Friday, February 24, 2012

Freeze Frame - NOW WITH PHOTOS!

Sometimes I just want to freeze frame certain moments.

Dusty roads... everybody walking, goods balanced on their heads, in no hurry... sun slanting through like some divine signature.... livestock and donkeys taking over the path... chickens skirting this way and that... fresh produce being sold from roadside stalls...

But just freeze framing a photo is not enough. To get a real sense of this place, you need the smells of open cooking fires, the sounds of farm animals and kids yelling 'Mzungu, mzungu - how are you?', the lingering taste and remnants of fresh mangoes between the teeth, the feel of the warm wind, the layer of dirt over the body ...

I love it here. Africa has such a sense of place. You have to experience it to understand it. Time goes by at a different pace. Priorities are shifted. The warmth of the people matches that of the climate. Stress and anxiety melt away. ...

But, I digress... now, back to our regularly scheduled program (aka travelogue -- )

Since the last entry, we re-visited Sister Freda's compound for a day, finished up our time at Common Ground and spent 8 days with the Namunyak Maasai program in the Transmara region of southwestern Kenya.

When we got back to Sister Freda's, Zavion immediately went to visit all of his old animal friends (the puppies had grown so much!) and all of the kids/orphans immediately swarmed us again. It was good to see them all. I have learned more and more about their stories and what amazing little people they are. I am thinking of setting up a sponsorship site for a couple of them so they can attend boarding school at Pathfinder Academy and make a future for themselves. I will probably start with Morgan. Let me know if anyone is interested in getting involved. Thanks.

Last week, we finished up our time at Common Ground/Pathfinder. I taught some more classes - girls only this time on the topics of HIV/AIDS, sexuality and gender issues. The girls were great and even sang a couple of songs to me at the end of the lesson. Very sweet. I met with the gal in charge of the Common Ground Widow's project and learned a lot about their micro-loan program, co-op farms and store, re-education program, etc. All very inspiring.

Zavion and I got to make a couple of the water filters that I mentioned in the last post. Z loved it and wanted details of every step in the process. I think I have a future engineer or scientist on my hands. He's always wanting to do experiments, create inventions and get the details on how everything works... Just last night he said, out of the blue, 'Mom, just HOW does the moon make high tide and low tide?' I feel another experiment coming on...

Last Wednesday, after an incredible, educational, enjoyable ten days, it was time to leave Common Ground and our new friends and head to our next destination (The Namunyak Masai Project.) Up before the sun (but not before the roosters) at 5 am. As much as I hate the actual getting out of bed part, I really enjoy early mornings once I'm up. And, on this particular morning, Zavion concurred. 'Mom, I like getting up when it's still night!' As I was getting our stuff together, he kept running outside to play, chase the chickens and to give me the latest report on the color of the sky. 'It's dark purple. Now it's dark blue. Now lighter blue with a little bit of pink and a nice, crescent moon.' We hit the road around 6:15 (in a crapheap of a car - I will no longer be complaining about my old car when I get home) and I enjoyed watching Africa wake up. All manner of people and animals walking along the roadways against a papaya colored sky. Morning clouds clinging like cotton swabs to the hills or rising like smoke out of the fields. Busy markets just getting started... The drive went through lovely scenery (though the roads left much to be desired at times) - from patchwork farmland to verdent slopes of the tea plantations to the drier, rolling, acacia dotted hills skirting the savannah of the Transmara region and our final destination. The last 10 miles or so along a bone-crushing, kidney bruising, tummy turning 'road' to the home/compound of Emmanuel and Lillian Tasur - our latest hosts.

The drive was so worth it. Emmanuel's place is on a hill with views to die for - overlooking sprawling farmland, forests, savannah and more hills- and situated perfectly for maximum sunset appreciation and amazing star gazing. The large family compound (his father has four wives and over 40 children and the sons from Emmanuel's mother all have homes on this property) includes buildings, crops, donkeys, cows, chickens, goats, dogs, cats, etc. Per usual, Zavi has befriended the dogs, plays with them constantly and has named them (Jumpy, Fetchy and Mama Dog.) Emmanuel has four kids - three of them are away at boarding school, but one adorable two year old (Larusi) lives with him and his oldest, Victor (15), came to visit for a few days. Zavi adored Victor and followed him around, but had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Larusi (who followed HIM around!) We stayed in a small, round, thatch-roof hut with a bunkbed, a chair, a roomate (Katie - another volunteer) and one lightbulb (which was more than I was expecting.) There is no running water, a seperate building for cooking and, of course, the long-drop ablution block. When I joked to Zavion that that's where we'd be sleeping, he exclaimed, giggling 'sleep in the toilets? Oh, the inhumanity!' (slaps forehead.) Bathing was also done in the toilet block - with a bucket of warm water and a cup. The water was actually the color of weak tea - you had to convince yourself that you'd be cleaner after the bath then before... Zavion has actually really taken a liking to bucket showers. I can not say the same for his appreciation of long drop toilets, however. He was a bit uninspired at first and usually just went outside, but he started to get the hang of it and, by the end of the week, he was claiming to have 'perfect poop aim!'

All in all, we loved it there - so peaceful, so beautiful, so simple. And Emmanuel and Lillian were such wonderful, generous hosts. It was hard leaving... But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

We spent the first afternoon walking around the acres and acres of the place, playing on the rocks, meeting dirty-faced children, collecting sticks and rocks and enjoying the surroundings. The sounds here are of the animals - a car only comes by very seldomly. The place is lovely, open, vast... Z said, 'now this place REALLY looks like Africa!'

The worst thing about the place was the flies. They were relentless - constantly swarming us. Zavi went on several killing sprees with the fly-swatter - although nothing seemed to slow them down. According to Z, there are three things that we are allowed to kill - Mosquitos (because they suck our blood,) ants with red faces (because they bite) and flies (because they're just so annoying and they like poop.) Oh, and recently he added that poachers are allowed to be killed by policemen because they are such bad people.

Our work here has been centered around Emmanuel's school - which he started (with the help of Village Volunteers) about three years ago. It's a boarding school for grades nursery through standard 8 and it's very successful. This region is almost exclusively Masai - a tribe that has been greatly marginalized here in Kenya. Roads, schools, etc. have lagged behind because there has been no support for the Masai from any of the governments since independence. Emmanuel has started many programs to help with the advancement of his people and the school is his current pride and joy. With good reason - they just scored the highest on this year's tests out of the 90 schools in the region! While Katie, a therapist, was seeing students in one-on-one counseling sessions, I was teaching classes to the 6,7 and 8 graders. Again, I was impressed with their knowledge, obedience and participation. It was a lot of fun :) (My favorite question from a student, 'Is it true that in America, you can make babies in a test tube?' Oh, and this one; 'Is it good to have a boyfriend?')

I had planned for Zavion to attend class with the nursery or pre-unit classes, but he was very overwhelmed by all of the attention and crowding from the kids and wanted, instead, to hang out with me or in the office. All the kids knew his name by the end of the first day and were constantly following him and calling to him. The one day that he sat in the classroom doing work, he was convinced that the kids were laughing at his writing skills. They WERE crowded around him, watching and laughing, but I don't think they were laughing AT him or his writing. He's pretty sensitive about that, though, and didn't take it well. He did venture out to play with the kids during some breaks - chasing them and laughing and making THEM laugh. On a day that Katie and I were doing activities with the young ones, he eventually joined in, too, and even, reluctantly, had a lot of fun. We did scavenger hunts, the hokey-pokey, head and shoulders, duck-duck-goose (he taught that one,) ball games and photo shoots. His jealousy reared it's head, though, as he was heard telling the kids - 'No, that's MY mommy, stop holding her hand! She's MY mommy!'

He had a plan for going back the next day. He didn't want to garner quite so much attention so he told me he wanted to disguise himself. 'All I need, Mom, is a cane or a walker and I can pretend that I am an old man. If I walk around like this (hunched over with cane) and say things like, 'hey sonny,' in an old man voice, they'll never know I'm your son, Zavion.' While a seemingly foolproof plan, I'm afraid to say that they saw right through it and he was as mobbed as ever.

One thing I have really enjoyed here is all of the walking that we've done. There is a large hill behind the house and one afternoon, Katie, Zavion and I joined Lillian and some friends for a trek up the hill. I was pretty sure I'd end up carrying Z for part of the time, but he made it the whole way himself - at a really good pace - and even encouraged the rest of us. 'Come on guys, good job, don't give up- You can do it!' The views from the top were amazing - 'I can see the whole country from up here!' And we could even see the school - about 5 km away across the valley (on another lovely hill.) Zavion started yelling, 'Hey, guys, it's Zavion and his mom - can you hear me over there?' Z and I then ran back down the entire hill - throwing and following/chasing rocks the whole way. He calls it 'rock-hiking.'

Inspired by Zavion's success on the climb, I decided that we should walk home from the school on a couple of occassions (once with Katie and once on our own.) It's about 5 km, but mostly downhill. At times we walked briskly to beat the impending rain storm (yes, the rainy season has arrived with refreshing afternoon storms) and other times we took our time to find cool rocks or letter-shaped sticks to add to Z's ever-expanding, but oft left-behind, 'collection.' It's a beautiful walk and the trail is shared with kids, donkeys, cows, chickens and goats. The donkeys are definitely the beasts of burden here and are usually loaded down with heavy gear. At the school, for example, there is no water (the tank dries out in the dry season,) so several times a day, the donkeys are weighted down with 3-6 large water jugs and taken down to the river for collection. I was really proud of how well Zavion fared on our walks. Even though it was a long way and quite hot, he never asked to be carried or got whiney about it. It was a really nice, shared time.

Afternoons and evenings were spent enjoying the outdoors at Emmanuel's. We played Star Wars, birdbat, volleyball, soccer, Frisbee, sword fighting, dog wrestling, cat wrangling, etc. One day, we fought an epic battle against some evil plastic bag monsters, 'Mom, you take care of the side-kicks while I hold off the king. Now, you need to be steady and elusive. Don't let your anger get to the bag - keep it inside yourself. Steady and elusive...' Another evening, Z led Katie and I in some boomerang training (with a fabric Frisbee.) We had to approach The Master Z while he sat in a lotus position, touch our hands together and ask for his tutelage. He taught us throws such as the high glider, low glider, grimey slimey, slash crash, slash hit, freaky eaky, and many more.... After dark, we'd enjoy star-gazing (no lights around and a new moon so the stars were incredible) and then play cards or read books inside. Z is learning (and understands!) a lot of card games, so it's really fun to play with him. He just needs to be better at losing...

I am really going to miss the feeling of freedom, safety and community that we have enjoyed at the volunteer sites. I have so much to say about Village Volunteers and the good work that is being done - I think I will make a seperate post in a few days, once I get my thoughts sorted. There is so much I want to continue to do from home (fund-raising, awareness campaigns, etc.) and I will be prioritizing those. One of the great things about the VV volunteers is that so many of them have continued to be involved from their homes- fundraising, starting their own non-profits, etc. It really is an organization putting the 'Pay it Forward' adage to work. Suffice it to say, we have had an amazing time here and I would highly recommend VV to anyone who wants a meaningful volunteer experience in Africa!! I also had some great conversations with Emmanuel about the plight of the Masai people and what is being done about it. I have had some of my original ideas (about stereotypes, colonization, etc.) challenged and have been given a lot to think about. Future blog posts, I'm sure...

Another thing we got to do while at Emmanuel's is go for a one day safari in the Maasai Mara. I've always really enjoyed safaris there. Unfortunately, it's the wrong time of year for the wildebeest migration (they are in the Serengeti now) and the concentration of game is much lower than when I've been in July/August. We still had a great time, though, and saw a lot of animals - the giraffe sightings were especially good! We saw a group of four lions, still stained with blood, leaving a feast. We saw elephants, buffalo, antelope galore, zebra, hippos, crocs, etc. We really wanted to see cheetahs, leopards and/or hyenas since we missed those at Kruger, and as (bad) luck would have it, we just narrowly missed out on two of those. We approached a big group of Landrovers (tell-tale sign that there is something interesting to see) only to be told that we JUST MISSED a cheetah bring down an impala, get chased by a hyena and eventually lose her kill to it. The hyena had just dragged the impala out of sight and the cheetah lay down for a rest behind a bush - also out of sight. We waited there for awhile, but, alas, neither made another appearance. Bummer!!! Still a great day out, though.

Of course, our time at Namunyak had to end. And, after only a week, we definitely weren't ready. Leaving the peaceful, wild Transmara region for the busy, loud, polluted, heavily-trafficked metropolis of Nairobi was a bit of a shock to the system. But, it had to be done. We arrived in Nairobi yesterday and will leave early tomorrow morning. Today, we were tourists and, along with Katie, we visited the elephant orphan project (can I just say that there isn't much that is cuter than a 3 month old baby elephant,) and another animal orphanage, went shopping for souvenirs and spent the afternoon in the pool at the Hilton. Seattlelites and family that joined us here in '05 - you were missed!!

Tomorrow is Zavion's fifth birthday - which seems unfathomable. How can he be 5 already???? Anyway, what better way to celebrate than a trip to Zanzibar?? We are heading there in the morning... hope it's as magical as I remember it!!  (I found such a good deal on a flight home - thanks, Emirates! - that I was able to justify flying to Zanzi.)  After nine days on the island, we'll head to Ethiopia for a couple of weeks before flying home. Should all be great!!

I should mention that it's 10 at night and I haven't started packing (I unpacked everything to do laundry and re-arrange everything) yet for our 6 am flight...gonna be a long night ahead, me thinks. So, I guess I'd better go.

I'll do a Zavi-turning-five post soon :):):) And some pictures soon, too, I hope.

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