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Ever want to feel like a giant irredeemable dork? First, put on your classiest business attire – the kind you wear when you’re going to meet someone very important for the first time. The kind that says “Respect me. Take me seriously. I’m here to rock your world – sustainable development style.” Then, put on a bicycle helmet.

Got that?

Good.

THEN, get on a bicycle – but not YOURS, oh no, because yours has a flat tire and you can’t find the pump. Plus, it’s a-hundred-and-Dante degrees and you’re not sure you could make the 10km one-way trip without collapsing in a heap in the middle of the road. Instead, you have to get on the back of someone else’s. They’re called “boda boda” or “bike taxis” around here, and for a modest fee, a tired old man on an equally tired old worn-out roadbike will pedal you most of the way to where you want to go.

Next, pick a point waaaay out in the middle of nowhere to visit, so you have ample opportunity to creak past screaming children and mamas carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. And every time you peddle past them, you must confidently say “HAMJAMBO!” in a tone that conveys “I’M HERE TO SAVE THE WORLD! LOOK AT HOW COOL I AM. You’re welcome, Kenya.

Jury’s still out on which maximizes the experience: riding astride like you’re on the world’s most dysfunctional bicycle-built-for-two or riding pillion and waving like a beauty queen on a parade float.

That’s how I started my morning today. Luckily, the work I’m getting to do when I get to That Distant Point makes it worth it. Or so the theory goes. When I arrived today at a local school, I thought I was there to meet with the faculty and set up times to do some student-run health club stuff (football games, etc) and maybe help another teacher introduce a Life Skills curriculum. When I walked into the staff room, the head teacher hurried up. “Thank mercy you’re here,” he said breathlessly. “Do you need chalk?” He saw me hesitate and tried his sell again. “We bought some. A new box!” He held it up proudly, his eyes begging me to take a piece.

“I’m sorry, I … um … uh … what?” I replied, demonstrating how articulate and qualified I was to work with his impressionable legions of young children.

“You’re the new mzungu teacher, right? Now, class 5 is about to start maths, but class 4 has English this period. You can choose which you’d like. We will schedule around you.”

The klaxon-alarm bells of AWKWARDNESS AHEAD started going off in my head. Apparently, the headmistress wasn’t there that day, and had given only the most cursory information to the rest of the staff. After some further discussion and clarification, it was agreed that I would co-lead the health club and teach the class 6 (American sixth grade) life skills class, all with an active and involved assistant, who would be ready to take over as soon as she felt adequately trained. Thus, I would simultaneously be getting interactive experience with kids (they’d get to hear English from a native speaker, I’d get to blog about their wacky shenanigans) AND training a trainer who would in turn teach the other staff how to conduct all that stuff. Imminently sustainable, endlessly entertaining. It’s win-win.

Sounds like a pretty solid opportunity to knock out goals one, two, AND three, if you ask me.

Even though I wasn’t ready to teach today, I was told I should at the very least introduce myself and the course(s). I could do that. I talked for a while about decision-making and growing into a productive adult and that sort of boring fodder for a while, then turned it back to the students. My teaching style is super-participatory, which sometimes clashes with the traditional Kenyan model, so I wanted to get them used to speaking from the get-go. I asked each student to stand up, state their name and where they’re from, then tell me something about themselves. Most used this as an opportunity to say his or her intended profession – teacher, nurse, member of parliament (o rly?), fisherman, goat farmer. When I got to the last girl, she rose shyly, avoided eye contact, and mumbled her words into the collar of her blouse. I approached her desk. Kneeling slightly, I asked her in a gentle voice to repeat herself.

Steeling herself, she raised her head and said in nothing short of a shout, “MY NAME IS AGNES, I AM FROM [VILLAGE], AND WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE THE QUEEN.”

Looks like Not-Italian’s got some competition.

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Nyama choma is Swahili for “meat roast,” and can refer either to a dish (pretty obvious) or an event (like a Kenyan barbeque.) Last Sunday, when my supervisor kidnapped me for a sunset drinking-chilled-espresso-and-walking-along-the-beach adventure, she brought along her friend J. J invited me to a celebratory nyama choma – more specifically, a goat roast – this weekend to mark her completion of her first year in a university environmental studies programs. In three words: it was awesome.

It was a small gathering (only 15 people or so, plus the standard seventy thousand billion small Kenyan who may or may not actually belong to any of the people there) but there were entertaining discusses, lots of cold sodas, and a troupe of vervet monkeys to amuse us when the conversation fell into a lull.

Because meat in general is expensive and whole goats particularly so, it’s traditionally done only for special occasions. Having recently survived university myself, I say making it through the first year alive and sane is pretty special. First, the goat is cut up to be cooked according to the different uses for the different parts. (There’s a more specific culinary word for this, but I don’t remember what it is.)

The less roastable bits – joints, organs, neural tissues, stuff like that – are put into a pot and boiled in salt water, then passed around in bowls as a sort of appetizer. Lemon is squeezed on top of the fattiest bits to provide some contrast.

Mmmm … delicious. At least, delicious until you let yourself start thinking “Wait, is this just gristle or am I chewing on goat stomach?” So don’t do that and you’ll be fine.

Meanwhile, the choice cuts – ribs, back, etc – are pierced by sharp sticks and left dangling over a low wood fire to roast pole pole (slowly.)

When these are done, they’re served with ugali, which is a tasteless (yet surprisingly appealing) mixture of maize flour and water blended into a solid block, and kachumbari, or an assortment of fresh raw vegetables. Traditionally, kachumbari is made from salted tomatoes and red onions, although hot peppers, cabbage, or grated carrots are also common.

This is ugali.

Notice how I halfway demolished my plate before pausing to take a picture. When it comes to goat, I’m basically that T-Rex from Jurassic Park.

Since it’s all eaten without utensils, I asked to wash my hands before we ate. Another guest looked at me with amusement and asked, “Is that how you do it in America? Do you need soap, too?” I took this opportunity to don my Hat O’ Public Health Education and explain how washing your hands with soap under running water before eating is vital to maintaining good health and can prevent potentially fatal diseases like cholera. Everyone nodded politely and followed my lead, but I’m not sure how effective an intervention it is in the long run … behavior change is hard, and a lot of Peace Corps is just throwing spaghetti at the wall: do your best and hope some of it sticks.

Afterwards came the traditional Kenyan post-meal speeches. In the “Things I Should Have Seen Coming” file, we can add “Megan was asked to give one very close to the beginning.” (Gulp.) They suggested I might just share my favorite bible verse about togetherness. (Double gulp.) Instead, I thanked them for allowing me into the community and rambled on for a while about how I felt blessed every day to have the opportunity to be here. Everyone nodded along and said “amen” a lot -diplomatic crisis averted! I really need to work on my two-minute go-to emergency-speaking-engagement speech. Labda badaaye.

It was also what we call a “good goal two day” – the second goal of the Peace Corps being to help educate foreign cultures understand America (the third goal, of course, is to help America understand the rest of the world, so it’s reciprocal.) We talked about farming practices in America, how goats are used more for cheese and overpriced milk soaps than for roasting, and how most of the corn doesn’t go towards American equivalents of ugali or githeri, but to fatten animals and produce high-fructose syrups. These revelations never fail to surprise (and often amuse) Kenyans. Just wait until I start telling them about purse dogs.

I made it home just before dark after a very long, very tiring, and very fulfilling day. New connections, new friends, and a belly full of nyama choma – what more can you ask out of a lazy Saturday in October?

My secondary projects are all in the “please please call me back so we can talk about that thing you want me to do for you” phase, my tertiary project is on hold until the end of October, and my primary project (developing the epidemiological monitoring/record-keeping system for the dispensary) entails a lot of brainstorming and working from home (for now, at least). So the other day, I empowered myself to mobilize down to the beach to splash in the tide pools for a while during what would be my “lunch hour.” I was doing just that when a trio of beach boys sidled over and offered to show me some great eels.

In America, this would end in them getting pepper-sprayed, and possibly arrested for sexual harassment. Here, sometimes an eel is just an eel, and they were offering me a snorkeling trip. I politely declined and went back to picking up bits of coral rock with my toes. One persisted, offering me a good price on a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. If not today, maybe tomorrow? This weekend? How long was I in town?

I initiated the usual speech: I’m not a tourist, I’m a volunteer, I’m here working in the public health sector. “Oh, like a doctor?” came the predictable response. “No, more like an educator. I mobilize communities, work with groups, and teach about important public health topics like malaria, water sanitation, HIV …” I trailed off.

He narrowed his eyes. “Prove it.”

”Nini?” I responded. What?

“Teach me about those things. Sasa.”

“Err, sawa … where do you want me to start?”

Water sanitation. I have a well, and my children have diarrhea. What do I do?”

For the next hour, I stood up to my calves in the Indian Ocean, tripping clumsily between two languages, giving my best impromptu health lecture. We covered well construction and maintenance, the importance of pit latrines, and malaria prevention tactics. He asked about his sister, who “did things for money” and had recently been diagnosed with HIV. I stressed the importance of getting support at local hospitals (both in the form of ARVs and looking into joining a group) as well as taking care of herself physically. I explained ways to eat healthier using local foods (fruits and greens year-round!) and getting enough exercise. He asked about traditional remedies – can the bark of the AdrnjoauNw tree cure AIDS? – and we discussed the need to consult with a doctor. By the end of it, he’d resolved to eat more kale, make his children sleep under mosquito nets, and start using Waterguard in all his drinking and food washing.

I walked home with a distinct feeling of “Wait … did that really just happen? Or am I being Punk’d by Peace Corps training staff?”

The public health sector of the Peace Corps is weird like this sometimes. I often feel like I get as much done in these unscripted moments of ambush as I do in formal assignments either from HQ, from my host organization, or from my community counterpart. It’s a good feeling, honestly. Helps to make one feel supremely useful, even in those initial days of flailing wildly and figuring out what you need to be doing. Just … unexpected.

I love my job.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly