Sunday, December 22, 2013

Am I still blogging? Not sure.

Am I still blogging?  Not sure. It’s been five long weeks since my last post. An unprecedented duration. I used to go 10 days and then start a blog post with an apology for the long absence.  But it’s been five. weeks.

No, I did not lose my computer or opposable thumbs.  I got a job. And now, instead of pondering blog-worthy topics in the shower (my prime pondering place), I am mentally checking off lists of work-related items and outlining future memos. 

In all my gearing up to go back to work I had been mentally bracing myself for the kids-to-workplace transition, figuring out how keep quality time with the kids while still making a good impression in my new job; how to keep work stress away from the family and family time sacred.  Working out a way to still have lunch with them every day. And I think I’m doing a bang-up job on that front. I've been patting myself on the shoulder for the elusive "balance" I'm managing to strike.

I come home from work and relish the hell out of my little’ins. It’s funny, that hour between coming home from work and dinner I have more patience for their difficulties and more utter adoration for their charms than I probably had all day when I was home with them.

You’ll either relate to that statement or think I’m awful for saying it.  But, it’s true.  It’s not just the trite “it’s the quality not the quantity” cliché working moms tell themselves to feel better. It’s how I feel.  I come home from work and see their enthusiastic and loving “HI MOMMMY!!!” faces and it’s the highlight of my day. They seem even more youthful and miraculous to me, and I drink them in.  In a way that I don’t know if I did when I was home all day, preoccupied with planning meals, calming tantrums, and, yes, watching the clock (when will he finally nap?  When will their father come home?).

But even though it rarely felt like it, I had more time in my day for my own thoughts when I was home with th kids. My own musings, my own observations.  Sure, it’s self indulgent and not “productive” in the way that my current work-related thoughts are.  But I got to chew on ideas and develop them.  I worked them out on these blog-posts and shared them with a community. It made me feel interested and connected, and occasionally proud.

Now. No time for that. Not yet anyway, when I’m in overdrive trying to fit in and prove my worth in a more traditional work setting. When I find myself at the end of the day with some pondering time, I’m tired, uninspired and if there’s room to do some thinking I drift into the giant mound of work issues – my new intellectual center.

I didn’t expect this to go away so completely so quickly – my voice. My creative outlet.

I once wrote (let’s ignore the obnoxiousness of quoting myself for a moment) that “balancing work and family and relationships is often a zero-sum game. It's a big mushy ball of meals to cook, bills to pay, dishes to clean and children raise into people you hope will not be psychopaths. So, unless you have gobs of money to throw at maids, cooks and nannies, if you "lean in" to one thing, another one of those things is going to pop out the other end and demand attention.”

I just didn’t think the thing which would “pop out and need attention” would be me.


P.S. I had time to write this and think this because I am on vacation, and, just as crucially, nursing a cold, which allows me to close the door for moment.  I know I’ll find a new balance and some space once I settle into work more, get “up the curve” and find my rhythm.  Hopefully you’ll still be reading by the time that happens…

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Passengers with small children may now board. Without me.

“Boarding is now open for families traveling with small children.”  

Normally this would be go-time. The shot gun at the start of an exhausting and anxiety-ridden marathon.  But I let the message wash over me with a “see later suckers” smile on my face as I sit in the departure lounge reading an embarrassingly stupid escapist novel hidden by my kindle cover.  The other travelers shift impatiently and uncomfortably in their seats.  I exhale, relishing in the prospect of child-free travel.

This was my first work trip on my new job. 2 weeks in and I was jetting off to Bangkok for a conference.  There were a lot of mixed emotions here – excitement about the new job and opportunities for engaging in topics I feel passionate about.  The thrill of a free “work-cation” in an exotic location.  But also the worry about leaving my children (one still nursing) wondering night after night where their mother went.

But there were no mixed emotions about the flight. The flight was a veritable mom spa day.

Instead of being woken from a half-sleep haze to comfort a travel weary toddler, making a game of running down the narrow aisles and dodging irritated looks from newly woken passengers, I can read a book.  And stop when I’m tired.  I can watch a movie. The whole way through.  Someone brings me food and no one throws it in my hair. I can cocoon myself in blankets and wine and wake to people pouring me coffee and politely calling me “maam,” instead of screaching “MOM!!” and pouring multi-colored liquids on my lap.

All of which makes me realize that solo flying is.. um…  amazing. I mean, what do lone business travelers really have to complain about?  Too much sitting?  That’s like a problem royalty complain of. 

Just being on my own, making my own decision on no one’s schedule but my own feels like a sweet and guilty pleasure.  I can barely wipe the smile off of my face.

But then, as I slurp down the final sips of my coffee before our descent into the sun-drenched Asian capital, my breast start to swell with milk intended for a baby now thousands of miles away.  My body is reminding me of my duty, my primal biological imperative that no modern, flying, time-traveling bird can erase. And I feel every single mile of the half a planet that now separates us. 

Still, I know my boys are well cared for. Their father and second mother of nanny are showering them with love and keeping them safe.  The older boy will remain focused on the promise of a present upon my return.  The younger will likely forget the days apart after a few moments reunion. 

“They’ll be fine!” everyone tells me. And so I tell myself the same. And I’ll keep telling myself it all the way through the trip until I can return to my “mama spa day” flight home, with all the comfort and me-time made that much sweeter by the promise of wrapping my arms around my little solitude busters.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween - It's a strange one.

Halloween. Come on, it's a strange holiday. I suppose they all are.  Sure, they start out innocently enough, commemorating an event, like the resurrection of Christ or the miracle of Hannukah or throwing off the yoke of colonialism. But somewhere along the line, things change and you end up moving large foliage temporarily indoors or hiding pagan symbols of fertility around the yard while eating bunny-shaped sugar-coated marshmallows.

Halloween began in order commemorate our ancestors and martyrs and saints. Somewhere it morphed into a fun kind of spooky and communal candy sharing was added (gotta have something for the kids, right?)  Then it became almost entirely about the kids and the scary costume element was optional, replaced by superheros and princesses. So now Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder knock on your door, demand candy, and if it's not satisfactory, they reserve the right to do commit petty destruction to your physical property. You know, to honor our ancestors.

And then this happened: When Dora and Bob got to college, Halloween became license to don a mask and shed all inhibitions in grand bacchanal of sexy cat women and inebriated pirates.  When they got a little older the costumes became a demonstration of their wit, a way to out-clever their neighbors through puns and political satire.

Puns like this:
It's a thinker. Think back to Psych 101

Add caption

And Satire, like this:
It's Anthony.. um... you get it...

But Halloween has remained a day to celebrate the id. The closest thing America has to carnivale.

OK. So, it's a strange one.  And try explaining the whole thing - especially the still-present ghoul, gremlin and fright element to a country wholly unfamiliar with this debauchery.

When we first moved to rural Kenya we were advised NOT to celebrate it.  Dressing up as a witch or a devil in a country where many people still have a strong belief in the existence of actual witches and devil-worshipers goes down well... not well.

In a related story: a shipment of actually quite frightening looking Halloween-type paraphernalia was impounded in Mombasa recently as the authorities investigated allegations that it was tide to witchcraft.  The title of one article was "SHOCKING: DEVIL WORSHIPING paraphernalia in Mombasa belongs to politician."

The kicker: despite it's timing right before Halloween, this stuff might not have been intended for a Halloween party.  The article goes on to say "insiders report that a Mombasa-based witchdoctor had ordered him to buy the goods in order to save his dwindling political career."

Seriously. If you had no experience with Halloween, this stuff is pretty suspicious.

So, for this one, we are seeking refuge in our expat community, which has organized a trick-or-treating event in Kisumu. The one year-old will be an animal (spider) and the 4 year-old a super hero (spider man).  As is ordained.  We will take copious pictures and implore all facebook friends to comment on their adorableness.  Because that's the final element in our modern Halloween tradition.  You know, to pay homage to our ancestors.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Murphy's law on hair cuts and stay at home motherhood.

It's Murphy's Law.  Or divine order. Or maybe black magic.  I don't know.  But some law of the universe makes it so every time, EVERY TIME, you are about to get a hair cut you have the most surprising of "good hair days."

Weeks have gone by that your hair was a disheveled and straggly mess.  You throw it up in clips and head bands and look forward to that fresh hair cut.  But the day of the fated appointment, your hair is unexpectedly stunning.  It's lustrous, full of life and falling in all the face flattering ways.  You might even get a compliment.  Then you go in for that hair cut.

And it is probably this same principle that is allowing me a stellar "stay-at-home-mom week" just as I'm about to embark on a new job.  The children have been lustrous, full of life and falling in all the adorable and face flattering ways.  And I'm going to leave them.

Hey, I'm excited to start work.  I have gotten something of a dream job at an exciting young organization I whole-heartedly believe in.  I'll be working with bright, motivated and to-the-person likeable people. I'm Looking Forward To It!

I wrote a little while ago about the key to not feeling horrible about where ever you land in the Stay with The kids - Go To Work continuum is to find your personal balance, know that it's not the same for everyone, and expect to face some trade-offs no matter your decision.  I think this job will allow me to achieve as glorious a balance as I can hope for. Most of the time I'll be able to have lunch with my kids, I have a healthy amount of vacation and the organization believes in work-life balance. And the actual work with allow me to be creative, analytical and engaged in issues I care about - all things I've been short on. Huzzah!

But then there's the "good SAHM" week I'm currently reveling in.

My baby's starting to understand my questions and requests, shaking his head "yes" or "no" in response like we're having an honest-to-goodness conversation.  Every day it seems he's learning a new word "toto" (tortoise), "tante" (assante/Swahili for thank you), doof (juice), "doobleblopple" (I love you mom. Obviously).  He's doing iconic-ly adorable things like running around the house naked, giggling after each bath.

And don't get me started on my eldest. I took him swimming, and for the first. time. ever. he let go of the side of the big pool and started paddling around By Himself!!  I was there, right next to him, as the surprise and delight spread through his face and became so much glee it burst into laughter. "Mom I'm DOING it!! Ha ha ha ha!!"  This week he came home from school, pulled out a piece of paper and practiced his letters on his own, sweetly asking me, "Is this one right mom?" Later, he looked at me earnestly in the eyes and said "I'm really sorry that you're coughing mom. I want you to feel better." If I could bottle that kid's sweetness, I'd never have to buy sugar again.

And it's not just child adorableness that made this a "good SAHM week."  I wiled away a few mornings visiting with just about the best group of mom friends I could ever hope for.  We let our babies run around as we sipped coffee and had comfortable and connecting conversations that left each of us feeling uplifted, supported and loved.  It's the kind of community I wish on every SAHM.  And my afternoons I spent with my neighbor and one of my closest friends, sharing food, playing with our babies, leaning on each other's shoulders and laughing at each other's jokes.

I found time to write. To do yoga. To read.

This "good SAHM week" - the magical moments with my children and the time spent in the sisterhoods I relish - could not have come a worse time.

But I need to remember that I'm not giving all this up. My friendships will endure. I'll continue to have magical moments with my children. I'll find a new balance and maybe it'll be even better than this one.

I'm embarking on a new... haircut.  I hope it's as flattering as the last one.

Adi (neighbor's daughter) and Emmet sharing a snack

The two friends, probably up to no good. I mean, why the smiles?

Caleb euphoric in the water

Caleb studiously practicing... something

Friday, October 18, 2013

Road Trip: Kenya

For my birthday this past weekend, we took a trip to Lake Nakuru National Park.  But don't worry. I'm not going to foist a bunch of wildlife pictures on you. Actually, maybe you'd appreciate that more than what I'm about to do.

I am going to tell you about an aspect of taking family vacations here that gets little attention: Getting There.

Back in Chicago, it's often said that there are 2 seasons: winter and construction. Here in Kenya there is only one season.  And it ain't winter.

Most roads in our part of Kenya are either in a state of disrepair or repair.  Mainly, you are driving on shoddily constructed roads with crater-like, car-swallowing potholes and sharp unmarked speed bumps, all threatening to destroy your car and strand you on the side of the road.  Either that, or you are driving directly through road construction as it happens with only a hint of how avoid the beastly machinery blocking your way. You have to clutch the steering wheel and tell the kids to hold onto their seats as you bump along the "diversion" (read: non-road you use on while the road builders get to work.)

The dust all of this kicks up is of biblical proportions. It's caked on the car so densely you could scrape it off with a knife and you're sneezing it up all evening.
This is not out of focus.
Why the constant disrepair and repair? I've been told road construction is a big boondoggle. Apparently, a big proportion of the road budget goes to greasing palms, so things like quality cement and other important ingredients for road making get short changed. The road lasts half as long as predicted and the boondoggle starts again.

But when the road is completed it's ... well.... amazing.  Some of your journey is inevitably on fresh road, and you sail by feeling like you're on a high speed train. Like you're time traveling.  But don't get too comfortable because this is actually where the worst of the road accidents happen as the absence of potholes, diversions or speed bumps lulls long haul drivers into careless and often lethal complacency.

OK.  So the roads are no picnic.  And speaking of picnics... you better pack one, because there are no fancy roadside restaurants, drive-throughs or convenient stores. There are tons of roadside vendors, but unless you can make a snack out of a kilogram of potatoes, some tomatoes and an uncut pumpkin, you're out of luck.

OK. You can easily find a soda. But you'll have to drink it there and return the bottle.  My environmentalist heart applauds but my impatient spirit boos. 
All this said, and despite the road hazards, we actually love our road trips.  The countryside is gorgeous, teeming with people, shambas and ramshackle storefronts; and driving through it makes us feel like we are in the "real Kenya" (whatever that means). And the truth is you can find a locally harvested snack - roasted maize, pineapple slices or peanuts - if you're lucky.

Tea estate in Kericho

There are no roadside attractions, but the are plenty of on-road attractions, and I'm not just talking about the flipped over truck variety. Generally, I'm talking about a lot of improbably overloaded trucks, livestock strapped to the backs of vehicles or extended families sharing a motorbike. It's the kind of thing you found remarkable when you first moved here but now often forget to notice. Unless, of course, you're planning on writing a blog post on the topic.

Don't worry.  They're dead.

I love that despite lack of side walks and uniformly craggily roads, women around Kisumu still brave aspirational shoes. 

Just a few tweaks and this bad boy will be road worthy again.

And we always seem to stumble into some kind of misadventure.

This time we stopped in Kericho, a hilly tea-growing area, for lunch. It was at a faded colonial haunt with unintentionally ironic kitsch and intentionally gorgeous gardens.  They parked us - the only patrons at the time - in the corner of the restaurant, but by the time our food was served we were enveloped by local businessmen and politicians who descended en masse, as part of some business promotion convention.

Someone clanked a spoon to a glass, the room fell silent and the man at the next table stood up to introduce the Governor (the man with the biggest belly in the room) for some "brief remarks." In desperation, I shoved cookies in Emmet's mouth so as not to interrupt the Governor's speech with uninvited baby whining.

The guy in the grey suit: Gov'na.

Our family. Woefully under-dressed for the business conference we unintentionally crashed.

Well, I lied. I am going to give you one picture from our game drives. But Warning: this is for mature audiences only.  Or, really, immature mature audiences only.

You see, the animals in this part of the world are truly magnificent. They come in surreal colors and patterns, and near paleolithic proportions. You wonder at life's creation itself while watching those seemingly hand painted zebra stripes or stilt-like legs on the giraffe. But after watching several hundred zebra, you stop wondering and start yearning to see something besides these magnificent creatures endlessly chewing their cud.

You want some action.  A stalking and a kill. Some fighting. Some mating.  You know, the same kind of action you want from an episode of the Real Housewives of Poughkeepsie. Or so I hear.

Well, after half a dozen game drives and no ... um... "action," we finally got some.  Real animal behavior in the wild.

A baboon mating.

With himself.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rethinking spanking from the land of kibokos

“Whap!” my friend sliced her arm across the air for emphasis. “Oh, my mom used to whip us all!  She could even do it without looking up from what she was doing. And it would hurt! She got softer on the younger ones, but us older kids used to get whipped.”  She spit out the word “whipped” while shaking her head but also smiling oddly at the memory.

You see, this friend has a lovely relationship with her mother, a woman I know as gentle soul who dotes on her grandchildren.  She’s a woman who raised 8 of the nicest people I’ve met in Kenya and who took in 5 of her relative’s kids when their parents died.  She’s a woman who visits my friend every week; they sit around a plate of ugali and fish and talk like old friends.  They hug goodbye. They have, by all accounts, a close and loving relationship.

But what about all that whipping?  From the American perspective it would have bordered on abuse.  The theory goes: all that physical punishment would breed resentment, psychological damage, and trust issues.  In some settings the parent would have been visited by Child Protective Services.  The children would grow up to learn that violence solves problems.  

So, what happens when an entire country “beats” (that's the word used here for physical discipline) their children?  The truth is corporal punishment is ubiquitous here.  I’ve yet to meet an adult here who was not physically disciplined by their parents and their teachers.  It’s expected; it's the norm.  In fact, when corporal punishment was officially outlawed in schools (a completely unenforced legal concession to the international community) parents generally thought this was a horrible idea.  The assumption was that without the threat of a whacking, children would become uncontrollable. Pretty much everyone you meet here has been “whacked.”

But it is not a country of cowering maladjusted adults prone to violence. Sure, there are pockets of crime and have been eruptions of political violence, as there are in many places in the world, but overall the people I’ve met have been overwhelmingly are peaceful, warm-hearted, community-minded and generous.

So, what’s going on here?  Well, I’ve delved into the spanking research and it’s a morass of spurious scientific conclusions and the debate is often clouded by emotion. Spanking has been attributed (often erroneously, it turns out) to everything from delinquency to mental illness to lower cognition.  But there’s nothing all that definitive because choosing to use corporal punishment correlates with a lot of stuff which is difficult to disentangle – for example, stressed out, depressed mothers or children with pre-existing behavior problems.  So, if the data show long-term negative impacts associated with spanking, it’s impossible to know if it was the spanking or the stressed out mom or the already present behavior problems which have caused the long-term outcome. 

You can’t very well divide parents randomly into 2 groups and ask one to spank their kids and the other not to and then look at what happens to the children. So, it’s hard to truly know what the true impact is.

But one study, looking at inter-ethnic views of spanking and its long-term effects shows that if a culture views spanking as normal – basically, if it’s what everyone does – kids aren’t damaged by it as much. In African American communities or in American Conservative Protestant communities spanking is the norm.  And for those children it does not lead to more aggressive behavior later in life. In fact, spanking correlates with lower levels of aggression in those communities even as it correlates with higher levels of aggression in other communities. The authors note in African American communities spanking has been a “legitimate expression of parental authority” and even an expression of love; whereas for whites, spanking is more taboo and often triggered by anger. 

Another study compared ethnic Norwegians with ethnic Sami, a people who view spanking as normal and acceptable. Among Norwegians, physical punishment was linked with anti-social behavior. Among the Sami, there was no such correlation.

I guess this is a way of saying: in parenting, culture matters.  It matters even in how we process, learn from and experience physical pain.  It matters down to our nerve endings and brain development. I find that astounding.


None of this, I should mention, should be taken as an endorsement of spanking or hitting your children. Even if spanking is less likely to lead to aggressive or anti-social behavior in some contexts, there are plenty of reasons to choose not to spank your children: (1) Other methods are just as effective and probably more humane, (2) spanking can teach that violence solves problems and (3) once you start spanking it can be easier to escalate into hitting out of anger or frustration.

I should also point out that there is a range of physical punishment even in cultures in which it is socially sanctioned. Some physical punishment is clearly beyond the pale, and no one can condone that. But most of the world does some kind of spanking. This is changing slowly, but is still the case.  I suppose my point is, it’s nice to know that these children might not be experiencing quite the state terror those of us in the West often assume comes with childhood corporal punishment. And it’s also a good reminder that it takes more than a parent or two to raise a child. 

For more info see: 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sick Baby

My baby was sick.  Really sick.  This child, who grabs my hand as soon as he hears music to pull me towards our living room “dance floor,” could barely stand.  The same little guy who regularly makes a game of grabbing my nose and slapping my face, could barely manage lifting his arm and, anyway, was in no mood to play. My normally active, giggly, tough and stubborn toddler was listless and drained.  And he was like this for a full five days, in which his feet hadn’t once touched the ground. It wasn't normal.  

I breast feed him continually in the cab ride to the hospital in Nairobi.  For days, he existed in three states: sleeping, arching his back crying or nursing.  Nothing else. From the hours of nursing, my nipples had become tender and painfully sore, as if I was caring for a newborn not a 19-month old near-child.  But I didn’t really care.  I focused on his little face and the relief from grimacing and squinting his eyes in pain that washed over his face when he began to nurse.  That helped me hold it together.

The cab driver, a man who we’ve known for years, looked back at Emmet with an expression that was clearly worried.  When someone is sick here in Kenya, the pat response is, “Pole, atapona” (Sorry, he’ll get better.)  It’s meant as a comfort.  But tellingly, our driver didn’t offer those words.  He just kept looking back at us with that same concerned expression.  Emmet’s fever rises.  I somehow hold it together.

In the waiting room, there are other children.  Some are sleeping, others waiting patiently watching the television. A boy of about 3 has an arm in a sling as he plays on the hospital scale.  But no one 
seems as sick as Emmet who is inconsolable until he collapses asleep as soon as I nurse him.  I see those same worried faces on the other mothers when they look at him.  I hold Emmet constantly and nurse him continuously.  One breast is nearly always partially exposed, making me even more of an oddity.  Still, I manage to hold it together.

The doctor orders some blood test and soon I find myself holding him down (both for the tests and eventually the 6 attempts to get an IV in his weak veins), as he looks up at me confused, imploring, perhaps a bit betrayed, begging with his small watery eyes for the only person in the room he knows and loves to stop the pain.  Instead I hold him down tighter and let them hurt him again, locking my gaze on his and saying in the most reassuring voice I can muster “it’s almost over baby. It’s almost over. Mommy’s here.”  I’m strong for him.  I hold it together.

Finally, after several hours at the hospital, the results are in and the doctor tells us we need to admit him. She throws around adjectives like “extremely” and “abnormally” when describing his blood work and the dreaded “I don’t like the look of…”  and more test are ordered.   I’m alone. Colin is giving a speech at a memorial service.  I have to hold it together.

We somehow switch to logistics and payment.  After multiple calls to our insurance company I find myself in yet another line to talk registration and payment, all while caring for a very sick baby, and filling out those dreaded forms, which seem make a mockery of urgency with which I desperately want someone to fix my baby.  I hold it together.  

I finally approach the cashier. I’m standing, still nursing Emmet, holding his upper body with my left arm and supporting his legs with a raised knee, so I can manage a pen.  I can barely hear the man behind the glass tell me they don’t accept my insurance, a problem I assumed was fixed with repeated phone calls.  Now I’m agitated, probably yelling. If the crowded room of people weren’t already staring at the lone white woman with an exposed breast and crying baby, they are now.  I’m balancing everything – the body of my baby, my belongings, my emotions, my sympathy for my child with my need to be fierce in defending him.  I’m barely holding it together.

At just this moment, I feel a hand gently touch my back. “Are you alone dear?” asks a stranger in a warm voice. 

And I do NOT hold it together.  It all falls apart.  That small gesture of sympathy releases a torrent of emotion.  I nod to her as the tears stream down my face and my chest convulses.  Everyone is looking and I’m still trying to hold myself together but losing the battle.  She grabs my purse and leads me to a chair.  “It’s alright. I know it’s hard. I’m a mother too.” She says kindly.  Her words are like that hug that lets you finally sob.  And I do.

I wrote this in my head waiting for Emmet to be admitted. It was really scary not knowing any answers, and being alone and frustrated my mind wandered to horrible places.  I probably did some bargaining with the universe.  It all seems rather silly now, just days later with a healthy child who rebounded quickly after a 2 day hospital stay from what we now know was a particularly nasty viral infection.  I’m grateful beyond words to have a healthy child back and will not forget that a stranger let me lean on her when I was feeling so alone.  

Just days after our ordeal.  Ready to play ball again!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tragedy in Kenya: Trying to Find Some Words

I’ve spent the last few days fighting back (often unsuccessfully) tears. When I communicate about this tragedy to friends and family I find myself most often saying, “There are no words.” 

60 + dead souls, children among them, nearly 200 injured and the senseless death toll keeps mounting.  Ravi Ramrattan, a friend who was kind-hearted, whip-smart and had the kind of manner that immediately put everyone at ease.  They identified him by his shoes.  

Unthinkably, he’s now “was” not “is,” his bright future snatched from him, leaving a crater-sized hole in the hearts of people who loved him.  Those are words. And as I type them, here I go again fighting that tighting in my throat and welling in my eyes. 

Still, I need to find words. I need to find some sense or meaning out of this tragedy.  

When we first heard about this tragedy we were camping in a forest with some friends.  We were walking amid astounding beauty with our children, 3 four-year olds and 3 babies. We received information in fits and starts when cell phone reception would work.  First it was 15-20 dead. Shit. That’s gotta be a terrorist attack now.  Then it was 29.  Holy crap. Pit in the belly.  Do we know anyone? Then it was 39.  But these numbers could keep going up.  When will it stop?.  Then, 59 dead. Silence.

But it was a detail, not the numbers, that finally made that scene at the luxury mall real.  It was a "Children’s Day" at the mall - the kind of thing I might have taken my own babies to.  Some of these children were now dead. 

I was going to write something about numbers, how we interpret tragedy and risk through a narrow and almost tribal lens. How I’ve seen a lot of equally senseless and avoidable death from terror of poverty. And those numbers are higher than 60.  How, disappointingly, the truth is that it pains me more viscerally and to my core when the victims look like me - when I can picture myself and my children in that circumstance. How, as much as I think of myself as part of a truly global community, the world spins off its axis more for me when my bubble of safety and comfort is exploded. 

But forget all that. I’m not in the mood to be philosophical yet.  I just want to be sad. I want to mourn. 

All life is precious. And fleeting. And nothing is sure.  I just want to hug my family extra tight. And I want to pray to a god which I have to cling to, even though such senselessness make me doubt his existence, to bring comfort to the people who are unexpectedly burying loved ones too soon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hidden Hunger in Kenya

I’ve lived as an American expat in Kenya going on three years now, and I’m embarrassed to say that until recently I didn’t fully realize the extent of hunger in this part of the country.  There was a highly publicized drought/famine far on the other side of the country, but where I live is lush, green, and fertile.  People look healthy, even fat, even in the rural areas. 

When you visit even the most modest home, the dictates of hospitality mean you are showed steaming, overflowing plates of food -  ugali, rice, boiled yams, fried greens.  An animal might be slaughtered in your honor.  Your hosts implore you to finish your food, and a polite “I’m full, but this was delicious” combined with an enthusiastic belly rub is met only with protestations that you must “eat more.”  You might leave the homestead looking on lush vistas crowded with stalks of maize and the green leaves of beans and potatoes sprawling through the earth. You'll meet smiling faces on thick frames.  This is hardly the place where hunger lives. 

Kenyan friends will tell you that unless a meal has ugali (the local staple), it’s not a meal. Pizza, when they are introduced is laughed off as a snack.  A sandwich cannot possibly fill you up. Novel food like beef jerky or aged cheese are politely refused or eaten in small trepidatious bites. Such narrow and specific food preferences.  This is hardly the place where hunger lives.  

But despite the seeming fertility of the land, the abundance of food set out for visitors and narrow food preferences, this is certainly a place where hunger lives. It’s a hidden insidious hunger that ebbs and flows and hits the most vulnerable.

Last week, amid running around preparing my son for school in the morning and attending to my baby, I burned the french toast so badly the kitchen actually filled with smoke. I thoughtlessly tossed the pieces, blackened on one side, into the trash and started again.  Rukia, the woman who helps me around the house, later saw the pieces laying on top of the trash, and looked at me with an expression both pained and a bit insulted saying, “But mama Caleb, these are still good.  Why would you do this?” 

There was something in her expression that shamed me.  There was a pain there and the hint of a rare confrontation from profoundly good-natured and easy-going woman. Rukia is relatively lucky, with a good job and enough food that she worries about “reducing” (losing weight).  But, to her, wasting still-edible bread - a luxury in the rural areas - was an outrage. 

Likely, as one of 14 children beholden to the whims of a good growing season, she has known hunger. It’s not something you are likely to forget.

You see, even in the fertile areas, Kenya has a “hunger season” in which the stores of grain run out before the next harvest is ready.  Families economize by cutting down on meals - skipping lunch and breakfast and then maybe a whole day without eating - trying to make their remaining grain last and scrambling to find money to buy more.  When a harvest fails completely, it can be devastating. 

These hungry days are painful for adults, but they are disastrous for growing children.  One in three children here in Kenya, the economic powerhouse of East Africa, suffer stunted growth from inadequate nutrition, and malnutrition is the underlying cause of more than HALF of all deaths of children under five.  

You can survive malnutrition, but you won't be the same adult.  The brain size of a chronically malnourished child is smaller and the neural development is impaired, diminishing whatever innate potential a child was born with before they even start learning. That's the hidden cost of hunger. It's not one we can afford. 

The agricultural revolution (hybrid seeds, fertilizer, irrigation etc...) which has helped stave crises and feed other parts of the world for decades has not reached Africa.  Smallholder farmers here struggle to get access to the types of seeds American farmers were using nearly a century ago. They assiduously till shrinking plots of land, with poor performing seed, no fertilizer, poor storage options and certainly no crop insurance to see them through vagaries of weather. They go hungry. They don't have to.

If you want to learn more about the problem and what can be done please visit:

This post is part of Hunger Action Month blog hop.  Come check out some of the other posts here

Friday, September 13, 2013

2 MORE reasons I love raising my kids in Kenya

I just wrote an article – one that has been brewing and growing in my mind for years – on the things I love most about raising my children in Kenya (here's the post).  It’s featured on one of my favorite sites in the whole world wide web – Inculture Parent.  It wasn’t easy to make this list succinct and of course it’s incomplete.  As is often the case, once something is presented for public view, you realize all the things you forgot.  There are two things I would add. 

Having my parenting assumptions challenged and seeing them through a new lens. Sometimes this is disorienting, but it is always illuminating.  Parenting is done differently here, it’s at once more strict and more free-range.  Sometimes affection is not as obvious, but it comes at children from more corners.  I love that I can open my eyes and see these differences, and notice things about my own culture that I would never realize had I stayed put.  And I love the realization that children can thrive in so many vastly different settings not least of all because it puts my parenting failings in proper perspective.

360 or more days of sunshine a year.  This, I hesitated to add because it’s not necessarily unique to Kenya or even Africa, but truly it is one of my favorite things about raising kids here.  Literally, every day has sunshine and warmth.  Even in the rainy seasons the rains don’t start until the late afternoon or evening, so children can run around all day. In my three years here I remember only a handful of overcast or rainy daytimes. 

Why is this so important?

When I had an inconsolable newborn, screaming and fussing despite my exhaustively creative efforts, someone suggested opening the door to expose the child to some fresh air.  I’m not sure if it was the shock of the temperature change or the distraction of the chirping birds and flicker leaves, but he quieted down almost magically.  That technique worked nearly every time after that. 

It made me think that babies and children, really humans, are probably more at peace, more soothed by being outside in the world.  Being outside is a calm kind of stimulation, not the acid trip flurry of distraction that child-centered places, like gymaborees and the like, assume children want. The distraction is in the birds, and clouds and wandering cows and visiting neighbors and especially impromptu playmates who are also drawn outdoors. And this weather permits that every day. 

There is no cabin fever, no short days of winter where the sun descends a few hours after lunch and your mood becomes dark and cold like the outdoors, no Season Affective Disorder in a place with no seasons.
Bored? Go outside.

So, those are the two items I left off my list.  What would be on your list?  What do you love about where you are bringing up your kids?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Has the Balance Bike Robbed Us of Something Important?

The balance bike.  It’s the latest craze.  Or, more likely it’s the craze from 10 years ago that I’m just catching on to.  And even more likely it was the craze 100 years ago that the rest of the world is rediscovering.
This proto-balance bike, circa 1817, was called a "Dandy Horse."  A Dandy Horse!!  You can't make this stuff up. 

For the uninitiated, the balance bike is a small bike with no pedals, chain or training wheels. The child kind of pushes the bike along with his feet and, when comfortable, lets go and balances, coasts and even leans into turns.  So, the hard part of riding a bike – the balancing – is mastered before pedals even factor into it. The idea is that when pedals are eventually introduced, it’s a quick and easy leap to riding a bike, no training wheels necessary.

Anyhow, I’m guessing balance bikes are currently a big parenting trend because: (1) these things often come in trendy wooden models and everyone knows that parents who love their children buy wooden toys and (2) because these things really work!

My son, who is not exactly the kind of kid to dive head first into things, rode his make-shift balance bike (we just took the pedals and chains off the regular bike) for the better part of a year.  Then, one day at a friend’s house he jumped on a pedal bike (normal bikes are now called “pedal bikes.” Pay attention.), and he immediately started riding as if he’d been doing it for years. No transition at all. The same thing happened with my sister’s son (also 4 years old at the time) when he jumped on a pedal bike after a year on a balance bike. As as happened with countless other kids, as I understand.

I'm biased here, but I can't tell what is cuter: the bike riding, the intense smiling or the crisp school uniform. 
Last night as the sun descended in the pre-dinner hour, we looked on proudly as our 4-year-old son rode triumphant circles around the compound.  We marveled at his ability and stopped to remembered our own first independent pedal of a bike. 

We were older than Caleb (about 7 or 8) and, not having the advantage of the balance bike, relied on our parents to teach us. We started out wobbly and unsure, dad holding on to the back of the bike and finally setting us free, encouraging us with a “You can do it!”  We weren’t so sure, and the ground looked hard and far away. But slowly our dad’s faith in us seeped in, we held our breath, pedaled and found our stride!  We looked back at our fathers and yelled proudly and a bit incredulously, “Look at me!! I’m doing it!!!”  Or it was something like that. 

But looking at Caleb completely proficient all on his own, Colin turned to me and said, “It’s kind of anti-climactic, no? I mean the balance bike did all the work.” And with that, our joy turned to melancholy. 

There would be no “letting go of the bike” as our child peddled on - that archetypal parenting moment.  We would miss out on that quintessential struggle between holding our child up and letting him go free, between support and faith.  We wouldn’t swallow a lump in our throat being there for that beautiful moment where doubt transforms into self-confidence. And we wouldn’t have that foundational moment we’d look back on to guide us at each subsequent “letting go” time: first day of school, graduation, marriage.    

But I’m probably being overly nostalgic.  Perhaps that first “letting go” moment will still happen.  It’ll just be when our baby boy learns to successfully navigate and be trusted with an iPad.  (Bleh.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I'm A Visiting Dignitary. Whether I Like It or Not.

Living here there’s a lot you have to be ready for, to brace yourself for, but it’s pretty predictable: mosquito bites, sun burns, malaria, kamikaze road traffic, a plethora of requests for assistance...

But something you may not be aware of is that you also should be ready to play the role of visiting dignitary at a moment’s notice.  The correct assumption of your relative wealth means that you’ll get lots of invitations to various functions -- school graduations, clinics, rural homes, funerals, weddings etc…  It’s equal parts warm hospitality and possible fund-raising effort.  You will have to remain poised, dignified and have a gracious speech at your back pocket.

Case in point:  A brother of a friend of ours recently invited us to visit the school he's the principal of.  It’s one of only 4 government-supported schools for the physically disabled in Kenya.  Walter was effusively friendly, easy to connect with and genuinely passionate about his work.  He breezily mentioned we should visit “whenever we had time.”  “I’ll show you around” he said off-handedly.

So, always keen to learn more about the country, we settled on a date, piled in the car and drove the nearly 3 hours to meet him at his new school.  You know, to be “shown around.”   

When we arrived, dusty and road worn, sweaty and cranky children falling out of the car, we were greeted by the school board and principals, clad in suits and ties, creating a kind of enthusiastic receiving line.  We were ushered into the administrative building – a concrete block of offices under a tin roof – where a plate of mandazi (donuts) and a steaming kettle of tea awaited us. Everyone sat formally and a bit uncomfortably as the tea was served and an honest-to-goodness typed out meeting agenda was passed around. 
One member of the welcoming party poses in front of the entrance to the school.

To fill the awkward silence, we started to ask questions, “Where were the children from?”  “How many kids attend school here?”  

“Relax” we were told with a smile. “First things first. We’ll get to all of that.”

And they did. Eventually. After drinking some chai, the opening prayer was conducted and formal introductions were made around the table. Then the group took turns explaining their part in the school and providing a bit of history.  So, we settled back into our role of visiting dignitary, allowing our hosts the rigid formality they expected, nodding patiently at their presentations, and asking polite questions only when they were through. 

We were then ushered out to tour the facilities, encouraged to snap pictures and ask some more questions.  They kept referring to our small family as “the team” from IPA, as if we were representatives from a large charity or inspectors from some lofty government oversight agency. 

The not so subtle fund-raising push was understandable. The place clearly struggles for money. But they were proud of what they had accomplished with little, showing us certificates the children had won in musical and academic concerts. 
Pretty soon they are going to run out of room to display all their awards!

Our fearless tour guide shows us the boys dorms.
Oh yes. The children.  Where were all these children?!  It was a Saturday, but this was a boarding school, so we knew they were around.  But we hadn’t seen a soul other than our suit-clad tour guides and their secretaries.

We walked a bit further and got our answer.  The children, hundreds of them, were huddled patiently in the shade of some trees on rows of wooden benches patiently awaiting our arrival.  But it had been hours and they were starting to stir.  We noticed that some chairs – the fancy plastic kind with arm rests – were positioned in front of the children.  These were to be our seats.

Tour completed and questions answered we were marshaled to honored seats in front, facing the crowd of expectant faces.  

We were introduced, waved a feeble but earnest greeting at the overwhelming crowd and sat back down to enjoy the performances.  And they were remarkable.These children, many of whom are severely physical disabled, sang, danced, played music, and recited poetry.  A boy with no arms wrote his name for us holding pen with his toes. 

When these unbelievable displays were finished, the crowd turned to us, for our response.

So, once again, we find ourselves in the unwitting and completely underserved role of celebrated guest.  We are humbled and a bit embarrassed. But somehow when you are there, thrust into the role in front of children who spent their Saturday awaiting your arrival, you summon something.  I wanted to say something encouraging, something supportive and even uplifting. I wanted to somehow connect with all these earnest and hopeful children who were up against serious odds.  So, I rose and made a short speech in Swahili. 

I doubt it was the inspirational encouragement I had hoped for, but at least I got them to laugh. 

I said in Swahili how honored we were to be there and how we see so clearly that they have so much strength and are so clever.  But of course I said it wrong and in the silliest possible way, something akin to “you all is so clever” which erupted the crowd in hysterics. 

I didn’t care.  They were laughing.  And I was glad it was at me.  It pulled me down off that pedestal I didn’t want to be placed on in the first place and broke down some barriers.

After we were through the children shyly approached, asked for pictures and erupted in more smiles when I showed them their images.  They took turns holding Emmet and finally walked us out.            

This role – that of the visiting bigwig – is something we’ve gotten used to. It’s an uncomfortable role and one we know we don’t merit.  We’re always awed by what we see and gain more from the immediate exchange than our hosts do.  We’re always humbled.

But if we don’t play the part, the whole script falls apart.  We are expected to be patient and gracious and then leave to remember them, tell our friends, send money. 
You can hardly blame them.  Money is what they need. We’d do the same in their shoes.  But I doubt we'd do it with such an incredible combination of pomp, finesse and heart. 

[If you're interested in learning more about the school - their story, their struggles and their incredible accomplishments, please see my post "Disability Is not Inability" in the World Moms Blog.  And do please contact me if you are inspired to help this seriously inspiring school.]

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why buy the cow when you can get the cash for free?

See that tagline up there? “Part mommy blog. Part aid blog.”  Well, maybe you’ve been waiting for the aid part for the past year or so. Truth is, since I stopped working full time, my focus has been on the mommy part; on my own family’s diarrhea rates and not the worlds.

But a development program operating near where I live in Kenya has created a bit of a media firestorm, and it seemed like an opportune time to get my “part aid blog” up to more than 5% of this blog.

First an explanation and then the “kerfuffle.”

Give Directly, is a new charity which gives “unconditional cash transfers” (UCTs) - basically free money, no strings attached - to poor rural villagers.  UCTs have been heralded as the sexy, new, so-crazy-it-just-may work development strategy of the moment (OK, governments the world over have done this for years, but no international charities had seen fit to try it).  The idea is that the poor know best just what they need, and the most efficient way to spend donor money is to just give it directly.  Gone are hefty program overhead, training, and donated goods or services which might not be what the recipients need or want, so more donated money lands directly in the pockets of the poor.

Microloans, the sexy development strategy of the last decade, have fallen slightly out of favor. It turns out that even though many poor are credit constrained, not all have the gifts or wherewithal to be successful entrepreneurs, and in some places the loans simply put more people in debt, trapping them further in poverty. With UCTs, the logic is almost laughably simplistic: people are poor because they have no money.  Give them money. 

But it’s a hard sell. Of course, “free money” encourages dependency and reduces the incentive to work, the conventional wisdom goes.  And a big wad of cash can create disunity among family members as they argue about what to do with their windfall and also among neighbors who may not have qualified for the program but justifiably feel equally poor. Then there’s the whole worry that recipients will spend the money on vices like liquor and gambling, things which donors are understandably loathe to subsidize and likely result in deeper poverty. 

So, that’s pretty much the debate. 


NPR’s This American Life and the New York Times Magazine both profiled the Give Directly 
program in Kenya interviewing recipient farmers in Siaya district, about an hour from our house. Give Directly is not only open to the criticism thrown its way, it’s supporting rigorous studies to evaluate its program – to learn precisely how much the money improves recipient’s lives compared to a randomly selected comparison group. Does health improve? Do more kids attend school?  Do recipients invest in productive businesses? But also does domestic violence go up? They want to know.

The kerfuffle starts with the fact that NPR compared Give Directly to the Heifer Foundation, which gives program recipients cows and training, and requires them to donate a calf to another family.  Seems like sensible work and a good “teach a man to fish” counterpoint to the Give Directly model.  Seems like the gift that keeps on giving.  Seems like a great way to spend donor money.  Hell, I’ve given to them in the past. 

But the “seems like” is the issue.  It becomes obvious in the radio program that the Heifer Foundation is not comfortable with evaluating its model to see if it truly is a great use of donor money.

Their VP balks at the idea saying: 
“That (evaluating her program compared to UCTs) sounds like a terrible idea. I mean, it sounds like an experiment, and we're not about experiments. These are lives of real people and we have to do what we believe is correct. We can't make experiments with peoples' lives. They're just -- they're people. It's too important."
The development community (at least the bloggers and my personal acquaintances) let out a collective “Argh!!” in response, arguing that it’s more immoral to continue a program without testing its effectiveness.  The development guru blogger, Columbia professor Chris Blattman, sums up the frustration best saying:

“Where it gets downright immoral to not measure them (participants and control group), I say, is if your program is so expensive it crowds out two other people who could benefit. We don’t know if that’s true or not, since Heifer (shame on them) wouldn’t share their studies or data with the journalists. But I’ve seen many, many, many projects that spend $1500 training and all the “other stuff” in order to give people $300 or a cow. Is it fair to ask, what if we’d just given them $1800? Or what if we’d given six people cows?”
I don’t disagree. Hell, I’ve spent the last 10 years evaluating programs so that money is better spent and people are better served.  The logic and even the ethics of doing these types of “experiments” on development programs, in my opinion, is air tight. 

But, the optics are not. And optics matter.

There’s a lot of subtext in the Heifer Foundation’s comment. The idea of being “experimented on” can makes people feel somehow discounted, like the whole of their being is reduced to an inconsequential number; like they are condensed only to those parts which might be interesting to science.  And when an NGO from the wealth world runs randomized experiments in a former colony, people - drawing conclusions from that ugly history of plunder and exploitation- might just somewhere deep inside feel played with once more.  Especially when they see their neighbor receiving something they feel they equally deserve and are told, “this is all in the interest of science” they feel suspicious and resentful.  

I’ve seen resentments build up in the field.  These perceptions do matter.  People, jealous of their neighbor’s randomly assigned program benefit accuse them of witchcraft, they accused the NGO dolling out the benefit of devil-worshipping and corruption.

I still believe that this kind of research is vitally important. In fact, it’s too important to ignore the cultural dynamics and the perceptions of people who allow this research to happen by acquiescing to be studied. Researchers should, and often do, take great pains to allay fears and carefully explain the research goals to the people they study.  Because if local suspicions and angers flair, there’s no research and no benefit.   

So, I still don't find the Heifer Foundations apparent reluctance to be studied defensible.  But I think there's something to be learned from their reluctance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Waiting for Words: When will Emmet start communicating and stop screaming?

“Ee jish?” Emmet asks me earnestly as he holds up the ball for my inspection.

“Yes, I do see this Emmet” I reply.

“Ee jish” is about all he can say, and he says it in relation to a lot. It can mean, and I'm guessing here, “Do you see this?” “Can I have this?” or “What the hell is this?”

He also says “ma” with the "m" drawn out into a kind of whine, but, before you get too excited, we think means “more” since it's most often associated with his begging wanting something.  He can imitate me when I ask - really implore - him to say “mama” but it unfailingly comes out “da da” syllables he spits out loudly and with a misplaced look of accomplishment.

But that’s pretty much the extent of his vocabulary. He points and whines, and for special emphasis when mom is failing to understand that “I want the goddamn milk woman!” he screams. So, there’s communication happening.  But no real words.
Who needs language when this kind of behavior eventually gets you what you want?
Still, I pretend he can talk, and he responds in kind. He thinks he can talk and streams of complete jibberish spill out of his mouth as if another language.  It’s not a totally unfun charade, but underneath all this I wonder if I should be worried. 

His brother at 18 months had dozens of words.

A quick look at the go-to parenting neuroses stoking/calming Website,, shows dozens of parents of under 1-year-olds sick with worry that their baby hasn’t said a word. At Emmet's one year check-up the doc, going through her routine list of questions, said, barely looking up from the list, “And he’s saying mama and baba and the like, right?” shaking her head 'yes' so convincingly that I just went along and agreed, since I figured it was right around the corner.

But 6 months have passed and we have this:  “ee jish” “Mmma” and “mbo” (a sound he makes when he sees cows). It’s all terribly endearing, but I wonder if it’s “enough.”

I used to tell other similarly worried moms about my brilliant uncle who couldn’t speak until he was three.  When he finally spoke the words spilled out in complete sentences, fully formed thoughts.  Before this, his parents worried he might be intellectually impaired, and the central irony is that instead he grew to be an academic giant, the dean of a major university and a leading game theorist.  This narrative is meant as a comfort, a lesson to parents to relax and know that each kid develops on their own timeline and that you can’t predict intelligence by it.  But I have no expertise to back it up. 

Emmet is hearing two languages – English and Kiswahili – so that could be the root of his slight delay. And maybe “advice-giving Kim” is right: kids progress at their own rate.  In my heart of hearts I know that Emmet is bright and communicative and that his language “explosion” is right around the corner. So, maybe I’m just getting impatient waiting for it.

So, here’s to hoping the blogosphere will work it’s Murphy’s Law magic in which the moment I expose my worries, the cause of them disappears, making me look needlessly neurotic.  And… “publish.”