November 24, 2011

To Logo Logo

I hear it's Thanksgiving.  For me, it's just another day up in northern Kenya.  Tonight we will dine on some combination of the following: cabbage, spaghetti, lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots.  Mmmmmthanksgiving cabbage.  But what does "just another day" really mean around here?  Let me walk you through a day (yesterday) in the life of a Go-Kenya fellow.

7:30.  Wake up.  As with every day of my life, I'd like to sleep more, but we're supposed to start the drive down to Logo Logo at 8:30.  Get up.  Have tea and toast.  Notice that the whole-grain bread I brought up from Nairobi is almost gone.  Soon I will have to resume eating white Supaloaf bread.  Am sad.  Someone else at the guesthouse overhears that we're going to Logo Logo and asks us to pick up his colleague who has been there for the past 3 days and needs a ride back, lest she get stuck on the top of a truck.  There's no cell phone connection there, so she won't know we're coming and we won't be able to coordinate, but we tell him we'll look for her.

This is how you travel to Logo Logo (or Isiolo or Nairobi) if you don't confirm a ride.

8:30. Pack my bag with surveys, pen, paper, rain coat, cell phone (not that it matters; there's not going to be reception), water, and 2 granola bars (1 for lunch, 1 for a roadside snack if we break down or get stuck.)

9:00.  Our guide is still in a clinic staff meeting.

10:00.  We are told that the car reserved for us was given to someone else.  They are trying to source for another one.  I could have slept longer.

10:30.  Decide to make use of this time by meeting with the clinic director who asks me if the database I'm creating can give summaries of TB, PMTCT, and PCR indicators.  I tell him it could if that information were collected on the paper forms, but it's not.  We are in a pickle.  I go back to my room and resume work on the Excel data dictionary I've created.  In the room, I notice that my other pair of pants is still in a ball on the floor where I threw them in a panic after squashing some sort of bug on my thigh, INSIDE my pant leg, which subsequently got a red splotch on the fabric.  Either it was a red bug or very full of blood.  Have since been too scared and grossed out to look and see exactly what that was.

11:00.  We have a car and are leaving only 2.5 hours behind schedule.  It has a rare seat-belt, for which I am very excited!  We agree to give a ride home to 2 clients who spent several hours walking to the clinic this morning from villages on our way to Logo Logo.  I get bumped to the middle seat and lose my seat-belt.  Look around and decide that the passenger seat in front of me will suffice to grasp when the truck starts crazy bouncing.  We're off!

11:15.  Not quite.  We have to make 3 stops for milk, snacks, and petrol.

11:30-1:30.  Bouncing down the road towards Logo Logo.  By now I know all the villages along this route: Hula Hula, Parkishon, Karare, Camboy, Logo Logo.  Between Camboy and Logo Logo, there are fields of purple wildflowers, and then fields of white wildflowers.  Before hitting any of those villages or landmarks, we stop at the police blockade where they peer into all the windows to scope for Al Shabaab.  Not sure exactly how they'd recognize them if they spot them, but they seem confident that we are no threat and they let us pass.  I eat both granola bars, and now I have nothing but water to tide me over if we get stuck.

2:00.  Begin administering the focus group surveys.  I have a group of 6 Rendille women, about half adorned with beads.  Two of them are very old, and one is losing her top.  Question 1: "How old are you?"  Four of them don't know their age.

Shady spot where we had our focus group.  

2:30.  The second old lady starts to lose her top as well.

3:30.  I realize that one of the women doesn't understand the language we've been using for the past hour (Samburu).

4:00.  Finished.  Hand out the milk and snacks, and ask if they have any questions.  No one has questions.
This seems unlikely... Some crazy mzungu just spent 2 hours asking you how long it takes to gather water and whether you've ever used family planning, and you don't have any questions?  The answer is still no.

4:10.  Group dismissed.  Our driver and guide are not ready to leave yet, so we wander around some of the houses.  One has a pair of blue-jeans framing the doorway.  We ask around about the lady we are supposed to bring back with us and find her napping in a day-bed.  She shows us the Rendille guest-house she's been staying in since the weekend.

Logo Logo houses.

Inside the guesthouse.

Day bed for napping.

4:30.  Heading back home.  I subtly refuse to move from the seat-belt seat.  Strapped in I don't need to worry about getting bounced out of the seat and can focus more on the scenery.  We honk at everything in the road: other cars, bikes, goats, cows, people, baboons. The cars, goats, and people move out of our way, but the cows and baboons are stubborn, and we have to drive around them.

Peoples and baboons on the way home. 

5:00. There's a truck stuck in the mud.  Our driver and guide get out to help, but there is nothing they can do.  I'm glad it's not us.  We offer a lift to the people who were riding on the now defunct truck.  Luckily our trunk has extra bench seating.  Also luckily, assault riffles are prohibited on board.

Why you should always pack extra granola bars.

Only handguns allowed in the trunk seating. 

6:30.  Back home just before dark.  Try to remember the last time I showered... I think it was 1 or 2 days ago.  Decide I can wait until morning.  Have dinner instead.  I forget what it was, but probably cabbage, pasta, lentils, potatoes, or carrots.

7:30.  The room smells funny... maybe it was a bad idea not to shower.  Go back to working on Data Dictionary.

9:30.  Tired of work, will stop for the night.  Leaving the room, I notice a baby lizard scoot inside.  I am charmed, but roommate is not and tells a gross story about a lizard inside her friend's pants once.  I remember I still haven't examined the pants on my floor.  We decide the lizard must go.

9:40.  This involves a bit of shrieking.  Tomorrow morning I will be asked by other guests what was going on (very un-soundproofed rooms here), and will have to admit: No, it wasn't a snake/bat/scorpion/monster... it was a baby lizard.

10:00.  Brush my teeth and look in a mirror for the first time all day.  The entire right side of my face is streaked with mud.  Am curious how long that's been there and why no one mentioned it.  Also confirms that I really should have showered.

10:30.  In bed, listening to Radiolab podcast on the terminal velocity of cats; they reach terminal velocity after falling for 9 stories.  I feel enlightened and am looking forward to offering up this tidbit of information at parties.

So this all gets added to my growing list of Thanksgivings spent out of the country.  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who partakes!

November 20, 2011

An exceptionally tricky past-time

I'm back in upcountry Kenya, the wild north.  The beetles seem to have gotten a little crazier while I was away.  They congregate outside my door around dusk and just scurry in circles when you try to shoo them; I now leave a broom by my door so I can sweep it clear and not accidentally crush any when I walk outside.  I've also started shaking out my blankets before getting into bed after finding a baby beetle on my pillow the other day.  In other news, we've been without internet and power for much of the weekend, though in reality it doesn't much affect daily life around here.  But I do have some wonderful pictures that I've been sitting on, unable to share.  

A major part of my project up here involves working with the community, interacting with people in neighboring villages.  However, for many reasons, we don't take any pictures of the people that we interview.  It's incongruous to assure people of the anonymity of their answers and then to snap a photo.  But on our way to a focus group last week, we stopped by the local "clinic" to inquire where we could find someone who speaks English to act as interpreter.  (Leading us to intercept 2 high school boys to help us for a few hours before their soccer game... many logistics of this work are arranged on a whim).  At the clinic waiting bay, there were over a dozen Rendille and Samburu women waiting with their children who graciously (and a bit giggly) agreed to having their photos taken.

The local equivalent of a fluorescent-lit, magazine-littered clinic waiting room.  

Taking pictures of people you don't know is an exceptionally tricky past-time.  The first rule seems straight-forward: Ask for consent.  But when the translation process is English-->Kiswahili-->Samburu-->Kiswahili-->English, it becomes a bit harder to confirm what points of communication and understanding have transpired.

But suppose you are confident in the communication and comfortable that proper consent has been established, what does consent entail exactly?  It gives you consent to take a picture.  Does it give you consent to develop that picture and put it in a photo album?  Does it give consent to show that photo album to your family?  To your friends?  Does it give consent to exhibit that photo at a gallery?  In a newspaper or magazine?  Is there a difference between showing your friends a picture in a photo album and sending it through an e-mail?  On Facebook?  On a blog?

I don't really know.  And in the absence of certain answers to the above questions, I'm more comfortable "hedging" my pictures by shooting them from behind.

Samburu or Rendille woman (the dress and customs are often undiscernable to outsiders)

Or by manipulating the contrast to obscure identifying features.

But people aren't faceless.  And I can't be the first to navigate this challenge.  The structure of our fellowship here has pointed out a helpful guide on ethical photography, much of which is focused on intent and the preservation of human dignity.  And to an end, perhaps concealing faces does more of a disservice towards dignity than the alternative?

November 11, 2011

Like coming home-ish

Like all normal people, I enjoy a good palindrome.

So, being 11/11/11 and all, today makes me happy.  Even if you're British or Kenyan and write your days before your months (why?), you can still partake in the fun.  In fact, having grown sick of writing DD/MM/YYYY on everything I do here in order to avoid confusion, today I have decided that I will rebel and resume dating all documents in the American fashion of MM/DD/YYYY.


There.  Now I just need to find some documents to fill out.  

Today also marks my final month of living in Kenya.  In precisely 30 days from now, at this moment, I'll be frantically shoving odd-shaped souvenirs into suitcases and making sure I have my flight snacks in order.  It's all about having your priorities straight.

But a month is still a sizable chunk of time, and there's much to do before I start stock-piling granola bars. I'm currently back in Nairobi for a few days, having survived another itty-bitty plane ride through a storm.  There's no airport where I stay in northern Kenya- just a gravel parking lot where the entire flight check-in procedure consists of the pilot calling names from a clipboard as passengers raise their hands... just like primary school roll-call.  No ID necessary.  No one cares if your bag has been out of your possession since you packed it.  

The pilot also fuels the plane himself, unless any hearty passengers are up to assisting the greasy procedure.  Then he eats some pasta salad from Tupperware.  It's a very glamorous life.  

Pilot sitting on top of plane to pour the fuel.  

I actually lucked out with a large plane for each flight.  Of course, the “large” planes are only 10-seaters, but that’s double what the small planes hold.  It feels like riding in a mini-van with wings.  Which isn't a bad way to travel, really. 

The magical flying minivan.

Returning to Nairobi feels… if not exactly like coming home, then at least like coming home-ish.  My apartment, the pool, the grocery stores, the shopping malls, the dance clubs... it’s such a cosmopolitan city that has much more in common with San Francisco than it does with rural Kenya. 

Home is where the kitchen is.

Kitchen balcony sunset.  

Unfortunately, I forgot to make a wish at 11:11am this morning, but luckily I operate on non-military time and will get a second chance tonight.  So at 11/11/11 11:11 tonight, I will be out in home-ish Nairobi, making wishes. 

Nairobi nights glitter at Havana.

November 6, 2011

We sit around the table

There's not much I can think of that northern Kenya and Palm Beach, Florida have in common.  Not much at all.  One has strip malls and tanning parlors; the other has famine and inter-ethnic conflict.  Yet both share the title for the heaviest rains I've ever seen.  Like being inside a waterfall, someone said today.  Back there I used to have to pull over to the side of the road because I couldn't see more than an inch in front of the car, even with the windshield wipers on high.  Here, the roads become muddy swamps- impassible.  Transit foiled by weather all over the world.  We're not so different after all.  

And there's not much to do inside when it rains here.  I read, I work, I putz around on the computer.  Or we sit around the table in our farm-house style kitchen and share stories.

A coworker came over to take tea with us last week and shared a bunch of stories about growing up and going to school.  His family is Samburu, nomadic pastoralists commonly known to the western world through National Geographic style pictures featuring traditional beadwork.   Unlike most people of his tribe, he went to a missionary school and later to college in Nairobi.  He described coming home for Spring or Winter Break and having to search for his nomadic family, sometimes unable to even find them before classes resumed.  Another time, having located his family, he was put in charge of watching the cattle when a massive storm hit.  He went to find a cave to take shelter in, only to come face to face with a leopard.  So he threw a rock at the leopard and then lay down and went to sleep.  I wonder what someone from Palm Beach would have done.

Yesterday was Saturday, but we still did some work with a focus-group in town.  Most of our focus groups are held outdoors- sitting on rocks and basins under some scraps of tree shade.  But with the bleak weather, we held this one inside a participant's house.

Three feet.

It's the second one we've had in a home, and I love to see where people live.  Here, every surface covered in pattern.  The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the tables... a complete visual stimulation.  After the group concluded and dissolved, the hostess turned the television on to MTV and served us purple Fantas that tasted like liquid lollipops.  The generosity of people here is deep and genuine.

Out of frame: bright blue Ray-Ban style sunglasses resting above the TV display.  

On our way home, we stopped by the house of a coworker to say hello to the orphans she raises.  Her home sparkles with gold and tinsel and oozes joy.

All that glitters.

Leading me to realize that tinsel is exactly the trimming most missing in my own home.  

November 2, 2011

What we think we're asking

We were bumping along in the back of some truck-like vehicle without side doors, driving through the woods in a forgotten area of northern Kenya to talk to some Samburu and Rendille people, and somewhere along the way my life shed its last semblance of familiarity.

Over the hills and through the woods.

Over the last three days, as we will continue to do over the next month, we've been traveling to remote communities to ask questions about their health needs and health-seeking behaviors. What do they do when they get sick? Why do the choose to do that? How have drought and famine impacted their quality of life, with particular regards to health-care access?

At least, that's what we think we're asking. The process undergoes at least one translation along the way, sometimes up to three. Today we were communicating English --> Kiswahili --> Kiborana --> Kiswahili --> English. Sometimes I cringe at the lack of standardization, but I think we're doing quite well given the circumstances.

Traditional Samburu or Rendille house.

I'm often curious about what the people think of us. It is certain that they find us amusing, given the sporatic bursts of group laughter; probable that they find us tiresome after the first hour. In all of the other non-Nairobi places I've traveled to in Kenya both children and adults have such infrequent enough exposure to foreigners that they point and holler, "Mzungu!" as you pass. (Basically: "Look, I spy a white person!"). Here, the communities are so remote and exposure to foreigners is so incredibly minimal that most children just stare mutely.

Samburu village

That the desert grass is as spring-green as the hills of Ireland make the experience all the more surreal.