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!