Thursday, September 20, 2007


Someone pointed out that I never brought the rest of the family home on this blog! But of course you all know that we've long since returned, happy and healthy. I went to Illinois Yearly Meeting right after the last post, and shared some writing from my Kenya journal. Now that we've had a few weeks to integrate our experiences, here are some conclusions. (I say conclusions, though in our minds this project continues, not only until the building we half completed gets finished, but until the entire envisioned Friends Peace Center complex is built.)

I'll save the journal notes for another blog posting. These thoughts come from reading over the journal and seeing the common themes.

In no particular order ....


Modern construction in most of Kenya is relatively rough -- fired brick, mud brick, metal. In the town of Kapsabet, a gorgeous spot on the western ridge of the Rift Valley overlooking the Western Province, there were a few startlingly crisp brick-face buildings like you'd see in the Carolinas at home -- small, even bricks with perfect, neat mortar, archways over the windows, multi-story, etc. But most of the western style buildings in Kenya seem to date from the end of the colonial period.


We were always offered plentiful food -- much more than we could eat. It took some adjustments, because what we couldn't eat also couldn't be saved for tomorrow because there is no fridge. It was disconcerting to know that our leftovers went straight to the dogs. We had lots of staple starches - ugali (corn meal mush-bread), rice, spaghetti, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes. There would be lentils, stewed beef, whole fish, whole chicken, or sometimes sausages at lunch and dinner. The meats were from the whole animal, not the tender nice bits we've gotten used to -- but most Kenyans do not eat meat every day, that is clear. Usually there would be greens, lightly sauteed chopped kale. And frequently tropical fruits and avocado. Bread and margarine at breakfast and teatime, sometimes with sweet potatoes or little chunks of roasted corn. Sweet Kenyan masala tea made with steamed milk (yum!). Bananas of every size. The girls and I did miss our usual foods, so we actually ate less and less as the end of the trip approached. When I got home, I immediately picked up five pounds, mostly on dairy, which we had sorely missed in Kenya.


Malesi Kinaro's family members were lovely. We very much enjoyed our conversations with Malesi, Bantu and Winnie & Lillian in particular. They were all very tolerant and indulgent of the girls, and taught us a lot about modern Kenyan life.

Toys & Children

In Kenya, if you have a wad of newspaper and a plastic bag, you have a ball to throw around.

Kenyan children are typically quite wary of adults, not just wazungu (white/"European"). We found that it took a lot to get most of them to speak, at least if there was a Kenyan adult around, though some were quite sociable and all were quite fascinated by us. (Some of this could be because mother-tongue is first, Swahili is second, and English is third.) In our AVP workshop, local Kenyans told us of the frequency of caning of children, and though we noticed that children do work and chores from a very young age, we were told that parents typically send them off to be with their peers most of the time they aren't in school. The parents I witnessed seemed to be lenient in many respects, but these may not be typical parents. It seems that relatively severe discipline is still the norm in Kenya.

The Best Gloss On the Experience

Mark noted early in our trip, and this has resounded ever since, that every moment in Kenya is exciting -- even going to the bathroom.

While our host home had a regular flush toilet (the back of which we filled with a bucket when needing flushing), most toilets (I'm reporting on the women's) were squat toilets over a pit or a little porcelain basin built into the floor. The girls adapted really fast. But generally you wind up with pee on the soles of your shoes, which I think is why Kenyans make such a distinction between outdoor shoes (which come off practically before you walk in the house) and indoor shoes (flip-flops).


What we witnessed is a peaceful, thriving area where people live and work and eat and sleep and go to school and church, just like we do at home. But Kenyan elections are coming in December. Candidates have been known to advocate genocide during their campaigns, as a vote-gathering rhetoric. There are still 160,000 internal refugees in the Mt. Elgon area because of ethnic violence there, where many tribes live and none predominate. The AGLI Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities program was developed to reconcile survivors of the Rwanda genocide. While we were there this summer, the first ever HROC was offered in Kenya, to the great excitement of the facilitators. This program gets perpetrator-victims and survivor-victims in the same room, teaches what trauma means, and helps both sides understand that both sides are traumatized by violence. This is one of the programs that will be offered in the Friends Peace Center we have been helping to build.

Conflict resolution, violence prevention, and reconciliation are not the only things needed in Kenya. The needs can be so overwhelming and paralyzing that we have to give ourselves permission to focus on one thing, and let others focus on the rest. So I feel clearer about our support of peace-building projects, even while I know you might be more inspired to help with projects for clean water, malaria treatment, AIDS orphans, micro-loans for women entrepreneurs, and so on. Pick the one that appeals to you, and support it! Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

Taking It In

In reviewing my journal, I see that I was often overwhelmed by "inputs." All the information coming to me from my daily existence was new, and I had not developed the skills to filter any of it out; I constantly felt like a 2-year-old. I had trouble evaluating conversations, understanding what was expected of me, memorizing names and faces, knowing which new person would be a frequent visitor in my life and which ones I would never see again. I was sensitive to noise, and had to let in a lot of visual information to develop my "Kenyan eyes," which could help me value and distinguish -- "nice" shops versus not-so-nice, trustworthy people versus risky ones. This processing was often exhausting, but it never occurred to me to relax and let it go.


Kenyans don't take the stickers off of things. Drove me bonkers. Mark bought a plastic mug and left the sticker on, just as a memento.


I'll never forget the ingenuity of using a clear plastic hose, full of water, as a fifty foot level.


It was amusing to watch us Americans coping with the different relationship to THINGS. Mark and I were often mentally designing the hooks and shelves that we'd have used to keep our THINGS off the floor. We were all hanging THINGS from the window bars, something I don't think a Kenyan ever does -- to them I bet it looks tacky. The Americans at the Peace Center were also interested in hooks and shelves. Getry resisted this; for one thing, there just aren't that many THINGS to manage in Kenya; for another thing, they could just be set on the floor. Finally, shelves are too permanent and they interfere with the versatility of an otherwise empty space. We all cycled over this repeatedly.

Trash was a natural extension of this difficulty. The Americans obsessively collected their trash into containers. But guess what ... there is no trash disposal in most of Kenya -- no collection, no landfills. So of course you might as well drop it where you stand or sit. We would end up with these bags of trash -- biscuit boxes, Queencake wrappers, snot tissues, tampons, plastic water bottles -- and then have no place for them to go. Either it is dumped on the roadside or a nearby heap, or it is burnt (toxins and all). This was mind blowing, and if we lived there any longer, we would have had to make some big changes. As it is, we have been trying to reduce our consumption and our waste for several years, but we have not yet changed in ways that are really needed.


With the girls accompanying us, I was hyperfocused on having food they would eat and water they could drink. I think if it had been just for myself, it wouldn't have taken so much psychic energy. I am guessing that I may have missed some interesting lessons and observations because of this preoccupation.

Despite all the care and household help, I'd probably be more comfortable and relaxed if we operated our own kitchen and arranged our own meals. Granted, we now know a lot about local cuisine. And running a kitchen would mean buying things at market, another daily function that I did not try to learn this first time out.

Mark was a lot more comfortable with situations that made me anxious. Buying things, paying for services, speaking Swahili -- thank God he was there for us!

We were all grateful to have each other there to "process" with. When I left a week before the rest of them, I felt like I'd lost a limb or two.

Finally, Mark, Miranda and I have all noticed periods of hair-trigger anger this month. We are pretty sure it is related to our travel experience, but not sure how. In part, we were totally disengaged from the pace of American life for a month, and there are aspects that are really a grind. Time constraints, errands/tasks, email, news -- it really isn't a terribly pleasant way to live. I suspect there is more to it that will later be revealed.

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