Thursday, May 31, 2012


Bless me Interweb for I have sinned.  It's been 10 days since my last blog post.

In my defense, oh Series of Tubes, I have been busy visiting a parade of aunts, uncles, counsins, parents, in-laws, and grandparents during our annual trip Stateside, and I've barely had a moment to check my email much less write a decent post.  

So, here I find myself back in the land of the obese and reality TV=obsessed the free and the brave.  Each time I come home I'm hit with reverse culture shock.  I've written about it before.  Those of you who've traveled abroad for any extended period of time know what I'm talking about. Leaving your native land, you brace yourself for the differences you'll face abroad but are always a bit thrown off center when you see your own culture through new eyes upon your return.  This is supposed to be home, and you're supposed to be an expert at it. So, why does everything seem so bizarre?

But I've done the back and forth enough to know to brace myself even for the reverse culture shock upon my return here.  I know I'm going to be outraged by the runaway consumerism, the needless choice and the waste. I'm going to be disgusted by the caustic political discourse. (E.g. Last visit home the Trump was spewing birther nonsense to an press corp eager for manufactured controversy.)  I know I'm going to revel in the luxury of temperature control taps on the shower, until I remember difficulty others have in getting water to bathe in at all, and then resign myself to just enjoy my hot shower.

And this is a dance I'm accustomed too -- feeling that the riches and luxuries of America are a bit obscene given what most of the world experiences, and then settling in to enjoying them.  

Even though these are my expectations, there's always something small that catches me off guard. Something I appreciate about living in the USA or something that disgusts me. Last time it was the unexpected pleasure of public changing tables and family bathrooms.  This time it's feeling like I'm being punked by the fashion world.

In general I'm struck, as always, by the myriad ways the masterminds of advertising, marketing and product developement have created to get people to part with their money; to buy new things that they absolutely have no need for and, if they thought about it, probably don't even want. I can pretty much entirely avoid this in Kenya. 

Fashion is the worst offender.

I'm going to say it: skinny jeans look awesome on almost no one.  They make thin women look like pre-pubescent boys and "curvy" women look like potatoes stuffed into stockings.  No one wins.  But the beautiful people told us we need to have these things to avoid fashion disgrace.  So, like the insecure sheep we are, we go out and buy unflattering things that will be so "last year" as soon as.... you guessed it... next year.  But changing the shape of jeans is one of the ways these wizards have of making us part with our money.  One year it's high waisted, then low, then bell bottom, then zipper bottom, then ripped and acid washed (woah, I'm dating myself here) and then skinny.

Boot cut has endured these fluctuations.  Stick with boot cut people.  Your butt looks best in boot cut.

And we look back at fashion trends and think we look ridiculous.  We are all embarrassed by our high school pictures, permed and shoulder padded.  And we should be.  We looked like electricuted linebackers.  But somehow we learn nothing from this hindsight.
 Isn't this image enough to make us understand that fashion designers are probably just playing a continual practical joke on us?
Sure, fashion evolves and all that - otherwise we'd be wearing bonnets and corsets, and what self respecting liberated woman can get through their zumba class in that getup?  

But, can't we just slow down this evolution?  It's a waste.  Of our hard earned money and of all the animals, plans and minerals that it took to make all this stuff.  [And I don't entirely buy the argument that we need to keep buying buying buying to move the economy and create jobs.  There are other ways to grow an economy.]

There is none of this ludicrousness in Kenya.  Kenyans take pride in how they dress, just like people all around the world.  People who are barely scraping by still come to church on Sunday in clean, colorful and stylish attire. But, at least where we live, people, their wallets and their egos, are not assaulted by the planned obsolescence of fashion trends. There are no slick window displays or splashy fashion mags to make them feel inadequate and outdated and prod them into adopting arbitrary trends.

So, I feel lucky that my reverse culture shock has helped me see jeggings, shorty shorts and neon sneakers for what they truly are.  I'm sure we'll all see it eventually.  Though it may take some of us until 2022 when we pull out old pictures and are struck by the fact that we looked like a bunch of slutty clowns, shake our heads and mutter, "What were we thinking!?"


Sunday, May 20, 2012

I Fell Asleep Thinking of a Title for this Post

Unless you live on another continent than your family, there is absolutely no reason to travel internationally with babies and/or toddlers.  None.   They will wander off in museums; they will rudely spit out their Chianti on your Italian wine tour, and they will whine the entire ascent up Manchu Picchu that their “legs are tired.”   They are uncouth and will weigh you down.  And then they will ungratefully claim no memory of the experiences when asked about it later in life. 

You will also be hated on your transcontinental flight.  Little old ladies who had smiled warmly and offered to hold your infant before takeoff will be giving your whole family the “stink eye” by the time the flight is over.  On overnight flights, your children will time their cries and tantrums to occur just as you are finally drifting off to sleep.  You will depart each flight harried and weighed down by emergency toys that failed to divert tantrums. 
You might even consider this a preferable way to transport your children.
Avoid this temptation.  FAA does not look kindly upon it.
Most importantly, you will be tortured by sleep deprivation. (Ask me how I know.)

And I don’t use the word “tortured” lightly.  I use it literally. Because sleep deprivation is enough of a form of torture that our country saw fit to use it against so called “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo.  I once heard a US soldier interviewed about this.  He said you could always tell a prisoner who had been “sleep dep’ed” (it’s a verb now, pay attention) because they go a bit mad.  (He probably said “crazy” not “mad” because he’s not British, but I digress).  Sleep dep’ed people ramble incoherently, cry uncontrollably and even hallucinate.  They digress multiple times in the same paragraph.  They go out of their minds.  (Which makes me think it’s not the best intelligence extraction tool, but I digress.)

We do live on another continent than aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents necessitating horrid international travel.  And sleep deprivation.

So, we are currently on our annual trip home from Kenya.  This has entailed 4 flights, 26 full hours of travel, an 8 hour time difference and zero hours of sleep. 

We arrived at our destination simply desperate for sleep.  I once, before children, flew back from China (13 hour flight and 11 our time difference) and promptly slept for EIGHTEEN straight hours, which might just clinically qualify as a coma.  So, after our harrowing journey my body was totally ready to settle into a nice mini coma.  But my children had other ideas. 

Instead of the 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep my body was crying out for, my first night back was this:

10:00 PM: I pass out sans brushing teeth and in the same clothes I’ve been wearing for almost 2 days.  With pleasure.

Midnight:  Infant wakes and needs to be fed. 

12:20 AM: Realize I’ve fallen asleep while nursing.  Give thanks the baby has not fallen off the bed.  Put him in the crib and fall back asleep.

2:00 AM:  Excellent dream in which I eat gouda cheese is rudely interrupted by crying infant.  Nurse the baby. 

2:15 AM: Just as the baby is about asleep, the toddler starts screaming like he’s being stabbed.  Husband attempts to calm him, but it’s not going well.  Put down now sleeping infant to go soothe toddler.

2:20 – 3:30 AM: Soothe toddler.  For the whole hour.

3:30 AM: Infant wakes again demanding milk.

4:00 AM: Confess to 2 terrorist attacks and a failed coup attempt.

Are you getting the picture? 

I’ve been sleep dep’ed.  It’s hard to carry on an adult conversation or follow a train of thought to its conclusion.  Things like not finding my sunglasses might bring me to tears.  I fall asleep mid-conversation like a narcoleptic, and I’m starting to hallucinate.

Good thing I’m visiting family.  They expect little more from me.   

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No Mothers Day

Mothers Day is like the Christmas of the mom blog world.  It's the mother load (ahem...); a celebration of much of what we focus on in our writing; an acknowledgement of our struggles and sacrifices, of our inherent worth.  Of all the times we kiss skinned knees and wipe away tears; the times we keep our cool in the face of tantrums and sit with our kids pretending to remember how to multiply fractions.

The mom blogosphere will be all a twitter.  The twit-osphere will... explode? with poignant remembrances of our own mothers, tales of our children finding touchingly unique ways to express their love, and funny accounts of how well meaning husbands clumsily failed at giving us a break.

So, I won't do any of that.  You've probably had your fill.

But I want to use this celebration of mothers to say something close to my heart.

Just two months ago I became a mother to my second son.  He's, objectively speaking, the sweetest baby currently alive on the planet.

A few weeks after his birth a friend's sister died due to complications from childbirth, orphaning her children and devastating her family.  It hit me hard, and I think about it often.  The unfairness of it all.  The fact that the wealthy world is insulated from such preventable tragedies that are a fact of life for so many.

And living in Kenya these inequities are hard to avoid. 

This is an important issue to me, so I was heartenend when a friend shared this video by the Every Mother Counts campaign about maternal mortality.

Did you watch it?  Did something strike you? 

OK. The statistics are undeniably devastating, and it seems clear that these women believe in the cause.  But what's the ask?  Here it is: The Every Mother Counts campaign wants us all to be SILENT on mother's day (don't answer the phone, update your status or accept gifts), with the goal of... (wait for it....)  spreading the word.  Staring a conversation.  It makes no ever-loving sense!

If someone doesn't answer their phone on Mother's Day, I'll assume she went to brunch. 

But I'm a good mark for this campaign.  I care about the issue and am ready to do something. So, I think their strategy is a bit ... let's just be nice and say "perplexing," but maybe there's somewhere I can donate. I go to their facebook page, which has an option "share" the video or "donate." 

Great.  I'm ready to donate, to help at-risk mothers, to help prevent needless deaths.  But that link takes me to a page where I can donate to the "advocacy and mobilization campaign."  The very campaign which has just proved its ineptitude.      

Is this an activism fail? 

It might even be a slacktivism fail.

At best.  At worst it's a wasted opportunity. 

And I don't think all "awareness raising" is bogus. This is a very neglected issue in the international policy space and could use some sunlight, some pressure on the world stage. 

But here's the thing:  The root causes of maternal mortality, of a woman dying every 90 seconds from complications (90% of which are preventable) or suffering lifelong disabilities from childbirth, are poverty, sexism and culture. 

It's from young girls forced into early marriages whose pelvises strain to carry and deliver a baby; women too poor or isolated to get pre-natal care or be attended at birth by a trained professional; women who are cut off from the decisions about how to spend their family's meager income and not valued enough that it be spent on their care; from countries too poor to provide health care. 

So, who are we putting pressure on to change these things?  If this is a symptom of poverty, we need services.  Money.  Advocacy sure, but money. 

To be fair to Christy Turlington's Every Mother Counts campaign, they do support NGOs which are providing tangible services to areas in need.  If you dig a little further on their Website you can find places which are presumably doing good work on the ground.  In fact, one of the few that they support is directly in my neighborhood of Western Kenya, providing motorbikes to community health workers to increase access to maternal health care.

So here's my Mother's Day gift to you:  If you are moved by this cause, and I assuming every mother who has had the luxury of access to quality health care, even if they chose a home birth, -- I'm looking at  you mom bloggers -- is moved, here is a link to the page featuring some organizations doing work to prevent maternal morbidity and mortality.

And a few more places, becase it's good to have options:

Maybe it's tacky to ask something of mothers on the very day they are to be pampered.  But if it's a day we are to celebrate mothers, I want to celebrate by being thankful that I was given the gift of becoming a mother -- that it was my choice, that I survived the birth, that my chilren are thriving.  It's not a given.  And what better way to do so than to help make sure this is a reality shared by as many women as possible.

Thanks for reading and Happy Mother Day!

Even though it is no longer Mother's Day, I'm linking this up with Yeah Write. I thought about not doing it, but then I figured if I believe in this cause the more people who read about it the better.  Just consider it the Mo' Mothers Day Week. read to be read at

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cribs: Kisumu

Probably only my family will care about this post.  Maybe no one will.  Because it’s going to be about my furniture, and I’m not exactly Karl Farbman (You're welcome Sienfeld fans). But try to stop me from writing it.  You can’t.  So I win, person reading this post.  Where are you going?? 

Don’t worry, it’s mostly going to be pictures.

So, let's get to it.  I have either baby-induced nesting impulses or a particularly egregious TLC home make-over bender in ‘09 to blame for my current obsession in making my house, well..., cute. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’ve moved five times in as many years, and I’m trying to finally get it right. Who knows, but I am putting forth not a little effort to sit on my couch and look around my environs with satisfaction.

But a have a few handicaps:

Other than a brief stint knitting too many illshapen scarves, I don’t have a crafting bone in my body.  And there are no craft supply stores to run to anyway.  There are no real furniture stores either.  What we have is furniture “sections” of Walmart-type superstores chalk full of the kind of furniture favored by the newly rich and casino interior designers – overstuffed velvet couches and glass and gold coffee tables – with the added bonus of being twice as expensive as you’d find in the US.

You can't see it in the pic, but this little gem has actual rhinestones embedded in the wood veneer.
And it can be yours for $2000.

Look closely: behind this ugly but surprisingly functional coffee table (those are stools tucked underneath) is a chaise lounge to match the sofa above, which is obviously crying out for a matching chaise.

You're probably wondering, so I'll tell you:  it's a chair.

Since my tastes lean more towards Craftsman than Bordello, I’m not so interested in this stuff, which I couldn't afford anyway.  But as luck would have it, Western Kenya is chalk full of fundis (workmen) who make the most amazing furniture working in roadside shacks using mainly, hammers, nails, saws and brute strength.  They often work with no electricity and because it's mainly outdoors work slows down in the rainy season.  These guys are truly incredible.

But they generally still cater to new rich sensibilities and make versions of the above - overstuffed sofas and chairs in wild patterns that make anyone sitting on them look like confused children.  I guess when you finally have money to afford a big sofa, you run the opposite direction of the wood bench you sat on at your grandmother's shamba. (You know, the same wood bench that Pier One sells to yuppies wistful for "tribal" craftsmanship.  So many ironies...)

Since I couldn't find a sofa that wouldn't swallow me or make me dizzy, I gave a fundi a pic of these Crate and Barrel sofa and chairs:
I bought some material and he made me these For $200.

Not a bad likeness for 1/10 of the cost!

I showed another fundi this picture of a canopy bed:

And he made me this.  It’s solid wood and custom made and I paid $120.

I know the mozzy net should technically be haning from the frame. I'll ask you not to mention it.

For another $70, he made me this:
The sides on this toddler bed actually go up and down.
And this:

Our house is full of hand-crafted wares that cost a fraction of imported synthetic and plastic stuff.  You probably want to see, right?  Here's a sample

Brought left over material from the couch to a wicker fundi and we got these comfy chairs and foot rest. ($60)
Eat your heart out World Market.

And the pics I took are of Lake Victoria and an area shamba.  A fundi custom made wood frames for each for $3.

Our fundi, realizing this was for our kid's room, asked what color he should paint it.
I hadn't even thought about painting it, but it ended up looking great. Cost us  $18

I basically just described a toy chest (no picture, just hand motions) and  got this awesomeness.  The metal was welded by one fundi and another wove the wicker.  We got the baskets at a village market for $1 each.

And all of the above was made in workshops that look like this:

This is the where we bought the wicker furniture
Fundi workshop that made all three beds

All of which makes me feel a bit ridiculous about my obsession to cute-ify the house. At the same time, I'm happy to throw these talented and hardworking men all the business I can, even at a Mzungu premium.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Hour In My Day - Blogging

Join me on
I'm hooking up with Stasha's Monday Listicle (and Stacy's Hour in a Day!)for the second time ever and thought this time I'd actualy stay on script.  The task for this week is to list 10 things you do in an hour.  I guess, any hour will do. You probably don't want the hour I waste watching at Lonely Island videos or trying to pull conversation from my family at the dinner table.  I could write about a particularly hectic hour with my kids but the thought of reliving one of those exhausts me. So, I'll tell you a little about the hour (if I'm lucky) that I write a blog post.  (Could be this one...)

1. Think of a topic.

2. Decide that I hate that topic and start looking at what other bloggers have written about for... um...  inspiration.

3. Ponder why writing wry, poignant or clever posts seems so much easier for everyone else and think that maybe I'm not cut out for this whole blogging thing.

4. Go eat some chocolate from the emergency stash.

5. Finally get an idea that's worth writing about. (Chocolate will do that.)

6. Because he has impecable timing, the baby starts crying.

7. Nurse the baby while typing one-handed what I think is finally a post people other than my mom might find interesting. (Because you have to strike when an idea hits!)

8. Gingerly put now sleeping baby down into bouncy seat to type with abandon and pray to all available dieties that he does. not. wake before I finish this post.

9. Finish post (thank dieties) and hit "publish."

10, Read over post and find 2 spelling mistakes and 1 grammatical error.  Shrug and return to emergency chocolate.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

It Takes A Compound of Semi-Detached Townhouses to Raise a Child

I come downstairs after my Saturday morning sleep­-in to see an unfamiliar boy bent over our living room basket of toys, digging for a toy car to play with, Caleb playing with his tiny wooden trains just next to him.  I wave hello and then move to the kitchen to make some coffee.

As I’m stirring pancake batter, I hear Caleb and his new friend have moved outside, kicking a ball, laughing and screaming and chasing each other.

Later that day I find myself serving lunch to Caleb as well as our neighbor’s little girl and her cousin.  They tell me “Ni meshiba” (I’m full), climb off their chairs and then go run off to play.
<><><><> <><><><> <><><><>
Ashley was totally polite about my P,B and J, but not a fan
When it’s time for Caleb’s nap he’s nowhere to be found.  I walk 2 town houses over and find Caleb watching cartoons in our Burudian neighbor’s living room.  The mother and I exchange smiles, and I fight briefly with Caleb to come home for his nap before he finally acquiesces. (All I have to offer is a TV-less house and a nap, so it’s a tough negotiation)

After his nap, Caleb is back outside playing with his buddy Dan, the guard indulgently and good naturedly giving them rides up and down the compound on his motorbike.  I sit with my neighbor, watching the kids play as we nurse our babies together.
<><><><> <><><><> <><><><>
Don't worry grandma, he was only going like 5 mph
And all of this is why I love raising my children in Kenya. I’ve so effortlessly found myself part of an extended family of sorts.

I’m not intimately close with most of my neighbors (though some are becoming close friends), but there’s a sense of shared responsibility when it comes to children.  I know that if Caleb happened to be playing in one of their homes over a mealtime, he would be fed.  There would be no phone calls about it, it would just happen.  I know that my son can wander in and out of my neighbors’ houses without worry that he is somehow disrupting the sanctity of anyone’s privacy, and I’ve come to welcome children to my home with the same openness.  There are never any playdates but there’s a hell of a lot of playing.

Are scenes like this a fading reality in the US? Elsewhere? Do people create communities where this is possible?  Or have we retreated further into our nuclear family cocoons?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I'll Just Watch You Eat Your Cheese, Thanks.

I’ve got it bad for cheese.

How can I explain this?  Kenyan cuisine features zero kinds of cheese.  So, when we go back the the US or South Africa to visit family, I look forward to cheese binging almost as much as seeing loved ones.  

On a recent visit to a South Africa Colin and I went to a grocery store to stock up on things we can’t get here in Kenya.  At some point Colin realized I was no longer next to him, looked back and found me completely transfixed, no comatose, by the cheese section.  I stood there ogling the whole array - the soft, the hard, the smokey, the stinky, the three, THREE!, kinds of brie, the cheddar cheese older than my children, the whimsical cheese stuffed with things like mango and ginger, etc…  You know the scene, Whole Foods goers.

Colin slowly walked up to me, bowed his head, placed a hand tenderly on my shoulder and asked if I’d like a moment.  Maybe a chair?  Some smelling salts?

“There are Just. So. Many.” I managed, practically wiping a tear from my eye.

“I know.” he whispered with the kind of reverence you’d give a devotee at a shrine, which was not, I should add, inappropriate.

Actually consuming said cheese is a whole different scene. The kind of scene that might end in someone telling me and the mozzerella to go “get a room.”

Come to mama...  
I once had a boyfriend who was a vegan.  He was a perfectly wonderful guy, but the thought of us NEVER being able to share a pizza was enough to make me consider ending the relationship.

I think you all are getting the picture.

In Busia, the small town where we used to live, the largest grocery store, carried one kind of cheese and only sometimes.  Picture the cheese that the government provides to elementary schools in economically depressed areas and prisons.  It was a nearly florescent orange cheddar that managed to sweat even in the plastic and smell like old socks after a few days.  But it was all we had so I would melt it on everything we ate.  

Now that we live in a relatively larger town, I can get a lot more variety.  There’s usually gouda, cheddar, paneer, mozzeralla and sometimes cottage cheese.  We’re still not in France here, so sometimes the gouda tastes like a cheap cheddar and the cottage cheese tastes like cow farts, but it’s a vast improvement in choice over Busia.  So, good news there.

Better news yet: We’re planning a trip to the states where I had planned a bacchanal of cheese consumption.  

Now, here’s the rub:  I just had a baby – cherub of a little guy – who for the most part behaves unimpeachably.  You know, sleeps a lot, smiles, poops not all that frequently.  But he does not let me consume milk products.  You heard right.  No more cheese for me.  

He’s damn cute so it’s hard to hold it against him. 
For the love of all that is holy, woman. Please stop eating dairy products.
And when I do “accidentally” consume some cheese, he gets so congested it’s like listening to an 80 year old life smoking asthmatic, which is kind of funny in a new born, but mostly it’s just heart breaking.  

I nursed my first for over 2 years (didn’t plan it, it just happened) and I don’t really have a firm plan on when I’ll quit nursing this one.   But if the cheddar cheese withdrawal gets too bad, I might have to throw in the towel.  I’m kind of kidding here.  But only kind of. 

Does anyone have any words of wisdom or advice?  Will someone please tell me he’s going to outgrow this relatively soon or recommend a cheese substitute that won’t make me gag. Recipes are also welcome…