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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.

Ajabu.

ah-JAH-boo.

In Swahili, it means weird, or unusual, or astonishing. It’s a word I’ve used to describe my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, to describe the wonky dreams gifted to me by my antimalarials, and to summarize why things in my life sometimes work out perfectly against all sensible reason. It’s a good word. And, oddly enough, it’s a word I’ve heard more this week than I have since I started learning the language.

Usage One.
I boarded a matatu the other day and found myself sandwiched within a pack of hyenas giggling school children. There were more in the row of seats behind me. It was a longish ride, during which I shielded myself from their curious gaze by reading a slightly outdated copy of The Daily Nation newspaper I hadn’t had a chance to finish yet. They spoke openly about me – my clothes, my figure, my skin – without realizing that I could understand a word they were saying. I heard a rustling behind me, as though the kid was leaning far forward in their vinyl seat, and suddenly – YANK. My ponytail was pulled.

I turned, gave the row of kids a mildly irritated look, and went back to my newspaper. It was less than two minutes before – YANK. Harder this time. When I turned, they got a scolding glare. Clearly, the deterrent failed, because I soon heard the creak of vinyl once again; before they could reach me, I wheeled around and snapped (in Swahili) ”KNOCK IT OFF! That’s bad behavior!”

The look-a-talking-farm-animal look came over their faces and they sat with mouths gaping until one summoned the courage to respond ”But your hair! It’s so … weird!”

I know.

Usage Two.
Leaving Malindi after a USAID monthly review meeting, I was greeted by a tout who recognized me and called to me familiarly. “DADA WATAMU! HABARI YAKO?! HABARI ZA KAZI?! HABARI ZA MAISHA?!” he inquired at maximum volume as he good-naturedly shoved me into the waiting matatu. I did my best to answer as I half-crawled, half-stumbled to the back row. Two women in hijabs sitting in front of me put their heads together in a much more discrete version of the school girls’ conversation from the previous day. ”The mzungu understands Swahili? Is it true?” one queried. ”I think so,” the other replied contemplatively. ”Do you know any other mzungu who learn Swahili?”
“No. It is unusual.”
She paused. ”Ajabu sana.” Very unusual.
The other nodded before adding, ”Ajabu kabisa.” Completely unusual.

I smiled privately at her invocation of one of my most favorite Kiswahili words. But that rarity’s a pity, don’t you think?

Usage Three.
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, one of those parts of America where the expectation of the majority is still to live, wed, and die within a three county radius of where you were born. (And there’s nothing wrong with this – but it ain’t for me.) My best friend since I was knee high to a duck was a girl we’ll call R, who lived five houses down the street from me. We lost touch when I moved to Washington, DC following my parent’s divorce and I don’t know if I’d actually spoken to her more than once or twice since I was 15.

That is, up until last month, when she sent me a message on facebook to reconnect. She’s finished with university and is – for the moment, at least – an aspiring photojournalist based out of Nairobi. As in … Kenya. As in … a day’s busride from where I am. We made plans to meet up; I saw her briefly a few weeks ago as she sped up the Coast on an assignment, which was awesome. I was actually able to hang out with her more while I was in Mombasa this past weekend. We laughed and caught up and found ourselves wondering why we’d ever lost touch to begin with. She’s leaving Kenya soon to begin a graduate program in – what else? – African studies.

That kind of serendipity is … unexpected. Not impossible, of course, but in defiance of ready explanation.

Ni ajabu.

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Yours truly