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.]