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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