Monthly Archives: September 2009

The difference a laugh can make

Such an inspirational subject, eh?  I wrote that because I felt that “The difference a threat can make,” sounded far too intimidating and non-peace corps like and I am always trying to be oh so peace corps like…  But let’s get serious and let me be honest with you: with it only being halfway through my third week teaching this semester, I will glady predict it is going to be my best yet!  Why?  Well, I feel the indirect reason is that principal has informed all the students that my class will now be examined.  Who knew.  Not me!  At least not when he told the entire assembly of students, but that’s fine.  It just kicked me into high gear and got me prepping as a teacher.

The end result?  I don’t know, but for some strange reason I am now having full attendance, which I now feel obligated to call, as well as somewhat punctual students.  For Kenyans, the fact that even ONE of my students arrives BEFORE class is amazing.  Like, pants-peeing amazing.  The fact that I have whole majorities of classes showing before class starts almost causes anuerisms.  On top of that, they all respect my rule of, “You must have a pen and notebook in front of you.  I don’t care if you use it, I don’t care if you sleep on it, I don’t care if it just sits there unopened the entire time, it must be in front of you.”

On top of all this, they ask questions.  And when I answer them, if they don’t understand the answer, they ask again!  This is a huge improvement.  I gave them a test today, and asked them in as reassuring a manner as possible, how can I make this test better.  They said my questions were too long and they did not know what was expected of them.  This is a perfectly legitimate concern considering they have a grasp of english roughly consistent with an 8th grader in america.  It’s just not their primary language, and I need to know how to utilize it so that they understand me.  Last semester, if I had asked them to critique something I had done, they would have stayed quiet and I would never have known something so simple was causing so much distress.

Finally, they laugh at me.  They laugh at my jokes.  They laugh at my energy in class.  They never see one of their kenyan teachers energetically moving around the room telling people to treat their computer mice nicely like a lady (don’t ask…).  It’s different; I am different, and either they are getting used to me, or to being first years, I don’t know, but they laugh when they should.  And I don’t treat them like children, untrustworthy children like some of my peers say I should.  How are we ever going to teach trust here if a teacher cannot trust his students.  Connecticut College drilled into me the importance of its Honor Code, and I saw what an amazing academic environment springs up around such inherent trust placed in individuals.  But how can a student here ever feel trusted if the teachers call them liars and thieves blatantly to their faces.  Maybe I am naive on this point, but I have a lot of work on my plate, and if I don’t start trusting my students, it’s going to make life much more unecessarily difficult.  So they have my trust.



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Something that has never happened before

You know the phrase “Mouth-watering?”  Well, I never understood it until just a few seconds ago.  Without any type of provocation except for talking to a friend of mine back home, my mind conjured up an image of a flame-grilled, perfectly-pink, piece of steak and it was literally a “mouth-watering,” thought.  I am sorry if this entry seems weird, but it was an experience for me.  Thinking about food has never really had that effect on me before.  Wow. On the plus side, you all get two blog updates to read!  How exciting!

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Variations on thought

As I have said to many, and will continue to say again and again, Peace Corps needs a new tag line.  Nuts to, “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” I say we switch to, Peace Corps: “Time to think.”  Here is a list of some (emphasis) of the thoughts I have had since waking up about two hours ago:

  • How would I solve the problem of ballast for a personal aircraft.  Mind you, not a rotor-based design such as a gyrocopter, because those are just not safe enough, but instead an airship-type (think Hindebergh or Goodyear, but smaller).
  • Man I have the best idea for a video game/story line: Airships and dragons.  Take Skies of Arcadia and add in more dragons, and more blimp-like airships, not just literal (littoral, oh snap!) nautical vessels that conveniently fly thanks to the power of the moon.
  • After listening to Willie Nelson’s rendition of Imagine, and particular the line, “Nothing to kill or die for,”: But killing and dying is how we determine what ideas get passed on to the new generation and in what quantity and socially-acceptable quality.  Survival is based on slight differentiation that allows the species as a whole to continue on, but if we are all thinking the same and not willing to say our idea is good enough and others harmful enough to the species, where is the differentiation.  I don’t care how “peaceful,” an idea is, it’s our differences that make humanity strong.  Man, I wonder if distances in space are large enough to promote unity of ideas on one planet vs. another planet (think Card’s Speaker For The Dead universe), that speciation might occur if humans are no longer able to travel at faster-than-light speeds (think Asimov’s Robots universe).
  • Do I really want to go for a run this afternoon?
  • Hey, I can justify spending time on writing a Bash script for erasing Gnome settings because it’s lab maintainence work.
  • I wonder if I should try my hand at composing music for the recorder.  There’s not enough free music on the internet suitable for solo tenor recorder.
  • I should blog about my weekend, and some other things, but I think I will blog about thinking instead.
  • Should I go into Mtongwe for a nutrient-rich lunch or read more of The Masterharper of Pern and just cook ramen?
  • Did I really just think the word nutrient-rich when describing lunch to myself in my own brain?

Mind you, this is not a near complete list, and mind you on that, a completely complete list, including sub-sconscious thinking, would be extensive and boring.  Though I am beginning to wonder how different my sub-conscious thoughts and actions have begun to diverge from my typical of a year ago.  Daily language alone has become reflexively the mix of english and kiswahili that Kenyans call sheng.  I actively think about whether I will need to fill a bucket to flush the toilet. And where the heck is my second set of keys?

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What cool kids do on weekends

This past weekend was the internation Software Freedom Day celebration.  Long story short, it’s a day to allow teams around the world to coordinate and host events to promote Free and Open Source Software.  An event like this is particularly important in a place like Kenya because there is currently very low computer literacy but plenty of hardware is flowing into the country.  The solution to all this hardware and a low level of preconceptions about what a computer should be and should run is to promote Free and Open Source software such as Linux based operating systems and other applications.

Posey and I setting up computers for the Open Source demonstrations

Posey and I setting up computers for the Open Source demonstrations

My Kenyan programmer friend Arthur therefore decided to take the initiative and got people together to host a Software Freedom Day 2009 event here in Mombasa.  How great is that?!  He worked with the guys from Camara, Build-A-Web and Lamu Software to rent a hall, set up tons of computers running FOSS and lined up a few speakers.

The day started with about and hour and a half of setup.  I was able to call in some Peace Corps volunteers who might be interested in utilizing FOSS at their primary projects, and even got some Kenyans I know to also come, including some teachers from National Youth Service and Kenyan NGO volunteers hoping to network with web developers and programmers.  Combined with Camara people, other invitees and people we attracted from our flyers and street table, we had a total participation of about 50 or more.  This is really good, trust me.

On top of all of this, Arthur asked me to give a talk or speech, with complete freedom of topic.  I chose to give a brief, enthusiastic overview of what Open Source Software is and what it means to me, and with the help of my friends and of course Ms. Vosburgh and her indefatigable editing skills, I would say the speech went off pretty well.  I stressed the importance of building up a community of Open Source users to help others learn and grow.  I stressed how these communities need to meet regularly, how they need not feel like they would be unproductive because of a lack of internet, how they need to start really assessing theircomputing  needs and start answering those needs themselves and not wait for some corporation to finally perceive

their community as a viable market.

Yours truly giving his Software Freedom Day speech

Yours truly giving his Software Freedom Day speech

The day was also filled with plenty of software demonstrations and question and answer sessions.  Myself, Arthur and other Open Source enthusiasts fielded all sorts of questions on all sorts of topics from copyright to format compatibility to business strategy and even strategy on how the people at the event could themselves go out and convince others of the need to switch to FOSS.  In the end, the day was very successful in showing people that there are others in their own neighbourhoods that are using FOSS and that maybe they should themselves switch.  And it might mean I am soon going to be attending regular meetings of the Mombasa Linux User Group.  That would be really exciting.

Of course, with such a busy Saturday, and with there being a holiday (Eid, the end of Ramadan) on Monday, Sunday became beach day.  Packed up everything and headed down to Diani beach, hung out, relaxed, got some sun, and played in the waves.  It was my first trip to the beach in Kenya on which I was able to body surf the waves.  Well worth it.  And I like the south coast beaches far more than north coast beaches.  Far less crowded and therefore much calmer and more enjoyable.

Monday as I said was a holiday, Eid.  I don’t really know much about Eid at all except that it is the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  For all practicalities in my life this means a few crucial things: my favourite restaurants will be open again in Mombasa and hopefully the Imams will go back to regular prayer schedules, meaning no more 3am prayer sessions.  I hope.

Of course, last night there was a crazy idea to try and bake a pie.  Mind you, I do not own an oven.  What you t do is create what is called a jiko oven.  Jiko just means cooking apparatus (charcoal burner, gas stove, etc.) and you can create an oven using some pots over this cooking apparatus.  It’s just one of those crazy things Peace Corps volunteers do.  Except I don’t have a charcoal jiko which is best for long-cooking, high heat requirements.  So we decided to dig a pit to make a charcoal fire.  That barely worked.  And then, we placed a ceramic plate as the lid to our makeshift oven, except the charcoal we placed on top of the plate to heat the top of the over shattered the plate.

We were left with an apple pie that had ceramic shards all inside.  Good thing we had macaronic and cheese and hot dogs as a backup.  The initial plan was to just be eating th epie.  Oh boy that would have been a mess.

Needless to say, it was a very busy weekend: software, freedom, glass in pies, everything.

Camara Volunteers setting up the outside table to attract attention

Camara Volunteers setting up the outside table to attract attention


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Kenyan Dress

When joining the Peace Corps, a trainee is innudated with what can only be described as one of the most voluminous mailing processes originating from a single organization an individual can be a part of.  And the real kicker is that almost all of it is critical for your service, and my impression of my colleagues is that we all gobbled it up!  Buried deep in these mailings, often in the country profile, is the required dress for training.  Considering most people think of the Peace Corps as this rugged outdoor experience, the required dress for Kenyan training, oddly, seemed more appropriate for a round of golf with the other board members than living for two months on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro (which was called Mt. Kenya at that time… turns out we were relocated before we ever arrived).  Of course, this is all in preparation to blend into a, “conservatively dressed,” society, where a woman in jeans is a hooker, and a guy wearing shorts is a drug dealer.

So… Peace Corps lied to us.  Of course.  It would be the first of many, “miscommunications,” or “Peace Corps training philosophies,” which would force us trainees to live lives often contrary to what actual Kenyans perceive as their own culture.  But who were we to argue.  Nobody ever said “culturally appropriate,” was synonymous with, “culturally correct.”  And we in Peace Corps are far more concerned about being appropriate than correct, for better or worse.

I thought however, that I would kindly engage you all with some of the more traditional Kenyan outfits I witness in and around the Mombasa area.

Firsf off the generalizations.  There seems to be a fascination with belts.  Not everyone loves belts, don’t get me wrong.  But it seems that the many people wearing belts want you to know it.  They have nice big buckles, often in the shape of Texas, or some sports team, or just… I cannot describe belts.  They are big.  Really, really big.  A picture may be required.  I’ll try and get one.

People wear business suits.  In Nairobi.  And only in Nairobi from what I can tell from my travels.  That’s where the business happens I guess.  Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t like Nairobi.  I don’t even own a suit.

Women, especially on the coast, are often wearing kangaas that have either been wrapped, or tailored into some style outfit.  A kangaa is a giant rectangle of cloth, the same type of fabric used to make the bandanas that you would buy in A.C. Moore.  They oftentimes have bright patterns on them, adding a lot of colorful movement to the coastal villages.  I must admit, I can already see myself missing all the color when I go home, but such is life.

The average younger person (those pesky twentysomethings), will often be wearing t-shirt and jeans.  But we weren’t allowed to wear jeans (or shorts) during training.

If you are at work, it’s a collared shirt and khaki trousers for a man, and a blouse or nice top and skirt for women, though more and more women are also wearing trouers.  The funny thing about “collared shirt,” though is that it refers to ANY shirt with a collar.  I wear hawaiian shirts on Fridays because I can, and it helps put me in the mood for the weekend after a long week.  There is a fiftysomething year old teacher here at NYS that wears one of those giant button down dragon-print shirts you can get at Khols or Wal-Mart.  You all know what I am talking about?

When walking around town though is when true Kenyan creativity comes through.  Some of my favorites would be the gentleman casually walking around in the Mombasa sun wearing a faux-leopard-fur, “Pimp Hat.”  Or another gentleman I saw at the ferry wearing one of those French style (or russian?) brimless fur hats, minus the ear flaps.  Parachute pants are big here, and big not as in size, but as in on a given day, you will see more than one person wearing parachute pants.  And tracksuits.  Lots of tracksuits.

But my favorite are the t-shirts.  As I said, a very common style of dress is the simple t-shirt and jeans.  Many people (I would guesstimate 95%) purchase their clothing at the second hand markets (including yours truly).  These markets get their clothing from all the Western Charities that do their clothing donations (I am now living on the other end of clothing collection box; I find that most interesting).  So when you are in Kenya, keep your eye out for Mickey Mouse, Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, every super hero you can think of, bar mitzfah shirts, high school shirts, professional sports teams, everything!  However, most kenyans have no idea that the shirt they are wearing actually has relevance to anyone.  Most just don’t care, it’s not that they think it means something other than what it does.  I have yet to see and Franklin, MA, but I have seen plenty of things from Massachusetts in general.  Though I still get a kick out of the Bar Mitzfah t-shirts.

Needless to say, I wear Hawaiian shirts without shame.  And no one can stop me!

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Waking Up, A Kenyan Morning

I wake up between 5:45 and 6:30am every morning to give me time to prep myself and then head down to the lab.  There’s not really much to do in my house as far as chores are concerned, and when I am at the lab, at least I am enabling people to use the computers more, which before I came, was not happening.  However there are some things that make waking up in Kenya… special:

  • Monkeys making other monkeys on my roof
  • Not knowing if I have electricity or not until I try to make coffee (yes, a coffee machine was one of my splurges after I saw my living arrangement)
  • The Vervet Monkeys and Baboons fighting turf wars in the morning over the cashew tree in my backyard.  A single baboon is more than capable of scaring away an entire troop of monkeys, until the big white monkey, me, starts grunting at the baboon and scares him away.  I like the vervets; the baboons are, unsettling
  • Washing the dishes from the night before, because I have yet to meet a Kenyan who washes the dishes at night, and its a habit I have adopted so that I have something to wake up my motor-control in the morning
  • Actually being woken up at 5am by the Muslim call to prayer.  It echoes its way from Mtongwe all the way through base and up to me on my hill
  • Actually being woken up at 1am/2am/3am/4am/5am/its-the-christians-time-to-start-shouting-really-loud-and-use-a-stadium-worthy-speaker-system-to-annoy-the-living-beejeebus-out-of-everyone-AM

That’s my list as it stands at the moment.  I hope you all enjoyed this glimpse into my “daily life.”

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Stolen From Harmz

I stole this from Harmony’s blog because I liked it and felt like syndicating:

Here are a couple of amusing sayings about PCVs:

A pessimist sees a glass of water and says, “that glass is half empty.”
An optimist sees a glass of water and says, “that glass is half full.”
A Peace Corps Volunteer sees a glass of water and says, “I could take a bath in that!”

A Peace Corps Volunteer in South America returns politically charged.
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Southeast Asia returns spiritually enlightened.
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa returns drunk and laughing!

“It’s better to send in the Peace Corps than the Marine Corps.” – Ted Kennedy

Hope you enjoyed.

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Why I Like History

For those who do not know, I am a double major on my undergraduate degree (whatever that even means these days).  I doubled in Computer Science and History.  This usually illicits an odd response from many people, the most common first utterings out of someone’s mouth usually being, “That’s… an interesting combination.  What do they have to do with each other?”  Trying to reconcile the two differences has always been a difficult task, especially when I choose to delve deeper and explain to my parterner in conversation that not only am I a Computer Science and History double major, but my focuses were in Robotics/Aritifical Intelligence programming, and the social history of medievel peasants.  Many people politely excuse themselves at this point.  I kid you not.

Growing up, I was always confused by the class Social Studies in public school, and even more confused when there was the movement to make it called Social Sciences.  Zach, Kelly, Screech and AC Slater never went to Social Studies or Social Sciences class in Saved By The Bell .  My parents never went to Social Studies class.  It was always History.  I thought, maybe it was an attempt to jazz up what is perceived as a boring subject (which it most certainly is not; I am certain the only other class that covers as much weaponry as History is when you go over ballistics and trajectories in Physics), an attempt to trick kids into learning about their pasts.  Combine that with a continuing dilution of the importances of dates and general chronology in the modern History education, and I still feel that people are out to kill this great subject.

This still does not reconcile the two halves of my brain, and some people would say there is no need, the left and right halves being seperate in their individual controls over certain functions of the body. But I would sit and wonder, if History and Computer Science are different halves, wouldn’t I be a better artist?  I am not.  I am a terrible artist.  My musicianship would be torn apart by the most rank of amateurs.  I have zero ability with ink or pencil.  And don’t even pretend to give me a paint brush.  I was so embarassed by my lack of painting skills that I would give my models to Luke to paint!

There had to be a connection, and it’s been staring me in the face the whole time, and I don’t believe it’s the fact that I am in Kenya that has allowed me this occasion into common sensehood, but rather simply the copious free time to think I have here.

I like facts, I like logic, I like science.  Computer Science is a great way for one to apply facts and logic and scientific rationale and bring such things into the realm of practicality and creation.  My robots would not always do the right thing, but they were always acting in what they felt was logical.  They were making order of their world (while at the same time deconstructing my own with their spinning rotors…); they were simply following their programming, however erroneously it may be.  In short, there was a reason why my robots were doing what they were doing.

To me, History is the search for the reason behind human action.  I am a firm believer in the nature vs. nurture argument, and the important roles both environment and the actions of other human beings play in our lives.  History is what we have been able to record of the actions of human beings.  I am not saying it is perfect.  I also fully agree with the notion that at the moment, for the most part, what is perceived as the, “History of the World,” is really a history of the, “Rich White Man.”

My social history classes however have taught me that the information is in fact there to begin to shift our perception away from that of the “Rich White Man’s,” history to one where the “common man,” has more of a voice and impact.  Does it mean the facts of History will shift?  Not necessarily, but it may mean that the masses have had just as much an impact over time as those brief moments of historical disruption usually following a major invention or battle.

Why do I love History?  It’s not because some bizarre half of my brain has decided to disagree with the other half.  No, the two are reconciled nicely in my own perception of the matter.  I perceive History to be a potential source of facts and reasons for why humans act the way they do.  Just as the physicist cannot deny the facts of gravity, nor can I deny the facts of History and that where I am in life is because people long before me made decisions and took action, and have decided to even record some of it for future analysis (knowingly or not).

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”  I don’t like that thought.  Instead, let’s say that those who study History are doomed to know it.  Simply knowing Hisotry does not mean one will choose different actions or make different decisions, but it may help us know why we are choosing our actions in the first place. The other edge to that sword is that knowing will hold our future selves more accountable to our actions: “If you knew this atrocity has happened before, why did you choose to do it again?!”

I can appreciate the term Social Sciences a bit more.  But honestly, what is wong with the term History?  Is it really that stigmatized?  Are we really so afraid of knowing why we have become such accomplished monsters?  What about why we have becomes such accoomplished artists?  Lovers? Creators?  I’ll let the sociologists handle that one.  I’d much rather just deal with the facts.

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Request For Content Results in Short Term Memory Dump

As I believe I stated in an earlier post, many times I find myself wanting to start a task but I become so overwhelmed in planning the task that I never get to bring it to completion.  Such has been my problem these past two weeks with blog posts.  I have a few larger things I wouldn’t mind expostulating on and possibly even result in interesting my readers, but I become overwhelmed in preparing them that I often find it better to just read a book.  So this blog is itself not about one of those larger things, but is instead, as the title suggests, a mere short-term memory dunmp, most likely taking the form of my favorite literary mechanism (the list, as you should know well by now), though possibly turning into paragraphical prose.  Maybe what I’ll do instead is think in terms of a list, but write paragraphs and just not include bullet points!  Genius!

There is a fly that is insisting on doing a jig all over my forehead right now.  One word: annoying

As I stated earlier, when I end up not completing a desired task, the default recorse is to read.  Reading is my escapism as choice.  Jason and Niki recently sent me a package (thanks again guys 🙂 ) and in it was the Han Solo Triology, three nice Star Wars novels.  Some may remember that I went cold turkey on star wars novels at the end of my senior year of college, as they had basically started re-hashing the prequel movie plot, but this time with Luke Skywalkers nephew.  I still do not know how it all turned out, nor do I want to.  But the Han Solo Triology was written during the Golden Age of Expanded Universe novels, so I felt like I could jump on the wagon just this one more time.  Besides, it’s next to impossible to find a Star Wars novel in Kenya anyways.  They were good, I liked them.  Before them I was reading some Anne McCaffrey and right now I am reading Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a fiction novel set in Edinburgh (love the city).  Apparently it was actually a serialized novel, written for The Scotsman newspaper, when McCall threw down the glove stating it was sad the serial novel had gone by the wayside.  Not far enough in to form an opinion yet.

But I do have an opinion on the new Third Eye Blind CD, courteously sent to me by Areti (thanks to you as well, I have the best friends 🙂 ).  It’s good, I like it.  I thought they would go a bit more mellow than three, but they kept the same tone as three, if not a bit more upbeat.  I think on a few of the songs they tried to actually go as upbeat as one and didn’t quite hit the mark, but still overall, a good CD.  Haven’t listened to it enough to rank it approriately though.  And the Rachael Yamagata you sent me, fantastic.  Love it.  She’s amazing.  New U2 is same old U2, can’t complain.  Green Day is sounding a little tired, am I right?  And Kings of Leon, haven’t listened enough to form an opinion.  This is the first time I have ever heard them.

Some friends of mine and I are thinking of starting a free HIV/AIDS information hotline here in Kenya.  There isn’t one, which is sad for a country with a 9% and growing positive population.  What this entails (and was going to be its own blog post), is contacting grant organizations, figuring out counselor qualifications, debating the many points of what a call center is, or should it just route to cell phones, accountability, sustainability, profitability (?), job creation, statistics, regions, demographics, on and on and on.  Needless to say I am not expecting it to be fully operational before I leave, but to have left a forward-moving project in the hands of future, capable volunteers and Kenyans.  Though admittedly I did throw down the glove with a PEPFAR rep from the CDC on this one in August, and we are racing to have something up and running before any USAID project gets off the ground.  Sipendi sana USAID kabisa (I really don’t like USAID at all)!!!

Another project I am working on is a website for WACAL, the organization my friend Erin volutneers with.  It goes slowly though as teaching takes over.

Because apparently I am teaching a real class now.  Principal kindly informed all assembled students last Wednesday that they need to take my class seriously because apparently there will be an exam at the end.  Of course, he never told me that before this assembly.  I’m pretty sure I made a funny face during the assembly when I heard this.

I have now been to the town of Malindi twice.  It’s ok.  I don’t get what the hype is all about though.  Also went out with some volunteers to watamu for a bit, which was nice to just sit on the beach.  Watamu is much nicer than malindi.  Much much nicer.  Although, according to my friends Deanne and Erin (a different Erin), Malindi has parmesean cheese somewhere.  This would make it the only place in kenya that sells parmesean cheese.  I also at a pizza there with gogonzola cheese on it.  It has all these cheeses because Malindi is basically the Little Italy of Kenya.  All the Italians flood there, like the Germans flock to South Coasst.  I never seem to make it to a beach during high tide so I am rarely actually able to get in the water, but this time it was high tide, and I got to go swimming.  The weekend before that I did also get to go snorkeling at my friend Ari’s site.  Yes, as a peace corps volutneer, it is Ari’s job to go snorkeling.  Beach corps has all the fun.

Wow, that is quite the memory dump.  Ok, enough of this.  Time to try and fix my precious iPod.  Hope you all enjoy.  Sorry for the terrible grammar, spelling, overall writing quality, etc.

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One for the McLeans

Our family motto in Kiswahili is:
Uaminifu, Nguvu na Ushuja

Thought that would be a fun little cultural exchange 🙂  Thanks to my friend Arthur for the translation.


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