Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reflections, Flexibility, and Grant Writing

Yep, that's my catch-all title for this week's blog post (after four hours of grant writing, my head's a bit fuzzy). As you can probably tell from the fact that I've been bad about updating again, life's gotten busy once more, and I've also gotten sucked into the routine of Nairobi life. My internship is now in full swing, and I'm really loving it, despite the challenges. I also really love that so many of the guys I work with are all around my own age, because it gives me this whole other set of friends to hang out with on the weekends, something most of the other people in my program don't really have.

I really can't believe I'm only here for another four weeks (actually, a bit less than that). I have, it's safe to say, completely fallen in love with Nairobi life, and I can't imagine how its going to feel to leave. There are absolutely things I miss about home (mostly food and friends!), but life here is exciting and adventurous and, despite my routine, there's never a dull moment. I've been trying really hard not to get too complacent as I get familiar with Nairobi, to continue to force myself to go out and do new things, try new foods, go new places. One day at work this week we went out for lunch and I finally got up the courage to try fish brains (actually much better than eyeballs; brains actually just taste a lot like regular fish meat), and this Friday some friends and I went to a concert which featured a band one of my friend's internship works with. It was definitely a Kenyan concert, with lots of Luo and Luhya music, and believe me when I tell you Kenyans like to do. With everybody swinging their hips and shaking their butts (Kenyans, no exaggeration, are the best dancers in the world) it's hard to resist, so my friends and I headed out on the dance floor and had ourselves a great Friday night. Going back to DC is going to be weird in that respect, too - white guys just aren't as good dancers as Kenyans, nor are they as enthusiastic!

I've also been keeping super busy working on the grant I'm currently writing for ICA. I've discovered after our grant writing workshop last Saturday that I actually really like grant writing - it's really technical and nit-picky, but the editor side of me actually kind of loves it. I feel like I haven't really found my "niche" here in Kenya (women, economic development, refugees, that sort of thing), so knowing that I can always fall back on being a freelance grant writer if I have to is sort of a huge relief. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I really love the organization I'm writing the grant for, and I really, really, really want to get them this money (the grant is for a civic responsibility/patriotism/clean up your community-type project). That also makes it kind of stressful, though, as I feel like every word has to be perfect, since only about 10 percent of proposals actually end up being accepted. It's kind of like applying to college all over again!

Finally, I wanted to talk a bit  about my "personal growth" over the course of this semester. It's definitely hard to see it as you're going through the daily routine of classes and commuting and getting homework done, but there was a moment last weekend when I really saw just how much I've changed. It was Sunday afternoon, and I was just settling in to spend the day being really productive. Just then, the power went out. I spent out two minutes freaking out, worrying about how I was going to get my work done (since my computer battery only lasts about 20 minutes when it isn't plugged in) and when I was going to find the time to do everything that needed to get done. Then, I calmed myself down and realized that it was a gorgeous afternoon - why not enjoy it? I spent two hours outside on the balcony reading, just listening to the birds and taking in the fresh air. I really surprised myself - back home, I would have a major break down if something like that happened. That sort of letting go, of taking life throws at you and realizing that, somehow, everything will get done and it will all be just fine, is a really fantastic feeling, and one that I don't think I've experienced very many times in my life. In my head I've sort of divided myself into a "Kenya Emily" and a "back home Emily," and I'm hoping this flexible, "Zen" acceptance will stay with me as I cross back over the Atlantic.

So that's all for now. Back to grant writing in a bit, then off to enjoy my last month in Kenya!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interning at ICA Kibera

Hey all - Since I've been so bad about updates in the past couple of weeks, I figured I'd make up for it by posting again this week. After we got back from rural week, we started our internship full-time (plus still going to USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), although I had already visited ICA several times.

I was pretty much thrown into work from my first day, because ICA is in the middle of writing a new strategic plan for the next three years, and to celebrate this they're "relaunching" the organization in about two weeks. (Hence the name change - from ISSA to ICA, the Initiative for Community Action). Basically, the idea behind the re-launch is to streamline ICA's current programs and re-iterate their mission and goals to the community. Part of ICA's problem, in all honesty, is funding - because they have so little money (some months they even struggle to pay rent for their office in Mashimoni Village, Kibera), the end up doing programs donors are interested in rather than programs they actually want to run. This isn't to say their old programs weren't good, just not as sustainable as the should be.

So my life for the next two weeks will be crazy busy fundraising for the re-launch and planning a party to represent the best of ICA to the movers and shakers of Kibera. As much as its stressful - especially because we have very little money for a re-launch that's supposed to occur in two weeks! - it's also really fun, and I love that I'm right in the middle of this. I truly do admire all of the guys I work with; their passion, energy, and dedication to ICA is awesome to see, and I consider myself lucky to be working with them.

At the same time, there are also frustrations. While the guys are passionate, they're also easily distracted, so I feel like half of my day is spent chasing after them, trying to force them to sit down and get work done. There are aspects of working within Kibera that also present challenges - like not having Internet and having somewhat sporadic electricity. I'm trying to keep all of this in perspective, though, and overall I'm having a great time getting to know Kibera, and I'm almost to the point where I can my own way to the office via various different routes, although I don't walk by myself.

There are also frustrations that have nothing to do with ICA and everything to do with the fact that I'm white. I can't tell you how many people have asked me for money (not just in Kibera, although it tends to be worse there). I was out to lunch with some of the guys I work with the other day, and as we were leaving the hotel to head back to work, some random person just stood up and asked me to pay for his lunch, assuming that because I'm white I must have money. Those sort of assumptions can work their way into personal relationships, as well, and become really disillusioning. When someone you're friends with asks you for money, as recently happened to me, it leaves you feeling really jaded and used, like the only reason that person was friends with you was to ask you, eventually, for money. While I'm trying to treat these experiences as the exception rather than the norm, it is disappointing, and can really bring you down if you're already having a bad day. Overall, though, I try to look at things like these as just one more aspect of the challenge of living in Kenya, realizing that I'm incredibly lucky to be having these experiences, whether good or bad. Life in Nairobi presents both intellectual and emotional challenges in a way that DC can't possibly match, and going back (in about six weeks!) is going to be really hard.

There are absolutely things I miss about home, though, and as much as part of me is longing to stay here, another part of me is looking forward to spending the summer back home with my friends and family. It isn't even so much the luxuries of living in a developed, industrialized country - like air conditioning and regular, consistent mail system! - but little, familiar things like your favorite restaurants and hang-out spots. More and more over the past few weeks, I've found myself missing those little things (like - laugh if you will - flavored, loose-leaf tea and real cheeseburgers at Red Robin). Like so much of the past two and a half months, every day here I feel about a million different emotions - sadness to be leaving a place and a culture I feel I'm just getting to know, happiness and comfort to be returning to home, and a sense of loss to be leaving the fantastic friends I've made here. Luckily - and perhaps most importantly - a feeling of regret isn't in that mix. Though I maybe haven't traveled as much as I thought I would, I feel I've done a good job of taking advantage of all the  opportunities which have presented themselves to me over the past two and a half months, and for that I consider myself very lucky.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Kenyan Spring Break

As you can probably tell, life has gotten pretty busy here in Nairobi. Last weekend we got back from our spring break - a week spent in rural Kenya (Ukambani, to be precise, which is about two hours east of Nairobi). In a nutshell, the entire week was great, although it was most definitely a challenge, as well.

We left Nairobi early Saturday morning, and the bus ride to Machakos (where we then caught a matatu) was an adventure in and of itself. The bus was packed with people getting on and off, and the constant stream of hawkers selling everything from juice and fruit to bracelets and nail polish made it even busier. We actually ended up changing buses and sitting in the terminal before we took off, and I definitely sympathized with all the seasonal workers who use this means of transport to shuttle back and forth between Nairobi and their up-country homes. To spice up the trip even further, about halfway to Machakos we picked up some more passengers (although the bus was already full by this point), including an itinerant preacher who treated us to shouted Bible verses and loud "Amens!" for the rest of the trip.

On the way to Nyumbani Village, where the spent the night, we stopped at a very pretty little wood-working workshop which specialized in the carved rosewood and soapstone face masks Kambas are famous for making. We got to see some artists at work, which was cool. We then arrived at Nyumbani Village, an experimental village started by (I think) a Catholic bishop; the village pairs AIDS orphans with grandparents who have few or no children so that the orphans can be raised in a family setting rather than an orphanage. The village is also striving to be both self-sustainable and organic, so they have all sorts of cool initiatives going, including eco-toilets (waste is separated, processed, and used as fertilizer and to irrigate trees Nyumbani grows for a couple years then harvests and sells as a source of income). We only spent a night there, but I can tell you that the starts were amazing - I have never seen such a clear sky in my life! Chris, the American volunteer who was working in the village, took us out to a viewing platform, where we spent about an hour just gazing at the stars and enjoying being out of Nairobi.

Monday afternoon, after touring more of Nyumbani's projects, we were off to meet our homestay families. I and 5 other students were in the village of Kyua (CHOO-ah), and I'll admit that I was absolutely terrified waiting to meet my host family! When the father, Benson (who teaches at one of the village's primary schools) finally arrived, I found to my dismay that he didn't speak much English and had a hard time understanding my nasalized version of Swahili. He took me home to meet his family, which includes his wife Anne and sons Paul and John.

I spent most of the week with Anne, doing my best to help her around the house with the multitude of chores she does each day. I quickly found, though, that for the most part I was pretty useless, knowing how to do very few of the things it takes to run a rural Kenyan household, so I spent a lot of my time that week reading, enjoying the scenery, and just thinking. Some of the highlights of the week: Helping Anne on the shamba (farm) pull up dead corn husks to make room for the new planting they were about to do (I have never been more dirty or sweaty in my life!); using a choo (bathroom) infested with literally dozens of cockroaches; bathing every night in a bucket; using a flashlight because there was no electricity; praying over every evening meal (Benson and Anna are devout Catholics); traveling via motorbike (in a skirt, no less!) to the market on Wednesday; attending a prayer meeting with some of Anna's friends; and touring one of Kyua's primary schools Friday during their field day, being surrounded by massive crowds of little kids staring, half in fear and half in wonder, at us, the wazungu, who they had never seen before. We were mostly terrified of the way they closed in on us, unsmiling, so my friend Julia and I tried to lighten the tension (and our own discomfort!) by starting a game of volleyball with the kids, which ended well.

Overall my family was great. We had a difficult time communicating sometimes, given my limited Kiswahili, but Anna and I made ourselves understood for the most part, and when we didn't understand one another, a laugh or a shared smile sufficed. Living in such isolation was definitely a challenge, and it really made me re-think my dreams of joining the Peace Corps and withdrawing from the world for two years. Aside from the monotony of the days, the food, too, was super repetitive, and it will be a long, long time before I eat chapati (well, maybe not that long) or mbuzi (goat). I did really enjoy the traditional Kamba dish gatheri (rice and beans), though, and I can't complain about all the fresh fruits (so many mangoes!) and vegetables.

Saturday morning we all said good-bye to our families and started getting ready for the final party, at which we exchanged gifts and thanked our families one last time for welcoming us into their homes. Because I got there early, I got to watch some of the men slaughter the goats for the stew we ate later that day - definitely a traumatic experience, and one that made me consider (albeit only for a few hours) being a vegetarian. The local MP even showed up for the party, and between his rambling speeches, Tusker, and the traditional tribal dances the older women performed to entertain us (I even joined in with them for a bit!), the party was overall a good time, and I was sad to say good-bye to my family, who had been so patient and generous with me.

We spent Saturday night in a hotel in Kitui, a bit east of Ukambani, and I cannot even begin to describe just how nice having (hot!) running water was. If nothing else, rural week taught me that I will always, always, always prioritize running water over electricity.

Sunday morning, we took a small side trip to Nyambazi Rock (really more of a small mountain!); apparently if you walk around the rock 7 times, you switch genders. The rock is really too big to walk around 7 times, so instead we climbed to the top of it and were rewarded with some truly breathtaking views of the hills surrounding Kitui. It was a great spot to sit and reflect on all that had happened during rural week. After a picnic of good, old-fashioned PB and J sandwiches, we hopped into our rented matatu and headed back into the noise, congestion, and utter chaos of Nairobi. Though rural week was a great break from the hustle and bustle of city life, to be honest I was happy to be back in my apartment and sleeping in my own bed.

This past week I've also started my internship full-time (except for USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), but I think I'll save those stories for a later post - this one is probably running impossibly long already. Below are some pictures from rural week; my advice is to take in the beauty and serenity from afar, and enjoy your running water!

One of the grandmothers at Nyumbani Village. This woman was like 90, but she could still shake it!

My room in Kyua.

My homestay house! I love the paint.

All of their animals - mostly cows and sheep, and tons of chickens.

Tusker, their puppy. So adorable!

My homestay mama, Anna, and her mom and dad - and some random baby.

My homestay brother Paul, mom Anna, and dad Benson.

Me gettin' my tribal dance on.

At the top of Nyambazi Rock - the view was spectacular!

Seriously, more a mountain than a rock. But the view made the climb worth it.