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.


  1. wow. you make me want to go and do something of like nature because the experience sounds so overwhelmingly awesome!!

    Best Wishes!

  2. Doug has been showing off his mastery of Swahili...stuff he learned from Tarzan! We miss you and talk about you all the time! Sounds like you are having an incredible adventure! LOVE AND KISSES!!!!!

  3. Steven, A very interesting blog. I'm impressed with your writing! Loved the slideshow. Helen Dean, a friend of your Mom.