Thursday, November 27, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008


this morning i was waiting for my matatu on the main road by my house and a tall, thin man walked past me, stark naked. refreshing. i hope he didn't get in too much trouble. i'm not sure what is or isn't legal in this country. then again, i don't think anyone is.



this past week has been a strange one

it's been long and short and i apologize for not having posted anything since the 16th. i've been feeling weird, never 100% physically or emotionally. and not necessarily bad, just odd, weird. i won't bother with another visit to the nairobi hospital, however. i've already spent hundreds of dollars there in the past few months, which in my opinion, haven't been entirely worth it. my dehydrated body can't take another blood test at the moment, anyway. it's going to be so strange to be able to drink water from a tap again. my weak state also seems to have something to do with a lack of sleep. the usual insomnia i have at home has caught up to me in kenya. it's such an odd feeling. sometimes i feel like i'm not present in my own body, like everything going on around me is a film.

this morning i went into kibera. no one was at the school. this didn't surprise me in the least, but i was feeling rotten and kind of wished someone had contacted me to tell me that no one was coming in. it takes money and lots of time in morning jams to get to kibera from my homestay in langata. regardless, i didn't mind too much (this country has made me a very patient person) and just turned back to catch a matatu straight home to sleep. i was feeling really lightheaded, and have an annual habit of passing-out. 'not now, not here.' i thought to myself. i sat down for a while in the alley i was walking through, leaning against the red dirt wall of a house, kids running past me staring for a moment with confused looks on their faces, as one would. almost immediately after standing up, i fainted. lucklily, i was on the shortcut route to the school, where there isn't a lot of traffic. i don't know how long i was out, but it seems as no one noticed. i was impressed that nothing was missing from my bag when i came to. as usual, i felt much better after the fall and came home to sleep for a while.

i'm fine.

last week was the last official week of term, which is why there was no one at school today. there are no exams to mark, no parents to meet with, no extra-curricular clubs to meet with. the week was hot, wet. there wasn't much to do as all of the staff was meeting with students to discuss grades. on monday, to everyone's surprise, i helped put a wall on the school. some builders had been hired to do it, so it wasn't a volunteer effort, but i figured i might as well help out if i wasn't going to be doing anything else.

khalif, the builder, began by digging a hole in the red dirt ground near the school. he would loosen the dirt with an incredibly heavy shovel, and pour water on top of it, mixing it til it was very wet. he would then transfer it into 'buckets (jerry-cans with the tops cut off),' and carry it over to the wall. we would wet it by scooping water from another bucket with our hands, throwing it on the wall. all modes of labour in kenya seem to be very time consuming. i have never seen a lawn mower, only machetes used to cut grass. obviously a hose is out of the question in kibera, where there is no running water. the process was long, another test of patience. after that step was done, we would re-wet the dirt, take handfulls of it, and throw it forcefully at the wall. while it was still wet, we would smooth it with our palms.

"make sure it's not too thick, or it will fall when it dries." khalif told me. red dirt is not the best to work with, he explained. he would prefer black soil, which is much more effective in building structures. but red dirt is what kibera sits on, which makes it available and free. he also warned me about "...these little pieces (glass). they will give you tetanus." i was very careful in my bare feet.

the teachers and passersby the school all found my work incredibly amusing. first, as a white person doing such work, second, as a female. people were ringing their friends to come see me and taking photos on their cameraphones. khalif kept asking if i was tired, doing this. he really was shocked that i could handle it, which i found amusing myself. we finished and he congratulated me on a job well done, and i went home feeling good to have been productive for an entire day.

the rest of the week, most of my work at school consisted of helping to prepare lunches for the staff. my job was usually to sift through bags of rice to get ''these little pieces'' out. in this case, the pieces are cockroach carcasses, droppings, and live maggots.

"don't worry if you don't get all the dudus (maggots)," musa told me, "they will float to the top when we boil the rice."

it was hard to see the maggots because they are the same size and shape as the rice. this all sounds revolting, and i was surprised to find myself not phased at all by such a task. of course there are maggots in bags of rice in kibera. of course there are.

the week concluded with a ceremony and a feast for the girls. awards were given to the top of the class, and each teacher gave a small speech. i said a few words. teka wanted me to say a prayer which made me very uncomfortable and i couldn't (all you reasoners will be happy to know i saw 'the god delusion' on display at a bookshop in nairobi a few days ago). i think he understood however, and the awkwardness of that moment quickly passed. the girls ate quickly and left the school, excited for 6 weeks of freedom. teka asked kindly that none of them be in the maternity ward come august, as has happened the previous two terms. i spent the afternoon playing with frida and grego, who have seemed to learn my name, if my name were 'aislulu.'

"anaitua aislulu, anaitua aislulu i'm fine!" frida shouts.

some friends from kisumu came to visit for the weekend, and i was happy to see them. nairobi has been fairly lonely recently.

on friday, kevin travelled all the way to nanyuki to get the theft report from that night at joskaki. he got to the police station to find that the three guards arrested were still in custody at the prison. i don't know if this kenyan news has reached the states yet, but in the past two weeks two prisoners have been killed by policemen. last week a video from a cameraphone was released, showing police (at the prison across from my homestay) stripping inmates stark naked, piling them on top of each other, and beating them senseless. it's the most disturbing thing i have ever seen. nothing will come of it, and those officers will get away with the crime. everyone i ask about it here gives me a reply like ''this is kenya, this happens...'' it's not right, and there's nothing i can do.

so when kevin told me the news about those three men, i felt sick to my stomach. luckily, he wrote a formal letter requesting their release and dropping any charges. they were meant to stay in that horrible place until february. i don't want to think about what could have happened to them in that time, let alone what has happened to them in the past 6 weeks.

sometimes i find myself struggling to make sense of things here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

why i love sunday afternoon at toi market

it is the busiest shopping day, as everyone pours out of church and into the market.

i love the girls who wear shining satin sequined dresses, but no shoes. i love buying fresh pinepple in a plastic bag from a wheelbarrow, peeled and carved by a thin boy into perfect eighths as if it were an art form. i love hopping from rock to rock as i browse, to avoid the rivers that have formed in the path after last night's rains. i love the smell of drying fish mixed with the scent of brightly colored spices that look so beautiful in contrast to the rusty old bean cans that hold them. i love watching women hold umbrellas to shield themselves from the hot sun while carrying babies dressed in snowsuits and wool hats because the temperature is under 70 degrees. i love the crowd around the crates of mangoes, which are being diced by men who shout loudly in swahili that i don't understand. i love how meticulously the vendors stack hundreds of socks into perfect piles every day, though they may only sell three pairs. i love digging through the mountain of dresses at my favourite stall, using all my strength to pull a piece from the bottom, only to find it 10 sizes too large. I love looking up and seeing a woman who has done the exact same thing, catching her eye, and exchanging frustrated smiles. "this can be tiring, hard." she laughs.

i love never paying more than 100 bob for anything. I love it when the vendors don't try and drag me to their stalls, but let me look at my own free will like the locals do. i love having to jump out of the way because a hen and all her chicks have darted out from under a table and over my feet. i love how women make pyramids out of red onions and green oranges. i love it when the man i buy a t-shirt from rips a string off a potato sack to tie around my new purchase and tells me "this is your receipt." i love the hearing the sermons of mad preachers, blasting out of loudspeakers that sit on top of the churches, mix with a 'barack obama' tune and swahili rap and lingala from tiny radios into something incomprehensible. i love when a woman sitting on a pile of clothes bursts into an improvised song about me shopping at her 5 bob stand, in a deep, loud, beautiful voice. i love that i find it completely normal. I love not being able to buy something at a stall because the vendor is sleeping.

i love the spandex.

there is much more that i love about this place.
and i have loved coming to love all that i love here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

upigaji picha

i have FINALLY managed to upload a few photos. Check out my flickr photostream. it's likely that these will be the only images i'll be able to share with you until december or january, depending on where you are. all of the ones i've posted have been taken in the last week, in and around kibera girls soccer academy.

maya arulpragasam on slum life

war, war, war
talkin' bout y'all's such a bore.
I'd rather talk about moi

like do you know the cost of a.k.'s up in africa?
twenty dollars ain't shit to you
but that's how much they are.
so they’re gonna use the shit just to get by

is those diamonds helpin' ya?
don't you like my bandanna?
my stains hang low on my shirt like ay ay ay
got monkey brains and banana
i'll hit you with my antenna
put soap in my eye
make it red so i look raw, raw, raw

so i woke up with my holy quran
and found out i like allah-lah
we shooting 'til the song is up
little boys are acting up
and baby mamas are goin’ crazy
and the leaders all around cracking up
we goat rich, we fry
price of living in a shanty town
just seems very high
but we still like t.i.
but we still look fly
dancin' as we’re shootin' up
and lootin' just to get by

with your feet on the air and your head on the ground
try this trick and spin it, yeah
your head'll collapse when there's nothing in it
and you'll ask yourself:
"where is my mind?"

($20, kala)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

i like walking out of kibera in the late afternoon

it's my favorite time of day if the sun is shining. it sits low in the sky and the bits of glass treaded into the dirt ground gleam brighter than at any other time of day. the red dirt buildings with their rusted tin rooftops glow in the light. lots of people are finishing their work days, closing their shops. most of the kids are out of school by this time. the roads and alleyways are busy and full of life. children run to vendors with coins from their mothers, buying tomatoes and cabbage for the evening meal.

unfortunately, the late afternoon hours have given time to the drunks to start drinking. today, i was almost out. i saw a man stumble out of a drinking den and knew immediately that he was coming towards me. i tried to avoid him, but he kept snaking in front of me. he said nothing, extended his arm and lunged for my breast. i quickly turned and his fingernails sunk into my right arm. i whipped around and slapped him, as women around me shouted, shooing him away. he just wobbled off in the direction from which i came.

a month ago, i think i would have been incredibly upset by this. now, encountering such behaviour has become a normality.

for the past week, i have been pretty idle. exams are over so the girls aren't at school. i've been helping the teachers grade, preparing lunch, and taking loads of photos. now the kids who hang out around the school run after me whenever i leave the grounds, shouting "upige picha (take a photo)! upige picha!" i'm hoping that one of these days one of the staff will take me around so i can get photos of other parts of the slum. it's such a horrible and beautiful place and i need to capture it, but i wouldn't want to try alone. having a local by my side will defend me from any camera thieves. construction has started on the school. there are about 5 or 6 boys there each day. sometimes they mix concrete, sometimes they chop wood. there's more sitting around than anything because, pole pole, we are katika kenya. most of the workers must be under the age 16. i'll have to ask them how old they are, boys tend to look much younger here. they asked me if i'd like to help with the building process. i said, "yes, of course." and they laughed at me. none of the teachers are working on it, much less any females.

the girls are done with coursework, but a lot of them hang around the school. we talk, i photograph them. this weekend their soccer training will start again, so i'm excited to kick around. unfortunately, i only have a weak start on ONE of my four required papers, so i'll be spending much of the weekend camped out at a coffeehouse. it will be just like home.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

nairobi is wet and cold

and i'm frustrated and the last thing i feel like doing now is to fight for a matatu.

but it's getting late.

Friday, November 7, 2008


it's been a little more than 48 hours since barack obama's victory as the 44th president of the united states was announced to the world, and i am still overcome with emotion. i'm thrilled at this news, walking around nairobi with a big grin on my face. however, i must admit that after reading emails from close friends about the celebrations in madison, i am sad that i couldn't be there to experience that excitement. now, that's certainly not to say that there is any lack of excitement here in kenya, it's quite the opposite.

on tuesday evening, my friends meg, colin, and i decided to rent a room at the budget ngong hills hotel to watch the results roll in together. we figured that $15 was well worth the time together to celebrate this generation-defining moment. we got some cheap wine, ordered pizza, took hot showers (!!!), and flipped on the fuzzy 10-inch television. of course, we found out nothing until about 4 am kenyan time, when polls were beginning to close in the states. meg and colin managed to sleep, but i was up all night. i think it was about 7 am when we knew that obama had nabbed it. immediately the three of us snapped out of our daze, eagerly awaiting mccain's concession (which i thought, was extremely honourable) and obama's heartwrenching speech (i definitely teared up). by the time the new president elect had finished, it was time for me to head to kibera for work. as i left, there was a crowd of locals marching down ngong, carrying chairs and branches over their heads, waving kenyan and american flags in the air, singing and dancing. almost every person i walked past gave me a high five, patting me on the back, shouting ''OBAMA! (far more than usual)" i haven't been feeling well for the past week, and was obviously exhausted, but i felt happier than i have in months.

this emotion was a shock to me. i knew that obama was going to win, was almost sure of it, but for some reason it still is hard to believe. since i've been politically aware, george w. bush has held the presidential seat, the highest position in the country where i live and attend school. i always regarded my irish citizenship as a treasure. even with my american accent i had this document that would denounce any accusations that i was actually from the united states. while visiting ireland i hated my accent, being associated with that place run by that president. to me, being an american over the last 8 years was not something that ever appealed to me. "why don't you become a citizen?" some american friends would ask. "why would she?" other liberal friends would answer, and i thought the same. so, this intense pride that i felt upon obama's election was quite a surprise to me, as an individual. i am proud to live and go to school in the states, i am proud that my best friends had a part in electing barack obama. i'm ready to register for citizenship upon my return home. i'm thousands of miles away, but this feeling is so strong inside of me. this is the change we needed.

there is lots more to write about regarding the reaction in kenya, but that's for another entry. it's friday and time to start obama-party hopping in nairobi.

Monday, November 3, 2008

november, nairobi, kenya

[before i begin about the past halloween weekend, i want to post the website for my friend meghann's foundation, uweza ( i'll add it to my list of links on the right side of the blog, as well. It is a registered public charity and there are options to donate online. this is a great way to help from across the pond(s), and donations go to aid grassroots organizations like a soccer league, a children's center, the orphanage i wrote about earlier, and others that you can read about on the site. meghann works really hard and appreciates any help she can get.]

so, halloween was not celebrated in nairobi, as expected. after seeing the blank looks on the teachers faces when i asked about the holiday, i doubted that there were any fancy dress parties in the city. i can't help but miss this time last year in madison. the changing colors of the leaves, hunting for costumes in thrift shops, prancing around my apartment with carolyn and her glowsticks to the soundtrack to 'a nightmare before christmas,' going to the cinema with chelsea dressed as a bleeding baby doll, never making it to the state street bash in lieu of an impromptu costume-dance-party at maddie and laura's. no trace of any of that mess here. i looked at the date in the supermarket today; november 3, 2008. for a moment i thought it was wrong. it's so hot here, and i'm not used to living somewhere without distinctive seasons. of course, there isn't a real sense of time here. it's not important. for most, every day comes and goes like the last.

of course, with the u.s. presidential election so close, i had better take note of that date. there are parties being held at bars tomorrow country-wide. advertised are 'food and drink specials: 17:30 until the winning speech!' it's colin's 21st on wednesday, and we're thinking of celebrating with dinner and the theatre; obama, the musical. this is not a joke.

on thursday i went to the school. as soon as i got off the matatu, nila rushed to me. "aisling! how are you?" she asks, kissing me twice, french style. i apologize that i can't stay and chat, i'm late. "...but i'll see you on my way out!"

today the girls are in maths exams. the instruments they have out on their desks bring me back to a dreadful place deep within the monroe public schools, where my mind was forced to learn something that it couldn't comprehend, that will never be of use to me again (had i remembered any of it). ugh, math. i see carol staring out the window. so do i. three hours. a boy walks past in a vintage university of wisconsin hoodie, probably from toi. i beam at him, grateful for this small reminder of home, and he looks at me as if i'm mad.

after exams i talk to mercy and peroz outside the classroom. i asked mercy what she would do when she finishes exams next week. she told me she would probably wash clothes and sell samosas for pocket money. i ask about her family. she lives with her brothers, sisters, and her mum. her father "got another wife" and has forgotten about the rest of them. her mother used to work at village market, the poshest, whitest shopping centre in nairobi. unfortunately, she got laid off and now brews and sells chang'aa (the illegal drink) as a means of income. "we know it's bad," mercy says, "but how else can she survive?"

on my way out, nila wasn't at the cafe.

friday. happy halloween! met nila at dc as usual, she explained that she had went to town the day before, which is why i had missed her. more exams. form 1 & 2 english. blah. i sketch the building where lea, the woman who sells fried potatoes to the students, lives. afterwards, i accompany shituma, one of the teachers, to his home to pick up his mobile. we take a main road for a while, turning down an alley that cut into dozens of smaller lanes. i have no idea where i am, completely losing my position. walking through these spaces, i realize a sort of beauty in the place. it's very monochromatic, red dirt stains the rocks and makes up the exterior of the houses, the tin used for a fence or roof is rusted from the rains. you have to hop over a short wall and take a worrying makeshift stick bridge over streams of rubbish and sewage. it's unlike any place i've seen. the closest thing i can relate it to is an exhibit i saw in a museum - some recreation of nomadic homes in some country whose inhabitants have darker skin than i. i feel a twinge of that adventuresome spirit that i used to get (and still do) climbing through castle ruins in ireland when i was younger. that feeling of something ancient, the appreciation of something built by human hands. but this isn't a protected ruin, an educating exhibit, as i am reminded by the toddlers rolling in waste, kids walking around with empty bottles of kenya king filled with glue, women spending the entire day walking to and from a pump, struggling with heavy jerry-cans of water. this is life in kibera.

we arrive at shituma's home. two men sit outside, smoking cigarettes and talking. two kids sit on the ground beside them. they are scared of my white face and won't come to shituma when he calls "kuja (come)."

we enter his house, which is really a small room. couldn't be bigger than carolyn's in the old apartment. 2 beds are squeezed in (he has a roommate), and sheets hang from clotheslines to act as curtains, giving each man his privacy. there are 3 chairs, but only one of them is stable enough to sit in. i sit in it, the other two covered in piles of primary schoolwork, as shituma tutors in the evenings. the walls are covered floor-to-roof (no ceiling, just some plastic bags attempting to keep out the drops that sneak through the holes in the tin) in newspapers - articles featuring girls, musicians, sports stars. smaller pages hang over strings that run across the room, which also hold a few lightbulbs and coat-hangers. "karibu, this is home!" he welcomes me. i'll never think that the sellery dorms were cramped again, though i had far more food and belongings in 603b than shituma seemed to have in his home. we made our way out of the maze of lanes to the main road.

i went to meet nila, as i told her i would. not surprisingly, she wasn't there, so i decided to wait. one must become very patient in kenya. for 15 minutes or so, i sit outside the cafe. i talk to a woman in the window, i try to assure the children outside that i wasn't an alien. 4 of them were playing with phone parts, bottle caps, and an old red piece of red hair - a weave that's been cut off (the woman change their hairstyles often here, if they can afford it). they begin fighting with each other over these 'toys,' and a few begin to cry. a young mother in a red t-shirt and a khanga comes out of a house and hits one of them, a small girl in a pink checkered dress. she shouts in swahili, i can't understand her. she's clearly been working all day, washing clothes and fetching water, two exhausting jobs. the girl cries more and she yanks her by the frilly collar of the dress, nealy smashing her head against the wall of the house. i wonder how close in age i am to this woman. i wonder if she's younger than me, she certainly could look it. later, i meet colin and meghann and they've brought a package for me from the office. it's dairy milk and a book from sarah, brilliant. we can't finish the chocolate between us, and it's melting fast, so we give it to a hungry looking kid in the market. he practically has to drink it. exhausted, i go home and decide to call it an early halloween night with my new book.

on saturday i meet becky and meghann for some study time at java, which is really the only place we can sit, relax, and get some work done. the coffee gives me a great buzz, and we all laugh and joke about the uneventful weeks we've had at our internships. colin, sarah, and a voiceless marie meet us and we decide to see a 'lakeview terrace,' a terrible film that stars samuel l. jackson as a cop who terrorizes his new neighbors (an incredibly attractive young interracial couple) for racially-charged reasons. despite how awful it really was, it was entertaining enough and provided us with a short break from kenya, a 2-hour air-conditioned escape that i think we were all in need of. afterwards, we walk down the ngong road (which seems to be getting longer every day) to marie's nairobi homestay. we have to hop the fence and wait for mami to arrive back with the keys. after a dinner of chips and red wine, meghann, colin, sarah, and i headed downtown to go dancing for the first time in weeks. we stood outside nakumatt, drinking red bull and kenya king (the country's finest spirit, at 65 ksh a bottle) as we wait for meghann's friends. we go out, we dance, we enjoy the matatu commutes from club to club. we spend too much money. as colin, sarah, and i have to return to marie's to sleep, we instead try to negotiate a price for a room at the hilton. by we i mean sarah and colin, i stood outside and laughed. $203 was their only offer.

turns out, it might have been worth it. we made it back to marie's for 400 shillings, but were locked out. the keys that were to be left to let us in were nowhere in sight. days are hot in nairobi lately, but nights are just as cold. freezing and frustrated, the three of us curled up on the wet concrete, hugging each other close, and generating as much body heat as possible. for two or three hours we tried to sleep, but the smell of the cat piss that we were lying in and the constant yapping of the dog on the other side of the fence prevented it entirely. at the first sign of daylight, i got up and started walking down the usually-busy ngong. it was a lazy, lonely sunday, no one in a rush to work or school. i felt damp and miserable and got a matatu all the way into town, partly because it would cost the same as if i got it to kenyatta (my normal transfer point), partly because i knew the deadbolt wouldn't be open at my homestay. might as well stare out the window at this ugly city for another hour when the only other option i had was to lie on the other side of another fence in front of another house.