Thursday, August 25, 2011

signs of life

uhundha, Kenya, Africa
The mention and thought of an ‘Anu’ waterline in a fishing village in Kenya has brought smiles in the last week- and some tears of joy - mine.

It’s been another week of mostly incomprehensible but very positive meetings, incredible meals, and marvelous experiences.

Priscah arrives early Thursday morning. A bundle of boundless energy and endless smiles, she boisterously christens me Akinyi right before twenty-five strong church group arrives. She has brought along Jane, a friend from Nairobi to teach the group how to make juices, soups and tie-dyes.
A chicken is slaughtered; the kitchen is overflowing with women socializing, laughing, chopping kale and meat. Another dries the sardines I got the previous night during my night fishing adventure.

I dine on the amazing feast at dinnertime after spending time with the youth group, who I will be accompanying to Nairobi the next day. Just another day in the exquisite Kenyan countryside filled with beautiful, friendly folks!

Maurice and Godfrey from the local branch of Plan International arrive a few hours before we head to Nairobi. We tour the youth group garden, the orphanage garden, the orphanage center- a couple hours later before Godfrey departs, he confides in me, “I wasn’t expecting much before I came here but was pleasantly surprised.” Collaboration. Hope.

The highlights of the ride to Nairobi and back are the zebras I see casually grazing along the freeway, the spectacular rift valley and the occasional decelerating of Easy Coach for a dog, donkey, cow, and pig on the road. A weekend in Nairobi flies by quick. Shiriki welcomes the Lakeland Youth Group- there’s a healthy exchange of ideas, they plan to visit the village in September. I get my urban fix in the Uchumi shopping for cake and biscuits and my African mask fix at the local Masai market.

I return from Nairobi to find Maureen weak and lethargic. She speculates it is malaria (it is confirmed the following day). In the last four weeks, four people I have interacted with have casually mentioned that they had malaria, as if it’s a common cold. In this part of the world, it is.

Gordon stops by Tuesday evening with the Holy Bible- a gift from Priscah with a lovely inscription inside. It’s a first, and after years of being in Catholic school, I look forward to finally reading it.

I spend most of the last couple days in meetings discussing a water line with the community members, village elders, stakeholders, and existing water line committee members. Joshua from Sana International diligently follows up on the request for help with a water line at Honge Beach.
So, there is indeed a strong possibility that safe drinking water will be provided to the 2000 residents there once all the details are ironed out. Along with it, the chairman Moses suggests, the next daughter in the village or the water pipeline be named Anu!!!

As for me, I will gladly accept either - its an honor (and all I did was submit a request!) :)
Must be the reason I used to call myself a “Bhishti” growing up- a water bearer/Aquarian.
It’s all coming together now…(I hope!)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

something fishy...

I was given an African name today- Akinyi, which indicates I was born in the morning.

The week leading up to twenty five women dressed in colorful attire addressing me by my new name in this idyllic village has been anything but that.

After putting in my hour at the shamba, I leave for the closest ‘big city’ Kisumu on Friday. That evening, I make ample use of the free wi-fi at the rooftop bar, Duke of Breeze, over alternating glasses of red wine and French press coffee. I smirk at the forlorn tilapia platter with vegetables at dinner and the milky tea at breakfast - they don’t even come close to the ones at ‘home’ in Uhundha.
Funny how a couple weeks in a foreign land can begin to feel so homely- I have to attribute it to the community, who has made me feel so welcome here, to Charles and Priscah for opening their home to me, for checking up on me every so often, to Maureen for every little awesome thing she does to make sure I am more than comfortable and most of all to Alison, to AVIF, for giving me this great opportunity.

Sunday morning I finally touch the waters of Lake Victoria. I am on a boat with Joseph, George, Nicolas and Jesus, who calls himself God. Joseph, George and Jesus work on casting a net for the next two hours for tilapia, which they will collect in the evening.
Boats pass us by often- there are 400 fishermen in this village, a couple have radios blaring, some pose for me, others laugh at the ‘mzungu’ (foreigner) on the boat- women don’t fish. Two old men stop and show me their loot- I buy 6 little fish, 2 of them still gasping for breath. When I propose to throw them back, Joseph quietly disagrees indicating they wont live in the water anyway.

While the tilapias are making their way to the net, the youth group puts on a great show of dramas for me- I don’t comprehend a word, but the gallery of children do. They squeal and giggle with delight at George’s and SosPeter’s antics. We return home, Maureen and I, exhausted and ready for a hectic week ahead.

Monday is one of the more social days. As I approach the dilapidated mud building of the orphanage, I am welcomed by 40 kids clapping to a rhythmic ‘mzungu’. The volunteer teachers, Pamela and Phoebe, usher them in hurriedly. Once inside, they sing and clap to numerous other songs, one specifically to welcome the ‘visitor’. They mock my Luo with affectionate gusto. Some have never seen brown skin before, least of all speaking Luo.
(By now, I know the basic phrases including “How much is it?”, “Its too expensive.”, and the numbers. I practice them everyday with the motorcycle drivers on my ride to Usenge, everyday I learn something new (today it was ‘Akinyi’) )
This is followed by a meeting with the orphanage committee and some guardians, where we strategize on the future maintenance of the orphanage garden. A “community shamba day” is decided upon to formally let the community take responsibility.
I leave the orphanage with fresh tilapia for lunch, which Maureen quickly fries with spicy fish masala. Yum..

In the afternoon I go to the primary school with 2 posters I made for composting over the weekend. Mr Polycarp excitedly talks to the monitors of the four classes in session about composting, while holding buckets with “Little Rotters Composting Club” written on them! Internet is a great resource, indeed ☺ The children accept the responsibilities listed on the poster happily… The school closes with a prayer in a dense semi circle in the yard as the sky gets woollier with dark clouds and it starts to rain.

Early Tuesday morning, I get a call I have been waiting for- the local NGO is indeed paying us a visit that afternoon to discuss a safe water system. Joshua stops by, as promised, and has a prolonged chat with Henry, the beach chairman and some other beach leaders. Another meeting is scheduled for next week with more community members and village leaders to decide on the best solution of the alternatives we have. That evening Henry and me follow fishermen returning from the lake for fresh fish- another 'small' celebration.

Wednesday, Henry promises to take me fishing- “OMena”(Sardine) fishing.
Henry is Charles’ uncle- very polite, serious but often breaks into an instant smile, says Thank you too often and insists on calling me Madam at times (which makes me very uncomfortable and I tell him so). As I follow Henry to the boat with a kerosene lantern in hand, the news has spread in the village. Apparently no woman has been OMena fishing before in this village. In whispers freighted with laughter and disbelief, as we get ready to go on board, the neighboring fishermen wonder how I will fare in the cold waters of the lake.

And I soon discover, not so well ;) Sardine fishing is nothing like the relaxing, quiet sport of fishing is advertised to be in the West. It is 6-7 hours of laborious work in cold, dark, sometimes turbulent waters.
Four fishermen, with four lanterns mounted on floating “platforms” leave as night falls. A kilometer or two from the shore, they anchor those lanterns one-by-one a good distance away from each other at the corners of an imaginary square.
Then they wait for 15 minutes for the fish to be attracted to the light - David chews on a slice of bread and gulps down milk, Henry reassures me they wont be on the Lake till 2 AM tonight! My stomach growls, Its 8 PM.

Then the pace quickens accelerating to a frenzy. They approach the first lantern surrounding it with a net as they close in. As the boat rocks and veers dangerously on one side, they pull in the net, leaving the lantern behind. A few pounds of struggling sardines are emptied into the boat.
It takes about 10 minutes for one lantern. Then it’s on to the next one, and the next… for the next 6-7 hours till the moon appears on the horizon.
But tonight is different. The crew is very sensitive to my presence. Gauging the discomfort from my silence as it starts drizzling, they decide to return after 3 hours. Guided by my phone flashlight, Henry escorts me back home, a bucket of fresh sardines tucked under his arm for my lunch tomorrow, keeping his promise of getting me home by 11 PM.

It’s been a long, and enlightening day into the daily struggles of life here, and I bow to them for their resilience, their patience and their generosity. The trip to the lake tomorrow is dependent on the value of the catch today; it should cover the cost of the kerosene and the crew. The average they make from a trip is about 150 Kshs- less than $2.

My faith in unshaken, if not more validated: what the community needs is not charity or aid, but better resources for income-generating activities- current and future. I quietly resolve to follow up with another NGO I visited earlier in the week with a request for collaboration with the youth group and the orphanage.

And as the heavens pour down this morning, I get a call from them- they are stopping by to meet the youth group and check out the orphanage tomorrow morning.
In Africa, the rains do bring good luck perhaps…

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

good day sunshine

A moth hovers around a kerosene lamp inebriated by its lambent glow. Maureen and me ‘cheer’ to the wonderful events of the past week- the Cabernet from South Africa is tangy. I bought it today from the ‘city’ (Kisumu), where I spent last night.

As I enter the house after a day and a half, Maureen runs to give me a warm hug and laments, ’I lonely in the house’. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I will be leaving again on Friday for the night to pick up some things I ordered.

After yet another sumptuous meal, as I pour her a little drink, suspicious that she may not be able to handle it, she says ‘ I had red wine and red bull at the Embassy.’ After the first sip, in the usual ‘Maureen’ way, she says ‘Is good’!

It rained on Saturday morning; it is a prelude to a violent downpour in the afternoon. I dance in the rain and place buckets, one after another, under the roof gutter to collect water for a bath. Thankfully, we have 13 little buckets- trash bins for the school classrooms to be given to them this week.

John stops by in the evening with an estimate for fencing the orphanage and can’t stop smiling, ‘We Africans say rains bring good luck.’
This past week has brought a lot of smiles and laughter.
The Ploughing, Porridge parties stretched over three mornings, all ending with a delicious feast of Nyoyo and Nyoka, which we eat only after saying grace.
From tomorrow, we will use hand hoes to prepare the land for the saplings (which I hope will emerge before I leave).
Saturday evening I have the great privilege of a meeting with the village elders again. Over steaming cups of spicy Indian tea, which Maureen is proficient in making now, we discuss the progress of current projects and the new proposal- an American NGO, in collaboration with a top-rated American University, would like to set up a proof-of-concept test system in Uhundha for producing ethanol, thus providing clean fuel, fertilizer, animal feed among other things, to the community.
More smiles, laughter and thanks…

This along with the news that I made it into the Missouri Photo Workshop in September and that some of the Lake Land Youth Group boys will be traveling with me to Nairobi to meet with Shiriki, facilitated by Alison’s (AVIF founder) kind offer to fund the visit, and that a local NGO might be coming this week to survey the village to help provide clean water, calls for a celebration and we do, with fresh fish, kale, ugali- this time with some tangy red wine! So, Cheers!

p.s.: Maureen giggled herself to sleep after that glass of wine…

Friday, August 5, 2011

place to be

I walk to the shamba (farm) every morning, little moths guiding me, stop by at Josehp’s place to say ‘Jambo’ to his family, and pick the pangas (machetes).
Some days I arrive to find the boys working already. They work tirelessly, they make fun of me when I call for a time-out and a water/banana/Cadbury’s Eclairs break every half-hour.
They want to finish the work as soon as possible.
With a swift, strong sweeps of the pangas, they clear the land, or rather breeze through it, while I struggle to master the swing, losing the machete several times in the process.
SosPeter mimics a Bollywood dance and asks me to teach them a hindi song that we can sing as we work together-he is the drama director of the youth group, after all. I can’t think of a good one.
We have visitors every day. Two boys listlessly walk towards us, holding a nile perch by its mouth. The boy jerks it towards me and laughs out loud when I get scared. Sometimes little boys minding their cattle pause and lend a helping hand, older women carrying water buckets from the lake pause and laugh. ‘Women don’t work in shambas or fish’, Joseph tells me.
When I am relieved that it isn’t a warm, sunny day but SosPeter disagrees. ‘African are like monkeys and baboons, we like the sun’, he says pointing to the sun peeking through the clouds
By day three, the land has been cleared, the seeds are resting in the seed bed shaded by leaves- thanks to the efforts of a few members of the youth group. Without them, it couldn’t have been possible.

Tomorrow is the Ploughing, Porridge Party. At 7 AM community members will gather at the shamba- there will be ploughing and digging of a compost pit and there will be porridge, which Maureen is preparing on an open fire outside.

It’s the place to be!

Monday, August 1, 2011

first giant steps

I got a gift today-- a fresh tilapia. Its the first of its kind but I hope not the last!
after all, I am in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria and I hope to go fishing one day.
George, Sirme and Joseph grin as they hand me a plastic bag, a tilapia in it with the hook still on. I insist on paying, but they vehemently refuse.

They are members of the Lake Land Youth Group, a registered group in Uhundha, consisting of 30 members of both sexes, ages ranging from 10 to 30+. They have a community garden in the village as an income generating activity as well as for sustenance. They are also active in using music as a medium to raise awareness in the community regarding AIDS/HIV, the environment and family resources management. Their ideology resonates with Shiriki, so I connect them, so they can collaborate with each other and 'share' their knowledge.

they will be instrumental in helping us mobilize a community garden for the orphanage in the village. We start at 10 AM on Wednesday and having read the group’s by-laws I am positive that it’s not 10 AM African time ☺

Like Indian Standard Time, African time follows the mentality of Hakuna Matata, which in Swahili means No Worries. The last 3 days seem to have been exactly those kinds of days, but with a lot of activity.

Let me rewind to the beginning of my introduction to Uhundha…

I take the morning bus to Kisumu taking in the glory of the picturesque Kenyan countryside. Overtaking buses with Sasha Obama, Jai Mata Dee, Jay Swaminarayan, Nanak trucking helps me feel at home, as does the fact that I have had Kenyans talk to me in Swahili multiple times over the last week. Indians are plentiful here, as is the influence of Indian food. I have fresh chapatis every day here!

In Kisumu, Charles arrives on time, unlike most of his countrymen, to take me to his village, Uhundha. He has spent the night on a bus from Nairobi, where he works, to make the 8 hour journey to Kisumu to settle me in at his place in the village and to introduce me to the community.

It takes us a couple hours to get to Uhundha, after a few brief stops to pick up Maureen, the housekeeper, and to buy necessities needed in the house. The car navigates the gentle ups and downs passing through lush green fields of maize, while Lake Victoria plays peek-a-boo. Kids are everywhere, girls balancing yellow buckets on their heads.

We arrive at a big house with an overgrown garden. Two of Charles’ nephews appear from nowhere and start cleaning the place with Maureen.

Determined to not lose precious time, Charles takes me for a tour of the primary school, the orphanage and the area called the beach. When we get back to the house, the ghosthouse it once seemed to be has been transformed into a lovely cottage with a dining table, a living room full of couches and two chairs in the patio. I may not have power but i have a functional shower AND a western toilet (a scream of delight for not having to use the 'hole in the ground').

There are guests waiting. Charles invited the village elders, the school headmaster and a couple schoolteachers in the evening to introduce me before he heads back to Nairobi the next day. We have a great discussion about the needs of the community, prospective projects that I could think of after a cursory glance at the school, and the orphanage, and ways the community can help.

A finger-licking good meal of beef curry, kale and ugali (made with maize flour) ends a perfect but a long day.

Sunday is a relaxed day. I wake up with an urge to try my new Vibram Five Fingers (bought solely for their weight) on Kenyan soil, it’s the country that produces the world’s best runners. The primary school soccer ground seems like a good place to start. Besides, I can scope out the playground or rather the remnants of it, to see if any improvements are feasible there. Ten minutes into the run, there are sinister shadows of a kettle of eagles that I apparently disturbed. As they decide to swoop lower and lower with every flight, I decide to run away.

In the course of the day, I am visited by most of the people I met the day before. We discuss more projects, brainstorm ideas to mobilize youth and community groups as soon as possible.

Lunch is lentils (which I transform into the Indian way by adding onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic) with beef curry and fresh chapatis. I certainly will need to run more in the coming days!!

In the afternoon, I take a motorcycle (the ‘driver’ wears a Number 12 New England Brady Jersey) to the nearby town to charge my laptop and phone, buy ‘Pilipil Hoho' (Luo name for Green peppers), as requested by Maureen among other stuff.

Back in my room after dinner of fresh tilapia stew, every few minutes, I hear the pitter patter of bird feet on the tin roof, or bats squeaking from the unfinished roof- their ‘favorite’ hide-out I am told, and I am strangely comfortable under the security of my blue mosquito net.

Monday I wake up late, but just in time to meet Josiah, the school headmaster, who shows me around the school. We decide on a spot for the compost pit, check out the garden plot and the demonstration plot, where children learn to plant kale and tomatoes, among other things. We plan to have a classroom cleaning along with putting trash bins and compost bins in the yard to encourage composting the following week.

Another brief trip into Usenge for a couple hours to recharge batteries and its time to meet the Lake Land Youth Group…

They are all waiting for us under a tree- there is a school bench, a mat and a stool to sit, there are few drums made of tin cans and cow hide lying around, and a sign with the group name.

As I approach, they hand me the objectives, current activities and by-laws. This group is more organized than a lot others I know- they even have a fine for not showing up without an excuse/apology for their weekly meetings!

I explain the objectives of my visit to Uhundha, the objectives of this meeting, the various projects we have identified so far, and are thinking about and how we can utilize their expertise and help in establishing the garden for the orphanage. They open up about their needs and issues they face.

One poignant request, among other requests for assistance in providing seeds, watering cans, water pumps, t-shirts/masks for the drummers, is to teach them some things I have learnt since I have been to 'many different places'. I am suddenly at a loss for words.

It may be a monologue, with me learning from you, I say. I am an environmental engineer, who has never dug a compost pit, even though I compost back in San Francisco. They seem to understand.

But then I promise to show them places I have been to on my laptop.

They promise to organize a show of a play/songs they sing to raise awareness of social and health issues among the community, for me over the weekend.

I promise to take pictures of them, record their drumming, burn them a DVD, and share their pictures and music with my family and friends. (I may not be able to land them a record deal with a recording studio, I warn, but I will take them to San Francisco)

They promise to show up on Wednesday at 10 AM with hoes and help me dig my first compost pit.

now, it’s a conversation…