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In the hub of East Africa, Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, today was a mild spring offering of the highest quality. The temperature was perfect: the ideal counterbalance between warm sun and refreshingly cool breeze. The sky was divided evenly between a pleasant, unassuming blue and docile white clouds. Fallen jacaranda leaves carpeted the sidewalks like confetti after a New Year’s party. Pedestrians played a high-stakes real-life version of Frogger, weaving in and out of traffic jams populated with rattletrap matatus and blindingly-white UN vehicles. Outside the Westgate shopping center – a glitzy establishment that far outclasses many American malls, wherein a pair of shoes can set you back more than an international flight ticket – cheerful hawkers offer tapestries, fresh flowers, and boxes of kittens to all passers-by.

On a morning such as this, it’s easy to forget you’re in one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Nairobi has unsettlingly high rates of armed robbery, carjacking, and property crime, although a sizable portion of that happens in and around the poorer neighborhood and not in the professional downtown areas. Still, the United Nations classifies it as one of the “least secure cities in the world.” Among expats and backpackers, it’s earned the nickname “Nairobbery,” a moniker delivered with varying degrees of fondness and/or revulsion. PC:HQ cautiously restricts non-essential travel in or through Nairobi, and it has earned a vile reputation among many of the volunteers. Bringing it up in conversation can elicit visible flinches, and confession of a liking for the city will get you many a suspicious stare.

It’s certainly not a city wherein your safety or security is to be taken for granted. Indeed, to navigate it with any degree of safety requires attention to your surroundings and a healthy awareness for what is and isn’t a good situation. You definitely don’t want to be caught alone at night. However, such precautions are useful in any major metropolitan area, and I’ll admit that I’ve developed a liking for the city. Its importance to the rest of East Africa can hardly be overstated: it is the political, economic, cultural, and artistic heart of the region. Restaurants and hotels are found to be of a distinctly international caliber. It is the staging zone for innumerable NGOs, the base of operations for most major relief efforts in Kenya and beyond, the home to countless embassies, and boasts civil society establishments that are arguably unrivaled anywhere else on the continent. Basically, with the possible exclusion of a few places in South Africa, it is the New York City of SSA. For all its challenges, it has much to offer.

However, like many cities of its type, Nairobi is a city of contrasts. Its many draws must be weighed against the equally numerous drawbacks of a major urban center in the developing world. As previously mentioned, there’s the crime. This takes on particular salience in light of a PCV who was mugged, beaten unconscious with a rock, and had to get facial reconstructive surgery some 18 months ago. There’s also the general drama of Kenyan politics, which is not necessary a topic appropriate for this blog, but read up on it. And, of course, there’s the poverty.

It’s a poverty of scope and scale largely unfamiliar to people who’ve never traveled outside the United States. Even in the shadows of glitzy boutique malls and museums, multigenerational families sleep on makeshift mattress of stacked cardboard. Its most famous slum is Kibera, which houses hundreds of thousands of residents and has long been billed as the largest in East Africa and one of the largest in the World (behind those in South Africa and India.) However, Kibera is certainly not the only slum – half of Nairobi’s residents live in slums, which cover 5-10% of the city’s land space – and the challenges faced by their residents remain a problem to which no one has yet proposed a feasible, acceptable, and readily adoptable solution. (For a video about what a former PCV is doing to help improve life poor Nairobi’s poorest residents, click HERE).

Despite all this, I like Nairobi. I enjoy the time I spend here. I’m a “city mouse” at heart and find it scratches an itch that’s far more complex than just access to hot showers and delivery pizza. I look forward to more of it during my service, even if most of what brings PCVs to or through Nairobi involves needles or cavities. I don’t care. Sign me up.

I was groggy when I pulled on my shoes this morning, so I didn’t take the usual five extra seconds to wham them against the wall a few times and dislodge any nighttime occupants. I was surprised when I found they weren’t actually empty, although not half so surprised as the spider the size of a playing card that ran out. Luckily, rather than bite my foot, it tried to escape. By running up my leg.

I tell you, that will wake you up a hell of a lot faster than a cup of coffee.

The rest of the day went smoothly enough. I have a routine medical appointment this week in Nairobi, then will be staying an extra day to do some electronic window shopping for my clinic’s disease monitoring project. To accomplish this trip in a way that is both convenient and in accordance with Peace Corps travel policy, I’m spending the night in Mombasa and catching a morning bus out of there. It adds a little more time and expense than, say, the pre-dawn-departure-arrive-after-dark –slightly-sketchy Malindi → Nairobi Express, but it’s worth it. Besides, Mombasa’s *fabulous.*

On previous trips, I’ve almost always been here as part of a larger group (or with at least one other person.) This is fun, too, but traveling alone is something I have some familiarity and comfort with. You really test your knowledge of the place: how to get around, where to eat, what’s a good price for watermelon slices. That sort of thing.

I arrived in the relatively early morning and after refreshing myself from the typical death-defying matatu ride with a tall iced coffee, I headed out to explore. Even if you dodge the usual touristy places (I STILL haven’t been to Fort Jesus), Mombasa has a lot to offer! Markets! Fruit stands! Second-hand book sellers! Great samosas! Awesome tiny cafes! After mailing a record thirty-two letters (OW MY TONGUE WILL NEVER RECOVER FROM ALL THOSE STAMPS) I mostly just wandered. Took lunch. Bought a couple of used books to entertain me on the bus ride tomorrow. Practiced getting completely lost and seeing if I could find my way back to my hostel. Talked to a spice seller for a long time about how tourists never bother to learn the simple “please” and “thank you” portion of Swahili. Shocked a textile seller by buying a white-and-black checked scarf (“But … you are an American,” he said in exasperated Swahili. “This is like the head cloth of Mr. Arafat! An American cannot wear this! America! Israel! America!”) Explored endless quantities of singing Good Luck cards. Bought some snacks for the trip (slightly dubious looking … sesame cake things?)

It’s now early evening. I’m tired from all the walking, so I’m lying on the narrow bed at my hostel, plotting for dinner. Trek back out to that great Indian place I always go to when I’m coming through Mombasa, or get a chapatti and soda from the place across the street and save my limited food budget for something decadent and useless in Nairobi?

Decisions, decisions.

Ajabu.

ah-JAH-boo.

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

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

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

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

I know.

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

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

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

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

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

Ni ajabu.

As the gauzy haze of sleep slipped back, the first thought that scuttled across my Larium-addled dream-brain was that I had just born auditory witness to a murder. It was not the sound of my alarm that woke me, but rather a choked cry from the hallway of “I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE!” This was swiftly accompanied by a crunching THWUNK noise, followed by the sound of dragging something large and inert. Like a body. Or, as it turned out to be, an enormous duffel bag.

I wonder why people are saying their goodbyes already, I mused as I came to my senses, it’s only …

6:15.

I was supposed to be meeting my group at 6:30.

ACK!

Despite my alarm’s best efforts to sabotage my departure, I made my bus with plenty of time to spare. I passed the time before we embarked partly by listening to PCV Lorenzo play guitar and partly by chatting in Kiswahili with a newspaper hawker. Imagine my surprise when I opened one of Kenya’s national dailies, The Standard, and found a picture of myself. WHAAAAT? There was an unnervingly large media presence at our swearing-in yesterday; it’s shocking that out of the hundreds upon hundreds of rapid-fire pictures taken throughout, they chose a seriously unflattering photograph of me cracking up laughing because we all messed up the oath. Hrm.

It was even more surprising when a handful of random Kenyans on my bus to Mombasa asked me for my autograph. I laughed it off and used it as an opportunity to talk about the work the Peace Corps does, which wasn’t explained in that particular paper. It was, however, described in greater detail in the front-page coverage the event was granted by another national daily, The Star. Kumbe!

The bus ride itself was quite pleasant. I mostly dozed, waking occasionally to find that my supervisor had once again thoughtfully left some snack or other – roasted nuts, carrot juice, bottled water – in the seat pocket in front of me for consumption at my leisure. A lot of PCVs were anxious about their community counterparts before this week’s workshop, but mine’s pretty awesome. He pointed out landmarks and large mammals when he thought they would interest me, and together we worked a crossword in the Daily Nation to pass the time. As the road unspooled gradually towards our day’s destination, the landscape shifted notably. What began as scrubby acacia trees and distant peaks quietly gave way to arid copses of baobob trees. I’m a huge fan of those trees myself, but seeing them in such great number (and at the near-total exclusion of other large plants) was simultaneously compelling and a bit eerie. As we neared the coast, groves of mango and coconut began to overtake the view entirely. The land flattened to soft sand hills with distant glimpses of the Indian Ocean. In what seemed much less than the actual 8+ hours it took, we were in Mombasa.

Before I had even made it to the sidewalk, I was swarmed with cab drivers, goods hawkers, and street children. I barked at them in Kiswahili and they buggered off – for the most part. One unflappable man asked who I was waiting for, told me my ride wasn’t coming, and insisted he would drive me to my destination in one gasping breath. “COME, I TAKE YOU,” he said emphatically, helping himself to a handful of my jacket sleeve. I countered by throwing an arm around the nearest male PCV and telling him in polite but firm language that I didn’t need his help. My colleague had to repeat the message before the guy got it.

But before I could really start to get frustrated, the evening call to prayer started and came echoing down the street. Instantly, my sensory memory conjured Damascus at dawn and twilight sails in Zanzibar. Something in the base of my neck unclenched. I breathed in the city that will be a satellite second home for the foreseeable future and felt a thrill just to be standing there.

Tomorrow I’ll be meeting ranking officials and community poobahs before finally, finally, finally making it to the place I should (inshallah) call home for the next two years or so. Then I can begin to unpack, to brush up my best Kiswahili, and get down to the business of doing what I was brought here to do. Although what that is, exactly …? We absolutely shall see.

I’m in Nairobi at the moment, lounging in the lap of luxury at a hostel with hot water and electricity. After eight very long and trying weeks in my dusty little border town, I completed Pre-Service Training and swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer.

It’s a weight off my shoulders, let me tell you.

In some ways, I suppose I’m ready for the “real” adventure to begin now – tomorrow I start the trip that will eventually lead me to my work site and my job for the next two years. The adventure of course actually began two months or so ago when I left New York and met the amazing crew of folks who I now may refer to as my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. We boarded the flight at JFK as thirty-six, and thirty-six assembled today at the US Embassy to take our oath of post. To have 100% of your training group make it through the rigorous training is all but unheard of, but we’re special. Truly.

I’ll try to blog more when I get to site, but for now, I’m just going to close this entry with a little poem written by my fellow VOLUNTEER Louis. It summarizes our experience … with the requisite kiloton of inside jokes.

————————-
Addressed to My Fellow Volunteers
by Louis Vayo
(Reposted with permission)

What do I remember most about Loitokitok?
The dust.
The dust from the ground rose like pillars of smoke
from a bonfire
When the motorbikes came flying by,
Kicking dust from their tires and into my eyes
I’m not much of a crier, but I’m not gonna lie,
All that dust made me pretty sad.

And you know what I don’t understand?
When the Kenyan teens greet me with a wave of their hand
they say, “Safi Kabisa” which means completely clean.
How do the Kenyan teens stay completely clean?

But nevertheless
In the beginning those overdressed, fat-cheeked kids were cute,
and with each “how are you?” those kids got cuter..
I don’t remember who I told
but I said to them,
“I don’t think those ‘how are you?’s’ will ever get old.”
..how naïve I was…
but everything was so new to me
there were so many things to learn, and so many things to see.
And I saw things I’ve never seen before
Like a goat in a crate, or a family of four
riding on a motorbike. So that’s what it’s like
on this African tour.

Still, It’s amazing all the things we’ve experienced,
From Kilimanjaro’s beautiful, twin peaks in the distance,
To our Kenyan Mamas’ constant and fervent insistence
to eat more, despite our resistance.

And those Kenyan Mamas, they are simply unreal
So hardworking, yet gentle, and with hands made of steel
That pot has got to be hot mama, can you not feel?
And the Kenyan men, so strong and so proud through & through
Still they are always ready with a smile and a greeting or two
To make us feel welcome.

But despite their warm welcome..
Adjusting to Kenyan life has not been easy.
Some days just had too much Blue Band, and Kenyan T.V.
But those few hot days in my business clothes, that was the worst situation
When the sweat from my head dripped off my nose, I think I’d smell ugali in my perspiration

We faced so many troubles, but all of you know
We battled spiders, bats, bugs and bad smells in the choo
We sat through hours & hours of church, still with hours & hours to go.
And we’d wait, patient, for Kenyan partner groups to show for a meeting though,
they were late, or they forgot, even though you watched them
scribble down the date

But hey, that’s just the Kenyan way,
An unwritten cultural rulebook we need to learn and obey.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Pedestrians yield themselves to cars
Women are seen as whores in bars
When we share, what’s ours
becomes theirs
And the locals charge expensive fares,
But only if your skin is fair.
Because here in Kenya, fair skin means money
It’s just like saying that the sun is sunny
well that’s funny because
that’s a stereotype we are here to correct, (I think) we’ll consider it a “win”
If we can gain our respect independent of the color of our skin…

I’ve also learned that Kenya is the land of many hidden children
We can’t always see them, but we always hear them
So we walk home to the sound of “Mzungu!, Mzungu!” their tiny voices screaming
And after thirty-six “How are you?s” in a row, it’s lost its meaning.
And I’ve been meaning to tell you, I don’t know if I did
But when Michael Smith flips out on that one, unlucky kid, Hell..
Michael Smith, sometimes i’m right there with you.

But seriously, together we can laugh and support each other
Each of you have become like a sister or a brother

And soon we leave Loitokitok, though the cows are still mooing
The roosters still crowing, and the Tusker still brewing
But will all that distraction, I forget what i’m doing here.
Can any of you relate? Do any of you agree?
Then I remember, I’m here to throw starfish back into the sea
One by one, and that’s okay with me
because when it’s done, if it’s one life we saved
One life we changed for two years we gave
..it’d be worth it
Because after two years, we’ll be rearranged,
Though I think all along we will have known
That life that has changed will be our own.

And for two years we’ll face all manner of trouble
From Malaria to funeral orgies, and with mephlaquin: seeing double
But let me tell you the real dangers
When returning to America, we’ll be the strangers
And we’ll think it’s strange: the roads are paved
the toilets flush, the furniture’s plush
they use microwaves

But we have two years to go ’till then
So let’s let the adventure begin.

Not much time, so I can’t do as much updating as I would like, but here goes. At the moment, I’m not in our quiet little training village, but rather in the pseudo-metropolis of Machackos, just south of Nairobi. We’ve been here since Sunday for an HIV/AIDS seminar sort of thing. It’s interesting – since it’s “vital training,” I was worried it was going to be boring scientific stuff (not that the science is boring per se, I love it, but three days of “This is how a retrovirus works!” would drive me into the I-Already-Know-This-Stuff Coma O’ Boredom.) Instead, we’re doing a blend of field-based learning and lectury things. Yesterday morning, we listened to local NGOs teamed up with such power hitters as AMREF, KENEPOTE, and Dorcas International talk about the different kinds of community-based services available to people with HIV/AIDS. Conclusion: a lot. Way more than just VCT stuff. They talked about play therapy groups for orphans and assistance in development of agribusiness, etc.

That second aspect was driven home when we went for some field-based training: we actually went to the homes and farms of people “living positively” who had undertaken (with some seed money support from these NGOs) various income-generating tasks that were manageable to them. Economic autonomy is REALLY important to living well while living with HIV, but due to the ongoing stigma, a lot of people lose their jobs when their serostatus becomes known. This is illegal and discriminatory, of course, but it’s a hard case to fight, and most people can’t afford the lawyers for it anyway. We visited women who were helping themselves or raising their children with poultry projects, dairy-goat farming, and beekeeping. Go ahead … make your own Eddie Izzard joke there. I already used all of mine.

After that came lunch and more presentations: a teacher who is HIV-positive talked about his struggle against stigma, then discussed the HIV+ teachers’ union in Kenya and how everyone strives to support each other in this fight. We also heard from a woman who started her own textile business and a youth group that goes around to high schools and colleges doing skits about HIV. I wish I had video of that last: it was like a high school drama club ON CRACK with an awesome purpose and great acting. They performed a couple of poetry pieces, one narrative piece, and a short play about a girl who is orphaned by HIV and loses her social support network. Educational AND entertaining. I think even I learned something.

I’m pretty sure today will be more of the same, with an emphasis on Home-Based Care (HBC) education and more field work. I’m enjoying myself immensely. Machackos is a fun town – the actual seminar didn’t start until Monday, so when we got here Sunday afternoon, we had a whole afternoon to kill. Some of us went to the grocery store and bought cheese (which we haven’t had since the States) then sat around in someone’s hotel room singing along to guitar for a couple of hours.

We had dinner with a current volunteer, which is always fun and enlightening, then hung out on the roof. I talked to a friend about Dante for a solid 30 minutes and bless his patient heart, he didn’t try to push me over the railing. Peace Corps folks are great. Countdown to site: 3 weeks? Thereabouts? Finally, if anyone hasn’t been paying attention, the US was defeated by Ghana 2-1 the other night. Waka waka wa eh eh.

Oy vey. In case things weren’t WHIZZING BY at warp speed yet, now lots and lots of things all start happening very very fast. Sooner than I can breath, I have a dawn flight to Albany. This will take me to the Staging area, King of Prussia, where I’ll get an all-day safety briefing and spend the night. Next morning, bright and early, to JFK. JFK to Zurich. Zurich to Nairobi. Few days in Nairobi, then on to TrainingTown, and my host family, and official Peace Corps training, and the last 3-month hard push to become an official, sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer.

(Or, translated for short attention spans: AIRPORT.AIRPORT.HOTEL.BUS.AIRPORT.AIRPORT.AIRPORT.HOTEL.BUS.MOTHERLAN D .)

I will try to keep you guys updated during all the transit madness, but the next time you hear from might be from TrainingTown (hereafter, TT). If that turns out to be the case …

Keep it real, kiddos.

Catch you on the flip side.

airplane sunrise

I have a nasty cold, and while at the doctor’s office yesterday (just want to make sure it isn’t Strep or something) the nice nurselady said “Oh yeah, you should get that kicked ASAP, since you leave for Kenya in … uh … how many days again?”

How many days indeed.

You see, when I REALLY leave for Kenya, as in when I board that flight that will set me on the inevitable no-turning-back collision course with the continent, is 14 days from now: May 25. The day before, however, I will be flying from Albany to KingofPrussia for a day-long check-in and safety briefing. So my journey actually starts then. Or would, if my flight didn’t leave at dawn, encouraging me to stay the night before at a hotel airport (Albany’s actually kind of a schlep for me, so if I want to get any sleep at all, I should probably take “long drive at night with the clock ticking” out of the equation.) I have a friend who’s flying out of Albany the day before, so depending on her flight plan, we may share a car up there on Sunday (t-minus 12 days).

In conclusion, I leave WAY TOO SOON. Considering that I have not started packing yet. Not at all. Not even a little. ACK.

************

By the way, here’s another World Cup video to add to your ever-increasing collection! This one’s great, I promise. And only one minute.

Note: If you receive this blog via e-mail digest, the above might not show up. To view it, go to the original post at http://wp.me/pRW9n-3I

Just got my travel information from the official Peace Corps booking agent folks. It’s looking like this:

Monday, May 24, 7 AM: My flight leaves from Albany to take me to KingofPrussia, Pennsylvania. STAGING. Overnight.
**Next Day**
9 AM: Bus to JFK
4 PM: Flight to Zurich, connecting flight to Nairobi
**Next Day**
Land in Nairobi, spend a handful of days there getting various safety/health/training briefings or whatever, then jump on a bus to TrainingTown. (Which is an actual place, not called “TrainingTown,” but I’m still undecided if I’m going to post the name on the internet.) It’s something like an 8 hour bus ride if nothing breaks down. Then, 3 months in training, Swearing-In Ceremony at the end of July, and onto the big solo adventure …

AAAAH I’M JOINING THE PEACE CORPS!!

I’m still way more excited (and consistently excited, not into the pre-departure rapid-cycling waffle of emotion that most people experience imminently before a big change) than anything else. I have my packing list, although I’m sure I’ll tweak it pretty much up to the second I check my bags in Albany. Except toiletries, I already have or have on order (new shoes!) everything I’m going to need. I have more paperwork to finish, but nothing due before staging. I’m right on track. On schedule. Cleared for take-off. Good to go. But I can’t shake the feeling that time’s rushing by just a *little* too fast for comfort … meh. Onwards and upwards.

Kenyan Flag

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Yours truly