Wow! I’ve had Quite the Adventure

I’m back in Nairobi. I still can’t believe how quickly my time in Enoosaen went by. It seems like just yesterday I was arriving in the country side.

When I arrived at the hotel in Nairobi, I felt like a kid in a candy store with all of the modern conveniences. Pillows, mirrors, electricity, running water, a gym! At this point, I’m just focused on next steps for the various projects I’ve been working on so the local staff can pick them up and continue running with them.

As I was enjoying my last few days of sunshine by the pool this weekend (I really didn’t think through leaving the sunshine to come back just in time for winter), I found myself browsing through photos from the past few months. It is pretty amazing as I look back over what I achieved and experienced.

As I contemplate an early retirement in a few years, there are definitely some good takeaways I learned about myself during this trip. If I’m volunteering, I want to be learning new skills rather than using my current skill set and not getting paid for it. I also don’t want to volunteer full-time. There are just too many other things I’m interested in doing with my time. There are a lot of creature comforts I can do without. But good bedding, a place of my own, access to/ability to cook a well- balanced diet (my well balanced diet includes good wine, beer, cheese, and bread 🙂 ) and the ability to workout are now non-negotiable.

I managed to knock out many good books that were on my reading list, but the problem is I also added significantly more. In terms of the bucket list, I crossed off quite a few items and as of yet I haven’t filled it back up.

There are lot of things and people that I’m going to miss, but there are definitely some things that I’m not going to miss, like despite having a wide-open road a motorcycle taxi or car will hold their line and not move over for people walking down the side of the road. There were a number of times where I almost pushed the motorcycle over to make a point. My hatred for this was similar to people not getting up on the bus or metro for those who need a seat or the way the school groups block the entire sidewalk in the spring. Those of you that have seen me react to those situations have a sense of how much this one drove me nuts.

Also add to the list the dust and mud. I am so done with having to have my clean my shoes every weekend. I have a whole new appreciation for sidewalks and washing machines! I also won’t miss the smell of raw sewage being sprayed across the road. It’s better than it being dumped in the river, which used to be the case, but still. I tried to get local folks riled up about it by saying they would never do this in Nairobi but most just accepted it as a way of life. I started filming some of the trucks as they were doing it, which actually caused a few to stop momentarily as they passed me only to start up again further up the road.

Lots more to say, but I’ll save that for when we catch-up in person. This time next week, I’ll be in the air on my way home. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.

I’ll be Home for the Holidays

For those that haven’t heard yet, my visa expires on November 15. I have a flight to return to the States on November 14. I’m looking forward to catching up with everyone, especially if there’s a charcuterie board and good wine or beer involved (hint, hint)! I’ve definitely been deprived in those areas over the past few months.

The plan is to bounce around between PA, MD, and DC while I scope out opportunities. I’m actually very excited about getting back to work.  The batteries are recharged, and I’m looking forward to diving back in. Assuming I’m able to find a new position, I’ll plan to settle down again in the DC area. If not, who knows. Maybe I’ll pick up the second half of the trip after I’m released from nanny duties, which Carrie and Rob have already staked out if I’m not working 🙂

On the school work front, we’ve moved into the actual construction phase. The guard house is almost complete. School closed this morning. There was a bit of a mad rush over the last week to finalize our spelling bee winners and to begin a new project that was thrown in my lap. I was asked to come up with criteria and pick four girls to participate in a Model UN conference in the States in March. I’m busy working on a lesson plan they can use to get the girls prepared, and we’re crossing our fingers that we’ll be able to get passports and visas in time.

Now that schools have closed across the nation, Mama K’s house is full of people. For awhile there were new people arriving daily, but I think everyone is now accounted for.

At this point, I’m really just in a wait and see pattern in regards to the elections scheduled for Thursday. There is a sizable subset of the population who are saying they will not vote because reforms demanded by the opposition were not put into place. Ideally, I’ll go back to Nairobi on Wednesday next week so that I can work with the office there for a few days before returning to the States. We’ll see what comes of the election.  Fingers crossed I’ll be in Nairobi when the next post goes up.


I’ll Bless the Rains down in Africa…

Sorry for all those that now have Toto’s song running through your head 🙂 Almost immediately after I posted the last post, the rains started and the election became a circus.

We had some pretty wild rain storms the past few days. Hail one day and white out conditions the next. The good news from four straight days of downpour is that the water tanks are filled, which means I will officially escape Enoosaen without having to wash in the river.

As my time in Enoosaen begins to draw to a close, I decided to buy Mama K another water tank. When she had one recently installed, she had them pour the concrete for another tank, but it was going to take her another year to save up for it. I decided that would be a good thank you gift for housing and feeding me for the past two months. Once installed the three tanks should supply the family for up to two months before a trip to the river is needed.

On the election front, the opposition leader announced last week he was withdrawing from the rerun election scheduled for October 26. He said it was because the electoral commission has not made any changes to the reporting process which resulted in the Supreme Court nullifying the results of the August election. After announcing he was withdrawing, Mr. Odinga promptly left for the UK for a pre-scheduled speaking event. Supposedly, the thinking was that if he withdrew it would force the next in line to become president following the end of the 60 days in which the rerun election was supposed to be held, and the courts would order a new election.  But the electoral commission then comes out and says Mr. Odinga has not withdrawn because he never submitted the proper form informing the commission of his intent to withdraw. At that point, the opposition party, NASA, called for protest in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, and the government authorized force on those protesters that got out of hand.

After most felt the election was off late last week, most everyone now believes it will go ahead on the 26thOdinga supporters are threatening a boycott unless the commission addresses their concerns. Other than daily intrigue, the political chaos going elsewhere has had very little impact on Enoosaen. Everyone here just wants to get on with life.

So we’ll see. Should be an interesting few days. Friday is a holiday so protests are expected to be larger.

And the Work Continues

It’s been a busy two weeks. So much so that my back threatened to go out. I really didn’t want to deal with it going out completely, so I behaved and stayed in bed for most of a day. But not lifting anything or bending over is extremely hard in this country. If you want to clean yourself or your clothes, it means lugging large buckets of water around. Luckily my sisters came to my rescue and washed my clothes and carried the buckets of water to the outhouse.

Now I’m just praying for rain. If we don’t have a significant rain this week that refills the water barrels, I’ll be in the river this weekend washing clothes. I’ve learned to dread the hollow sound that echoes when you tap the water barrels to determine the current water level.

On the school front, I’m there most afternoons now. I think all 180 girls have touched my skin and hair, but at least they’ve moved on from calling me mzungu. Jessica definitely sounds better with a Kenyan accent 🙂 It has been a joy watching the girls come alive and feel more confident each day as they participate in the spelling bee. I threatened not to let them go on to the next round if they weren’t loud enough, and surprisingly, they came alive after that.

An art project with all the girls concurrently was not as much fun for me, although the girls loved it. I spent three hours last week going from one classroom to the next monitoring their progress and trying to keep the class eight girls from using the markers as make-up on themselves when I was out of the room.

Getting the art supplies was a whole another story. I wanted a variety so that they could choose which medium they wanted. Finding water color paints proved to be the hardest and most costly. For five plastic water color sets with 12 small colors and 25 paint brushes — we had to have the staff in Nairobi pick them out — it cost a little over $35.

Now imagine a class of 30-40 students sharing one set and five paint brushes. Just thinking about my nieces and their possessiveness over an abundance of art supplies had me dreading going into the classrooms. To my amazement it worked surprising well. Children in general here are used to having only one or two pencils or pens, so the fact that I had paints, markers, crayons, construction paper, scissors and glue made me pretty popular. The bulk of the children had never used water colors before.

The art project was part of the festivities to celebrate the International Day of the Girl (6th annual day on Oct. 11). We celebrated early with about 700 girls from surrounding schools marching through the streets and market to raise awareness for girls’ rights.

On the construction front, the laborers are running both machines and making approximately 700 blocks a day. We’ll need about 30,000 blocks for the buildings in the first phase and similar numbers in the next two phases. The foundation is laid for the first building (a guard house) that we’ll be using as the training building to learn how to stack the blocks properly and tie into the concrete columns. I’m trying to get the local sugarcane company to donate the ash waste that is a byproduct of their operations as it could be substituted in place of cement, significantly reducing our costs to create the sand, dirt, cement mixture needed to create the bricks.

The laborers are on their own this week as the consultant leaves for a week to test their understanding and retention. He’ll be back next week, and then we’re really on our own. Once the blocks for the school are completed, the hope is that the organization will continue to make blocks generating income for the school.

I keep threatening the guys that I’m going to line up an all female crew, which they just laughed at until I pulled all the ladies from the office together and we managed to produce a block. It would be one hell of a workout. But one machine can turn out 1,000 blocks a day, and clearly our guys are off so I see no reason not to give the ladies a shot.

On the curriculum front, I found some very good curriculums developed specifically for Kenyans that were funded by USAID. The content can be used and reproduced as long as credit is given, so instead of having to put the entire curriculum together I’m going to focus more on how you teach using various techniques. I’d like to ensure all learning styles are taken into consideration and focus on strategies that help students retain the information. I also need to come up with a plan to monitor and evaluate the training so the organization can prove impact.

Next up, schools will be closing a bit earlier this year (October 20) in advance of the repeat of the presidential election (October 26) that was ordered by the Supreme Court in early September. The initial plan was for me to go back up to Nairobi for two weeks in early November, but the potential chaos that may occur after the election is putting all plans on hold. The concern is actually the road between Enoosaen and Nairobi, not the capital city itself. If need be, I’ll just fly from the Maasai Mara (wildlife reserve area).

Regardless, I’m looking forward to serving as an election observer locally and seeing all of this unfold. And before that I have plenty to keep me busy and new items seem to be added daily.

We Can’t Make it Back to the House

After two very long days of health and leadership training for about 200 students, I was so looking forward to getting back to the house and sleeping. Shortly after we pulled out of the school yard the rain started. After three hours of slipping and sliding along the road, we finally reach Enoosaen and realized there was no way we were making it back to the house  given the condition of the “main” road.

The road to the house is dangerous enough during the day after it has rained. At night, it is downright impassable. Think freshly plowed field mixed with patches of what the sand feels like right at the water’s edge. That is the condition of the road after an hour or so of heavy rain. So off to Pride Hill Café, the place we eat lunch every day, for some dinner before getting a “room” in town.

Mud road
The morning after. The photo does not do justice or convey the depth of the mud.
It’s about 8:30 pm now and the power is out. Luckily I charged my tablet this morning before leaving for the training. Although power is out, I can hear music with a strong base coming from the local bars, which all have generators. When someone walks by with a flashlight there are beams of light that stream in where the door doesn’t exactly align with the frame. In general, door construction is not a priority.

Comfort is another area that gets slighted regularly. When I was at the hotel in Kilgoris, I was excited to have running water in the room and two pillows! I technically have two pillows tonight, but they are so slim they don’t even add up to the one sad pillow I have at the house. And don’t even get me started on the foam mattresses that have been a constant throughout my stay on the continent, with a few exceptions at some of the hotels. Oh well, just another night in my village life! God I miss pillow top mattresses and big fluffy pillows.

Okay, now that I got all of that out of my system, onto more substantive and positive reflections about why roughing it at times is so worth it. The training I was observing is called health and leadership, but it is essentially a training to educate girls on the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM) and to provide self-defense if they are groped or attacked. There is training for the boys that takes place as well. It was a K-8 school so we worked with the 5th-8th graders, which meant ages ranged from 10-16. It is not uncommon for children to start school late here.

There were so many observations and realizations that it was a bit overwhelming. The girls didn’t want to acknowledge their age and divide into groups, largely because the older girls were embarrassed to still be in primary. It took teachers walking through the group and threatening to pull out birth certificates (definitely going to come up with some other ways to form groups up in the future) to actually get everyone divided up. When the puppet show sketching out a scene of a man hitting on a girl began, about half the girls took off running and screaming. They had never seen or heard puppets before and were scared when the heads and voices first appeared from behind the drape.

The training covers  a lot, including: FGM and some of the myths that perpetuate the practice, the reproductive system, puberty, STDs, rape, self-esteem, confidence building, and self-defense. Trying to get the girls to touch their private parts over their clothes after starting with the song head, shoulders, knees and toes (this part they did willing and enjoyed) caused all kinds of embarrassment and giggles.

Despite how naïve and young the girls seem in some respects, you realize during the anonymous Q & A sessions that there are girls who, either by choice or unwillingly, have had already had sex or were seriously thinking about it. All of the students knew about their former 12-year-old classmate who is pregnant from a 40-year-old man. As they tell it, he promised to marry her but hasn’t yet delivered on that promise. He already has one wife and several children. I was also told that several of the girls were already circumcised, but they were lucky because at least they were still in school. The norm is that after circumcision (around 12-13), girls are married off. Maasai boys often aren’t circumcised until that age as well. For both boys and girls it is considered a rite of passage.

There are so many elephants in the room as the training is going on that it is hard to know how to even begin writing a curriculum. Abstinence until marriage is preached consistently and repeatedly. For religious reasons, there can be no mention of birth control unless a girl specifically asks about it, which they won’t because they are too shy. And even if we are able to debunk all of the myths about FGM, the reality is that a child has very few options if her parents are insistent.

There are laws on the books forbidding FGM, and the penalty is jail time. In reality, many adults look the other way and some even condone it or think it is proper. If a girl is brave enough to tell someone in authority — and let’s assume that person will actually get involved, even village chiefs and police are known to fuss at the girl rather than take action — it means losing your parents.

My task is to develop a curriculum to train trainers, with the end goal being information delivered on a more regular basis, in smaller time chunks, and in more dynamic ways than just lectures. There are almost 100 primary schools in the two districts that the organization is trying to reach, which means they currently only reach schools every few years (one training a month combining three schools at a time).

On a lighter note, the block (brick) making process will start this week. We had laborers working threw the weekend but finally everything (almost) is in place. I just learned from the consultant that the dirt screening that was supposed to take place didn’t actually happen (locals were too afraid to tell me), but the fact that everything else is set and ready to go is a small miracle, especially given where we were at the beginning of the week and all the rain we’ve had. So once again, not necessarily how I would have preferred to run the operation, but the end goal was reached. Don’t we all preach that it is only the outcomes that matter anyway?

The construction manager also begins this week. I’ll be working with him to pass all of the construction responsibilities I picked up. Can’t wait to see the first block come off the line.

We’re also celebrating the International Day of the Girl this Saturday, the actual date is October 11, so it is going to be a busy week.

 P.S. – In case you were wondering, when I woke up in the middle of the night, the music was still going strong around 3 am.

Getting Work Done

One of the biggest takeaways when you travel and live in developing countries, is all the simple things you learn not to take for granted.

I’m writing this post in the middle of a downpour. Power is out and the wind (and dust) is wiping around. Because all of the roofs are made out of iron sheets, we can’t hear each other talking even though we are right beside each other. Despite this, everyone continues to plug away at the work at hand even as small pools of water are starting to form in the store room.

In addition to the typical challenges one expects with a small NGO, there is a whole another layer that folks have to deal with here. Most communication is done via mobile phones or in-person. When we needed bids for the block making process, we had to go to the next larger town over (Kilgoris is about 25km away.) Once there, we dropped off a list of tools needed to the various hardware stores and then waited around town while they hand wrote the prices. Then, we went back around and picked them up. There was no emailing a quote or looking up the prices online. And when you go to pay you have to hand deliver cash or a check. No dropping it in the mail or giving a credit card number.

I’m usually in Kilgoris at least twice a week for various reason. By the time you drive there and then wait around for whatever you or others who tag along are doing , half the day, if not more, is gone. We always attempt to combine tasks when going to Kilgoris, which means if there’s a bank run you’ll definitely be in town for a while. There isn’t an ATM or bank in Enoosaen. And for reasons that are beyond me bank trips are usually at least 45 minutes.

Car rides are always an adventure. Given that we are currently in the rainy season, there are days when the dirt roads aren’t passable, especially the road to the new school site. I’ve confirmed that a car can in fact hydroplane across the mud. Also, avoiding potholes and ruts in the roads makes for interesting game of chicken with the large tractors hauling sugar cane from the fields to the factory. Everyone knows which side of the road they belong on, but unexpected cows or goats in the road after passing a car or motorbike helps to give the blood an extra jolt. And of course there is always room for one more. Squish, squish is a common refrain.  

Power typically goes out at some point most days. It never fails to go out when you need to print or photocopy something. We’ve been trying for the last few days to get enough vocabulary lists printed for the girls for a spelling bee. When there is power,  noises from village make for an interesting backdrop to your thoughts. Especially, the guy across the way who adds a “creative” audio interpretation overlay to pirated films.

Most non-western countries take a laid back approach to time, largely out of circumstances such as public transportation or traffic that are beyond their control. Kenyans seem to take African time to a whole new level. One is never late! You are always on time, even if you are three or four hours late. Other than milking the cows or washing, there isn’t really the public transportation or traffic excuses here in Enoosaen. I’ve learned to not even leave for meetings until at least an hour after the start time. Although this past week, I’ve been threatening everyone that we need to work on Muzungu time It will be a miracle if we get everything done in preparation for the block making training that starts next week. There is only so much bending my type A personality can tolerate. After 20 years of working to make systems and operations more efficient, effective, and strategic, my passion for embracing other cultures is definitely being challenged in the work environment. Somethings are just too ingrained at this point.

For my association and nonprofit folks, take the above challenges and then imaging having to contend with three boards and three different office staffs. That’s just another typical work day here. Maybe in the next post, I’ll actually get around to updating you on the work product rather than just the environment.


I Don’t Think I’d Make a Very Good Kenyan Woman

There are certain things, or at least there used to be, that I know I’m good at. Cleaning is definitely one of them. That one was guaranteed by my genetic DNA. Thanks Dad! But lately these women even have me questioning that.

I was raised that if you are a guest, especially a long-term guest, that you earn your keep by helping out. If the intent of my helping out were comic relief than I’d have them falling out of their chairs, but at last that is not my goal. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more than once a comment along the lines of “What is the muzungu trying to do now?”

I have proven myself to be trusted with preparing the tea, which basically means taking the pot full of milk, tea leaves, and sugar off of the open fire and scooping the milk out of the pot and pouring it through a strainer. And I’ve gotten filling up the pot for hot water down (used for washing). Although I’m allowed to stoke the fire, actually starting it is another matter. But it is no problem asking Michelle to start the fire (she is eight!).

Preparing tea
Tea is prepared before any other tasks are tackled in the morning, thus the I’ve just woken up look.
I’ve yet to be allowed to make or help with dinner, so I sit with the kids and make sure they do their homework while dinner is cooking. I pretty consistently pour water for hand washing and dish out the food, although it took me awhile to get the portions correct. I was accused of feeding children’s portions to the adults. Even my children’s portions were way too small for Kenyan standards. And I made the very big mistake of using a spoon to serve the ugali instead of waiting for a knife last night.

In terms of the dishes, I’ve been told it’s better if I rinse and place them away instead of washing. I was a bit too slow in the washing department and took too many breaks to stand up and stretch my back from being bent over a bucket. No complaints on my sweeping abilities, so at least I got that one checked off. 

I thought I was doing pretty good on washing the clothes until Mama K said I had to do some of the socks over. They just took the shoes away from me. Apparently you scrub the inside of the shoes just as well as the outside, in case any of you were wondering. If you had seen where the socks and shoes started, they looked pretty damn good after I was finished with them. But they were right. If you scrub even harder with the brush, pushing into the side of the bucket, you can get the socks cleaner. At least, there were no issues with my filling the buckets from the water tanks or hanging the clothes on the line!

Update- I’m making progress on the clothes. My socks past muster this morning:)

I’m actually impressed that my legs are as straight as they are. See Noormali for the proper form.
My first attempts at milking the cows were unsuccessful. Supposedly I wasn’t squeezing hard enough. Guess I should have practiced on the goats Justin before I left.

Oh well, I’ll keep plugging away. Maybe by the time I leave I might be able to actually claim a few new skills 🙂

Neserian, my other sister and teacher on how to be a proper African woman. She is in her shop. Anyone want me to bring home some Maasai bead work/jewelry?