it's official; i've been in kenya a year. which means...midterm medical checkup! not a big deal, really, just a three-day jaunt in nairobi - though the second day was free, just waiting for the results of the TB test (negative). i did find out that i have a parasite, but haven't experienced any of the symptoms of it yet. it must be a rite of passage for every peace corps volunteer. my first parasite...
the day our medical exam ended, callie and i took up and headed out to kisumu (western kenya) for a week-long excursion i liked to call a "business trip." by calling it thus i didn't have to take any vacation days. to be fair, i did some work on two days of the trip, by visiting a volunteer who helped set up a village bank (and whose wife is a tremendous cook. hey, a businessman's gotta eat), as well as a nonprofit NGO near kakamega. let's just say i work hard, and that's why i play hard.
by 'i play hard' i mean i floated on a ferry out to rusinga island, home of a soon-to-COS (close of service, i.e. he's leaving) PCV. someone had apparently planned a party, and at one point there were about 14 volunteers crammed into rob's small cinderblock house which sat like a big square turkey roasting under the 100-degree broiler sun. luckily the beach was only a 15 minute walk in any direction. this little island isn't home to much except fishermen and their families (plus one guy who guards the cell phone tower) and a few small villages where all of the fishermen bring their fish to dry in the sun and to sell to each other. the children, as far as i could tell, spent most of their day playing naked at the beach, which is where we found them every time we went out for a swim. rather, that is where they found us - 10 half-stripped mzungus with a football, an inner tube and a pension for making small african children laugh. some experiences are just the step-back-and-realize sort of experiences that reinforce the decision to join the peace corps, and this was definitely one of them. i spent a good half-hour or more spinning around in the inner tube, grabbing the daring kids who snuck up within arms' reach and tossing them in the air to the shrieking delight of the rest of the mob.
some of the children that we attracted were older, boys and girls 14 and 15 years old splashing in the same pool of water, seemingly (impossibly!) oblivious to their playmates' nudity. on some level this might explain the 40% HIV infection rate in the region; kids grow up so comfortable with each others' bodies that getting to third base can happen by accident in the lake during recess. perhaps it doesn't highlight anything save the modern world's obsession with clothing and privacy, and how ridiculous three dozen playful ignorant happy kids can make it seem. their joy and utter purity was counterintuitive, though, given the incidence of HIV infection (by far the highest in kenya and likely one of the highest in the world), which, in spite of a plethora of political and nonprofit educational campaigns, is still perpetuated by several cultural and social factors. prostitution is rampant around lake victoria, where women trade sex for fish. condoms have only recently been accepted by the women, who feared that by forcing men to use them they would alienate their customers to other more liberal merchants. an intensive campaign by a womens' rights group helped by empowering the women through organization, convincing them that they had the power - and the right - to demand it.
in some parts of the region wife inheritance is still practiced as well. according to luo custom, when a man dies his brother inherits the wife and is required to have sex with her in order to pledge his acceptance of her. while this tradition is dying out, in many circles it is seemingly impossible to eradicate, akin to other human rights' issues in kenya like female genital mutilation and mob justice.
as the sun set on rusinga we would start a campfire and the wine and beer would come out, and someone would play the guitar. as the dark crept in we would scramble through the dry brush beneath a clutch of trees to get a clear view of lake victoria, which was illuminated by thousands of high-pressure lanterns, set out by the fishermen marking their nets to draw in their catch at night. the lanterns spread out like a fan, reaching the shores of uganda and tanzania, ignorant of political boundaries and knowing only the rolling motion of the water and the unsleeping life beneath its waves. it was a very surreal sight to look down over these city lights on the lake, like christmas lights strewn across an inky black carpet, each flame flicking eternally in anticipation of its master's arrival.
on our last night there, with only 8 of us left, tony and i set out on bikes to bring home fish for dinner, accompanied by one of rob's island friends who knew where to go. the clouded sky was looking heavy with rain but we wanted fish so we went. the air drizzled as we rode, but the moment the dirt path opened up onto the village the downpour started and we scrambled for shelter under a tiny tin roof with five fishmongers and their goods. i bought some omena from them - tiny silver fish eaten whole - and tony haggled unsuccessfully over the price of tomatoes and onions (10 shillings for one tomato!) but bought them anyway. some of the rain had turned to hail which was shooting off of the roof like little tic-tac bullets and which i caught and sucked on pleasantly while we waited for it to stop. the fishmongers sharing our shelter didn't have enough tilapia for all of us, and they didn't have any nile perch - which was what i wanted - so we bought what they had and moved on, buying sodas from a neighboring duka and then biking back toward's robs, hoping another shop would be open along the way. we were lucky, and came upon a large mud flat, smoke seeping from the cracks in the door and ceiling, an old wizened mama inside with a bucket of "fresh" fish and two old men sucking lazily on their meal in the corner. rob's friend bargained for us in dhluo while tony and i threw in some swahili just to show we weren't tourists, but she was a tough mama and bargained hard, finally coming down just enough in price for us to reluctantly agree. we had no where else to go and it was dark out. she piled our purchase into a shredded plastic bag and as we turned to go i gave her a wave and said "erokamano ainya" (thank you very much in dhluo), and the woman grabbed another big fish and ran out and shoved it down in our bag with the others, free of charge. we thanked her again and left, walking this time with our bikes at our sides. in five minutes we were back again at rob's where the six others, dry, were making salad and tea and waiting for us sympathetically. we didn't mind the ride, though, or the rain, it was actually quite a pleasant excursion, so we sat down and drank the soul-warming tea and munched on handfuls of popcorn and fried omena while our sodas chilled in a bucket of rainwater outside.