And for once I was SuperMom

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Random Musings about life in Nairobi

Some people in Kenya, particularly the Kikuyu, have trouble with the “r”s and their “l”s. This is especially the case when the sounds are both in the same word. So it is fun to guess how Lara’s name is going to be butchered. We will be keeping the receipt from our first adventure with having pizza delivered as the receipt says the customer is “Rara”. She also gets called Lala quite a bit.

Why is it that we can insure that there is mobile phone access anywhere in the country and we can get the new Bond movie showing here in Nairobi a week ahead of the U.S. but we can’t figure out to supply our people with basics like water, electricity and decent roads?

I don’t understand how Kenyans stay so clean. I commute downtown to work and invariably show up with red dirt marks on my pants and dusty, scuffed shoes. Meanwhile I see Kenyans who live in much more simple housing situations than I make it to work with their sharp business attire looking immaculate.

When riding in matatus a good rule of thumb is the level of service will be inversely proportional to the amount of hip hop paraphernalia on the vehicle. (Not necessarily a condemnation of all hip hop culture, just a truth in this instance).

Roundabouts are like communism: both are great in theory, but when put into use by selfish, sinful people they cause a huge mess.

We live in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Nairobi, but we still have to make way for herds of cows and goats that occasionally roam the streets.

I remember reading not too long ago that sports stadiums in the U.S. have had to widen their seats to accommodate the ever expanding girth of the average American. At this point Kenya is in no danger of having to take this step based on the size of the average Kenyan man. (Kenyan women are a different story) As it stands right now being overweight is a privilege reserved for the especially wealthy Kenyan man. The matatus and buses, however, may want to follow the example of American stadiums. Even though most Kenyan men are slim and narrow (compared to them I have really broad shoulders) we still have to spoon to fit in the bus or matatu seats.

Westerners tend to think about things in terms of bounded sets. In other words they like things to have clear boundaries and delineations. I used to think that this mindset was a bit rigid and restrictive. Then I drove in Nairobi. Now I feel like some good old bounded set thinking could really help things out. Or at least get drivers to stay in a lane.

It is inspiring to see how Kenyans care for each others’ children. The other day I was riding in a matatu when a woman with three young children got on. Noticing her struggles and without being asked, an elderly gentleman lifted two of her children into the vehicle. Her little girl was sitting in a seat when another traveler got on. He picked up the little girl and placed her on his lap and the ride continued. This would never happen in the U.S. but here it is commonplace. Even in the urban centers it takes a village to raise a child.

How is it that we can be subjected to deluges of rain every day for weeks and still be in the midst of a water shortage? I realize that there are more complex factors involved than simple conservation and storage, but those sure would go along way.

Most of Kenya has a very similar climate to much of California. Both have temperate climates year round. Both have areas that are really dry and areas that get a lot of rain. But on average it seems that Kenya gets about twice as much rain as California. For example, Nairobi gets about 40 inches of rain a year while San Francisco gets about 20. Yet California can grow just about anything and could feed much of the world with its crops while Kenya cannot even feed its own people let alone export anything. Again, a vast array of factors (corruption in Kenya comes to mind), but those words conservation and storage really cover a lot of them.

Researchers have determined that cultures that live in temperate climates tend to be more friendly and hospitable. My experiences in Kenya lend credence to this research. Which makes me think: maybe some people from frigid climates with personalities to match should be sent here to Kenya for some behavior modification. Hey frigid people, don’t get upset, at least you get a trip to Kenya out of the deal.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Crayola dreams

As I sit here wondering if my three weeks of vacation is enough time to unwind the knots in my back and my newly acquired stress-induced facial twitch I look back on my first semester of teaching elementary students. Whilst some of my stress related injuries are probably related to my present life circumstances rather than my job, I do think that some of the damage is related to wrangling packs of children into being creative and producing masterpieces. For the first part of the semester I was wallowing in thinking that I was as ineffective as the levies in New Orleans until Thanksgiving when the beast of creativity came out of my bedroom closet. In lieu of Thanksgiving Rosslyn has a Cultural Richness Day where any teacher who wished to participate or force their students to participate can produce displays, performances, food, etc. to celebrate Rosslyn’s cultural richness. Rosslyn is a place that is happily multi-cultural so this day seems to go well and it’s a chance for us to display the aptitude of our children; it’s also an opportunity for more work. The beast of creativity is a persistent beast, once his voice implants an idea in your head it must be expunged by action. Now my personal totem beast has his fingers in all areas of my life and he saw cultural richness day as an opportunity to burst out of my closet and begin implanting thoughts and ideas that would not die until executed. He whispered the idea of having each grade creating a work that represents a country represented here at Rosslyn. So in a whirlwind of face twitching inducing activity I produced a huge display including work from 190 students in the elementary. I finished and sat at my desk panting and wondering if it was worth it; and then, I got… compliments. From parents, from co-workers, from my principal. And I heard the kids talking and pointing out their work. It occurred to me, maybe I’m doing a good job. Maybe I can facilitate the production of good work from small children, maybe I am getting something across to them, maybe I’m not just surviving.
Other than stress injuries I’ve also developed more of a love for children. I went into this job terrified that I could not handle twenty active kids with impulse control and the ability to misbehave at will. I learned though that telling them my expectations will truncate much ‘misbehavior.’ I have had entire classes explode on me, and I have almost lost my mind trying to control the noise level in my classroom. During on such explosion my water turned off right as a class of third graders was going to wash their palettes and brushes. There was only one sink working, I called my principal in a panic. She strapped on her cape and swooped down on my classroom with a maintenance man in tow right as fifteen kids were going bonkers while trying to wash their palettes all at one sink. She sent them to the bathroom to wash everything out, as soon as the dust cleared (or paint splatters) I noticed that two of my students had grabbed the trash can and were picking trash up off the floor. I almost cried. These are good kids, and I feel special that I get to work with them and be a part of their education. Largely I also feel special that I can be around kids because kids are special, you’re only a child for a short period of your life and in that time you have such a unique way of looking at the world and I get to be a part of that world.
One of the parts of that world that I have noticed is the fact that children can be completely oblivious to happenings around and will be fully engrossed in their own world, call these space cadets and I’ve witnessed a few different kinds:
1. Passive space cadet: doesn’t know what is going on and has no clue that they don’t know what is going on, and often you don’t know that they don’t know until you look at their work. Once you figure out that they don’t know what is going on they can often be a source of great comedy or great distress.
2. Active space cadet: noticeable by repeated cries of, ‘Mrs. Barnett I don’t get it!’ or, ‘Mrs. Barnett what am I supposed to do?!’ This is easy to deal with because at least we all know that you don’t get it.
3. Passive intelligent space cadet: always looking out the window or at the wall, or anywhere else but where they should be, but knows exactly what is going and if asked can tell you verbatim what you just said.
4. Active intelligent space cadet: Little Johnny is twirling around in his seat, poking his neighbor, playing with his nametag, looking underneath the table, and all the time knows exactly what is going on and can tell you what he’s supposed to do and how he is going to expand on it.
5. Passive intelligent philosophical space cadet: in the middle of class comes up and asks you what it feels like to die of old age, but is still doing his work and doing excellent work.
Quite often it’s hard to keep a straight face. Sometimes it’s very easy…..

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

One of the joys that I feel that I have been denied here in Nairobi is my love of driving. I thoroughly enjoy jumping behind the wheel turning the radio on as loud as possible, singing in my horribly off voice, and flying off to my destination. One of my favorite memories of Buena Vista was a morning drive to work, where I was coasting down our street at 7am; the sun was just rising over Mt. Princeton, hitting the gold grove of fall aspens just below our house as Chris Martin’s voice was intoning, ‘slowly breaking through the sunlight,’ into my ears.
Yes, we don’t have a car and largely I haven’t had many chances to get behind the wheel because the opportunity just has not presented itself as often as it would at home. We’ve been able to rent cars from Rosslyn and I have been able to drive on those occasions but usually I am quite happy to allow Scott to get behind the wheel. Now why would I let my husband drive when I seem to love it so much? Because driving in Nairobi is a pants wetting, dashboard gripping, jaw clenching experience. It’s like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on methamphetamine, with the hallucinations, because half the time you can’t really believe that you saw what you just saw.
First I will tell you about the roads. Picture un-leveled bright red ground, pour asphalt on it. We are done. As you can imagine there are so many potholes and cracks in these roads you begin to wonder if small families have not taken up residence in them. There is no shoulder, or sidewalk, if you go off the road you are on dirt or in a canyon. There are no lines in the roads or demarcations of any kind, which you begin to realize is because no one would heed them anyway. In some neighborhoods there are speed bumps, they are not painted, which means that you regularly encounter them at full speed. The roads also do not have stoplights they have roundabouts, when in of themselves are not bad, but Kenyan roundabouts are manned by Kenyan cops who ‘direct’ traffic. Now these cops let one line of cars go for ten minutes, then allow another line to go for two, and then allow another line to go for five minutes….all while texting on their phones.
Second add many people walking alongside the road. Third add people on bikes on the edges of the road, which often veer into your space. Keep in mind that many of these bikes have large bundles of straw on the back which triples their width, and they veer more because of the weight and imbalance.
Fourth add broken down cars which when broken down are repaired right where they are in the middle of the road. It is not uncommon to drive by a large broken truck and see some mechanic legs sticking out of the bottom of the truck.
Fifth add the other drivers. Now my Canadian friend gave her Kenyan fiancé driving lessons for his birthday. She learned that the Kenyan instructors did not teach her beloved to look behind him when backing up, they taught him to idle in second, to shift up while going uphill because a higher gear equals a higher speed, etc. So in knowing that the driving instruction is sub-par you can only imagine the amazing things that we have seen on the road. Kenyans love to pass each other on the road (which considering the shape of most cars you begin to realize why), today someone just passed me on a residential street while I was driving 30mph. Oh, right, there are no speed limits, there may be but they are not posted.
Sixth add the matatu drivers, so if you have read previous blogs you have read that they are the fifteen passenger vans that are used for public transport. If one wants to be a matatu driver they have to buy their route from the Kenyan version of the mob. So you can begin to understand the kinds of people who drive such vehicles. Now, there are plenty of good people who drive matatus and who drive safely, there are many more who do not. They ‘speed,’ they drive up on the shoulder, they create four lanes when the street should only have two, they cut people off like it’s cool, I have more than once been pretty sure that a matatu just shaved off the mirror of the car we were driving.
So this is driving in Nairobi.
Even though it is harrowing it is still necessary and still the best mode of transportation for us. So we want a car, and where we live we really kinda need one, so imagine our excitement when our friend Muhia decides to lend us his extra car. Ecstasy and excitement. Now the car is 1971 bright red VW beetle nicknamed ‘Scarlet.’ Needless to say the car is adorable; really it looks as if it should be hanging from a keychain. Or should be being pushed by a four year old. Or should be a stylish accessory for a famous person, like a purse or pair of shoes. But it is our main form of transportation. Scarlet is a very basic car, as said by her owner, she only has four knobs on her dash and one lever poking out behind the steering wheel. Muhia loves this car, it was his first car and he has maintained it ever since. Scarlet is a quirky little vehicle and I will list her quirks from ‘cute’ to ‘Muhia is the bravest man I know.’
1. To honk the horn you have to touch a hanging exposed wire to an exposed patch of metal underneath the dashboard’s enamel.
2. You have to unplug the battery when you turn the car off or else it will drain and you can’t start her up. So you have to remember to unplug and re-plug in the battery every time you park. The battery is located underneath the backseat, just so you know. SO you have to lift up the backseat cushion, which comes completely out, plug in the battery and place a flap of plastic over the connection and replace the cushion before your passenger gets in, I don’t know if this kills chivalry or enhances it. I like to think of it as an anti-theft device as well.
3. Scarlet is not a morning person, does not like to drive in the morning. I stalled out five times on the way to work. That’s a five minute drive if all goes well.
4. The driver is oft heard uttering the phrase, ‘I don’t know what gear I’m in, am I in third?’ Or at least that’s what Scott and I say. I think Muhia knows what gear he's in.
5. She randomly stalls. For no reason. You’re just hanging out in idle and, bam, she’s off.
6. Occasionally the gas gets stuck, and you have to pull over and unstuck a lever in the engine.
7. The gas pedal flips over, forward, towards you. This likes to happen when you are trying to down shift while turning a corner.

Oddly enough writing this list has endeared the car to me. She’s cute, she’s high maintenance, she’s cherry red. She is presently sitting in Rosslyn’s upper parking lot with a broken belt. She starting smoking today and was acting more rough than usual, and upon inspection we deduced that the belt hanging out in the carriage was once attached to the engine. We rented a car from Rosslyn to get home.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The lowing of the herd

I don’t know who reads this blog, I don’t know if friends from college read this, friends from Rosslyn, kind supporters in BV, or people that have found me after years on Facebook. I don’t know how to approach this or what to write about, do I disclose fully how I am how we are what is going on. Who needs to know? Who wants to know?
What makes me think of this is the recent phenomena of Facebook. Every page is full of smiling happy people. Pictures of people with their boyfriends, spouses, babies, all smiles all the time. I have one friend that I haven’t seen in years, I ran across her page curious to see how she is doing, what she is doing, how she turned out after all these years. What is she doing for a living? Did she leave San Diego? Is she married? I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had posted a poem that spoke of her trans-continental marriage and divorce. Not pleasantly surprised that she had been married and divorced at the age of 27, but that she was honest about it. That she was brave enough to put that out there in a forum that seems to be reserved for happiness no matter how unhappy you are.
Scott and I lost our first pregnancy a month ago. We landed on the ground in Nairobi in July and decided to start trying for a baby in August. I didn’t really believe that we’d get pregnant the first time we tried. But we did. Our first ultrasound (at seven weeks) showed that the baby was about two weeks smaller than it should be. We chose not to proceed with another ultrasound, because we felt it was too early to know what the exact size of the child was and if the pregnancy wasn’t viable we’d rather let nature take it’s course. Five weeks later I began to bleed, I bled for about ten days waiting for it to stop and not sure what was normal and what was not. We did choose to do another ultrasound, and the ultrasound revealed that the gestational sac was empty. A baby had never formed, but my body had gone and created a placenta which released hormones into my body that allowed it to continue to feel pregnant. So I held onto an unviable pregnancy for twelve weeks. Maybe that’s a good sign.
After that ultrasound we scheduled a d and c for the next morning. During the night I began to bleed profusely and we rushed to the hospital at four in the morning. Our doctor arrived and performed an emergency d and c. A few hours while on a gurney, coming out of anesthesia my husband told me of Obama’s historic win.
So far so many things in my life I have been able to make sense of, I can see where each tragedy and time of suffering have made me stronger or made me a better friend, comforter, wife, human being, child of Christ, etc. This one however I am left with a copy of an empty ultrasound picture and the question why? There are enough things in this world that are just hard, things that you just have to walk through, things that will always hurt. Shadows that are cast over our lives that never leave. For some medical files that follow us around for the rest of our life. For some the knowledge that alcohol can never pass your lips again. Wounds that heal but scars that never leave. Events that you heal from but something can bring it rushing right back again. A scene in a movie, a anecdote in a book, a friend’s tragedy, or something you see out of the corner of your eye that gives you a flashback and suddenly you are right there. I’ve had so many women come to me crying talking a about a baby that they lost ten, twenty years ago. Friends, acquaintances, women in my own family.
I think why Lord, ‘what purpose could you have that is so big that this baby had to go?’ I’ve already had suffering in my life, why more? I think of my friend who had cancer at the age of twenty and her amazing ability to empathize. I think of another friend and her troubled childhood and her quiet wisdom. I think of another friend who was left at the altar and the fact that I have never had to explain myself to her once. And I think of all the women who have cried with me in the past weeks. Maybe that’s why we suffer, to bring us together. The collective lowing of the herd can be heard over the world. I keep telling myself that suffering just happens, that it is not an affliction from God. That we live in a fallen world and there are no guarantees. I keep telling myself that my relationship with God helps me deal with tragedies, rather than him afflicting me because I didn’t do what I was supposed to.
So I read Job and after a few weeks of silence I am relearning how to pray. It is too soon to make sense. Truth be told it may never make sense. I think that’s why they call it faith.