Monday, July 28, 2008

Long time, no post

Yeah, so when I left Africa, I was a bit disenchanted with everything. It's been more than a year, and I'm just now ready to start writing again. So....here we go. It’s been more than a year since I came home from a three-month stay in Africa. When I first returned, I didn’t want to talk about my experience. I was disappointed. A few bad encounters had left me wondering if people could really make a difference. I’m ashamed to say that it’s taken me this long to gain some perspective. But little things like e-mails from people who stumble across the blog I haven’t touched since last March, the souvenirs I come across as I unpack boxes in my new home, and those smelly Columbia sandals I wore nearly every day as I traipsed around the Kenyan countryside are beginning to pull me out of my funk. They are helping me set aside the disdain I have for the rapist, corrupt officials and drunken soldiers I had the misfortune to meet. They are reminding me of the funny moments, good people, and positive things I saw. For most of my life, I have been drawn to Africa. When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I’m pretty sure that when I was in high school I was the only person in my hometown who had and wore a “Feed the World” T-shirt. And when I discovered BBC journalist Fergal Keane and started reading his accounts of the Rwandan genocide, I knew I had to go to Africa as a journalist. It took enrolling in the master of international journalism program at Baylor University to get me to Africa. I tested the waters by leading a journalism team on a two-week trip to Nairobi. Standing face-to-face with glue-sniffing street children, meeting a woman who quit her accounting job to start an orphanage, befriending a girl named Mercy who at the age of 2 began selling trinkets on street corners, and seeing the living conditions of the millions who live in Kibera slum only whetted my appetite to share Africa’s stories. So I signed on for three months in one of the poorest regions of western Kenya, hoping to find that people were trying to help themselves and not just relying on the kindness of others. I found what I was looking for, but I’m only just now able to wrap my mind around it. I’m only just now able to separate the good Africa from the bad Africa. Yes, I heard horrible stories of wife and child abuse. But I also met an inspirational woman named Sister Freda who runs a fledgling medical clinic for the poorest in her community. A recent e-mail from someone who read my blog entries about Sister Freda jogged my memory. I now can clearly see her nurturing eyes and feel her gentle touch on my arm as she led me through the herb gardens that provide her with the ingredients for homeopathic remedies she must use when pharmaceuticals are in short supply. Yes, nearly everyone I encountered on the streets asked me for money. But I also met Mama Judy, a widow who welcomed me into her home and shared what little she had with me. She called me her American daughter, taught me the few words of Bukusu I needed to know to get through a police checkpoint, and on the day of our last visit gave me the most precious gift she could give – a chicken. I don’t know how the chicken felt about the situation, but I couldn’t contain my amusement as I walked away with my gift tucked under my arm. I came across a picture of Mama Judy one day last week, and all these memories came rushing back to me. Yes, a couple of drunken soldiers with AK-47s harassed me until I gave them $30. But then Elijah, my guide and translator, delivered me safely to my destination every single day and then made sure I found my way back home. He didn’t have a car, so together we walked at least 20 miles a week – him in his brown loafers and me in my Columbia sandals. I was washing dirt off those sandals last week, and I had to laugh because they weren’t nearly as filthy as they had been that time I stepped in cow dung. I still doubt whether the idealists of the world can make a widespread difference in Africa with corrupt leaders in place. But they still believe, and I no longer want to dampen their enthusiasm. I’m finally ready to unpack my boxes of memories and do what I can to help the people who are working for the betterment of Africa. Heck, I might even go back.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Outstretched Hands at Every Turn

(Written Wednesday, March 7, 2007) I came to Africa thinking I could dispel the notion that the people of this continent always have their hands outstretched, asking for more help. It is how Africans often are portrayed in the media – the continent can’t help itself so it looks to the West for help, and then when that help isn’t enough, they ask for more. After 2 ½ months of living here, I am not so sure I disagree.

As a journalist, there is not much I can do to help the people who are struggling to survive. I can write their stories and hope my work spurs someone to act. Still, in my time here, I have used my skills to write the life stories of women who otherwise might be forgotten by their very young children. Every single woman I have interviewed has been overwhelmingly grateful for my work. But just when it seems that I have given them something, they ask for more.

They always want to know if I can help them get some money. Can I talk someone into paying for their children to go to school? Can I talk someone into giving them money to cover the basic cost of living? My answer is always no. I don’t know anyone who is going to send money unconditionally to a group. The only funding sources I am familiar with are the institutional kind – and those require grant proposals outlining detailed plans for improvement and systems for accountability. The groups I have been working with are not established, organized or sophisticated enough to meet those requirements. I am sorry, but no one I know is going to send a flood of money to the widows living in the Kiminini area.

But it is not just the widows who ask for more. Shop keepers always want you purchase a little something more; market vendors always want to charge you more than they would an African; street children always follow you around even though you’ve already said no to them; and everyday people walk up to you and ask if they can have your watch or hat or camera or whatever interesting thing you might have.

When I arrived in Kiminini in January, I had to keep reminding the project director and his staff that I came here specifically to write oral histories. They kept asking what more I could do. I am not a teacher, so I could not work in the school. I am not knowledgeable about agriculture, so I could not show local farmers how to organically grow anything. I finally drilled it into their heads that I was not a typical volunteer; I came here as part of my master’s degree program, and my internship proposal states specifically that I will write articles and oral histories.

It can just be so frustrating to hear someone ask me what more I can do. I paid a fee, every cent of which was supposed to go into the community where I worked; I left my husband for 2 ½ months; and I traveled around the world to participate in a program that I thought could benefit people. I am doing the only thing I know how to do. Yet, everyone still wants more.

Inherited Tradition of Oppression of Women

(Written Tuesday, March 6, 2007) I wrapped up my oral history project last week and am spending this week trying to conduct interviews for articles I hope to publish. In the midst of all this, I am very excited about the prospect of coming home next week. I can’t wait to see my husband and my dogs. And I am craving cheese dip and margaritas like crazy!


I wrote a total of 26 oral histories. Looking back, I am glad my project in Muhuru Bay did not work out. I learned much from the last six women I interviewed in Mbai. I met a woman who was a victim of wife inheritance – after the husband dies, his brothers come to the widow and basically force her to marry one of them. She eventually left her abusive second husband, but she has suffered tremendous hardship because of this decision. During her second marriage, her husband took all her money and property. She had to abandon the nice home and farm that she and her first husband shared. She now lives in a one-room cow dung and mud house that is hardly fit for an animal. Her dismal dwelling is located directly behind her father- and mother-in-law’s spacious, brick home. The in-laws cannot even see fit to let her and her four children move in with them. The father-in-law follows the traditional belief that if he shares a roof with his daughter-in-law, he will die a sudden death. The man is in his 80s. He is going to die soon anyway! I cannot tell you how sick I am of these traditional beliefs geared toward oppressing the women and making life easier for the men. Because of tradition, this old man can get away with neglecting his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. It is outrageous. Thank God this courageous 29-year-old woman has the support of the other widows. Otherwise, she would be all alone.


When I get home, I would like to work on a story that brings together everything I have learned about widows groups and the women who rely on them for financial and emotional support. These groups are growing in number, though, as I suspected, the staffers at the local Department of Social Services office were completely inept when it came to helping me find out how many of these groups exist in this district. And these groups are in a very small way helping women make a stand for their rights. If the women in this country want their lives to improve, then they are going to have to put up a fight. The men here are mired in traditional beliefs, which benefit only them.

In pursuit of my story about widows groups, I visited with a widow who is HIV-positive and not afraid to talk about it. I spent two hours with her and heard the most amazing story of strength and resolve. She contracted the disease from her husband, a Kenyan Army warrant officer who is now dead. He had four wives and took concubines everywhere he was stationed. Two of the four wives are dead from AIDS. The other wife refuses to be tested. But Gladys, the woman I interviewed, is thriving thanks in large part to her widows group, which gave her the means to start a micro-enterprise project that is providing her with a steady income. So she can afford to go to the doctor once a month for check ups, and she can afford to purchase the medicines she must take.

By the way, those medicines are supposed to be provided free by the government. But various people along the chain of command would rather make a dollar than help the people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Some antiretroviral medications never make it to the hospitals and clinics. So the hospitals and clinics are left with a shortage. This gives doctors and pharmacists the opportunity to benefit financially. What medications are available go to the people who can pay for them, leaving the impoverished to die.

Needless to say, I have seen so many emotionally draining things in these last two-and-a-half months. Sometimes I think this country is just waiting to spiral out of control. And it is considered one of the most stable democracies on the continent! Read the Kenyan newspapers for an entire week – especially during this election year – and you begin to doubt there is democracy and freedom at all.

But I will write more on all this later. Right now I need to concentrate on finishing up my interviews. I plan to interview an official from one more widows group in an effort to find out how these groups are helping women, and I hope to visit a group of women who operate a thriving pottery business. When I get home, decompress, and have time to go back through all my notebooks and journals, I will start sharing my thoughts.

And, I know, the blog is not really complete. I need to post pictures and the articles I have published since this whole journey began. Please be patient with me. I have so much to do.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Kenya Travel Tip #3: Bring your Rose-colored Glasses

(Written Thursday morning, March 1, 2007) I imagine that every single person who participates in an overseas volunteer program has a different experience. I am reminded of what one volunteer said to me before she left Kenya and went back home: “The Kenyans are such a peaceful people.” That is not my impression at all.

This particular volunteer spent one month in Kiminini. She ended her trip with a safari but ventured to no other places inside this country. She spent most of her time inside Joshua’s compound, working at the school. She took occasional strolls outside the compound, and she went into town accompanied by Joshua. I don’t think she ever rode in a matatu, and I doubt she picked up a Kenyan newspaper even once since she viewed the New York Times as the gospel. She certainly did not spend any significant amount of time with the people who live in this area, listening in disbelief to their stories of forced marriages, murdered spouses whose bodies were dumped in the river and families who were displaced due to tribal clashes (as recently as the mid-1990s).

I certainly would not classify myself as “adventurous.” After all, I cut my losses in Muhuru Bay after just a few days. But I think any sane person would have done the same considering that there was a rapist wandering around.

Still, I have made an effort to get to know this place. I meet people, and I ask about their lives. I try to read the Daily Nation every day so I know what is going on in this country. I read with great interest the exposés on the increasing poverty and crime rates, and I pay careful attention to the news briefs about car jackings, home break-ins, armed robberies, etc.

As a journalist, I know that many news outlets focus their attention on the “bad” things that happen. But we must pay heed to these things if we are to get a full view of human nature. And my experiences here in Kenya have shown me that Kenyans are no more peaceful than anyone else in the world. The children here argue and fight just like any other children. And the adults here are capable of committing the same atrocities as every other adult in the world.

Maybe life is a little more bearable for those who view the world – and other cultures – through rose-colored glasses.

Blessing or Curse?

(Written Wednesday evening, February 28, 2007) I had a heart wrenching interview with a widow this week. I know Gladys is struggling now that her husband is dead, but a small part of me really is glad that he is gone. Gladys’ story of how she came to be married makes me furious.

Gladys was still rather young when her parents died. So she went to live with her grandmother in Kitale. She was 16 years old when she met her husband, who was 12 years her senior. Morris was a 28-year-old truck driver when he first spotted Gladys walking to a shop in town. He immediately pulled over his truck, got out and called to the shy teenager. Gladys immediately ran away. But Morris stalked her for two years, finding out all he could about her family and her routine. He discovered that Gladys was an orphan, which meant that when she got married no family members would pressure the husband to pay a dowry. So after two years of watching her, Morris made his move. He snatched Gladys off the street one day and took her to his remote home village, where for several days he raped her. Of course, “rape” is my word. In Gladys’ words, Morris “forced her to marry him.”

Morris impregnated the girl, who was terrified to go back home to her grandmother. She thought that no one would believe she had been kidnapped. She thought she would be labeled a liar and be beaten. And so she remained with Morris.

Gladys said that after three children and six years of “marriage,” she came to love her captor. I cannot know her true feelings. Her speech and gaze were devoid of any emotion as she talked about Morris and the forced marriage. I tried to hide my feelings, too. But inside I was screaming in anger and mourning this girl’s lost youth. There supposedly are now laws prohibiting this kind of “forced marriage.” But I imagine they are like most Kenyan laws – enforced only when it is convenient for the officials in charge.

Gladys’ husband, who also was an alcoholic, eventually was poisoned. He drank a locally brewed beer (they usually contain formaldehyde and other unsafe chemicals) and died in his sleep. Was his death a blessing or a curse?

Bureaucracy is Universal

(Written Wednesday morning, February 28, 2007) All this work with widows has made me wonder just how many Kenyan women are struggling to survive following the deaths of their husbands. Of course, I may never know for sure. People keep telling me that the number is increasing due to the spread of AIDS as well as the deaths of the men who practiced polygamy during the first half of the 20th century. I figured one way to gauge the growth in the number of the widows was to investigate just how many widows groups are registered with Kenya’s Department of Social Services. If you think getting data from a U.S. government office is difficult, you’ve never tried to get data from an African government office.

Joshua made an appointment for me to meet yesterday with the assistant director of the local Social Services office. I thought for sure that I would have to wait all day just to see her. But, in Kenya, if you know someone things move a little more quickly. Luckily, Joshua was friends with this woman. She escorted me straight into her office and gladly talked to me about widows groups, what purposes they serve, and why widows have such a hard time surviving in Kenya.

I could not help noticing, though, that this very helpful woman had no computer. In the States, if you need some data, it can be acquired with a few strokes on a computer keyboard. That is absolutely not the case here. This Social Services woman has to do everything by hand. She has a metal filing cabinet filled with folders and copies of the paperwork documenting the existence of widows groups in her district. I suspect I will never know how many widows groups have been formed in this province, much less the entire country. I will be very lucky if the Social Services woman can find the time to go through her files and find out how many widows groups exist in this district. But all is not lost. At least I got some good quotes.

Kenya Travel Tip #2: Learn the Local Lingo

(Written Tuesday, February 27, 2007) You should see the looks on people’s faces when I manage to spit out a few words of Bukusu, a Luyha dialect. I’ve picked up some Kiswahili, too, but the majority of the women with whom I work are Bukusu. So I could not imagine spending a couple of months here and not learning at least the basic greetings. But people just seem so surprised when they hear me say, “Oriana” (How are you?). And they go nuts when I say, “Buliye” (Good-bye).

Bukusu is sort of like math. It’s something that I figured I would play around with while I am here but never actually use for any significant purpose. I could not have been more wrong. On the way to Kitale today, Joshua and I were pulled over at a police checkpoint (Yes, I am tired of being bothered by the police). I have no idea why the policeman pulled us over. He inspected the licensing decals on the windshield of Joshua’s car, and then he came to my window. I rolled down the window, and the policeman shook hands with Joshua. He said a few words to Joshua, and then he looked at me. He said, “Oriana.” I wish I had a picture of the expression on his face when I responded, “Demalem” (I am fine). His initial expression was one of utter shock. Then, he started laughing so hard that I thought he would fall down.

Joshua told me that the police are not impressed when mzungus speak Kiswahili to them. Everyone who comes here ends up learning a little of that language. But they are duly impressed when a mzungu can speak a few words of a local language. I wasn’t out to impress the man. I was simply answering his greeting. As a result, he forgot why he pulled us over in the first place.

The policeman motioned for Joshua to move on. As we started to roll away from the shoulder of the road, I poked my head out the window, waved good-bye and said, “Buliye.” This made the policeman laugh even harder.

I don’t think the police at that checkpoint will bother Joshua again.