Thursday, April 06, 2006

one man parade

yesterday i was reminded of a parade that leah and i embarked on several years ago in maine - it was to be a boat parade for the fourth of july, with all of the motorboats, canoes, and other flotation devices decorated festively. we missed the parade by a day (no one told us it was held on the 3rd!), and ended up parading around the lake by ourselves in the rowboat with a 6hp motor strapped on. needless to say, we didn't pull in the crowd we had hoped, in spite of the streamers we had attached to a stick. i was reminded of this incident as i biked between secondary schools yesterday, through parts of the village that are impossible to reach by vehicle; white people aren't often seen venturing to those parts of kenya. i was a sight to behold, apparently, a white man on a bike. a one man parade.


peace corps has this little policy of not allowing volunteers to travel outside of their sites for the first three months of service. that restriction ended for us at the beginning of march, so five of us decided to take advantage of our newfound freedom and take a vacation. if you haven't been reading my previous blog entries, living in kenya and taking a vacation may seem redundant. let me assure you, i don't think i have ever needed a vacation as much as i did two weeks ago. the stress of work, cultural differences, living alone, apathy, marriage proposals, heat...(i could go on forever) was manifesting itself through a deterioration in my physical and mental health.

four other volunteers and i headed for the coast - the indian ocean (my third of four). we arrived at our campsite on the kenya wildlife service campgrounds in malindi to discover a third-year peace corps volunteer living there - a retired engineer known to everyone as 'uncle joe.' i highly doubt any volunteer in the world has a better site than uncle joe. his house, which has running hot water, electricity, and a refrigerator, also comes equipped with glorious deck-side views of the sea. working for KWS also has its perks - he accompanies the rangers on their game control hunts to kill hippos, crocodiles, and other wild game that are bothering or mauling residents. his pictures and stories are the stuff of legend.

malindi itself is a small historically muslim city (as the swahili coast generally is) which is quickly being overtaken by wealthy italians, who are erecting luxury resorts like sand castles on the beach. the european influence gives the city a unique epicurean style, which combines african flamboyance with islamic reverence and western liberalism to yield a living, writhing, transient social being that easily embraces travelers and residents alike, as a home.

did i mention that i found dr. pepper?! i was elated by the discovery, and waited through an entire siesta (a direct example of the italian influence) for the store to open so i could get my fix. i tried to think of anything in my bag that i could leave behind to make room for extra cans, but nothing came to mind, and i settled on six - three of which i had drank by sunset. after returning to nairobi, however, my fear of being dr. pepper-less yet again was relieved. a more seasoned volunteer than myself directed me to a previously unknown source for the beverage (it was right under my nose!). so i've got that going for me, which is nice.

one of the more popular tourist attractions in malindi is the crocodile and snake park, which we visited our second-to-last day there. wednesday is feeding day, - obviously the day we chose to pop in - so the caretakers strode between the croc pits with buckets of castoffs from a local butcher. it a rather predictable adventure, and so not quite as thrilling as i imagined it to be (probably due to my expectation of a raptor feeding in jurassic park). the owner and caretakers were very relaxed and easygoing about the whole park, however, so they would let people wander around freely and sit on the giant 102 year old tortoise and hold the pythons and poke the black mambas with sticks (just kidding). the owner told me later that he often gets frantic calls about deadly snakes in the area, to which he responds by trapping the snake and releasing it several kilometers away. he says he doesn't have space for every snake that someone wants him to capture (i didn't think to ask him whether he considered that all of the calls may be about the same snake that he keeps releasing).

we took the night bus back to nairobi for the peace corps 45th anniversary celebration, which conveniently coincided with the annual peace corps prom. the anniversary was a fun, relaxing day with potluck food brought by embassy families and the US marines grilling burgers and selling sodas. it was a good time to meet a lot of the volunteers that came before me and lived in other areas of the country. it helped me to realize that one of the reasons i've been rather unhappy with my site is that i haven't been making enough of an effort outside of the office. since there are 8 other people who work in YARD with me, all of whom come to the office from 9am-5pm, i felt somewhat obligated to follow their lead. i ended up playing a lot of scrabble on the computer. when i returned from nairobi, i told my supervisor that i was going to spend less time in the office, and more time out in the community. he told me that was a great idea, and that sometimes when he doesn't have anything pressing to do in the office he just doesn't come in....

this past week my attitude has improved, largely due to my increased efforts to be productive. i went into thika with two friends to check out a couple of recording studios (one of which was basically a closet with a computer) as part of our research project to bring the technology to our village. waithaka, maybe the most intelligent person i've met in kenya, lit up when we got to the second studio like a kid on christmas morning. he loves undergound hip-hop and rap, and was overjoyed to get on a microphone and freestyle for a bit.

on monday i went with titus (the librarian) to the office of the area member of parliament (MP), to ask him for help with the talent show we are planning for the end of april. the mp comes to mabanda once per week to meet with the constituency, and when he comes, the entire village turns out it seems. titus told me that most of them were probably asking for money - likely school fees, medical bills, maybe even money to eat - and i wondered what the MP's response is to all of them. we were number 38 in a line of more than 50 individuals or groups, and many were in the office for less than 30 seconds before the door would open again and they would emerge - smiling, a surprising amount of the time. considering they had to wait for 8 hours to meet him, i assumed that he had given them what they wanted. when our turn finally came, i sped through our prepared proposal, mindful of the mp's schedule. i finished a minute later and the mp leaned back in his chair. "so you're from the US?" i had a suspicion that we might be in his office longer than the barefoot mamas who came before us. "what state are you from?" i smiled and gave him my concise life story, after which i asked him what he could do to help us. we had requested that his office provide us with three trophies, the use of his sound equipment, 5,000 shillings for the rental of the catholic church's performance hall and his presence at the talent show as the guest of honor. he told us that if he were alive on the 30th he'd be there, and that if we found out how much the trophies would cost his office would provide them. since the sound equipment just needed to be reserved with his secretary, we got up to leave. as we did he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash, handing us 5,000 shillings as he poked his head out of the door to see how many people were left waiting.

tuesday afternoon i went to visit gatunyu secondary school to speak with the form 1 students (high school freshmen). i didn't really have a lesson plan or idea of what we would discuss, but i had high hopes of a meaningful cross-cultural exchange. the deputy principal ushered me into the classroom and introduced me to the 40-odd students whose desks were scattered in all corners of the room. "this is jonny. he's a white man." after my introduction he scampered out of the room and left me alone, sitting in my proverbial lion's den, clueless. i put up my world map and asked if anyone knew where the US was. one tiny little boy raised his hand and launched himself out of his desk to point it out on the map. i thanked him and asked the rest of the students what they thought of america. no one said anything. i told them to pick up their desks and move closer to the front. this procedure, anathema to most american students, seemed to be what the kids were waiting for, and they scrambled to push themselves as close to me as possible. i asked them again what they thought of americans.

"they are brutal." obviously bush's military policies have been thoroughly reported by the kenyan media. another said the first thing he thought of when someone said 'america' was the war they had with the french. i asked them what we eat, which was received with a suppressed mischevious laughter. almost all of the students were in unison when they said "snakes." while they weren't entirely surprised to find out that i had never eaten a snake, they were flabbergasted when i told them that we don't eat maize or maize flour, probably the main staple of the east african diet. i talked with them about myself, - how old i was (they thought i was 38), how many siblings i had, that my parents were divorced - about virginia, about the peace corps. i asked them if they had any questions.

"are you married?" not yet.

"do you have electric trains in virginia?" i explained the DC metro system.

"what famous rappers do you know?" when i asked the querier the same question, he said 'lil bow wow.'

"does Texas have development?" ummm...yes.

"is schwarzennegger still governor?" yes, although he's not as popular as governor as we has in hollywood. (according to one boy, the most famous american is barak obama. his father emigrated from kenya. no one knows which state he represents or anything else about him, really, but if you order an “obama” in a bar, you’ll get a bottle of ‘senator’ lager.)

"do you have many niggers in the US?" this question caught me off guard, and the small boy in the front row whose feet didn't even touch the ground had to repeat his question several times before i understood that i understood the first time. none of the other students seemed to have a problem with his question, so I told them that ‘nigger’ is a very rude word in the US, at least when used by a white person, but that in the end what really matters is the intention of the person who uses the word (regardless, standing in front of a classroom full of black kids and using the word ‘nigger’ feels disturbingly illicit). I told him that yes, there are many ‘black people’ in america. I didn’t bother trying to explain ‘african-american’ to them.

before i left i told them that i had never heard the kenyan national anthem, and wondered if they would sing it for me. they did, – i was mildly surprised that it was in english – although most of them trailed off near the end. i had to ask them if it was over. afterwards one boy (there were girls in the class, too, but not a one of them said a word) asked if i knew my national anthem. i sang it for them, as unabashedly as i could. a couple of off-key high notes elicited streams of giggles from the class, but i think they appreciated my candor. about midway through the song, however, i realized that i wasn’t sure that i knew all the words. it had been a while. speaking of which, what is a ‘rampart’ anyway?

4 comments :

  1. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Fascinating rambling cacophony of disparate yet altogether captivating thoughts! :-)

    BTW, a 'rampart' is equivalent to a 'bulwark'. Hope that helps!

    (Okay - it's just a wall, made of dirt or wood, or both. No; I didn't have to look it up.)

    Love Always - Dad

    ReplyDelete
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  3. Anonymous2:46 AM

    awesome post jonny, its good to hear your spirits are up!

    - Scott

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  4. Anonymous5:58 AM

    Hey Jonny -

    Glad to hear you're hanging in there. I'm sure it helped to get away and blow off some steam with your other PCV compatriots. Getting away every 4 to 6 months or so, even for just a day or two, was absolutely essential to my own mental health (insert sarcastic comments from John here)

    yer Unkel Mike

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