Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Changing of the Guard

Kisumu is not the highest crime place I've lived in by a long shot.  You can take either Washington D.C., where a local news reporter knocked on our door to get our reaction to the gang murder that took place across the street, or even West Philadephia, where friends of mine walking home in a seemingly safe pack of 5 were all mugged at gunpoint.  Either place might deserve that dubious honor.

But in Kisumu, I feel fairly safe. Kenyans are exceedingly friendly, there are a lot of "eyes on the street" and the culture of mob justice makes me feel oddly protected.  But, I've come to learn that this just might be a false sense of complacency.

Several months ago there was slew of crimes - a hijacking, a home robbery and even a kidnapping -  not far from us, and our compound of 4 families began to panic.

Here's why:  Most of the homes in our neighborhood have gates and guards, which seem a necessity in places, like Kenya, that have extreme wealth disparities and unreliable police. But, given that our homes are among the most modest on the street, our landlord opted for the cheapest and most ... lets just be nice and say... "relaxed" guard company.  The day guard would sometimes wash and hang her clothes.  The nightguard basically used the small guard shelter as a place to lay his head after working a long day as a motorbike driver.  They opened the gate for pretty much anyone without question.

And despite living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood, our compound is surrounded on all sides by uninhabited homes and fields - half finished and slow gonig construction ventures by people who make their money in Nairobi and dream of investing or settling in their home town.  We are the only residence on our side of the street.  The fact that there are a few wazungu consipicously living here, who most people correctly guess have something worth steeling, also makes us more of a target.
The view from my bedroom.  Nothing you see is inhabited.  Our neighbor has been constructing that monster of a house for so long it's already starting to fall apart.  Next to him is a project stalled so long that people have started to plant maize.
The view from the other side of our house.  OK. I think our immediate neighbors are present at least part time. Beyond that is more half-built construction. 

So, when these crimes came to light, we looked around and felt exposed.

The four families spoke to the landlord who agreed to upgrade our security.  Part of this meant hiring a more professional guard company.

But, being home during the day, I had come to know our "relaxed" guards very well.  They played with Caleb, admonished him when he misbehaved and fawned over Emmet.  They indulged my shaky kiswahili and patiently taught me more.  Working an unthinkable 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, they remained remarkably cheerful, despite a soul crushingly boring job.  They were crappy guards, but pretty awesome companions.

And they were fired. (Or really, they were moved to another house)

I think most everybody breathed a sigh of relief, except for me.  It's not that I wasn't thankful for the apparently necessary security upgrades.  It's just that as the person home all day, I lost the companions I'd grown really fond of and was worried the more "serious guards" would be less chummy.

And I was right.  The new day guard certainly cut a pretty intimidating figure.  He was powerfully built and had the thick neck and strong jaw line and of a Hollywood cast bad guy.  He barely ever smiled.  Since I was fixing to spend a great deal of time in his presence, I wanted to make friends.   But far from being charmed by my overly cheerful greetings and my attempts at Kiswahili, he remained stoic and nodded or grunted acknowledgements. I could not crack this guy.

Then, one day, as I was inside nursing Emmet, I heard Caleb, in his innocence and earnestness, say, "Hey, what's your name?" to Mr. Serious McGrumpypants.  Yeah, good luck Caleb, I thought.  He's a tough nut, even for a charming little man, like you.

But not five minutes later, I heard squeals of delight from outside. Caleb and his new friend had set up some stones as goals and were playing an apparently hilarious game of football.  Amazingly, the were both laughing.  I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.  Was the guard skipping?  He was certainly smiling a lot.  I observed that he did in fact have teeth.

James has become a good friend to Caleb. He asks me all morning when Caleb will be home from school, and almost seems disappointed when Caleb has to come inside for a bath or a snack.  He now greets me each morning with a "Habari, Mama Caleb."

But he's still just slightly aloof, perhaps to retain some professionalism.  When I leave the compound to take Caleb to pre-school, my wave goodbye is acknowledged with a slight lift of the eyebrows.  But then I look back in the rearview mirror and see this same man transformed, waving furiously like a teenager at a rock concert and smiling broadly at my son in the back seat.

I'm not sure what makes people have a tough, seemingly impenetrable exterior. A sense of professionalism, duty, intimidation, insecurity?  But I do know I love watching (from my doorstep) that armor peeled away by a small boy on a scooter.
I'm not sure what the cutest thing is about this picture.  There are many.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Surprising Thing about Stay at Home Motherhood

I'm going to go ahead and say something heretical. Something very antiquated and anti-feminist. Something that might make Betty Friedan turn angrily in her grave. You ready?  Here I go: Staying at home with my kids has been good for my marriage.

At times, I'm not sure it's been so great for me. Sure, I sincerely cherish the increased time with my babies and enjoy all those "firsts" I regretted missing when I was working.  At the same time, being a stay at home mom can be isolating and mind-numbing. And no one is there to value or appreciate any of your triumphant mom moments. (Isn't that why we have to blog about them?) Your children, far from cheering you on, spend a good part of the day pissing (figuratively and, bless them, literally) on your plans, which exist solely for them in the first place.  My sister summed up this dynamic perfectly when she told me that her son came up and bit her on the leg as she was making him lunch.

But, what you do have as a stay at home mom, is a lot less of a time crunch than when you're working.  My day might be dull or chaotic or frustrating. I can't pee with the door closed and I might eat lunch over the sink. But at some point in the day, I make dinner. And that, as they say, has made all of the difference.

When both of us were working, we'd rush home and have a mountain of tasks to complete in the hour or two before we collapsed into bed.  It was like running a race: play with the boy, make dinner, do the dishes, read some goodnight books, put the boy to bed, open the laptop to answer emails, play "not it" when cries emerge from the bedroom, pat the boy to bed again, eat therapeutic chocolate and fall into bed.  Wading through our post-work domestic tasks, both of us felt aggrieved that we were taking on more than our fair share.   I felt I did most of the cooking.  And most of the dishes.  But unhappily.

In fairness to my husband, his job was a lot more demanding, with nighttime and weekend work a necessity.  And he did some things, like keeping up with our finances and locking up at night, that I didn't.  But still, I resented that with both of us working, I was still the one doing the heavy lifting in the traditional female roles.

The problem is that modern women, myself included, have an expectation that we'll be entering a 50-50 domestic partnership.  And unless you are dividing up profits, "50-50" is a subjective experience totally dependent on each person's perspective.  Maybe one of us (ahem...) has a different tolerance for how clean the house should be, and my making it cleaner than that was like creating more work and then complaining about doing it. But both of us of course felt that we were pulling our fair and equal share. Our exhaustion proved it.

Still, I resented my husband.  He resented me resenting him. In order to quantify my martyrdom and prove my point, I would bitterly catalog all the extra work I did - how many more days I made dinner, how many more dishes I did. Colin would accuse me of "keeping score."  I was. I felt I was winning, but there was no prize.

But now that I'm at home, I'm happy to make dinner.  I have time and it's kind of my job now.  And, given the backdrop of our experience, Colin all the more appreciates my efforts.  Our nights are no longer a bitter, exhausted race. When he comes home there's simply less to do.  And since I've been with the kids during the day I'm more happy to let him play with them while I finish dinner.

But I can hear your protests all the way here in Kenya.  I'm not saying women should stay at home in order to have a happy marriage. I'm only saying that the division of labor has been more predictable and easier to negotiate for us, with one of us (and it could have been either of us) more solidly in the domestic domain.

Maybe other couples have this "second shift" of domestic labor figured out.  Maybe they order take out and hire a maid. Maybe one of them doesn't expect that much help in the first place and is less disappointed as a result. Maybe their talents and preferences for chores fall neatly into mutually exclusive camps.  It didn't work that way for us.

I'm not going to stay at home forever, and I look forward to going back to work.  But I don't look forward to having the the household responsibilities squeezed again and pointing accusing fingers at one another.  Maybe by then we'll have a better plan.  Maybe by then we can put some of the kids to work for us...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mom, What's a Funeral?

“Mom, what's a funeral?” Caleb asks me from the back seat of the car.

I asked for this. Caleb had wondered out loud where our friend was today, and I told him she went to a funeral. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I knew I was in for it.

OK. So, how to answer? Caleb is 3. There's probably some well vetted, developmentally appropriate response to this question, but driving in the car, I did not have access to it.

I could just give a kind of murky half-truth answer to the question, ala “it's a time when people come together to celebrate someone's life.” But then again... maybe I should just go for it.

Living here in Kenya makes me think that children are a lot more capable of coping with the truth about life and death than we give them credit for. Adults talk about it freely with their kids. There are funerals nearly every week. The greater mortality and larger extended family networks mean that people – along with their children - simply go to more funerals.

One of the first songs sung to Caleb here (at less than 2 years old), went like this: “Caleb anataka chinja kuku”. Translation: Caleb wants to slaughter a chicken. It was a catchy little ditty accompanied by hand motions indicating a knife slitting across the neck. It was all done with the whimsy and joy of a nursery rhyme.

And speaking of nursery rhymes, those suckers are loaded with pretty morbid imagery. I find myself singing gleefully to this same child “I don't know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she'll DIE” and softly crooning, “... down will come baby, cradle and all.” At night we curl up and read little tales about Jack falling down hills and breaking his head, and grown women cutting off tails with carving knives. All of which makes me think that in our own not so distant past we were comfortable talking about death with our kids. And it makes sense. Death was more frequent and more visible. It didn't happen in hospitals, but in the home. The parlor room was a room specifically for laying out the dead. Kids dealt with it.
Aww... sweet little bedtime story, right?
So, all this running through my mind I told Caleb, using my best and most reassuring mom-as-teacher voice: “Well, honey, a funeral is somewhere you go to bury someone who has died and celebrate their lives. You know, remember what you loved about them. It's also to comfort people who are sad.”

There. I felt pretty proud of this explanation.

Caleb sat with it silently for a few minutes, chewing on the idea. Then from the backseat of my car: “Mom, I don't want to die. Will I die?”

CRAP. Well, now I just want to die. Why did I just tell my 3 year old about death?

My grandfather died when I was 6 years old. It shook me up and gave me nightmares. I would crawl in my parents bed in the middle of night and plead with them not to die. My parents were, much like I am now, at a loss. They sent me to a therapist. Maybe it was overkill, but how do you help a small person deal with that ugly reality of life?

So, what did I say in response to Caleb's very profound question? I stammered out, “Um. No. I don't think so. Let's just not worry about that right now.” I changed the subject quickly, praying that he would just forget about it.

Ridiculous. A "what not to do" moment. What happened to all my brutal honesty? Maybe if I was religious I'd have a more optimistic response about heaven, and I'm thinking now I should have just said something like that. But it caught me off guard. It's pretty heavy stuff to deal with on the way to school.

I'm your run of the mill culturally Jewish progressive agnostic and my husband was raised Baha'i. We both have our spiritual ambivalence and struggles. But my son doesn't. He's just looking for answers and some comfort. And I need to find a way to give that to him. Quick.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Blogging Like It's Your Job

For this post, I'm talking to you fellow bloggers.

The bloggers I read (who are of course, witty and insightful, with a frequent edge of sarcasm) are quick to disavow blogging for “popularity,” numbers, hits, fans, or followers. They blog for posterity, for the love of writing, for community. I would consider myself as a member of this camp. But there's something we're probably not all being totally honest about.

When I started blogging it was when I was working in a refugee camp to catalog my experiences and help people “back home” more deeply understand what I was going through. No one I didn't know read what I had to say, and I didn't much care. I did nothing to promote it to a wider circle.

Later on, I wrote another blog, simply called “Musings.” In the old sense of a blog, it was really an on-line journal of my thoughts, but done in a way that recognized the narcissism and hubris of it all. I think my tagline was “unimportant thoughts that no one cares about except my husband. And I think he's pretending.” Not only did I not promote it, I barely told anyone about it.

So, this is my third blog. A blog is kind of the ideal forum for an expat living abroad. I can keep in touch with far away friends and family and carve out a community of like-minded people when I can't always find that in my direct neighborhood. I moved to a rural Kenyan town and was the only ex-pat parent for miles in any direction. So, I really did want to finally use the blog for it's “worldwide web-iness.” I wanted a community -- of expats, moms, and people struggling to navigate another culture.

But, lets be totally honest. A blog allowed me to pontificate, expound, snark. I've been writing for my job for years, but it's always been for an institutional product that was reviewed, changed, reviewed again and changed back, only to have some director change it yet again into something even more mind-numbing. This blog allowed me to create something mine. My words, my thoughts, my humor.

And this time, I did promote it. Partly to find that community of like-minded people. Partly because, again, let's be totally honest, I don't just spew my complaints or catalog my day and hit “publish.” I work hard on each post to craft something I like. I write something, re-write it, delete the whole thing, start again.  They're not all gems, but I work at them.  And it's awfully nice when someone else reads it.

I'm still not all that slick. I don't have watermarks over my pictures or a button or unique social media buttons that match my overall aesthetic.  I'm baffled that so many people know how to do this stuff. I have a twitter account that I neglect and I'm stubbornly refusing to even investigate pintrest. 

But I've found a link up that I love called yeahwrite, and I've started writing for some other expat blog sites. I've found some fantastic blogs that I admire and that inspire me. And... people who are not my mom have started to read my blog. Not a lot but they're there.

And it's heady. It's heady to get compliments, to start conversations and to be read. So, I have done things to increase my readership, the whole time telling myself that I'm “finding an online community.” And I am. There are a dozen bloggers out there who I feel I know and know I like, and probably feel the same way about me. There are real friendships.

And then there are statistics. 

And then there I am “working” on increasing them, nose in the computer, commenting on sites, linking my blog to others and playing around with fonts, screaming at my son to “be patient, I'll come play in a moment!!” And then it feels like an ugly addiction. Like crack. Or facebook.

One of the more successful bloggers I follow admits to spending 3-4 hours per day on “the blog.” It's not just writing, it's reading and commenting on others' sites, participating in link-ups, doing SEOs (OK. I don't know what that is, but it seems important)   That's what I imagine it would take to really get some “numbers,” unless of course you are the Bloggess, Honest Toddler or naked.

I barely have a slack 30 minutes, much less 3-4 hours.  Much of my spare time, I'd like to make up for my baby-induced sleep deprivation or try and be more present for my family. Maybe make a sandwich.  I love this blog, but to do it "right" might start to feel like a job.   

So, I've been trying to strike a balance, but it's not easy.  I've been trying to only write only those posts that flow from me easily. I'm visiting only the sites that inspire me or make me laugh.  I'm no longer envying those more trafficked sites and I'm trying to ignore my statistics.  (Afterall, any post that has the words "vagina" or "poop" has a lot of those coveted "stats.") And I'm shutting the computer when my child wants to play.  

Anyone out there feel the same way?  Or have you all figured this out? 

(And yes.  I just did that cheap comment-generating gimmick of closing a post with a question.  But this time it's not a gimmick. Tell me I'm not alone.)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Village Stay: Spare the Kiboko, Spoil the Mtoto

This post was adapted from a piece that appeared in World Moms Blog - a fantastic blog that features mothers writing from over 20 countries around the world. 


I hunched my back to fit through the doorway of the mud and thatch hut, my baby in my arms. The woman inside welcomed me with a “karibu,” her own baby suckling at her breast. The hut was dark, the only light spilling in from two small windows, but my eyes adjusted quickly. It was decorated with free calendars and unsmiling photos of family members hung high on the mud walls, like so many other homes I’d entered in my two years in Kenya. As we spoke, through a translator who knew the local Luyha dialect, chickens wandered in the hut and were shushed away without a thought.

I had spent the past two days living with a family in a rural village with my baby and 3 year old son talking with local woman about their experiences as mothers. My son was outside playing easily with the children in the compound despite the language barrier.

The conversation was going well. Her two small children had entered the hut and sat quietly during our discussion. But at some point my son came rushing in, insisting emphatically, in only the way a 3 year old can, that he was ready to go. His whining was incessant. “Mama mama mama. Can we go? Can we go? can we go?!” The conversation stopped and everyone turned to view the spectacle. Summoning my best “parenting in public” skills, I lovingly (with an undercurrent of “you are going to get it when we get home”) told him to stop and that we’d leave shortly. This was met only with louder and more insistent, back arching whining.

I was embarrassed. I had done all that I could to avoid this scenario. Before we left for this particular visit, I got down on Caleb’s level, looked him in the eye and made him promise to behave if he wanted to join me (he had begged to come along). We agreed that if he couldn’t behave he would not be coming with me again. All of this to no apparent effect.

But here was an opportunity. I had never seen a rural Kenyan child throw a tantrum or refuse a request by their mother, and I wondered why. So, I looked at the other mamas in the room, pointed to my son (still pulling my leg and whining that he wanted to go) and said, “What would you do in this situation?” They laughed good-naturedly and said, pointing to their own children sitting quietly and looking puzzled at Caleb’s behavior, “but our children don’t do that.” (Exactly!)

And then someone kindly offered, “Maybe he’s hungry?”

It wasn’t translated for me, but at some point in the following exchange I heard it: “kiboko” – a word I knew in Swahili that meant the kind of stick you hit a child with when they misbehave. And I know this is surely part of the reason his Kenyan playmates were sitting so compliantly. In fact, every single woman I had spoken to said she “beats” (that’s their word) her child with a stick as a form of punishment.

It sits a bit uneasy with me – the endemic use of corporal punishment. But I also understand it, and I have to admit part of me longs for the easy results it gets. I understand that in a village setting in which all children must help run a busy household and a life-sustaining farm, a premium is placed on obedience. I understand that the conventions that have replaced corporal punishment in our world – three strikes, loss of privileges, time outs, grounding – are difficult to impossible here where there are no real toys to take away and mothers have little time or energy to fight with a child to stay in a time out corner. A thwacking is quick and effective.

Still, it sits uneasy with me. So, while I understand the practice, I have to admit I don’t love it.

Back in the hut, the interview continued, amid the slowly ebbing tantrum. We turned to the subject of sleep. This mother, like every other mother I spoke to and like most mothers on the planet, sleeps with her baby. I asked her what she thought about the idea of a baby sleeping in another bed away from its mother. She replied, like the others did, that it was “impossible.” It simply “could not happen.” When I explained to her that this is precisely what most American mothers do, she shook her head in disbelief, saying “but the baby must feel the mother’s love.”

So, this idea – of putting a baby in another bed, one that might to an outsider even resemble a cage, to sleep alone – probably did not sit well with her. She might even understand it as some strange practice that Wazungu (foreigners) do, but it probably did not sit well. Just as the kiboko did not sit well with me.

No one has a monopoly on the “right” way to bring up children. We all, individual and as a culture, do what we think is right and what works best given our own realities. 

Contrary to the juggernaut of parenting advice books, magazines, and even professional consultants, we might just want to listen to our intuition.  We might just want to look at what society we are trying to fit our children into (even if that's a global society) and make our decisions based on that.  And instead of judging some other person's, or some other culture's, different way of doing things (barring outright abuse), we might want to recognize that none of our parenting practices grew up in a vacuum.  They might not make sense for us, but they might make perfect sense given some else's realities, opportunities and goals.  

This small interaction in which I looked askance at the kiboko and the village mamas looked askance at the crib was just the reminder I needed of all of that.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Village Stay: How to get your kid to wash dishes

Silhouetted in the doorway, a group of about seven or eight kids were playing with the few toy cars Caleb had brought along, while Wilkister and I chatted about the day to come.  At some point she offered me chai (tea), looked over the children and told them to go wash some cups for us.  The boys remained, as they girls hurried off without an argument. (Wilkister explained to me that people believe that if the boys are given "girl" tasks, they will.. um... cough cough... be like a girl.)

And the kids, not much older than Caleb, washed those cups. And I'm not talking "Oh, thanks sweety for helping mama," pat on the head, plunk the still dirty cup back in the water for mom to wash thoroughly.  Those cups were washed clean and set out for use again.  Impressive.

Yeah... but Caleb does know the difference between a brontosaurus and a triceratops, so that's really usefu...  Um...  Yeah, I think I need to figure out how this happens.

None of this is new.  If you'e traveled to a village in a developing country you cannot escape noticing the incredible responsibility given to small children, who do their tasks seemingly without a complaint and with expert efficiency.  The 7 year old carrying her baby sister, the 6 year old peeling potatoes, the 10 year old boy chopping firewood.   All of this makes me wonder if safety scissors are not somehow insulting our children's innate ability.

This observation is not a revelation, but what I've never heard is how this actually "happens."

How do parents get their young children to take such serious household responsiblity, do it well, and do it without argument?   We have to bribe, threaten and cajole, and still our children, whine, "but!"  drag their feet and then do a half ass job quickly so that they can move on to playing with their toys.

Some theories:  First, there are not a lot of toys.  Their environment is a functional household.  There is no colorful playspace that implicitly tells a child, "Here.  Have fun!  You're a child."   They live in a space that's communal and functional and everyone plays their part.  But house work isn't just drudgery. I didn't see this as much, but I know anthropologists who have studied this often remark that small children take a certain pride and sense of accomplishment in their work and even ask for more.  Especially if the task is something they've seen their older children do.  Or maybe old Huck Finn got to them?

None of this is to say that children don't play.  It's just that play is social.  I mean, just look at this video....

And this brings me to my second point.  Chores are also often social, and maybe there's an inherent motivation in that.  I mean, if all the other kids are fetching water, you're kind of left out unless you join in.  In fact, at one point Caleb came screaming up to me because he wanted to do precisely that task -- go fetch water.  All his new friends were going, so he wanted to go.

But I can't discount that children do their chores because their parents tell them to, and parents are not disobeyed.  I didn't see any openly defiant behavior, but I can't rule out that this kind of rebellion has been whacked out of a kid.  Every single mother I spoke to told me she "beat" her child with a stick for discinpline.

Still, it's not as simple as that.

Children, generally, want to belong and be a part of things. They want to do what the other kids are doing. During our village stay, the family very generously prepared special food for us that was a cut above the greens and ugali they normally ate.  Caleb wanted nothing to do with it.  He wanted only to eat with "the kids."

Caleb, much happier sitting with the children outside than eating "special" food with mom inside.

So, if all the other kids are washing dishes, that's what Caleb wants to do.  If all the other kids are playing soccer, that too.  If they are all smoking meth, we're in trouble.

I'm happy to report that Caleb has, for the time being, carried this peer pressure-induced helpfulness home with him. Last night, as I was washing up after dinner, Caleb tugged on my leg and said the unprecedented: "Mom, can I help wash the dishes?"