Coming to America.

22 03 2011

My pink Target watch battery died on March 20.

The seven dollar watch I had bought for Kenya and have worn daily since the day I left America died on March 20. Time stopped at that moment, and that is the day I left. My time was officially done in Kenya.

As I was exiting the plane in Detroit, the man in front of me handed his luggage to his wife and I thought he said “Chukua.” I wanted to start asking them questions in Kiswahili, but I was suddenly very self conscious of speaking it. What would they think of me if I started speaking it to them? I realized I could no longer assume that everyone that potentially looked African was African and could understand Kiswahili. I then remembered I had braids in my hair and felt like a huge idiot. The airport security guy then told me my braids were “ghetto fabulous.” I think it was meant to be a compliment, but that really just added to the African identity crisis. This whole coming home thing may be harder than I originally thought.

Alright, now customs. I walked past the “All other passport holders” line and flat out stared at all the different looking people that all looked so trendy and exotic. And when I got to the “US passport holders” line, everyone looked so… boring. So ordinary and boring. People were generally dressed more plain and were a bit heavier than the people in the previous line, and it simply was not as exciting to people-watch. A “Welcome to America” video was playing in the background, and in it were images of children on ferris wheels, old men fishing, the Statue of Liberty, kids eating ice cream, and the occasional hip-looking rapper all saying “Welcome.” “Karibu.” No wait, that was just in my head.

First stop was actually at the first restaurant I saw: Starbucks. The epitome of American culture. My mom had given me a gift card there before I left for Kenya. It literally sat in my luggage for almost a year, so I figured it was about time to use it. I stood at the end of a long line and just marveled at the sight. I was overwhelmed with options: mochas, lattes, frappachinos, cappachinos, mochachinos, what on earth was a chino again? The muffins in the case looked larger than life, and they seemed to have expanded in every possible direction. There were bunches of Dole bananas sitting on the counter (I didn’t know Starbucks had a designated market day) and I couldn’t help but stare. The bananas looked so… artificial. They were all the exact same shape and size and all were perfectly yellow- not even a tiny bruise. They honestly looked like foreign objects. I tore my eyes away from the freakshow bananas and ordered an Iced Caramel Macchiato, size medium or grande or whatever. But with my first sip, I didn’t taste the caramel or the macchiato- I was overwhelmed by the taste of ice. The ice was hogging all of the flavor of this strange drink, and I couldn’t stop obsessing over it. As it started melting into water and mixed with the strange new espresso flavor (not Nescafe), I couldn’t help but to wonder where this ice came from. Was this safe to drink? This water doesn’t taste right anymore, in fact, nothing about this tastes normal. The paranoia took over, and that macchiato mess ended up in the trash.

I decided to start walking in the direction of a Mrs. Fields bakery for obvious reasons, but got sidetracked into Diego’s Mexican Cantina, which I guess is the new term for mexican hotelis. Sure, I had already been served lunch on the previous flight, but one glance at the menu made up my mind for me. I sat down and plugged my laptop in (free stima!) and proceeded to order. I decided at this solo lunch it would be appropriate for me to order a margarita, so I ordered a mango one (it is, after all, mango season). He asked to see my ID and I panicked. I haven’t looked at my driver’s license for a year, so after scrambling to find it in my luggage, I had to stop and take a look. The Nebraska driver’s license looked so strange, but I handed it to him anyways and he deemed it to be legit. One thing I found striking was that as I ordered, he paid very careful attention and wrote everything down. I heard him repeat it to the cashier and he relayed everything 100% correctly. I was legitimately impressed. My mango margarita (mangorita), came to me overflowing. The amount of cheese in my Cheese Enchiladas was mind blowing, to the point of where it didn’t even make sense, but I kept eating anyways. Actually, I’m pretty sure I blacked out during the meal just from a sensory overload. Probably looked like a goddamn fool. The meal (with tip, good thing I remembered) cost me $20, or 1600 shillings. That amount could feed me for three weeks back in Kenya. Well, that was just depressing. Good thing that margarita was so strong.

I suddenly came to the realization that Detroit was in Michigan, and when I saw people wearing shirts with universities on it, the person probably actually knew what that college or state was. I guess the days were over where I could see a man wearing a pink sorority bid day t-shirt at the market and have him not feel any shame.

I really couldn’t breathe after eating all that cheese, and tequila was pumping strong through my veins for the first time in months, but I stayed strong and continued towards the Mrs. Fields. It was one of the most painful things I have ever had to do, but with great power comes great responsibility. I indulged in the foreign object known as The Chocolate Chip Cookie. Kenya has it’s fair share of biscuits, but they’re a far cry from actual cookies. And chocolate chips are a whole different story. I literally had to sit down after taking a bite. Oh. My. God. And it was warm, to make it even more outrageous of a feeling.

Well, I guess this is America. Over and out.

Night Ripper

25 02 2011

I can now say I have been terrorized. I was not harmed, touched, or threatened in any way. But I was indeed terrorized in the night.

At 3 A.M. my friend awoke to a tapping sound at her window. When she looked, she saw fingertips. We called the watchman and he searched the area and found nobody.

Two hours later, she heard a tapping again. Then, because the windows are covered only with mesh screen and not glass, she heard whispering, something like “Come, greet me” in Kiswahili. She screamed my name and ran to get me. As we were both clutching each other on the couch and calling the watchman again, we heard whispering coming from directly behind us, right behind our ears. We jumped over the table, stood trembling in the center of the room, and screamed for an entire minute straight. The watchman rushed back over but again found no one.

We waited in the hospital office until it was light and then went to file a report. The local police laughed at us. Other people said that there was no reason to get all worked up because of “a little peeping.” We evacuated the village and took refuge elsewhere, still looking for answers.

Well, we found answers, but they left a little to be desired.

When we told our stories to people, they all had one answer: night runners. To be fair, they prefaced their stories by saying, “This will probably be hard for you to understand.” So to understand it better, I’ll pass this cultural tradition along to you.

A night runner is not a bad person, a drunk, or a thief. He is a normal man that has simply been bewitched. They get pleasure by running at night and terrorizing people, but their intent is not to harm. It is merely to instill fear, and screaming just eggs them on. Apparently, our screams of bloody murder made some man’s night.

This “affliction” is passed from father to daughter to husband. If a night runner man has a daughter, this daughter will pass it on to her husband. After the marriage, the daughter comes home carrying a home cooked meal and a small leopard. It is the size of a dog, but it is a spotted cat, hence small leopard. Once the husband sees this small cat, he instantly becomes a night runner. Around 9 or 10 every night, he will leave the house with the small leopard and run through the night. They may be old men that usually walk very slow, but at night they run fast, fast enough that no one can catch them. They go from house to house and disturb people, which could be anything from throwing rocks, whispering names of the dead, dumping buckets of water through the windows, fiddling with locks, etc. They also enjoy running naked. While they are terrorizing, the small leopard keeps watch. If the leopard smells someone coming near, it will alert the man and they will both run away so they don’t get caught.

These men are conscious of the fact that they are night runners, but they cannot help it. They are embarrassed of their condition. When caught, people don’t turn them into the police, because frankly, they aren’t doing anything wrong (disturbing the peace or trespassing isn’t a thing here). They usually tie them to a tree. This is the most embarrassing thing that could happen because when morning comes, everyone will see this naked man tied to the tree and know that he was caught as a night runner.

The wife has no choice but to support this man and his activities, because it is, after all, her fault that he is a night runner in the first place. She must stay awake while the husband is out because if she falls asleep, the husband is more likely to get caught.

So yeah. I didn’t really know what to think when I heard this, but suddenly there was hope. There is a way to catch them.

The proven method is this: First, you must leave the house for 3 days. This purges the house of the smell of human presence. Upon returning, you must have someone else cook for you in a different house and never eat hot food, because the smoke of the cooking fire will follow you. After doing this, you must sit outside at night and wait for the night runner to come near. If you sit in the dark he won’t be able to see OR smell you, so then he will get close enough for you to recognize him. Once you recognize him, he will never return.

So, this is my new mission. Work has been pretty slow, so I’m willing to devote all of my efforts into scaring the night runner from returning to my friend’s house. I’ve been getting tips from local villagers, and I’ve learned a few things:

-If I attempt to set a trap during the day, he will see me. Possible traps this out-rules are ditches, moats, mosquito net mouse traps, or fires, all of which I had already mapped out.

-If I see clay pots on someone’s roof, there is a chance the small leopard is sleeping there.

-If I kill the small leopard, the man will be able to find another one through “the night runner network.”

-I must learn the face of every man in her village so I will be able to easily recognize him at night.

-I cannot get hurt during any of this process because the intent is not to hurt.

-These night runners could be anyone: doctors, lawyers, groundsmen, your supervisors, etc. They are completely normal and good people, but they are bewitched.

-There are newspaper articles about these night runners and I’ve been reading up.

-There is no sort of night runner repellent. Trust me, I asked.

So if you have any other tips for me, send them my way. Wish me luck!

[side note: Peace Corps is not taking this situation lightly. My friend is moving to a more secure house, and more importantly, they did not laugh when we called terrified during the night. So no worries.]

Meet, Eat, Greet

14 02 2011

Since coming to Kenya, I have experienced a new feeling that I had previously never felt. In the hustle and bustle of college with impending exams, projects, and activities, I rarely had a time where I truly had nothing to do. Within minutes of me sitting down to watch TV, the sheer guilt of relaxing would remind me of another deadline or errand to run- in other words, I felt the need to always be busy.

In Kenya, however, this need is not there. No one feels this need in this country, and after spending some time here, that drive is forced out of you. There isn’t a real explanation for this, but ask any other volunteer and they will agree. Perhaps it is the pace of the day. The Kenyan timetable begins at 7 A.M. or as it is called here, hour one. That is when the cock crows (if you have an extremely lethargic chicken) and the chores must begin. It is when all of the clothes washing, house washing, and children washing begins, followed by any and all shamba work (garden/farming) will occur. After, and only after, all of those tasks are completed will the activities of the day begin.

These activities include meeting with people such as myself. Because these meetings are of secondary importance to the members involved, they will only come when all of their tasks are completed, which could take anywhere from two to six hours complete.

So let’s take a 10 A.M. meeting. A few of the group members may have completed their tasks by 10 and will arrive at or a little after 10. But more than likely, they are not in any particular rush, and they could show up anywhere from 11 until 2. The meeting will likely start at 3. And for the few that may have arrived around 10, that’s five hours later, so some food had better be prepared. So after food has been cooked and eaten, the meeting is ready to commence at 4:30. The children start returning for school and are soon going to be looking for supper, so everyone is suddenly in a hurry. The actual meeting may last for 45 minutes, with 30 minutes of it going towards roll call, reading of the last meeting’s minutes, and a revisit of the late policy, which people likely have disagreements about. That leaves about 15 minutes, five going towards the beginning and ending prayer, and oh look, it’s getting dark and about to rain, we all better get going before the rain hits.

So yeah, that’s what I do here.

Love in Translation

26 01 2011

People keep asking me what I do every day, and I never really know how to answer that. It’s a harder question than it sounds. Do I go to an office and sit at a desk? No. Do I go to school from 9-5? No. Do I perform surgeries and deliver babies in hospitals? No, sorry Dad.

I talk to people. I have conversations. Formality here is to have conversations, and in order to move to a familiar level with people, you must crack the basics. I thought it would be nice to transcribe some of the common conversations I have on a day-to-day basis. These are in both Kiswahili and English, but the translation is the same. Becoming fluent in Kiswahili isn’t just about vocab- it’s the entire arrangement of words, as you will see.

News? Good.
You have been so lost! Not very.
Where have you been lost? I am just here.
News of so many days? ? Good only.
You are here? I am here.
Fine. Fine.

Madame! Yes.
Madame of exercise! Yes.
You have done exercise. Yes, this morning.
I have seen you. Oh, fine.
You are exercising now? No. I’m just resting (as I’m wearing a dress and eating a goddamn donut).

You want to be carried [by my motorbike]? No.
Why? I am able to walk.
Oh. I can see you like to do exercise. Yes.
Fine. Fine.

White person! How are you? Fine, but I am not called white person.
(followed by blank stares)

*TSSK* (their way of getting someone’s attention, much like you would summon a small animal)
*TSSSK* (look their way)
Greet me! Fine, hello
I love you. Fine.
Come greet me. I already did..
*TSSSK* (continue walking)
Greet me with hands! No.

(lady takes my Kenya National ID) Oh you are very pretty. Thank you!
It’s only that you do funny things to your hair. Oh…

Now beautiful. Cool.
Buy for me a soda. Why?
Add me one banana. No.
Why not? I have no money.
But you are a white person. I am not called white person.
(again, followed by blank stares)

I love you. Why?
Because you are beautiful. That is not a good reason.
Assist me with your phone number. No. I don’t even know you.
But I want to talk to you. About what?
Are you married? No, I don’t want a husband.
Are you saved? What?
I am not looking for love, friends only. Assist me with your number. Do you even know my name?
What is your name? Paige.
Bet? Paige.
Gate? Are you even listening?
Huh? Okay, goodbye.
Me, I want to go. Fine.
I am always thinking about you. Fine.
Nice time. Goodbye.

As you can see, I’ve been having many quality conversations with Kenyans and we’ve been having rich exchanges of culture. Kenyans have been learning so much about America, at least through the eyes of a 22 year old girl.

Glad I can be serving my country.

The Art of Kenyan Gift Giving

12 12 2010

So I was invited to a Silver Jubilee Ceremony at the church I was staying at. For those who don’t know, the ceremony celebrates the 25th anniversary of a priesthood. The priest being celebrated was someone whom I’ve never met, but this church was hosting it and it therefore was a big deal. I wouldn’t have thought too much of it if I hadn’t received three separate invites. Okay okay already, I’ll go.

Sunday morning comes, and as I’m laying in bed, my mind goes back to something one of the currently serving volunteers mentioned during training. They were often invited to celebrations in their village, and when they show, find out they are the “guest of honor” and are expected to give a sizable donation or gift. Crap. I grabbed my phone and furiously type this SMS:
“Quick question, should I bring a gift?”
“Like what? I have no idea what is appropriate.”
“You should bring a vest, size XXL.”

I’ve heard that at ceremonies like funerals, it’s good to bring a gift like a kilo of sugar. Many people will be drinking chai, and a lot of sugar will be used. Practical enough.
But a vest? A vest? Even if this were a priest I knew, that would still be weird, perhaps even weirder. And how on earth would I go about finding a vest?

I quickly got ready and consulted my roommates, who, much to my dismay, agreed to the suggestion of a vest. “But what if I don’t want to get him a vest? Aren’t there any other options?”
“Yes. You could get him a shirt.”
Great. “What type of shirt?”
“Long sleeve.”
What the eff. Keep in mind that this is rural Kenya. There’s no JC Penney men’s formal-wear department that sells shirt and tie gift-sets. Here, clothes are sold on the street in large piles that you must sift through for hours and talk down the price. Also keep in mind that it was 9:20, the ceremony started at ten, and it was twenty minutes away.

“How am I supposed to find a shirt or vest that he will like in twenty minutes?”
“First of all, this is African time, so it probably won’t start exactly at ten.”
Okay, valid point. But I still needed to find a gift in a pretty short time.
“Secondly, he is not necessarily going to wear the shirt you give him.”
“So it’s a ‘for show’ gift, I get it. Okay fine, how much are one of these long sleeve shirts?”
“Five hundred shillings.”
Umm, what? I won’t bring in US dollar conversions because then this whole story would sound ridiculous, but trust me when I say five hundred shillings is a lot of money, especially for a non-practical, “for show” gift. That’s about a week’s salary for an average Kenyan. No way was I going to buy a dumb expensive shirt.

“Okay, maybe it would be better to buy him a cloak. Yes, buy him a cloak. It will only be 150 shillings.”
Okay, that’s much more like it. They direct me to the cloak store (?) and I was about to leave, I decided it was best to clear something up due to thoughts of Harry Potter and invisibility cloaks popping into my head.

“One more thing, what exactly is a cloak? I don’t even know what that is.”
“You know, a cloak, you hang it on the wall to tell time.”
A clock. If I refused to buy him a shirt, there was no way I would buy him a clock. Talk about useless gifts. First of all, if that is the fall-back inexpensive gift, he’s going to end up with 30 clocks, and I know for a fact Kenyans don’t keep time, solidifying the gift’s uselessness.

So I set off to town at 9:30 without a clue as to what to get or where to get it. What would I get for a ceremony like this in America? A Blockbuster gift card? Yeah, I wish. A rosary? A bible? No stupid, think of something original. A planner? Yeah, a planner! It’s December, and they’re selling 2011 diaries, as they call them, in all the bookstores. I’m sure the church provides them with something like this, but at least it had the potential of being practical, a lot more than a for-show shirt or a clock. Unfortunately, bookshops that sell these are closed on Sunday mornings (figures), so I’m frantically searching for some sort of practical store that is open. All the while, I’m receiving a ridiculous amount of attention because I’m wearing a nice dress (worst. idea. ever.)

I finally find a children’s bookstore, which is much less than ideal, and I start grilling the seller about items. There is one diary but she doesn’t know the price, so she spends ten minutes on the phone trying to find out, just to tell me that it’s 500 shillings. Um, no.
Buy this hymnal. But it’s for a Catholic priest and the hymnal is for Anglicans. No.
How about that book, Common Mistakes in Speaking English? 500. That stapler? 1200. That calculator? 1500. Jesus.

“Listen lady, I need to be there in ten minutes with a wrapped gift and I’m not spending more than 150. Just tell me what I should buy.”
By then her friends had arrived and joined in the madness. “Buy a CD. A music CD? Is that appropriate? Well, it’s gospel music.

I would’ve felt weird bringing a CD, but at this point I really didn’t care. They hand me a bunch of CD’s with cheesy pictures of people standing with their hands outstretched in front of the ocean. Think horrible photo-shopped version of Creed and Jars of Clay.
“Okay, how much is a CD?”
“300 shillings.”
I really should’ve just stuck with the damn vest.

Let us pray.

29 11 2010

I tip-toed into the back of the large sheet metal building and found a seat on the last wooden bench. Children were restless and whining, but as soon as they caught sight of me they shut up. The congregation was listening intently to the pastor in front of the room, who gave a nod as soon as he saw me, thus detracting from my subtle entry. The message “Deliverance is here, so what will you do for Him?” was written on a chalkboard in the front of the church, most likely to drive home the message.

I soon learned that I would not be able to remain hidden, as the wife of the pastor grabbed a plastic chair, dramatically dusted it clean, and set it in the front of the room and gestured me to come sit. Not seeing any way around it, I made my way to the front of the room via the center aisle and tried to act natural, which I naturally failed at doing.

The cassette player was switched on high and the microphone was set directly in front of the speakers, and this produced the exact effect that you would expect. A blaring song about Jesus came on and the pastor started preaching at lightning-speed, seemingly without breathing, about the message of the day. Catcalls and clapping came from the congregation, and then when the song intensified, the priest shouted out “LET US PRAY!” and suddenly the mood of the room drastically changed. I turned around to look at the congregation and couldn’t help but stare. People of all ages were in every possible position- sitting, standing, kneeling, laying on the floor, standing on the pews, leaning on the walls- all with their eyes closed, and were muttering. No, not muttering, shouting. They were clearly shouting words, but they were words that I have never heard in my whole life. This, I realized, was my first experience with tongues.

This lasted for about ten minutes, and during this time I had no choice but to observe a few things. First, mamas doing this had completely abandoned the thought of their children. Kids were scattered between the pews and kind of just sitting there, waiting for the whole ordeal to be done. They didn’t seem phased at all by the distress or intensity in their mamas or everyone else in the room. Second was the pastor and his actions. He used this time as a chance to do some housekeeping business around the altar. He re-tied his shoes,organized his briefcase on the pulpit, plugged his phone charger in, and whispered something to his wife. He then pulled out a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a pricey luxury here in Kenya that I was quite unaccustomed to seeing, and poured a bit on his hands and rubbed it in. Ten church members made their way up to the altar and did the same with their hands. They then took turns shouting petitions into the microphone, some lasting thirty seconds and some lasting six or seven minutes. The service ended with a riveting song similar to the one before.

And then I was introduced and called up to the altar.

I was invited to the service to talk about HIV and a general overview. We were taught in training that when addressing churches about the spread of HIV, just allude to using condoms and don’t actually say the word, mpira (rubber) due to the conservative atmosphere. I talked about the basics of HIV- ways it is spread, who is susceptible, and the importance of getting tested- and managed to just use “unprotected sex” as a way it spreads. Thinking I was off the hook on the controversial material, I answered a few questions from the women along the lines of, “If my husband is HIV positive, and I am negative, and then I have children and they are positive, it means I am still okay?”

And then the men started asking questions. “How old are you? How long will you be in Kenya? What will you do after that? Do you have a fiancĂ©?” I powered through these and thought I was finished being interrogated, but as it turned out, bado (not yet).

“So you are 22. How do you protect yourself from HIV” asked the pastor. I was a bit taken off guard, especially because the question was wielded from the pastor himself, so I hesitated for a second. The entire congregation burst into laughter. “No no, it is important for us to know,” the pastor shouted over the laughter, “Because then we will learn.”

“Well,” as I carefully chose my next words, I use condoms to practice safe sex, as do all of my fellow volunteers that teach about public health. That is the only way to be safe.”

“Okay,” said the pastor. “Now there are male condoms and female condoms. Which do you use?”

“Uhh… male condoms are easier to use correctly and more common.”

“What if the act is too intense and the condom breaks? Then what?”

Well, so much for avoiding the topic.

Photo Sesh

12 11 2010

Teaching about nutrition

Putting together sample meals

Passing on the knowledge.


Listening intensely

Job well done.

Kazi nzuri.


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