Friday, December 16, 2011

Baby gadgets

Preparing for a new baby – even the second time around - it’s easy to get simultaneously seduced and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff you’re made to think you need.   There’s all the gear that you know from friends and experience can become a lifesaver with a new born: the babywrap that’s both soothing to baby and comfortable to wear, the vibrating bouncy seat that works to lull the little crier when nothing else will, the mobile designed by developmental psychologists to hold attention of a newborn, the white noise machine – that godsend of a sleep inducer.  

I remember thinking it was ergonomically impossible to nurse without a boppy and l seriously entertained the thought I might be housebound unless my stroller had a cup holder.    With Caleb all of these gadgets seemed absolutely essential.  

And then there’s just the stuff made to appeal to new moms who want to “mother in style.”  Couture diaper bags, brightly colored nursery decals, clever and shape flattering nursing tops.  And that stuff is just like candy.  You don’t mind indulging in a little something purely for the aesthetic joy it brings because, hell, you just endured months of heartburn and backaches followed by nerve-destroying sleep deprivation.  

And don’t get me started on all the eco-options you feel you need to have. Cloth or (if you have to do disposable) chlorine and dye-free diapers, organic cotton clothes from sustainably-raised grass-fed sheep, baby food  you puree yourself from vegetables you grow yourself, chemical-free just about everything.  If you don’t buy these things, you are helping to destroy the planet and the new life you just introduced it to.  You’re evil.

At the end of the day it’s a bacchanal of consumerism cleverly engineered to feed on all your new mom insecurities.  But it’s disturbingly seductive all the same when you are surrounded by it.  

This time around, all of this is off the table.  It’s not available, and none of our friends and neighbors have any of it.  In so many ways, it’s liberating.  We’re forced to think of what is absolutely essential and taught, by looking at our Kenyan neighbors, that pretty much none of it is. What is essential is a cloth for carrying the baby, diapers (or cloth) for changing the baby and a boob for feeding the baby.  

Well, and lots of hands to help with the baby seem pretty vital too. Maybe that’s what all those gadgets are really replacing -- the ready supply of friends and neighbors to interact with and soothe your baby, so you can do things like bathe and feed yourself are replaced by sound and light show mobiles and vibrating bouncy seats.  

The problem is that we are somewhere between the two extremes.  We don’t live near extended families or have lifelong neighbors and friends who can be counted on to help, but we live in a culture where you can trust strangers who offer to hold your baby.  We are no longer in a culture of parent-helping gadgets, but have the means to obtain the ones we think are most indispensable.  Hopefully we’ll be able to strike some kind of happy balance. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Toddler art imitates life

Taking inspiration from his environment.

Caleb often sees images like this:

And this:

And this:

And so I shouldn't have been all that surprised when he built this:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Executive Sleeping

When we think of parasitic worms (and who doesn't regularly think of parasitic worms?), those of us from wealthy countries see images of bloated bellies and and think of slimy creatures living in our gut.  Something awful, rare and requiring immediate medical attention.

However, in most parts of the world, they are considered a "symptom" of childhood, and the rates of infection in many areas are over 70% -  seventy percent! - causing pain, discomfort, inability to concentrate and, in some cases, even warranting surgery.  

The good news is that there are safe, effective and cheap deworming tablets available.  The bad news is that they are not getting to the kids (the kids are the ones who suffer the most with worms) who need them most. 

So, I've been in Nigeria helping to implement a school-based deworming program for the past week.  The key here is "school-based."  Because the drugs are harmless even if a child does not have worms, inexpensive drugs are safely administered to entire schools in areas where intestinal worms are endemic.

Subsequent to deworming, attendance goes up, children are healthier and better able to learn and entire communities reap the benefit of a reduction in worm loads since a good proportion of these critters actually live in children's bellies.  So, getting rid of them where they are living cuts the transmission cycle, and even neighbors who are not dewormed are less likely to be infected as a result of this campaign.  What's not to love about that?. 

A major part of the program is training the hundreds of teachers who will administer pills to thousands of children.  The training is relatively simple.  1-2 teachers per school show up for classes and then spread the information to other teachers in their school who subsequently administer the drugs.  So, one teacher training class for 30 schools can reach thousands of kids. 

But that's not why I'm writing this post.  I had a funny anecdote about the teacher training class, but I see now that the introduction it warranted is longer (possibly more interesting?) than the actual anecdote.  You still want to hear it, right?  OK.

So, at the start of each training session the trainers lay ground rules.  Things like turning off your cell phone and paying attention.  The standard stuff.  But I was looking at the chalkboard of one session I attended and one of the ground rules stuck out to me.

See if you can find it:

OK.  "No chorus answers" is a pretty appealing choice (and not sure why that should be discouraged, but anyway...), as you may have guessed from my title, the one that had me chuckling was "no executive sleeping."

The training I went to prior to this one had on it's list of rules what I thought read "no excessive dosing," which had me wondering if there was an acceptable level of dosing.  But, no, it's "executive" sleeping or dosing.

What is this? Some kind of prohibition against professional sleeping?  No sleeping while wear ties? What?

But, no.  As you probably have guessed it's the kind of clandenstine sleeping "executives" do when they are stuck in endlessly boring meetings.  They maintain the posture of listening but gently close their eyes and take a snooze.

I think this term is hilarious and my Nigerian colleagues found my reaction and questions equally hilarious.  One of them insisted I take a picture of someone demonstrating the phenomenon.  Here it is:

I guess fighting sleep and attempting to hide it in long meetings is one of those universal struggles that ties all humanity together as brethren.  Yes, it's that deep. I love it.

Asking for trouble?

I have taken a long hiatus from this blog because I keep getting in trouble. I wrote - what I thought - was a pretty even handed critique of a development project in the neighbohood, but as the Country Director's wife, I quickly learned criticizing a possible partner publicly was a bonehead move, no matter how convincing my arguments. I had to take the post down and make my blog private.  

Then I wrote, on another satirical blog - Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like - what I thought was a funny piece about the zeal among expats to claim enthusiasm for tasteless local staples in order to demonstrate their "insider field cred" to fellow expats.  Struck a cord with many, but was read (mis-read?) by some Kenyans who took great offense at my calling ugali tasteless.

Taking some amount of pride in my global-mindedness, it hurt me to the core to be accused of cultural insensitivity.  (But, then again, come on, pasta and rice are tasteless too. That's why everyone adds sauce to these things! So, I figured ugali was fair ground.)  Yet, again, the damange control team was deployed and my offensive post was removed.

So, is this the universe telling me to just keep my inane observations to myself.  But what's the risk or fun in that?  I'm pretty much keeping them to myself anyway given the two to three people who even read this.  Hi mom!

But I do miss writing, and there's plenty of blog fodder to choose from living and clumsily navigating another culture. Plus, I'm trying to be a better keeper-in-toucher, especially with a new baby on the way  So, I'm resurrecting this site.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Inaugural run

In retrospect it was an entirely ill-conceived plan--for someone who’s always been self conscious about her inferior running ability to sign up for a 10 K in a country legend for its disproportionate number of champion runners.   I was doomed from the start.  

In the US, I would have at least had reassurance that I’d be trailed in any race by people in worse shape than myself.  Behind me would be a bunch of overweight souls with a New Year’s resolution speed walking the race, some runners inspired more by the cause (it’s always a charity event at home) than by the fitness challenge, and some people who stupidly sign up for the race on a lark not having done much more training then a 10 minute commute to the train.  All these folks would be bringing up the rear along with my self respect.  Not so in Kenya.  Not so.

But several weeks prior to the first annual Busia half marathon and 10K, I started doing early morning runs with my new friend Daniele.  We’d be out by 6:15 and watch the sun come up in the cool morning air and chat about our lives.  I’d come to love these runs – just as much for the camaraderie as for the fresh air and exercise.  I always came home feeling better and more balanced about the day ahead.  But unfortunately these newfound endorphins led to an overconfidence that had me blurting out: “Sure, great idea.  I’m in!” when Carson (a marathon runner) encouraged us to join the 10K.  We figured we could always walk some if we got tired and there wasn’t much at stake.  (Well, except abject humiliation as I was to find out).

The day of the run we weren’t quite sure what to expect.  Carson has run other charity races in Kenya and told us that it’s always a good mix of abilities.  But this was Busia’s first every race and there was no cause, other than town pride, spurring it on.  Registration was 3 dollars, if you could find somewhere to register.  The online site had you fill in your name, and despite asking for no contact details followed with a promise to “follow up with more details.”  Not one of the oraganizers seemed to know either the start time or place, and it took several phone calls to suss out the details.  Clearly, there would be no “I ran the Busia 10K” t-shirts on offer.
All this disorganization lulled me into a false sense that we would not be confronted with very serious runners.  But the $1000 purse should have told me otherwise.  

After at long last uncovering the starting place, we arrived at 7:30 AM to this scene:  Intimidatingly professional looking runners and maddeningly unprofessional event planning.  Given that running is still not a popular pastime here, any rural-based Kenyan who has a track suit and new sneakers, you can safely assume is a runner with some professional skill and aspirations.   There were throngs of them.   We stood out like pasty, doughy jokes amid their athletic splendor, and were subject to even more leering that unusual.  
But there seemed to be no event organization whatsoever.  Participants mobbed tables to have their names recorded and to redundantly fill out the same waiver they did when they paid their registration fee.  We saw a grand total of one bus which was to shuttle some 600 runners to the start points, 10 and 21 km away. Finally, after at least an hour, someone started distributing numbers to affix to our running gear.  The numbers were on a “Coca Cola marathon” sticker that must have fallen off the truck on the way to another better organized race since we this was a half marathon race not sponsored by Coke. 

The professional runners, with no bodily insulation to speak of, stood shivering in the 70 degree weather, and finally took off to do some warm up laps during the long wait.  We spent the wait treating ourselves to shameless gawking at their muscular grace.

After waiting exactly 3 hours, we found ourselves 10 km from Busia in a small market center surrounded by other hopefuls and ready to start.  The10 k runners were definitely more amateur than the ½ marathoners.  There was a beer bellied mayoral hopeful, lots of high school students and first time runners.  The footwear ranged from shoelace-less loafer to none.  It was a lot less intimidating of a crowd.  There were a handful of obvious athletes and we struck up a conversation with Lulu (a University track star) who advised us to just pace ourselves.  “Most of these people will run out of steam after 2 km and you’ll sail past.” Perfect. 

In keeping a little too perfectly with the whole comedy of errors in the day, at first these was a false start, then after the runners were called back, the actual starting gun failed.  Finally, we were off. Or, at least everyone else was.  

Maybe it was the $500 prize or a total lack of appreciation that 10 km is a long distance, but the majority of runners shot out of the start line as if they were being chased by an axe murderer, leaving me and my running partner nearly dead last.  

So, the final joke was on myself.  As we’ve previously established, I’m not a particularly gifted runner.  But I’m OK.  That day, however, was a bad day.  After about 5 minutes I got a searing stitch in my side and was overcome with an unbareable need to pee.  After not so clandestinely crouching in the grass along the side of the road, we pulled even farther behind the other racers and I was in bad shape. Turns out I was on the verge of a incapacitating sinus infection which I would nurse for the next 2 weeks, so I wasn’t in top form.  I was in bottom form.  I let my partner run ahead since I was clearly keeping her behind.   

So, there I was in the glorious Kenyan country side, alone, dripping with sweating, struggling to catch my breath and the source of great amusement for the crowds of people who had gathered to see the runners, only to come across a panting, red-faced mzungu struggling along bringing up the rear.  Seriously, some people doubled over with laughter.  But when they were done with their fits of hysterics, they would half heartedly encourage me on with an “at least you’re trying” or some other platitude you give when handicapped people attempt athletics.  

But I got a second wind and pulled slightly ahead.  For most of the rest of the race I was neck and neck with a barefoot woman in a skirt.  For a time I also paced a team of high school girls who were propelled forward every time I approached by the sheer humiliation of being so close to the mzungu sub-athlete.  

As we got closer to town there was a dramatic increase in the number of bystanders laughing at my efforts.  And a lot more traffic.  

Given the scarcity of roads in this part of the country there was no way the race route was going to be closed off for a few hundred runners for the better part of the day.  The race disorganizers simply put a few motorbikes holding branches–yes branches, not flares or brightly colored flags, branches--at the front and back of the race to serve as a signal to half asleep long haul truckers that they might want to watch out for stray runners.    And anyway, the final branch barer had long since moved ahead of me.   So, when we turned onto the Busia road I added dodging traffic and sucking on fumes to the fun of being the butt of a town joke. 
I wish I could tell you I entered some kind of euphoric runner’s zone, blocked out the chaos and triumphantly finished the race.  But my house is actually tantalizingly located the 8 km mark of the race, and by that point I had my fill of public humiliation and near death from oncoming vehicle collision, and my creeping sinus infection was cresting to a migraine.   So, I held my head up high, turned off the race and went home.  Not my finest moment, but there it is.

 But after I caught my breath and my allowed my face to turn from cherry red to a nice shade of pink, we went back out to watch the real athletes come in from the 13 miler.   You couldn’t miss the front runner.  Not because he was such a spectacularly graceful champion, but because he was surrounded, literally enveloped, by a gang of cheering motorbike spectators, giving him a few feet berth to run.  If he fell he would have been squashed.   We stood watching with our jaws to the ground in disbelief.  Some of these runners have traveled around the world running in major events – the kind that give participants free t-shirts and clear the road of traffic.  We guessed they were pissed.  
Either way, it was absolutely inspiring to watch these world renowned runners sprint down the street in front of my house.  Maybe it’ll even inspire me to run another race.  And maybe even to finish it. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Harambe harumph

Yesterday I got an invitation which had me as on the list as a guest of honor, next to corporate sponsors and area churches, for a fundraising event.  It was hand delivered by someone I’m not sure I know.   Nor do I know the “Reason Theater Group,” but their fundraising goal of producing an “educative movie” that “aims at highlighting and suggesting solutions to major problems in our society” is vague enough to be totally suspicious.

But there I am on a list of “guests of honor” nonetheless.  And this all epitomizes so well the uncomfortable role we play being conspicuous Americans (read “wealthy Americans”) in a small Western Kenya border town.  It’s also a great example of the culture of tight inter-dependence, into which we are unavoidably enmeshed.

 You can’t escape it.   We are in a part of the world in which people ensure their survival through depending on an extended network of support.  Simply living here ties us inextricably to that web of inter-reliance.  And nothing demonstrates this as well as the pervasiveness of harambes.  

Harambe literally means “all pull together,” but it’s really a fundraising tool which has evolved with the times to include engraved invitations and guests of honor who purpose is to announce their support and encourage others to contribute.  Vast sums of money are raised this way making things like college education and lavish weddings possible for people who would otherwise struggle to meet the several years salary price tag.    

People organize harambes for everything from funerals to church building to (I’m now learning…)  movie production costs, and a week never passes without some kind of request.  Last week a field officer of mine asked me to contribute to buying new musical equipment for his church.  He had little color coded business-card sized donation cards each with a different amount for me to pick from.  The week before it was for someone’s brother’s cancer surgery.  Then the vegetable vendor I buy from told me her sister got into med school and had a donation sheet.  The practice extends through all social strata.    

It’s very easy for Westerns to feel glaringly on-the-spot, put-upon and simply irritated by the number of requests for assistance.  Our assumption is often that we are somehow being taken advantage of, and we bristle easily at being put in the uncomfortable position of having to say “no” and assumed presumptuousness of the requester.  I admit used to feel this way.  

I think that deep down this knee-jerk defensiveness is rooted in our relative wealth and the guilt and obligation associated with living in a place where most others have relatively so little.  It makes us feel uncomfortable and we lash out.

But I’ve come to reframe the whole thing.  They are not coming to me because I’m a mzungu or the wife of the country director.  Well, I’m sure that’s part of it and probably secures my place as a “guest of honor.”  But they are coming to me along with scores of other regular Kenyans with similar requests.   

My Kenyan friends and colleagues handle these unending requests with a combination of good nature and resignation at total odds with the wazungu anxiousness in the face of requests for money.  At home, a request for money – especially from strangers – is a rarer occurrence often tinged with embarrassment on both ends of the request.  Here, there are so many requests circulating that everyone understands that not everyone is going to give all the time.  So, Kenyans might not take it so much to heart when they have to say “no” or receive a “no.”  The whole dynamic is simply more part of life.  
Not that it's not a draining part of life.  It is.  Economists and sociologists argue that these webs of social obligations are precisely what keep people from accumulating enough wealth to break out of poverty.  And I know this is true.  I recently read a study that showed that people in Cameroon took loans solely so that they could then dismiss requesters with a simple: “I wish I could give you something, but, you see, I have this loan I need to pay.”    

But this reciprocal dependence also keeps people surviving in the absence of any kind of government funded safety net.  So, that’s how I’m reframing it. I’m looking at my many harambe contributions as kind of a social tax.  I give when I have with a lighter heart this way and say “no” when I need to. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why did you just get an email from me about this blog?

Well, that's because I'd like to opine about a lot of things that might not be best shared with the entire InterWeb.  And I'd like to keep my job.  I know it's an extra step and I don't want to exclude anybody.  So, I'm trying to figure out how to expand the allowable number of visitors.  But hopefully the main people reading this thing - hi mom - won't be deterred...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bathroom Bliss

I’ve just returned from a three week whirlwind trip home – the first since we’ve moved.  With two families itching to see Caleb and friends scattered throughout the country it felt more like a being a band on a concert tour than a peaceful trip home.   But it was, in the end, wonderful to catch up with family and friends.  

I’ve done these trips enough to not be too much a victim of culture shock.  I get it.  It’s always more of a shock coming to the place you grew up because you are not bracing yourself for anything to be different. This is “home” and you’re an expert at the cultural navigation bit.  You could give tours.  

So then it’s a bit jarring when you finally see with fresh eyes the obscene extravagance of living rooms that no one uses or the embarrassment of choice in the cereal aisle.  I get it.  Going away from home you brace yourself for the differences.  You handle the dirt floors and wandering livestock with aplomb and a sense of adventure. Going home life catches you off guard. 

But this is old news by now.  I was expecting to be mildly outraged by the absurd luxuries of the wealthy world (e.g. “skinny” white chocolate peppermint mochas with whipped cream), at least until the desire to indulge in them overwhelmed my outrage.   

The one thing that caught me off guard this trip home was the public bathrooms.  

I’m a pretty brazen bathroom-goer and as long as I can hold my nose and don’t have to step directly in any human excrement, I’m pretty much game.  But having a child in diapers changes the whole equation.  In Kenya, I never expect public bathrooms to have toilet paper, and changing tables are out of the question.  I’ve never seen one here.  

I’ve gotten used to changing Caleb in the back seat of cars, a patch of grass and on restroom floors on whatever I can find to make it more appealing for him.   I typically bend to the floor and fashion what I think is an inviting little space out of other diapers, old clothes and paper scraps from my back pack, and ask a very dubious Caleb to lay down for a change.  Caleb invariably looks at me, at the makeshift changing “table” and then back at me and declares: “No change diaper mama.  Chafu. (dirty)”   So, it’s a struggle.

So, imagine my intense pleasure when arriving in Heathrow we were treated to a “family bathroom” with a padded changing table, rolls of sanitary paper to cover the table, a garbage pail, sink and a toilet for mom. With toilet paper.  I felt like staying in there our whole 4 hour layover to revel in the experience. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

How sweet it is

Trucks full of sugar cane coming to be processed
The Mumias Sugar Company, like so many industries based in rural parts of the developing world, has its own little fiefdom.  Plopped in amid a broad swath of agrarian Kenya it stands amid a sea of sugar cane like a smoke-bellowing oil tanker.  Smooth arteries of well maintained roads emanate out in stark contrast to the typically pothole plagued roads in Western.  It’s a weird kind of oasis.

In a recent visit I got a tour of the factory, which was probably pretty compelling if you’re interested in how to turn fibrous stalks of cane into granular tea sweetener, but I could hear almost nothing between the buzzing factory din and my insulated hard hat.  Seems there’s quite a bit of industrial-scale crushing and boiling and at some point lye is involved.  After treacherous walks up rusty ladders through intimidatingly large and noisy compressing equipment we descended – through a thick odor of sourly sweet molasses - to the factory floor where the sugar is finally measured into sacs.  I don’t think I could tell you much about how this all happens, but it does seem an impressive feat, and this factory provides the better part of all of Kenya’s sugar.

The plant is set on a sprawling campus – home to 2000 factory employees – which contains pretty much anything a worker might need.  There are several schools, restaurants, shops, health facilities and even luxuries for the management class such as a swimming pool and sports complex.  But none of these inhabitants actually grow the sugar cane.   That is done by the thousands of surrounding farmers who sell their cane to Mumias.

Growing sugar cane appears, from the outside, to be a risky endeavor.  The pay-offs for an acre of cane is an eye-poppingly seductive sum of $600 – an amount that most farmers never see all at one time in their lives.  But the rub is that it takes a full 18 months to bring sugar cane to harvest, so there are obviously huge risks should anything go wrong. 

Still, cane farming is the last real cash crop around here and cane farmers do enough better than their subsistence maize growing neighbors to incent them to keep planting.  At least that’s the economic logic.  Growing must be more profitable than not growing cane otherwise people would stop doing it.  Simple enough, no?

And by most accounts Mumias is fair to its farmers, and even has cash transfer and loan programs and encourages each farmer to diversify the crops on their land. Though it’s hard for an outsider to really assess this.  

Still, the idea of the greedy parasitic corporation, growing rich off the backs of poor farmers, is a seductive narrative and it is repeated by many hard working farmers in the cane growing area. Farmers, who, despite their increase in income, may now feel poorer relative to the greater wealth of the Mumias workers.   So, farmers are not always thrilled with the arrangement. 

During the dry seasons when small fires are common, the fires near the factory are attributed, rightly or wrongly, to disgruntled farmer espionage.  There is still talk of people displaced decades ago by the purchase of the land on which Mumias sits exacting revenge.  It’s hard to tell myth from reality and to gauge the real level of injustice.

So, I’m not sure if people are truly better or worse off for Mumia’s presence, but I would guess better.  The other factory hubs in the area, which have been abandoned, have wrought clear economic damage to their areas.  People, who probably once complained, now pine for the paper mills’ return.  At least then there were jobs.  It’s just the sad reality of disproportionate power of industries surrounded by a sea of people with few choices.  

And even mighty Mumias’s future is not totally secured.  Protective trade barriers are slated to fall in the coming years, making its system of contracting with small local farmers uncompetitive with the economies of scale allowed by neighboring countries who harvest directly on massive plantations.  In anticipation, Mumias is diversifying into making power from organic refuse and even pioneering seemingly ridiculous niche markets like “vitamin fortified sugar.”  

In the end, I hope Mumias makes it. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blessedly busy

Well, March has flown by – as evidenced by my lack of blog posts.  I’ve been blessedly busy lately with a number of new research projects and other work.  To be honest, the inspiration for this post is mainly so that there’s not a ‘2’ after March in my post archive. 

·     But just so it's not a total waste, I'll share one of Caleb's Kenya-inspired cute-isms:  He calls playgrounds (really pictures of playgrounds he sees in books) “game parks.”  I'm not sure how he put this together.  I’m not sure if he means that it's a park where kids look to be playing games or if it’s a nod to the biggest driver of the Kenyan economy.  Either way, it’s cute.