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Welcome back! This was originally written as a single behemoth o’ bloggery, but given that it was over five pages single-spaced in Microsoft Word, I tried to improve its readability by chopping it down and posting its parts on adjoining days. If you’re just joining us, start back at Part 1 before you jump in here. Thanks! –M

On a much more minor level, high season brings irritations like longer lines at the town’s one bank or greater traffic on the handful of paved roads (the latter of which being particularly troubling to the teachers I work with, as virtually all of their students walk to and from school.) With the above-mentioned exception of fish, the prices of things – from mango juice to textiles – often rise dramatically. Public transportation is particularly irksome for people who don’t look adequately Kenyan: assuming you’re a clueless tourist, rather than a year-round NGO worker or missionary, the conductors on matatus will ask for double or triple the normal price and argue heatedly when you don’t pay it. They’ll threaten to leave you on the side of the road, although follow-through on this is usually quite low.

Street harassment also experiences a sharp uptick – a phenomenon not just limited to me, but something I’ve discussed with MANY female volunteers of all manner of skin tones/body shapes/physical presentations. I’m fairly well known in my community; even people who haven’t met me personally generally recognize me as “the lady doctor/teacher from the clinic near the post office.” I’m friends with the woman who runs the kiosk where I buy fruit and the cashiers in town where I go for soap and dry goods. They greet me in Swahili and ask about work. During the low season, I inevitably get some attention for my sheer existence, regardless of how I’m dressed or behaving (doubly so if either of those things are even slightly suspect) but most people are either friendly or ambivalent.

However, when high season comes, it’s common for the area to experience an influx of unemployed young men looking for work as beach boys or curio-sellers. They don’t know me. To them, I’m just another mzungu here on holiday. I can barely walk to the bank without an admirer or five stepping into my path, greeting me with some combination of “Ciao baby,” “You so sexy,” and/or “I love you with every part of my heart.” Usually, it’s easy to brush past them or tell them off in rapid Swahili. Occasionally, a persistent one will follow me for a few hundred yards continuously professing how he yearns to make me the mother of his children. (Herein lies another benefit of thorough community integration: one who seemed to be drunk or stoned tried to follow me down the semi-secluded path that leads to my house, alternating between requests for money and offers to “play sex.” A male community member who works near the chief’s office, and whom I stop and chat with amiably any time I pass by and see him there, happened to also be nearby. He quickly intercepted the would-be Don Juan and dissuaded him from his quest. Threats of ass-kicking may have been involved.)

Basically, even in the absence of a physical threat, what sounds like a minor irritation can quickly escalate to a day-ruiner and morale-dampener. (There are international NGOs devoted to changing this sort of thing, but given how many hats I’m already wearing, addressing it in any more formal way than telling guys it’s not OK doesn’t seem like a feasible task for me to tackle at the moment.) I wouldn’t go so far as to draw climbing correlations about street harassment as a “gateway drug,” but it does normalize gender inequality in a deeply disturbing way. It enables the same insidious climate of casual disrespect that creates space for someone to say “She may be 14, but I paid her $20 and she didn’t seem to mind.” A catcall is in no way on the same level as a child rape, but they are both symptoms of the larger social ill of gender inequality.

But of course, this isn’t a problem confined to Kenya, or even to Africa. Women struggle with this the world over – including, quite definitely, in the United States. I think I’ve diverged adequately from the topic at hand that I need to return focus to … what was I talking about again?

Ah, yes. High season.

And so, as with so many things, it’s difficult to come up with a basic explanation of what the enormous tourist presence does for my community. I struggle with this when trying to explain life in my area, as people like to ask things along the lines of, “So do you think it’s, like, better or worse that your area gets so many outsiders all the time?” Tourism is good. Is it? Would the young men and women who are trafficked to serve the sexual needs of foreigners in less body-rich areas agree with you? Tourism is bad. Certainly, if you’re not considering the thousands of jobs it creates, from hotel receptionists to professional fire dancers. Or the marine reserves and turtle protection zones that are funded almost entirely through tourism levies. Or the general net-positive of providing people with a cross-cultural pedagogical experience, like the gap year students who plant trees in the Arabuko Forest, or the ill-informed armchair historians who never realized the scope of medieval civilization in East Africa until they visited the Gede ruins.

A reductionist blanket statement, while offering a tempting narrative, is both impossible and not useful. Therefore, I suppose the best we can do is this:
Tourism is. It simply exists. What can we do but work to solve the issues it creates, while celebrating the victories it spawns? A balancing act, imperfect and necessary, as old as the human desire to wander.

Need to catch up with Part 1? Click Here.

In the last entry, I mentioned two sorts of water problems in my area: not enough and too much. “Not enough” refers to the drought we’re facing following the complete failure of the “shorts rains” and insidious delay of the “long.” Too much … well, in light of that last statement, it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

On one of my first days here, I skipped into the clinic one morning to find everything in a state of semi-controlled chaos. The waiting area was overflowing with patients, most of them mothers with gaggles of crying or listless children. I ducked into the exam room and asked one of the nurses in charge what was going on; he said with enormous weariness in his voice, “It rained the night before last.”

Oh. Right. Heavy rain = surface runoff = well contamination = high bacterial load = waterborne illnesses like diarrhea. And for 6 million per year (that’s about 16,500 a day, or 12 in the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph), diarrhea = death.

One of the greatest victories at site so far, in my estimation, has been getting primary schools to embrace “leaky tin” projects. I may have mentioned these before, but if not, here goes: it’s an old jug with a nail in the bottom. You pull out the nail and use the resulting flow of water to wash your hands. Absurdly simple, right? Well, yeah, that’s the point – it’s an easy way to promote handwashing in a place many miles from the nearest piped water. Children who wash their hands are less likely to develop diarrhea and die. Families where handwashing before meals is encouraged are less likely to face cholera, a bacterial illness that most Americans of my generation know only from playing the “Oregon Trail” computer game but in fact routinely ravages villages in the developing world. The last cholera outbreak in my area, according to community health records? Oh, it was April or May … 2010.

Hang a jug. Save a life.

Of course, handwashing isn’t the be-all end-all solution to the problems of diarrhea and dysentery. Water quality itself must also be addressed. I’m working with the organization AMREF to improve/protect vulnerable wells, as well as to set up community councils to oversee the (sustainable) maintenance of these vital water points. But these projects aren’t instantaneous: it takes weeks to locate the “right” well, weeks to discuss water issues with the community, weeks to find key community leaders willing to be part of the council, and all this before the improvement construction projects can lay the first cinderblock. These are necessary and normal steps to ensuring that any project “sticks,” but it adds up to MONTHS of time wherein people are relying completely on questionable or unsafe water. Disease continues to spread in fits and bursts, and the rainy season looms close on the horizon.

Educating people about water issues and promoting water point maintenance is a process, not a goal. There is ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE that I will leave in two years saying “TA DA! FIXED! AWESOME! Now to solve climate change with my BARE HANDS back in America.” So faced with these kinds of hardships, what’s an American 20-something to do?

Stay tuned for part 3.

”We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any other infectious disease that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water.”

— Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan


When’s the last time you had to think about where you water came from? If it was safe? If it will be there the next time you need it? Where you’re going to get it if it isn’t?

For a great many of the people reading this, these are things that enter your mind only rarely, if ever. But that isn’t the case where I am.

Water problems tend to come in two varieties: not enough or too much. When I first arrived here, almost everyone I spoke to said that quantity wasn’t a water problem in this area. The rains were consistent, the wells never run dry or go brackish, farmers rarely face drought failure with their crops. Superficially, this makes sense: seriously, who ever thought about drought on the beach? But while this may have been the case in the past, these times, they are a-changin’.

When I spoke a while back to my friend from the Department of Agro-Forestry, the portrait she painted of the true situation was … rather unpleasant. Even though Kenya produces relatively few of the carbon products that spur global warming forward, the effects of climate change are already being felt. Rainfall has been lower in recent years than in the past. Wells must be dug deeper or abandoned. Trees that once thrived no longer do so. Farmers try to cope with lower yields and shorter growing seasons.

Anecdotally, the impact of a potential drought is notable even to someone who’s lived here less than a whole year, like me. The “short rain” season, a brief two-month window where heavy tropical rains drench the soil on a daily basis and thus signal the beginning of planting time, never came. The “short rains” were supposed to begin in early-to-mid October. By November, the number of times it had rained were in the single digits. In fact, since I arrived at site, it’s rained perhaps a dozen times. Tops. In ten months. Not the blessed showers they were hoping for.

Part of the job of the Peace Corps Volunteer is to provide solutions to environmental challenges and make more efficient the options that are available. Fellow super-PCVs in rain-scarce areas are working to implement drip irrigation and rainwater collection systems. I’ve done over a dozen well visits with a district community health officer to test the quality of what’s there and offer suggestions to the community regarding how to improve the safety and reliability of existing structures. One of my major tasks with my clinic right now is to introduce a series of “microteaching” seminars wherein we take advantage of the fact that people waiting to be seen by a doctor have nothing better to do than to listen to a facilitator discuss a local health topic. I’m writing several seminars to do with water catchment, low-water gardening, and protection from drought-related illness. Collectively, everyone is doing what he or she can.

Still, the threat of severe water shortage lingers; local tap stations (and in-home pipes) run dry with increasingly regularity. Local residents are left to either make do without (cutting out vital hygiene activities like bathing) or pay exorbitant prices to water sellers (government policy decrees that water should never be priced higher than 2 shillings/liter, but this fixed price is rarely heeded). The specter of drought lurks just outside the door, and calls to mind the prospect of an uptick in malnutrition, increased poverty, and child death.

The “long rains,” which are supposed to raise the water table and provide enough precipitation to plant crops, are theoretically due any day now. Indeed, in many other regions of Kenya, they’ve already started; I’ve been enviously watching a steady stream of “OMG TOO WET TO GO OUTSIDE!!!11one” messages pop up on my facebook newsfeed and text message inbox for weeks. But here? Bado. Not yet. And even when they do … they’ll yield problems all their own.

(Part 1 of 3. To be continued.)

There’s a scene in the film The Constant Gardener (can’t recall if it’s also in the book) wherein the protagonist Justin is trying to smuggle a Sudanese child onto a UN airlift plane in the face of a janjaweed raid. “There are thousands of kids out there just like her, we can’t save all of them!” exclaims the pilot with marked exasperation. “Yes,” Justin replies, “But we CAN help THIS one!”

It was this line that played through my head as I stood in the grocery store the other day, staring blankly at a dimly-lit display of soaps and disinfectants. A 500ml bottle of hydrogen peroxide was priced at 200 shillings, or less than $3 USD. The contents of this bottle, when applied fastidiously, could begin healing a child infected with the chigoe flea, or “chiggers,” a seemingly minor parasite that wreaks havoc on primary schoolers in sandy areas. If treated, it’s a brief nuisance. If untreated, it can cause itching, lesions, infection, gangrene, and possible limb loss or even death. I had just seen a child at the school near my house with a starting case of chiggers. However, he was an orphan, so there was no one at home to treat it. He had no money to cross the street and pay to have them treated at the government clinic. Could I spare 200 shillings, just this once? What’s to keep me from placing the bottle in my shop basket, and ensuring the child is healthy enough to take his national exams in December?

It’s a common urge – to do what you can for who you can, heedless of the consequences – among compassionate people who venture to places where extreme need is present. Tour groups (yes, they come through my clinic) are forever dropping off boxes of bandaids and aspirin, or asking how much it would cost to sponsor a school child’s lunch for a week. The intentions are good. But of course, it’s never that simple. On the small scale, you might help someone today, but what are they going to do after your visit/vacation/term of service ends and they’re on their own again? Have you really helped, or just delayed the inevitable? Or have you even made things worse?

What tends to result in high-traffic areas is “donor syndrome,” or the creation of an unsustainable reliance on the dream of outside funding. I’m not going to make this a wordy treatise about donor syndrome – I spent countless hours on the topic as an undergraduate and will save it for an entry when I have, oh, 40 pages or so to spare. However, suffice to say that this is NOT the job of Peace Corps: we are here to empower the community to make their own long-term sustainable solutions. Rather than the “quick fix,” we’re here to jumpstart the “long haul.”

By the end of the day, I had talked to the clinic and made arrangements for the treatment of sever chigger cases in orphans from the primary school under special circumstances. I had also started the ball rolling on developing regular outreach clinics to screen for and treat chiggers at local schools with qualified medical staff. I then returned to the school, spoke to the headmaster about the pupil in question, and passed along some information for him (the headmaster) to pass along to his faculty (thus “training the trainers”) about chigger prevention and detection. I met with the head of the school’s health club, still in its infancy, and arranged to do a seminar about chigger prevention and basic hygiene to them. In turn, each of these 30 specially-selected students will return to their classrooms and present an age-appropriate talk on the topic. Ideally, this will make it back to the parents, then the villages, then the wider community.

Both from a practical standpoint and with regard to Peace Corps procedure, this is the far better option. It empowers the community with information to take ownership of its own health. It doesn’t require anything from the outside to keep it going. Yet it’s also a delayed gratification that takes training and commitment. This is what development work is, at the very core, that separates it from the troubled systems of “global giving.” It’s the difference between immediate action to right a tangible wrong and delayed action in the amorphous hope of invisibly repairing the system that creates the wrong to begin with. It’s the difference between William Easterly’s “Planners” and “Searchers.” It’s the difference between external charity and inner strength. But in every person who witnesses hardship on a daily basis, or works in development, or finds employment in the field of responsible aid application, it takes that extra millisecond of impulse control not to move three muscles a mere eighteen inches to just buy the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

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Yours truly