Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Upcoming elections: praying for peace

Bear with me people, this post is going to have nothing to do with my adorable children, development work, or cross-cultural parenting (you're welcome?).  But it has everything to do with the topic on everyone's minds, in every conversation, and on every page of every newspaper here in Kenya:  the upcoming presidential election.

Given the flawed elections and the post-election violence in 2007, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what the fall-out will be from this round, who will be declared a winner and how the nation will react.

Here's an oversimplified primer of the political dynamic here:

OK, Kenya is most certainly not Rwanda with 2 ethnic groups historically pitted against one another.  And historically (with one very notable exception) Kenya has managed transfers of power relatively peacefully, and remained a beacon of stability and prosperity in an often chaotic neighborhood.

Still, politics are overwhelmingly tribal with allegiances along ethnic lines and the resulting spoils of victory dolled out mainly to co-ethnics.  (And the spoils are big!  In a country where the per capita income is $1,700/ year, Kenyan MPs are some of the highest paid in the world, making more than US Senators. And that's their official take home. Getting your hands on the levers of power is lucrative in a number of other ways, says the litany of financial scandals in Kenya's recent history. Digression over.)

There are 42 different ethnic groups, none with more than 22% of the population, so politics is a complicated jockeying for alliances and coalitions.  The Kikuyu and Kalenjin have managed to hold on to power since independence, but in 2007, a political rival - Raila Odinga - a Luo from Western Kenya (home to such notable people as Barack Obama's ancestors and this blogger) threatened to take that power in a popular vote. In fact, he looked to be winning, until it was unexpectedly announced that the incumbent Kibaki, had won the vote. Suspicions of foul play were confirmed by international observers who noted that the elections were marred by irregularities.

Tensions, actively stoked by the politicians, flared, resulting in over 1,000 deaths, mainly from inter-ethnic violence.  The world looked on horrified, as people were burned in churches and hundreds of thousands fled their homes for safer areas, astonished that this could happen in a country synonymous in many minds with luxury safaris, champion runners and fine coffee.  Kofi Anon intervened and a power-sharing agreement was ultimately reached, making Raila the Prime Minister and Kibaki the President.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), created to hold instigators of mass atrocities accountable, subsequently indicted 4 Kenyans as responsible for inciting violence.

Two of four are running on a ticket together in this election.  And they (Uhuru and Ruto) are polling neck and neck with Raila (the current PM) to be the next President.

Are you still here?  I know that's a lot of history for people who might just want to know if Emmet has started walking and Caleb has done something funny, but it's actually still pretty incomplete.  

Moving on...

When we decided to move to Kenya, nearly 3 years ago, the prospect of violence in this upcoming election loomed large in our minds -- especially since we'd be living in Kisumu, a primarily Luo city which was a hotbed of violence the last time around. The election is now only days away.

Because the race is so close and there's a lot of distrust in the electoral system, there's no doubt there will be some kind of public outcry, no matter the winner.  But there will also likely be a run-off in a months time as no one candidate is polling above 50%.  But the question on everyone's minds is: Will it (this election or the run-off) be violent?

There are a few things working in our favor:

(1) The ICC.  The fiasco of the last election resulted in indictments to the ICC.  The message: People are looking.  Behave yourself. You will be accountable. The idea is that this could change the political calculations of those who might otherwise benefit politically from encouraging conflict.

(2) Many people simply don't want violence.  Since we arrived in Kenya, people have repeatedly told us that they don't believe there will be violence. "No one wants what happened last time."  "We don't have the stomach for it."  In the last several weeks there have been dozens of peace rallies and politicians have reached out to one another to make public statements calling for peace.

(3) There are mechanisms in place to anticipate and stem violence. In the wake of the last elections, structures were put  in place to prevent this from happening again.  The Election Commission was de-politicized and a commission was established to curb hate speech.  This time the government will be on high-alert anticipating violence, not caught off guard.  Police are already deployed.

(4) New structures mean more local accountability.  The new constitution has devolved a lot of authority to local levels creating a number of new local political positions, such as Governors to oversee new counties.  In theory this will create more transparency and accountability overall for what is done with public money. It could also help diffuse people's emotional reactions to the national election if their attention is divided.

Then again, there are some things working against us....

(1) The ICC.  The ICC indictment raised the stakes for the accused presidential contenders, Uhuru and Ruto.  If they win they will have more power to evade the ICC (though they have promised to comply with the trail).  You could also argue that the political costs of an ICC indictment are actually not that apparent, given the process for indicting those involved in violence was 5 years long and they are able to stay front runners in an election, which brings me to my second point...

(2) Some people DO want violence.  Because there's such a huge premium on a victory, it could be in some people's favor to incite violence, just as much as it was last time.  In fact, recently pamphlets were found instructing people to "kick out" Kikuyu in Luo areas, and also to rid Kikuyu areas of Luos.

(3) New structures mean more battles, spoils, and stakes.  The new political positions created might just give people more to fight over, more to feel aggrieved about. One of the more hotly contested races is for a newly created position as a local MP, and the aspirant lives right down the road from us. He's widely supported by the people, but his opponent is backed by the local party.  there have already been rumors that our neighbor has been intimidated and threatened, and his supporters will likely be suspicious and even angry at a loss.

Oh who knows???  Predictions of violence differ depending on who you ask and when you ask them.

But we are all praying for peace at the same time as we are stocking up on provisions in case there's insecurity.  Some expats we know are leaving town and many locals are also returning to their home village areas to wait out any possible violence.  We are collectively holding our breath.

I want to assure those of you concerned (hi mom!) that we won't take any unnecessary risks.  We are fortunate enough to live in a secure part of town, which was untouched even in the last election violence and have contingency plans in place if need be.

My hope overall is for peace for all of Kenya and a just transition to a responsive and accountable government.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In defense of strollers

In defense of strollers?  Who's attacking them, you might ask.  What's so horrible about a little baby carriage that makes it in need of an advocate?

Well, maybe 'attacking' is pretty strong.  But the attachment parenting camp, you know the one that prefers you literally attach yourself to your baby, not place it in a "container" (their word) on wheels, has convinced us that baby wearing is the natural and most beneficial way to transport your offspring.  Overusing "containers" can actually cause physical, mental and emotional harm.  Wear that baby!

No big argument here.  Both my husband and I wore both of our babies, on walks, hikes and around the house. I loved being so close to the babies and having my hands free, and it worked like a charm to soothe them. Seemed like a win-win.

And here in Kenya, baby wearing is just how it's done.  I've yet to see a Kenyan here in Kisumu push a stroller.  Always being one to try and fit in, I tucked the stroller away in the closet for Caleb (it would have been useless on Busia roads in any event) and have abandoned using a stroller when our second born arrived.

I wore Emmet since they day he was born, in a moby wrap.
Cozy like a womb.  Or so I liked to think...
But despite feeling "down with the locals," it instead unexpectedly made me the constant object of hilarity.  I walked in to a clinic appointment and the nurses, NURSES, burst out laughing at this get up.  When people weren't laughing, they were busy stopping me on the street to express concern that I might be somehow suffocating or smushing my young babe.  "But his head..."  "Will he be OK?"  or "He's...  um.... certainly all closed up in there" (disapproving shake of the head)

Hmmm.... I thought baby wearing was di rigour in most of the non-Western world?  Not so. You see, In Kenya, for the first 3 months, babies are wrapped in copious amounts of blankets and carried in the arms, often shaded by an umbrella.  No baby wearing yet at this tender age. Baby wearing happens later. And on the back, not the front.

But I'm used to being the object of curiosity, laughter and derision. I'm no longer fazed by being the butt of a joke or object of disapproving head shaking.  I kept baby wearing Emmet and as he got older people dropped their concern that I might somehow be causing him harm.

But as he got older he also got heavier.  And baby wearing felt uncomfortably like using a personal heating system that was completely overkill in the equatorial heat.  We'd both be sticky with sweat after a walk and my lower back, already in shambles, was taking a beating.  I yearned to take long walks, something I normally enjoy for leisure, exercise and just clearing my head, but they had become an impossibility. As much as I enjoyed baby wearing, I started to pine for at least the option of having a stroller.

So, on a recent trip to South Africa we bought one - a turbo, industrial, off-road sucker, an SUV of the stroller world.  The roads here would not have handled any other kind.

We got the red one.  You know, because black is too subtle.

I'm not exaggerating when I say I feel liberated.  I can take walks now.  Comfortably.  There's a cup holder and basket underneath fergoodnesssakes. Genius! After all this baby wearing, it all feels like a revelation to me.

But it's increased the spotlight on us as we make our way through our Kenyan neighborhood. No matter what time I take a walk -- 1 PM, 4 PM 5:30 PM -- some area school is letting out, flooding the street with groups of kids, emboldened by their liberation from school and unafraid to approach, question and tease us.  School children literally trip over themselves to take a look at what's in the little cart I'm pushing and them murmur excitedly to each other when they find out it's a human.
Hard to capture this dynamic, but can you see that group of school girls in the distance? They are already conspiring to approach us. 

Even adults are astounded by us, asking me, when the sun shade is covering Emmet, if it's true that there's a baby in my sporty, high-tech wheel barrow, and then shaking their head and smiling, their thoughts unreadable.  

Really, that's they only thing people push here - wheelbarrows or carts.  Nothing else. Certainly not youngsters.  And, true story here: when I did pass a man pushing an actual wheel barrow, we both reflexively did that little acknowledging head nod that people with the same model car do when passing each other on the road.

People are surprised, astounded and maybe a little confused by our little stroller, and not shy about expressing this.  But I'm hoping that pretty soon my kids and our red contraption will become just another feature of our neighborhood and we'll simply fall back into the backdrop instead of being a roadside conversation piece.  It could happen...

Monday, February 18, 2013

It's official: I love formula

About six months ago I wrote a very sad post about two twins, Michael and Joseph. Their mother, a lovely woman who worked for us part time, had passed away giving birth to these twins she didn't know she was carrying, another tragic casualty of poverty.

When I visited them, they were already 2 months old, but the size of newborns.  They were being cared for by their paternal grandmother who had taken in these boys she didn't even know existed until their mother passed away.  She had to quit her job selling fruit to stay home and try and keep them loved and alive.  She did it without complaining.

A newborn is a challenge for a mother with a husband, functioning mammary glands and a steady income.  Esther had none of these.  And two babies.  She did all she could to keep them nourished, even trying her hand at nursing them, but settled on giving these small babies cows milk and thinned out porridge.  When I visited them, several tins of formula in hand, they looked frail.
Joseph, looked well loved but weak

His brother Michael, also looking frail
After I wrote this post, a dear friend made a very generous offer to support Esther and the babies for one year with formula and a grant to start her mango selling business again.  Each month we saw to it that the formula was delivered to their village home about 2 1/2 hours away from Kisumu.

A few months ago, we heard that the babies had come down with bad cases of malaria.  None of us said it, but we were all terrified they wouldn't make it. Malaria is a common killer of children in this part of the world, children who are probably healthier than Michael and Joseph.  But, with Esther's care and attention, they pulled through.

Last week had been 6 months of formula.  We traveled to Webuye to visit the twins, and this is what I found:

Michael, looking gorgeous and healthy

Joseph looking confused, but also gorgeous and healthy. 

We'll never know if the formula saved these babies, but it just might have.

Formula costs about 800 Kenyan Shillings ($10) a tin.  To put that in perspective, a daily wage for a village laborer (for example, weeding a shamba or doing construction) is about 200 Ksh.  But wages are hard to come by at all, and most people subsistence farm.  Anyway, you can't find formula at all in the village but would have to travel to large store in a bigger city where it is often under lock and key. Without the help of my friend, formula would have simply been an impossibility.

I'm not sure the babies would have weathered such a serious sickness with only cows milk and thin porridge in their systems.  In fact, their deceased mother's relatives recently visited the twins and were shocked to find them still alive.

In the national conversation about breastfeeding and the shame women are made to feel when they are driven to or chose to supplement with or solely use formula, we forget: formula saves lives. This fact was an abstraction until recently.  While those of us in the wealthy world disdain formula, so many women in poorer parts of the world are dying to get their hands on that much maligned but life saving powder.  Michael and Joseph just might owe their lives to it.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Getting knocked down a few pegs

I have to admit I was feeling a bit chuffed (that's British for "proud") about my latest Huffington Post article hitting the front page and getting some amount of attention. In fact, so chuffed that you're probably sick of hearing about it.

But, you see, I'm not the writer in the family.  That distinction falls squarely to my triplet brother - the real talent and a true artist.  Even so, I've been enjoying developing my writing these last few years. They're not all gems, but these blog posts are my words, my way of stringing them together, my ideas, my creation.  I've haven't had this sense of ownership or creativity really any time in my post-grad school professional life.  So, to get some kind of attention and positive feedback, really puffed me up.

So much so that riding this wave of confidence I thought up another article for submission.  Like all supposedly brilliant ideas, it came to me in the shower.

I was thinking about the disconnect between the support and encouragement I get from my mom friends and the possibly media-generated idea of the mommy wars, in which we battle and judge each other over every parenting decision.  Were they instigating and amplifying this conflict to sell more magazines?  I even came up with a catchy hook for the idea: "The Mommy War Industrial Complex."

I banged out a post which ended with the idea that even if the mommy wars don't reflect reality, I have already internalized the struggles and thus doubt all my parenting decisions.  I wondered how other moms felt about this. Was the war real?  Did they internalize it too?

I thought there'd be a well... if not viral.... lively response and discussion to this.

It went over like a lead balloon.  There was deafening silence.  I looked with envy at the other parenting articles that had all kinds of likes and shares and tweets of affirmation, and wondered self pityingly why I sucked so much in comparison.

One person finally commented to tell me that I was "delusional" for thinking that the mommy wars don't exist.  I was actually glad for some kind of reaction.

OK. Maybe I missed the boat and this has already been discussed to death.  Maybe it just didn't resonate.  Maybe it just wasn't all that great of an article.

It took me down a few pegs.

Then yesterday, amid my moping, we went to the pool.  I know I know I know.  Shut the hell up woman.  Some of us are under the newest snowpocolypse, and you're moping all the way through the equatorial sunshine to the POOL!?!?  But bear with me...

Again, I was feeling a bit... chuffed.  I'ts been nearly a year since Emmet was born and I'm feeling OK about my body again.  Even in a swim suit.

Later than night after dinner, my belly expanded (AS THEY DO) full of food, and I playfully rubbed my belly and joked to my family about there being another little baby in there. (I know I know I know, NOT that funny, and possibly confusing for a 4 year old, but laughs trump responsible parenting at times in our house).  My incredibly earnest 4 year old thought about this and responded:

"Well, is there a baby in your tushy?"

It took me down a few pegs.  But this time with enormous amounts of laughter.

I guess the point is: If you get too chuffed, prepare for the fall.  But take some lessons, humility and laughter down the descent with you.
Caleb looking deceptively innocent

Friday, February 8, 2013

Lost voices of the mom-blogosphere

Whenever I feel sheepish about this mom blog, or that it's too narcissistic or self-important or somehow just frivolous, I think about what another mom blogger (this one unapologetic and proud) once said.

She wrote a piece celebrating our collective voices.  That through blogging, the lonely struggles and secret triumphs of motherhood, long hidden from public view, finally have a spotlight.  There's a certain power in that.

And then she said this:  I wonder what our mothers would have written if they had the opportunity to share their experiences with the world. What would they have blogged about?

This idea, that were we not to blog, there would be something lost - to history, to the public conversation, to societal knowledge - hit home.

I still don't think this particular mom blog is earth-shatteringly (or even glass-shatteringly) important.  But collective we are.  There's a record and broader conversation now, of thoughts and ideas impressions, that might once have been relegated to the kitchen.

Still, as a window to motherhood, we are incomplete.  In as much as momblogs in some way define the conversation about motherhood, we are still missing a lot of moms.  Moms who are computer illiterate, who are simply illiterate, whose poverty keeps them from accessing the Internet, whose life situation keeps them from thinking they have something valuable to say.  We are missing our grandmother's voices.  And I can imagine how much richer our conversation would be if we were able to include those voices.

It's for this reason that I wanted to start an initiative at the World Moms Blog*, called "Casting a Wider Net," that would profile these missing voices.  I wrote the first piece about a remarkable women I stayed with during a recent village stay.  The other talented contributors will, over time, profile other women from their communities.

It's not going to entirely change the conservation,  but at least we'll do a bit include some lost perspectives from the current discussion.  Maybe we'll even be able to find some answers to what our own mothers might have blogged about.  

* The World Moms Blog is a blog of mothers around the world sharing their stories. It's already going a long way to expand the conversation around motherhood, with terrific writers from many corners of the earth. You should check it out!

Monday, February 4, 2013

I unwittingly enter a gun control debate feeding frenzy

I've written a few pieces for the Huffington Post, which is a privilege I pretty much feel unqualified for.  But they let me in and I've said some things.  Most of the posts have attracted minimal attention - some have languished in obscurity.

You see, the drill is: you just submit the post and then they decide where to and whether or not to feature it. Sometimes it'll be on the front of the parenting page, other times it'll only appear if someone searches for your name.  

The most recent post I wrote compared the simplistic good guy/bad guy worldview espoused by those who justify owning semi-automatic weapons (you know, the "all we need is armed good guys to stop mass shootings" defense of gun ownership), to that of my 4 year old son. Here's my main point:

It's a storyline he (my son) enjoys because it makes the world easier to understand, less confusing and unpredictable. You talk to good guys, and you stay away from the bad guys. You befriend the good guys and you fight the bad guys. 
Sophisticated adults understand that there are people, most of whom are flawed and some of whom make horrible choices, who cannot be neatly divided into such distinct categories, one to be armed and the other to be defended against. No one in the history of time has done this effectively. It's a fairy tale. You can only hope that fallible humans don't have their mistakes turn into tragedies by getting hold of easy instruments of death.
The post appeared on the front page of the Huffington Post.  

When I found that out and watched the comments on the piece climb to numbers I had never seen before in my quiet corner of the Internet, I swallowed hard and steeled myself for some serious abuse by the pro-gun camp. And I got it.  Some choice quotes:

"Sounds like your son is smarter than you." (sometimes, true)

"The author clearly doesn't understand a thing about fire arms" (thank goodness)

"Perhaps when he is older, your son will join the military and have an even deeper appreciation for why it is so important that the 'good guys save the day.' Then he can explain it to his mother so she will understand what freedom really means." (Oh, I get what freedom means. And I know it's more than a catchphrase for proving allegiance to conservative ideals. Oh, and the idea that US military exists to liberate people from tyranny instead of protect our national interests is a fiction completely at odds with the facts.  .... But, calm down Kim.  Don't engage.  Don't engage...

But, this being the Huffington Post, I got a lot more support than criticism.  And, anyway, most people who saw fit to leave a comment were busy hurling invective at each other and didn't even address my main point.  They used it as an opportunity to recycle irrelevant arguments like "Cars kill more people than guns, but you don't want to ban those!" and to debate the finer details of how long it takes to convert a semi-automatic to an automatic weapon.  

More than anything what I'm taking away from my unexpected role as platform for gun control debate arguing is how polarized our country has become.  Maybe using the comment section of a largely political rag is not the best barometer of national sentiment.  But, this aside, it does seem that gun control is the new abortion, with both sides talking past one another.

If someone is going to brand me and my camp "a liberal freedom-hater" (without a trace of irony) and we dismiss gun owners as "gun nuts" there's little room for any sensible policy discussion.

It seems America is not happy with the status quo of 11,000 gun deaths per year, and Sandy Hook has thrown a spotlight on that.  The question is what to do about it.  And I just hope we can answer that question without having to pander to entrenched ideological positions, but can find a way to see this as a public health and safety issue.  I hope we will be unafraid to look beyond our borders at what similar countries have done to curb their own gun deaths, while allowing hunters and responsible gun owners to carry on.

In 1996 Australia suffered a mass shooting and responded by radically reforming it's gun laws.  They instituted a massive buy back program, prohibited private sales and required gun owners to provide a justification for purchase (excluding self defense). "Responsible" gun owners and hunters carried on, and homicides from firearms plummeted 60% with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides (I guess guns do kill people).  There has not been a single mass shooting since.

Point is, there's room for some kind of a positive step.  I just hope we'll get past the name calling and on to a better future.