Sunday, November 30, 2008

Home again

Having a cold and fever on the 28 hour plane ride . . . being weirded out by traffic going down the right side of the road . . . realizing just how close to the mountains I live . . . being disgusted with the commercialism that surrounds Christmas in the Western world even more than normal . . . wishing I was back in a little compound in a village surrounded by sweet, tough little kids. I wish very much that time and money (mostly money) had allowed me to stay for even a couple more weeks.

People ask me as a conversation starter, "How was Africa?" What do I respond? It was wonderful, terrible, frustrating, heartbreaking, maddening, faith-challenging, faith-enhancing, majestic, frightening, and amazing. It was full of experiences that I'm not sure I'm ready to share yet. It was full of others that I'll never be able to adequately explain. And it was full of others that I can explain, but they'll sound uncomfortably like bragging.

Maybe I'll give it a stab over the next little while- posting some vignettes of images and stories I glimpsed. I'll share the stories of some of my kids, and their pictures, and I may just do a little publicizing for my orphanage, which always needs funding and donations- and volunteers.

However, for tonight, I'll end on a light note before going to bed. Yesterday, I was pretty exhausted. I got in to Salt Lake Friday evening, with my cold, and spent the night at my family's house. Saturday evening found me at my own place, suffering from a lot of jet lag and poor health and I crashed into bed by 9 PM.

At around midnight, I think, my roommate Holly came in quietly to get ready for bed. I woke up just enough to be somewhat coherent, but apparently not coherent enough to realize where I was. I lay there for about ten minutes trying to decide if I was in Kenya, and if so, where in Kenya since I clearly wasn't in my bedroom there, or if I was in Orem, or someplace else. I was starting to get a little concerned when I finally recognized the shelf right in front of me and remembered that I was in my own bed in Provo! I fell asleep a happy woman after that.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Count your many blessings

I made it to the west coast of the Indian Ocean yesterday. It looked a lot like the east coast to me, although that may have more to do with the latitude than the ocean itself. Probably if I ever make it to the Atlantic or Pacific oceans near the equator, it will look fairly similar- white sand, clear, clear water, and oh, so warm. In fact, considering just how hot and sticky it is in Mombasa, it might have been nice to step into a cool ocean, not something the temperature of a warm bath.

I'm on the coast for the weekend with Jo and Emily, two other IVHQ volunteers. We took a sleeper train from Nairobi to Mombasa on Wednesday night and we'll take an overnight bus back on Saturday. I've been excited to see more of Kenya away from the Nairobi area, but I can't say that the trip has been unqualified fun so far.

I slept pretty well on the train until I woke up in a drenching sweat at about 4 AM. Then I couldn't get back to sleep because my ears kept feeling pressurized to the point where it was pretty painful. It persisted in the morning and Emily said she was having a little trouble with her ears, too. The only thing we could think of was the change in altitude- Nairobi is at 5,000 feet and Mombasa is, of course, sea level. But, having been a mountain dweller essentially my whole life, I've driven from mountains to coast a number of times and never had a problem like this. It's very frustrating. My right ear cleared up pretty quickly but my left ear still feels like it needs to pop, thirty-six hours later.

I'm tolerating it pretty well, in general. This morning, Jo, Emily and I caught a matatu to the Swahili ruins at Gedi.The ruins themselves were fascinating; I enjoyed wandering around and seeing the old walls overrun by plants (knowing me, it's just possible that I found some of the plants more interesting than the ruins). There was one massive baobab tree that had a series of steps and a platform at the top, a good fifty feet in the air. My imagination is just active enough to make me a little leery of heights, especially when climbing wooden ladders is involved, but it turned out to be quite steady and provided a great view from the top (anyone who's read "A Little Prince" ought to recognize the baobab tree by name at least).

In fact, it was so nice and quiet and peaceful at the top of the platform that I lay down and closed my eyes. Emily and Jo climbed back down and I could hear them talking below me. Then after a while I couldn't hear anything and I decided I should get up before I fell asleep. So I did. I couldn't see them anywhere. I climbed down and still couldn't see anyone. We were there pretty early in the morning and not very many people were there, and the ruins are set into a forest. I suppose it's impossible to really get lost because I knew where the gate was and everything, but I suddenly felt completely alone. I assumed that the other girls had thought I was asleep and just walked away to see more of the ruins while I dozed, but I didn't really want to sit there and wait for them.

So I started walking. And then the strap on my flip flop broke. I might have considered going barefoot if I hadn't seen several humongous dead millipedes on the road on our walk there (not that flip flops are such great foot protection, anyway). And then my poor clogged ear started shooting a sharp pain into my head. And I felt like I'd love to be curled up on the bed in my hotel room with my ipod and maybe some passion fruit juice or possibly some chocolate and some tylenol so I could wallow in my misery appropriately and not be lost in some Swahili ruins with a broken sandal and a nasty earache and slightly impaired hearing.

As I was wandering around feeling sorry for myself and simultaneously trying to pray to know what the best thing to do to met up with my friends again would be (as a note, it's pretty hard to get answers to prayers while feeling sorry for oneself), suddenly a song popped into my mind unbidden. It was so unexpected that I almost started laughing.

When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings! Name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

And I realized with a sharp jerk that my circumstances really weren't that bad at all. I decided to go back to the tree platform and wait there for half an hour before deciding what to do next. And I did so, and fifteen minutes later, Jo and Emily reappeared, having assumed I was asleep that whole time (I'm still just a little confused about why they didn't let me know they were going, but all's well that ends well, right?). And I was able to fix my sandal enough to walk for at least fifteen minutes at a time before it needed to be fixed, and Jo had some pain medication on her that she gave me that made my poor head feel much better, and we had a fascinating matatu ride back to our hotel, along some of the prettiest rural African scenery I have set my eyes on yet.

I don't know what I'd do without the gospel and the hymns of the church. They save me from doing so many foolish things and keep me from turning into a self pity-laden excuse of a person. One thing I've come to realize more than ever from this experience of being, as far as I know, the only LDS person for miles and miles around, is that the gospel really is for all aspects of our life. The Lord cares about everything we do and think and are, and His gospel affects every aspect of our lives, because every aspect of our lives affect our spirituality and our ability to return to Him.

Consequently, wearing my one-piece bathing suit to the beach affects my spirituality by showing the Lord and myself that I am grateful for and respect this gift of a body that He has given me. Keeping myself sexually clean does the same thing, only more so. Choosing not to swear shows respect for the Lord and also that I have enough intelligence to express myself without resorting to gutter language. Choosing to refrain from drinking alcohol shows the Lord that I appreciate my gift of agency and I'm not willing to give it up just to get a high off of ethanol. Reading my scriptures shows the Lord that I recognize the need to actively fill my mind with goodness, since I am passively absorbing so much junk from my surroundings constantly just by living in a fallen world.

It's taught me a lot. And I can say unequivocally that the biggest thing I've missed the last three weeks is the fellowship of the Church, the privilege of taking the sacrament, and feeling the strength that comes from congregating with others intent on worshiping the Lord. I can't wait to go home to that.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


There's a woman who lives with my host family, a cousin of Lucy's, who's staying with them while she sorts some things out (I stepped into a regular soap opera here, let me tell you). Her name is Ruth and she does some cooking and cleaning for her room and board. She loves tea and thinks everyone else should, too.

Of course, being Mormon, I don't drink tea. I didn't see the need to go into details the first time Ruth offered me tea, so I just declined and told her I don't drink tea. But she kept offering it to me, so on the second day, I explained to her that I don't drink tea for religious purposes.

I think I'm pretty lucky that Ruth is a religious woman and respected my reason. Earlier this week, Cynthia, the other volunteer here, was feeling really tired and went to bed early, right after dinner. Of course, dinner wasn't until 9 PM. After dinner, Ruth always brews a pot of tea (except they keep it in thermoses here- not very aesthetically pleasing, but very practical. It keeps the tea hot for ages). It takes quite a while to make it, and Cynthia didn't want to wait up for it. So she told Ruth so and got ready for bed and got in bed. I was in our room reading. About half an hour later, when Cynthia was out cold, someone knocked on our door. When I opened it, Ruth pushed her way in with a mug full of tea. Before I could open my mouth to protest, she had started shaking Cynthia, who groggily sat up. Ruth pushed the mug into her hands and firmly said, "Drink. You will feel better."

Cynthia stared at her in unbelief, but she knew Ruth would persist until she drank it. So, she downed the mug of steaming hot tea and went back to sleep. I tried not to laugh out loud. You see what I would have been up against if "I don't drink tea because of my religion" had not been acceptable to Ruth?

Also, Kenyans eat massive, massive amounts of food. And it's all starch. We'll have bread and rice and potatoes all for one meal, with some greens on the side. We've made some headway here, but when I first arrived, they would dish us huge piles of food and expect us to eat it all, turning a deaf ear to our protests that our stomachs couldn't handle that much. Cynthia once tried to tell Ruth that she was Canadian and couldn't eat that much, to which Ruth replied, "here you are Kenyan. You eat like a Kenyan. When you go home, you can eat like a Canadian."

However, between the two of us (and with Kate's help, when she was here), we've slowly been able to convince them that we really just can't handle that much food. My personal nemesis is a very thick maize porridge that is one of the main staples in Kenya, called Ugali. It's super thick and pretty flavorless. It's also very cheap, so the orphans eat it almost every day and we eat it at the orphanage, too. If I eat too much, my throat starts constricting and I get a stomachache. In small quantities it's just fine, but the problem is convincing the Kenyans that a small quantity is big enough. Lucy overheard me once talking to Kate about how unpleasant it was to eat a lot of ugali and I guess my description of what it does made her concerned enough that she actually let me serve my own amount of ugali next time, although she looked at the amount on my plate with narrowed eyes after.

A final note- Obama continues to be a huge, huge deal here. In the internet cafe where I'm currently sitting, there's a calendar on the wall, the tearaway kind, that says "The Obama Year" and has huge picture of the president elect. Whenever people find out I'm American, they want to discuss Obama for the next ten minutes, which is starting to get really annoying, especially since I'm definitely not an unqualified fan. So the other day, when Cynthia and I went in to town to go to the market, I temporarily adopted Canada as my home country so people wouldn't preach to me about Obama's virtues on top of trying to sell me trinkets I didn't want at an exorbitant rate. Never fear though, I'm definitely not becoming an expat. I love America and the more I travel, the more I appreciate it.

I lied. I have one more note to add. Except for certain touristy areas, Kenya is very homogenously black in population. Even in downtown Nairobi, I can walk for a few blocks before seeing another white person, or mzungu. In fact, I saw one white guy this morning who was staring at me funny- I assume because I was white.

Anyway, political correctness has yet to be really born here. The kids especially have a tendency to treat white people like a novelty to be stared at and petted. I think their parents have a lot of work to do in teaching them that regardless of the color of people's skin, they're still people. And it's given me an appreciation I've never had before for how frustrating it can be to be classified by the color of your skin and not who you are inside. I still think that lots of people go overboard and tend to be extra sensitive and silly in America, but after being referred to as "the mzungu" enough times, it gets really old and I want to remind people that I have a name and a personality. Of course, almost all of the people that I have personal interaction with are great. My host family, the staff at the orphanage, and the workers at Fahihili Helpers in Nairobi all treat me quite personably. But I will definitely take a new appreciation home with me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama Day

And you thought the election results were a big deal in America! Here in Kenya, today has been declared Obama Day, a public holiday, and kids are out of school and shops are closed. We purchased our cow for the orphanage this morning and her name apparently is Emi Obama. Someone should notify the president-elect that a cow in Gathiga village has been named in his honor- a very pregnant cow, I might add, who ought to calf within a month. Maybe I'll be here to see it.

Josh sent me a link that ought to show you haw excited the people here are about Obama. I don't know if the actual musical is real or not, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. These people are nuts about Obama. The village where his family lives held a fake election on November 4th and they held parades carrying anything with his image on it after the election results were in. ON the news, which we watch a surprising amount, it's nothing but "Obama, Obama, Obama." This was the same tribe that was responsible for all the violence at the beginning of the year- I honestly think there would have been more violence if Obama had lost. They are known for being very clannish and not taking defeat well. If anyone from their tribe receives an honor, they all receive it. If anyone from their tribe is shamed or defeated, they all are.

Obama's face is everywhere, too. As one announcer put it in his broken English last night, "Any Obama paraphernalia is selling like hot dogs" (we think he meant hot cakes. But I like hot dogs better. Maybe I'll start incorporating that expression into my speech.)