Friday, June 24, 2011

It's the Final Countdown

Only 48 more hours.

That's what I have to keep reminding myself as I wait (somewhat) patiently for my 2:15AM flight from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Cairo, Egypt. A quick jump over the small body of water some like to call the Atlantic to the city that never sleeps, the big apple, or in the words of Alicia Keys "NeW YOOOOOOOOORRRRK!" before heading back HOME.

Now it's time for reflection. I know I'm supposed to say something truly profound about my new perspective of the world and while, yes, I am changed, I'm sorry to disappoint but I just don't think I have it in me to produce any sort of profound statement quite yet. Why? Because I'm exhausted.

Please don't think that this statement is anyway a negative reflection on the past eight months. On the contrary, I am thrilled to be exhausted. Being exhausted means that for the past eight months I've been living. Everyday a new experience, a new adventure, something to do, somewhere to go, new people to meet, new things to see. It's been incredible.

Before this trip I was a happily devoted student. I put all my time and energy into my studies and I have no regrets (it's part of the reason I ended up on this trip in the first place). However, putting all of my energy into studying meant that my focus was narrow and self serving. I ended up missing out on what was happening in the world around me. To make up for lost time I dove into new cultures, new experiences, head first and sometimes without thinking. I will admit for the first few months I hesitated quite a bit. I played it safe and decided not to push myself. It was, after all, my first time out in to the big wide world and I'll be honest, I was afraid. Yes, you heard it straight from the source, the world and traveling in it alone scared me.

People often ask me if I've been afraid or nervous as a woman traveling alone. My initial reaction (my inner feminist) is determined to reply "HELL NO!" while the realist inside of me is screaming "YES, ALL THE TIME, YES!" I usually come up with a response that sounds like, "mehhmmm well, yes but no." It's frightening. I learned quickly to put my faith in the universe and I forced myself sometimes to see the best in the situation. Most often this involves seeing the humor in a terrible, or unfortunate event and just rolling with it. I am thankful for my sense of humor, without it I don't think I could have lasted eight months. I can't imagine how I would have reacted to the first meeting of the pigeon lady in Bangkok, being saved from an insane tuk-tuk driver, or being asked if I wanted to "make boom-boom" without it.

One thing I have done continuously for the past eight months is saying goodbye. It all started at the airport when I had to say goodby to my parents. My Dad thought he could go through security and was then reprimanded by a tiny, yet intimidating, security woman. In every country, every city, I've met fellow travelers or locals who would make life just a little less lonely for a short time. Then I had to say goodbye. I'm no good at good byes. I find them uncomfortable and never quite "complete." Yet here I am, ready for my final few hours of travel, and once again I'm finding it difficult to say good bye.

Good bye Tanzania, Good bye Africa, Good bye relaxation, Good bye travel, Good bye swim suit (I left it behind), Good bye sunscreen, Good bye chipati, Good bye buses (I won't miss you), Good bye to all the people I've met along the way (for some of you it's only a brief good bye, more of a "see ya later") and finally


Monday, June 13, 2011

From Nairobi to Moshi

And people say travel in Africa is difficult. Psht. My bus was only two and a half hours late leaving Nairobi and we only slightly broke down once. Only one of the panels on the floor broke loose and slammed into my shin. The person I sat by had a lovely child with a lovely cold who gently stroked my arm for the six hours it took to get from Nairobi to Moshi. No one stole anything and my bag made it all the way so I consider it a successful and trip.

Moshi is worlds different from Nairobi. There are no large supermarkets or modern anythings, really. Internet works when the power is on (so every other day if you're lucky). And yet, it's the most enjoyable place I've been in Africa. The people are friendlier, I'm not being followed everywhere I go, I only hear Mzungu every now and again and since English is not one of their national languages I am slowly learning more and more Swahili! Well, I've got the basic greeting down anyway, and numbers, "Mambo" Response, "Poa!" Translation: Hey, how are you? - Cool!

The Matatu's aren't matatus in Tanzania. Instead they are Dala Dala's and the Dala Dala's have this "Sardine in a Can" Policy. If you can fit more in, then do it.

I'm not volunteering because the border control people were confused and became slightly irritated when I tried to explain to them that would probably be volunteering but I wasn't sure how or where. They seemed to think this was a stupid idea and gave me a tourist Visa instead. In Tanzania it is both more expensive to buy a volunteer visa and punishable by law if you do not have one and are found to be volunteering. So, instead, I've found a school and have decided to work behind the scenes just "helping" not volunteering just offering expertise and support where they need. The name of the school is Second Chance and I've helped set up a blog for it (it isn't public yet but when it is you can find it here:
When the clouds clear and the sun comes out I have a terrific view of Mt. Kilimanjaro from the garden of the lodge I'm staying at. The surrounding fields of maze have sunflowers planted on the edges for good luck (and for oil) which makes for a picturesque view when you walk from the lodge to the road.

I'm running out of time but hopefully next time I'm on a computer I'll be able to upload a few photos.  

Sunday, June 5, 2011

When technology fails

So here I sit in the cafe just down the road from KT's (my new friend from Colorado who is kindly letting me crash until I leave for Tanzania tomorrow morning). Sadly I lost my travel companion Mr. Eee (my netbook) yesterday. I went to turn it on just hours after having last used it and ... Nothing. Nothing but an error message saying there is a disk reader fail (or something). I believe this is a sign that the last month of my journey should not be spent online but out enjoying the last little bit of adventure before returning to reality.
Just wanted to let you all know on case there is any concern. I probably won't be able to blog or e-mail quite so often. Wish me luck in this new strange world of no technology.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Pet A Cheetah Yesterday

At Nairobi National Park- Thanks to Wesley (the best tour guide in the world) we went into the Cheetah area and PET THEM. And then it licked my hand. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yoo Hoo, Mzungu!

I believe I mentioned in a previous post that in Swahili the word Mzungu means “foreigner.”
The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning "one who wanders aimlessly" (from swahili words zunguzunguzungu,zungukazungushamzungukaji-meaning to go round and round; from Luganda okuzunga which means to wander aimlessly ) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century. (I "borrowed" that from Wikipedia. I thought it was interesting because I am one who wanders aimlessly most of the time).  It’s most often used when referring to a white foreigner but, according to my home-stay mom, it isn’t meant as an insult, it just exists as a way to point out an “other.” The first few days I was here I didn't really notice if anyone was using this word, I just went a long with business as usual, la-la-la. It wasn't until a couple of days ago when Ashleigh and I were walking to Hamomi that I really took notice of it. It must have been point out a Mzungu day, or something, because every single child we passed called out, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” the most memorable being a child, no more than four or five, looking up at me and whispering, in awe, “Mzungu,” as I passed. After this, I began to notice how much this word was being used around me. It wasn’t being used very often in English and most of the time I could just barely pick it out from a nearby conversation.

Suddenly I had a flashback to my Bonderman interview. I vaguely remember being asked about how I would handle being in a different country and standing out (obviously the interviewers were more eloquent but that was the general idea). I remember not so subtly looking down at my freckled skin, taking a quick look at my red hair, laughing and saying something like, “I’m going to stand out, there’s just no way around it.” The question of course was: how would I handle it? In other words, what would I do once I became the minority, the “other” in society? In Thailand the situation was similar, instead of Mzungu I was a “Falang” (Farang?). In Thailand, and all through South East Asia, I found ways to ignore my foreigner status; my otherness took a backseat to my backpacker identity. Here, there is no way around it. Every day I walk through an area that houses no Mzungu. My presence is odd and disruptive. To some my walking to Hamomi everyday is nothing out of the ordinary, something to take note of but nothing of great importance. To others, like the old man we passed last week, my presence is unsettling and because of it I was on the receiving end of what I’m sure was some pretty harsh sentiments (all in Swahili so I don’t know what was actually said, but tone is a pretty good indicator that it wasn’t a good thing). Luckily I remembered a piece of advice given to me before I left and have been following it pretty religiously; that advice goes a little something like this, “follow the mamas” (mama meaning older, and obviously, wiser women). Upon hearing the older gentlemen’s speech, these two awesome women turned around and told him off on our behalf. It was a beautiful thing and even though I’m sure he was fairly harmless, I felt safe walking beside these women.

This incident made me realize, as much as I want to live among and learn from the cultures I’m seeing there are just some things that I will never be able to be a part of.  This was something I was willing to deal with until Friday.

On Friday I had requested to teach in grade five/six. Since I didn’t feel like taking on the challenge of teaching Math I asked if I could do two periods of English instead. Sure no problem. I was to shadow the regular teacher for the first period, then teach the second. Once I was in the classroom I could tell the overall tone of the class shifted. The teacher obviously picked up on it. Instead of having me get to know the class better, or encourage them to relax he simply said, “Don’t be afraid of the Mzungu.” And then later, “Just because the Mzungu is here you are afraid to answer.” Not only did I feel like he was singling me out but also blaming me for the class’ lack of participation. Wow. I truly am different, I thought, because of me they don’t feel comfortable enough to speak in class. What am I doing here if my presence alone is making it difficult for them to learn? After going over his own class period by about fifteen minutes the teacher finally left me, the mzungu, to teach an entire class who I believed was terrified of me, for another thirty minutes. Timidly I picked up where he had left off. I asked for a volunteer to read and then wrote a question on the board for them to answer. I don’t mean to boast, but by the end of the class period I had almost every hand in class raised at least once. Later that day this happened:

Being a foreigner works to my advantage with the children. Children are so much more innocent and accepting than adults. I realized later that it wasn’t the children I was making nervous by being in the classroom, it was the teacher. No one likes being watched or evaluated while teaching. Anyone who has ever taught will testify to that. Having someone watch over your shoulder is unnerving. Instead of accepting that he was nervous because someone was there watching, he blamed my “otherness” for making his students unresponsive.

The redeeming Mzungu moment came yesterday during break time. As Ashleigh and I sat at the top of the hill, playing music for, and talking with some of the students a couple of the younger, first and second grade, girls were whispering Mzungu as they played with our hair. From somewhere in the distance I heard this, “That one is not a Mzungu, that one is called Brittany.” And my heart melted. One of the third grade girls, Jephries (Jeff-rees) had defended me. Wise little one that she is, she knew that Mzungu was not something you called someone who had an identity. To her I’m not just another white foreigner; I am Brittany, her teacher. Not an unknown, an “other,” or an aimless wanderer, but another human being.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Photos from Kenya

For anyone who doesn't have facebook, click below to see pictures.

Photos from Kenya

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Singin’ in the Rain II: Kenya

Of course I’ve come to Kenya the only time in during the year when Kenyans see more rain than sunshine.No one told me the rainy season was like. Just to give you an idea of the amount, I walked for no more than ten minutes through a "normal" amount of rain and there was not a dry spot on me. I’ll just blame it on the curse of Washington: rain will find me wherever I may be. Although I’m usually thrilled to see the rain, on my first day here in Nairobi I was welcomed with a torrential downpour of biblical proportions. I half expected to see the animals pairing up while the streets quite literally became rivers.

Even Simon, the volunteer coordinator that met me at the airport, and Josef, the taxi driver, were shocked by the amount of rain. I apologized for bringing it with me. They laughed but I’m not quite sure they understood what I was saying. Side note about sarcasm: it doesn't always translate. Since then I have felt the full force of the sun and am relieved there are a few days of a rain per week.

My first day here was rather intimidating. I was alone at my home-stay, I hadn’t really met my host family, I was tired and I was shut in by the gates (yes, there are multiple gates).In spite of it all I wanted to venture out. It’s my first time in Africa I want to see as much as I can in the brief two months I have here. Thinking it wise not to walk about map-less and generally clueless, I sought the counsel of the maid/house keeper/nanny, Emily, about where I should go. She politely pointed to the left. Well, what she had meant was something like go down to the left then take a right. I missed the part about turning right and just kept walking straight into the slums. Yes, I am living on the outskirts of the “slums” of Nairobi. I knew this is where I would be teaching and living but the word “slum” has a different meaning for me. As I walked down the partial dirt, partial mud, and partial compost road I realized that although I have witnessed many different types and levels of poverty traveling (and at home) never, not even on this journey, have I seen anything of this magnitude. Small tin roofed houses with dirt floors double as home and business. Children run up and down streets littered with garbage and goat feces clothed with ragged t-shirts too big or too small, too many without shoes. Women carry small children swaddled in bright patterned fabric while simultaneously balancing enormous water jugs, bags of rice, etc. on their heads.

As I walked through the street I received a few different reactions; shock, laughter and utter confusion. Children, far braver than adults, welcomed me with, “How are you?” and answered my “hello” with “I’m fine.” For everyone else, I think seeing someone, not even a white someone, just someone who doesn’t live or work there, walking down this particular road was a bit of an oddity. I felt a little out of place and didn’t feel like being lost while jetlagged, so I turned back toward my home-stay.

First impressions are often cluttered by our preconceptions. I think Africa is the first place where I’ve experienced the least amount of preconception clutter. I truly had no idea what to expect arriving here. No concept of what Nairobi would look like or how anyone would react to my being here. I didn’t even know what to expect from the volunteer work I so eagerly signed up for. What began as a two week commitment to Hamomi has become a month long part-time teaching gig.

On the first day volunteering at Hamomi, I was told I would be teaching English and Math (gasp) for the third grade. What they meant by that was English, Math, Music, P.E. and Science (double gasp). English is a bit of a breeze (being my first language and all) and after teaching in Laos I was prepared to meet that challenge. Math, well, I’m just thankful we haven’t progressed beyond addition and subtraction of length. Multiplication is next so wish me luck I suppose. Music is the most enjoyable. We taught the kids “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and just recently Ashleigh (my volunteer/home-stay buddy) and I taught the fifth, sixth and some brave third grade girls “Aint No Mountain High Enough” and “Lean on Me.”

Science. I will never be a Science teacher. My science failure is something I’ve accepted and I am perfectly happy giving up the task of teaching it to someone far more qualified. A few days ago the third grade teacher who normally teaches Science was needed to take over watching the youngest children when their usual teacher went home sick. She gave me the Science book and, apparently not hearing my protests or pleading, left me high and dry, standing very much like a deer caught in the headlights, in front of the third grade. I nervously asked the children to take out their notebooks, looked down at the book to quickly prepare a lesson and in that instant realized, someone, somewhere, is certainly watching over me. I was given the lesson discussing the defense mechanisms of insects and other “small creatures.” Although creepy crawly things generally freak me out, this was the only part of high school Biology that I somewhat excelled in. Ask my Mom, she still (lovingly, I think) refers to me as “bug girl” after I spent the greater part of my sophomore year catching bugs for our (appropriately named) “Bug Collection.” Basically we talked about how flying, stinging, biting, coiling, retreating into a shell, or camouflaging saves the lives of wee little critters everywhere. SCIENCE.

Next on the agenda: Computer classes! Because I am so tech-savvy.