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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

My last couple of semesters in college, I didn’t have much time to read for pleasure. Certainly not as much as I would have liked. I was far too consumed with compulsively joining clubs, playing Man Behind the Curtain for a crisis counseling hotline, working in a psychology lab, and taking so many credits that my friends’ rage at my advisor for signing off on my INSANE schedule fell only just short of a desire to slash her tires. In Kenya, I’m busy, but I also have free time (WACKY CONCEPT I know). It’s been a joy to rediscover how much I love books here. Since being given a Kindle for graduation (BEST GIFT EVER, BEST INVENTION EVER) I’ve been able to break my dependence on paper books – saving me space, money, and trips to the tourist-heavy bookstores in nearby Malindi. (They do still have a certain charm that tickles my inner bibliophile, but I digress.)

My Kindle, an assortment of care packages, the “Honor Library” at the Peace Corps office, and a bustling network of tome trading among the volunteers has allowed me to finish the following thus far:
* The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs
* Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
* Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card
* Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
* Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
* The Constant Gardener, by John Le Carre
* American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
* Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
* Mercy, by Jodi Picoult
* Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
* What is the What, by Dave Eggers
* Africa United: Passion, Politics, and the First World Cup in Africa, by Steve Bloomfield
* Skipping Towards Gomorrah, by Dan Savage
* The Red Queen, by Phillipa Gregory
* Finger-lickin’ Fifteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel, by Janet Evanovich
* War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
* Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales
* Zoo Stories: Life in the Gardens of the Captives, by Thomas French

I’m also one of those people who tends to read a half-dozen (or more) books simultaneously to give myself choice of selection, so I also have in progress:
* White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly
* Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath, by Andrew Holleran
* No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, by Reza Aslan
* God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
* The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
* Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
* The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peacekeeping 1948-1990, by Javier Perez de Cuellar
* Histories of the Hanged: Kenya’s Dirty War and the End of an Empire, by David Anderson
* The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

You’d think this would be enough to satisfy me, BUT NO. I’m currently trying to wheedle Three Cups of Tea (by Greg Mortenson) out of one friend and just stole A History of God (by Karen Armstrong) from another. To say nothing of the small heap of paperbacks currently languishing next to my bed, waiting for that glad day when they’ll finally be picked like the fat kid for a kickball team.

I’m insatiable.

My question for you, dear blog follower, is this: what are YOU reading? Is it any good? Would you recommend it/should I add it to my Christmas wishlist/should I scour the second-hand book market in Mombasa for it? My entertainment is in your hands.

If on the other hand, YOU’RE looking for a good time (literarily speaking), I suggest you check out my recommended reading list on the “Frequently Asked Questions” portion of this blog. Mostly you’ll find stuff about Africa, but hey, it’s a big topic. Enjoy.

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.

I’m a halfway decent cook and a rather reasonable baker, at least compared to my comrades in college who – despite unflinching brilliance in their coursework – had to read the back of the mac n’ cheese box to successfully feed themselves. Compared to my insufferably genius brother the chef, who graduated top of his culinary class and got a job in a Michelin-Star rated restaurant right off the bat, I have all the epicurean talent of a cracked cinderblock. But still, I can feed myself. More or less.

As I’ve said before, I’m spitting distance from an international hub, so I theoretically have access to all manner of magnificent foreign ingredients in addition to the highly palatable local ones. I literally stood gaping when I walked into the grocer my first day and saw vanilla extract. However, anything imported comes at a premium – one I can’t usually accommodate with my modest living allowance. With the exception of a precious bottle of olive oil (which set me back 600 shillings for 500ml), I make do with eating on the cheap.

The basic ingredients that rotate through my kitchen consist of these: sukuma, potatoes, white rice, ugali, lentils, beans, garlic, pasta, eggs, salt, pepper, curry powder, Blue Band (margarine), SUPA LOAF! bread (think Wonderbread), tea, and more sukuma. Whimsical guest stars that occasionally join the party include bananas, cabbage, pineapple, ramen, peanut butter, skim milk, whole milk, Weetabix, onions, pillau spice mix, oranges, creepy drinkable yogurt, carrots, and matoke (starchy cooking banana – think plantains). Kept on the top shelf where I’ll only bust them out on special occasions (guests and/or nervous breakdown) are Nutella, EasyMac, PowerBars, one single Chocobisq, and a half-dozen packets of Starbucks: Via.

I have never grated my own coconut nor fried a whole fish. Clearly, I’m not truly yet a “Coastie.”

If I were a kitchen mastermind (or just a better volunteer) I’d spend more time trying to think of new and exciting ways to combine these ingredients. However, anything that takes more than one pot is generally too great a hassle unless it’s Sunday and I have time to wash a million dishes. So usually it’s a boiled egg or piece of fruit for breakfast, then some sort of vegetable/legume or starch for dinner – but not always one of each. I don’t often make lunch because the kind folks at the dispensary stand over me tsking in displeasure until I’ve taken at least two cups of sugary milk-tea, three slices of bread, and most of a plate of fried potato slices during our 10 AM chai break. (The consensus – of which I’ve made no concerted effort to dissuade them – is that I’m not great wife material. The remedy for this, at least partially, is to keep me nice and plump so I’ll be more appealing. Erm, ok. If you say so.)

Meat is available, but problematic. One, it tends to be expensive: 200+ ksh per quarter-kilo direct from the butcher, 400+ ksh from the grocer. Two, it should be refrigerated if you’re not cooking it within a day (or two, or three, if you’re my host mother) of buying it. Three, I have no good knives. You don’t realize how much you take utensils for granted until you’re standing in your kitchen trying to decide if the carrots would best by peeled by use of your fixed-blade military-replica tactical knife, your folding pocket/hunting knife, your Leatherman multi-tool, or your machete.

Still, goat + sukuma + ugali = GOOD. EATS.

Everything must be accomplished in cheap, thin, aluminum pots called souffariyas and with the aid of an enormous wooden spoon called a mwiko. The pots are so cheap (HOW! CHEAP! ARE THEY!) that I once bent the rim of one with my hands by accident. I routinely warp the lids into wonky shapes through the hard work of washing them with a sponge. This probably explains partially why I can’t get good/even heating in anything, and also prevents me from cooking things like fried eggs. Tres lame.

Cooking is done over a teensy kerosene stove, although I hope to upgrade to a proper gas burner someday. Kerosene is a serious pain. It smells, it produces smoke/soot, it requires that I use tweezers to thread eight stubborn wicks beneath the burner, it doesn’t produce enough heat to cook anything with reasonable speed, it’s costly, it’s inefficient, and I always have puddles of cooking fuel on my kitchen floor because I am an IRREDEEMABLE CLUTZ. Said fuel also it takes up a jerry can I might otherwise be using for water. Have I whined enough yet? Have I made my point? Good.

The stove and I have a history. Maybe I’ll tell you about the time I tried to fry potatoes by … well. We’ll save that one for another day, shall we?

I was reading a book during lunch (as I often do) so I didn’t notice the fly land in my teacup. Nor did I see its last desperate struggle to free itself before succumbing to a sweet, milky demise. I did manage to notice it as I was lifting the cup to my lips, but before I had drunk of it, which I’ll count as a blessing. I skimmed the insect off the top with a spoon, closely inspected the surface for a missed wing or something equally unpleasant, and hesitantly took a sip. It tasted fine. I drained the cup.

I am adjacent to bustling little town, so I have a wide variety of dining options when I choose not to cook (cooking in Kenya is another entry entirely.) On one end of the spectrum, you can buy fried potatoes (not French fries, but like … soft potato hunks dipped in egg and fried) or small, spit-roasted fish from women on the side of the road for a few shillings. It’s not going to win any hygiene commendations, but I’ve never had a bad experience (knock on wood) and both items are shockingly delicious. Good option if you’re of a strong constitution and/or short on cash.

Next up in price, you have little open-air “Swahili cafes,” which all serve about the same things for about the same prices. These include such Kenyan standards as sekuma wiki (kale), maharagwe (beans), chapati (fried flatbread), mchicha (bitter local greens), samosas (little fried dough pouches of meat and onions), and ugali (maize flour formed into a solid mass). Often, the selection is complemented by local specialties, such as samaki (grilled whole fish) or pillau (rice prepared with spices and a sprinkling of meat – my favorite). Most of these can be altered by the addition of fresh coconut while cooking, which gives a milky appearance to the juices and a taste that’s vaguely reminiscent of sunblock. I’m kind of indifferent to the coconut thing, honestly, but it’s very popular. Some of these establishments have menus, but those are best employed in waving the flies off your table: they don’t cook every item every day, so your first statement when walking in, even before “Where can I sit,” is “What do you have?” Or, in the Kiswahili, ”Una vyakula gani leo mchana?” (You have foods which today afternoon?)

PCV/visitor sidenote: try the sekuma na wali at the Station View. Even better than the stuff in Loitokitok.

General sidenote: It’s called Station View because it’s across the street from the police station. Bonus points for skipping the creative bullshit, but is it really a view if there’s nothing exciting to look at?

Most of these cafes have a selection of tempting warm Fanta flavors to offer you, and those that don’t keep them on hand are generally happy to send a random small child off the street scurrying to a nearby duka (shack/store) to fetch some. If you feel like being a bit of a devil and enjoying a cold Tusker beer with your meal … you’re S.O.L. B.Y.O. or go to a bar.

This is usually where my dining-out habits hit their limit, since I mostly cook for myself and can’t afford to eat out at fancy places often. From here, however, there are indeed more options. A trip to the touristy Italian part of town will yield all sorts of little bistros serving espresso, crepes, and Dantean delicacies for a price that may be reasonable by European standards but makes me shriek and clutch my wallet (150 shillings for a cup of coffee? Really?) There’s also a pizza place somewhere in that area, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s good to know that if I’m ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown without something involving cheese, I can make that work.

In terms of upper-class dining, the sky is the limit. Or … so I’m told. I’m only a few kilometers from some major tourist resorts that are rumored to have a mind-boggling variety of fine ethnic dining options. Italian (duh), French, Indian, Greek, Ethiopian. I haven’t found a Chinese place, sadly, so my craving for lo mein may remain unsatiated for the next 23 months. This is also where most of the higher quality fish is sold, to feed the holidaying masses in their pricey hotels. It’s great for local fisherman, but does little to put meat – a pricey addition to meals most anywhere in Kenya – in the hands of people who could benefit from the heart-healthy protein choice.

If the number of choices is overwhelming to you and you find yourself going “Dammit, I just want a banana,” then you can be accommodated. Fruit is available year-round in this tropical little slice of paradise, but don’t expect to pay village prices. A medium-sized banana starts at 5 shillings a pop, and a medium-sized pineapple will set you back 40 shillings or more. If you’re craving mandafu, or unripe coconut, you’re in luck: a dude on a bicycle rides around selling them 7 days a week, and would happily machete the top off of one for you to enjoy on the spot. Mmmm … salty, fruity, vitamin C-infused fat-water.

(Stay tuned later this week for how I feed myself when I make the fiscally reasonable choice to eat in.)

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.

When I started this blog, I had visions of it being a factual, humorous window into the world of a post-BA Peace Corps volunteer, a way for my friends and family to stay availed of my whereabouts/activities, and to some small degree a place where I can jab at media portrayals of SSA by counterbalancing myths and stereotypes with realities and resources. I had – have? – no intention of making it into A Diary About My Feelings, indistinguishable from the thousands of emo kids on their DeadJournals talking about how despite all their rage they are still just a rat in a cage.

Well … that didn’t last long, did it? BECAUSE THIS IS AN ENTRY EXCLUSIVELY ABOUT FEELINGS. RUN! HIDE! SAVE YOURSELVES!!

I’ve started getting that typical question “Wow! You leave so soon! How are you feeling??” and I can’t quite answer honestly. This isn’t for lack of desire to do so, but because there is no answer that’s true now and will also be true in 10 seconds. Pick an emotion – ANY emotion – and you can be fairly certain I’ve felt that way in the last 72 hours at some point. And its polar opposite. And a half-dozen related feelings that don’t make any sense. Hell, I’m not even making sense *now*.

Today is the first real WEUjlqmwr439U3NW funk sort of day. I’m excited, I’m looking forward to adventures, I CANNOT WAIT to get the stress of prep behind me and meet all the FAAAAAAAABULOUS new people who have been poking their heads into my blog and facebook (and I in theirs.) Until this point, that soul-vibrating excitement, combined with the fact that I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest and ergo unable to sit down and think about what this all really means, has shielded me from the interpersonal melodrama of departure. However, as I cram four years of cards and letters and textbooks and memories into neat little cardboard boxes, I’m finally beginning to process the whole This Is The End For At Least Two Years Or Maybe Forever In Some Cases aspect of everything. I’m not particularly good with goodbyes. Bah.

The weather yesterday was breathtaking, so two very dear friends and I went for a picnic in a local nature reserve. Although it was never called “The Goodbye Picnic,” as we gnoshed our sandwiches and stared out at the Hudson River, there was a palpable feeling that this was the epilogue to something big. I mentioned my emerging apprehension, to which one friend responded with a quick story: when she was little, her mom used to take her and her siblings to the zoo. Rather than stay the whoooole day until they were all tired and cranky and sunburned and crying and being insufferable brats, they’d always leave when they were still having fun. The best time to go isn’t when you have 100% had your fill and are sick to death of a place, but rather when you’re still fresh enough that you’re sad to leave.

The mental characterization of my wild, whacky college as a zoo is actually pretty close to the mark, but even in abstraction, I like the metaphor. It’s somewhat comforting to think that the reason I’m kind of blaaah today is because I’ve experienced so much that’s so meaningful, it’s worth being sad to leave it behind.

Anyway, this entry is far too long, and I think the muffins I’m baking for my BFFs who are helping me pack might be burning. Better sign off.

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.

We have ten days after we accept our assignments wherein we must submit an updated resume (tailored to our assignment and country) as well as a five-part series of miniature essays known as the “Volunteer Aspiration Statement.” The goal is to inform our hosts as to our ambitions, guide our own efforts, and make those with whom we will be working aware of any shortcomings we’d like to address personally during our 12-week training period. Updating my resume took all of ten minutes – I’ve kept it in fairly good order since I first started it in high school. The aspiration statement was decidedly trickier. My mind began whirring the moment I read the instructional sheet, and countless times I wrote and re-wrote the whole of it in my head. Usually, though, I would do this as I was falling asleep, and by the time I awoke the next morning, it had been overwritten by dreams.

With the deadline looming and Freddie Mercury blaring in my earbuds, I finally sat down once and for all to write it Monday afternoon in my favorite local coffee shop. Parked on the couch with a large skinny iced mocha, I sat with my computer on my lap, waiting for the perfect words to spring from my fingertips like a cheetah from a trampoline. This is not, however, how the creative process actually works. There’s agency involved. And though. OH THE HORROR. The blink-blink of the cursor mocked me.

“My goals are thus,” I began, then quickly deleted it. I can’t use “thus,” that sounds too pretentious. “As I prepare to enter the Peace Corps, I have the following goals and aspirations:” didn’t feel right, either. Too … listy. Clearly, this was more challenging than I’d initially thought.

I won’t bore you to death (“TOO LATE!” I hear you shout) with the whole process, but after much wrestling, much espresso, and more than a little uncomfortable introspection, I produced what you will find below. It’s not my finest work, but it is honest, and for that I feel like I am owed some credit. Enjoy.

*****

A: Professional Attributes & Personal Aspirations

Having worked abroad and traveled somewhat widely, I realize that there are limitations to what I, an interloper, can achieve during a relatively brief two-year tenure in a new culture. This optimism tempered with recognizable realism is both an attribute of note as well as salient factor in my personal aspirations. Broad challenges such as HIV/AIDS, water sanitation, or the widespread disenfranchisement of the local youth are complex, long-term, systemic problems that likely require equally complex and long-term solutions. It is my hope to learn as much as I teach, grow as much as I inspire. I strongly believe in my own power to be of service. My goal is not to single-handedly effect change (or “save the world,” as the naïve idealist’s cliché goes), but to lend my knowledge, training, and enthusiasm to projects in such a way as to empower individuals who will continue long after my own departure to live in the communities with which I work. I want to raise awareness and provoke discussion about such issues as HIV/AIDS and its related gender issues in the communities I serve, while leaving these discussions open-ended so as to adapt as the community changes. I want to embolden people with the facts about issues like water sanitation and personal hygiene, in the hope that I may motivate them to consider long-term, culturally competent solutions specific to their own situations that can morph and grow with the needs of the community.

I also seek to engage in genuine cultural exchange – not in the sense of supplanting American values, codes, or traditions in place of Kenyan ones (or vice-versa) but rather to positively educate both Kenyan and American communities about the benefits and intrinsic challenges to both cultures. Through this, I hope, positive changes can be sought where needed, and each culture can experience a deeper understanding of the other. From understanding comes respect, which is the key to success in interactions between cultures.

These are among the professional attributes I consider most relevant to my assignment: knowledge, enthusiasm, and appropriate realism. I will also be drawing on skills I have developed through prior volunteer and work experiences of many kinds, including patience, intuition, and a keen respect for cultural awareness honed in prior experiences abroad. My work will be aided by my strong communication skills that I sought to develop both in academia and governmental experience. I also possess the ability to assert opinions and listen attentively while guiding respectful dialogue. Such experiences as those in crisis counseling and research have enhanced my ability to mediate conflict and work effectively in situations of disagreement. I have a deep sense of empathy and am aided by both intuition and general “people skills.” I work well under pressure, maintaining composure during situations of professional or emotional adversity. I anticipate that these professional and personal attributes will serve both my hosts and me well in my service with the Peace Corps.

B: Strategies for Working Effectively with Host Country Partners

My strategies for working effectively with my host country partners in Kenya draw upon my strengths and attributes listed above, including my strong communication skills and respect for cultural interaction. More specifically, it is among my goals to become as proficient in Kiswahili as possible, as well as obtaining at very least a minimal degree of competence in relevant local language(s). In my travels in and studies of East Africa, I have also become aware of the particular emphasis on regionalism in Kenya, and will make it my mission to understand the particular subtleties of custom and culture in the area to which I am assigned. I will be a proactive listener and attend carefully to the expressed needs of the community as indicated both by my colleagues in education as well as whatever direct feedback I can gain from the groups with which I’m working (youth groups, women’s groups, seminar attendees, etc). My scientific research background in psychology has prepared me to systematically assess what works and what does not; this is another skill I will be using to make the relationship between me and my host country partners as mutually beneficial as possible.

C: Strategies for Adapting to a New Culture

Although I was raised in a part of the United States with a reputation for dubiousness, my individual background is one of tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional understanding. To adapt to a new culture is not to value-rank its various aspects so that one may pick and choose the most favored bits, but rather to accept it largely for what it is and treat it with the respect it is owed. This carefully nonjudgmental outlook and respect for difference is an attitude I have no doubt will be helpful in my service for the Peace Corps.

My personal attributes I have discussed above will no doubt serve me well in seeking to adapt to both Kenyan culture as well as the peculiar cultural eccentricities of whichever region where I will find myself stationed: communication skills, composure under pressure, patience, intuition, empathy, and the rest. I am also a quick learner and openly embrace the challenge of new, unfamiliar experiences.

Also of great importance is my expansively-developed sense of humor. Although I’m quite capable of affording situations the gravity that they are due, I nonetheless have a ready skill for finding the humor in difficult or trying situations. I am unafraid to laugh at my own mistakes (of which I am sure there will be no shortage, as there always are whenever such a drastic cultural and linguistic change is undertaken.) The ability to “shake it off” with grace and good humor is an underrated but invaluable mechanism for coping with difficulty. It goes without saying that cultural appropriateness and boundaries must be respected when making light of something, but it is a near-universal truth that laughter has the power to draw people together in a way that can transcend unfamiliarity and discomfort.

D: Skills and Knowledge To Acquire During Pre-Service Training

Part of my preparation process will be continuing to learn about the language and culture of the nation and region in which I will be serving, so as to feel reasonably prepared when I arrive to take full advantage of my training. There are, however, some specific skills I will be hoping to acquire or hone during the pre-service training period. First and foremost, I want to continue improving my language skills – I see in the assignment description that an “intermediate low” level of Kiswahili is expected by the end of training, but I would be more than willing to learn beyond that level of proficiency, as I hope to achieve comfortable fluency by the end of my service. Furthermore, I look forward to exploring and gaining some competence in any other local languages that could be useful in helping me communicate with the people I will be working with and serving.

Similarly, I hope training will be able to help me achieve a greater degree of cultural competency. I arrive with a particular skill set and base of knowledge tailored towards particular audiences; although I have indeed worked with HIV/AIDS and community health projects in East Africa (though in Tanzania, not Kenya) I must nonetheless confess that much of my experience has been with an English-speaking American population. Any assistance or guidance in understanding the particular mien in which I am working, or ways in which I can adapt the knowledge I already have to better suit the needs of the communities I am serving, would be deeply appreciated. Finally, a review of the standard curriculum for what I am intended to teach – HIV/AIDS prevention, water sanitation, etc – would be helpful in allowing me to identify where I may have gaps in my own knowledge (or conversely, there may be room for improvement in existing core curricula.)

E: How the Peace Corps Will Influence Personal & Professional Aspirations After the Completion of Service

People are often mystified when I explain that, following a term of service in the US Peace Corps, I then intend to settle into a traditional PhD track to clinical psychology and eventual therapy/research practice. I do not, however, see them as particularly disparate. Both require working closely with people who have the power to pull you out of your pre-determined “comfort zone.” Both require patience, understanding, and ingenuity. Both speak to the famous statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” Indeed, serving in the Peace Corps will do much to enhance my suitability for my intended future career.

With regards to the actual, marketable skills I will acquire in the Peace Corps – cultural awareness of a fascinating world region, proficiency in Kiswahili (possibly among others), a top-notch working knowledge of Kenyan public hygiene projects – these specific skills could be of use in the world of psychology. My area of research thus far has been individuals who have suffered some form of life trauma; HIV/AIDS infection can fit this category in some instances, as can other populations I’m likely to come into contact with at some point during my tenure in the Peace Corps (victims of sexual violence, individuals affected by the 2007-8 political violence, etc). And certainly, if part of the purpose of the Peace Corps is to educate Americans about other parts of the world, I have no doubt whatsoever that I will also be a vehicle for that. I will most definitely be educating everyone around me in an informal way and would happily share my experiences in a more structured format (seminars, lectures, educational panels about African issues, etc) if the opportunity were to arise. I would be honored to share whatever insight I am able to gain with a wider audience.

However, perhaps more significant to my future will be the application of the life skills I hone while abroad. Patience, empathy, compassion, flexibility, humor, wonder, awe, calm in the face of overwhelming challenges – these are things I have now that I will no doubt have in even greater abundance upon return. The Peace Corps may not change my ultimate life goals, but it will undoubtedly influence the skills I yield to pursue them.

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DISCLAIMER

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