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I was sitting on a vacant exam table reading a water sanitation manual at the clinic the other day when one of the patient assistants walked in. As soon as she saw me, she started doing a somewhat spastic arm-flailing hip-shimmy dance while singing to the tune of a Kenyan children’s diddy, “Yes yes yes yes yes, I am MEGAN, you are not!” When I asked her what she was doing, she grinned broadly and responded, “I am doing your traditional dance you brought from America! Traditional American dance to a traditional Kenyan song!”

I was deeply puzzled for a minute, then remembered: a few weeks earlier, I had been stacking pill bottles alone in the pharmacy, listening to my “Music To Get You Through A Really Boring Task” playlist. It’s impossible not to bust a little move to yourself at such a time, especially when you’re not being watched.

Or, at least, assume you’re not being watched.

The Fishbowl Effect – a feeling of or reality wherein every move you make is observed, noted, scrutinized, and filed away to judged against the behavior of all future foreigners – is a huge (and potentially frustrating) part of Peace Corps life. Some people have it worse than I do: I have friends who are the only white people for miles in any direction, friends whose innocent adventures have been transmitted through the village grapevine to other distracts (or up the social hierarchy all the way to the village chief), friends who have had their own reputations tarnished by the obscure memory of a long-departed tourist or aid worker. For me, I live in a rather touristy area, so most people who see me at first assume I’m an Italian or British holidayer staying at one of the fancy resorts for a few weeks. I always behave pretty well anyway, but if I didn’t, a lot of them would probably just roll their eyes and go “HAYA! TOURISTS!”

Still, I live in a neighborhood not usually frequented by other wazungu, so people have gotten to know me. This means my comings and goings are noted with startling detail (“Sister, you have been so long gone! I have not seen you since the Tuesday before last! You were carrying a large box and wearing blue jeans with a black shirt!”) Run my bike into a ditch? Everyone knows. Skive off an afternoon at the clinic to do laundry and sing loudly to my radio? Duly noted. Seen carrying something heavy without someone sending their son/husband to carry it for me? Minor scandal. You get the picture.

To a certain degree it’s comforting (if I’m murdered in my home, someone will at least notice before the rats completely devour my body and despoil all the evidence) but it can also make one a little paranoid. I have nothing to hide by American standards, but what if I want to buy wine at the supermarket, or have a male volunteer colleague platonically crash on my couch for a couple of days while making a trip? I’m not used to getting too hung up on what other people think, but here, it’s part of the job. At least on paper, we’re “at work” 24/7. When we are to lead by example, we have to first establish ourselves as upstanding and trustworthy, which means conforming conspicuously to societal norms. No pouring drunkenly out of a cab after a long night at the discotech. No hanging your most provocative underpants on your outdoor clothesline REGARDLESS of how big a pain it is to string up a mini-clothesline across your bedroom. No blasting your uncensored music at maximum volume a few feet from the window, outside of which groups of impressionable nursery school kids are playing.

Suck it up. Get used to living the life of a goldfish. And hope against hope that only a minimal number of kids pause to tap on the glass.

Some days you’re the superhero humanitarian, bravely casting starfish back into the sea with ample aplomb and tireless dedication. Other days, you’re yelling at small children and wounding yourself through your own grave ineptitude. I tend to blog more about the former sort of day than the latter. But one day I had of late was so very, well, schadenfruedic, that I can’t help but share. It’s pretty hilarious in retrospect, although was less so in the moment.

It had been one of those days that’s known to every PCV or indeed, anyone who’s ever held a job that challenges them daily and pushes them to the limits of their intellectual plane. The kind of day that leaves you hollow and spent, as though the very marrow had been drained from your bones. I was looking forward to going to the beach, sitting at the edge of the water, and watching the sky soften to dusk over the ocean. Quiet contemplation is how I recharge after such days. But this day … that wasn’t in the cards.

First, I had to go home and change. I had attended a formal meeting that day, so I wore my nicest outfit and fancy new sandals to look very smart. Unfortunately, said sandals left my feet COVERED in raw, bleeding blisters, so as soon as I left work I beelined for home to throw on comfy flip-flops. As soon as I rounded the corner, I was greeted by the sight of my landlord staring fixedly at my door, as though he was hoping to melt it with laser vision. He heard me approach and turned quickly.

“Dadangu, I am so glad you’re back,” he said quietly. “Please unlock your house. I think you have a problem.”

It was in this moment that I noticed the water pouring out from the crack under my door.

I opened it to find that my kitchen tap was running, my sink was overflowing, and everything but the back half of my bedroom (where my books were, thank God) was under an inch of water. He set about fiddling with the tap while I kicked off my now-soaked good shoes and waded into the muck, broom in hand to start pushing the water out the front door. EVERYTHING was drenched – clothing, newspapers, boxes, food I’d had on the floor, jerry cans, etc etc etc. My landlord got the water shut off momentarily and fetched the plumber, who quickly noted that the handle was loose (and apparently sentient to boot) with the ability to flow or not at will. Was it off for now? Yes. Could they pinpoint the problem? Not exactly. Could they assure me it wouldn’t happen again? Well … no, but my neighbor Lily had my key, right? So if it happened again while I was in Nairobi training for two weeks they could shut it off again, right?

That’s the hope, I guess.

They left, and I set myself to the task of emptying my house of water. Cockroaches, ants, and other creepy-crawlies flushed from hiding by the torrent lazily back-stroked across my living room as I worked my best flood control. The floor is cement, making it extremely slick when wet, and I slipped on multiple occasions. I somehow managed not to fall but in my balance-seeking flailings I kicked over my kerosene stove, adding liquid paraffin fuel to the bug-and-backwash swamp. My blisterific feet just loved that, let me tell you.

About 15 minutes in, the force of my cleaning fervor overcame the tensile strength of my broom handle and it snapped in half in my hand. Of course, in the process, it opened an inch-long gash on my right palm (hooray for wound closure strips in our government-issued medical kits!) This brings our running total to: brackish tapwater, cockroaches, kerosene, and blood. This was about the time I was beginning to think this wasn’t funny anymore.

I scooped up a pile of sopping laundry from one corner of my living room and discovered I had a squatter living beneath it: a centipede in excess of ten inches in length. I don’t mean millipede – the kindly, round, zillion-legged omnivores that occasionally take up residence on my bedroom ceiling. No, this was the venomous, swift, be-striped tropical monster dreamed up by a horror film director on acid. It clacked its vile pincers menacingly and scuttled down the sleeve of a sweater I was holding. With as much dignity as you can imagine such a situation might have, I flung the jumper out the front door and into the yard, shrieking like a fiend was coming after me with a hot poker. Which isn’t terribly far from the truth, in arthropodian terms. According to google, the pain of a centipede’s bite can yield pain beyond reckoning, for which opiates are sometimes prescribed.

It took me a solid hour or more to get the water level manageable and to begin to deal with or dispose of the waste the flood had created. On a trip outside with an armload of dripping Daily Nation newspapers, I saw my sweater still lying there. No centipede in sight. Was it gone for good? Or merely laying in wait for me to approach so it could drag me into its foul lair and devour me at will? I armed myself with the broken-off half of the broom handle and crept towards it.

It was still there.

I leapt into action, clobbering it with my stick o’ centipede clobbering, but to no avail. It kept racing for my door, trying to make it back to the relative safety of my laundry box. I chopped it in half and EACH HALF gamely continued its death-scuttle towards my home. “WHY! WON’T! YOU! DIE!” I howled at it, landing each blow with the combined force the day’s events had wrought on my psyche. Panting and disheveled, I had paused for a second in my task when I saw a small Kenyan child standing near me, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “We don’t HAVE bugs like this back in New York!” I whined in loud Swahili, an unfamiliar tinny desperation creeping into my voice. “The bugs are small there! They don’t want to hurt you! And they die when you hit them! It’s completely different!”

I dropped my stick. He kept staring, then cautiously approached me and laid a small hand on my arm. “Pole, dadangu,” he cooed, in the same voice you might use to soothe a spooked animal. I’m sorry, my sister. He stroked my forearm, his face sympathetic. “It was a bad bug.” He looked at the smashed mess of insect remains, long expired but still twitching. “A very bad bug. More like a little snake. But it’s dead now. You’re ok. I’m sorry, my sister. Very sorry.”

Great. I flip out on the one kid in my village who’s never done anything to deserve it, and he goes out of his way to comfort me. In case I didn’t already feel like a useless nutjob. I collect my stick and go back inside. I send two near-identical text messages to two of my closest friends in the Peace Corps, both of whom are on the opposite side of the country. I don’t remember the exact wording, but I believe the gist was along the lines of “HFOUNJHQONS;EGQEGLJNEGQJ ARRRRGH TODAY = FAAAAAIL WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH”. One responded immediately with the appropriate noises of sympathy, and I thought to myself, “Maybe I should call and explain. I’d feel better, at least.”

Perfect time to notice I have less than one shilling of airtime credit on my phone. Enough to do exactly … nothing. Awesome.

I can’t take a bucket-bath because the water is now shut off. Of course. So the best course of action seems to be to eat dinner, watch an episode of something on my laptop, and go to bed. I can’t cook because I have no kerosene, so I decide to make a sandwich. Maybe something with nutella. Or nutella with nutella. Except my bread got soaked. I’d never have a better excuse to eat nutella from the jar with a spoon, but all my spoons are dirty, and no water to wash them etc etc. So I scoop a bunch onto a knife.

Can you guess where this is going?

I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t see how it was going to go terribly wrong until I sliced my tongue and tasted blood. Four year degree, academic honors, competitive government job, and I injure myself licking a paring knife. Legendary.

I strip out of my used-to-be-really-nice clothes and crawl under my mosquito net, ready to write the day off entirely. My ARRRRGHitude was compounded by that grand sense of profound guilt that compassionate over-intellectuals have sometimes, the one that goes, “My neighbor Anila lost a child to cholera last year and she soldiers on. I bet SHE never ate nutella for dinner or watched How I Met Your Mother instead of doing pressing paperwork due three days from now in Nairobi. Enzo had safari ants take over his house TWICE! Are my problems really worth this level of self-pity?” Luckily, before I could start to angst too deeply over my unworthiness to angst, I got a phone call. Everyone has (or needs) that friend to whom they can tell stories that end “AND THEN THE BARISTA GAVE ME DECAF INSTEAD OF HALF-CAFF!” That friend will always know the appropriate response is “Oh HELL NO she didn’t! I will beat her ass.” For me, that friend is PCV Bri, and she is fabulous. Thirty very ranty minutes later, I was feeling a little better, and beginning to recognize the hilarity of the situation once again. Some convos on GChat, a viewing of “Slap Bet,” and I was ready to call it a day that ended on a positive note.

Of course, part of the simultaneous blessing-and-curse of Peace Corps is that there’s really no such thing as a “typical day.” This means that every morning, you get to wake up and hit the “Reset” button. It starts all over, and you can try again. It’s a brand new day. I rolled out of bed around dawn and found my freshly mopped and suddenly devoid of ants. My clothes on the line were dry. My water was back on to wash my dishes. My faucet seemed to be ok. The nightmare of the previous day was already 12 hours behind me, and I was refreshed enough to face the challenges of whatever came next.

And preferably, those challenges don’t include centipedes.

When reduced to three sentences, my Saturday sounds familiar to the point of banality: I ran errands. I cleaned my house. I comforted a friend. But nothing is quite that simple in Kenya (as so few things in my life in general are), so I now reserve the right to bore you with my example of what a semi-typical Peace Corps Saturday is like. At least, for now. Schedules here are about as fixed as the goo inside a lava lamp.

My day started at 7:30, as it usually does on weekends, to the Screaming Child Brigade making a rather impressive ruckus outside my window. I tried to go back to sleep, but as the din outside was rapidly increased by the addition of “90s Songs You Wish You Never Had To Hear Again: The Techno Remix” blasting from someone’s stereo, that plan didn’t work out. (Kenya: where old music comes to die.)

In the States, I had a clock radio that was set to wake me up on Saturdays in time to listen to Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, so after brushing my teeth and making some milky tea, I wrapped myself in a leso, popped in my earbuds, and did my best to recreate this little slice of my pre-Peace Corps life. It’s nice to take a break sometime. I sketched out a list of all the things I had to do – post office, groceries, bank, Safaricom dealer – on the back of a newsletter and eventually made it out of the house before the day got *too* hot. Ish. Sort of. It may be winter, but I still wander around feeling as though I might swoon from the heat in true Southern lady fashion while my coworkers are wearing jackets and huddled together for warmth. It’s all relative.

I’m in the rare “peri-urban” Peace Corps post, so walking to town is no great hardship. A few kilometers to the farthest point I could conceivably want to go. Post office: nothing exciting to be found (WHERE ARE THE LETTERS YOU ALL ARE SUPPOSED TO SEND ME, HMMMMM?) Safaricom dealer: the woman at the desk was so delighted when I greeted her in Kiswahili that she immediately started trash-talking the trio of waifish Italian tourists standing two feet to my left. “They never even TRY,” she said gleefully as she handed me my new sim card. Bank: DAMN. ATM OUT OF ORDER. This would bring all the rest of my errands to a grinding, screeching halt. Luckily, I recalled seeing a sign for another one somewhere down the road … I set off in search of it and quickly landed myself in the tourist end of town. The signs were in Italian, every other building advertises safaris to Lamu (really?), and you can’t throw a stone without domino-ing down a row of sheds selling the same wooden giraffes and improbable paintings of Maasai walking along the beach. I ducked into a little café for breakfast (my usual favorite weekend spot is closed for Ramadan) only to discover that the cheapest item on the menu – a crepe with whipped cream – is over 400 shillings. WHAT KIND OF HELL IS THIS?! After wandering far too long, I discover that their ATM was also out of order, so I hightailed it the zillion miles back to my side of town. And gladly so. That place ain’t right.

After getting the monetary sitch figured out, I made it to the grocery store. No, not the market. If there IS a market, I haven’t found it yet – every time I ask my neighbors they look at me askance and say “Why? Can’t you find fresh produce at Mama Lucy’s Supermarket? That’s where I go.” Clearly, this is big city living at its most exciting. I created a minor scene arguing with a Kenyan teenager who was angry I wouldn’t buy him shit (“You’re a MZUNGU! You need to buy this for me!” he argued in Swahili) which I may blog about separately later, but overall, market run = overall success. I schlepped all my bags home in the sun by myself, but at least I was feeling active. The large pack of small children that roves through the bush around my building, which has finally stopped screaming “CIAO BELLA” at the top of their lungs when they see me (opting for “SHIKAMOO MAMA MZUNGU!” which is all kinds of adorable), surrounded me and offered to carry my bags. Which was a nice gesture. I think. Maybe. Or they wanted to run off with my eggs and laundry soap. Hard to tell for certain.

I spent the rest of the afternoon blasting Capital FM (when in Rome …), sweeping, mopping, and being sweaty. BUT MY HOUSE IS CLEAN AHAHAHAHAHA (sorry, really excited about that.) My life is made slightly easier by the fact that I invested in a proper mop, rather than relying on the “bucket and an old sweater” method that I never entirely got the hang of while living with my host family. It strains the back to be bent over that long. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Spare me the innuendo there.)

Around sunset, a coworker who lives nearby came over and asked to use my cell phone. She said the battery in hers wasn’t working, as evidenced by her test-charging it in my sitting room the day before to see if it was a problem with the phone or her wall socket. Whomever she was calling didn’t answer, so she handed it back, kicked off her shoes, and sank to the floor. She informed me that her sister had died the previous day, and she was trying to get in touch with her family to make arrangements.

I wasn’t sure what to say, partly because matatu smackdowns aside my Swahili is only decent-ish, and partly because what passes for supportive here is a little different from back home. Hired mourners aside, Kenya’s not a big “public show of grief” culture. Nor is it a “bear-hugs-and-sobbing-with-your-friends” culture. “Comfort yourself, dear” tells to be the refrain of even the most compassionate sympathizers. So I just slid down the wall and sat beside her, on the cement floor, in my empty sitting room, as she reclined silently with her face in her hands for a long while. I think that was the right thing, more or less. She seemed to appreciate it.

After she left, I made Weetabix and hardboiled eggs for dinner (what? I didn’t feel like cooking rice) and rewarded my long day with an episode of Firefly. I also text-skyped with some friends from America, which was simultaneously enormously restorative and a little hard. As much as I am pleased to be here, I do miss you guys. Oodles.

Tomorrow, I have an incredibly busy day. I’m meeting one-on-one with the district chairs of some major community service providers – major as in international, multi-million-dollar funds like USAID and AMREF. Slightly nervewracking, but I’m excited to be building those contacts. They could be extraordinarily useful. All in the name of turning in the best CNA possible and, of course, figuring out where I fit into this great humanitarian puzzle.

Until then … I think it’s time for some more Firefly.

I wanted to update yesterday, when I had oodles of free time, but there was no electricity in town. This happens most Saturdays, all Tuesdays, and some other days. But we have electricity in town more days than not, so that’s a bonus. None at home.

I feel like I’ve written a number of letters to the same effect as this post topic, but nonetheless, I continue to receive questions, so here goes.

For now – in training – my days are semi-routizined. I get up around 6 to dress and take tea, then leave the house to walk to class about 7:15. It’s only 30 minutes (or thereabouts) but I like to arrive early. It gives me time to look over my notes before we start. 8 AM sharp, it’s KISAWAHILI NA BAS KISWAHILI (SWAHILI AND ONLY SWAHILI) for a number of hours, with a handful of ten-minute breaks scattered in throughout. Because it is only me and one other student, and because we’re semi-competent in the language, it’s a “discussion-based” class. The first hour or so is usually just us talking about our day, how life is with our host family, what we’ve been learning outside of class, funny stories, accidental adventures, and the like. Good times. I still have a tendency to respond to everything said to me with “Tena, tafhadali?” (“Again, please?”) but that’s more reflex than anything else. We had a practice oral exam on Friday, which went well. I’m feeling much less overwhelmed. Nzuri sana.

At 12 or 12:30, we are released for lunch. We usually go to the same restaurant (there are only 4 or 5 decent ones in town) and linger over Fanta before returning to the general meeting site for afternoon technical lessons. If we have any spare time after eating, we all play frisbee as a group or sit on the grass and read the newspaper or just chit-chat about how much we miss cheese. No, really. This happens almost daily.

At 1:30 or 2, the afternoon session starts. Some days, my assigned training partner and I hop on a matatu (public minibus) and head to a government-run health center, where we’re practicing skills like needs assessment tools and networking. Other days, we have a lecture about culture or politics or proposal writing or whatever the powers that be deem a useful topic for us to study. We review homework and have discussions … it’s a lot like college, actually, although the class size is bigger.

We get out of that around 5. Most days, I walk home to sit in the kitchen house by the fire with my host Mama, who helps me practice my Swahili or do my culture-based homework. Some days, the other trainees and I will find some restaurant/pub/business establishment in town and watch some of the World Cup game. This is made difficult by the strict 6:30 PM curfew, but meh. It’s still cool.

Dinner is usually on the table at my house by 7, and I’m always expected to do SOMETHING useful, even if it’s just carrying the pots in from the kitchen building to the sitting room. We eat and chat in KiswaEnglish, then my parents and host siblings take tea while I do my homework by headlamp. Thing Megan Does That Her Host Family Finds Hilarious #98726592: Reading books/writing/journaling/studying with a flashlight stuck to her forehead via elastic headband. Most nights, I’m in bed my 9:30, although sometimes I rebel and listen to podcasts on my iPod until I fall asleep. Whoa, cool, right?

When I get to site in a month or so, my days will be ridiculously varied, oddly intense, and expectedly frustrating. For now, although I wish I had more free time to do things like check my e-mail in cybercafes, I nonetheless take some comfort in the predictable rhythm of my weeks.

Kwa sasa. (For now).

Almost out of internet time, so I’d better wrap this up. Hope your lives are going well. Anything you’d like to see a post about? Mention it in the comments.

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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