07 December 2010

JB and Zanzibar

Greetings, dear reader! I hope with this blog post to share updates from work and holiday, and perhaps a passing thought or two.

The work situation at Jamii Bora is a cause of much reflection for me. Earlier this year, the microfinance operations of JB went commercial, and this has had a ripple effect across the whole organization. The reason for commercialization is complex but, essentially, some members became such successful business people that they required banking services the previous non-commercial structure could not provide. Instead of telling those women to move on, JB restructured to accommodate their expanding needs. So now the Kenyan government is involved in regulating the activities of the bank, and this presents problems for those still suffering in poverty who cannot access the commercial bank. Naturally, JB does not want to abandon those members squeezed out by the bank, but there are certain complications with operating both a commercial and a non-commercial bank. Every day since I started working here, there have been board meetings to discuss how the organization will proceed. I admire the leadership’s commitment to serving the members and making well-considered decisions. However, all the people I would be working for are present in those meetings, and I have had very few tasks. In the meantime, I have become friends with some of the other JB employees, and I continue to learn about the organization and how it serves. But often I feel frustrated sitting at my desk, no work to do, reading news article after news article, making myself wait until a certain time before I take my lunch. There is real promise of work, but as long as those board meetings continue, I will have to sit, read, and drink my tea.

The few times I have been able to get out from behind my desk have been very rewarding. One day, I sat in a meeting with representatives from some development organizations learning about Jamii Bora. It was my second or third day at work but it was very cool to introduce myself as being a part of the hosting organization. JB members have access to an awesome health insurance plan, and one Friday I got to visit our main partner hospital and talk with some patients. Another day I accompanied two donors on a trip to a field office in Muthare slum. The coolest extracurricular activity so far, though, has been visiting JB’s housing development called Kaputiei (KAPT-tay). The community has been built from the ground up and includes low-cost, high-quality homes, primary and secondary schools, and eventually business areas, health facilities, everything a self-sufficient town would need. Kaputiei is a bit far for frequent visits but I hope to go back soon and talk to those people again and see the construction progress.

In the midst of all this activity (?) at Jamii Bora, the YAV group went on holiday to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. We spent Thanksgiving Day on a bus from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam, experiencing the small joys of travel, including the turkey sandwiches and pumpkin bread Phyllis fixed for us. The next morning, we took a ferry to Zanzibar and explored Stone Town with its winding streets and unique pace of life. After a few days, we drove to a beach resort and spent a few more days relaxing in hammocks by the beach. Nice. On the way back, we spent another day in Dar to recover before the all-day trip home to Nairobi. (There will be pictures from this trip in the album when I have chance to upload big files, i.e. not using my cell phone modem.)

Right now I am listening to The Ceilidh Symphony Orchestra’s Celtic Christmas CD, trying my best to bring a bit of what I know to be holiday spirit to Nairobi. Some packages and letters are in-transit from all over the globe and I eagerly await what I am to receive. 

Thank you all for thinking of and caring about me! I think of and care about you, too.

05 November 2010

Jamii Bora

Good news! Phyllis and I met with a microfinance institution in Nairobi yesterday and I will begin work there on Monday. Jamii Bora started in the 1990s as a small group of women using microcredit to work themselves out of poverty, and it has grown ever since. An article I read calls the director, Ingrid Munro, the mother of Kenyan microfinance. I am excited to learn from this organization and the people it serves!

01 November 2010

A Reason to Be

In the YAV world we talk a lot about the balance of ‘being’ and ‘doing.’ For most of us coming from America, what you ‘do’ is paramount to how we relate to one another. The first question after being introduced to someone is so often, “What do you do?” The implication is that we value achievement, often at the cost of quality relationships. Imagine the difficulty of being extracted from this achievement-based culture and, with little ceremony, being implanted into cultures with different values. This is when we as YAV must first ‘be’ and contextualize our desire to ‘do.’

One of my favorite quotations, one that helps me make decisions in daily life, comes from Garrison Keillor. He ends every installment of The Writer's Almanac (on your local NPR station) with the words "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." I am finding new ways to understanding this advice, and its depth continues to surprise me.  

Most of you know that I arrived in Kenya two months ago knowing I would be a teacher in Tanzania. The previous statement seems innocent enough, right? But it shows how the conversation about and understanding of my year of service focused on my occupation. It also shows that I had a plan. I was wrong to hold those positions. 

You have read before of my passive struggle to obtain a work visa for Tanzania. I say passive because all I could contribute was a photo and resume. The rest was up to my coordinator, our ministry of education contact in Tanzania, and the visa committees in Dar es Salaam. My coordinator and I agreed this weekend that the visa process would not be resolved in time for my placement in Tanzania to be worthwhile. We decided that an alternative placement in Kenya is the best option for me, the YAV program, and those whom I have the opportunity to serve. By the end of this week, I hope to know where I will be working, and I will share updates here.

However, I do not want to continue my entrapment in the same occupation-based value system. I am starting to appreciate the revolutionary nature of being. Today at work (Across) I tried to take advantage of opportunities to be. I shared in laughter about a colleague’s recent wedding and enjoyed a conversation about those customs (in the Netherlands). At lunch, all the staff members were present to review pictures from last week’s team building retreat. Today’s do consisted of listening to an IT consultant help my boss with the website, and only because two sets of eyes and ears are better than one. While there is not much to “show” for today’s work, it has been productive and sustaining.

The being versus doing discussion may be best encapsulated by my experience with the Africa Israel Nineveh church two weeks ago. Long story short, we met in Kangemi, jogged 3 hours to Kawangware, and had a short service. The jog was not about moving from point A to B, although that was achieved in time. The jog was an act of community, an act of worship, an expression of being. I leave you with a picture from that day. (I am wearing a blue shirt.)

13 October 2010

Learning patience in Nairobi

My waiting period in Nairobi continues, with no clear sign of when I will be able to leave for Tanzania. However, I am not just sitting, doing nothing. In the past three weeks I have pursued further language training and have started working at a Sudan development NGO based in Nairobi.

The two weeks of language lessons were unremarkable, though I appreciate the additional practice to speak, hear, and read in Kiswahili. Class with Bwana Robinson was an excellent way to start my day. I would leave the apartment by 6:30, pick a matatu (48) toward Karengware, alight on Gitanga Road, and walk the rest of the way. I enjoyed walking because it was a chance to listen to the latest BBC World News, News From Lake Wobegon, or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! podcast. Class was from 7:30 – 8:30. I would then find my way to breakfast at Junction and maybe stick around for lunch with Grace and Michael.

You may recall 3 weeks ago that I expected to be leaving last week. That idea changed because, while my visa has been approved, the physical entity of the visa is not yet available. This week I am waiting on our Tanzania contact Ezekiel to come to Nairobi and take me directly to the school. I have taken advantage of the extra time in a few ways.

-I have completed the major work of my graduate school applications. All that remains is to upload personal statements and resumes and pay the application fees. My gracious reference writers have an important role to play, also. (I am applying for graduate study in biostatistics.)

-I began working at an NGO in Nairobi. The organization is called Across and focuses on development work in southern Sudan. Thus far, I have made suggestions on how to improve the website (http://across-sudan.org/) and I am currently working on compiling human interest stories to be put online. This week I leave the apartment at 6:30, pick the 48, then 46, to Yaya, take breakfast in Yaya, and walk to work by 9:00. (Yaya is a mall.)

On today’s matatu ride (46), I was lucky and got to sit up front. A brief conversation with the driver ensued.

“What is that?” The driver asked, pointing at my iPod. I was listening to Mumford & Sons at the time.
“It plays music, you know?” I replied, expecting that to be the end of our discussion.
“How is the music there?” He said after a few moments, picking up the iPod in his free hand and examining the screen.
“It plugs into the compyuta.” I said, attempting to incorporate the vernacular. Beat. “I’m going to Yaya.”
“To Yaya?”
“Yeah – I  work near there.”
The driver paused.  “Do you know Kiswahili?”
“Kidogo.” A little bit.
Another pause. “Unaenda wapi?”
“Ninaenda Yaya.” I am going to Yaya.
“Na unafanya gani?”
“Ninafanya,” I hesitated. “Ninafanya kazi.” I am working.
The matatu pulled over; I got out and crossed over to Yaya. The guards with automatic weapons were not posted yet but I saw them later.

I am going to read this blog entry in a few months, laugh, and, I hope, appreciate how much joy I felt engaging in this simplest of conversations in Kiswahili. 

I continue to learn from daily interactions; it's an education worth having.

That is all.

23 September 2010

End of Orientation

Since our fantastic trip to the coast, orientation has achieved some sense of regularity. We have had Swahili lessons each morning and continue to learn a lot. Robinson’s lessons cover much more than language because he shares cultural perspectives that help answer many of our questions. Some of us may continue to have language lessons at the Language Center throughout the year.

-We attended the launch of the OAIC’s Just Communities program, a set of initiatives that aim to empower those in need.
-ACROSS is an NGO working on community development in southern Sudan. The program directors gave us an overview of their history in Sudan and discussed the political situation as the referendum approaches.
-Shelvis and Nancy left for the US but not before sharing an Ethiopian-style meal with us.
-Saturday we prepared a list for the market, bought food at the market, and prepared a traditional Kenyan meal. This lunch took all day to prepare but was delicious.
-Ochilo gave us a lecture in which he was able to synthesize centuries of global history into a cogent and concise analysis of African politics and economics. We all learn something whenever he speaks.

We attended the International Day of Prayer for Peace meeting at the AACC (All Africa Conference of Churches). The event involved archbishops and children from all over the continent. I was humbled to stand as a representative of the US. During one song, we were driving a matatu across Africa and in Somalia there were some bumps in the road (jump up and down), in Sudan we made some sharp turns, and in DRC the engine stopped and we had to restart. Really cool song.

Update on Tanzania:  I am not going for at least another two weeks. The visa committee meets monthly so my approval is going to take just a little more time. The delay may allow me to continue studying Swahili and also work short-term at another job until I leave. Everybody will move to their apartments this weekend and start work next week. Not sure where I will live or what I will do for the next two weeks. Hakuna matata!

16 September 2010

Orientation to this point

The past few weeks have been an exciting time of both new and familiar things. Our flights from the US to Kenya were lengthy (8 hours each) though pleasant, and our layover in Amsterdam was quite nice. We arrived Tuesday evening and were picked up and transported to Phyllis’ house by Chris, our Nairobi driver. (Phyllis Byrd is the site coordinator for Kenya YAVs.) For now, Grace, Ellen, and Kathryn reside with Phyllis and Michael and I live with Ben in his apartment. Phyllis is an excellent and well-connected site coordinator, and she is also able to coordinate delicious meals for us all in her home.

The general flow of orientation has us attending Swahili lessons in the morning and lectures or activities in the afternoon. Swahili lessons are with Robinson, a very able teacher at the Language Center school. We know that learning Kiswahili will enable us to access the wisdom of the people who speak it, so our motivation to learn is very high. We also get lessons from Chris who helps out in his own special way. The culture lectures are from local experts. So far we have learned about spirituality in East Africa as well as the history of religion in East Africa, both focusing on Kenya. The clearest lesson from these lectures has been that people react most positively to new ideas when they are presented in the local language and with respect to the local customs. In other words, successful engagement of the communities here requires that you allow your message to be made indigenous by the people. We have also attended the launch of the Just Communities program of the OAIC (Org. of African Instituted Churches). The OAIC is comprised of African churches not part of denominations like Anglican or Presbyterian. Today we received a briefing from ACROSS, a community development NGO working in southern Sudan. I feel like I am shopping around for NGOs to work for when school is not in session.

Each volunteer spent the first weekend here with a host family. My baba is called Gibson Gicuki, coordinator of social programs for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Mama is Mariam, brothers are Joseph and Ishumael. I am close in age to both brothers. Joseph and I spent a lot of time together learning about national parks in Kenya and watching local television and movies. I attended a wedding with Mariam, shucked maize for several hours, played football with kids at the school, slept under a mosquito net, drank lots of Kenyan tea, took a bucket bath, and went to a 4-hour, outdoor, Swahili-only church service. On the way to the church service (several hour drive along the rift valley), the car broke down and one of Gibson’s friends showed up later with alternate transportation. Gibson was preaching at the 10:30 service, we showed up at 11, and lunch started after 3. On the way home, we stopped at the house of the person whose car we borrowed to have tea.

This past weekend we traveled to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. The costal region has a long history of Islamic culture due to trade. We studied ruins and historical sites, each having been controlled through the years by the dominant Islamic, Portuguese, or British forces. Our hostel was near the beach and shared its space with monkeys. We viewed the Gede city ruins from atop a baobab tree and strained to see India from the end of the pier in Malindi. (Of course, the curvature of the earth prevented us seeing our YAV friends in India.) The coolest part of the weekend was our hour-long boat ride to islands off the coast and snorkeling with fish in a coral reef. I felt transported to another time during our stay on the islands. (See: Wasini Island.)

Swahili lessons are going well. The simple and repeatable structure of the language opens many doors very quickly in terms of forming sentences that make sense. It is especially important for me to learn Swahili because my job site is in Tanzania where Swahili is the major language, unlike Kenya where a person can exist on English alone. I am told my school is near the town of Shirati (Sharati?), Tanzania, a town on Lake Victoria. My fellow volunteers have been very supportive of me and my move to Tanzania at the end of the month.

There have been some struggles, and I’ll discuss those quickly. Internet connection is found only through cafes and USB modems, neither of which I am able to use frequently. Water out of the tap is not safe for newcomers, so we boil and filter before drinking or brushing teeth. Nairobi is a dusty place, perhaps only during the dry season which we are in. All in all, these challenges are temporary and will be part of my second nature before long.

30 August 2010


Location: Stony Point, NY

This week of YAV orientation has narrowed, broadened, broken, and built me. To be invited into such enjoyable community and then forced to leave it is extremely difficult. I know we will all be together in service and when we return from our sites. Whether we are going to Belfast, Nashville, Atlanta, Nairobi, Kottayam, or wherever, we are all connected as YAVs and in our mission of being.

Single phrase memories: bomb dog, Asia House, Halligans, the Wave, ewe thina, sanna, the Canticle of the Turning, small group, INTJ