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. 

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