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.