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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.

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I originally wrote this as one monstrously long entry, but have decided to post it in two pieces to save you considerable eye strain. Please enjoy, and stayed tuned for Part 2 tomorrow. –M

My primary workplace sits just over the invisible, unofficial borderline that separates the “local” and “tourist” regions of my district. If you walk 20 minutes in one direction, you will find resorts of mind-boggling opulence. Guests are happy to pay hundreds of dollars USD each night for sublime Indian Ocean views and think little of laying down more for a perfectly chilled cocktail than the average laborer makes in a week. If you walk 20 minutes in the other direction, you will find villages where one household in ten has a bed-covering net to prevent malaria, where wells are unprotected from contamination and routinely test positive for fecal bacteria. You will find homes where 2 of the family’s 4 children have died from preventable disease before the age of five years. You will see women who are trying their damndest to educate a brood of children with the proceeds from selling bananas at a roadside kiosk. We have a dedicated clinic staff, as well as more than a dozen layman volunteers who serve to encourage their neighbors and friends to seek out things like vaccinations and treatments for tuberculosis. Nonetheless, the work is slow, and often feels darkly Sisyphean.

One of the oddest features of the intersection between local and tourist is the number of people who come rolling through my clinic as a stop on their vacations. Yes, my clinic. They roar into the main yard in white SUVs, dropping off plastic shopping bags of adhesive band-aids and nearly-expired drugs with labels in foreign languages (some of which are used, and some of which are accepted graciously before being dumped into a drawer somewhere never to be seen again.) They openly point at too-thin babies (aside from being rude for obvious reasons, pointing at a person has a very stark cultural distastefulness, and can be associated with witchcraft.) They take pictures of seriously ill patients curled up on the wooden benches in the waiting area, then shove their $300 camera phones back into the pockets of their skin-tight booty-shorts. They brush past well-spoken, uniformed medical professionals to gawk at the pit latrine toilets and reaffirm their expected narrative of the “African” experience.

I know they mean well. I do. It is through meetings like these that our clinic can sometimes find a donor willing to fund new microscopes or improvements to the birthing room. Some visitors are patient, thoughtful, and respectful. And there are DEFINITELY instances wherein infusions of foreign money or goods can serve to boost a long-term, sustainable goal. But even if I set aside the “donor syndrome” issue, it rarely strikes me as anything other than self-important (“Look at all the good we’ve done!”) or blatantly disrespectful (photographing sick people? SERIOUSLY?) If I may borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie, it’s poverty porn. For a few months, during the low-season, we receive a total respite from this experience. But then high season returns, and every week or two, another group shows up.

High season: the period of the year during which Europeans and (to a lesser extent) Americans abandon their chill, soggy homelands for the warm, welcoming embrace of the Kenyan coast. They begin to trickle in around July, rush forth in torrents by late October, and then depart abruptly the first week April, as though they all simultaneously remember they left the gas on and forgot to put the cat out. For the duration of our rainy season it’s a veritable ghost town outside the local areas. Peaceful, if not always convenient (example: the local grocer stops stocking peanut butter altogether until it becomes a reliably-selling item again. Boo.)

A number of my Kenyan friends and neighbors look forward to high season like it’s one giant, seven-month Christmas holiday. I can scarcely overstate the economic impact it has on my region: hundreds upon hundreds of jobs are created, from hotel staff and house help to tour guides and turtle watchers. Service, entertainment, and environment-related industries boom. Much of it pays rather well. People have money in their pockets, so school fees get paid and long-delayed doctors’ appointments are attended. Plus, more attention is given to infrastructure issues like sewage and electricity – a good sign that the deluge is about to begin is when you see teams of temporary government employees scoping out and setting fire to the unlicensed trash pits that spring up in every neighborhood.

It also coincides with the directional shift of seasonal winds, clearing the beaches of seaweed and improving conditions for the small-scale fishing that has long been an economic and nutritional staple in this area. The price of fish drops, allowing more families to access this lean, healthy source of protein in gluttonous quantities. Meanwhile, fisherman still make more money, because they’re moving more product to more people (tourists have an insatiable appetite for seafood – and it’s hard to blame them; it’s difficult to find fresher, tastier fish in the world. In my humble opinion.) Furthermore, most of it is hand-harvested by small crews in wooden boats, the way it’s been done since time immemorial, so one doesn’t even have to wrestle overmuch with the environmentalist concerns of massive trawlers spouting pollution and devastating area fish populations. Everyone is happy (except, possibly, the fish.)

Of course, even setting aside the renewed enthusiasm for poverty porn, not every side-effect of tourism is positive. Some of the jobs created are not entirely reputable. Drug use is shockingly common both among locals and foreigners, particularly among young men. The number of people involved in the production, movement, and monetization of heroin and marijuana skyrockets.

Similarly, teachers notice an uptick in the number of female students quietly dropping out of school, or disappearing from their homesteads. If you ask them, they’ll tell you they have a job as a waitress, or a cook’s help, or that a cousin knows a tourist family who needed a house girl. But in truth, many of these girls are looking to help their families make ends meet by joining the ranks of the world’s oldest profession. While many of the adult women who support their families this way have demonstrated in surveys an above-average knowledge of HIV and resulting trends towards consistent condom use, this often doesn’t translate to youth. They may lack a solid educational foundation about their personal risk for infection, or feel disempowered to demand protection from clients. Also: they’re often paid extra to go without.

Notice I didn’t say “young women.” I said “girls.” And I mean “girls,” some as young as eleven or twelve. Although some efforts have been made to combat it, this area of the Coast remains an international hot spot for child prostitution and human trafficking.

Crime also goes up slightly, as an influx of wealth can yield an influx of muggings, but this hasn’t really been a problem in my particular area. (On a personal level, it also doesn’t hurt that I’m rarely out after dark, and most of the people in my neighborhood know me to some degree.) Still, tourists quickly discover that if they leave their beach bag unattended while they nip back to the bar to refresh their cocktail, it probably won’t be waiting for them when they return.

Continued tomorrow with part 2

A severe water shortage in my area left me unable to do laundry for almost a month, so when the communal tap started flowing again yesterday, I sprang into action like a cheetah from a trampoline. In a matter of hours, I had washed almost every item I own. It was just as I was hanging the last dripping blouse on the line when I recalled, “DANGIT. I was supposed to go to the post office today. What will I wear?” My current outfit – pajamas – wouldn’t do. Scanning my dresser, I realized I had two options: running shorts and a college hoodie, or a cotton dress I usually wore only around the house.

The dress is lovely, and one of my favorite things in my wardrobe: lightweight and insanely soft, with a seafoam green plaid pattern and grey buttons from the neckline to the hem. Around the waist is a simple leather cord belt. The only problem? It’s short. As in, it falls to the tops of my knees. On a particularly blustery day, the mischievous wind would whip the bottom so high as to expose an inch or two of smooth thigh. I tend to dress extra-conservatively as a rule to differentiate myself from the tourists, so this ordinarily wouldn’t do at all. But on that day, necessity was the mother of fashion. I slipped it over my head and trotted out the door.

I realized it was going to be an odd experience when I passed a group of seventh and eighth grade boys from a nearby school seated beneath a tree having lunch. Several of my students were among them. “Ciao baybeeee,” they drawled, “you look sooo nice, come and sit with us.” Their voices dripped with scandalous intent.

“MMESEMA NINI?” I demanded sharply. “What did you say?” In that instant, my students suddenly recognized me and leapt to their feet. “GOOD AFTERNOON MADAM,” they said in loud, nervous voices. “HOW ARE YOU THIS FINE DAY?” Standing straight at attention, their hands folded behind their backs like soldiers, they desperately tried to display the respect they’d disregarded only moments earlier.

“Wewe!” I scolded before walking away, thinking to myself how bizarre that had been. Gender issues, I thought to myself, are definitely a health class topic to take up sooner rather than later.

This set the tone for the rest of my brief adventure. From my house to the post office is a ten-minute walk over rough, unpaved roads. In those ten minutes, I had two men stop to talk to me, one to sell me travel insurance “to preserve my holiday and protect my car” (since when do I have a car?), the other to simply ask me for money (“To help orphans,” he said shiftily, avoiding my gaze.) Motorbike taxi operators, most of whom recognize me and have learned in my seven months here that I’m never going to ride with them, pulled over to the shoulder of the road and inquired, “Hey sexy lady, I love you, I give you ride to your hotel? Where are you staying?” One made kissing noises, and another told me he’d seen me dancing in a bar at a resort (which I’ve never done as long as I’ve been in Kenya.) A hotel security officer I see every time I make that particular stroll (and with whom I usually stop to exchange pleasantries) didn’t respond to my greeting or look me in the face. He was too busy visually appraising my pale calves. On the walk back, neighbors who usually greeted me, didn’t. Strangers who ordinarily wouldn’t have given me a second glance afforded me lingering looks and called “Ciao, sexy, how is you?”

To be certain, this is far more than the standard daily quota of minor harassment I’ve come to expect since becoming “known” to my village. Still, on most days, I’d be mildly irritated and nothing more. However, recent news coverage has strongly sensitized me to the issue. From women in Cairo hoping that their revolution helps to end their continual harassment to a Toronto police officer giving a presentation about community safety wherein he told women to avoid assault by “not dressing like sluts”, our world has a lot of stuff that needs fixing.

To dress sexily, or to feel sexy, or to be treated as a sexual being by someone whose advances are welcome, is itself the right of an empowered women. To be a feminist does not mean being a prude. But to be showered with this kind of UNWELCOME attention is unequivocally wrong, and becomes doubly so when you make your lack of interest crystal clear (are you listening, tuktuk-taxi-driver-who-idled-your-tuktuk-alongside-me-for-over-one-hundred-meters-asking-about-my-love-life?) To subject someone to that kind of harassment isn’t charming or flattering, it’s a sign of fundamental disrespect for the other person’s feelings and even their autonomous personhood. This isn’t a “Muslim” issue, or an “African” issue, or a “third world” issue. What Peace Corps volunteers face daily is no different than a woman in Cairo who has her ass grabbed or a woman in Manhattan who gets catcalled. It’s pandemic, it’s deplorable, and it’s too often been ignored or hushed over by societies and governments the world over.

February is the traditional month of “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s awareness-raising effort to stop harassment towards and violence against women worldwide. You may have seen a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues or youtube clips of A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer. I have some philosophical differences both with Ensler and with those shows, but the core message is something we can all get behind: Stop. Enough. Don’t. Never.

First, think.

“My Short Skirt” is the title of a famous poem/monologue about liberation from assault. To read it, please click here.

So! Even though I’m alllll excited about blogging from Kenya, the fact is that my internet situation is … in question. I won’t know how much internet access I’ll have, or what kind, etcetc. One way I can certainly be reached, however, is via old-fashioned snail-mail. During training (that is, until mid-July) I can receive LETTERS at the following address:

Kathleen Megan Humphreys, Peace Corps Trainee

P.O. Box 698-00621

Village Market

Nairobi, Kenya

This also appears on the “HOW TO CONTACT ME” page, in case you lose track of this post. Look in the lefthand sidebar *points*.

If you want to send me a care package, thereby ensuring my eternal and undying gratitude/karmic debt/understanding that I will owe you my firstborn child, you can use this address, but there are some additional considerations.

Instructions for sending me a package are available on the “HOW TO CONTACT ME” link in the sidebar. If you want the package to actually make it, you probably ought to follow them.

Finally, if you want ME to send YOU a letter or postcard from Kenya, e-mail me your snail mail address to mhumphreys10[at]gmail[dot]com. I can’t promise how often I will write, but I will certainly try! I promise I’ll send you something eventually 😀

When I was in high school, we had school-wide assemblies every week, twice a week. Lame. I KNOW. The first one of the year was inevitably and without fail “the bookbag talk.” It was a cliché. It was reviled. It was naptime. But, as I’m beginning to ponder my new adventure, it’s … newly meaningful?

Our principal, Dr. Elizabeth Griffith, would place a series of variously-sized schoolbags by the podium. She’d say that now was our chance to unpack our fears, our prejudices, our stereotyping, our preconceived notions, and leave them at the gates. This would open up room in our baggage for new friends and new experiences and new beliefs and all the knowledge we could cram in. I don’t remember all the details, but it was a bit like the speech George Clooney gives in “Up In The Air,” if in reverse.

I am on the cusp of an enormous number of BIG GIANT changes in my life; I finished my thesis, I’m moving out of the country, I’m gaining new friends, I may lose some of the old (you always tell everyone you’ll stay in touch, but how often do you really?), I’m beginning to think about the rough and rocky path to my careeeer? And yes, I say it like that in conversation: extending the second syllable and pitching up the tone at the end as though I’m asking a question. Because I am, aren’t I? In some way.

I’m also packing up my life. Literally, and figuratively. My two best friends have already promised to help me pack my belongings (we’re ordering pizza, drinking wine, maybe making a slumber party of it – IT WILL BE EPIC) so that doesn’t worry me too terribly much. It’s only been today that I’ve begun to think about the “things” I’ll take with me and the “things” I’ll leave. “More than anything else,” a professor told me recently, “graduation is an opportunity to take with you all the good things you’ve gained and leave the bad.” I have no doubt the same can be said for moving to a new continent 8 timezones away. And so, in this spirit, I begin to take stock of my mental rucksack.

Leave: Vexation at the apathy of my generation.
Take: Knowledge that, hell, I’m certainly not the only person out there trying to change things. I know some awesome, competent, activist types. It only takes a few sparks to start a fire.

Leave: The epic frustration that comes with facing a problem so enormous as HIV/AIDS in a place so vast as Africa, compounded with the intimate knowledge of the failings of humanitarian intervention in general.
Take: Learning from others’ mistakes – if I can identify where humanitarianism fails, both as an individual and as part of a larger system, perhaps I can steer away from those courses. Or at least, do no harm.

Leave: Overthinking.
Take: Listening for understanding.

Leave: Worry that I won’t be able to maintain the friendships I’ve formed when I’m so far from twitter, facebook, e-mail, cell phones, text messages, and of course, immediate proximity.
Take: The love and memories I KNOW I’ve gained, which are mine to keep forever, regardless of what happens next.

Leave: Reliance on the familiar
Take: Openness to the unknown in the form of embracing the good experiences and accepting/processing the bad.

Leave: Naïve idealism
Take: Cautious optimism?

Leave: A-effing-dW, anthropological theorist, enormously respected scholar, primary resource for the giant term paper I’m currently finishing, and insufferable Africana know-it-all.
Take: My friend Nora; telling me that the circle of life does, in fact, involve me turning into AdW. Bless her.

Leave: Cynicism, doubt, ill-ease with systems and people and situations relating to East Africa, or to the media, or to the application process, or to the broader political world.
Take: The following little story – an anthropologist once told me about a time he had been driving on a stretch of highway running north out of Nairobi that’s INFAMOUS for police officers shaking down tourists, asking for kitu kidogo (“a little thing” – i.e. bribes to make imaginary traffic violations go away). It had been a bad day, or a hard trip, and he was sick of dealing with it; when he was pulled over and immediately thought, “God, this just takes the cake …”

When he presented his paperwork, though, the officer simply looked at him mildly and said “Congratulations, you’re the first car to have everything in order. You can go.” And like that, the straw that would have broken the camel’s back vanished entirely. And he was fine again.

“This is the thing about East Africa,” he told us solemnly, “is that you must be open to grace. East Africa is FULL of these moments … you spend a lot of time wanting to roll your eyes and going ‘Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse,’ or ‘OH GOD, HERE WE GO AGAIN,’ and then everything turns out in a way that’s unexpected and inspiring. If I can give you a message, let it be this: allow yourself to be open to and experience grace.”

And so I will.

I’ll even save room for it in my luggage.

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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