Heading to the kijiji (village) tomorrow night. We're taking the overnight train to Mombasa, which is apparently a beautiful city on the coast. Then we're going a few hours away to a village with no running water and no electricity. Almost no one speaks English. There are 600 people in the whole village. You have to wear closed shoes because bugs called Jiggers will lay eggs in your feet until they burst out. If you Wikipedia Shirazi, Kenya, you'll find a two-sentence article. There's more information about Oak Hill, Alabama -- population 37.
Yep. I'm going there.
I'm a little nervous, but it's going to be an amazing experience nontheless. Do it for the story, right? I'll post when I return in about 10 days : )
Some days, I’m enchanted with Africa. Usually, it’s the days when my stomach isn’t feeling so bad. Today we walked home through the Olympic neighborhood, which borders Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Like always, we made a scene – five wazungu, wearing our backpacks and our slight anxiety. Olympic is a bustling place, with small painted kiosks and tin-walled shops lining the dirt roads. It’s often hard to keep track of your surroundings when you’re more concerned with keeping track of the sizable rocks and potholes in the seldom-paved roads.
As we were walking, children with round bellies, round faces and those big round eyes called out to us, “How are you?” In their Kenyan accents, it sounds like “Ow ah yu?” There were toddlers waving at us with bemused smiles, saying, “Sasa” as we passed – a greeting in Kenyan slang. I always smile and wave at these kids – you can’t help it. They’re wearing dirty, mismatched clothes, probably shipped halfway around the world from your friendly neighborhood Goodwill. A little girl was wearing a shirt that said “Skater Boy” on it, and one was wearing rainbow-striped leggings. In Olympic, the children were playing with pieces of trash. It makes sense – there’s trash everywhere, on every sidewalk, in every street, in all the sewers, in huge piles on the road. Where you find trash, you find goats as well. Smart goats, it seems, because they always manage to get out of the road when a bus comes roaring by. There’s an easy way to get rid of a noisy animal, though. My friend was woken up every morning last week by a crowing rooster. When she asked her mama about it, mama replied, “Don’t worry – we’re having that rooster for dinner tonight.”
|Kids in the Mathare slum|
In America, if you walk through the center of a large city, you can feel the thrum of productivity – or perhaps just an excess of ineffective activity – around you. In Olympic, it’s a different kind of life. More intimate, with sharp smells of sweat, burning trash, fried samosas, and tonight’s chicken dinner squawking in its cage. Everyone knows each other, everyone seems comfortable in their environment. People aren’t moving or working very quickly; the pace is slower, but the simple quantity of buyers and sellers is astounding. As Americans, we pass almost every Kenyan walking on the sidewalk. We walk fast, we talk fast. We make plans and expect them to be kept. We turn on a faucet and expect it to work. We flip a lightswitch and expect electricity. Our lives are predictable and planned; in Kenya, anything can happen. Making plans for today is difficult, and making plans for tomorrow is near impossible. You can make plans, I guess, but certainly don’t expect to keep them. Sometimes running water only comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. The electricity goes out at least once a week, so don’t expect to eat dinner without your gas lamp. You might sell four chickens today, but only one tomorrow. In some ways, it’s a thrilling idea – what if our processes and plans were thrown away? What would Americans do? For me, it’s been an interesting transition from constancy to uncertainty.
Learning an entirely new language is challenging, yes, but mostly just hilarious. Our teachers are so funny and patient with us. Kiswahili is nothing like any romance language. It’s a bunch of Arabic vocabulary built on a Bantu grammatical framework. Here are a few examples of our struggles:
The first day, we decided that we needed to know how to ask for the bathroom. “Unataka choo,” “Choo iko wapi?” I want the bathroom, where is the bathroom? Unfortunately we were also learning how to describe where we come from. When excusing myself to go to the bathroom, I said, “Unatoka choo.” Which means, “I’m from the bathroom.”
Eric, a boy in my Swahili class, has a bald spot on his head. We spent about 20 minutes discussing how to say “I protect my bald spot.” Our teacher, after finding out that Eric was Jewish, asked him if it was from the overuse of yarmulkes. And now we can say, “Unasemaje receding hairline?”
Today, we spent a significant period of time talking about alcoholism in Swahili. Now we can ask for a “pombe baridi,” cold beer, or we can call each other drunkards, which is always fun. Furthermore, we learned the verb for sleep – kulala – and the term “I would like” – ningependa. Of course, we immediately stuttered and stammered until we could say, “Ungependa kulala na mimi?” Would you like to sleep with me?
As Eric wrote, this is cultural exchange at its finest.
Some of the words sound so similar, and it’s hard not to get them mixed up. For example, you can ask “Asubuhi unapenda kula nini?” What do you like to eat for breakfast? Or you can ask “Asubuhi unapenda kula NAni?” which means, WHO do you like to eat for breakfast. The dangers are many.
In other news, I experienced my first Kenyan blackout last night. Apparently the power goes off about once a week at random. We ate dinner by lamplight, which was actually kind of nice. Thankfully, the power was back on in the morning so I could take a warm shower. I should count myself fortunate, though – two or three of my friends have to take bucket showers because they don’t have running water. Now that falls into the category of OIA – Only in Africa.
Here’s a picture of my homestay sis and me!
She loves my mzungu (white person) hair, so she spent a while braiding it last night.