because the one thing kenya does have in terms of amenities is an extremely robust, flexible and affordable cellular network.  My mobile number here by the way is: +254 715 747 263 (feel free to call any time, as incoming calls are always free for me, even when from the States!).  The best calling cards out there seem to be the Nova calling cards.  Just make sure you get one that calls Africa Mobile Phones and not landlines.

After the chat with our TM about Nairobi and subsequent grumblings about possibly not being able to get a cheeseburger, it was off to town to have a good lunch and spend some time at one of the local hotels (eatery, bar, place to stay, a very versatile word), relaxing and feeling free for the first time in about two months.  It helped that we were on top of the tallest building in Loitokitok (six stories!) and had a beautiful view of Kilimanjaro.  You all knew I have been living on the slopes of this gorgeous mountain for the past two months right?  Yeah, it’s in my backyard!  I was spoiled, not gonna lie.

Then it was off to one of the volunteer’s houses for a quiet night with friends to usher in the new year (which will be my first full year out of America).  We built a campfire, a concept which confuses many Kenyans (why would you make a fire but not really cook on it…?) and were able to whip up a really good tomato-sauce and spaghetti dinner.  It was fantastically-American.  Kenyans don’t really believe in sauces or spices when cooking, so even though I have been eating pasta as one of my staples, it has never had a tomato sauce.  This was a first in two months, and was most welcome!  We spent the night chatting and struggling to even keep awake, considering most of us have adjusted to a 5am or 6am wake up and a 9pm or 10pm bed time. Even most Kenyans think we are crazy for walking about 8-10km a day, every day of the week.  Many kenyans will only walk that far for church or market days, otherwise they would take a matatu (pseudo-bus type vehicle, think minivan) or piki piki (motorbike that can carry the driver and passenger).  Matatus are crowded and haven for pickpockets, and the Peace Corps prevents us from using piki piki due to the high number of deaths.  I crashed that night at another volunteers house and walked home the next morning.

So that was New Years.  Christmas was not nearly as interesting.  First off, I don’t know about the rest of you, but in my family, the big days are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Heck, I think I even like Christmas Eve better than Christmas day most years.  Here, the big days are Christmas Day (eve is just another day) and Boxing Day (Kenya is a brisitsh commonwealth nation after all).  Christmas Day was particularly lonely, not gonna lie.  It was my first away from home, ever, and that was tough.  Thankfully I was not subjected to a huge influx of strange relatives whom I have never meant, nor did we even go to someone else’s’ house.  Instead, my host-father came home for the holidays and I got to meet him for the first time.  He is a really nice guy and runs a curio shop near Tsavo West.  Most all of his curios are hand made on site, so you know you are getting true Africa Handicraft, which I appreciate.  He even brought me some carved animals as gifts!

That day my host-brother had a few friends over and Baba (father in swahili) had a friend over himself and we slaughtered a goat.  I watched and took pictures.  I was surprisingly unaffected by it, and was fascinated to watch the process.  We barbecued the meat (it’s called yama choma here) and it’s quite tasty.  Even ate some of the roasted intestine but I drew the line at the kidneys taken raw from the animal.  Sorry if all of that was a bit to explicit for some, but it’s life here.  I have seen and participated in a cow slaughter, goat slaughters, and chicken slaughters.  That’s just where our meat comes from.  That night, nothing special happened, and it was just another day.  We did chores, we ate some food, I read a little, we went to bed.

So the next day was a Kenyan holiday, Boxing Day, but i decided to spend it with volunteers instead.  So we all got together and played charades (yeah, we’re cool like that…) and just hung out.  Many volunteers expressed similar feelings about Christmas and were just glad it was over.  It’s not that it’s bad over here, but the reduction in festivities is so dramatic from home and it was unexpectedly so.  Being a mostly Christian society, I thought the holiday would be a bit bigger, and I guess in Nairobi it is, but out in the rural land, it’s just a little bit more special than any other day.  Some volunteers did have good experiences though, getting together with new family members, or even spending some time in town with the youth who had all returned home from university and whatnot, it just depended on everybody’s individual situation.

Other than those two days, everything else fell into routine during training.  My days did not really change much, but it was more a blessing than anything else.  Routines help me adapt to new culture, because they provide a little bit of certainty in an otherwise uncertain time.  Language class would be in the morning, and either technical class or parter-time in the afternoon.  Once a week usually we would get the three different groups together for a “hub day,” with guest speakers on topics like health, AIDS, security or culture and history, but the best part of hub days would usually be the mail being distributed at lunch and then frisbee for about an hour at the end of the day before we all went home again.  Thanks by the way to  everyone who has mailed me things.  It’s really fun getting mail and I love hearing about even the simple things in life in America, because everything here is so different.

I did have a pretty exciting adventure a few weekends ago though.  I was able to go with one of my language instructors, Jackson, and another volunteer Erin.  Jackson is of the Maasai tribe, and he invited Erin and I along with him to tend his cows for the weekend.  So we took a bus from Loitokitok to Jackson’s village of Issinet and from there we hiked to his Aunt’s house (boma) where we spent Friday night.  Before going to bed though, I was able to watch a traditional Maasai dance, including drug-induced convulsions!  Jackson said that the people will dance until they are so tired they just fall asleep anywhere, mostly because they spend each night at a different place and places will not always have open beds for them.  They really like to jump when dancing, and are able to jump ridiculously high.

The next day we packed up early and trekked to another Boma where Jackson keeps his 50 head of cattle.  Cattle amongst the Maasai is more of a prestige thing than anything else.  They still live a very traditional life style, moving their houses every once in a while and going where the grazing land is good.  And even though a single head of cattle may sell for upwards of 40,000 shillings in the market (the monthly income of a slightly-upper middle class worker here), they rarely sell them or even eat them!  Thus, most Maasai who have integrated into a more sedentary lifestyle while still maintaining cattle supplement their income with other income generating activities like teaching or butchery or whatnot.  The culture at that point is almost more of a hobby, though any Maasai reading that line would of course object.  But hey, my opinion.

We spent Saturday swapping stories, eating some food  and spraying the cattle for ticks and grazing them.  The most strenuous thing we did was moving when the sun took away our shade and we had to find new shade.  Maasai men do not even usually do this, instead they hire children or apprentice children to watch their cattle.  So Maasai women stay in the safety of the boma cooking, cleaning, hauling water, and taking care of the babies all day, the children watch the animals and graze them, and to this day, I am not really sure if a traditional Maasai male actually does much once he has established himself.  If there’s a lion threatening his herd then it is his job to kill it, but beyond that, I am still not sure if they do anything…

Saturday night was spent camping out in the safety of the second boma’s thorn-bush fence (highly effectively against lions, leopards and elephants), sleeping under the stars.  There are so many stars here it is ridiculous!  (Oh boy, my niece is crying right now.  She cries a lot, and so does my four year old nephew.  There’s a lot of crying going on, but no reprimanding to start the crying.  I don’t really get that, but whatever.  So far it has only ever woken me up once, at 4 am and I could not get back to sleep, otherwise it’s just more noise.  But I digress…)  So Sunday morning I watched a herd of giraffe and zebras migrating in the distance to new water for the day.  (Oh, my nephew is crying now… ) It was a very Africa sight.  Then we hiked back to the road and hopped a bus into town and was back in my host-house by Sunday afternoon.  Overall we hiked about 20 km, and bussed about 50 km.  A good adventure!

So that about wraps up my training experiences.  Overall training was an effective time for adapting to the culture, especially with home-stay for the whole thing.  I am ready for site, but I do not know where I will be placed.  I will find out next week in Nairobi hopefully. (Oh, sweet, they are BOTH crying now!). Of course they say that you leave training just as you are becoming accustomed to everything, only for everything to be new again.  I suspect the first few weeks at site will be another low period, but as training has proven, for all the emotional lows, there are just as many emotional highs.  For example, it has been very satisfying watching my teaching taking effect on my community partner here.  He is even contemplating opening up a cyber cafe now, and I have been advising him on methods by which he could attract a substantial business while introducing new demographics to the wonders of the internet.  But it’s a risk, and the one generalization that I feel safe about making about Kenyans is that they do not like to take risks, at all.  Even educated risks with very good reward.  Sadly development does not come without risks, which may be a reason why development is such a cumbersome process here.  Who knows.

I think that’s about it.  I hope that if I am able to post this on my blog I will be able to include some photos.  Otherwise, no photos until I get my internet figured out at site.  If you were planning on sending me anything in the next two weeks, may I suggest delaying until I get my permanent address.  That way it no longer goes through the Embassy and I am no longer subject to the whims of the Peace Corps Mail delivery methods.  Other than that, I cannot really think of anything except the usual: Send me letters!  I love em, even when I do have access to internet.  I have pretty good access to email on my phone, and I am able to send short messages to a few people, but I am unable to easily send large emails to many people, which is why these have been few and far between.

Know that I miss you all.  I miss snow!  I miss cheese! But the people in Kenya are ever friendly, as are my volunteer friends, and whenever anyone is feeling down, it’s not for very long (including myself).  As I said, I hope once at site to be in much regular communication.  And maybe I will post pictures of my puppy I hope to get!  I am so glad they let us have pets (but no monkeys because they give you rabies…).  If you have any questions, as always feel free to email or write or now call!  So until next time kwa heri!

Cheers!
jonathan

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “I am alive and borrowing a modem!

  1. kim

    Hi Jon,

    Happy New Year! We miss you. Stay safe.

    Love, mom

  2. dad

    Hey Jon,
    Happy New Year. We do miss you. Keep up the great work.
    Love Dad

  3. Jeff Briggs

    Hi Jon,

    Good luck in landing an interesting assignment after Nairobi. Did Paul Blair ever tell you that they gave you your own personal name in sign language? “Die Hard”. They must be Bruce Willis fans!

    Have fun,

    Jeff