(What I Got) Out of Africa

A Brief Peace Corps Experience Told in Short Breaths and Countless Letters

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Things I Never Want to Forget

Things I never want to forget about Kenya:

The sound of late afternoon rain pounding on the tin roof
The fetid smell of unwashed skin crowded on a matatu
The smell of burning trash
The clarity of light and shadows
The brilliance of the full moon
The darkness permeated by millions of stars
The way the sky and clouds seem to touch the ground—how is the sky so close?
The constant staring
The children who just want to shake my hand
The mud that cakes on your shoes after rain
Acacia trees
The rattle of a dilapidated bike carrying empty soda bottles
Banana trees
The feeling of impotence and helplessness
The strength of the wrinkled mamas
The attitudes towards sex
The ach in my lower back and sides after a jarring matatu ride
The press of human bodies
The sight of chickens and sheep strapped to the top of a vehicle
Boredom. Endless boredom
Frustration of waiting
The red dirt of Nairobi
The brown grass before the rain
The green grass after the rain
“Nipe Pesa, Mzungu”
Boda boda drivers in Kisumu
The endless hospitality of people who always want something
Nakumat, Uchumi, Tenwek Hospital, Nyma Choma, Mahinda chomaChepkemoi

Wednesday, January 07, 2004


At the remarkable age of 23,
I am
growing up.
It's not physical this time.
No new inches added to my
growing pains behind my knees
as my bones stretch.
This change is more subtle, quieter,
perhaps noticeable only to me.
It's not aging.
Not quite.
(Though I am gaining small wrinkles and a grey hair.)
It's not quite wisdom.
Not quite.
(I am far too young for that.)
Perhaps my growing up can be termed
Somewhere in the middle between
I'm beginning to sense a depth that permeates life.
Sometimes that sense is so fleeting, so quick,
I barely have time to grasp it.
But it lurks in front of me,
just out of reach,
hovering at the tips of my nails.
I want it to become
so I can wrap myself completely in this new understanding.
But I get the distinct
impressin that It can never be truly understood,
that part of it must remain
outside my realm of knowing
that forever reaching for It
is part of growing
which, at the age of 23,
I am just beginning to do.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Thanksgiving Yeast

I’m waiting for my rolls to rise for the second time. I love the smell of yeast; the doughy smell of unbaked bread, promising a moment of heaven when the oven opens for warm freshly cut bread. More specifically, the aroma of baking bread reminds me of home.

I can pinpoint the first conscious memory I have of my mother baking bread. The memory revolves around the kitchen in our second Virginia home. It must have been shortly after we moved, so I would have been around six or seven. I remember eating the mushy dough and my mother firmly admonishing me not to eat too much. She threatened that the dough would “expand in my stomach,” I’d fill up and not be able to eat my dinner—a mother’s worst nightmare, I’m sure. I can’t recall if I was able to finish my dinner that night, but the taste of yeast lingered in my memory.

My mother didn’t bake bread often. Usually Bread Nights combined with Soup Nights on cold winter evenings. My mother’s loaves always turned out perfect—they were golden brown, the crust crispy, and the white inners soft and squishy. Like a good mother, she would limit us to only a few slices, but I swear, even at the tender age of six, I could have easily devoured the entire loaf myself (and probably under ten minutes!). I would have been horribly ill, I’m sure, much like the time my brother ate an entire pan of brownies. But, six-year old desire knows no boundaries. I would have, if I could have.

There always seemed something magical about baking bread. Dissolving the granules of yeast in warm water. Having to knead the dough using just the balls of your hand, not the fingers. In my child’s mind, I imagined the yeast to be “activated” through the kneading motion. Letting the dough rise, not once but twice, in the warmth of the oven with a pan of water to create the necessary moist environment. There is something so fertile, so fecund about the bread-making process. So womanly.

And so here I am, thousands of miles from my home, my roots, my mother’s kitchen. Yet, even the simple act of closing my eyes and opening the yeast can’s lid to inhale its essence is powerful enough for me to believe I am home in my mother’s kitchen. I almost believe that if I breathe deeply enough, I’ll be transported in space and time, back to my six-year old self. The longing to be that little girl, or at least home again amidst the smells of cooking, is so intense I can actually taste the yearning in the back of my mouth; it has become palpable. As I knead the floury dough as my mother taught me, flipping it, turning it, pounding every inch, I often cry. The loneliness in my tiny out-kitchen, with no other woman to share my creations, is almost unbearable.

Kitchens, busy kitchens, are synonymous with women. My mother’s kitchen: she’d be cooking dinner while my brother and I plugged away at our mathematics, spelling and reading at the dinner table. My grandmother’s kitchen: always warm and filled with bustling women during holidays. After the holiday meal, whether it was Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, the family women would perform the cleaning-up rituals together, packing away leftovers in old Tupperware containers, wiping down counters, carefully washing the silverware and patterned china. During the holidays, I listened in on the family gossip, slowly comprehending that these women, my relatives, had lives beyond family. As I got older, I helped wash the china and scrape the pots, but the magic of my Grandmother’s kitchen remained with me.

Perhaps this view is sexist, but I think not. My brother, father and uncles (though probably not my grandfather) would contribute to the holiday kitchen cleanup if asked. And perhaps the burden of cleanup does fall on the matriarchs’ shoulders because of gender. But I imagine the cleanup is a chance to escape into the world of women. The pregnant aunt could complain to sympathetic ears of her symptoms. My mother could talk about my brother’s pacifier dependence at age four. My Grandmother could quietly mention my Grandfather’s slow slide into dementia. The kitchen became the women’s domain, it allowed them the time to escape their families, to be together, to share.

Reaching the age where I, too, could participate in the kitchen conversations seemed momentous to me. Menstruating is important, sure, but being let into the secrets of my female relatives far surpasses that simple bodily function in terms of coming of age. And to be honest, I feel, sometimes I still haven’t attained true participation in the endless conversation that swirls around me. My grandmother and her daughters have a history that stretches far beyond my twenty-two years. I am the eldest of the two female grandchildren and I’m the eldest grandchild by five years. I’m always the groundbreaker, the first at everything. Perhaps I’ve not ventured fully into the kitchen conversation because I’m slightly intimidated by these women, my blood. My short life experience pales in comparison to their years of wisdom. My aunt, only fifteen years older than me, is the closest I’ve ever had to a sister, has always been my role model. I’m sure she has no idea how much I looked up to her—and still do. I’m slightly in awe of her and always have been. In my eyes, she even managed to make the 80s look fashionable. I’m sure she’d laugh if I ever told her these sentiments, and protest that nothing she does is glamorous or graceful, but she still (with three children, a Navy husband and a dog) simply makes life look “cool.”

I want so desperately to gain these women’s approval. I want them to not just love me, as I know they do, but like me. I want them to know me. I want to prove that I can hold their confidences. I want to be part of their inner circle of femaleness. My full acceptance will happen, I have no doubt, and I suspect the “secret password” has something to do with motherhood. Having just outgrown childhood myself, I have yet to adopt the term “woman” as one that identifies me. And certainly, I am in no hurry for children, as I’ve discovered looking after myself and Neville the Wonder Dog quite difficult enough.

But part of me longs for the day when I can be one of the women, longs for the day when pregnancy ceases to be a thing of nightmares and magically morphs into something to be rejoiced. In the recesses of my mind, I look forward to the time when my body is allowed to grow to fruition, to be ripe, swell and change with incipient motherhood.

That time is years down the road, however, and the fact remains that I am the farthest away from all things familiar as the holidays approach. Thanksgiving, my favorite day of the year, is on this Thursday. Thanksgiving signals the anticipation of birthdays, of Christmas, of cookies, of stockings, of presents, of cold weather, snow and frost. But most importantly, Thanksgiving signals family. For better or worse, my family gathers every year; sometimes, it’s just my nuclear family and grandparents, other years, the extended family joins in the festivities. Regardless, it’s family in all its glorious messiness and confusion.

And instead of eating the rice and gravy, the yeasty rolls, the broccoli, the turkey, I will be celebrating a very different holiday with a spastic dog and a can of turkey (surprisingly better than it sounds). But such is the price of adventure and independence. Maybe on the last Thursday of November, I’ll bake some yeasty rolls of my own, shedding quiet tears into the dough as I knead away my homesickness. In my tiny out-kitchen so far away, I can scrub some pots, and smile knowing my aunts and grandmother are chattering away, thinking of me. Even better, as I shape my loaves, I know I can eat as much dough as I want. It no longer matters if I lose my appetite—all I had planned for supper was canned turkey, anyways.

Friday, November 21, 2003


The matatus are on suddenly on strike. Life has come to a halting standstill. There are no cars on the road and no one can travel anywhere. I’m stranded in Chebole with errands to run. It’s eerily silent. I never realized how much noise the dilapidated Nissan vans made driving up and down the pot-holed roads.

Matatus are the most basic form of Kenyan transportation. They are wildly popular because of their usual reliability and sheer numbers on the road. Matatus come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but only one adjective—crowded. The old adage: A matatu is NEVER full. There is always (and I mean ALWAYS) room for one more. The most common of matatu is an old Nissan mini-van, normally meant to seat fourteen plus the driver. That’s three across in four rows and two seats in the front next to the driver. However, I’ve seen a matatu with well over 20 people crammed inside. Not counting children. The conductors will say, “Songa, mama, songa” meaning “scoot over, we have four more people to fit inside. You might have to stand up.” If you’re lucky, you’ll only be forced to seat four across. Now, of course, realize that children and small women don’t count as “people” so they have to stand, hovering between people’s legs and smushed against windows. Men always crowd on the outside of the Nissan, leaving the sliding door open and hanging out into the open, rushing air. The door can usually accommodate four to five men, hanging on tightly to the sliding door jam.

The other type of matatu, less popular on paved roads, is the “Lunch Box.” They usually run routes on the myriad red dirt roads that criss-cross the countryside throughout Kenya, linking the heartlands together. Lunch boxes are small, boxy pickup trucks with wooden bench seats lining the sides of the bed. The top often has metal bars arcing across with a green or blue tarp providing shade and protection from rain. Usually, there is a layer of reed mats laying across the metal bars as well because it allows men to sit atop the roof, maximizing the carrying capacity of people per lunch box (and more money). Safely, the top can carry six men, but usually there are more men crowded tightly, hanging on as the lunch box barrels down the dusty road, swerving to avoid potholes. On the bed, if you don’t get a seat on the side bench, you have to squat between in the center of the bed next to the spare tires lining the floor—not the most comfortable spot, but still the same fare price as a person who is sitting.

Matatus got the name from their originally cheap prices. Matatu is the adjective “three” in the MA in the noun class in Kiswahili (“ma-” the prefix plus tatu, meaning three). Money, or shilingi, falls into the MA noun class. So, when the matatu first made its debut on the Kenyan road, legend has that it cost only three Kenyan shillings to travel anywhere or “shilingi matatu”. Although now the price of a matatu ride has risen and varies on how far you want to go, it’s still the cheapest way to travel. For example, when I travel to Nairobi on business or to meet up with other PCVs, I take a matatu to Narok for 150/= and then switch to another matatu direct to Nairobi for another 200/=. For only 350/= (about the equivalent of $5), I travel from the bush to city. The total trip takes about four to five hours depending on how long I have to wait for a ride and how many people want to get on and off before my final destination. Sometimes, it seems like the matatu stops every few feet to let someone on or off. But all in all, the matatu ride is not a bad deal. Buses are the main alternative to matatus; however, buses are much slower and the ride to Nairobi can take upwards of 7 hours. Buses, like matatus, wait until they are full before they leave. Buses can take hours to fill their 60 seats, whereas a matatu usually fills its 15 seats in about 20 minutes.

When in town, matatus flock at the loading area, known as a stage. The bigger the town, the more chaotic the stage is. In Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya located on the edge of Lake Victoria, the stage is an enormous sprawl of parking lot with matatus that travel across the entire country. The usually have large signs with their final destination and routes atop the vehicles to help the traveler. Many of the matatus are actually owned by “companies” which “oversee” pricing and maintenance. In larger cities like Kisumu, you buy your tickets from a booth or kiosk as opposed to paying the conductor on the vehicle. To make the scenario even more hectic, vendors are walking up and down the aisles of vehicles hawking their various plastic wares. There are small dukas edging the stage selling second-hand clothes and sundry items. Stages in larger towns and cities are a prime location for pickpockets, so it’s always a good idea to know where your valuables are. I’ve learned, too, that it’s best not linger at the stage too long.

Nairobi, the capital and largest city, boasts the most comprehensive matatu system. There are literally dozens of stages located throughout the city. Each route has a numbering system to help the traveler know what the matatu destination is. The stages service local routes traveling through the city and outer ring of suburbs, as well as destinations that are further away. For example, matatu number 31 travels from the Westlands (the Western edge of Nairobi) into the city center and back. Stages are tucked throughout alleys and in larges plazas, with absolutely no rhyme or reason to the layout. Finding the correct stage and then the correct matatu is always an adventure in Nairobi, however potentially dangerous it can be. Westerners are no unusual sight in Nairobi—every other car in the city is driven by a mzungu and has red diplomatic tags—but a mzungu searching for a stage and taking a matatu is a rarity indeed.

In smaller towns, like my closest town, Bomet, the stage is still frenzied but on a small level. Most small town and village matatus travel only to larger towns where you pick up a connecting matatu at the larger stage. It is rare to find a vehicle from a small village to Nairobi. Usually, drivers cruise the streets trying to get passengers to fill up their vehicle so that they can leave. Touts are hired by the owners of the matatus to yell out the destination of the matatu and to harass people to board the vehicle. He finds out the passengers destination and directs them to the correct matatu. Anytime I walk by the stage in Bomet, a barrage of touts asking, “Mama, where are you going, where to, Madame?” bombards me. The tout usually stays in town once the matatu leaves for its destination, but he gets a cut of money from the conductor for facilitating the process of filling the vehicle. There’s also the job of “conductor” on the matatu. The conductor (who can be the tout as well) collects the money and alerts the driver when a passenger wants to alight. The conductor also scoots people together and ensures that no one is taking up more than his fair share of space.

On a tarmac road outside a town, matatus barrel down at fairly regular intervals, coming and going in both directions. Catching a ride is simple; all you do is stick out a hand and wave from the wrist in a flapping motion with your fingers pointed down. My neighbor Erick likened the motion to one of removing money from a wallet—indicating that you will pay, unlike the palm-up flapping motion, which indicates you want a free ride from a private car. The coming matatu will invariably pull over and the conductor will jump out and motion for the mamas and men already seated to move over, encourage small children to stand two deep and indicate for you to jump on. As a white woman, I can use my mzungu status to procure a seat most times, although I try not to take too much advantage of it my whiteness. If the person getting up to give me his seat is a youngish man, I take it without hesitation. However, if it’s a woman or a mzee, I’ll stand or wait for the next matatu. I stand in solidarity with the mamas of Kenya, even if I’m American.

I have definite seating preferences. I will not sit in the back seat of a matatu. One of the first times I rode a matatu, I climbed in the backseat and before I knew it, there were eight people crowded back there—five seated and three standing children. For the first time in my life, I began to feel claustrophobic. I panicked, realizing that if something were to happen on the road, I’d never make it out of the backseat alive. I always try to either sit by a door or a window. Peace Corps lore has it that the safest place to sit is between two large mamas in the second or third row. The “death seat” is in the front next to the driver—presumably because going through the windshield in a collision is a high probability. However, that is my favorite seat, mainly because there’s more leg room. I’ll take my chance on a collision.

Sitting on a Nissan is an interesting experience and one that, most of the time, I really enjoy. Sure it’s crowded and often hot with numerous bodies, but nowhere else do I feel more human. There’s something to be said for being pressed up against people you don’t know, your skin touching their skin, sitting partly on top of another, or holding someone else’s baby. Even though it sometimes feels like a sea of humanity, the experience makes me feel intensely connected to people and aware of others like I’ve never been before. Being foreign on a matatu is a unique experience, too, simply because people touch me constantly. Mamas will reach across the seat and stroke my hair wanting to feel the silkiness; children will touch my arms wondering if my skin is textured differently. Sometimes, I get annoyed and want to turn around and shout, “Hello, I can feel that!” but generally, the touch of strangers doesn’t bother me. Being here is so isolating at times and I crave the ease of human touch, even from a stranger.

Despite the feeling of belonging I have on a matatu, I can feel very disconnected because of the language barrier. Almost no one uses Kiswahili or English on a matatu unless you’re in Nairobi—it’s always the local language of the area. Since my Kipsigis is very limited, I understand only a fraction of the babble of conversation that flows around me. I know when jokes are made because of the sudden laughter and I can tell when a mama argues about the price of her fare because the anger edges in her voice. It can be difficult, too, to make sure I’m not being cheated by the conductor, who most times tries to get me to pay more than I should. Always, I try to avoid asking the price of the fare. For shorter routes, say from my village to the town, I know the standard fare (always 30/=). However, for trips to new towns or further destinations, figuring out the cost can be tricky. If you ask the conductor, there’s a high probability that he’s adding an additional 20-50/= to the standard fare. And it’s hard to argue it down. The rule of thumb among PCVs is to either ask a mama (women seem to rarely cheat foreigners on matatus) or try to figure out what others are paying by intent observation. Normally, I just give the amount I feel is fair. If I’ve underpaid, the conductor will say, “Add 5/= shillings, Mama” or whatever the additional amount I owe is—and he’s usually telling the truth. If I’ve overestimated the cost and paid too much, he’ll just keep his mouth shut and pocket the extra. Paying the correct amount of shilengi can be frustrating because Kenyans associate whiteness with money. In fact, the Kipsigis word “chumindet” means both “white person” and “rich person.”

My center (too small to be dubbed a village) is nestled directly on the tarmac road between the two towns of Bomet and Kaplong. There are about five to six privately-owned matatus that run the thirty kilometers between the towns. I’ve gotten to know the drivers and conductors pretty well. I know who to avoid because he cheats me and which ones are my friends. Often, when I walk up to the stage, I’m greeted with shouts of “Chepkemoi, today Chebole?” The owners and the men that work the matatus are intensely proud of their vans. Every Sunday, as I go for my daily walk, I see the men washing their matatus in the Sise River that runs nearby. They drive the matatu right down to the water’s edge to clean both the outside and the inside of the dried brown Kenyan mud that seems to coat everything during the rainy season. The matatus in my area are also given names, some of which never fail to make me laugh. My favorite is the “Nameless Princess,” but there are several other priceless names, such as Baby Face, Yugo, Sierra Leon, and Silent Night. There’s even one named after one of my favorite Spanish football teams—Real Madrid. The names are stuck on the rear windshield and often are made out of sparkly letters.

The insides of the Nissan matatus are also decorated in what I can only describe as a ghetto-pimp style. The dashboards are covered in paisley velour and usually have gold or red fringe hanging off. There’s always a radio of some kind, tuned to the local Kipsigis station, screeching music out of a tinny speaker normally located right by my left ear. In every matatu, there are stickers all over the inside proclaiming the love Jesus and God, the important of wisdom versus knowledge, and the Kenyan flag.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Canned Meat

Last night, I dreamed about canned chicken. It didn’t just make a guest appearance—it was the star, the main act, center stage.

Is this what my life has come to? Dreaming about packaged meat products? Who knew I’d wake up feeling excited and slightly aroused from the thought of juicy, flakey, sweet…I’d getting a bit carried away now, aren’t I?

Right now, I’m living every health-nut’s fantasy. People pay thousands of dollars to eat my diet. Fresh. Raw. Unprocessed. Not refined. No added preservatives. And all I want is processed cheese.

I received a package in my Posta box yesterday. The volunteer previously living in my house sent the package, so she obviously knew what a PCV really wanted. The padded envelope was filled with all sorts of modern conveniences—scented candles, lip-gloss, fizzing laundry detergent, a trashy magazine filled with bits of celebrity gossip and articles on “How to Bond with your Man and Make him Yours!” However, the crowning glory, the prize…a small zip-locked baggie containing smooth, round elbows of macaroni and a packet of dry, processed cheese. Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese.

I cried.

I kid you not. I actually shed tears at the sight of bright orange, crumbly, delicious processed and dehydrated cheese. Really. This girl, this former PCV, became a goddess in my eyes. I think I’m in love. Anyways, after drying my eyes and apologizing to the Posta ladies (I think they were concerned I’d had news of a death in the family), I jumped into the nearest matatu and held my breath in anticipation as my mouth watered at the thought of Kraft’s Cheesiest. I ran up the hill to my pink house and put some water on to boil. A watched pot on an open flame never boils and I’ve never felt the truth more keenly. It was the longest 11 minutes of my life.

I drained the macaroni, dumped in three tablespoons of milk (straight from the cow) and margarine and slowly—so as not to waste a single particle—opened the packet containing the crumbly, orange cheese. I poured the cheese into the suferia and stirred, mixing out the gooey clumps of cheese. Almost reverently, I tore open the now-empty white foil envelope and licked (practically sensuously) the lining, making sure I consumed every speck of cheese. I wouldn’t have traded that moment of tangy cheese melting on my tongue for anything. The experience (honestly) far surpassed some foreplay I’ve had.

After I mixed the mac and cheese, I lifted the spoon straight out of the pot—in lust, who has time for extra bowls?—and oh my god, I swear I almost had an orgasm right there in my tiny, turquoise out-kitchen. Seriously.

So yes. This is what my life has become—faux sex in my kitchen with packaged macaroni and cheese. But let me tell you, food here may be au natural but it tastes bland. Shit, really. I never thought of salt as a “seasoning” but god, it really makes a difference. I mean, really adds flavor. Who knew?
The ingredients available in Kenya are diverse; you can get mangos and coconuts, fish and lamb, bananas and curries. Unfortunately, my area of the country (Southwest Rift Valley region) has a very limited supply of..well, anything. There’s plenty of food available, in terms of calories, but little diversity. My four food groups are tomatoes, onions, rice and beans. Try being creative with that. I’m eating so many onions, I’m beginning to sweat onions. It’s kind of like the morning after a drinking binge when you can smell alcohol radiating off your body in waves. But onion. Somehow, even less pleasant than day-old vodka. Coming up with new and interesting combinations of food is tough. I only have 256 permutations to work with. It may sound like a lot, but let me remind you—it’s still rice, onions, beans and tomatoes.

This is where erotic dreams of canned meat enter. I didn’t realize how important pre-packed, flavored foods were to the survival of volunteers until I visited my nearest PCV neighbor, Erick. He lives two and a half hours by bike on a rough dirt road (god, I never want to do that again). But when I finally arrived, sweaty, sore and dusty from the long, aching ride, he had pasta with white sauce waiting for me. I cleaned up as best I could with the dirty water and sat down to eat. He smiled, “I have a surprise—I got a package this morning” and whipped out a can of chicken. I winced. Prior to living in the bush, the thought of eating canned meat had always made me grimace. He laughed, “Trust me. It’s good.” He popped open the can, drained it and scooped out a forkful for my pasta. I toyed with my fork, shredding the chicken. I tentatively took my first bite. I realize pasta with canned chicken doesn’t sound like 5-star cuisine, but damn, it was good.

I don’t know if canned chicken’s deliciousness stems from my certain protein deficiency or if it’s really just THAT good. I have nothing to compare it to since canned meat wasn’t in my diet plan prior to Kenya. But I’d eat it at every meal if given the chance. I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll adjust to life back in the States. Will I remember how to drive on the right side of road? Will I ever be able to wear skirts above my shin without feeling trampy? Will I insist on using a “Pee Bucket” at night, even when the flushing toilet is a few mere indoor steps away? But my biggest concern is that packaged food will continue to play a major role in my eating habits. I may never cut vegetables again (already pre-chopped, frozen) or bake my own cake (boxed mixes) or mash my own potatoes (powdered). After a year of slaving to produce marginally appetizing and flavorful food, I may never venture beyond the packaging again. Time will tell whether my cholesterol levels have something to be permanently concerned about.

Meanwhile, I’m going to nap and conjure up visions of canned chicken in all its flaky glory. This, my friends, is what dreams are made of.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Muiwek Women's Group

Lately, I’ve been attending women’s groups meetings. As a public health “expert” I am not really sure what I can do to help local groups trying to start up their local businesses, but I’m there as a resource nonetheless. The meetings can be frustrating. The language barrier is a definite problem as the people always speak in Kipsigis—the mother-tongue of the area—and a translator is a rare find. Despite these seemingly important problems, I find myself at these meetings more than I’d like to be. As a bored volunteer, you must take whatever work floats your way.

A women’s group made up entirely of women is a rare find—even more elusive than the translator. One such group is the Muiwek Women’s Group. The volunteer before me had worked with them closely to help them write proposals for the funding of a water tank for their posho mill. Posho mills grind the corn and wheat into flour. Without a water tank, the process is quite laborious. Having a white person at any event is quite an honor and the women wanted a muzungu to dedicate the tank.

As I walked up to the group that morning (about a half hour late as dictated by custom), the women began singing in Kipsigis and clapping their hands. I was embarrassed by the show of attention—after all, I was not the volunteer who helped them raise the money. I was, however, white and American, sufficient reason to celebrate. I smiled and attempted to clap along in rhythm as best I could. I looked at their dark, wrinkled faces. I realized each deep crease held some sort of wisdom gained from their years of experience. I suddenly felt in awe of their strength, which seemed to radiate out with every rhythmic clap and step. I felt much younger than my 22 years. Most of the women were missing teeth and a few women had none at all. One woman had on glasses (a rarity, as most eye problems go untreated) with lenses so thick she looked like an insect. All of them wore brightly colored headscarves that I knew covered shaved, gray heads.

After the dedication ceremony (wherein I cut a small piece of yarn wrapped around the tank and made a small speech about the importance of community), I began to talk to some of the women about their group. Begun in 1977, these women have been working together for almost thirty years and have become quite successful. They’ve managed to open their posho mill. They own their own store. They’ve bought land for their communal shamba and sell the produce at local markets throughout the Bomet District. They’ve even purchased land in another neighboring district that is rented out to farmers.

A man walked up to me and introduced himself in halting English as the chairwoman’s son. A younger woman about my age, probably the daughter of a member, added in a hushed tone that this man was born the same year the women had decided to bond together as an official group. “And look at how old he is now,” she smiled.

I smiled too, and for the first time, I truly understood why the elders in Kenyan culture are accorded so much respect. In a land where death traditionally lurks around every corner and in every crevice, you are lucky, indeed, to obtain your wrinkles and lose your teeth. Each of these women had evaded death through countless pregnancies, bouts of malaria, malnutrition, Rift Valley Fever. But I realized their power and knowledge stemmed from something deeper as well.
The strength these women possessed was not only individual, but a collective power as well. These women had found power through togetherness, through their very femaleness. In a world where women never have the upper hand and misogyny is the rule of the day, these women had managed to gain power. Individually, they would never have the strength and accomplishments they together can claim.

Women in Kenya continue to amaze me. The female is the backbone of this nation, yet they are accorded little respect. Almost all manual tasks from planting to water hauling, from cooking to mud-hut building, from childbirth to child rearing—all of it falls on the very sturdy shoulders of Kenyan women. I haven’t quite figured out the role of men within Kenyan society, and I don’t believe Kenyan men have either. I am sure the average Kenyan man has a function beyond the sperm necessary for the continuation of the species, but I have yet to stumbled across it. My fellow volunteers have discussed the role of men, and have yet to come to a final conclusion, but the general consensus is that as hunting as a societal role was phased out, a newer definition of “man” has yet to be delineated. The Kenyan man is left, without a defined role and place within the more modern structures of society while women continue to shoulder the brunt of the work as tradition dictates.

Women have a bond stronger and deeper than anything I’ve experienced or understood before. They put the Ya-Ya sisters of the bayou to shame. The women hold each other up, spend hours in each other’s kitchens, even nurse each other’s babies. In fact, the very structure of traditional Kenyan marriage supports the female bond. Polygamy is still predominate amongst rural Kenyans, but let me tell you—I’d be the first to beg for a second wife if I had to run a household Kenyan-style.

I’m not saying that squabbling doesn’t occur or cattiness is non-existent, but rather that women in this society to some level realize that they do not have the luxury of in-fighting. There exists an unspoken understanding between women and even I, as a Western female outsider, benefit to some degree. When I cram onto a crowded matatu, I’ll hold an unknown mama’s bag so she can make more room for her four watoto (children). She smile and an understanding will pass: “Here we are, in this together, this role of woman.” At such moments, I probably feel as “Kenyan” as I’ll ever actually be.

The women of Kenya are teaching me more than how to make ugali and sukuma weki. They are teaching me the power of unity. In a culture of individuals from which I come, I take for granted my ability to do alone. I forget that “doing” has different meanings across borders and that it is not always an individual action. And sometimes, simply “being” has more power. I’ve always considered myself to be a “woman’s woman” preferring the company of women to male companionship. But until I came here, I never fully recognized what women together can accomplish simply by providing a place to be.

Although I’ll probably never need my girlfriends to physically nurse my babies, I’d like to believe I can take this understanding of being home with me. I’d like to believe that my girlfriends and I can revel in our wrinkles and the knowledge that with every crease and line comes a wealth of knowledge and wisedom. I hope that we learn the power of togetherness and grow together over the years, through marriage, divorce, babies, illness and death. I want to fully appreciate my friends’ faults and strengths and know that without them, I’d be incomplete. I hope we realize that alone we are just individuals, but united, we have strength that surpasses the imagination. However, I do hope we have all of our teeth.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

14 September 2003

I just got really scared.

Like really really scared. I'm sitting alone in this hotel room with Neville the Wonder Dog in Narok all alone. I guess this is when the panic sets in. I don't know if I can do this.

Everything I own--all my worldly possessions--is in this room (and it's ALOT for Africa!). And I can't believe I gave up America for a kerosene lamp and a spastic dog.

I know I can do this.

But do I want to?