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Health Club. The phrase may conjure mental images of sweaty old men in headbands working off their Christmas poundcake on a rowing machine, but in Kenya, it has a very different meaning. A health club is a representative sample of primary school students (usually classes 4-8) who gather once a week to learn about community health topics – malaria, teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, etc. The aim is that they will then become peer-to-peer educators or peer-to-parent educators, disseminating this vital information throughout their community. I can’t personally go house to house to house throughout all four sub-locations I’m responsible for to tell every person they should sleep under nets and wash their hands before eating, but if I can plant an adorable child in every sub-village with that same message, maybe I’ll get somewhere.

I’m currently co-running two health clubs and on retainer (providing supervision and assistance on an “as-needed” basis) for at least one more. I never take on a health club without an on-campus counterpart whom I can educate and encourage to a) share half the responsibilities and b) be able to continue the activity after I go back to America.

SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY, SUSTAINABILITY. In conclusion, SUSTAINABILITY.

Of course, any time you drop an unfamiliar face into a room full of elementary school kids, you’ll have a small handful that are gregarious volunteers, and a whole lot of deer-in-headlights stares. It happens, and they’ll warm to you eventually once you stop being the scary new white person teacher. At least, this is what I kept reminding myself of over and over the other day as I taught my second health club session at the new primary school where I’m helping. Not to be unkind, but I’ve known more talkative chia pets. At one point, I could not get a group of 14 girls to name one good thing they liked. About anything. Oi.

When I stepped out of the classroom and back into the blinding sun, my co-teacher touched my shoulder and said, “That was wonderful. They are shy, but they will come around.” Despite her reassurances, I felt ill at ease. This kind of thing can ride on waves of positive energy generated by the students in the group, or it can completely fall flat and make everyone’s life hard. I had a long, long, long, LONG walk home to think about this (about 9 km – bike tire’s flat, remember?)

On the way home, I passed a guy I had spoken with a week or so ago, informally, about HIV and condoms. It wasn’t a lecture or seminar or teaching engagement then. I was literally just hanging around waiting for my friend to finish at an ATM when this man asked who I was and why I was here. I explained. When my friend came out of the bank, the three of us stood there talking about HIV, dealing with misconceptions about condom use and “cures” for AIDS, etc. I do this all the time with beach boys. It didn’t strike me as anything unusual. But that day, as I was walking home from failclub health club, he called me over to thank me personally for talking to him the pervious week. He explained that he used to never use condoms for a variety of reasons, but now he knew the facts, and uses them every single time. “Thank you for saving my life,” he finished simply before shuffling back into his shop.

The walk home got a lot shorter after that.

That’s how these jobs go: it’ll happen when it happens, quite possibly by surprise, and in an instant you’ll be humbled and reminded why you came here.

And that’s ok with me.

My secondary projects are all in the “please please call me back so we can talk about that thing you want me to do for you” phase, my tertiary project is on hold until the end of October, and my primary project (developing the epidemiological monitoring/record-keeping system for the dispensary) entails a lot of brainstorming and working from home (for now, at least). So the other day, I empowered myself to mobilize down to the beach to splash in the tide pools for a while during what would be my “lunch hour.” I was doing just that when a trio of beach boys sidled over and offered to show me some great eels.

In America, this would end in them getting pepper-sprayed, and possibly arrested for sexual harassment. Here, sometimes an eel is just an eel, and they were offering me a snorkeling trip. I politely declined and went back to picking up bits of coral rock with my toes. One persisted, offering me a good price on a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. If not today, maybe tomorrow? This weekend? How long was I in town?

I initiated the usual speech: I’m not a tourist, I’m a volunteer, I’m here working in the public health sector. “Oh, like a doctor?” came the predictable response. “No, more like an educator. I mobilize communities, work with groups, and teach about important public health topics like malaria, water sanitation, HIV …” I trailed off.

He narrowed his eyes. “Prove it.”

”Nini?” I responded. What?

“Teach me about those things. Sasa.”

“Err, sawa … where do you want me to start?”

Water sanitation. I have a well, and my children have diarrhea. What do I do?”

For the next hour, I stood up to my calves in the Indian Ocean, tripping clumsily between two languages, giving my best impromptu health lecture. We covered well construction and maintenance, the importance of pit latrines, and malaria prevention tactics. He asked about his sister, who “did things for money” and had recently been diagnosed with HIV. I stressed the importance of getting support at local hospitals (both in the form of ARVs and looking into joining a group) as well as taking care of herself physically. I explained ways to eat healthier using local foods (fruits and greens year-round!) and getting enough exercise. He asked about traditional remedies – can the bark of the AdrnjoauNw tree cure AIDS? – and we discussed the need to consult with a doctor. By the end of it, he’d resolved to eat more kale, make his children sleep under mosquito nets, and start using Waterguard in all his drinking and food washing.

I walked home with a distinct feeling of “Wait … did that really just happen? Or am I being Punk’d by Peace Corps training staff?”

The public health sector of the Peace Corps is weird like this sometimes. I often feel like I get as much done in these unscripted moments of ambush as I do in formal assignments either from HQ, from my host organization, or from my community counterpart. It’s a good feeling, honestly. Helps to make one feel supremely useful, even in those initial days of flailing wildly and figuring out what you need to be doing. Just … unexpected.

I love my job.

You’ve heard of bad hair days? Sometimes, you can have a bad language day. You trip over your tongue and fumble for words until you can’t even make a coherent point in *English*, let alone whatever Bantu spinoff you’re trying to learn at the moment. These days tend to make for great stories – such as those recalled on the blog of my friend/language partner/linguistic savant Lorenzo. Since getting to site, I’ve managed to say “I was late today because it took me a long time to circumcise myself” (instead of “get myself ready,” which differs by one letter) and “I did not breastfeed your test result” (instead of “look at,” which differs by two letters.) My coworkers appreciate my attempts to use Kiswahili whenever possible instead of English, but that may be because it’s so freakin’ hilarious when I mess up.

And I’ll agree. It generally is.

Alternatively, sometimes, you have a really, really good language day, where an endless stream of words are just there for the plucking. Rather than thinking of a statement, translating it in your head, then saying it slowly, you think of it in the target language to begin with. Everything’s easy. You even manage wit. Those are the days that make all the flash cards, LPIs, and awkward stuttering worth it.

Today was one of those days. I was scheduled to have my first meeting with a local People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) group at a large health center some miles from my town. My presence there had been arranged by a local VCT counselor, but he was going to be at a seminar today, so after the local public health officer introduced me it was going to be Megan: The Solo Act. I spent half the night staring at the ceiling, wondering what to say, how to ask questions clearly but without being too direct, and ultimately deciding that rehearsing was a useless enterprise. I was at the dispensary all morning, so I didn’t have time to pull out my language notebook from training and study the phrases for “grassroots” or “sustainable income generating activities.” I was just going in cold.

And … it went fine. I introduced myself in Kiswahili, talked a little bit about my organization and its history, a little bit about what other volunteers do, and a little bit about the things I might be doing. I explained that today I was here to learn about the history and projects of their group, and then maybe in the future we could work to do sustainable capacity-building activities together (if you’re playing along with the Peace Corps Buzzword Drinking Game, that’s a double.) I reverted back to English a few times when I was talking about HIV/AIDS in America and when I lost the thread of how to talk about IGAs in Kiswahili, but I was able to understand questions they asked about me and immediately picked back up on the words when someone helped me translate. The woman who runs the group speaks some English, and when I saw her struggling to find the word for something, I was able to say ”What is it in Kiswahili? and almost always figure out exactly what she was getting at.

I’m not sure exactly in what capacity I’ll be working with them in the future, but I think today was a good start.

On the way home, my skills were tested again, but to slightly more comical effect. I boarded a matatu and handed the tout a fifty shilling note – but instead of giving me twenty back, he just pocketed it and moved on to the next person.

”Oi! Give me my change!” I chided.

He turned to me, wide-eyed, and said in Kiswahili, ”Check it out! The mzungu speaks Swahili!”

Every head in the matatu swiveled around and stared at me, in a look-a-talking-farm-animal sort of way.

“I try,” I said with a smile.

”You’re very pretty, lady,” he continued.

”Thanks.”

”Do you have a boyfriend?”

”No. I’m actually married. Sorry, bro.” The other passengers howled with laughter.

”Truth? Show me the ring!”

I held up my hand, revealing a delicate silver band I wear for just such occasions. More laughter, but he continued. Did I have kids? How old was I? How old was my husband? How big is he? How long had I been married? Finally, the mama next to me told him to knock it the heck off, he had disturbed me enough and CLEARLY I wasn’t interested. She then asked me where I had learned such excellent Swahili.

Language WIN.

I HAVE A BED. Sorry, just had to get the shouty excitement bit out of the way. In fact, I’m sitting on it as I type this! Sitting! On! My! Bed!

You don’t understand how momentous this is until you’ve spent 2.5 weeks sleeping curled up on a concrete floor with a mosquito net draped over you like a shroud.

I also have a dresser, of sorts – at least, it’s shelf space that will finally get my clothes out of my suitcase, and maybe some of my books out of piles on the floor. All I need now is some creepy posters of anonymous Asian children holding rabbits and my house will truly be a home. (If you’re not a K-PCV, that statement will not make any sense. Just roll with it.) I fully intend to spend this coming weekend in “nesting mode”: arranging things, putting clothes away, maybe finally mopping. I wish I were close to a Nakumatt – or, hell, a Target, since we’re talking wishes – so that I could continue my extravagant furnishing spree. A chair, for example, would be nice. Or a table. Or actual cooking knives: to date, any slicing and dicing requires me to bust out my awesome 6” tactical knife. This is badass, to be sure, but it leaves something to be desired in the “finesse” department. We can’t all be Bear Grylls.

This process of taking stock, sorting, replacing things that need replacing … it is not so different to build a home as it is to build a nation. If you’re left thinking, “Megan, that’s not only a stretch of a metaphor, but it’s also a non-sequitar,” BITE ME. I need a segueway to talk about the Kenyan Constitution. So there. For those of you who haven’t been following African politics, Wednesday August 4 was kind of a big deal. Kenyan citizens took to the polls for the first time since the contentious and ultimately harrowing general presidential elections of 2007. This time, however, they were not voting on specific leaders per se but rather upon the judicial framework in which they will be acting: Kenya was voting on a new constitution. The previous one had been written to accommodate the needs of colonialists more than the nation itself and was long overdue for an overhaul.

I won’t go into the details of either the constitution itself or of my opinions of it; thirty seconds on google should give you a reasonably clear picture of the former, and an e-mail request will get you the latter. This isn’t a political blog. (Mostly.) I am, however, happy to say that despite a great deal of nailbiting at Peace Corps HQ, the elections went by virtually without a hitch. There have as yet been no signs of widespread voter fraud or other electoral malpractices; similarly, both the process of voting and the acceptance of the results were peaceful. It’s a watershed moment in Kenyan history and – all’s well that ends well – I’m glad to have been here to witness it.

As I write this, I’m sitting in what will (inshallah) be my home for the next two years. It’s not exactly … homey, though, at the moment. I’m seated on the cement floor with my back against an unpacked suitcase – unpacked because I have nowhere to put the contents if I chose to empty it except next to me on the bare cement floor. I’m eating a roll my supervisor brought me, smeared with peanut butter from a care package, which I spread using a 7” tactical knife. My mosquito net is not hanging yet; it’s lying on the bare foam mattress next to the rolled-up sweatshirt standing in for a pillow. All of which is also on the floor. Seeing as I have no bed.

Soooo … why am I so dang happy to be where I am? Because I’m getting down to business, that’s why. I’ve met my supervisor and my counterpart. I’m starting work at 8 AM sharp tomorrow. In the next 3-6 months, I’ll complete a formal Community Needs Assessment. And even though the perks of the past 9 weeks – the camaraderie, the classes, the laughs, the adventures – have been radiant with awe and wonder, this is why I’m here. To integrate into a community. To learn a language. To do good.

Of course, the fact that I’m 1 km from a breathtakingly gorgeous whitesand beach doesn’t hurt, either.

I wish I could bottle this and a thousand other moments I’ve had thus far, tuck them someplace safe for the dark days ahead. Being ceaselessly busy and on the move has thus far largely shielded me from homesickness (both for America and for my Peace Corps family) and the worst of the isolation. Stress, however, manifests in odd ways: I nearly had a freakout moment this afternoon when I thought I had lost my cell phone charger and the prospect of a full 24 hours or more without text messaging/SMS loomed. Luckily, though, it was just under some stuff in a different bag. Not so luckily, my camera seems to be missing. Whether that means it got left somewhere during all the transit shuffle or it was stolen out of my bag while it was sitting on the sidewalk in Mombasa is impossible to tell. It’s a SERIOUS BUMMER because ALL of my photos both from Peace Corps so far and from my college graduation were on it – none had yet made it to my computer. I’d planned on doing that tonight.

Blast.

Still, I’m glad to have two free seconds to myself, for literally the first time since I boarded the bus on Thursday. I’m glad I didn’t burn the house down when I made rice for dinner (which is now cooling/congealing – you guessed it – next to me on the floor in the pot in which I cooked it in.) I’m glad I treated my mosquito net with insecticide before I came, so when I burrito myself into it tonight, I probably hopefully might not get malaria. I’m glad I have electricity(ish) in my house, so that when I finish this, I can lull myself to sleep with a sappy NPR podcast. I’m glad my maps are on the wall, starting the process of turning 3 cement rooms into a home. I’m glad for the friends I’ve made. I’m glad to have persevered through the application and the waiting and the testing and the ANGST and the testing and the more testing.

I’m just glad to be here.

Hamjambo rafiki! Habari za maisha?

I write from within the comforting confines of my mosquito net; a few moments ago, I had a close encounter with a MOSQUITO THE SIZE OF A MID-SIZE SEDAN. I exaggerate only slightly. For the sake of my dignity, when you picture this post in your head, please imagine me chuckling benevolently and saying to the mosquito, “Shoo, little one! My friends are not half so kind!” before ushering it out the window – rather than the reality, which involves me making a hoarse noise like a cat locked in a burning file cabinet while swatting furiously in such a way as to slap myself in the face three or four times.

Thanks.

We’ve had a few days of last-minute vaccinations, security briefings, anti-malarial consultations, chai, crash-course language initiation, chai, harried trips into downtown Nairobi, discussions about our anxieties for our host families, chai, paperwork, lessons on the proper use of the “bush choo” (pit latrine), lectures about health issues, and a general welcoming to East Africa. And then we stopped for chai. With a side of chai. I’m sure as hell not complaining. Tomorrow, we all board a bus to TrainingTown, which is roughly piano-tossing distance from both Kilimanjaro and the border with Tanzania. There, we will finally meet our host families and get down to the real business of Peace Corps Training. Rather than Pre-Training Training. Mhm.

There are 36 of us in this group, representing diversity in geography, race, age, gender, profession, and skill set. We vary so widely that all we seem to have in common is a startlingly high degree of mutual bad-assery. We have bonded during these few days on the run, then will continue on together in small language-learning groups during training until being scattered willy-nilly throughout Kenya for our actual placements. These placements are not to be revealed to us until next Wednesday, at which time we will all be put into “vernacular groups” in which we are expected to learn the local tribal language of our region of service (Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, etc).

In summary, rather than the expectation of being bumblingly conversational in one disparate foreign language in a very short time, there are two. And I think that’s *awesome.* Language lessons are already leaving me cognitively exhausted and stupidly happy, even if almost everything we’ve done so far is review (Nafahamu kiswahili kidogo, remember?) Really, I’m in far better a mood than I have any right to be. I’m sleeping and eating well. I enjoy the company of all my fellow trainees, without exception. I’m sure it will make the (inevitable) crash that much harder, those days of angry, tearful frustration, of jackals and mosquito netting and feeling the hot breath of failure on the back of my neck. But for now … shit’s awesome, guys. This place rocks, this region rocks, these people rock, and I’ve been kept to busy for the niggling nips of those broader humanitarian questions to stick pins on my soul. (Somewhere in the wild, a disgruntled former aid worker just sat bolt upright in bed and howled “DO-GOODER SENSES TINGLING!!!!111one”)

I am not without my complaints, but they are not, at the moment, either relevant or appropriate blog content. So … yeah.

This evening, to celebrate the end of our pre-training-training, some of the current PCVs took us into the city for chinese food and Tusker. It was a fabulous footnote to a brief and heady chapter in the text of this surreal journey. Nzuri sana, njema sana. And that’s the note I’ll end on, as I have an early morning tomorrow. Salama sana.

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Yours truly