Saturday, February 27, 2010

Where's the outrage?

Recently, while reading the daily soap opera paper devoted to rival politicians, The Daily Nation, I came across an article which held a particular resonance for me. The title was "No, it's not easy to write about magical Kenya" by Rasna Warah.

She wrote "it is difficult for many Kenyans to experience the magic of Kenya simply because they are too hungry, too desperate, and too downtrodden to marvel at the beauty of a scarlet sunset dipping into the Indian Ocean or a herd of gazelle dancing across a savannah".

How is it possible for a writer to write about the magic of Kenya when the world around her is crumbling? If Kenya burns, we will all feel the heat, regardless of income or social status. I am finding that all my blogs mention the rotten state of Kenya rather than the beautiful people or sunsets. Every week, another scandal erupts, reminding me of corruption, impunity and total disregard of the political elite for the welfare of their citizens. Already several scandals involving theft of free primary education money, the profit from stolen maize and the pocketing of money allocated for the building of infrastructure, have depressed both Kenyans and foreigners.

But where is the outrage? Why the complacency?Are people so scarred and oppressed that they cannot take a stand?

I have found myself in recent weeks, erupting in uncontrolable rage at the pole pole rate of change here. I realise this is a developing country and that I am not here to impose change on anyone. But day after day, reform seems to creep along at a snail's pace. There is no public outcry at the state of politics or anything else for that matter. Rather a fatalistic notion that this is Kenya and this is the way it will always be.

On a return trip from Uganda, I asked the bus conductor to put on the chick flick "The Notebook" on the dvd player to relieve us from the constant monotony and freakish films they had chosen- a film about Nigerian dwarves pinching women's arses and bribing officials followed by Kenny Rogers Live and then to top it all off, Gospel music. I suggested a change of scene- some Hollywood romance to ease the nerves. After ten minutes, a harmless love scene involving the two main characters (they kissed at the beach), jerked the conductor into action. He quickly changed the film, opting for The tragic South African film "Sarafina" which explicitly shows the violence in Soweto during the aparteid regime.

When challenged about the appropriatenss of this film, one man retorted "we are used to this violence". Hollywood romance does not translate here. Kissing is strictly taboo, reserved for tourists and honeymooners.

I recently imploded when a manager in the organisation suggested that I was doing too much and that we should scale down activities. Scale down to what- nothing?

I am reactive. I have always known that. When I am angry, my eyes bulge, my face reddens and my hands fling about. Its a scarry sight but somehow people find my facial changes funny here. As a taxi driver said to me last night; " you look funny when you are angry". Kenyans seem more controlled in their anger. The stoney faces remain stoney faced. There are no explosions, or drama or raised front of me anyway. Such repressed anger..even in children. How do they not burst with emotion with all they carry inside?

Cultural differences I suppose- fascinating and unfamiliar but frustrating as hell.

The paper seller on the corner of my road replied "God help us" when I asked him what was in the paper that day. Divine intervention may not be enough to rescue this state. Its up to the people of Kenya to save this place- not the volunteers or the aid workers. A little bit of Kenya protest is needed in regular doses

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Up and down

Visiting Karen Blixen's house last Sunday with a group of friends, I noticed a poster on the wall about her life and writing. Author of "Out of Africa", she frequently wrote to her mother in Denmark about her life in Kenya, running a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills. Her farm no longer remains but her writing does, of a time long past but not forgotten- Colonial Kenya. I lingered for a while reading one particular letter she had written: "I was not drawn to Africa because it is was rich, but its riches are boundless"

And this is certainly true, if you have an open attitude and can see all the riches it beholds

Many time here in Nairobi, I have been caught up with numerous issues. Important questions like can I afford to live here as a volunteer? or how can I get faster internet access? or how can I communicate with people at home if I can't access skype?

Consumed with such questions, I wonder how I found myself in such a recondite place where even the basic necessities of life like health, education, technology are considered luxuries that few can afford. Only today in The Daily Nation, I read an article about the ongoing saga of the stolen millions from the Free Primary Education Fund. Hundreds of thousands of innocent children will suffer because the elite under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education misplaced Doner money. More aid money down the drain in a country already swelling to the brim with dependency on aid. And still the culprits remain in their positions, wealthy with the money they misplaced. Kenya's forgotten children will remain in villages all over the country, denied their basic right to education.

There are other problems too but I have been adviced by my Kenyan friends not to worry about the small stuff like lack of Internet access. And I understand why. With the weight of massive burdens, people here are resigned not to sweat the small stuff and exude a patience which I admire. I have not heard a voice raised in frustration (except my own) nor a tormented look on any one's face since I arrived. Not even in Kibera, where people set up shack in Africa's largest slum. Without sanitation, living in hovels which provide the most basic kind of shelter. Literally, they only have the roof over their head and the shirt on their back. Still there is laughter and children playing as if its just another day. Life goes on.

And now for its riches ...because they are everywhere if only you have the eyes to see them. I left Ireland hoping for a change of scenery and what I got instead was a change of perspective. Sure the little things bother me all the time. But I have to remember why I am here and the job I have to do. The little things will have to wait.

Last weekend crystallised in all that I loved about Kenya. I was invited to a Team Building Day at Masai Lodge by the Occupational Therapy Department at Kenyatta Hospital. We were instructed to meet at 7.3o in Kenyatta.

I should have known! 7 30 in Kenya translates to 9 am. Instead of turning over for another sleep at 8 am , I got up at 6.45 am only to realise my mistake when I got to Kenyatta. And as I looked around searching for the familiar faces of my colleagues, I noticed my other Muzungu friend, Trixie, who had mistakenly kept the time.

I have learned from my mistake. Always always add at least one hour and then hope for the best that people will stick to that time. You never know. Time is unique here in that no one seems to live by the clock. Rather a notion that when you get there, it is time enough. No can always blame the traffic

So we arrived at Masai Lodge in the beautiful natural surround of Nairobi National Park, well after 10 am and then the games began.

We were instructed to introduce ourselves while walking around a swimming pool, announcing important details like our name, our marital status ( very important here) and our shoe size, type of tooth paste etc. I discovered that I was one of two single people. the other single person was also a Muzungu. All my colleagues in their thirties were married with children. Even the ones in their twenties.

We kicked off with strenuous exercises geared for a fitter crew. And then a team game where we had to lift other members of our team over a rope. Large and small, light and the not so light were lifted with grace over the rope and onto the other side as if their life depended on it.

Afterwards, there was a two hour hike near Nairobi National Park with a Masai Warrior- to fend off Lions in case they got hungry. He was draped in a bright red robe, tied in the middle with a luminous belt of different colours. On his head, a red head dress with flowers over a red plaited long wig. Quite an outfit for the hike. He carried his Masai stick with the rounded edge, a formidable figure in our group of inexperienced trekkers.

We walked over rivers and rocks, under dry grizzly bush and over dry red crackled dust, in the hot African sun. I chatted with colleagues about the general happenings in Nairobi. Most are from upcountry regions in rural Kenya. Most made their way to Nairobi in search of a better life for their family. Some of the married men had left their families behind in order to bring in money for their families and had been lured by the appeal of the single life too.

Everything was going well until we approached a thin metal drawbridge overlooking a deep ravine with murky brown river far beneath. Nothing between us and the abyss except bush and rocks. I was one of the first to cross unfortunately. There was a queueing system and I was up near the front. Great

I was terrified, as I have some experience of Kenyan construction - it is not made to last. My legs quivered as I slowly walked across, clinging to the metal rope and trying to look across the horizon. Behind the team were yelling "come on Muzungu, move faster" or "I think she's going to crawl."

I kept my slow pace. Now it was my time for pole pole (slowly slowly). No rushing now as I was on African time. They would have to wait while I made the crossing. So slowly I crossed with someone behind me murmuring "relax relax". Now was no time for relaxing. I couldn't relax here, put my feet up or turn around for a chat. I was risking my life in this crossing..pole pole

And finally I reached the other end. Not far behind me, one of the girls was midst anxiety attack. Her feet gave way under her and she told me later that all she wanted to do was lie down on the bridge and rest. However, pole pole she reached the other end.When she reached the other end, her t shirt was soaked in sweat and she was hyper ventilating. No one offered her sympathy as is often the case here. Just nervous laughter. I consoled her and reassured her that I was also scared. At least we only had to cross it once.. it was only going to be once, right?

No, there was no way back from Kitengela re-cycled glass factory.. all that way for recycled glass! We would have to cross again. What a cruel joke. All I had to do was follow the others and pretend that the bridge was safe and that we wouldn't fall to our deaths far far beneath. One wise guy mentioned that I should stop and admire the scenery.

Is he out of his mind?? At a time like this, stop and admire the scenery beneath us...very far beneath us. I needed a stiff drink to relax not admire the scenery

Nothing like the fear factor to bond a team. If you can make it across a stringy metal bridge overlooking a steep ravine, you can accomplish anything. At least we were still alive I thought..that was team building enough for me

And then the highlight of the day-swimming in the pool. However we decided to turn it into a basketball game of boys against the girls.The girls had a not so easy victory as the boys couldn't swim. What a match. Splashing, pulling the ball, throwing it into our handmade basketball net which consisted of a chair, fowling- one of the funniest sports I have ever played in the water

Afterwards, we relaxed with Tuskers and listened to the beat of Luya music in the background.

Many tribes live in Nairobi and an event like this was a rich musical blend of all cultures.I got a chance to listen to all types of music. Luya from the West, the rhythmical Kamba beats of the East, The Flame dance; a risky dance for a female as it involves hula movements of the hip which seem to drive the male folk into a queer state.

I announced that I would be dancing but at a distance.My mother told me always keep my distance from men.. all men and now was the time to remind people of this. There would be no grinding movements near my behind.I would be keeping my distance

Everyone was laughing. What kind of dance would that be with between male and female.It didn't exist here. The whole idea of dancing here is to simulate sex, and to keep the rhythm, something many of us from the west are not used to.

I watched and I learned. Do not move your shoulders, only your hips. Bend your knees and make circular subtle round hip movements while listening to the beat. It was a teasing dance. I forgot who I was for a few hours while I lost myself in the rhythm and followed the others, dancing in circles, all without the aid of alcohol.I surprised myself

Afterwards I felt exhilarated. I had finally learned to African dance and was enchanted by the way everyone lost themselves in the music. Dancing there, that night, under another cloudless African sky, I thought this is one of Kenya's riches. The freedom to dance uncontrollably.

The night wore on and even the Masai warrior had changed his clothes. I didn't recognise him in his western dress- he was less luminous now and looked like everybody else.

Later that night, we got a lift home with one of my colleagues and his mistress, a woman half his judgement. He had invited her to a work party! And he wasn't the only one with a complicated love life. Another colleague of mine told me that he didn't live with his partner and his two children. He kept up the face of the loving partner in public but in fact she didn't want to live with him as they had married early in life and she hadn't had a chance to enjoy her youth- that was his version.

Another woman reminded me that it was expected after college that you marry and have children. The parents wanted grandchildren. There was little time for waiting after college. If a woman reached 27 she is considered old. I reminded her that I was 35 and had never been married. She told me I was free then like an animal, like a Simba. I wasn't expected to live by Kenyan standards and since I had left Ireland last year, I wasn't expected to live by Ireland's societal norms either

What a liberating feeling. I was free here. Free not to be judged by societal norms. No one is ever entirely free of such norms but I was more liberated than before. This is what I was hoping for, to shrug off norms, when I set off for Africa 5 months before. Tired of the constant demands and expectations of home, I shrugged off all expectations placed on Irish women of child bearing age and headed off to Africa..for a change of scenery...and perspective

And there, I found it. Freedom from expectation and freedom from all the burdens placed on women today. I had joined the ranks of women who instead of giving birth, decide to head out into the world and discover all the riches that other cultures provide. I could learn another language here or easier just to dance under the stars. Whatever took my fancy.

That night in the car, I felt that I had finally discovered all that was good about life in Africa

Sure there are many things that challenge a person here. Lack of internet access, power cuts, the haggling of no fix prices.But here I am really stretching myself. In the face of all these challenges, I feel truly alive. Why do we need so many lows in order to enjoy the highs? To give us a sense of perspective I suppose

Up and down is an expression Kenyans use to express the fact that they are busy. Up and down is the way I feel most days here. Loving the place then hating it five minutes later. You could be accused of being Bipolar given the different strong emotions you feel in one day

The more obstacles placed in my way, the more I feel grateful for all I have here. Great likeminded friends who continually support me, freedom to dance all night without self consciousness awareness of rules imposed on you.I am free here and alive. That is more important to me than fast internet access (well most of the time) or new clothes or gadgets