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.