Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Penultimate Partings

Taking a little break from packing and I wanted to write a quick update since we have a computer charger again and only have one and a half days left in Kenya! Holy smoke. The time has gone by so quickly. Don’t worry; we will add some backdated posts and reminiscences after we return. Chris Troger from Serve-a-Village came last week and brought us a Mac charger so we’re able to use the computer again but we’ve been too busy traveling to update. (Thanks, Chris! It was great to see you for a few days.)

In the last two weeks we have taken at least five overnight trips: Jacob to Nairobi to pick up books, Julia to Webuye and then Kakamega to show Chris some potential volunteering sites, Jacob to Busia to attend a children’s’ library training workshop, both of us to back to Kakamega to visit friends, and finally home to Mbale yesterday. Phew! So we haven’t had much time to get on the computer or even prepare for England. Did I mention we are planning to move to Canterbury in September for my graduate studies?

It looks like we’ll have to hurry up and get our visas when we get back since it’s too difficult to do from here. Also, Jacob is still looking for a job. So, if any of you know of any job openings in the UK, please give us a shout! He’s applied for about a gazillion teaching jobs without success (apparently they aren’t supposed to hire non-UK residents unless they can get certified something-nonsense-something or other) He’s also been looking into cabin crew positions based out of the UK, Europe, or DC. Or frankly anything that would help us pay our exorbitant rent in Canterbury. Although we haven’t found a place yet to rent, the only options we’ve seen so far are pricey and pricier…

Anyway, I am sure all of those things will work out in the next six weeks. Unfortunately, I have also been sick since Sunday so I am just slowly packing our things and writing this post while Jacob works at the library right now. (No worries, I got checked for malaria yesterday and I was preemptively de-wormed, as well.)

Later today we’ll say goodbye to many of our friends although we still have a lot to do tomorrow before we take the night bus to Nairobi… In just 24 hours we need to

-Buy our tickets to Nairobi
-Finish packing and clean up our hostel room
-Settle with the hostel owner for our rent
-Go to Kapsabet tomorrow morning to re-negotiate the library contract so the lib committee can co-sign
-Plan and teach our last library training class tomorrow evening
-Visit and say goodbye to many of our friends and visit our two schools, if we have time
-Try to get a few kangas for souvenirs since Jacob says he spotted a couple sweet ones in the market yesterday
-Get rid of all the stuff we are leaving here. I am hoping we can sell our old socks at the market for a few shillings...
-And last but not least, figure out what to do with our chicken and rabbit*

In the course of our last few weeks in Kenya, we have been gifted with a baby bunny and a very striking rooster. No, we are not keeping them in our hostel room with us. (Although we have tried several times to catch lizards to keep here for the mosquito problem.) But, no, the bunny is still staying with its mother until it’s weaned and our friend Paul is currently holding on to the rooster. But what to do with them is something of a problem. At least for the rooster.  

We have donated the bunny in advance to the library to start a rabbit-keeping project. Yes, the bunnies will eventually be sold and eaten. No, we are not monsters and, yes, this does make me sad. I wish I could keep my bunny (which is the cutest golden-colored, floppy-eared fuzzy little bunny ever.) But bunnies fetch a very good price here, about $24-$30 each, and the project will help the library become self-sufficient. So, eventually the bunny will join the library coffers but for now, it is safe to romp in the grass and chew little bits of vegetable with its infinite cuteness.

The rooster is a bit more of a problem. The library committee got together and decided to gift us with a stately bird, presumably for me to slaughter and cook in any way I see fit. However, I would rather not. And although we’d like to just donate the chicken to the library like our bunny, we’ve been told that it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to give it back. So, now we are stuck with the dilemma of what to do with our rooster and how to transport him. Apparently neither of us knows how to properly carry a live rooster on a motorbike. That is one skill that we haven’t had time to learn yet.

So, hopefully by the next time we write, we’ll have solved all these conundrums and more. I had better get back to packing and cleaning before it gets too late.

Wishing you all well from Kenya.



Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brief tidings

Dear faithful and beloved readers,

Unfortunately our internet is limited once again-this time by our computer charger which drew its last little electrical breath about a week ago. So that means posting is tough and pictures sadly impossible. We are going to Nairobi sometime this week we hope (or at least Jacob is) to pick up the shipment of books for the library. So, we're crossing our fingers that we might be able to get a replacement charger then. I'm not even sure if this post will work since the cyber connection is slow today but we just wanted to send out a little love through cyberspace. We are well and trying to get as much accomplished as we can in the next two and a half weeks (wow!). It seems so short and I know it will go by quickly. We'll try to update as soon as we can. But in the meantime, be well.


J + J

Monday, July 2, 2012

5 Simple Rules for Aid

Dear faithful readers,

Our apologies for the absence. We were without internet for most of last week and that is our excuse.

It's getting late here, almost one am, and we need to be up early, early for a community meeting we are hosting tomorrow morning and haven't really had time to plan yet... But I just wanted to send a brief message to let you all know how things are going. We are still happy though somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of things we are hoping to accomplish in the next three weeks.

Value-added farm products: Dried soya crunches made with salt, oil, and lemon juice. Pretty tasty.

We decided we needed to take at least one trip to a national park during our time here in Kenya so we went for a brief but wonderful holiday this Saturday to the Kakamega Forest (the most budget-conscious and least time-consuming option) and arrived back home on Sunday. I think Jacob is planning to write about our trip so I won't reveal any details but I will tempt you to return and read his post by saying that we saw a lot of exciting flora and fauna and have a few decent pictures to prove it!

Today I spent the day working with a group of farmer/retirees on learning to plant indigenous vegetables and make organic compost. Jacob spent the day working at home since he wasn't feeling well. We are pretty sure he just ate something funny and is not actually sick but any prayers or good thoughts his way would not go amiss I'm sure.

I think he may need some fattening up when we get home though. Our diet of fried breads, sugary drinks, avocados, goat meat, and corn seems to be having the opposite effect on each of us. Although it may also have something to do with the fact that people here are continually making remarks like "you need to become fat like a maragoli woman" and "you should eat more ugali to make your calves nice and big" as they heap more food onto my plate.

Some of the ROP staff thinking hard about agriculture!
Things are going well although we feeling constantly pulled in different directions as we try work on all the different projects that people want us to work on and visit with all their families and relatives as well. I think we could have spent every night here in a different home and never have needed to stay at the hostel. Which would definitely have saved us some money. And we would have eaten a lot of home-cooked meals. But we probably wouldn't have been able to accomplish much on our projects if that had been the case. 

And maybe that would have been just fine. We are still not sure what, if any, affect our being here will really have when all is said and done. And I have to admit that I am a little disappointed I haven't picked up more language skills, which probably would have happened if we hadn't been staying at the hostel. And maybe another time we'll be able to focus more on studying the language and just enjoying our time as visitors. I think we've felt a lot of pressure to try to do things while we've been here. And maybe that wasn't the best approach. But I still don't think we would have done it any other way...

Things move slowly here in Kenya and much of what we are doing is completely frustrated by any number of factors: ineffective political systems, lack of infrastructure, cultural and language barriers, corruption, etc etc. It really feels a lot like being a little kid and making so many mistakes that you don't realize you are making until later. But we have learned a lot. And hopefully the end result of that learning will be that we are better, more compassionate people. And not just more jaded.

I still feel optimistic about volunteer and aid work. I see that people back home are ready and willing, even enthusiastic, to put some of their personal resources towards improving life in developing countries. I am sure we will write more of a summary of our thoughts on volunteering and aid in Kenya later but I just want to say: please don't stop giving, don't stop volunteering, don't stop trying to make the world a better place in whatever way you can. 

Beans seeds produced by farmers in collaboration with KARI (the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute). They are doing important research for farmers in Kenya. Keep up the good work, KARI. 
If you aren't now, consider spending a few dollars a week on something that you really believe in. It doesn't have to be development in Africa. It could be buying your hardware at the slightly more expensive family-owned shop or even attending a community meeting. But if you do choose to put your time or financial resources into development and charity projects in places like Kenya, please be thoughtful.

1.) Do put time into researching the project. Find out who is involved, what their objectives are and as much as you can about the actual end-results of their project. Talk to as many people as possible about the project and the group that manages it.

2.) Think critically. Does the project make sense? Does it seem well-organized? Is there a group supporting the project or is it just an individual (risky)? If it's a group, how is the leadership selected and do they include women, the elderly, young people, or other vulnerable groups?

Also, what will happen when this project stops being supported? Is there a way for the project to become self-sustainable or is it likely to collapse a few years down the line without continued financial support?

4.) Don't send stuff unless it is really unavailable in the area or prohibitively expensive to purchase in the developing country (in comparison to purchasing in the US and shipping it the country). There are a number of reasons for this: sending donated goods often depresses local industry, creates a culture of dependency, and generally does more harm than good.

[Disclaimer: Yes, we have been asking people for used children's books for the library project. Yes, there are children's books available in Kenya though not many in the area where we are working. But children's books here are relatively expensive and the range and scope of children's books in Kenya simply do not match what we can get through donations. We are, however, spending some of our library funds to purchase African-published books through local bookstores, mainly those by African authors and volumes in Kiswahili.]

5.) If you are planning to volunteer, do your best not engage in volunteer work that devalues or circumvents local professionals or institutions. Instead, make the effort to work with local institutions and groups whenever possible.

As far as I can tell in my brief time here, I think the most effective development programs are those that utilize local people and simply teach skills and provide practical education for local residents, enabling them to eventually bridge the gap between what they have now (or don't have) and what they need or want for the future. Instead of providing material things and brief services that reinforce the donor-donee roles, we need to do our best to come up with progressive ways to support local initiatives and projects. The best thing that people in developed countries can do (in my humble opinion) is just to try and find local people who have already started good, creative, and successful projects and support those as best we can.*

Over the next few posts, I hope we'll be able to highlight some of the very successful projects and programs that we've seen so far in Western Kenya. After Jacob talks about our trip to Kakamega, that is.

So thank you once again for humoring me by reading this unintentionally didactic post. And feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with any of the above reflections. We'd love to hear from some of you. We know you are out there. At least a few of you.

And you have our love and appreciation!


J+ J

The ROP staff, AGRA rep Rebe, and I visit farmers in Busia. No, I am not pictured. I was taking the photo...

*Of course this may not necessarily apply in cases like natural disasters, disease outbreaks etc. Sometimes you really just need to send in foreign experts to do the things they do. But in other circumstances, it's just plain better to train local people.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

7,000+ words

 We went to visit a poultry project a couple weeks back at a local school and Jacob took this amazing shot. 

One of the classrooms at Geverstone Junior Academy in Bungoma, sister school to the Geverstone where we teach in Vihiga County
The pupils of Geverstone Junior, or at least a few of them

Playing in the schoolyard

The future Kivagala Community Children's Library, getting a sweep from the resident janitor

The janitor posses for a photo op. 

We saw this incredible fence in front of a fancy playground in Kisumu Town. Not sure if it was a public project or a really nice private school. Someday we'd like to make a fence like this for the library...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Days Are Just Packed

It’s Julia again. I just wanted to share a quick post about our day. We’re spending the night at a friend’s place (woo, sleepover!) and I’ve just turned out the kerosene lamp in our room so I can only stay up while the computer battery lasts.

First, I should probably make a little amendment to my last post. Jacob gently reminded me as he read my rant on family planning that we’ve both noticed a significant contributing factor to family size here is the influence of mothers-in-law. Much of the pressure on ladies to have large (sometimes unmanageably large) families is due to the expectations of their mothers-in-law. I am not really sure how to go about changing that dynamic. But I believe it’s very possible. Although I have to admit, some of these Kenyan mamas are pretty formidable. I wouldn’t want to get on their bad sides…

Anyway, last time I promised to talk about the library project. In brief, we are helping to organize a community children’s library here in Vihiga County, Western Kenya. You can read more about it on the Serve-a-Village website (see the link in my last post). We’re just starting the library as a small local project: a peaceful place for local children to go to read, study, play, learn, and enjoy themselves outside of school time. It is as much an experiment as anything else. To see if such a project can be really successful here. And, if so, can it be replicated in other areas of Western Kenya.

We are currently training a group of around twelve volunteers to operate the library through a month-long Basic Library Skills Training Course. Most of the volunteers are either primary teachers or in training to become primary teachers. At the conclusion of the course, we will distribute certificates to all the students who have participated. We will also bring a few of our students to a children's librarians’ training workshop in late July being held in a town near the border of Uganda (more about that training later.) We also hope to hire one full-time librarian who may board at the library for part of their compensation.

We are really pleased with how excited the local kids are about the library project and about how receptive the local community is to the project. We are going to meet with the Assistant Chief tomorrow afternoon about the project, so hopefully that goes well! Apparently we should have met with him when we first arrived. Whoops. But our biggest concerns are finding continued funding for the library and helping the project to eventually become self-sustainable, or nearly so. We hope to fundraise enough now to start some projects over the next two years (like growing vegetables, raising rabbits, and installing solar panels) that could help the library eventually become financially self-sustaining. 

Today we had our first library training class and, in my humble opinion, it was fantastic! Twelve students were there by ten to two. And the class was supposed to start at two. That's ten minutes early. Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal but here in rural Kenya it really, really is. I don't know if it was the students' excitement or the fact that I had sent them multiple text messages reminding them to be on time but it worked. This group of young Kenyan men and women were all sitting on the grass in front of the library just waiting for us to show up. I was so impressed and moved. It might sound really silly but I almost cried...

So once we arrived at the library at ten to two, we quickly herded everyone over to Geverstone Academy (a small school where we've been volunteering) for class since there's currently no furniture in the library. I was a little worried when we showed up at G-stone since there was evidence that the kitchen crew and one of the teachers had been spending the morning spreading fresh cow dung on the floors of the classrooms. That is how they maintain the floors. (For your information, the dung dries into a nice cement-like floor and it doesn't smell at all once it's dry. They say it keeps the kids from getting some or other bug in their feet. I cant remember what it is now.) Anyway, it turned out Teacher Paul had especially prepared one of the rooms for us earlier so the floor was already dry by the time we arrived! The first good luck of the day. 

We said a quick prayer to begin the class, since that is how all meetings begin in Western Kenya, and then we introduced ourselves and began our discussions. While the beginning of the meeting was nice, things didn't really start to pick up until it began to rain. Hard, pounding rain. As I think I may have mentioned, if you've never heard heavy rain on an iron sheet roof, you can't really imagine how loud it is. So the rain put our discussion to an end pretty quickly. We decided to break for a short snack of biscuits (cookies, you Americans) and juice but the rain kept on pouring. So, instead, we switched to a silent activity. 

We had all the students brainstorm and write their ideas on the blackboard for alternative activities that could be done at the library. Wow! They came up with so many great ideas: role-playing, story-telling, making puppets, taking naps, learning martial arts, raising poultry, and more. It was lots of fun. And since there's no electricity at the school and we had to close the windows shutters to keep the rain out, Jacob was forced to illuminate the blackboard with his little solar flashlight. But, kind of like when the power would go out at home when you were a kid, it turned out to be a really fun adventure. Much better than if we had just had a straightforward discussion the whole time. 

When we finished the activity on the blackboard, we decided to teach all the library students how to play 7-up since it's a game you can play without really speaking. They seemed to enjoy it a lot. I know we did. It's a shame adults don't play more silly games. We could tell all the students were getting into it. And at the end of class we also ended up teaching them rock, paper, scissors since we needed to decide who would get to take home the last handout. We had only printed ten since we were expecting fewer people to show.

As we walked back home, we reflected a little bit on how much we enjoy life here. Sure, there are things that we miss. Food mostly. Jacob is planning to have a nonstop eating spree when we get home. I think he's been "reducing" a bit since we got here although I only seem to be gaining more attractive African curves... Anyway, besides the somewhat unvarying diet, there's so much to love about living in Kenya. On our walk back to town, we were greeted by many choruses of "How are you?" and "Habari?" and "Jambo". And then there was some kind of revival-dance-concert going on at one of the churches on our way back. I really wanted to stop and dance, too, but we had promised to meet our friend Frances at the matatu stage to go and spend the night at his place. 

We ended up here at Frances' place a little before dark and spent maybe two hours watching music videos and Spanish soap operas while his wife and kids prepared dinner. It takes a long time to cook dinner on a tiny wood-burning stove, which is how must people do their cooking here. (We have all but abandoned cooking for ourselves at the hostel since we get invited to people's homes so often and the local hotels have cheap and filling meals. We do still use our gas cooker for the occasional meal or cup of cocoa and for boiling our drinking water, though.) Anyway, Kenyan TV seems to be pretty much news and Latin American soap operas poorly dubbed into English. It's so easy to get hooked. I'm dying to know if Rafeala and Jose Andres get back together now that he knows what happened between them before his amnesia. Or does he??

So now we are comfortably installed in one of the rooms in Frances' parents house for the night. He and his wife and kids live in another building just a few meters away. The room is pretty warm and cozy, large spiders on the walls aside, and we're comfortably nestled under our mosquito net. So, it's probably time for me to switch off the computer and try to sleep. I hope all you readers are feeling just as happy and grateful as we are tonight. Sweet dreams.

J + J

P.S. Sorry no pictures to go with this post, the internet is being too slow to upload them. But we took loads this week since we traveled around Western Kenya quite a bit so we'll add them when we get back to the hostel or sometime soon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dancing at the Library

It's getting late and we have a busy day scheduled for tomorrow, but I wanted to write a quick update about the library.

Like Julia mentioned in her last post, we had our first meeting with library volunteers on Saturday. Five volunteers from St. Joseph's Teaching College in Majengo came and helped us to clean the back-room, paint a bookshelf, and more. A lot of the kids from the neighborhood also came to help clean up the yard and dig a ditch for composting.

After finishing our work, everyone gathered for some soda - best Kenyan soda is Stoney Tangawizi, as I believe Julia mentioned - and maandazi (kenyan donuts). The kids decided to perform some songs and dances, one of which Julia managed to record. Enjoy!

(Sorry, I have no idea what the song means)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Day for Fathers and the Library Project Part 1

Wow, what a weekend. Actually it started off very, very busy with our first meeting of volunteers for the library (yah!) on Saturday morning and then tapered off as we approached this evening. It's been a rather slow evening here at the hostel in Mbale so I felt like I ought to take a few minutes and share a little bit more background about our current projects while I have the chance.

Oh and before I forget, Happy Father's Day, Dad Schumann and Dad Mudrick! We love and appreciate you both very much. And to all the other fathers we know in America -- Dan, Sam, Ben, Josh, our uncles and grandfathers and the many wonderful teachers that we've had as well as all the great fathers we've met here in Kenya -- Jackson, Joseph, Frances, Emmanuel, and all you other great fathers -- we love and appreciate you, too. Please keep teaching your children to become peace-loving men and women and responsible citizens of the world.

A house in the village. I just like the clouds in this picture. 

Now there is something that I want to talk about briefly before I explain the library project...

As we may have noted before, there are LOADS of children in Vihiga County.  Vihiga has one of the highest population growth rates in the world (over 3% -- maybe that doesn't seem like a lot but it is, just do the math...) and it is a serious problem. As much as we love the kids here in Vihiga, there are just too many of them being born. Perhaps Father's Day is not the right time to bring this topic up. Or perhaps it is the perfectly right time. But I feel very strongly that men need to be more involved in family planning.

Here in Vihiga County and elsewhere around the world, men should be actively helping their partners decide what is the appropriate number of children for their family (based not just on the family's material ability to care for the children but also on the amount of time the parents can spend with them and potential risks to the mother and future children) and then acting on that decision through family planning.

It is just not responsible to bring more children into the world than you can handle. But the pressure to have as many children as possible is very, very strong in many areas of the world. I don't think that Kenya should forcibly limit parents to a certain number of children or that people shouldn't have big families. I am thankful every day for my husband and his five siblings and all of their wonderful families. Every single day. But women and men do need to make compassionate decisions about how many children they will have and how they will space those children.

The youth here in Vihiga County are suffering greatly because there are not enough jobs for them nor enough land for them to productively farm. The children here are also suffering for lack of education, nourishment, and health care. But although the lack of family planning has obvious and visible consequences here, this is not simply a problem of Vihiga County or of Kenya or of Africa or of developing countries. It is a problem of how we all treat the responsibility and blessing of making new people. Family planning should not be the burden of women alone.

We proudly noted this week that we have already gained readers for our little blog on almost every continent! (Still hoping somebody in Antarctica will happen upon us...) So, please dear friends and family who are of child-bearing age, if family planning is not something that you have spoken with your partner about lately, do it today. Don't let outside pressures dictate the number of children that you decide to bring into your family but plan together with your spouse so that you can be the best possible parents. Or not become parents if that's your decision - and it is perfectly acceptable, too. But whatever you decide, please do it thoughtfully and with equal input.

Phew, OK. I am stepping off my soapbox. Sorry about that. I will try not to inflict any more moralizing thoughts on you for a while. But this topic has been on my mind a lot for the last few weeks and I had to say something before I exploded.

On to more uplifting thoughts! The library project!

As I was about to say before I interrupted myself, Jacob and I have been working with the community to create a children's library here in Kivagala/Gisambai. We have identified a building in the village that is almost perfect. It is a (relatively) large house that was built by a man named Charles and his wife Jescah some years ago. Sadly, Charles passed away and Jescah decided to move with their children back to her home village so the building has remained vacant for almost fifteen years. However, Jescah is also a primary school teacher and a generally wonderful lady so she is renting us the building on very good terms. With the financial support of Serve-a-Village, we have been able to make some repairs on the building already and we are planning more.

This week we have thoroughly cleaned the building, killed some very large and poisonous spiders (I'm sorry, spiders), repaired small holes in the roof and put on one new iron roofing sheet, replaced some broken window panes, and renovated and painted a large cabinet to serve as our first bookshelf. We have also engaged a local craftsmen to produce traditional papyrus reed ceilings for three of the rooms in the building. According to at least one study, these ceilings can reduce mosquitos! I wish we had them in our hostel... We mostly wanted the ceilings to muffle the noise of rain on the roof and keep any stray raindrops off the books. The papyrus ceilings won't let last forever but they should last for many years if they are made well and the roof holds up. We also intend to get a library cat to help with pest control. And because it will be fun to have a library cat.

A rather blurry picture of Purity but I've cropped it so you can still see a bit of the papyrus ceiling above her. 
Over the next two weeks we plan to have someone repair the wiring in the building so we can have electricity and finish the cleaning and painting. We also hope to engage some more local craftsmen and craftswomen in producing some furnishings for the library- chairs, tables, and curtains. One local lady, who goes by the name Mama Timber, has offered to help us purchase a tree to use for making the tables and chairs.

Serve-a-Village has been able to collect around 500 books in a very short time and we should be receiving them in the next few weeks! Shipping is quite expensive so if you would like to donate something towards our shipping costs or purchasing books in Kiswahili, you can either donate through Serve-a-Village (there's a donate button in the upper right-hand corner) or leave a comment and we'll direct you to a site where you can select books in Kiswahili or books by African authors for the library.

Oh my, it is past midnight and I haven't had a chance to mention our volunteers, our first meeting, or the first ever Basic Library Skills Training Course! All that will have to come tomorrow since it's late late here and we are supposed to be up early to catch a bus to Bungoma.

Please be patient and come back later to hear more about the (tentatively named) Kivagala Community Children's Library!

The lot behind the library where we'll be planting veggies. Pictures of the building to come. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Everybody Loves a List (or Three)

Our friend Joseph Muyela at the co-op office in Majengo
Today’s Swahili Vocab List

dodo – Amaranth. Leaves are eaten and (I think) the seeds are also ground for flour, as well.
kunde – Cowpeas. Both the leaves and young legumes are eaten. Yum. 
Kisumu – The nearest large city.
matatu – Small shuttle taxis intended for 11-14 passengers but usually carrying ~25. Usually decorated with decals or paintings and sometimes rainbow flashing LEDs. Always driving erratically and sometimes in dangerously off-road situations. 
mito – I don’t think this traditional vegetable really has an English name. It’s called Crotalaria in Latin. There are bitter and non-bitter varieties. Both are appreciated for different reasons.
mzungu – A foreigner. Usually someone of an obviously different appearance but can also refer to somebody who has moved to another country or gone to the big city for extended periods of time.
nyama ya mbuzi – Meat of the goat. 
piki piki – Also referred to as boda boda. Small motorbike taxis, usually missing at least one mirror, a working speedometer, and who knows what other important parts.
ugali – Kenyan staple food made of cooked cornmeal and water. Served in the lake region as a very firm cake. Eaten with the hands and molded into a spoon shape to eat liquid-y soups and stews.

Decorating a tree in front of the school 

Julia’s Twelve Unexpectedly Wonderful Things About Living in Western Kenya List

12. Greetings. You can’t walk down the street and not stop and greet somebody you know. Or even most of the people you don’t know. And that involves at least two handshakes and a jambo or habari yako or murembe or shikamoo or sasa or ovendi…did I mention there’s a lot of ways to greet people? I sometimes feel like people are just testing us to see if we know the proper response in the appropriate language. But you can pretty much say always say “fine” or mzuri to any of those and be all right, anyway.

11. Kenyan time. Stop stressing. You’ll get where you’re going eventually. Or possibly you won’t. But either way, whoever you’re meeting is going to be there late, too. So, go ahead and take your time.

10. Piki piki rides. I never thought I would enjoy riding on the back of dinky little motorbikes so much. If we move to Kenya someday, I am going to learn to drive my own piki piki. But, unlike the vast majority of drivers and passengers, I’ll wear a helmet. Because speed limits here aren’t really enforced. Nor are directions of traffic. And if there were traffic lights or signs, those probably wouldn’t be followed either. And, more often than not, you are driving down a muddy, rocky dirt path that is perilous enough to walk on, let alone drive, with chickens and children and goats underfoot. Maybe that’s what makes it so fun…

9. Afternoon rain. If you were thinking of going somewhere on any given afternoon, you can just sit back and relax. Have a cup of cocoa and a donut. You are not going anywhere. It’s afternoon rain time and you might as well just chill out and listen to the rain.

8. Topiaries. Who thought rural Kenyan villages would be the place to spot impeccably groomed topiary shrubs? I did not. A lot of people here use cypress bushes as fences and they are often trimmed into imposing styles, somewhat reminiscent of show poodles’ haircuts. I have even seen one high school with its name written out in enormous topiary-ed letters.

7. Bird watching. There are so many beautiful and cute birds here-from the domesticated guinea fowl and indigenous chickens to the tiny, colorful weaverbirds to the exotic-looking birds with extra long tails and bright crests.  I was never much of a bird watcher but I wish I had a guide to Western Kenyan birds and a really nice camera sometimes. Also somebody to take pictures with it since I’m not very good.

You knew that bananas grow upside-down right? Or right side-up, I guess..
6. African music. It’s fun to listen to at home but much better here. Sometimes I have to keep myself from dancing as I walk down the street. Was anybody reading this blog post at the Kanda Bongo Man concert with me at UVA way back when? I can't remember who else was there. It was supposed to be the First Annual Afropop Festival but I don't think they ever had a second one. Anyway, I love the radio stations here.

5. Fresh fruits! Ripe and delicious mangoes, bananas, avocadoes, Kenyan oranges (not actually orange in color, you can figure that out), pineapple, and passion fruits: need I say more?

4. Traditional vegetables. I love their names: kunde, mito, dodo. I love the way they taste. Mmm, seveve (pumpkin leaves) boiled down with a little fresh cow’s milk and salt. So sweet, so sweet. And they happen to be a great way of improving your daily nutritional intake and household income, Kenyan friends. See item #2 for more details.

3. Stoney’s Tangawizi and Ginger Nut biscuits. These are pretty much heaven on Earth for ginger lovers. Stoney’s Tangawizi is the African ginger beer with a bite strong enough to make you cry. Or at least sneeze. And every bottle tastes a little bit different. Coca-cola Company, why are you depriving North Americans of your most delicious beverage? Also, how did you manage to make such a killing on this entire continent? People drink a ridiculous amount of Coke products here…and then there are Ginger Nuts. Oh Ginger Nuts. Keep in mind biscuit (pronounced bee-sku-eet or bee-sku-eet-ee) means cookie, not cracker a la the Queen’s English. Three of these delectable morsels can be had for the modest price of KSH 5 (about 6 cents). We will miss you, Ginger Nuts.

No, this photo is not underdeveloped.
The kitchen hut at Gisambai is just really smokey. 
2. ROP (Rural Outreach Project). One of Kenya (and surely the world’s) finest organizations for small farmers. By pure luck, I happened to come upon their office in Mbale shortly after our arrival in Western Kenya. And ever since, I have really enjoyed volunteering with the ROP Mbale staff, learning from them, and generally having a great time together. This trip would not have been the same without ROP. And I should say something about their founder, the inimitable Dr. Ruth Oniang’o who remains an example to me of an intelligent, brave, and pioneering scientist. I hope to follow in her footsteps some day!

1. Kenyan hospitality. As I sit here typing in our little hostel room, there isn’t much space left on the floor. Just today we have been given more than a dozen ears of maize, almost as many fresh chicken eggs, a 10kg sack of bananas straight from the tree, and four or five avocados the size of small melons. Not to mention the copious amounts of food I’ve already been served and eaten throughout the day.  I have heard people say you have to try to get fat when visiting Africa. But clearly they weren’t talking about Western Kenya. No matter how humble the home we visit or how many children they have to feed, there is always something put on the table or into our hands when we leave. I hope we can remember this spirit of generous hospitality when we return home and share it with our fellow Americans. For every person who has asked us for some money or a favor here in Kenya, there have been many more that have welcomed us into their homes or schools or businesses and shared of their own. Thank you, Kenyans, for your unfailing kindness to visitors despite a history of colonial subjugation and mistreatment. We will try to welcome you (and others) like Kenyans when you come to visit our home. 


The first of many Obama sightings, on the bus from Nairobi to Kisumu. 

Julia’s Six Less-Good Things About Living in Western Kenya

6. Mosquitoes. Besides the whole carrying malaria bit, these darned Kenyan mosquitoes are so incredibly agile. I never feel them biting me with their long, skinny legs but I definitely feel the after-effects.

5. Kenyan hospitality. Sometimes you just can’t eat one more plate of ugali and nyama ya mbuzi (see item #1 below) or another huge cup of maziwa mala (soured milk) or even another 500ml soda. * Especially if your GI system is already a bit on the mend. It is best to plan your visits between the hours of 2:30 – 3:00pm, directly after lunch, if you don’t want to get fed. And even this is no guarantee.

The Ehajis' eldest son Nixxon taking a cellphone picture
4. Afternoon rain. Pretty much everything and everyone in the village and town halts when the rain starts. And it rains virtually every day. Except sometimes there’s also hail. And if you’ve ever heard a hailstorm on an iron sheet roof, you know there’s pretty much nothing you can do but sit and wait out the storm. For hours. Literally. Every day. Try to just relax and enjoy it. (#9 on the above list)

3. Kenyan time. I think it is difficult for us foreigners, or maybe just me, to figure out the exchange rate between Kenyan time and American standard. Sometimes meeting at 9:00 means meeting at 9:45, sometimes 1:30, sometimes not for another week or two. And occasionally meeting at 9:00 means meeting right around 9:00, depending on who you are meeting. But that might be 9:00 Swahili time, which actually means 9:00 hours after the sun rises or sets…

2.Matatu wranglers and mzungu calls. We like to call them matatu wranglers. The guys whose job it is to stand at the matatu stage and heckle customers into choosing their matatu. Despite the charming names of most matatu like “Bumpy Ride”, “The Anointed”, “Beyonce Knowles” and “Facebook”, their methods for luring in passengers are somewhat less charming. I have actually seen matatu wranglers forcibly insert passengers into their respective vans. And for us, it usually involves the standard call “Hey, mzungu, Kisumu?” (Or other destination). I don’t really mind when little kids shout mzungu at us from the windows of their school or in little herds walking down the street. But it gets a little tiresome coming from adults.  Of course it’s the matatu wrangler’s job to heckle passersby so you can’t let it get to you too much…

1. Nyama ya mbuzi I am so sorry, dear Kenya friends who are reading this but I cannot lie, I have little love for goat meat. As much as I enjoy many aspects of the Western Kenyan culinary tradition, I will never relish a heaping plate of goat meat and fat and gristle. And, ever so secretly, I am hoping never to be served the local delicacy of fried intestines. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Good old Kenyan hospitality.

*Assuming it’s not a Stoney’s Tangawizi. I am always down for a Stoney.

One of the ECD (preschool) girls recites a poem about lions. Pretty much too cute for words.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tumefika Kenya


Pole sana for the long delay dear readers and karibuni to our blog at last! A combination of pay per MB internet, unreliable/unavailable electricity, and a packed scheduled has kept us away for too long but we are here and ready to start chronicling our adventures of the past five weeks for you. I am writing to you now from our new place of residence, a hostel in the town of Mbale, the headquarters of Vihiga County, Western Kenya.


Hostel is a loose term to describe our situation here. We are living in a room on the second floor of a relatively tall building (3 stories is quite tall by rural Kenyan standards) that also houses a bank and a bakery below us.  Sadly, although the bakery wafts up delicious smells that sometimes overwhelm the scent of the latrines below our window, their outputs are surprisingly tasteless. Never trust a Kenyan cream puff. It is neither creamy nor puffy. We have not ventured to try the curiously named “American doughnut” nor “pizza” based on our previous disappointments. But they do squeeze a mean fruit juice.

Tonight is an unusually warm and usually loud night. Although the warmth may have something to do with the end of the rainy season. We had a terrific lightning storm earlier tonight that knocked out our power (but what doesn't, really?) and had me seriously confused for a bit.

Our old room at the Ehaji's house in the village
The lightning strikes were so bright and regular I thought it was a nuclear attack or the the end of the world until it started raining. And now the usual Mbale night noises are coming back: the sound of mosquitoes whining (hopefully outside of our net), semi-domesticated dogs howling from nearby, the occasional car or motorbike bouncing over potholes and tonight what sounds like-and might be-somebody dragging a rickety wheelbarrow full of rusted cans up and down the road outside our window. Road is also a bit of a misnomer since the main drag in Mbale is a wide dirt path with more potholes than surface but somehow the local piki piki (motorbike) drivers seem to manage remarkably well and at impressive speeds.

It feels too hot to sleep under our mosquito net right now which is part of the reason I am up writing tonight. If all our friends didn’t seem to be coming down with malaria lately I would consider sleeping outside of the net.


We are not entirely sure that everyone who says they are is sick with malaria. It seems to be a catchall term for illness in this area. Which is pretty understandable given the high rates of infection and the fact that visiting NGOs probably focus much of their energies on malaria education. But all the same, I think sometimes people are probably sick with other things. It's hard to know. 

I am looking forward to the real start of the dry season when I hope there will be fewer mosquitoes and friends getting ill. We heard tonight that when the bushes (i.e. corn) are cut down soon, the mosquitoes will go away, too. We’re not sure if that’s because of the lack of rain or lack of places for the mosquitoes to hide but it sounds good. Except that it will be strange to look across the barren, brown fields once all the corn (they call it maize or mahindi) is cut down.

We live a few km from the Equater. Sadly there is no dotted line.


We’ve become completely accustomed to the ubiquitous maize fields all around us. In some places you could just imagine you were somewhere in the heartlands of America…at least in the other parts of Western Kenya where shambas (homesteads or farms) are large. Here in Maragoli, the farmsteads are quite small and usually include some beans or Napier grass or tea or banana trees planted along with the corn.  But more on matters of crops later.

It is a bit strange to be in a place where the weather is so predictable, at least during the rainy season: cool cloudy mornings, warm clear afternoons, a brief hot period and then rain in the afternoon and evening. Despite what I said about the heat tonight, this area is actually quite nice most of the time, probably averaging in the mid-70s every day.

And it is so lush and green.  If you don’t mind the fact that most everything growing here is cultivated or weed.  There are not really any wild, indigenous plants. Every square inch of land in this area of Kenya is planted with crops, grazed down to stubble by dairy cows or goats, or used for a dirt road. But the overwhelming appearance is still breathtaking, especially if you go riding on a motorbike through the hills around sunset when the smoke comes pouring out of everyone’s tin sheeted or thatched roofs and the air is cool and you can see enormous round stones perched on the hillsides. 

Jackson and Jacob walk home through the village
There is something about the smells in the evening, too. The burning of the eucalyptus wood for cooking fires and the evening breeze makes a wonderful spicy scent-much better than the daytime smells of cypress, grass, and animal dung. But enough smells; you want to know all the juicy and exciting details of living in rural Kenya!


Sad to say, life here is much like life everywhere else in many ways. Mostly people worry about what they are going to eat today, hope their kids are doing well in school, and complain about the same things as back home: politicians, weather, and how darn expensive gas is. Then again, some things are very different. The ladies get caught eating houses, grown men hold hands, and children do what they’re told…

Not to mention a few of the comforts of home are missing: indoor plumbing and clean water, electricity, e-mail (for most people), employment, window screens, books, grocery stores that stock fresh food, public transportation and sanitation, paved roads (for the most part) just to name a few.

Decorating the teachers' office building with fresh flowers for Education Day

The hostel that we are staying in, unlike our previous home in the village, does have piped water and electricity, although both are inconsistent. We boil our water and cook our food on a tiny gas burner, which has forced us to be creative about cooking. The nights we cook, it takes several hours to eke out a meal but we usually end up with something fairly palatable. I have not yet mastered the art of making soft Kenyan chapati (thin fried breads) on our gas cooker nor have I –truth be told- even attempted the staple food of ugali yet. I have heard the best way to test your ugali is to keep throwing small pieces against the wall until it sticks, which might be an improvement on our current wall decor (mold). 


Some foreigners have described ugali as a paste-like or playdough-like mixture of cornmeal and maize. They must be eating some different ugali from ours here in Vihiga. The kind we are served is more like a firm brick of coarse, mildly flavored cornmeal. But it does grow on you. By the time we leave I may very well feel, like any good Kenyan, that a meal without ugali is like a cheque without a signature.


There are some great sayings here. Though I don’t understand enough Kiswahili yet to appreciate most of them, I imagine. My favorite insult translates to “your girlfriend is so skinny that when she eats a peanut she looks pregnant”. Kenyans are wonderfully appreciative of curves. I have twice been complimented on my attractively sizeable calf muscles. That’s right. A good-looking woman has to make a bit of noise when she walks so that when you bring her home to your mama and aunties they won’t be worried she’ll collapse on the way to the well. Maybe the style is a bit different in Nairobi where there are no wells to be had…but I think there’s a lot to appreciate about rural Kenyan culture. Or perhaps I should say Luhya culture since we are living in a predominantly Luhya area.

The Gisambai Primary Class 7 boys prepare for their dance at Education Day

Right now I feel like my Kiswahili (the prefix for languages in Swahili is ‘ki’) is halfway decent for the brief amount of time we have been here. But I can still only manage a few greetings and a very short introduction in the local language, Kimaragoli. There are a number of reasons why I think my “mother tongue” is progressing so poorly. For one thing, the family we lived with for the first month rarely spoke in Kimaragoli and all of our early Kiswahili phrases (Kula Eat! Shika Take it! Shuka Get down from there!) were learned from Jackson and Evelyn and their kids. Second of all, there are no resources to learn Kimaragoli. Signs are written in English or Kiswahili, as are textbooks. And we have only seen one, rather esoteric looking book in Kimaragoli so far.

And, the truth is, I am reluctant to put too much effort into learning the language since I know that when I travel a few kilometers in any direction, the native language will have changed. Sure, all the Luhya languages are mostly intelligible to native speakers but there are a lot of differences, too. But the trouble is that it makes people so darned happy when one of us wazungu attempts to speak in mother tongue.  I get thunderous applause when I address old farmer ladies in a few words of Kimaragoli at meetings and peoples’ faces positively light up when you greet them with a simple vuche or ovendi? (‘Morning, how are you?). I feel a bit like I am perpetuating some post-colonial expectation when I insist on studying Kiswahili instead of mother tongue, too. But maybe it can’t be helped.

Some girls running the hurdles at District Sports Day


Whatever language you attempt to speak or not here in Kenya, just don’t forget to greet people. If you haven’t shaken at least fifty hands in a day, you must have been hiding under a rock. Kenyans are warm and adamant greeters. And it is nice. Every interaction begins with a handshake and a greeting and an inquiry into one’s day, regardless of whether one has met every day for the past week or even earlier in the same day.

And if you don’t stop and visit somebody’s home after you have been invited, well shame on you. In fact, if you plan to be anywhere on time in the village, you had better add in a couple extra hours to stop and greet people and come in for a drink and some cooked bananas or mangoes or avocadoes or beans and rice or maandazi (Kenyan doughnut equivalent) or all of the above.

But not to worry. Kenyan time operates differently than time in the US. We still haven’t quite figured it out. Sometimes things only start a half an hour or so late, sometimes three hours, sometimes weeks. And distances are not measured in kilometers but in the cost of public transportation required to reach a place. Which is often dependent on one’s haggling abilities anyway. Safe to say, it best to greet everyone on your way and worry less about getting there on time.


Speaking of which, this little note is almost five pages and I have not even gotten to the parts about what we have been doing all this time-working at the local schools, volunteering with my hero Dr. Ruth Oniang’o and ROP, planning poultry projects, starting a children’s library, visiting our wonderful friends in Kisumu, getting bitten by caterpillars and more. But I think all that will have to wait for our next installment since it is getting very late and we have to be up early in the morning to meet our young friend Eugene and buy roofing materials.

There is much more to come…


Some of our neighborhood friends in the village from top left to bottom right: Purity, Martyn, Willy, Brevin, Angela, Scholastica, Mayline, and Baby Lucky

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Grand Exposition

Dear soon-to-be Loyal Readers,

We are delighted to invite you along with us on our journey to enjoy traveling the world, meeting new friends, and having great adventures. We are the J Muds: Jacob and Julia. (Sorry for co-opting your name, Jesse Mud)


On Saturday April 28th we will depart from our hometown of Reston, Virginia, the USA to spend the next three months in a town called Vihiga in western Kenya to work on some volunteer projects for an organization called Serve-A-Village (new website coming soon) run by some dedicated family friends in nearby Great Falls, VA.

The closest city is Kisumu, near Lake Victoria.
 (Thanks for the map, CIA World Factbook)


Just graduated this winter with his elementary (primary) school teacher's license and he'll be working in two local schools in Vihiga:

Gisambai Primary School, a government school with 600 students ranging from 3 to 15 years 
Geverstone School, an independent school with 50 students ranging from 3 to 14 years 

Both schools are free to students except for uniforms and supply fees but they vary greatly in the ratio of teachers per student. It will be interesting to see how the different schools operate!


Is an aspiring student/professor of ethnobiology who is currently trying to figure out where to attend graduate school next year. She is interested in traditional agriculture, sustainable land-use practices, communal land rights, and food cultures. Julia will be assisting on a bunch of different projects in Kenya with our local collaborator, Mr. Jackson Ehaji.


For the last six weeks, we have been preparing for our trip. We have gathered together some donated items to bring with us:

Top left-hand corner book is really good. Highly recommended.  And Hatchet, of course. 
A bunch of children's books for the schools donated by the Friends of the Reston Library as well as from some local donors. (Thank you to our wonderful mothers. You are always the first responders.)

This picture really does not express the magnitude of the glasses we received

We are also bringing 1,000 pairs of reading glasses donated by the Northern Virginia Lion's Club. Serve-a-Village (hereafter "SAV") collects eyeglasses from local optometrists' offices which we brought to the Lion's Club and then received cleaned and sorted glasses in return.

Based on our experiences with them, the Northern Virginia Lion's Club seems like an incredible organization. They do such good work and have such dedicated volunteers. Please consider donating your old prescription glasses, reading glasses, sunglasses and/or hearing aids to a local Lion's Club branch.

Lion's Club International

Jacob and I spent a couple Saturdays sorting and labeling reading glasses to bring with us.

Trying on some reading glasses. Jacob looks like a crazy cool wizard, no?

We also met up with our new friends, the incredible Margaret and her wonderful husband Jason, who were inspired by trips to Vihiga to start up a non-profit called the DeCastro Metcalf Foundation

Meeting up with Margaret and Jason at a Starbucks in MD. Tried to bring them some homemade cookies (see the tupperware). Accidentally mixed them with some asphalt in the parking lot...oh well.

Here is Margaret's explanation of the foundation:

The DeCastro Metcalf Foundation a philanthropic organization which maintains a three-fold mission of providing job-creation initiatives, medical assistance, and education to developing areas around the world.

They have also been working with Jackson and local farmers to develop an exciting project to grow sunflowers for oil, livestock feed, etc. We will explain more about the sunflower project and provide a link to their blog soon.

We hope to bring you an exciting, illustrated story of our time in Kenya and beyond. Please feel free to leave comments and we will get back to you as soon as we can.

Peace and Love,

The J Muds