Monday 23 July 2012

Mzungu or Odiero

Odiero is the Luo word for Mzungu (white person) so now that I’m among the Luo tribe here in Oyugis, I answer to either Odiero or Mzungu. I try to teach them my name but they have way more fun saying Mzungu so I let it slide. Mostly all the Kiswahili that I learned in Nairobi hasn’t meant anything here because everyone speaks Luo. It’s so crazy to think about how fast time is flying by. I have less than a month left in Kenya now and I already feel like it’s going to be so hard to leave this place. I’ve been in Oyugis for a while now, working with both the Orande and Baraka women’s groups on their community yoghurt kitchens.
I was staying at a small “hotel” for a couple of weeks but now I’m living in the community with one of the yoghurt mamas and her family. It’s been nice living the rural life, mainly because I feel closer to the community and get to play with the kids. I definitely miss taking showers though. The “roads” are dusty red sand so I’ve accepted that my feet will remain dirty until Canada. My host family has 5 children. They have 3 kids plus 2 of what they call “African children”, which means they have orphans who have more often than not lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
Kenyan hospitality has of course found me in Oyugis. Everyone here has welcomed me into their homes and asked me to meet their families. I spend a lot of my time just visiting people in their homes. I can’t go into anyone’s home without accepting to have something, like tea or food. The kids are always happy to see me. They’re not used to seeing mzungus like the children in the city. I could literally entertain a child by sitting down and doing absolutely nothing, they would be happy to simply look or touch my skin. They really like touching my hair too. I could walk down the street and feel a woman come up behind me just to stroke my hair. It’s hard to get used to being such an attraction; everyone always doing a double take when they see you  or starring but being a “visitor”, as they call me, has its perks for sure. Part of Kenyan culture is to make sure the visitor has a good time in their country so people go out of their way to take care of you and make sure you’re okay. That’s the good part – the tiring part is having so many people ask you for money or for you to buy them something. The tough part is choosing when to give and how to give. Food is cheap here. It would be easy to buy children sweets like a lollypop for about a penny or a soda for 30cents. What you don’t want to do is perpetuate the stereotype that all whites are rich and give handouts/donations like money, clothes, school supplies or sweets. I try to do something special, like if the kids show me they did well on a school exam, I’ll treat them to some sweets, so that I’m rewarding them for good performance instead of just giving them sweets without a reason. It’s important that the people get out of the habit of asking whites for things, however, it’s also important to recognize and understand the history of colonization and how this habit came to be.
The most popular conversations I have around here are “Where are you from? Oh Canada, I know Canada, it’s a good state! You support me to come to that country of yours” or “How old are you? Seventeen? Oh you’re 24, great. Are you are ready to be married in Kenya? I wish to be marry to you then you take me to that country!” or “Can I have your number? I have a son for you”. You learn to have a laid-back attitude and not get worked up about this, otherwise, this small talk would drive you crazy. Luckily, I’ve made some good friends here and we can talk about things that don’t include marrying me off.
When I first came to Oyugis, I found the yoghurt kitchen project at a stand-still. Most of their equipment has broken down on them, like the most important part of the kitchen: their fridges. The women’s group has been struggling to make and sell yoghurt due to a number of challenges such as their facilities, a recent drought that caused milk prices to escalate, the inability to access probiotic culture, etc. So in order to get the business back on track, we have been marketing (mostly going to the secondary schools, which are boarding schools that offer feeding programs and canteens that can sell our yoghurt) as well as doing some yoghurt training. The mamas have trained another women’s group from Maragoli on how to make the yoghurt and they charge a training fee, which will help the group save up to buy some new fridges. For now, we can only produce the amount of yoghurt that we can sell that same day because of the fridge. I’m hoping to be able to take the mamas and a lab technician from the local hospital to Maragoli so that they can be trained on how to make the probiotic culture, which will not only produce a higher quality product, it has additional health benefits (especially for people living with HIV/AIDS) compared to the regular yoghurt that they have been making. Once upon a time, the kitchen was quite successful and the plan is to restore that success. Not only was it providing a source of income to the mamas, their families and their community was benefiting from the health benefits. There are several malnourished children in this area as well as people who are positive. Furthermore, thanks to the yoghurt project, the women’s group is able to support approximately 35 orphans in the community.
When I’m not working with the yoghurt mamas, I’ve been taking a few weekends to do some travelling. I went to Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya. I had an amazing time in a supermarket buying sandwich meat and cheese. It was nice to be in the city for the day but I prefer the much quieter and traffic free Oyugis. I did enjoy the sights though, Kenya is such a beautiful country. I went to Lake Victoria and could see the hills of Uganda on the other side of the lake. I also stood right on the equator line! Last weekend, I went to the famous maasai mara on safari! It was crazy! Our safari van literally drove beside the lion king and he roared at us. Simba was a highlight but we also saw a cheetah, zebra, elephants, giraffe, hippos, antelope, buffalo, wildebeest, ostrich, monkeys, hyena, pumba (so pretty much the whole cast). I highly recommend adding an African safari to your bucket list, you’ll never go to a zoo again.
One day I promised to show the kids a movie on my laptop, thinking they would be really excited to do something they very rarely have the opportunity to do. We sat down all together crowded around my little screen. We didn’t even make it through the trailer before I lost their attention – and I loved it! After maybe 2 minutes, Jack (who is 10, and in grade 1) asks me very sweetly “we play football?” – I was like “heck yeah, let’s play football, I don’t want to watch a movie”. We had a great time playing and I was impressed that they would rather be active and play outside instead of watch a movie; something we Canadians could learn from. They were very happy to be playing with a mzungu! They get all excited to not only see a girl playing football, but a white girl, playing barefooted and getting dirty is just craziness. We played for about an hour, the kids have a pretty short window of opportunity for playing. They are in school from around 6:30am to 5pm and on weekends, they have half-days so that they can go to church in the morning. They also have chores to do around the house, like fetching water or firewood, collecting vegetables, groundnuts, or beans from their shamba (garden), then the older kids help the younger ones bathe before dinner.
In general, the people here have really been good to me. One of the mama’s daughters had a baby about a month ago and they named her Ellissa Marie. I was honored. I met her the other day and she’s awesome! They asked me for my last name (Riel) but then they thought that that name sounded weird so they just took my middle name instead. I laughed. I'm going to try to post a picture of me, baby Ellissa, her mama, and her grandma. The mamas have welcomed me like family and have made my experience here all the more enriching. I only hope that I will be able to leave this place having offered half of what they have given me.

Monday 18 June 2012

Mambo Rafiki!

Mambo Rafiki!

Hello friends! I can’t believe a whole month has gone by in Kenya. Time is flying over here! Campus life has been great. I’ve been attending some classes in the department of community resource management, which has helped me gather a better understanding for the needs on the ground in certain areas. Classes look the same as those in Canada except that there is usually a chalkboard (sometimes a whiteboard) instead of a power point presentation. The classroom facilities aren’t great and library resources are limited in that you cannot always find current information. One class on youth and development has been helpful in the sense that it also applies to women and covers the benefits and challenges of forming self-help groups. I will be travelling to the rural village of Oyugis this week to begin my research on two women’s self-help groups (in the yogurt kitchens).

I got paired with a student here doing her Masters on the challenges that women’s self-help groups face. She has been a great match, helping me design a questionnaire for me to take with me to the yogurt mamas in Oyugis. I’ve also been attending some seminars to learn about the research Kenyans are doing right now and how my work can be of use to them. I’ve had the opportunity to join a Masters student in the field. He is looking at motor skills and general athletic ability in primary school children so we visited a school and had the children complete an obstacle course as well as other various athletic tasks. It’s been so interesting taking part in the different kinds of research studies going on around campus and comparing them to research in Canada.

There are things that students have to consider here – things that Canadian students likely never thought of. For instance, most students here do not have a computer but all their assignments are expected to be done on the computer. A student can rent a computer to type up their work, use the library computers (but there aren’t many because of the large population) or they can hire someone to type their work (from paper) for them. Paying someone to type your work is more appealing to some students because they have poor typing skills (they haven’t grown up using computers) so the task would take them very long to finish. However, there is a risk to paying someone at a cyber cafĂ© to type your work because they have underground businesses where they might sell your work to other students. It’s these little things that we take for granted at home, the little things that make Kenyan life so time-consuming. Things take time to do around here. The Internet connection is very slow, you walk everywhere, cooking, washing your clothes by hand, etc. The good thing about time here is that you’re never really late for anything. You show up whenever you do and people don’t ask for explanations. Downside though is if you’re waiting for someone, you can’t be impatient if they don’t keep time.

Most Kenyans are very interested in learning about my lifestyle in Canada. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to minimize some of the stereotypes they have of white people. They think every White is rich, carefree, possibly lazy, and without problems. I had to explain to one Kenyan, who is an educated university student, that we also have problems with domestic violence. She thought that these “primitive issues” only occurred in Africa. She was so shocked to hear that such things happened in the “developed world”. It’s also hard trying to explain to Kenyans that we also have poor people because they simply don’t believe you.

Other than that, I’ve been playing soccer with the women’s team here and it’s been awesome! The coach is amazing, she used to play on the national team for Kenya and she’s crazy fast. Most of the players are super fast but not as skilled with their ball control. It’s funny always being self-aware that you’re the minority, as in the only white girl around. I definitely stand out on the team but I still love it! I’m hoping I’ll still be able to play when I’m in Oyugis because I’m really going to miss the team here. I’ll miss going to my supervisor’s house for dinner too. I’ve been trying to learn how to cook Kenyan dishes but it’s been tricky since I’m not much of a cook to begin with. I also got introduced to the African version of American Idol at that house, which is hilarious because they have their own Simon judge.

I joined a group of California students, who are doing an exchange program, on a trip to the coast! I was so happy to be traveling back to where I had stayed in Kenya last year. I saw my host family again and went to the primary school where I had taught English. I got the warmest and friendliest welcome I think I have ever gotten. I’ve never shook so many little hands before in my life. The children were shouting “teacher, teacher” or “Madam Ellissa Karibu (welcome)”. “Asante (thank you)”. I organized a teachers versus students volley ball and football game, which is practically unheard of in Kenya.  Students often fear their teachers because if they do anything wrong (e.g., don’t do their homework or don’t keep their uniform clean), they get beaten by sticks on their hands, feet, or back. I figured the children might fear their teachers less if they played with their students. Everyone loved it – those that played were happy and those that watched got to laugh at their teachers when they would mess up with the ball. I’ve played many games in my life but I have never played in front of such a large crowd before (there are just over a thousand children at this school).

The opportunity for organized sports here is limited to those that live in the city and have a lot of money. Most children have never played any form of organized sports and since that has been such a major part of my life, I tried to do what I could to make it as official as possible. We marked lines on the field (using ash) and I brought whistles for the referees. It was definitely different compared to the games these rural children are used to playing, with their footballs (soccer balls) made of garbage bags and string. I hope that the teachers will continue playing with the students after I leave. They are very busy though, they typically have approximately 60-70 students in their class, which means marking 60-70 assignments every day, with little to no resources/teaching materials. These people in the villages work very hard and inspire me to do the same!

So my trip to the coast was amazing! I got to go to the beach with my host family and Kenya has the most amazing beaches you have ever seen. When people would ask my host family why they were with a mzungu (white person), they would say that I was their daughter, so I was honored. My host father would tell me that he will get a lot of cows for me (Kenyans have dowry) when I get married. I love traveling to the villages and learning about all the different values and customs of each tribe. For example, the Digo from the coast believe that you should not hit a cat (or any animal) because it might be your neighbor. They don’t mean it in the same way that some people believe in reincarnation. They believe that your neighbor may have been temporarily transformed into a cat by a witch so it’s better to not hit the cat, because your neighbor might wake up in pain the next day as a human again. This might seem completely crazy to your average Canadian but these beliefs are still very much a part of culture in some Kenyan tribes. There is so much to learn in the villages. I can’t wait to begin my next adventure in the village of Oyugis…

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Karibu Kenya!

Karibu Kenya!
Karibu Kenya! Welcome to Kenya! Feel free! I’m constantly hearing this during my first few days here in Nairobi, and I love it! Kenyans are so welcoming and friendly; it's so nice to be back for a second time. It was quite the trip, two days, two planes later and I'm being greeted at the airport by a man with a sign that says my name. The drive to the university where I'd be staying brought back all kinds of nice memories as well as familiar sights, sounds, and smells. Looking out at the beautiful landscape, I can’t help but hear the song from the Lion King in my head.
I settled into my residence at Kenyatta University, which isn’t exactly a 5-star hotel ;) but it’s a serious step up from rural life. I have a small room with a mattress, a table, some shelves and a cupboard. Electricity is a plus! I also have a little balcony where I can wash and dry my clothes. There are communal "toilets" (i.e., an oval shaped hole in the ground) and cold showers. There is even a communal room with a television, which has one local station. I get my meals at the cafeteria/restaurant for approximately 25cents a meal.
The campus is stunning, there is so much beautiful green space and it is surprisingly massive. I feel like I'm back at Western, getting lost on campus. Students are dressed "smart", which means they are dressed well - clean and professional. In Nairobi and on campus, Kenyans wear suits, dresses, skirts and sometimes jeans to class. They dress very differently than the traditional dress that is found in more rural areas. Nairobi basically looks like downtown Toronto but more green. The city is very developed though there are also many slums within the city walls and on the outskirts.
On my second day, I was asked if I wanted to join some students in a field study they were conducting in a nearby slum. There was a PhD and a Masters student in nutrition who were looking at Omega-3 intake and whether that had an impact on depression in mothers. It was really interesting!  The students, myself and another student from Canada took a matatu (a crazy van that crams like 15, sometimes 20 people/animals in it) to the slum. Though not the smoothest ride, being in the matatu was strangely comforting. As they say, TIA - This is Africa! We hiked around the slum for a while carefully paying attention to each step, as there is garbage everywhere. I walk so much around here and with the hot sun, that's just about all the exercise I can manage for now. These slums are another world. There is no way I could do it justice by attempting to explain it in words or with a picture. Try to picture an outdoor market place with people selling all kinds of things such as second-hand clothes, food, cooking appliances, etc. in shanty shops while others have their stuff to sell on the floor. Within the market, there are tiny, narrow pathways that lead to almost hidden communities where you find homes built of scrap metal and children playing with garbage. If you're someone who is constantly using hand sanitizer or washing your hands, you might faint from seeing such sanitation problems.
So we met a community health worker to take us around one part of the community to interview some mothers. Without this community health worker, we would not have been welcome in these areas. Of course, everywhere I go, I am starred at. Especially in the slum, I will have children come up to me, chant "mzungu, how are you?" and shake my hand. Mzungu means White European. It may seem strange to us since you would rarely find someone in Canada trying to get your attention by yelling "hey white person" but this is not meant to be offensive. You kind of just feel like a celebrity since children want to come up and shake your hand. I love being greeted by the kids, they're so cute and friendly. Even babies smile when they see me. Adults mostly just stare at you but if you greet them with habari (hello), they will welcome you kindly.
So back to the research, the interviews were done in Swahili since these women doesn’t understand English because they’ve never been to school. The students would ask the mothers exactly what they ate in a given week, what their portion sizes were, and how much that would cost at the market. This was phase 1 of the study. Later, the students will introduce the mothers to a diet rich in Omega-3’s and after some time, determine what kind of effect it has had on their mental well-being (or depression). Although I couldn’t understand the interview, I could read their answers as the questionnaire was in English. It was really interesting to just observe the living conditions, to notice the inflamed stomachs of the malnourished children, and to recognize certain facial expressions in the mothers (even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying). After our interviews, I asked one of the students if she believed the mothers/participants were being truthful and whether she thought the presence of a mzungu (white person) would affect her results. The student explained to me that some mothers definitely lied about what food they consumed and that she could tell when they were lying. She said that some would over-exaggerate what they consumed  so that they would not appear poor. Others would under-report what they actually consumed in hopes of receiving handout food. The students figured that the mothers/participants would report somewhere in the middle so as to both not appear poor but so that they may still be given food. She also believed that my presence would not affect the study because the mothers were aware that I could not understand them.
That information was so useful and definitely something that I will be considering when I begin my research in the rural village of Oyugis.  As for now, I’ve been making a few friends here and there and hope to take part in other field studies while I’m at the university. In fact, I met one Kenyan student here who just got back from doing a year of his program in Canada. He was at Western! What are the chances? We had interesting experiences to swap for sure. We debated on whether Jacks or Frog was the better bar in London – the important things of course. He says he misses his washing machine in Canada…me too!
While I’m on campus, I’ll be auditing a few classes, getting paired with Kenyan students to do some field work, and apparently, I’m joining the football (soccer) team here. I guess someone figured out from my Western soccer t-shirt that I played so they want me to practice with their team, which sounds super intimidating since Kenyans can run like nobody’s business. Running around in this heat should be good since all I seem to eat here are beans and chapati (sort of like pita bread). Hopefully I don’t make a complete fool of myself because this white girl seriously sticks out around here. We shall see how that goes…