Chapter 7-Finding Myself in Africa

Chapter 7

On my fourth day in this poor, third-world country I wake up to realize I enjoy the rooster crowing at 6 a.m. It’s like a nifty alarm clock I don’t have to set; he goes off at 15-minute intervals like clockwork, snooze button included!

Going to the school is becoming easier for me. I’m finally getting into the swing of things and I know my way around, although I am admittedly a little quieter than I usually am. I’m waiting to come into my own out here, in fairness, it’s only been four days.

Mila (the mom at the house I stay at and the teacher I work with) was out today, she had to have a checkup since she is due to have her baby at the end of this month. She didn’t want me to teach her class because she thinks I am too quiet. I almost laughed at that, I am the furthest thing from quiet. So instead I spent the day with Lydia and Virginia (the two German volunteers).

I’m getting more comfortable with the kids. Today we can spend the majority of the day playing games and practicing for their graduation. Graduation occurs every two years in the school and in 2 weeks I will get to watch the kids walk in front of their families and receive their little diplomas.

It is becoming easier to relate to the children this way; Lydia, Virginia and myself taught the kids how to walk on a catwalk and strike a pose at the end. It is so cute watching the girls walk like supermodels. They shake their cute little hiney’s and place a hand softly on their hip and walk like they own the runway.

Finally, after much practicing we watched teacher Tyson walk out of the building to watch our progress. The boys and girls were beginning to get tired of posing for the “runway” and Teacher Tyson stopped us to play some games. One or two were so familiar I had to laugh, including red light/green light and shark which is essentially a game of tag but once you get tagged you become a shark too and have to tag the other kids. They giggled and ran with so much joy and happiness it was infectious.

After several games, with the 8-10-year-olds giggling and out of breath we once again begin to practice for graduation.

Each class has their own announcement. The baby class and pre-unit are first up as they thank their “teachers and parents and fellow people” for their education, class 1 showed how they can count in English and class two showed how they can spell in English.

As the class practices, I sit on an old, beat up car that has been deserted for what looks like years. I look down at the kids and try to keep them quiet, in line, and keep them from jumping up on the car since I am being a bad influence. The rehearsal takes about an hour which is cause for a little complaint from me since I am beginning to bake in the sun and my nose is turning into a poorly represented Rudolph’s nose.

When we finally take a break for lunch I can’t help but opt out of eating. I take one look at the flies covering my food and I can’t do it. I think maybe I’ll have some watermelon, but as I look over and see the 20 some-odd flies covering it I think to myself, maybe not.

Everyone sits in their chairs, which are more children’s chairs you’d normally see in a pre-school, and the begin to talk. Not having any food myself I mostly sit and listen to the conversations around me until I am, for the first time, included.

Teacher Winnie who teaches the baby class looks fondly at my hair as she asks “Do you put oils in your hair after the shower?” I reply with a tentative “no” and smile saying I don’t put anything in my hair. Her mouth opens in an astonished gasp and says, “Do you just get out of the shower and your hair looks like that?!” I begin laughing, I don’t know what to say. This is a completely different type of lifestyle and we are still talking beauty products as if I were back home. There is a momentary pause before Teacher Winnie starts commenting on how smooth it is and asks me to take it out of the ponytail I have it put up in haphazardly to see how long it is. “Your hair is so pretty and long,” she says, “and the color looks perfect with your skin!”

It kind of makes me feel bad. In the States, we are so consumed with being the picture of perfection. We are constantly comparing ourselves to each other, it’s always a competition. Yet here I am, in mud-splattered jeans, dirt-encrusted sneakers, a grungy pullover sweater, my hair pulled back in a haphazard bun and no make-up and I STILL get complimented because my hair is smooth and my hair color is pretty. It makes me wonder, why do we try so hard instead of being proud of the qualities we already possess that don’t have a label?

As lunch ends it is time to round the kids up, and since Teacher Tyson is practicing the graduation with our students I go to the kitchen to help Leonard was the dishes. As he scrubs the plates and I rinse the soap off in the bucket of clean water we begin talking about what it’s like in America.

The conversation makes me feel increasingly like an entitled American as he asks me if we wash dishes by hand in America. I tell him sometimes, but we have a machine that washes dishes for us. He then asks me what about clothes. I say “we have a machine to wash clothes too.” He thinks the concept is funny and asks how a dishwasher works. I explain that there is a machine that we place the dishes into and pour soap into a small hole. When we close the door of the machine and press start the machine begins to wash the dishes for us. A smile breaks across his face as he says he wants to visit America so he can see the machine that washes dishes.

Eventually the conversation turns to where I work and I tell him I work in a restaurant. He asks if there is a machine there that washes dishes too? I smile and kindly tell him there is, it is at this point that he suggests that when I go back I should teach the dishwashers to wash the plates by hand like we do in Kenya. Laughter escapes from my mouth before I can stop it and I tell him that the dishwashers wouldn’t be okay with that, he looks at me confused and wanted to know why. I kindly explain that there are too many dishes to wash by hand, it wouldn’t be fast enough.

At that point he stops washing dishes and looks as me seriously and says, “In Kenya we don’t mind hard work and it is important to work for everything. You should teach that to your dishwashers.”

It continues to amaze me how much we take for granted. At home, I complain about loading the dishwasher when it does the work for me and here they are proud of a little hard work.

As the school day comes to an end I gather up my things and walk the kids across the street so they can run home to their families before I rush to the house to take a much needed nap. These days seem to be taking a lot out of me, but with the time change and the rooster waking me up at 6 a.m. I can hardly be surprised.

Rose wakes me up for my nap to tell me it’s time for dinner, so I slowly walk to the kitchen to find, much to my delight that we are having a real treat for dinner. On the table I see pasta with broccoli and carrots! My face instantly lights up like it’s Christmas morning, causing the other volunteers (Tim, Lydia and Virginia) to laugh at my excitement.

Yesterday when we went to the Nakumat (grocery story) I saw Heinz ketchup. Anyone who knows me knows I had to buy it. With that in mind I jump up from the table to run to my bedroom to grab my ketchup. It is honestly the best dinner I’ve had since I arrived. After my first helping I ask if anyone else wants more before I dig in for seconds, which would have been the remainder of the food. I receive funny looks all around and quickly try to tell them that I don’t want to take the rest if someone wants more, but no one says anything and just continues to look at me as if I have two heads, so I shrug my shoulders and dig in. I guess down here it is survival of the fittest and ’86 the manners.

I have begun to make it a ritual of sitting at the dinner table after we have all cleaned up and put the dishes away to write in my journal. I later post everything I write online and I find it very therapeutic and a way to share my life with loved ones back home. As I write tonight’s journal entry I notice that Joseph (Barnabas and Mila’s son) is watching Disney channel. It’s the same Princess Sophia show my nephew watches back home and all I can think it how amazing it is that halfway across the world, I am still finding ways that culture doesn’t matter. We are all inherently the same.

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Finding Myself in Africa- Chapter 6

I wake up on my third morning in Kenya to find that my jet lag is finally over. I never believed jet lag was a real thing until I had to sleep nonstop in Africa to switch my sleeping patterns.

After a short lecture from my mom about the importance of eating breakfast I put on my shoes and was out the door. Sorry mom, but you try eating the same thing every day.

It’s amazing how quickly I’m getting tired of the food, it’s only been a few days but with how I feel, you would think it’s been a few weeks. Bread and butter just does not sit well with me today; I hastily drink a mug of hot tea before rushing out the door. I’m not worried about losing weight, in my opinion I could stand to lose a few pounds anyways; so, we’ll call it the Kenyan diet.

I have successfully landed in Kenya during their rainy season, and having been woken up the previous night by a raging storm outside my window, it’s no wonder that I walk the half mile to school in the mud, evasively maneuvering around puddles. Back home I would have worried about ruining my nice sneakers, but out here in the slums I’m almost glad to be walking through mud, watching my sneakers get covered in filth. Walking around in new shoes almost feels like I stand out too much, it’s the same reason I don’t wear the New York Jets hat I brought or my sunglasses that I searched all through Walmart to find. I don’t want to stand out, nothing good can come from looking like a tourist in a poverty-stricken area.

School is just getting in session when I arrive in the pre-unit classroom where the children seem very happy to see me. They wave and run to give me hugs making me feel welcome for the first time since I arrived.

They begin singing and dancing as part of their early morning routine. The songs go something along the lines of, “when I started school I wasn’t very smart. But now, I speak good English, I can write, I have money in my pocket, wisdom in my head and Jesus in my heart. To my teachers and my parents, I salute you!” Then they say the Our Father before class begins.

The kids are so cute. They like being tickled, you’d think no one has ever done that before. They run up to me shouting “teacher Nikki!” and raise their arms so I can tickle them.

Getting a disease or a sickness has infected my thoughts every time I touch a door or even a child. I brought at least fifteen bottles of hand sanitizer with me and am determined not to waste it.

I made the mistake of putting hand sanitizer on around the children and when they smell it and realize it’s coming from my hands they start grabbing and smelling them.

Some of the children begin to grab for me and rub their hands on mine as if to get the smell from me to them, while others rubbed their heads on my hands. To me sanitizer smells like very strong dish soap, but to these kids, you’d think I was wearing the most luxurious expensive perfume.

I still feel out of my element, like an outsider begging to be included. Most of the time I watch and listen, it’s the best way I know to get a feel for the other volunteers and the teachers at the school.

I find myself laughing as Virginia enters the school building after a 4-hour hiatus with braided hair to look like the women in Kenya; at the same time Dantilla (a teacher and principal at Havilla) walks out of her office with a conditioner in her hair to make it soft and straight “like ours.” Mila begins laughing and says “women always want what they don’t have. Virginia wants her hair to be hard like Dantilla and Dantilla wants her hair to be soft like Virginia’s.” I’m learning that no matter the country or the culture we are all inherently the same.

I must admit it is rough living here. Every time I take a shower there are flies and today I had to basically take a sponge bath because the water was too hot and only a small stream of water came out of the faucet; and every time I eat I need to check each bite for bugs. The flies cover everything and are everywhere. TRUTH BE TOLD I AM OFFICIALLY HOMESICK. I have lost my appetite so I am barely eating.

Every day my meals consist of:

BREAKFAST: 2 pieces of bread with butter and 1 cup of tea

TEA TIME: 1 piece of mandazi and 1 cup of tea

LUNCH: 1 banana

TEA TIME: 1 cup of tea

DINNER: 1 plate of Kenyan pilau (spiced rice) or cabbage with ugali

I am amazed that while I am in Kenya I am learning about the German culture and words like dornroshen which means sleeping beauty, something Virginia called me as she teases that I take naps more than anyone she knows.

The conversation shifts and I realize Americans are portrayed in other countries in perhaps an unflattering way as Lydia asks if we really eat smarties candies on our pizza. She saw it in The Princess Diaries movie and tried it because she thought that’s what Americans eat so it must taste good. I should have mentioned that unfortunately Americans think a lot of strange things taste good, like their need to fry everything, including ice cream.

Once school ends, the girls and I make our way onto the dirt covered streets perusing the vendors. People call out to us, “mzungu! Mzungu!” meaning “white girl” in swahili. We are looking for a snack before dinner and there is an array of various items from fries (otherwise known as chips) to samosas and corn. I can’t bring myself to buy anything even though any of it would cost my 10 shillings, the equivalent of 10 cents. Bugs cover all of the food from fruits to fish, but I am starving and I know dinner won’t be filling so I finally settle on some fries that were in a covered container. However, even with how picky I was I still have to pick a fly or two off as I devour my food; and for a woman who HATES bugs, the fact that I still eat the fries is a major achievement.

We don’t realize how lucky we are at home to be able to do the simple things. Like go to the bathroom without having to make sure there isn’t a cockroach in there or buy a vendor dog without worrying there might be bugs on it, or even sit down to dinner at your kitchen table and enjoy a bit of food with no other thought than to just enjoy the taste.

When we all sit down dinner, Barnabas says “grace” in Swahili, and even though I can’t understand I bow my head to pray anyways.

The dinner tonight consists of ugali and cabbage and I look around and am the only one to pick up a fork. I can’t bring myself to eat the way everyone else is, even the other volunteers. They use their hands to pick apart the ugali and scrape up bits of cabbage. I sit and listen, finding it fascinating to hear the different accents surrounding the table as Barnabas and Mila discuss the days’ events in Swahili and Virginia and Lydia talk in German.

Ugali Recipe:

Boil water in a heavy cooking pot

Stir in cornmeal slowly

Reduce heat to medium-low and continue stirring regularly

Smash any lumps with a spoon until the mush pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes very thick. (about 10 minutes)

Place ugali in a large serving bowl

I sit and listen, finding it fascinating to hear the different accents surrounding the table as Barnabas and Mila discuss the days’ events in Swahili and Virginia and Lydia talk in German.

I become immersed in my own thoughts as I look around the table and reflect on the day’s events and even later as I sit to write in my journal and post my blog for my friends back at home to see.

There is so much we take for granted and it makes me feel guilty. At the end of the day I can leave all this behind if I choose to. The people here don’t have the option to go home. This IS home. And they just make the best of it with a smile on their face.

Later in the evening as I lie awake in bed I feel more homesick than I ever have and I write these words in a diary; the words I didn’t let anyone else hear.

5 November 2015

I’m not going to lie, this is way harder than I thought it would be. I am officially homesick and I have never missed America more. I am tired of eating rice for lunch and dinner and having bread with butter for breakfast every morning. The smell is unbearable and that makes me not want to eat. The flies are everywhere, on my food, on the furniture, on the tables, in the shower and on the toilet.

The kids in the class are cute but the teacher doesn’t give me anything to do, so I just sit there. I thought I would be contributing more. I am going to try to change my flight. Four weeks here is more than enough. But that makes me feel guilty. I can leave and go home to good food, a job, a clean house and my family. The people here have no choice. They can’t run away from it. This is their life.

If you think I sound selfish or am giving up too soon and that I didn’t give Africa enough of a chance, you’re right. But Africa changed me, at the time I didn’t see the big picture and didn’t know how much one place would come to alter my perspectives as drastically as it did.