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Archive for March, 2009

Day 27

Today I accompanied a couple of our staff members to Eldoret to drop off an orphan that had been staying in the drop-in center. His parents died of AIDS and his only family member is an older woman that cannot support him. He is only seven and is not a proper fit living with the older street children at the drop-in center. Luckily, our program director used to live in Eldoret and her children went to a great school that had a connecting orphanage. She spoke with the head of the school, a British pastor who has been in Kenya since the 60s and there was a spot open for him.

I was having mixed feelings about the whole situation. I knew an orphanage was definitely better than the drop-in center for him, and the staff had made an effort to locate other family members to no-avail. Once we arrived though, I knew it would be the best place for him. The school and grounds looked so nice. They use the private school tuition to cover the costs of the orphans. He was placed in a group home that is headed by a married couple who live there with all of the children. The place was nicer than the nice hotels in Kakamega. Although definitely a religious school, it didn’t seem any different than any of the other very religious institutions here (pretty much everything is very religious, as are all of the schools). When we first arrived I could tell he was getting nervous and a bit overwhelmed but once he saw the home and found out he was going to get to go swimming and take computer classes he was very excited. WEAEP-K also got all of the legal paperwork done to guarantee that he will receive the land he has inherited from his parents when he turns eighteen. It was definitely a bittersweet day but I was glad to be able to be there to say goodbye to him.

Day 25

The other interns and I had Saturday class and then made brunch. I have the boda boda riding down; I was able to come from the grocery store to the FSD office with a plastic bag of eggs in my lap, down the bumpy path, over the speed bumps without breaking any of the eggs or getting my skirt caught in the wheel.

Then we headed out to visit the Kakamega Forest, which is about a half an hour drive away from Kakamega proper. It is a protected area that is home to a bunch of monkeys; just a very small tract of the forest that used to cover this entire area is left. We visited a monkey researcher who is friends with one of the interns that worked in the forest. She was able to give us a great tour because she knows all of the paths and can easily spot the monkeys. We saw blue monkeys, colobus monkeys and red-tailed monkeys. There were tons of babies. We ran into on of her research assistants tracking a group, this women was rocking a suit in the forest while observing the monkeys. It was awesome.

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We then walked around the forest a bit to see prime examples of parasitic trees. These trees wrap and vine there way around healthy trees killing them, jokingly referred to as trees eating other trees. Then we wandered to the glade which is a huge meadow of open grassland in the middle of the forest. We climbed the big lookout tower there for a great view of the giant termite mounds in the meadow and the canopy of the forest. The next morning we woke up to a couple monkeys wandering around in the yard.

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The researcher was able to regale us with great stories of her interactions with the local people. They think she is a witch that can communicate with the monkeys. Beliefs of witchcraft are still prevalent in the more rural villages around here. One of the other interns was told by her host mom that if she saw her in town that it would not actually be her but instead a woman that took a potion to look like her. WEAEP-K is working on getting funding to assist women accused of witchcraft because it directly affects the population we are trying to serve, vulnerable women.

Day 23

Today I accompanied a bunch of WEAEP-K’s staff to the opening of a vocational school and resource center in one of the area villages. It is located about an hours drive away from Kakamega. On the way there, on a bumpy dirt road we found our way was blocked by a jack-knifed semi with a huge electrical transformer on it. To get around this we had to drive into the field beside the road. There were a bunch of people there, yelling ensued, and a payment was made to drive on the land. Then an old women cam running up and threw herself in front of our car, just yelling and yelling. A crowd was gathering. We had apparently driven on her shamba as well and were told by her that we either had to pay or run her over. More money was given and we were finally on our way.

The vocational school is located at a primary school that provided us with a room to house 16 sewing machines. About 20 girls identified through the area’s women’s groups will begin tailoring classes there. The resource center, aka a few shelves in the same room as the sewing machines, has information about a wide variety of issues such as women’s rights and domestic violence that the villagers can access.

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It was a formal event running on Africa time, meaning it started 2 hours later than it was supposed to. A few of our board members were on hand, as well as a few individuals from the department of education and the area chief. The girls accepted into the program prepared some songs to welcome us, everyone was introduced, and speeches were made by all, as well as multiple prayers. I’ve definitely learned from attending events like this that they never start on time and they never take the amount of time allotted because everyone usually gets a chance to say something, proper thanks have to be given all around, and greetings and welcomes have to be given before one can even begin.

Day 22

Today we went to visit an informal school in one of the area villages. This one was created so that children who are heads of the households or have responsibilities to tend to can still go to school. They are not as formal as the private schools, no uniforms; the children show up when they can, after they have finished the morning chores. It is also a place where they can get a meal of porridge. For a lot of them, that is the only substantial meal they will get for the day. It’s a great alternative for many children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school. The students did a welcome song and dance for us.

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Day 21

I went to our Mumias office today, Mumias is a town about 50 km away from Kakamega in the heart of sugar country. All of the area fields are sugar cane and there is a huge sugar factory in the town. There are many huge cane trailers barreling down the road overflowing with sugarcane. Boda riders will grab onto the back of the trailers to catch a free ride. In this area most of the farmland is contracted for sugarcane and not used to grow food crops.

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One specific problem with the cane farming is that the contracts with the sugar companies are held in the husband’s name making it impossible for their wives to access the profits. Furthermore, these profits are usually given in yearly lump sums that do not trickle down to the wives or are spent improperly resulting in the money running out before the next payment arrives. WEAEP-K is trying to work with the sugar companies to change the contracts so that women are named on them as well and can access some of those profits to take care of their families.

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The Mumias office is a new building that is not quite finished yet that will include a medical office for area women and children to access. It is still under construction and surrounded by scaffolding made out of sticks; I would definitely not want to navigate up to the third story on them! On the land is another drop-in center where there are 17 street boys that live there. There living conditions are a bit better than those at the Kakamega drop-in center and they have a person that lives with them but they also lack the necessary toys and learning materials to keep them occupied. During the day older boys who are out of school and getting trained in technical skills come for their lunch. WEAEP-K has contracts with a woodworking business and a motorcycle mechanic where these older boys are trained. The office also has a well so many area individuals come to get water.

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When I was there the area nutritionist was having a training for mothers on proper nutrition for their infants. These are women who have been identified within the women’s groups. The nutritionist does home visits to track the baby’s growth and also has them come to trainings where they discuss nutrition and the health of their infants. It was an amazing sight, a small room overflowing with women and babies.

That day I also accompanied the children’s program coordinator to a parent’s meeting at a school for mentally and physically handicapped children. WEAEP-K partners with a bunch of area schools to increase their capacity and also motivate the parents to get more involved in their children’s education. We will also sponsor children at area schools because although primary school is free there are many fees involved with a student attending such as books, food and uniforms. We were able to tour the classrooms, view the boarding rooms (in Kenya many students board at school), and meet the children. Besides being taught regular school lessons, the special needs children are also taught how to weave and make handicrafts that are then sold to help support the school.

Day 20

I think I’m finally used to the massive amounts of people and the slight celebrity status I have as a very white person. I spend most of my walks to and from work greeting people and responding to the trail of ‘how are yous’ that follow me. If I walk past a school when it breaks I literally get a parade of young people following me. Most of the time I respond in English and then ask them how they are in Swahili, which surprises them. A mzungu that knows Kiswahili! Sometimes I get the mother language greeting in Luyha and I know how to respond in that as well, that always gets a good laugh because they can’t believe I know Luyha. This experience has fully prepared me for a life in politics; I have perfected the walk and wave that would be ideal for a local politician campaigning in the town parade. Lots of hand shakes, lots of greeting children, waving and smiling.

My time here has given me a point of reference I can hopefully use in my continued anti-institutional racism work. In Seattle I took a couple trainings on the subject and feel that I have a good understanding of the issue but it’s always been more of an academic understanding. I’ve never really had the experience of being the only white person walking down the street, the only white person in the store, the only white person in the meeting that many people of color in the US experience on a regular basis. Although being in Africa is very different than American racial issues I can at least now understand what it is like to be a different color from everyone else.

Day 16

Today I got my first dose of mob violence. Luckily I didn’t see it but I heard it. Ironically, we were having and gender-based violence training outside at work. The goal of the training was to educate women on what constitutes gender-based violence, what their rights are and what they can do to help themselves or those they know when they are a victim. Halfway through the training we heard gunshots. It made everyone a bit un-easy but people here are used to hearing gunshots. Men with giant guns guard all of the banks and major businesses. This area of the country was also the hardest hit with post-election violence where looting and fighting was a daily occurrence for a few months.

At the gas station along the main highway a few men attempted to carjack a woman. When she tried escaping they shot her. This gas station is the main matatu transport station as well as the area that many of the boda boda drivers hang out, right next to the busy marketplace. Meaning there were tons of people there that descended on the thieves as soon as they did this, stoning them to death and then setting them on fire with tires. The gunshots we heard were the police trying to break up the crowd. What surprised me or, I guess actually didn’t, was how it didn’t really phase anyone, that mob justice is a normal occurrence. And moreover, what is interesting is the dichotomy there is when it comes to theft. How petty theft is such a regular occurrence but if caught is handled extremely violently.

Day 14

Transportation here by most people is just walking everywhere. I walk half way to work and then catch a boda boda since even though the rooster wakes me up at 6:00 I’m still usually running late. I then take the 45-minute walk home. I live in a neighborhood called Amalemba, which is on the border of Kakamega town. A boda boda is a bicycle with an upholstered seat over the back wheel that ladies have to sit sidesaddle on. They are called boda bodas because they were used to smuggle goods over the border to Uganda, border to border. They couldn’t transport goods via the road given the political strife so they would strap as much as they could on a bicycle and then head across the border through the forest.

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There are hundreds and hundreds of bodas in Kakamega. When I get to the main road I just point to one of the guys to take me because there can be anywhere from five to twenty waiting to take someone for a ride. Along the major road there is a paved bike path for all of the bodas with built-in speed bumps because they can be going pretty fast. I’ve only had one run-in and luckily we were going very slowly, so I just hopped off when it happened and since we weren’t to my location yet the driver refrained from getting into a fight.

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Bodas are usually very pimped out. The bikes are painted green, red, blue and yellow. The seats are upholstered in those same bright colors with leather tassels and lots of grommets. They also have mud flaps with sayings on them usually related to God and a bell to warn pedestrians to get out of their way. Some really get all decked out with lots of decorations, stickers, a radio, pretty much anything they can strap on to the bike frame or the wheel spokes.

Besides people, bodas pretty much carry anything. I’ve seen them with bags of seed piled 6 feet high on the back and four crates high of full soda bottles. One time I saw a big bloody cow leg on the back, one end the foot, the other the bloody stump. Lots of people use a boda to transport water so they will be covered with yellow water containers; pretty much wherever one can get strapped on. The best I saw though was a full couch balanced on the back, very impressive.

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Matatus are the other main form of transportation. They are large transport vans that shuttle people to all of the area towns and villages. I try avoiding these as much as possible because even though there is a law in place that says they can have only 12 passengers, the touts try shoving about 20 people in. Usually they are so full that there is a body hanging out of the door or the windows. In the more rural areas there are small pick-ups with camper toppers on them. Benches line both sides and then people crouch in the middle. I was in one where there were 14 adults and 6 children squished into the back. There were actually two men sitting on the door as it swung open in the back. That’s just including the people; most people also have a lot of goods with them that they have purchased at the market, including animals. One of the interns actually saw a live goat strapped to the roof of one along with all of the other goods. Then, as you are flying down the potholed road, they flick out rolled bills to the corrupt police that set up stops along the side of the road so they won’t get a ticket. The silver lining of the matatu is that if you get a nice one you get to be entertained with awesome music videos playing on the TV they have. Many times this is P-Square, a Nigerian boy band.

There are also a lot of dirt bikes in use called piki pikis. I only ride these with my co-workers not the ones for hire. We navigate the bumpy dirt roads out to the villages on them to get to the women’s groups. Those are exciting rides. One time we got a flat tire and were stuck waiting for a rescue for 2 hours. All of other piki piki drivers kept trying to pick me up. I’m definitely not following the motorcycle rules I grew up with, since I’m usually in a skirt and sandals, I do have a helmet though. Also, it’s not appropriate for me to hold on to the driver, so I have to balance well enough and hold onto the seat. I’m getting pretty adept at it over all of the speed bumps, ditches and rocks.

Day 13 – Part 2

The food here is good; there is just a lack of variety and a bit too much grease. I was helping make chapattis at home and was trying to use less oil and Mia took the spoon away from me to add more oil. The main staples are rice, chapatti, and ugali (which is a dense corn meal block which you smoosh in your finger to then use to pick up other food). These are usually accompanied with lentils, cabbage, cowpea leaves, kale, spinach, hominy, green banana stew or kidney beans. There are a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables available but most of them are cooked down. I try to buy a mango or sweet bananas (tiny bananas) from the ladies by my work to get some fresh fruit. There is also a juice stand that sells fresh passion fruit juice that is amazing.

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Hot tea is a must here; chai breaks are built into the day like in England. Chai is actually the Swahili word for tea. Here they drink it piping hot with milk and sugar. I’m getting used to it but I still don’t understand how they can drink something so hot when it’s blistering hot outside. Chai is served with a breakfast that usually just consists of bread and jam or mandazi, which are pieces of fried dough, kind of like donuts but not as sweet. At work we have a chai break around 11:00 where we can also purchase a chapatti for a snack. There is also chai in the afternoon when we all get home from work.

Here fat is advertised as something good. There is a commercial on TV for margarine that drives me crazy because it says doctors recommend fat and vitamins and blue band provides these fat and vitamins. The tag is ‘daily blue band daily growth’ and has a kid snarfing down white bread and blue band margarine so he will grow up taller.

Although we have a stove, Mia does most of the cooking on the jiko; it took me awhile to get used to the smoke in the house but now I’m fine. It is heated with briquettes made out of charred wood. So not environmentally friendly for multiple reasons but oh well. I read a cool article on the airplane on the way here about solar cookers; hopefully they will take off here. They get so hot that they can boil water and thoroughly cook meat.

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Day 13

Today I joined the social worker that works with the children in the Kakamega area. I accompanied her to WEAEP-K’s drop-in center for street children. It is located on a small school campus where girls can get trained in tailoring and secretarial work. We have a few girls sponsored at the school who have been recommended through the area women’s groups. This morning we were screening the girls who came to be sponsored. A couple of girls just showed up because they heard about the program but unfortunately we only are able to accept girls that come through the women’s groups so they had to be sent away.

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On the land of the school we have housing for 13 boys. They are essentially living in what can only be described as a metal shed filled with bunk beds. There is a woman that cooks meals for them and they are enrolled in area schools. Currently there is no adult living there with them although they are trying to find a person to live there. The staff members who work with the street children and orphans are usually able to stop in once a day to check on them but that is just one of their many responsibilities. The boys pretty much have no belongings, no books, no toys, nothing except their school outfits and another outfit to wear when they are home. I played kickball with them; the ball was made out of plastic sacks and twine.

These are boys that were found on the streets that we are slowly rehabilitating. Many of the area street children are boys addicted to huffing glue and have very messed up lives. When identified the social worker does home tracing to see if she can locate their parents or other family members to get them back at home. The boys that stay at the drop-in center for an extended period of time do not have families that were found that can care for them. Either everyone has passed away or the parents are alcoholics or drug addicts and no extended family can be located.

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If family members are located the social working will meet with the local area chief to see if he can intercede with the family, to get them to take care of the child. Many times a visit from a chief can get people to realize the severity of the situation and get them to shape up because culturally here, families are supposed to take care of the children. Even if it is not their own child but instead an extended family member. One interesting aspect of the Luyha tribe culture is that children are the father’s not the mother’s so if the parents separate they stay with the father. Many times this causes problems when the father gets a second wife because she does not want to take on the responsibility of caring for children that are not hers. This causes the children to run away.

On the same property we have a little workshop where older boys who are being rehabilitated take carpentry lessons and learn how to make bricks. To get into secondary school here you have to test well. For these boys, they may not have even finished primary school so this is a great way for them to get technical training that will hopefully lead them to be self-sufficient.

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Although they are stretched thin WEAEP-K’s staff goes above and beyond the call of duty. Many times they will stop by the drop-in center after hours or on the weekends to check on the kids. A few of them have also housed children in the interim while their cases are figured out.

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