Friday, August 31, 2012

Village Stay: No Rest for the Weary

I'm now back from my village stay, resting on what feels like an unreasonably large and cushy king sized bed.  “King sized” is a good name since I feel something like underserved royalty perched on this comfortable bedthrown knowing the children in my homestay family are sleeping on a straw mat.  No.  Make that 1/3 of straw mat that they all share.

I kind of don't know where to begin.  Much of what I could tell you could easily look like a cliche or the superficial observations of an armchair anthropologist. I found, as I expected, astonishing natural beauty, poverty, drudgery, real human tragedy and surprisingly sincere joy despite it all.  All cliche but nonetheless true.  

There's so much I could tell you, but since I'm lying here on this bed and am currently obsessed with the topic, I guess I'll pick the theme of sleep.

As mentioned, a bed with a firm mattress is an unheard of luxury in the boma (homestead) I stayed in.  A mother, if she's lucky, might have a bedframe with a few wood slats and thin mattress, which she'll share with a baby and maybe a toddler.  When the youngsters outgrow this arrangement, the girls will likely sleep in the kitchen (really a thatch hut where the wood fire cooking is done) and the boys in another room in the house.  If there are a lot of children, they might sleep in a children's hut.  My translator had 6 primary-age children who all slept in their own hut - girls on one side of the divide and  boys on the other.  They shared a straw mat.
This is the children's hut
I don't have any pics of peoples beds/mats, but 2 kids did use a couch like the one on the left as their  bed each and every night.

As a guest in the village, I was treated to my own bed. I brought a small bassinet for Emmet and Caleb would be sleeping with me. Luxurious by village standards. Still, I was nervous. I'm, lets just say... a ... "delicate" sleeper and can barely share aforementioned king size bed with another human, and Emmet has been (as I've mentioned) waking 8-9 times a night even in familiar circumstances.

It did not go well. Emmet, as usual, woke so often the woman who slept in the hut with us (she insisted so that I would not be alone) thought there was something medically wrong with him.  The bed sunk in the middle, so Caleb kept rolling fully on top of me. Just when I would gently return Emmet to his bassinet after a feed and close my eyes, Caleb would wake asking for something. Finally, he peed on our bed.  Need I say more?

So, how do people make these cramped and communal sleeping arrangements work?

Of course, they are used to it. I was in a separate crib from time go. I got to stretch and wiggle and make myself comfortable in whatever unique way I desired, but had to rely on myself when I was scared or needed something – a pretty nice metaphor for the challenges and opportunities of the Western world.

My village friends have never really had to sleep alone. They've had to contort and wiggle to accommodate and conform to their family members but also never feel totally alone – a fitting metaphor for the challenges and opportunities of village life.

This is all fine. We all become used to what we're used to. That is, until we in the Western world decide to procreate and out pops a baby who is fully expecting the co-sleeping arrangement humans have been doing since the beginning of time. And that mismatch is at the root of so many of our baby-mama sleep woes.

When I spoke with the village mamas about how long it took their kids to sleep through the night, they shrugged. Some couldn't remember. Others guessed somewhere between 2-4 years old. It wasn't something they tracked. It didn't disturb them. I was told, “it's only natural” and the conversation moved on.

I'm guessing this is why: If you've been co-sleeping your whole life, you become accustomed to the movements, sleep spasms and night murmers of your fellow bedmates. Adding a nursing baby isn't as disruptive to you. You can nurse, which also has a soporific effect, barely waking up. You don't own a watch and don't obsess and fret over achieving the magic 8 hours a sleep a night, angrily counting the meager hours you achieve as proof of some kind of martyrdom. You'd barely know if the baby woke 4 or 8 times in a night.

But this same infant, demanding attention every few hours of the night, is simply the bane of a Western new mother's existence. This woman is unaccustomed to enduring or sleeping through multiple disturbances each night. She sleeps anxiously, not having had any real contact with a baby for likely a decade prior to her own and having little consensus from relatives or friends on what to do with said baby.

So, she beats the system. She puts the baby in another bed, feeds it on a schedule, lets it learn to “soothe itself.” There's a lot of crying – on both mother and baby's part – while they work it out, but for most by a year, babies are sleeping alone and through the night.

Like a lot of women, I'm trying to carve out a space somewhere between these two extremes. Emmet is in a crib that abuts our bed. I nurse him on demand throughout the day and night. I can't stomach letting him cry. But it's not been easy on me.  I'm trying to be that village mama, but I don't have her training. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Village Home Stay

Even after having lived in Kenya for almost 2 years there's a lot I don't understand.  There's a lot I may never understand. It's hard to step into another culture and unwrap all its mysteries.

At the same time, there's a lot about your own culture that you don't understand or even realize exists until you step outside of it and view it from another lens.  I just finished reading "Bringing up Bebe," a book in which an American ex-pat in France tries to make sense of French parenting. She often gets no where by asking French mothers directly.

Par example, when she tries to unlock the secret of why French infants seem to sleep through the night at such an early age, French mothers tell her, in an oh-so-French manner, that you must simply "fait attention" to the babies, and even ask the babies to sleep and they will understand.  It's not until she visits a French pediatrician working in New York, that she discovers the secret: French mothers train their babies from day 1 to self soothe by refraining from picking them up immediately when they cry, something she calls "la pause."  The babies are thus given an opportunity to figure out how to calm themselves, an opportunity that others who are immediately consoled are denied.

The French mothers weren't just being "French" by evading her questions. I'm guessing they couldn't quite see the answer because it was so second nature.  They might not have known that other mothers don't do "la pause" so it was not something that seemed worth mentioning when the author asked.

Point is even as I feel clumsy about my ability to understand another culture, there are some things that I might see with more clarity as an outsider.


As a mother of two little ones, a lot of my befuddlement living in another country centers around parenting.  When I first arrived, my head swam with the cultural differences and had me question much of what I thought I knew.

For example, I had never seen a Kenyan child throw a wild tantrum in public, like Caleb often embarrassingly did eliciting concerned and puzzled looks from astonished Kenyans.  And I had yet to meet a child who would say "no" to a request by an adult.

Yet, I kept getting messages that toddlers were indulged: when I tried to discipline him in public I was told on several occasions to "let him have the cookie" or even "stop harassing the child. Just give him what he wants."   Also, the Kenyans I met had no nap times, bed times or even dinner times for toddlers.  But bizarrely, despite going against everything I had learned about structure and discipline, Kenyan toddlers were better behaved than my Caleb.  Why?

Also, many mothers here have it rough -- rougher by any measure than moms in the US.   Everything is done by hand, with river or well water, firewood and sweat.  They struggle to find school fees and worry that a sickness could wipe out any meager savings.  And yet, I've never seen a Kenyan mother lose her mind the way we do in the US, when a baby wakes frequently at night or a toddler keeps tugging at your skirt for attention.  Motherhood does not seem to put them as on edge as it does for us, and I've more often seen women laugh off the same thing that would make a US mother burn with irritation.  Why?

When I would go into the villages for work, I saw that common village tableau of young children helping to cut potatoes with knives the size of their arm and caring for baby siblings. How could they be competent at such things when Caleb could barely put on his own shoes?

And even the mundane: How does everyone manage enough sleep to be functional when they are sleeping in the same room or even bed? When and how are children potty trained?  Given the conspicuous absence of playgrounds and toys, how do children entertain themselves?  How is it that any girl above the age of 4 will immediately pick up Caleb when he falls and dust off his behind?

I've come to have a better understanding of some answers - hello, ball of twine for amusement and a the threat of corporal punishment for obedience - but I still feel I've only scratched the surface.  And sometimes the answers I get lead to more questions.

But sitting behind my computer pontificating and making a whole bunch of assumptions is only satisfying for so long. I want to have better answers.

So, here is what I'm heading out to do:

I'm going  a "home stay" in a nearby village.  You know, like the kind a semester abroad student might do.  Except this time I'll be doing it as a mother and with my two children.  I'll be staying with a family that has their own small children.  I'm hoping to learn a lot simply by living with them for a few days, talking to other mothers and watching how people interact with my children.  Ala, the next time Caleb has an unreasonable tantrum, I'll turn to my village mamas, and say "what do you got?"  Hopefully, I'll get more than laughter in return.

Hopefully, this whole thing won't be a disaster. When I was 19 years old I stayed with several families in rural areas in Kenya as part of a semester abroad program.  I stepped all over myself to be humble, polite, unobtrusive and grateful.  This time I'll have 2 little X factors that could quickly undo my efforts to be a gracious guest.

At the same time, having 2 little ones might also humanize me and help women open up to me through the common bond of motherhood.  I might not know how to wash clothes with well water or make ugali, but I can breast feed like a champ.

So, here's to hoping I learn more than I'm laughed at.  Here's to hoping I'll have some new parenting insights for my next blog post.  If not, I can almost guarantee I'll have some anecdote, like I had from my last village stay, in which I slip and fall face first into cow poop.  Except this time, my own children will join their voices to the laughter.
Yeah, she looks pretty innocent.  But that shit is a real menace.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Hopefully Happy Ending

I started my last blog with an "I'm going to regret writing this but". And guess what?  I do.  I regret bitching to the Interweb about my baby induced sleep woes. I wrote it knowing it was whiny, but the catharsis of unloading my troubles outweighed possibly sounding like a twat.

But there's another reason I regret it.

Living in Kenyan you don't have to step too far out of your life to immediately be smacked in the head by someone else's more profound troubles, making your own seem trifling in comparison.

My sleep deprivation is nothing compared to Ann's.*  Ann has two needy twin babies to my one, and zero husbands to help her quiet them at night.  She has had to quit her job selling mangoes to stay with the babies, after their mother died, and now has little means to buy the very things that would keep the twins healthy and quiet.  At 8 weeks of life, she's already seen them through a bought of malaria and scrambles to keep them fed.  Despite all this, when we met her last week, Ann was loving, welcoming and strong.  And uncomplaining.  Making my own complaining embarrassingly deafening, even if just in my own ears.

Yes. Someone always has it worse than you do.  But rarely do you so often meet them.


But I need to back up.

We hired Lilian* when we moved to Kisumu in January.  She came in once a week to help with the housework - washing the pile of laundry that had built up over the weekend and mopping the floors. She was thin, but in a graceful and not wiry way, shy and hard working.  She had that bashful smile of village women who come to the city for work.

Shortly after Emmet was born it became obvious that she too was expecting.  Her imminent motherhood and my new status as a mother of a newborn deepened our till then superficial relationship. She opened up a bit about the father (a now ex-boyfriend) and her feelings about the impending birth.  She loved holding Emmet and I loved watching her knowing the nervous excitement she must be feeling to hold her own new baby.

Lilian had very little support. Her family was several hours away in her home village and she had only a teenage cousin to help her.  I gave her a pile of clothes, toys, diapers and a bathtub to help with the baby.  Still, just before we left for the US, she texted me to ask if I could "add something" (i.e money) to help with the baby.  In our rush to leave for America I never responded. 

While in the US, I was crushed to learn that Lilian - beautiful, young and kind - passed away a week after giving birth to twins she did not know she was carrying.  Unthinkably, she was just gone. 

But statistically Lilian was one of the lucky ones.  She gave birth in a district hospital, with access to life saving equipment and professionals that many village women lack.  Still, she was weak and struggled to deliver the two babies.  The doctors asked her to stay on and recover a few days, but she left.  She left because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pay the medical bill.  She left to a cold and leaky brick and tin roof house in a poor part of town cared for only by a teenage cousin and with two babies to nourish. I'm haunted and disturbed by the prospect that she might have made a different decision had I remembered to send her some money prior to my departure. It's almost more than I can bare.  

We're not sure if she died of pneumonia or sepsis or too much hemorrhaging.  She died on the way back to the hospital when things began to look too dire to let the prospect of expensive medical costs deter her any longer.   

Strangely, the other expat family that Lilian had worked for are also expecting a baby - their first. Neither of us had any fear that we wouldn't survive the pregnancy. Our births would not be easy and might not go as expected.  But we would live.  That was certain.  For Lilian, there was no such certainty. The juxtaposition and unfairness of it all rattles me and makes me somehow ashamed.  I'm not sure of what.  I suppose to live in a world that allows this kind of disparity.  

I'm sick of writing about maternal mortality. I never know how to end the post and I end up feeling overwhelmed and helpless, my plea for readers to donate to the cause feeling ineffectual in the face of the problem, rooted in endemic poverty.    

But this time I have a different ending. 

This is a story of another woman: Ann.  Ann, the twins paternal grandmother, and Lilian never met. Her son, the twins father, struggles to survive in Kisumu and has another girlfriend who also recently gave birth, leaving the motherless twins with pretty much no one who can invest the time, love and resources that they need.  

In steps Ann. She's given up her livelihood and her peaceful nights to bring up these babies she didn't even know existed until their mother passed away.  Her life has been upended, but she's taken them in willingly because no one else will and they need someone.  She struggles, but she perseveres.  She doesn't really complain.  At least not to us.  

As unlucky as the twins were to be born in a place that sees poor women like their mother perish just for bringing them into the world, they are also born in a place in which relatives easily step in to fill the void.  Out of tradition, necessity, duty and love.  

Ann's daughter has now moved back with her to help with the two babies and allow her to start selling mangoes again.  She has brought her own baby.  I have hopeful visions of the three of them growing and playing together.  

The twins are still small - 4 kg (8.8 lbs) at 2 months.  But Ann's taken them to be vaccinated and found ways to buy medicine when they need it.  Formula is out of reach expensive (2 weeks salary for 1 tin), but she supplements what we've given her with cows milk, thinned out porridge and even tried nursing them herself.   

So, this post is a celebration of Ann and the generosity of spirit that fills the ugly void death leaves so often in this part of the world.  It's also a prayer that her care as well as some continued outside assistance is enough to keep these precious young twins alive.

We recently visited Ann who lives 2 hours away bringing more formula, a bednet, clothes and some money. This is Michael.

His brother Joseph.  They both have the slender fingers of their mother.

Not too exhausted from the care of her twins, she offers to hold Emmet.

She thanks us for our visit with a chicken.  (She had bought us the sodas in the background as well). All of this despite how little she has. 

*Not her real name

read to be read at

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Waaaaa!!!! (That was me not the baby)

I'm probably going to regret writing this as soon as tomorrow. Because it's about to get ugly. I'm fixin' to start screaming and stomping my feet into the Interweb for anyone who cares to listen.

I swear this is not just another post where I whine about being sleep deprived. But really it is. Why did I just lie to you people? Probably because I'm surly and sleep deprived and have nowhere else to turn.

So, I guess when you take a baby who's just 5 months old across 8 time zones, something wonky happens to their night time bio-rhythms. Emmet is now sleeping thirty minutes – THIRTY MINUTES – at a time. Nearly All night. Well somewhere around 3 AM he figures it out and sleeps for a few hours at a time. So, I've slept at most 2 hours in a row in over a week. And my nightly sleep totals have ranged from 0 – 4 hours. Even writing this down and knowing it to be true seems impossible.

I could stand it if he would get up 2-3 times a night. He's my last baby and I love those quiet tender late night moments nursing him. Well, “love” might be strong, but I can get that they're special. But waking 8-10 times a night is a new circle of hell.

I can barely lift my head in the morning but I have to get up and face Caleb who has already started jumping on my bed demanding attention and a playmate after his long night of peaceful slumber. I momentarily hate him for that. I look angrily at my now slumbering baby as I get up and grumpily pour myself coffee and curse my husband for being slightly less miserable than myself.

I somehow manage the day. Because I'm starved for adult interaction, I even hold it together enough to talk to other adults. They'd never know my condition, unless they look carefully and see my hands are shaking. At some point in the day I'll sob. When I close my eyes for a moment, I begin the hallucinate, a stockpile of dreams pushing to escape my mind. This is my new normal.

The nights are agony. I can't hope this night will be better because the disappointment will be crushing. I can't expect it will be the same because that prospect reduces me to tears. So, I just steel myself to endure what comes my way.

But my reserves are gone. At some point I'll sob into my pillow or threaten to check myself into a hotel. Colin will help as much as he can, but nursing works quicker and better than anything he can do. He comforts me when I fall apart telling me logically to take heart and that it's sure to get better.

I nod my head like an admonished child as my hysterical sobs slow to deep breaths. But under this acquiescence somewhere inside me that's still going crazy I think: “F*%K YOU you mammary-less mother f#@*&er. YOU wake up every 30 minutes to nurse him back to sleep and then just as you drift off hear him cry again. Then repeat this the whole mother f*%$ing night”.

My inner crazy is unsympathetic and has a cursing problem.

I need another lactating mom to spell me for just one night. Any takers?

*Before you say it, Emmet won't take a bottle, and Colin does try to calm him when he can. We might let him cry (though that's almost more painful for me than the sleep dep) but I fear the neighbors would start knocking on my door wondering in what way we are abusing the mtoto (baby). So.... we'll wait it out.

** My secret hope is that Murphy's Law of the Internet will kick in and as soon as publicly make a big deal out of this it will cease being an issue. So, I'll be forced to sheepishly deflect all your sympathy and advice since Emmet's sleep improved on its own. I'll take that too!      

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Did you know our son speaks Kiswahili? Does he?

Colin and I have long been shamelessly and obnoxiously boasting about our son Caleb's ability to speak Kiswahili.  Really to anyone who would listen.

"Oh, I hear you guys live in Kenya."
"Yes, and Caleb speaks Kiswahili."

"Oh, what's it like in Kenya?"
"We love it.  And Caleb speaks Kiswahili."

"Can I start you folks off with something to drink?"
"Just water, but did you know that our son speaks Kiswahili?"

Partly we're proud because he's learned it so effortlessly even as we struggle to speak it ourselves. He picked it up in a matter of weeks simply playing with his Kenyan playmates in Busia, a small Kenyan border town. His spongy toddler brain simply absorbed the language. He didn't even drill verb tenses or use flashcards, the little scamp.

Partly it's because his fluency made us feel so much more part of the country.  As expats, you are always somewhat on the periphery.  But we came to Kenya to learn about and feel part of another culture.  We're clumsy at it most of the time, but committed to avoiding being trapped in the expat bubble. Caleb's fluency in Kiswahili is a reminder and symbol of that.

Partly, let's be honest, it's because of the "cool factor."  We can all agree that, in certain circles, there's a cache around bilingual children, and especially when it's a lesser known language or one that you are simply not expecting the child to speak - like my friend's little blond children who speak fluent Mandarin. So, it became something of a parlor trick that Caleb spoke Swahili, and it ingratiated us to Kenyans who found it equally unexpected or simply hilarious.

Notice I said "spoke" - as in the past tense.

Well, apparently just as quickly as children pick up languages, they forget them.  And 2 months in the US without being surrounded by Kiswahili has completely wiped his knowledge in as stunning a fashion as he once learned it.

When I try out some phrases I'm met with blank stares.  The other day over dinner, in an effort to refamiliarize him, I said, "Caleb, chakula ni tamu?" (Caleb, is the food sweet? Kenyans say "sweet" the way we say "good" in reference to food.)

He simply stared at me. Blinked his eyes a few times.  Colin and I exchanged glances.  How was this possible!?!?

Then.... glimmer of recognition passed over Caleb's face. He seemed to be getting it. So, he said in response: "Chapula be kaka" and then burst out laughing.  "Chapula be kaka" means.... NOTHING.  It's gibberish.  You see, my Kiswahili was so unrecognizable he thought we were playing a game of "let's speak nonsense and then giggle."

But that was a few days ago.  He's slowly starting to remember as he interacts with more Kenyans.  He still doesn't respond in Swahili and apparently some of it still sounds like gibberish to him, but when I ask him to do something in Swahili, he'll follow the instruction.  Without thinking Caleb will put his shoes in the corner when I ask him to "weka viatu kwa corner."

Still, I fear that the Swahili fluency might be a thing of the past.  Now that we are in a larger city, there are more English speaking playmates (both Kenyan and expats) and even the Kenayan school he attends - he's the only non-Kenyan - have lessons taught in English.  So, his accented and fluent Swahili just might might be history along with our insufferable bragging rights.