Sunday, May 31, 2015

Monkeying Around

Yesterday my son turned five months old and I stood on the equator for the first time.  As I said in my first post I am grateful to my husband and parents, among many other people, for providing support to my son so that I can be here.  But I feel the need to reiterate it.  A lot of people here have been appalled by the idea that I left my baby son to come to Kenya without him (they're also appalled that I didn't breastfeed him, but that's another story for another day).  However, I imagine if it were Landry in my place people would ooh and ahh over his pictures of Amare and go about their day as if it made perfect sense that he was here and his son was at home with me.  I love my son, but I love myself too.  And in order to teach him how to be an independent, happy person who pursues his dreams I have to do that myself.  And today I stood on the equator.  One foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern hemisphere.  How many people get to do that in life?  I am loving every moment of this experience and every opportunity that it provides.

I realized today that it has been SEVERAL days since my last post.  We've been quite busy and the internet has been a bit spotty, so I'm excited to have a few moments to myself tonight to get this written and published.

Thursday we went on our second round of home visits.  This time we visited homes that were more rural than in the slums.  The first home we visited was actually quite spacious in comparison to the homes we visited on Tuesday.  The family consists of three boys and their grandfather.  Their mother died when the youngest was just one week old and their grandfather had cared for them since then.  He is now quite old and struggles to work regularly.  His aunt and uncle live next door with their three children and his aunt explained to us that she and her husband had tried to support the kids, but school fees for all six was too much of a strain on the home.  As such, St. Mary's has taken all three siblings and, due to the distance from their home to the school, boards all three though only the oldest two attend primary school.

Exterior of the first home, complete with goats
Outdoor kitchen.  Most kitchens are outdoors if the family cooks with charcoal or firewood because of the smoke and soot it creates.
Backyard of the home.  The toilet and shower are actually right behind this tree in a small wooden building.  The small green plants in the foreground are actually cilantro plants, which the family sells at market for income.
The second home we visited was very small, like the homes we had seen in the slums.  The mother was well-educated; the only parent I've met so far who speaks fluent English.  She and her husband used to own property in another area of Kenya and supported their children there.  Then they began to struggle financially and her husband turned to alcohol to cope.  He used what little money they had to support his habit and they lost their home.  They shifted from place to place before landing in their small 8x8 shack, which they rent for the equivalent of $10/month.  The exterior walls are made of tin and the interior walls are lined with cardboard for insulation.  They are lucky in that they have electricity (one lightbulb), a communal tap for water, and a cement floor (instead of dirt).  The mother told us that her husband still uses drugs and alcohol and they stress alot about money.  He takes out his stress on her and the children, but because he controls the money she is not able to leave.  Two of her sons live at St. Mary's and she says that that alleviates some of the burden.  She said that her sons show signs of hope for their future as well, which she says they did not before.  The younger of the two is eight and attempted suicide before coming to St. Mary's because he felt like there was nothing to live for in their current situation.  The mother was clearly distressed over this and said that while she struggles with depression herself she is motivated to do whatever she can to advance the lives and education of her children.

Our third visit was the most challenging.  While the home itself was the largest we'd visited, the conditions were seemingly the worst.  This family was living on the grounds of the stadium in Nyeri, which had become a refugee camp of sorts after post-election violence in 2007.  For several families it has become a permanent settlement and they have stayed.  The mother of this family is 27 and has four children. She said that she married and had her first child at just fifteen.  Her husband has since left them and her fourth child is from a different man.  Their home has strips of bark and 2x4's for the exterior walls and a tin roof with visible holes that must leak terribly in the rain.  The interior of the home was so dark that it took several minutes for my eyes to adjust and be able to see her sitting just feet from me across the small coffee table.  Her three oldest boys all reside at St. Mary's and her youngest is just one year and two months old.  She says that they only have one meal a day in the evening consisting of ugali, which is basically cornmeal and flour cooked into a sort of moist, pastey cake and vegetables if they're lucky.  The baby is still breastfeeding, so it was a major concern for us to learn that she is very malnourished because the baby is almost certainly not getting what he needs for healthy brain development.  She does casual labor, washing clothes for $6-$8/week and because she was married so young does not have a very extensive education, making other work options unlikely.  The interior of her home was also insulated with cardboard and paper and there was one giant bed which the four boys, their mother, and grandmother all share.

Interior of the living space for this family.  There is another room used for cooking.
Despite these bleak living conditions the boys have been practicing their English by writing motivational quotes on the wall of their kitchen when home on break from school.  Beside this was math practice as well.
The home visits have been the most challenging part of our work here for the students I think.  It's hard to see people living in such dire conditions knowing that for every home we visit there are a hundred other families living in similar or worse conditions.  On the lighter side of work, we've been painting the classroom used by the nursery boys and tomorrow we'll start working on the juniors dorm.

Yesterday we drove out to Nanyuki, the town the equator passes through.  It's actually quite underwhelming if you're looking for a big to do.  There's just a small yellow sign and a white line painted across the ground so faint you can barely see it.  But, if you can get past the lack of bells and whistles it's pretty cool to say you've visited and stood on the equator.  Now I'm looking forward to visiting the equator in Gabon to say I've stood on it in more than one place in the world!

The girls on the equator
And the boys...
And me!
One foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern!
After our visit to the equator we stopped for lunch at a place called the Trout Tree Restaurant.  It's a really cool place.  They've built the entire restaurant in a large tree, so it feels like you're eating in a tree house.  On the ground are multiple trout pools, where the fish are farmed and then plucked fresh for meals in the restaurant.  In the trees you're surrounded by swinging collobus monkeys, as curious about your lunch as you are about them!

View from the overlook balcony down on the restaurant seating and trout pools

The whole crew before lunch arrived
Paul invited this hyrax to join us.  A member of the pachyderm family, not a rodent surprisingly!
My whole trout with chips and Fanta  :-)

Curious collobus monkeys

When we came back we headed over to Sakwa's house to celebrate Maggie's baby shower before she heads home on maternity leave tomorrow.  That was followed by dinner out with Sakwa and his wife, hosted by a professor from Northeastern University who is in Kenya with a group of students for a travel study course.

Hate this pic, but it's the only one of us.  That's Sakwa and his wife, Oliviah, in the middle and Sean, our other staff leader on the right.
Today was a lovely day of rest.  We got up early and went to mass before heading out to Naro Maru Lodge, close to where we were to for the equator yesterday.  We spent the day poolside, with a view of the base of Mount Kenya.  I sipped Malibu and pineapple juice, had samosas for lunch, and talked at length with  Brother Francis, who has been our fantastic leader and guide for most of our time here.

Fantastic Sunday view
Lounging poolside, Mount Kenya in the background
Tomorrow it's back to work.  We have detail work to finish painting in the nursery room and then we'll move onto the Juniors dorm.  I can't believe that this time next week we'll be in Nairobi preparing to head back to the States!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I feel in the last two days that I've noticed many striking juxtapositions here in Kenya.  For example, Monday we went on several school visits so that we could see the public primary school system here.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the boys here who are in primary school go off campus for classes because elementary school is nearly free in Kenya (nearly meaning you must pay the equivalent of about $10/year in fees).  The schools are primitive.  There are at least 35-40 students in a classroom and they sit paired on wooden benches in front of wooden desks.  The walls are bare or mostly bare, with peeling paint and stained brown from the constant red dirt dust that swirls around.  Despite this bleak environment compared to American classrooms, the vibrance of the children jumps out at you like their bright blue school uniforms.  They are attentive, respectful of their teachers and visitors, and have very high hopes for high school and college.  In the nursery class, a class of 3-5 year olds, they are learning subtraction already.

The students being introduced and talking to the class about college in the US
Typical classroom in a public primary school
The school yard
Personally, I am always bothered by people who do service that compare their lives to those they are helping, saying how grateful they are for their life or their experiences or their opportunities because look at how bad it is for these people.  This is true and we all should be grateful for the things we've been blessed with, but I almost feel like the outward expression of this shows pity on those being served.  And no one wants pity.  So, I was surprised to have quite a similar conversation with a woman who works here at the school about how seeing where these boys come from makes her appreciate the life that she has.  I don't know why I didn't expect that to be something expressed by someone who lives here, but  I didn't.  Though she didn't express pity per se for the boys, she says that it is life here, but that it gives her perspective.

She shared this with me as we walked back from one of our school visits behind a group of our students.  One of the boys was playing with one of the young students at the primary school, chasing him around through ditches and up and down hills.  The little boy just laughed and laughed and she shared with me this story and how amazed she is at this little boy's happiness.  She says he is always smiling and playing and laughing despite where he comes from.  She says that when she did his home visit she found bleak living conditions.  His mother was HIV positive, weak, and unable to work.  His father was gone and likely had never been a support to the family.  His ten year old brother was positive and addicted to drugs and alcohol.  They had very little in the way of food, clothing or shelter.  He too is HIV positive, but doesn't yet know it.  He takes medicine, but doesn't know why.  He's only six.  Yet despite all of this he is a very happy and smart child who does well in school and seems to thrive socially.  It really is a wonder when you hear a story like that what creates resilience in some and not others.

Yesterday we went on our first round of home visits to the "slums."  Even though that's what they're called here I'm still having a hard time using the word.  When we do home visits the boys have to go with us because the slums are densely populated and there are no street names or addresses (really there are few streets, just footpaths up and down the valley) and so they have to lead you to their home.  One particular home we visited is stuck in my mind.  We walked for a long time down a dirt road before turning off down a footpath between two houses.  The footpath was winding and downhill and we passed small gardens of kale and potato and looming palm trees.  We reached the bottom of the footpath to a nicely manicured path with handmade fence on either side and beyond that neatly lined crops.  To our right was a small river literally just a few dozen feet away whizzing by us.  We turned up a smaller path to the left and were in the midst of what looked to be about four or five homes.  The home we visited belonged to a 25 year old woman with four children under the age of 7.  Both of her sons go to St. Mary's, but her daughter who was maybe six has never been to school because she cannot afford the school fees.  Her sons receive funding through St. Mary's.   Her fourth child is a baby, not much older than Amare and it struck me how similar they were as babies, but what different lives they would lead.   It was a challenge not to be emotional as I identified with her as a mother.  She rents her home, a one room shack that she has creatively divided into two rooms using fabric curtains and logs on the floor to delineate where one room stops and the other starts.  She pays about $5 a month for rent.  There is no electricity or running water.  The roof is made of corrugated tin and the walls are reinforced with large pieces of tree bark.  She only speaks Kikuyu, the local language, and has no formal education.  It was nearly impossible for me to reconcile the deep, deep poverty in which this family lived with the utter beauty of its surroundings.

Slums built on a slope heading into a valley with a small river
Families use this river for drinking water, bathing and washing clothes, and watering crops
Another glimpse of homes
We returned from our visit to the slums hot, sweaty, and exhausted.  We went straight to the lounge to rest before lunch and one of the brothers was already there watching E!  Rich Kids of Beverly Hills happened to be on and I think we all just stared at the television with dropped jaws.  Having come from the slums all morning to see a bunch of rich kids throwing a temper tantrum in a hotel lobby because the staff didn't know who they were when they walked in the front door was just absolutely too overwhelming to process.

Tomorrow we'll head out for another round of home visits.  In the afternoons we play sports with the kids and chat with the older ones before dinner.  After dinner several students go to preps, which is like study hall, to help the children with their homework before bed.  Our days here are relaxed, but full.

Cows grazing on campus.  I make my coffee every morning with milk from these cows!
One of our students guest teaching a religion course.

A friendly game of football with the nursery students 
***The photos of the slums are pulled from a Google search.  We were advised not to bring any valuables with us, so I was unable to take pictures, though after having gone I feel as though these warnings were overly cautious, at least where we were.  The people were poor, for certain, but friendly and welcoming, not at all threatening.  I plan to take some of my own photos on a future visit.***

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Beatification of Sister Irene Stefani Nyaatha

This weekend there was a large celebration in Nyeri for the beatification of Sister Irene Stefani Nyaatha.  A beatification is a ceremony marking the second step to sainthood.  Sister Irene was an Italian sister who came to Nyeri in 1915 at the age of 24.  She served as a nurse in the hospitals, taught catechism, and did outreach in the community.  She died at the age of just 39 caring for people during a plague in 1930.  In order to be considered for sainthood there must be miracles attributed to the person.  In Mozambique there was a group of people who took refuge in a church during a local conflict and they had run out of water.  They prayed to Sister Irene for water and the baptismal font filled for three days with enough water for all of the people.  A baby was even born during that time and was able to be baptized in the water.

This event was a huge deal because it is the first beatification to ever take place in Africa.  Usually these ceremonies occur in Rome, but because this is where Sister Irene practiced and died it was decided that the beatification would take place here.  While I'm not Catholic, I find it an incredible opportunity to witness something so historic and so important to the people here.  Not only did the celebration happen here in Nyeri, the mass was held on St. Mary's campus this morning.  Thousands and thousands of people poured into the front gates and Sister Irene's remains were processed from a church in town out to the school.  She will be buried here later this week.

The crowds beginning to gather before the mass began
Signs from the processional
Procession of brothers, priests, and bishops
Procession of brothers, priests, and bishops
Our group with Stephen in the middle.  He graduated from St Mary's two years ago and now works at the school
The opening procession

Panoramic view of the crowds

After the crowds had somewhat dispersed Brother Francis loaded us into the school van and took us for a tour of the surrounding area.  Our first stop was the Treetops Resort we went to on Friday.  I found out today that not only was this the place where Queen Elizabeth learned that her father had died and she would become queen, but it was also the last home of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell.  He had a cottage built here in Nyeri on the grounds of the resort and lived her until his death in 1941.  

Large bamboo tree on the resort property
Me, in the bamboo tree
After the resort we went to a building dedicated to scouting on the grounds of a cemetery where many British nationals were buried, including Robert Baden-Powell and his wife.  

We then climbed back into the van and headed out to the Italian War Memorial Church.  It was built by the Italian government to memorialize prisoners brought to Kenya by the British during World War II and serves as a catacombs for many African soldiers.  It is also the place where Queen Elizabeth was coronated in 1953.  

As you can see from the above picture we had a bit of car troubles when leaving the memorial.  Despite this, we climbed high into Nyeri Hill on dirt and rock roads to glimpse fantastic views of the valley below.  The land here is incredibly lush and feels nearly untouched.  The roadside on the trip up was spotted with dancing children, goats and cows, and men and women carrying loads of all kinds.  

A waterfall in the distance

Today was quite a busy day and I'm looking forward to tomorrow.  We'll finally be getting into our official work with the boys.  From what I understand we'll be helping with home and school visits, so I'm eager to put my social work skills and knowledge to use.

Friday, May 22, 2015

First Days in Nyeri

I am a total nerd.  My favorite part of the trip so far has been the tour of Tangaza College in Nairobi.  I was very impressed with the programs they have and access to technology.  Their smart classrooms not only are connected to the internet and allow for projection, but instructors can record sessions and put them on YouTube for students.  I don't have that capability in my classrooms!  What I enjoyed so much about this visit was the philosophy of teaching that many of the professors share.  We spoke with a Communications instructor who expressed how important it is that her students not only learn media or radio or production, but that they understand the issues that are not currently addressed by the media or are perpetuated by the media that oppress or marginalize vulnerable groups, such as women and the poor.  I was just in love with the fact that content impacted and affected by media is taught in the classroom along with practical communication skills.

Natural wood carving in the school chapel

Natural crucifix designed by students at the university for the chapel
The school was full of murals and artwork. Beside is a sign of available programs.
After our tour of the university we stopped for lunch and to exchange money at a local mall before getting on the road to Nyeri.  Three hours of trekking through the country and up hills going about 20 mph we arrived at St. Mary's Secondary School.  The trip was not without the components of African road trips that feel so familiar to me.  We bought sugar cane through the window of the bus from a vendor running along side us on the side of the road.  We were stopped by a police officer at a checkpoint who insisted on a bribe before allowing us through.  A bathroom stop in a random field followed by a purchase of many sweet bananas still on their stalks and more sugar cane.  And then finally we had arrived.

For those who remember Woolworth's, I'm not sure if this is the same company, but if so it lives on in East Africa!
Boarded and ready to get to Nyeri
Sakawa is a social worker at the school and he has been our guide since our airport pick up.  When we got to St. Mary's he and Brother Francis gave us a tour of the school grounds.  There are four groups of boys who are affiliated with the university.  The nursery boys live in the slums across the street, but come to campus for food and classes during the day.  They range in age from 5-12 and school for them consists of basic hygiene, manners, and English as many of them speak only the local language and have not be acculturated into formal school.  There are the juniors who live here, but go to primary school off campus.  These are boys who were living in the slums or on the streets and have been accepted into St. Mary's Juniors Program.  Primary school here is like elementary school and it is free in Kenya, so the boys get food and shelter from St. Mary's, but are educated in the local public schools.  Then there are the high school boys.  Many of them pay to come here, but others come from the Juniors Program and they receive scholarships to stay.  St. Mary's Secondary School is one of the best high schools in the country.  The boys who graduate from here score significantly higher and pass is much higher percentages on the high school exams than the average Kenyan students.  The last group of students are the technical students.  These are boys who have struggled academically and cannot make it through the secondary school.  They learn a trade in the technical school and are given a six month externship at the end of their education.  St. Mary's provides food and shelter during this period of time and then the students are expected to find gainful employment.  These students range in age from 16-27.

The school is communal in nature.  The boys who live here go to school during the day and then after school they do chores to keep the school in order.  Some are in charge of cleaning dorms or the cafeteria while others get up in the morning before school to milk the cows and feed the pigs.  The school grounds are fairly vast and they raise a lot of their own animals and grow a lot of their own vegetables.

Pigs on campus.  Two are slaughtered each month. Joy.
Typical breakfast.  One of those thermoses is full of warm milk straight from the cows here on campus.
View of campus from the lower field.
Basketball courts and chapel/auditorium.
Yesterday we were welcomed at the school by all of the high school boys at an assembly before classes started.  The rest of the morning was spent doing odd jobs and playing with some of the younger children on campus.  I met another staff member who does case work with Sakawa.  Her name is Maggie and she is about to have her first baby in June, so we spent a lot of time talking about babies and expectations.  It was nice to meet someone going through an experience I just had and to learn about what being pregnant and parenting is like here.  Sakawa and his wife also just had a baby, so there's lots of bonding around that.

In the afternoon we walked to a hotel called The Treetops where, I found out, Queen Elizabeth had been staying as a child when she found out that her father had died and she was to be crowned queen.  Given that my mom is British it was kind of cool to be in a place that the queen had been for such a historic moment.  Though it was not lost on me the meaning of the queen being in Kenya and what colonization did to the people here.  It was quite a relaxing afternoon just sitting by the pool chatting with Maggie and watching the students play games and bond.
Treetops Resort
Relaxing poolside
View looking up from my lounge chair.
View looking up from my lounge chair.
Coming home we walked through some market spaces, which are very similar to those I've been to in Gabon and Benin.  I forgot my belt at home, so bought one from a vendor and haggled my first price in Kenya.  No doubt there will be more of that to come!

There's a huge event happening in Nyeri this weekend, so we don't have much planned.  I'll be posting tomorrow night after the festivities are over with pictures and stories.