Monday, December 24, 2012

I am a Kenyan grandmother. Kind of.

Last night while putting my 4 year old to bed I cuddled him so hard I nearly smothered the poor little guy.  I kissed him all over and tickled him, delighting in his laughter even as I knew this was bedtime play was ready to backfire.  I didn't care. This intimate, playful, loving closeness is my favorite thing about motherhood.

And then, as we both settled down into our more sleep-inducing routine of lullabies and back patting, my mind wandered.  It wandered back to my village stay and I thought of mothers I met in that poor rural village, and their experience of motherhood.

Our experiences of motherhood are worlds away for a lot of reasons. But this stuck out to me:  I hadn't seen a single mother play with her children. I hadn't seen a non-baby snuggle. Children put themselves to bed.  And there were no terms of endearment issued.  No "Sweetheart," "Lovey," or "Pumpkin," so common on American playgrounds.  Orders to wash the dishes or pick up a crying sibling were unceremoniously issued and obediently followed.

None of this is to say that these mothers don't love their children as intensely. They fret over a child's illness and are uniformly obsessed with finding enough school fees to give their children the best shot at a bright future.  To these mothers the saddest fate that could befall them is not baring children.

Still, the maternal physical and verbal affection is at minimum - perhaps lost in the necessity of daily chores or simply dictated by generations of parenting culture. Babies are snuggled, held, cooed at, and co-slept with, but when they grow into children they're simply ordered to fetch the water and wash the dishes.

It was a bit unsettling for me coming from an intensely affectionate family and demonstrative parenting culture. A culture where parents, bad knees be damned, get on the floor and push a train around a track with junior.  Where 10 year olds, to their perennial embarrassment, are still hugged and kissed in public.

But, then I noticed something else: mom aside, there actually was no shortage of playmates. Instead of an adult who might quickly tire of kicking around a ball, there always half a dozen little people with similar interest, energy and attention spans to run, play and laugh with.
You don't need mom to play with you when you have a constant brood of playmates.
And, despite my initial observations, the children did get some of that physical and verbal affection.  But instead of from mom, it was from grandma.

It was grandma who I saw kissing boo boos and delighting in watching the children play. She was the one more effusive with the praise from a high mark at school.  She was the one the kids ran to.  My suspicion that grandma was a main source and receptacle of snuggles and affection, was born out the more I spoke with Kenyan mothers.  Each one agreed that her mother would tend to "spoil" her children and that children raised by grandmothers are less disciplined and more wild.
Not the best pic and there's a huge smudge on my lens.  I only got about 50 watts of her 100 watt smile.  But grandma was easily the happiest person I met and universally adored by all the kids.
I suppose that's often the same dynamic in our own culture. Grandparents think of it as a right and a privilege to indulge their grandchildren.  But in the Kenyan village the difference was more stark. Motherhood seems more of a job.  A duty.  It's not until a woman has grandchildren that she appears to fully enjoy it.

In fact, when I asked each mother what they loved most about motherhood, they found the question bizarre and nearly impossible to answer.  It really stumped them.  Maybe it never felt like a decision they made.  They never had to defend the state of motherhood to some dubious childless peer. When forced to finally think about, to a person, they each said what they enjoyed most was the "help" children provided.

So, maybe modern Western motherhood resembles a lot more the experience of a Kenyan grandmother. Hey, by the time we get around to raising progeny, we're about the same age, and we tend to "spoil" our kids with affection and shower them with praise.  More than occasionally we even attempt to be their playmates.

And perhaps that's the trouble with modern motherhood. We're trying to be a whole village of people to our children.  And it's hard to be their teacher and disciplinarian when we're also trying to be a doting grandmother and a playmate. Maybe it's less confusing for kids to have these roles separated.  It's probably less emotionally taxing for the mother.

What do you think?  Am I way off base here?  Kenyans: Is this assessment even correct?  Would you "modern mothers" have it any other way?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Actually, Guns DO Kill People

We're all saturated with news and commentary from the recent tragedy in Connecticut.  I usually stay away from these topics on my blog since I usually don't have any particular expertise or insight to add to something so well covered by actual experts.

But this time I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop looking at my children and tearing up.  And I can't stop ranting about it, to the perpetual annoyance of my husband who just wants to enjoy his coffee in peace.  

And what I'm focusing on this time around is all the arguments of the pro-gun people.  Look, I'm usually able to look at both sides of an issue, but the preponderance of reasoning and evidence really points, this tragedy aside, to more gun control. 

None of the arguments coming out of the anti-gun control camp hold up to much scrutiny.  

Let's take them one by one:

"Guns don't kill people, people kill people."  This is an old one. And patently ridiculous. Sure, inanimate objects have no volition, but you can't argue that guns don't make it easier for momentary rage or fear or drunken irrationality to turn quickly and irrevocably fatal.  A mentally unstable person wielding a knife is going to do a lot less damage than that same person putting a few pounds of pressure on a trigger. 

Keeping the onus of responsibility away from the gun and on to the shooter, gun advocates remind us that the solution is really for better mental health services. Yes.  Great point! This country could use more support (programs, research, educational anti-stigma programs) for people suffering from mental illness.  And more gun control too.  Listen, even if we could achieve the impossible Utopian vision of effective mental health treatment for all, we'd still have angry or immature inebriated people getting their hands on easy instruments of death.  We'd still have senseless accidents. Next...

The more intellectual set likes this argument: "If more people were packing heat, the real criminals and sickos would be deterred from using fire arms."  These people reason that if the Sandy Hook principal had access to a firearm, she could have stopped this tragedy. This argument falls apart if you think about it for more than 5 minutes.  Sure, in some academic game theoretical thought experiment, it has some logic.  But show me a country awash in guns where people are and feel safer.  We can't go around arming everyone to deter the 'bad guys.'  We never know who that 'bad guys' really are.

There are those who deify our founding fathers and argue: "Government tyranny is kept in check by an armed populous."  OK.  What century are these people living in?  So, I guess easy access to guns is what's keeping most stable and prosperous European governments accountable? Nope. And, most countries awash in guns do not have an accountable governments. I prefer to keep my government accountable by checks and balances inherent in our political system and a free press.  

In response to this tragedy specifically, they argue "Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws, and it still did not prevent this tragedy."  To this, I say: (1) Maybe even the "toughest" gun laws of our time, don't go far enough.  (2) Still, this is but one example.  If you look across states, those with the toughest gun laws still have the fewest death by fire arms.  


Anyway, look, my biggest gripe is that nearly 9,000 people died in 2010 from fire arms in America.  That's 24 deaths a day.  That's a Sandy Hook massacre taking place EVERY DAY in our country.  The victims aren't all innocent school children, though plenty are.  The victims are often poor, urban and minority.  But we can't argue that they deserved to die.  Or that the rights of hunters and paranoid right wingers to bare arms made for the battlefield should trump measures that could reduce the chances innocents dying.  All 9,000 victims presumable left family shocked at how instantaneously and senselessly their loved one could be taken from this earth.  

I'm not naive to the political realities and the powerful lobbying voice of gun owners. We won't eliminate the 300 MILLION guns in American.  But that doesn't mean we have to be held hostage by gun enthusiasts.  That doesn't mean they get carte blanche.  Ban assault weapons made for the battlefield.  Institute buy-back programs and background checks, close the gun show "loophole." Real experts I'm sure have better suggestions. There are things we can do, and it's time.  


P.S. My Kenyan friends are all shocked by this tragedy.  How a country they often admire and which has so much wealth and freedom could see something so barbaric happen.  How is it that such a presumably advanced country trust their fallible citizens with such unforgiving instruments of death?

If you agree with any of the above, sign this petition to the President, and let him know!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning from Kenyans: How to keep my cool as a mom

I'm guessing many of you reading this can relate:  Your child does something you don't want him to.  Or doesn't do something you do want him to. He runs the other direction when you tell him it's time to go home.  He collapses in a heap telling you his "legs don't work" when you're trying to get out the door.  He finally agrees to chew a piece of the offensive dinner you've slaved over and then slowly pushes the chewed up morsel out of his mouth, which lands squarely on his plate, a disgusting masticated symbol of the end result of your best intentions.

It's the final straw in a frustrating day, and you can feel your blood boiling, your chest tightening and your wits escape you as your emotion takes over.

You do one of two things. You become:  a) The silent scary mom, where your anger is just bubbling under the surface, but it's fierce and you make it known.  Your eyes bug out, you clench your jaw and your threat is issued in a throaty whisper -- the kind Satan might have.  Your child is temporarily subdued/scared into submission.  b) The batsh-t crazy mom, in which you just let it all out, scream things you'll later regret at an instantly cowed toddler.
It's like this but with less eye make-up.  (photo credit: Poulson Photography)
You feel you're driven to this kind of behavior. It's hard being a mom. It wears you down to fail to convince irrational and nearly helpless small people to do what you ask all day.  You're vindicated by the scores of mom-bloggers who commiserate and joke about being driven to drinking wine out of sippy cups.

Unless, apparently, you're a Kenyan mom.

OK. I could be way off here, and please do correct me if I'm wrong, but I've never seen a Kenyan mom driven to these adult temper tantrums.  Maybe it's just more of a private display, but I rarely see them explode like this, and when they do it's never with the undercurrent of actually losing their minds.  They never seem to require a mommy time out.  There might be a yelled threat of a beating, sure, but it doesn't seem to wear them down personally the same way. There's a "nitachapa wewe," and then they move on to whatever they were doing before.

To be fair, I know some Kenyan moms struggle the same way American moms do, and certainly some American moms manage to not fall to pieces when raising young children (though I've yet to meet them).  But, I've definitely noticed a cultural difference in my two years living here.

So, I have a convoluted constellation of theories as to why motherhood does not drive Kenyan women as crazy as it does their American counterparts (assuming this is a correct assumption).

There is more help from extended family; there are fewer parenting philosophies to pick from, doubt and then be judged by; there's no scheduled sleep times to disrupt; there's a more relaxed free-range parenting style; it's a less tightly wound culture in general; there's not the pressure to be the main source of entertainment for your children.

But I'm writing a blog post, not a book, so I'll just highlight one of my half-baked theories here.

It's best explained by Mama Brandon.

Mama Brandon came to our house unannounced yesterday.  She was going door to door looking for work as a tailor with her two year old son, Brandon, in tow.  It turned out I did actually need some curtains made, so as we discussed specifics, Caleb and Brandon dug into our basket of toy cars.

When we had finally negotiated a deal and they were about to leave, Brandon had to give up the toy car he had been playing with.  Well, this did not sit well with the young lad.  He threw a mighty, screaming, jumping-up-and-down-with-two-feet fit. It was quite the spectacle.

What did Mama Brandon do?  She simply continued, at a relaxed pace, giving us her goodbyes, took time to pinch Emmet's cheeks and gather her things.  When she finally acknowledged the stampeding elephant in the room, she asked him to quiet down.  Then, she tried to distract him with another toy.  It didn't work.  Then.... she laughed.  Not at all a nervous embarrassed laughter, but a laugh that found the humor in the whole out of proportion emotional melt down.  She scooped him up and departed, smiling, shaking her head and saying, "Ah... watoto."  "Oh children."

OK.  An American response would have probably treated the whole thing a lot more seriously - like a battle that needed to be won, or at least a toddler who needed a lesson reinforced about appropriate behavior and sharing.  And then, facing inevitable defeat, the mother would feel embarrassed, frustrated, perhaps judged by the other parent, and maybe even a bit resentful of her child.

And of all the reasons I can come up with that Kenyan mothers seem to keep their cool, this one I can probably try.

I don't have an extended family to pick up the slack.  I do have a head spinning array of parenting philosophies to choose from and then doubt.  I can't be as free-range or schedule-free. But I can try and find the humor in the situation, and I can let go of winning all my battles, all the time.  From the looks of Kenyan children, my kids will grow up just fine despite that.  And, they'll have a happier mom in the process.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completely deserving but unsexy cause

From a post recently featured on World Moms Blog, an excellent Website that features moms from all around the world.  Kind of the UN of the momblogs world. 

There’s a minuscule pot of money globally to solve those intractable problems of poverty around the world. Sure, there are a lot of sources: foreign aid, UN agencies, global and local charities. But they are dwarfed by the size and scope of human need, which governments in low-income countries cannot, for a variety of reasons, completely address. The international development world is in constant battle for this pot. 

Look at me!” says HIV/AIDS.  "Over here!” says Food Security.  "We’d like something, too!”, says Access to Credit for Small Business.  ”Don’t forget about us!”, say Malaria and Tuberculosis.  These are all worthy causes, so it’s a struggle.

And the global community does not necessarily prioritize or coordinate our global giving on the basis of need of recipient or effectiveness of the solution. Generally, it appears based largely and unscientifically on “what’s sexy” at the time.

So, what makes a cause “sexy?” Well, it helps if your cause wins some Jolie-Pitt endorsement. It helps a lot when NY Times writer Nick Kristoff writes a book about your cause. Oprah will do wonders. The more you can argue your beneficiaries are “deserving” of aid – that they had no part in creating their own suffering – the better.  Children and victims of violence pull on heartstrings and wallets.  Victims of epic natural disasters animate our compassionate imagination and spur our giving. More money flew into Haiti in the wake of the earthquake and Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami than NGOs had the capacity to spend.

So, what if you have a completely deserving, but unsexy, cause?  What if your cause is the polar opposite of sexy?  What if it's worms?


Parasitic worms affect 2 billion (that’s with a “b”) people, mostly children, around the world. They live in their tiny guts, sapping nutrition from sometimes meager meals, making them sick, lethargic and less able to learn and thrive. They rarely kill, but they exact a large slow toll on millions of humans’ potential.  They keep children from escaping poverty.  They arguably keep whole countries poor. In fact, research shows that part of what kept the American South economically lagging behind the North is explained by the parasitic worms endemic to that area.  Once hookworm eradication began, literacy rates and even income levels shot up.   

And in many areas of the world worms are so prevalent that parents sometimes view them simply as a symptom of childhood and, amid myriad other concerns, neglect to get their children treatment. Even when parents do desire treatment, health centers are often far away, expensive or under-resourced.  So, despite the fact that worms are treatable, they are often left untreated.
All of which is doubly tragic because unlike so much other global disease burden, there is, in fact, a safe, simple, and inexpensive solution.  

Deworming pills cost pennies and are completely safe even if a child does not have worms, which negates the need for expensive diagnostic tests.  Rigorous research has shown that dewormed children are healthier, attend more school and, remarkably, even make more money as much as a decade later!  But how to get the pills in the mouths of all these children?  

Enter school-based deworming.  Because there are far more teachers than health workers and schools than health centers, using the schools to distribute deworming pills, once or twice a year, is incredibly efficient and cost-effective.  Teachers can be trained easily to safely administer the tablets, and un-enrolled students can be invited to attend a “deworming day.”  Literally, millions of children can be reached this way in a matter of days. 
Source: dewormtheworld.ord
The Deworm the World Initiative, which I currently work for, is engaging countries around the world, advocating for school-based deworming and assisting countries to get programs implemented.  Kenya, where I live, is currently undergoing a mass school-based deworming program targeting 5 million children, and the state of Bihar in India has completed the second round of the largest ever school-based deworming program, reaching a staggering 17 million school children.  


But the fight, even in these places, is not over.  Even though a small pill will kill the worms currently infecting their child host, children can become reinfected if sanitation is not improved, and the overall worm prevalence will likely rebound unless a multiple year campaign is launched.  Because worms spend part of their life cycle in human guts, a sustained campaign can significantly reduce the overall prevalence of worms.  But funding a sustained campaign is often difficult for cash strapped governments, and charities struggle to raise continued funding. 

And here we come back to the unfortunate unsexiness.  In the last paragraph I mentioned "guts," "worms," and "human hosts."  I spared you "fecal contamination," "stool samples," and the grittier details of worm transmission and detection.  I also spared you the mundane details about training, monitoring and implementing a mass deworming program.  None of those details inspire or animate donors. 

What should inspire donors is the idea that this program works.  This program helps children now and well into the future, and at a relatively low-cost.  This program addresses a multiple of sectors: health, nutrition, education, and economic security.  This little pill just might unlock a lot of development.  Now we just need to unlock all that funding.

[ For the holidays instead of giving a $25 amazon gift certificate, you might considering buying a YEAR's worth of deworming for 100 children.  You can do so here. If you want to learn more about school-based deworming, visit the Deworm the World Website.]

* Views expressed in this blog are the author's alone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Heresy: Maybe you CAN spoil a baby

It's fun to read antiquated parenting advice and laugh or shake your head disapprovingly at their strange and possibly harmful ideas.  Slate just wrote a piece about some of the more bizarre parenting ideas of the past few centuries, all of which were by the way written by men.  It's comical.  Bathing the baby in lard?  Ridiculous.  Introducing solids at only a few days old?  Idiotic and dangerous. Not playing with your baby or comforting her when she cries for fear of "spoiling" them?  Cruel.

Or is it?

Most of my friends have a story about their mom or grandmother admonishing them for being overly attentive to their infant.  "You're going to spoil that baby" they hear. "The baby is manipulating you" they're told when they run to pick up a fussy little crier. "He's turning you into a human pacifier" hears the on-demand breast feeder.

Foolish ancestors, we think.  Don't they know that "you can't spoil a baby?"

It's the conventional wisdom of our parenting age, doled out as gospel by every attending nurse in the maternity ward.  "They are establishing trust" we're told.  You must attend to their every infant whim.  We're told that under 3 months is a critical time of development and attachment building.  The baby is learning to "trust."

But I have no idea how anyone knows this for certain.  Sure, if you neglect a baby entirely it could do irreparable psychological damage.  But there's a huge spectrum between attaching junior to the boob 24 hours a day and utter neglect.  Does anyone really know what letting a child cry for 15 minutes a day will do to a 2 month old? Hell, apparently an entire generations have let children cry and they didn't all grow up into sociopaths.

So, now I'm finding myself questioning the conventional "you can't spoil an infant" wisdom.

Here's the why: letting a baby cry a bit seems to be the magical key to having the holy grail of motherhood - a good sleeper.  And the kicker is, the earlier you do it the better.

I first came across this idea in the book Bringing up Bebe, in which the author, an American expat in France, learns that the key to getting babies to "do their nights" (sleep through) is not running to them each time they cry.  From day one, you do a pause and give them an opportunity to "learn to soothe" themselves.  Remarkably, nearly all the French moms she meets have babies who sleep through the night before 4 months old.

This observations is born out not only in her fun ethnography, but actual science. A randomized trial of women who intended to breast feed their babies found that those who were given instructions just after birth, which included waiting to attend to their newborn and refraining from nursing during 5 hours of nighttime when possible, had much sleepier babies than those who did not receive any instructions.  In fact, amazingly, at 8 weeks 100% of the moms with instructions had babies sleeping through the night, compared to 23% of the control group.

All of which pisses me off.  Why am I just learning this now!?!?  Apparently this kind of gentle sleep training is possible to achieve until about 4 months, after which habits formed are hard to break.

Of course, I'm learning this after the magical 4 month widow has closed. I have a baby who at 9 months wakes every 2 hours to be comforted by his indulgent mother.  Last night he woke up 3 times.  Three times before I even made it to bed.  Then another 4 times throughout the night.  Each time I nursed him back to sleep.  Could he be spoiled?

Maybe.  You might just say I've denied him the opportunity to learn how to self soothe.  Or that he's become dependent on nursing-to-sleep associations. Our grandmothers just might have told me that I'm spoiling him.  Maybe there was some truth to it after all.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Have you all ever heard of momsomnia? How about insmomnia?  No?  That's because I just made them up because there has to be a word for this.

All of which is ironic because I hate, HATE, when people mom-ify words, like momtrepreneur and momversation and momut butter and jelly.  (OK. I've never heard that last one.  Yet...)  But here I am, momifying words like a boss because all this momsomnia has eroded my brain.

So, momsomnia is the state of sleeplessness you achieve despite the fact that you have a sleep deficit of 149 hours and you've only averaged 4 hours of sleep (not in a row, mind you) each of the last 8 nights.  Despite your biblical levels of exhaustion you spend the only 2 hour stretch of quiet your baby gives you a night, with your heart racing, unable to sleep.

You find yourself in the dark of night, lacking even the energy to move your head to a more comfortable position on the pillow.  Even thoughts of movement tire you out, as you lay sprawled on your bed like a ragdoll thrown from a plane.  You're definitely too tired to sob silently on the bathroom floor, which was your strategy the last 2 nights.  All signs point to sleep.

But your body is kept awake by your rapidly firing nervous system which is now stuck on high alert for the dreaded baby cry. The more frustrated you are about wasting this precious opportunity to sleep, the harder it is to sleep.

After a bout of momsomnia you might fall into a weirdly intense dreamstate. Like you're dreaming that your husband is lying next to you and trying to... ahem... get frisky, but when you turn over to respond, you find there's someone ELSE in the bed who's laughing maniacally at his attempts to ensnare you.  Then you do one of those dream screams to wake yourself up, and your husband comes in from the other room (he's no longer sharing a bed with a momsomniac) and shakes you awake reminds you not to scream, you know, because of the baby.  But it turns out THAT's a dream too. It's like that. Or so I've heard.

That's momsomnia.

I hope this ends soon.  Then I can go back to my regular, run-of-the-mill Ambian-curable insomnia.   Like normal people. - Congrats on the new baby. You can sleep when you die.

P.S. I *thought* I invented "momsomnia," but a quick google search told me I'm delusional.  Of course other people have made this obvious word momification.  So, I'm unoriginal, but at least I'm not alone.  I'll take it. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mother of Brothers

We decided to learn the sex of our kids before they were born. But not for the usual reasons. Not because we were worried about planning an elaborate gender colored nursery and trousseau.  Hell, Caleb ended up in a pink crib anyway when we moved to Kenya. And not to make things, like naming the child or imagining after school activities, easier.
Completely secure in his manhood, practically daring you to say something about that pink crib.

Some parents wait to find out the gender so it will be a surprise when junior or juniette pops out, but we figured it would be a "surprise" just an earlier surprise in a different doctor's office.

Truth is, a "surprise" is not always such a great thing.  I wanted the news early so that the moment of birth stayed totally and completely magical.  So that there was no twinge of anything approaching disappointment marring that beautiful moment of birth.

I know, I know.  First time parents will always say "We don't care.  Just as long as the baby is healthy."  And I truly did not have strong preferences one way or another, but I felt myself starting to assume that I was having one particular gender. I summoned all my feminine and budding maternal intuition.  I placed my hands on my belly and meditated.  I had dreams.  I really *listened* to my body.  And it told me I was having a girl.  I started expecting her and even being excited about her.

And I told all my friends. I told my husband.  

And then my radiologist announced a congratulatory... "It's a little boy!"  My husband looked at me with this at once precious and monumental news, and asked me if I was going to cry.  You know, because of all the disappointment.

I was disappointed. I had pictured a girl. People tell me that new moms often picture a girl.  It's the gender whose experience you relate to the most. You can picture your relationship with a girl because you were a little girl to your own mom. Maybe I even started to picture taking her to dance classes and putting those cute little bows in her hair that she would immediately angrily remove.  I would be frustrated but secretly admire her pluck. Oh... the times we would have...

So, I guess in that radiologist's office I was a bit disappointed.  What am I supposed to do with a boy?

But he came and his gender, for the first few years, was completely besides the point. Like a typical new mom, I was completely and utterly in love.

When I got pregnant again, I learned not to listen to my clearly faulty intuition.  My husband passionately wanted a little girl though, so I suppose I absorbed some of that.  Having a girl would lend some finality to our child-rearing; make our family complete. I put some effort into willing myself to have a girl.  I may have even prayed on it.

I sat in my radiologist office thinking that God would be good to us, that little bean we saw on our last ultrasound would start to form girl parts, or lack of boy parts, or whatever.  My radiologist patiently pointed out all healthy grown parts of my fetus, " This is your baby's kidney. It's healthy kidney. This is your babies heart.  Very strong.  This is your babies penis...."

What?  Ok. So... huh?  So, I'm having another boy. I guess it's just all odds. Roll of the dice.  Probability.  We have no control.  No one upstairs is "listening."  So, my first thought when I was told I was going to have another boy was: "There is no God."


This all makes me sound a lot more disappointed than I was. I mostly felt sorry for my husband who had his heart set on a girl.  I had actually come to love the idea of boys.

When you tell friends you are pregnant with a boy, you get a lot of  "Oh, that's wonderful!" And then a whispered almost conspiratorial, "You know, boys simply adore their mothers."

And I have to say it's true.  I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions, but it seems that girls often have complicated and even competitive relationships with their mothers, but sons simply put their moms on some kind of an irrational pedestal   They are protective and admiring and unconditionally loving to their moms.  Want to touch a nerve?  Tell a man a "your mama" joke.

Right now it's terrific. I'm adored from all corners of my family.  My babies want nothing more in life than to snuggle with their mother and run to her to make it all better when anything goes wrong.

But I'm starting to think about the future.  Soon enough, those tiny legs are going to stretch out into sinewy gangly boy legs, Adam's apples will emerge, voices will lower, hair will sprout, and I'll be surrounded by little men.  By testosterone and acne and competitiveness.  By people who are into things I cannot relate to, like video games and boobs. So, while they'll still be "in love" with their mama, their mama might start to feel a little estranged from their world.

At that point, I suppose I'll be lonely, even achey for some female energy in the house.  I'll be outnumbered, outvoted, out-manned. There won't be anyone interested in talking at length about their budding romances.  There won't be anyone not disgusted by my tampons.  

But we won't be a having any more children so I suppose I need to make my peace with this uncomfortable prospect.  Lots of women do.

My high school boyfriend had all brothers and his mother was overjoyed by her sons' first girlfriends who finally brought some female energy to the household.  I know this because she said things like "I'm overjoyed to have some female energy in the house!"

There were a bunch of mothers of all boys in the neighborhood. You probably knew the type.  They hungered for a girl to talk about things like Hollywood gossip and how piggish their sons were.  They took some surrogates under their wing, maybe even took them shopping.  They'd lurk around the kitchen table where the kids were gathering and try not to appear desperate in their attempts at initiating some girl talk.

So, that's going to be me, surrounded by testosterone and desperate to impart the lessons I learned as a girl entering womanhood to anyone.  I'll be that aunt that my one niece can go to when she doesn't want to tell her parents something.  I'll be that mom that girlfriends can confide in. I'll have that house that my sons' friends want to gather in.  Because while I can't have my own girls, I can have yours.  Keep your daughters close.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Defense of Missionaries

We moved to Kenya for reasons equal part idealism and adventure.  We got jobs working for an NGO that does research on anti-poverty programs to assess which strategies (microloans, fertilizer subsidies, free bed nets...) were actually helping the people they intend to.  Not every program you give your money to actually works well and there are often unintended consequences.  The mission of this organization is to find out what works best and advocate to scale it up.  We believed in it. We still do.

But working in the environment of research and policy development is like addressing community problems - problems that were right under our noses - with a sanitized 10 foot kiboko.  We wanted to help in a more visceral way.  We wanted to dirty our hands, but instead we were straining our eyes, looking at data and financial systems.

Still, living in this part of the world it's hard not to feel the heavy weight of your relative privilege and be pushed to do something more directly in your community.

So, we did little things.  We raised money for an orphanage, sponsored some kids to go to school, gave a number of gifts and no interest loans.  We were loose with almost all harambe requests. Now, that I'm only working very part time, I'm volunteering at a nutrition clinic.

But the real paid work feels too removed, too technocratic.  The direct help we do give feels like a drop in the bucket.  I've resigned myself to this unease.  The shine has worn off my idealism and the pretense that we can move here and make some kind of a difference.  I'm not sure how anyone sustains their idealism or feels they are making a tangible difference.

Most expats I've met here would share my sentiments and conflicts.  Most, but not all.  Probably not missionaries.

You know like most politically liberal spiritual agnostics, I was prepared to disdain missionaries. This idea that anyone would go to another part of the planet and tell people that what they have believed for millenia is wrong, even that they would burn in hell unless they changed their world view, is anathema to me.  That any help missionaries could provide would be contingent upon a religious conversion seemed unjust and harmful.  The whole thing smacked of paternalism.

But, let me tell you something: Sub Saharan Africa is already largely Christian.  It's fully woven in the fabric of life.  For better or worse, there are few left to convert.  So, today missionaries come here largely to help.  Sometimes it's to help churches, but often it's to help people - street children, orphans - the most vulnerable.  Christians yes, but also Muslims and others.  Sure, there's still a lot of God talk, and missionary sponsored self-help groups often start off with an opening prayers, but so do NGO staff meetings. Like I said, country is already very Christian.

And the missionary families I've met have been able to harness that elusive idealism and embed themselves into the community in ways not found among other expat families.  It makes sense.  It's easier, personally, to endure the distance from grandparents and Cheez-its if you believe in your calling to be somewhere.  It's easier to be the odd-person out in a community of culturally different people and to commit to staying long term when you believe that you can make a difference.  It's easier to push away the creeping cynicism of development work when you are taking the long, even eternal, view.

So, they are the expats who know Kiswahili, know the community and build actual tangible things that help people in the community.  There's a part of me, an admittedly non-religious person, that longs for that.

But maybe that's weirdly selfish.  NGO expats work on programs that help people, but often from a fancy office. Kenyans do the implementing because they know the community, the language the cultural barriers. Maybe that's how it should be?  But it means that the expats, who are often in positions of power, don't know the community as well. We could probably use some missionary-style community integration.  

Still, I've come to unexpectedly admire these missionary families and what they are able to achieve personally and in the community. I'm sure the criticism of paternalism might still be apt in some cases, and I'm not saying the whole model is without problems.  Listen, I'm Jewish, for crying out loud, so all the Jesus talk often feels exclusionary. But we're all here to try and make a positive difference, and I think there's something to admire about the model of striving for solidarity with the people you are here to help, and anchoring your idealism in something larger than your self.    

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Watching Obama Win in Kenya - Not What You Think

Here I am in the our newly re-elected President's ancestral homeland, Nyanza Kenya, literally an hour's drive from his grandmother's home. I'm not all that surprised that I'm surrounded by Kenyans who are also rejoicing in this win. He's their guy, son of a local man risen to the highest heights imaginable. I expected this jubilation. 

What I didn't expect was this reaction from my Kenyan friend: “Wow, that Mitt Romney gave such a nice concession speech. He really praised Obama and even wished his family and two girls well...” She kept going on about what a nice speech that Mitt Romney gave.

Yeah, I thought cynically, graciousness in defeat is a requirement of politics. Anything other than that would make him look like a jackass. I may have even said something along those lines. 

 My friend, ignoring my dismissiveness carried on, “And it was close! Half the country voted for him, and he still conceded so nicely.” She shook her head in disbelief.

And that is the thing that impressed her most. Sure, the Kogelo progeny made good and everyone proud, but she's just as amazed by his opponent's quick willingness to accept defeat. To me, it's so ordinary I've already blithely assigned cynical motives to his graciousness. We take it for granted that the opponent will accept his loss, take some Prozac and move on.  As will his supporters. Our country will not erupt in violence like Kenya tragically did in 2007 during their last presidential election. Half the people in the US are disappointed but will not take to the streets.  Why?

Real social scientists have better answers to that question, which I am sure have a lot to do with things like the faith people have in the justice and transparency of the voting system, the history of peaceful handovers of power, unemployment rates, and the overall percentage of young people (those perennial rabble rousers).  

But I think it's also that the outcome of an election simply matters more in other places. In Kenya, if your guy gets a seat in Parliament you just might share in some of the spoils.  Presidential homelands have better roads, hospitals and services. One of the most insightful books about Kenyan politics is called "Our Turn to Eat," a phrase basically meaning: It's enough of the other group's hand in the government kitty, it's our tribe's turn. It does matter, in some material sense, if your guy wins. 

But no matter who won this US election, not much will change for me or my family personally.  Despite all the talk about the "direction of the country" and who can "get the economy moving" the fastest, neither guy was going to wave a magic wand or even get their playbook implemented and suddenly change the array of opportunities available to me.  Yes, a president makes some key appointments, sets a tone and, if he's lucky, an agenda, and has a bully pulpit.  But much of what they can accomplish is hindered by things totally out of their control, like Congress, financial markets, natural disasters and Fox news.  

So, maybe the question isn't why the losers aren't taking to the streets, but why do we care about the result at all?  

And here at least part of the answer is surprisingly tribal. I want Obama not because I think I'm going to personally benefit but because I think he represents my values more than the other guy.  That the government's role is to protect our precious public goods like natural resources, public health and human rights, which are sometimes trampled by capitalism; to protect our growth and development by investing in quality education for everyone despite where in the country they may have been born; to ensure that the winners of capitalism don't use that power to undermine our democracy; to use our considerable wealth and power to make the world a more peaceful place.  He represents my ideological tribe. And I want my people to win.  

My husband, who shares my politics, was remarking that when he really thought about it Obama has disappointed him in certain ways and Romney, given his proven track record as a manager and history as a fairly progressive Governor, might not even do that bad of a job in the White House given a a more moderate Congress. Still, he said, he had an emotional attachment to the Obama win that felt something like his emotional attachment to a Patriot's (football team) win, which borders on the obsessive.  (Let's just say the Superbowl loss of 2008 resulted in a sick day.)  He was baffled by his own crushing disappointment after Obama's lackluster debate performance and euphoria when the poll numbers started turning back around in his favor. His took another look at his own emotions. They were tribal. He wanted his team to win.  

So, again here, we might not be all that different. Unlike a lot of new democracies, our political parties stand for something other than identity politics (though maybe the post-mortem political commentators need to be reminded of that!). But still, our identities are now wrapped up in our ideology instead of our ethnicity. "The other" in my America is not necessarily someone who looks different than me, but someone who thinks differently from me.  And, I'm thinking more and more that how we tolerate those differences is going to define the future of our country. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Death Poems and Catwalks: A Graduation Ceremony

For Caleb's graduation ceremony, there were quite a lot of things done differently here in Kenya than they would have been done in the US.  The first of which is having a graduation ceremony.  He's three.  He's moving on to another year of coloring and block building.  But Kenyans, it appears, love ceremony and celebration and his "closing day" festivities were no exception.

The notice to parents said to arrive at 8:30 AM.  So, I showed up at 9:30 and the festivities began promptly at 10:00.  (I'm getting better at this.)  The school had erected and decorated some tents, placed out plastic chairs and offered tea and mandazi (doughnuts) to the waiting parents.
The expectant parents, like parents around the world, checking their smartphones while waiting
Finally the children emerged, looking all kinds of adorable in their matching uniforms.  Welcoming speeches were made and then...the long awaited "entertainment" portion.
See if you can spot Caleb.
Holy pre-school - the cuteness of it all. Is there anything more heart-swelling than watching your small child stand, for the first time, like his own independent person, reciting something you had no idea he ever learned?  No. There is not.

Caleb's class recited 3 poems, 2 in Kiswahili and the third in English. My Kiswahli is not terrific, but even native speakers struggled to get the gist with 20-odd three year olds stammering memorized sounds accompanied with jerky pantomimed gestures.  The first was something about a tea pot, and the second about growing up, ended with a sad wisdom beyond the tellers' years about getting older: "mateso imeanza" (the struggles begin), which got a quite a few laughs from the audience.

But the English poem was the most surreal.  The subject: Money.  Our little darlings regaled us with a tale about how money is ... well... generally good (buys you an education), but can ultimately corrupt you, shout-citing "people DIE over it" while hand motioning death with their little faces leaned against clasped hands.

(Yes, they scream "What the Devil!" at the end. But Caleb remains true to his Jewish roots with his hand gestures.)

The older classes had equally bizarre poetry choices; the first about child labor (with the refrain "For I.  Am only.  A child.) imploring their parents (middle class Kenyans who are paying for a private school, mind you)  not to force them to sell mangoes in the market or carry heavy loads. The second was cheerful little ditty about HIV/AIDS ("AIDS, Where have you come from? I am like a ball being kicked from all sides...").  The only thing I can figure is that some NGO is claiming credit to their donors each time school children recite their poetry no matter the relevance or audience.  Their third poem was about the sky being blue.  Thank goodness.  I had been bracing myself for a safe sex talk.  
"For I... Am Only... A Child" (in case you heard otherwise)
After we were sufficiently entertained and the class 3 (3rd grade) graduates were given their certificates, it was time to bestow the gifts upon the students.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any cuter - tiny graduation gowns and hats 

And.... diplomas?  Not sure.
The teachers had very sweetly wrapped little gifts (crayons and notebooks and the like) in shiny wrapping paper, painstakingly labeled each with a students name and stacked them to ceremoniously present to each student .  It was all well organized. Only one problem: Who to bestow said gifts upon the waiting children?

"Mama Caleb," announced the microphoned Master of Ceremonies, "Would you please come up and help us hand out the gifts."

Heck yes! I've been here long enough to know that the lone mzungu at a ceremony will at some point be appointed some such honor.  So, I rose from my seat and started happily handing out the individualized gifts and shaking little hands like an American dignitary.

But then I heard some laughter slowly build from the audience.  Feeling self-conscious, I adjusted my skirt, only to realized the subject of their laughter was not the awkward impromptu dignitary, but the small White boy slowly creeping over to his mother from the other side of the field, making a tenuous lone walk right in front of an amused audience.  They found it cute - the little mzungu boy pulled out of his seat by the presence of his mother.  But they got it wrong; it was really the presence of the shiny presents that ripped him from his seat.  Argh.  Parenting fail.  I screamed "Sit down Caleb!!" with my eyebrows.

Wanting to stave off a scene, the school administrators, simply indulged him, found his present and he skipped off happily.  But it was a short sighted strategy because once the other 3 year olds got wind that there were PRESENTS, they got out of their tiny chairs and stormed the present table.

Chaos ensued. Teachers were pulled up to help search through the well organized pile and quickly dole out individual presents to the mob of short people.  I was told to sit down.

This doesn't quite capture the scene.  Just picture a mob of small children beyond the frame, frustrated administrators and an audience of parents in hysterics.

The triumphant little gift thieves.
But the coup de gras of the whole morning was the ... fashion show.

Now, one of the things you might not understand about this part of the world is the ubiquity of amateur fashion shows.  Every graduation ceremony I've been to, even in more rural areas, has had one. I went to a modern dance performance, and it too started with a fashion show. Even the Liberian refugee camp I worked in held fashion shows and beauty contests.  Children at the tender age of three already know how to "walk the catwalk," one hand on swaying hips, jauntily skipping forward to pose and "smile with their eyes" to a nonexistent camera at of their walk. Caleb schoolmates were no exception.  Caleb, taking a cue from his friends, started his walk strong, skipping along to the music, but then saw me and took off running full steam (are you sensing a theme here?). Again, the subject of much amusement for our audience, but SO not getting to Milan Fashion Week with that kind of behavior.

While American parents are busy trying to shield their children from the ego-crushing pressure to measure up to some impossible beauty ideal perpetuated by the fashion industry, Kenyan parents are busy light heartedly celebrating it.  Why the difference, is a subject for an entirely different post. Maybe a dissertation.

But the one thing that is was not different - that is universal across the globe - was the pride and joy the parents felt watching their tiny progeny perform, strut, celebrate their accomplishments and assert themselves in their own unique and unabashed way.  Heart strings were universally pulled.  People smiled easily at the nascent displays of individuality and were quick to snap pictures and hug their children.I was the only mzungu, but despite the tremendous appearances and events to the contrary, I didn't really feel separate. I felt more a part of a group of parents sharing a common joy than apart as a foreigner.
I captured the moment capturing moment.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I'm in an abusive relationship with the internet

Way back in mid-90s when Al Gore invented the internet, it was mainly used to get people all "hot and bothered."  We didn't know what to make of it entirely, but the oldest profession in the world got with the newest platform in the world and created a lot of... well... you know it when you see it... Ahem.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, instead of getting most people all "hot and bothered," the interweb is largely responsible for getting people just "bothered."

I mean, I'm on it.  And probably too much.  I get real time updates from home and all over the world right here in Western Kenya.  I watch touching videos of my beloved niece and nephews, an ocean away, right here in my living room. I wouldn't go back to a world without it.  But, it's also a source of unique irritation in my life.  Here's why:

(1) I love that there's always an answer to "What's for dinner?" what with the series of tubes on the case.  But here's my beef (<-- did you see what I did there?):

I look up something I'm craving, like chicken tikka masala, and can easily find the recipe that has the highest rating with the most reviewers.  But then, I dig a little deeper into those glowing reviews, and get to comments like this:

"I absolutely loved this recipe   It was perfect.  I made just a few adjustments.  I removed the curry and turmeric, doubled the garlic, added a pinch of cilantro and then rolled up the whole thing in a tortilla and ate it like a taco.  Great recipe. My family, who normally hates Indian food, was asking for seconds. Five stars!!"

Look, if you have to change anything about a recipe it is. not. five. stars. Just give it 3 stars, and we can all move on.  If I have to read a dozen reviews to determine the quality of a recipe it kind of defeats the efficiency of searching up a recipe online.  Ok?  let's move on...

(2) Pinterest.  Why oh why do I get sucked into looking at sun-lit pictures of domestic tranquility and order?  It's calming, like a spa day for the eyes. And then there are clever little ideas that entice you into thinking a better life is just a more orderly sock drawer away.
No problem some yarn, a glue stick and precision folding can't cute-ify.
But then it's that much more jarring when I return to this action:
I was feeling OK about this because, you see, the clothes are folded. But Pinterest is wagging it's finger at the mess on the top. 

(3) I'd like to keep this light, but the political discourse on the World Wide Webbernet, that is when the partisans emerge from their echo chambers to spar with each other, gives me heart palpitations.  I should probably just ignore these little anonymous battles in the comment section of a news articles, but there's something about a good fight that keeps me reading despite my better judgment.  Then I find I'm all worked up (and not in the old sense of the internet kind of way...), feeling defensive on behalf of muckraker03 and wanting to give Redstayte a serious piece of my mind. But if I engage, it only sucks me into some 4th grade mud-slinging battleground that I can only escape by turning off the computer and swallowing some Zanax.  (I don't do either.)

(4) I think we all know I'm avoiding the profitless 1 billion strong elephant in the room.  The book of face.  There's a lot to be annoyed with here: the constantly changing interface, the dubious privacy settings, the greater ease it allows for stalking and cyberbullying, the irritating political rants from distant acquaintances, the false veneer of fabulous on everyone's public personas, the hours lost investigating the travel photos from someone I barely care about.

And despite all this I find myself proselytizing facebook to the few holdouts because I don't know how we'll maintain a friendship if they can't be sucked down this feel-bad vortex with me.

(5) Why can't I leave this list at four items?  Darnit all. I have to find a fifth.  Why? I don't know.  I think I have to blame...  you know people, I'm running out of euphemisms for the Internet, so can we just call it the Internet?  Whew.  That's a load off.    Not to get too meta here, but read enough blogs and you start to think in lists.  So, making me feel bad about failing think of 5 things is my fifth thing.

But, despite all this, Internet, I really do love you, OK?  It's not you, sugarcakes, it's me.  You know how I am -- it's my own insecurity and lack of self control at the root of all my gripes.  So, please take the above rant as me just letting of some steam, which we all need to do at times, right?  And let's not even think of punishing me by slowing down or crashing. Because I need you lovemuffin.  Tomorrow I'll bring you some bytes or bits or something, whatever you like....  I'll even read all the online recipe reviews to make sure they're perfect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Are you a cynic or a sucker?

Think about it: If you had to choose, would you rather be a jerk or naive?  A cynic or sucker?

"Cynic!" answers in unison my demographic of over-educated, urban-dwelling, political progressives. After all, cynical irony is the hipster credo, and no one wants to be mistaken for a rube.  Smart is the new black, and you'd rather be hardened than foolish.

And "Cynic!!" repeats my demographic of expats, aid workers and world travelers   Here too, cynicism marks you as a respected "old head," someone who's been around so long you're no longer impressed by cultural differences and cannot be taken for a fool.  You view the wide-eyed wonderment of the newcomer with disdainful irritation. You're no longer her.

Culturally, I'm firmly part of these camps, which both wear cynicism like a badge.

But I'm also closet sucker.

Here's the story:

The other day when I was walking into the grocery store, I was approached by a man.  He was neatly dressed with an undercurrent of exhaustion, sweating and wiping his brow repeatedly.  He greeted me like he knew me and I was a bit embarrassed that I didn't recognize him.  "I sweep the grounds at Marigold school, where your son goes." he explained.

Nothing funny so far. People here are big into greetings, and as a minority we're often recognized.

His agitated state was explained as he launched into a horrible tale about his wife who, just the other night, was killed while riding on a motorbike right around the corner from where we stood.  He pointed to the very spot, where a woman was seated selling roasted maize, and described the car that hit her, a silver Prado.  He was running around that day trying to collect enough money to get the body released from the morgue when he recognized me.

I think:   Holy flipping s*#t!!!  That's horrible.  But sadly, I've come to know in my 2 years here, not uncommon.  Traffic accidents take as many lives as dreaded tropical diseases. We knew a child who was killed by a motorbike driver last year, and just yesterday a minivan, that our friend's daughter just missed boarding, crashed and killed 6.  And I've also learned that raising enough money to liberate a body from the morgue is financially crippling for a lot of families and can significantly delay funerals. His tale might sound tall elsewhere, but not here.

And asking an extended network of people for help from anything from weddings to funerals to medical bills is a common and often organized practice. I'm in a culture in which people survive by leaning on each other and there's no real taboo around asking for help.

But... but.... Then there's this nagging thought springing from my inner cynic, which says:  Are you kidding?  This is a perfect story.  Tragic with an immediate need. You've been approached in the US with elaborate stories of woe and knew them to be scams.  He's seen your car, that you have money. Don't be taken for a fool.  Most true cynics stop here and walk away.

But then this voice, which always seems to get me, counters: Well.... What if it is true?  And if it is, a few dollars, which you won't even miss, could make a world of difference to this person.  Moral calls of "What  My Agnostic Conception of Spiritual Prophet... Do?" ring in my ears.  I want to err on the side of good.

Most people have rules about this.  Just adopt a policy about never giving to strangers so you never have to struggle with indecision. They say, donate to organizations that you know are doing some good.  But this wasn't a total stranger and I already donate and volunteer.  Those organizations are not going to help him out here.

So, what did I do? I gave him a little money and walked away with my trusting and cynical natures still battling each other.

And what did he do?  Well, I don't know.

I should end this here and save my pride, but the truth is, I found out later that he did not work at my son's school. I was scammed. I was taken.

But he didn't take my inner sucker. I like her.  I like the world she wants to believe in.  I like that she keeps me from becoming too jaded and spurs me to do good in the world.  I think I'll keep her around.  Even if it costs me a few shillings once in a while.

How do you treat these situations? Are other people as ambivalent as I am? Would you rather be a cynic or a sucker, jaded or trusting?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flipping the Script on my Birthday

Today is my birthday.  But I'm exercising my God-given right to ignore it.

Except, then again, I'm dedicating a whole blog post to the subject, so I guess I'm old and a liar today.

You see the last three birthdays have been steeped in suckitude. In fact, they've been so crappy that they may have aged me more than a day, which defeats celebration of life that is suppose to be a birthday.  And so given that trend I just want to sit back and ride this one out.  Anyway, after the age of 21, if your birthday doesn't end in a "0" or a "5" it's not considered momentous.  Look it up.

Two years ago, we had just arrived in Kenya by my birthday. I didn't know anyone, my husband worked the whole day so I was home alone with a two year old, failing to cope with jetlag, nothing to do and noway to get anywhere.  My husband got me flowers, but I'm pretty sure I cooked dinner.  I may have cried.

Last year, we were more fully part of the community and I had friends.  And (or But?) my parents were in town for their big visit to East Africa. So, there was a lot of excitement about our travel and safari plans, and my birthday got swept under the rug of planning and anticipation.  Still, I baked myself a cake, found some candles and made my family sing to me.  Then I cried.

This year, I'm relatively new in Kisumu town, but have made some good friends. Still, I'm not the type to throw myself a party or organize an outing. Good news: If anyone has the motivation to plan something special it is a man who has watched his wife cry on her last several birthdays. So, I was really planning on cashing in on that chip this year.  But unfortunately, yet again, my husband also has to work.  On another continent.  So, unless we can get that space-time travel thing worked out, I'm out of luck.

So, my plan this year is to ignore. ignore. ignore.  It's just another day.  It doesn't have to mean anything.  It doesn't have to become a symbol of the joy that you are capable of and the love that you are surrounded by, and then fail to live up to some ideal.  No one has to know.

Except for the fact that I'm a triplet.  So, I have two of the people I love the most in this world to wish a Happy Birthday to and to receive one back, on the day I'm trying to ignore it.  And I also get to hear how they spent their day (surrounded by loved ones who've made efforts to make it special) which will outshine mine in spades. So, I guess I'll throw myself a pity party.  With cake.

Here's the thing: I love living abroad.  I love the adventure. I love learning about another culture, being challenged and in a constant state of discovery.  But every year on my birthday, it hits home.  That I'm not home.

The people who know me best and will most sincerely celebrate my life with me are oceans away.  And it's lonely.


Update: I wrote the above last night (Birthday Eve), and I guess it's true what they say about writing being cathartic, because I woke up today with a much different perspective.  I canceled my pity party.  I have a lot to feel grateful for.

I have two of the cutest, funniest most huggable children any two people have ever created. So, I started my birthday relishing in a snuggle and tickle party with the two loves of my life until I couldn't take it anymore.

I live in a part of the world in which most days are mid-80s and soaked in sun.  So, I went, without children, to the one resort in Kisumu, right on the lake, to luxuriate in the equatorial sun, read books with actual pages and have someone else bring me food and clean up my mess.  It was the first time I've been able to do something like that without being interrupted by progeny in 4 years. It was heaven.
Bonus, no one was there when I got there so it was like my own private spa retreat!
I have a neighbor who has become my closest friend here.  She took me and the kids out for Indian food and back to her house to present me with a cake she had baked earlier that day.  Her sisters and brothers all sang for me (unprompted) as Caleb and her daughter ran around chasing each other.  This birthday, like the others, I almost cried.  Because I was happy.  
Susan is as beautiful inside as she is outside.  (Those of your read my last post may notice I "stepped it up" with the dangly earnings for my big foray out of the house...)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Letting myself go.

One of my favorite things to do is stare out the window of a moving car.  It's one of the only socially sanctioned spacing-out times we have left. You can't do it from your couch, what with children and dishes and Facebook beckoning.  Spacing out in bed quickly descends into sleep.  So, the passenger seat of our car is my zone out temple.  And I especially love gazing out the window here in Kenya where there's always something interesting to look at mid-reverie.

So, I was settling in for some delicious space-out time on a recent car ride, when I saw her.  She was a vision of style and beauty perched, improbably, on the back of a motorbike, her shiny turquoise pumps resting on the pedals. She had on body-hugging blue jeans, "statement" earnings and form flattering top that perfectly paired with her shoes. She held her back straight and regal, an unlikely feat given the large leopard print handbag balanced precariously between herself and the motorbike driver.

We drove close enough to see that remarkably, almost magically, her weave was unaffected by the wind, her considerable make-up unaffected by the dust. I couldn't look away.  Her style was a bit too Samatha Jones for my taste, but she was killing it.
Since I'm not in the habit of taking pictures of beautiful strangers, I'm relying on this stock photo. But it's not far off...
To set the record straight, I've personally looked that put together maybe... arguably... on my wedding day and zero other times.  But I looked from that vision on a motorbike and then back down at what I was wearing - the shirt I slept in and yoga pants with bits of flour from the morning's pancakes - and spoke my thoughts aloud to my husband: "I've really let myself go, haven't I?"

His non-response said it all.

And it's true. I have. Maybe it's the weather or being a mom to small children or working from home, but I no longer take much pride in my appearance.  And not in a anti-establishment, neo-hippy, down-with-the-fashion-industrial-complex kind of way.  In an apathetic, my husband will want to have sex with me anyway and I no longer care what anyone else thinks kind of way.  It's exactly what millions of boyfriends have feared marriage will do to their coiffed and toned girlfriends.

I've been wearing flip flops nearly every day for going on 2 years now, shower maybe every other day and have completely given up on make-up.  For the rare evening out, I'll step it up with the jeans that make my butt look good and a pair of dangly earings. Done and done. (No... I did not forget to mention the shower.... Why?)

No Kenyan has ever called me out on my lackluster appearance - they're too polite.  But I see the way they dress and wonder what they must be thinking of my get up.

You see, that vision on a motorbike was not an anomaly.  I constantly find myself staring at people here wondering how they manage to look like they stepped out of a catalog when they likely just stepped off a motorbike, walked down a dusty path and emerged from a sweltering matatu.

When I worked in Busia (a small border town) I led a team of Kenyan field officers, who would cover miles each day in rural villages to conduct household surveys.  In the rainy season it was hard to avoid mud, and the dry season blew dust everywhere.  Yet these field officers would come to work in suits and heals and return from the field at the end of the day as spotless as they started it. It baffled me to no end.
Field officer (from another project) looking like a city professional while measuring school kids in a rural area.

The two on the left are two senior field officers meeting with village chiefs. 

And I never had the chutzpah to ask anyone how this happens. There's something somehow impolite about a "how do you stay so clean?" inquiry.  But I recently read a fantastic essay* from a woman who faced a similar mystery living in Nicaragua. She found a delicate way to ask her Spanish tutor, and he replied:

"When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something, you pay attention to be clean."

This sentiment seems to ring true here, where people with next to nothing show up to church looking like African royalty.  

When we lived in Busia, I once offered to take one of Caleb's playmates to the doctor. His mother was happy for the help, but then asked me to wait while she brought her son back inside.  Fifteen minutes later, he emerged in his Sunday's best, button-down shirt, fancy black shoes and all.  The doctor's office was only a stone's throw away down a dirt path, but it was a public place with more educated people liable to judge you.  

All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about why we make an effort at our appearance at all.  I suppose it's a signal of how others should treat you.  It's a statement that you value yourself even if the world you live in doesn't always.  And it's also a cover for insecurity that if you don't look a certain way others might condescend to you.   

So, it's really from a place of privilege and comfort, a place of security that I can let all of that go.  That I can "let myself go."

And all of that is what I should have said to my husband in response to his loaded silence.

He would then have conceded my point, told me he loves me no matter what, and gently asked me to go brush my teeth and find a clean shirt.


* This was an essay by Margot Page in Brain Child magazine, which you must start reading. I think of it as the Mom Yorker.  It's the only magazine geared toward mothers that is not sappy, polemical of full of product placement.  Instead it's full of thought-provoking essays on motherhood and childhood by fantastic writers.