Friday, March 22, 2019

Last Day....First Day

Graduation Picture: Serious looking group, huh? From 4 counties: Kenya, India, Nigeria,  U.S.

I tried to get them to have a bit of fun here!

I have just completed 10 weeks with these wonderful people.  A group of people from different countries, with different languages, ideologies, theologies and life experiences—coming together as strangers, leaving as family. We shared everything together: meals, class lectures, practicum, laughter, tears, anger, and frustrations. We broke down barriers with each other, committing ourselves to be trusting, trustworthy, vulnerable and transparent with our whole selves. We pledged to one another that we would accompany each person as he or she was challenged to walk through personal darkness, deeply held pains, and personal achievements that, unawares, influence who we are and how we live and love. Our goal for ourselves and for each other: personal authenticity and complete self awareness. At times I wanted to leave, at other times I held others who wanted to leave. I  guarantee there is not one of us who is leaving this place the same as when he or she showed up on day one. And that is truly what its about, isn't it—taking the step to simply show up!

I have dusted off my purple bag and laid it opened. In the bottom of my bag is my red lipstick, untouched since I arrived here. I have a day or so to decide what I am packing, and what I am leaving behind.

I thank everyone who has traveled with me. I have felt your love and commitment everyday while you have journeyed with me.  I have purposely not commented on comments, because I have tried to remain mindful and present to my time here. I have a tendency to get distracted when I start corresponding. But I want each of you to know that I have read all your messages, and they have fueled me to keep writing. The numbers have grown, and I am deeply humbled by it.

I leave Sunday for a week of solo traveling to beautiful places like Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Amboselli, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mombasa. I am going to leave my computer behind, and travel with a pad of paper and a pen only. I have so much to reflect upon, so much to bring together, before I return home. I will write my last entry when I get back. I will remain grateful for every word I put on paper; for all the beauty I will behold; and for the ability to witness struggles that remain constant in a world filled with imperfect humanity.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

One of My Sweet Friends
I close my eyes, resting my head in my hands. It is mid afternoon, the time of day I escape to the back of the hospital chapel, retreating for my "holy nap." After a morning of presence and engagement with profound human suffering, I need time to crawl in to my metaphorical womb, the place where life begins and grows—lovingly caressed and nourished in the unsullied waters of life. I began there. You began there. The multitude of differences, pains and joys all began there.

While resting, my mind is drawn to the echoing of children's voices, small beings playing chase in a captured area at the far end of the hospital corridor. The sound is recognizable and universal–found anywhere children have access to one another. Excitement and laughter dance towards me, unbroken through their innocence and joviality. My mind lingers in this playful moment—mother and her child—awe and splendor dissected from the reality of pain and limitations. 

Familiarity—My mind is drawn deeper—called by a memory hidden in the recesses of time and place. It is summer. My children are young. Picnic basket, chaise lounge, warm pool deck cooled by the playful splashes of water. It is hot, and I close my eyes, confident my children are safely swimming under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. The corners of my mouth reflexively tilt upward as I recognize the exhilarated voices of my children at play, rising above the chorus of "Marco...polo...Marco...polo." Voices of carefree imagination and boundless abandon reverberate across the water, like the echoes of the children at play down the hall from where I rest my head. The sounds of summer rapture are as recognizable as the smell of french fries and chlorine absorbed in to the sun kissed skin of my children at the end of a playful day.  

The chiming of altar bells breaks through my reverie; yet I hold on to the echoes of the children down the hospital corridor.  I summon the bells to wait, I need to stay with these young children a little longer. A lump develops in my throat that I feel is going to rupture at any moment in to angry sobs, "Why God. Why are these children so alone?" But God won't answer. I have asked this question multiple times, yet the space I leave for a holy response continues to remain silent. I have to imagine that the answer lies somewhere in the weeps of suffering that the Universe tenderly holds. It is the only answer I will accept; or the work I am doing, the work so many people are during across this vast globe, is part of some sick game from a masochistic power that I would never choose to meet. 

I leave the chapel, stopping at the end of the hall before returning to work. I smile as I watch the children's frayed green sherbet colored hospital gowns fly open, and their multiple bandages unfurl towards the floor; little bodies desperately trying to escape the garments of illness and abandonment, for this one moment in time. I watch as their mouths open with laughter, their bent and abused bodies giving all in the game of chase. Standing beside the warmth they have created, a response to  my "Why God?" question becomes clear. There is no answer to the why, except for humanity and the choices we make. Yet, in that moment, I witnessed something holy dancing in the eyes of the little ones. 

My Hospital Partner: Father Patrick
My brother from a different mother

I cannot think of a time I have been "othered." The only time I have felt slightly on the edge of the "other" is when I was the only white girl among 12 African American students in a race, religion and ethnicity class at Vanderbilt. But I chose to be in that class in hopes of understanding racism. Furthermore, not one person in that class had any intention of "othering" me; hence, this example really doesn't count. 

The urban dictionary describes "othering" as "any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody's mind as "not one of us." The etymology of the word connotes group cohesiveness, as in a tribe. Contemporarily speaking, the word is used in a derogatory or negative disposition— marking the "other" as somehow less human; juxtaposed against our superiority and rank. Society tends to categorize "others" based on skin color, socioeconomic or educational status, religious affiliations or countries of origin, or a plethora of lifestyles viewed as edgy or alternative. Being an educated white, middle class Westerner, I am the quintessential demographic for one that "others" others. Somewhere along my developmental trajectory, I was inculcated in a group whose status was crowned as the "norm," from which all "others" were...well..."othered."

Lately, the coin has flipped sides and I am discovering the pain of being "othered." I am interpreted as so completely different, that at times the ground below my feet feels unstable, resulting in a nagging sense of unease. Most offensive is the reality that with being "othered," I am robbed of autonomy and individuality, thrown in to the swamp of inescapable judgements, biases, innuendos and characteristics, assigned out of fear and ignorance.

I am "othered" in this country. I am presumed a rich, white, arrogant American woman with no worries or cares outside of what I want. More specifically, I am seen as a pompous ass who fortunately and conveniently wears a sign that states, "Walking ATM.Daily, I have no less than 5 people ask me for money for a "sick mother," or "10 sick orphans." More so, the lengths some people go to in order to get money is abominable. Adults use children as bait, laying them on a blanket with mangled limbs and profound birth defects, smoldering in the hot sun, in hopes of getting a few shillings.  

Maybe you can relate to the scenario: you are desperately lost in a foreign land. Initially confident that google maps has your back, panic ensues as, around the 30 minute mark, Siri and google maps stop jiving together. As a result, the mind becomes jittery and reactive while you struggle to pull yourself out of a never ending loop of the Twilight Zone. Looking calm inside raw panic beccomes an art form.

This was my experience on Saturday. I meandered for over 2 hours in an area of town so crowded, so loud, so foreign, and so far from my desired destination that I felt the brewing panic. Adding to my worry, was the "low battery" warning that decided to shine its light in that moment. "Shit, shit!" is all my mind could muster for about 10 minutes of my wandering.

 Cognizant of the importance of walking with confidence so as to not look like I am lost, (as I am simultaneously cussing at myself for not taking that self defense class I signed up for), I used each step to keep myself together — contemplating how the hell I was going to find my way out of this situation. My whiteness, and all the judgement and biases that came with my "otherness," made me easy prey. The call, "Mzunga" (white person) descended upon me from all directions. No less than two times, a passerby attempted to rip my bag off my shoulder, to which I aggressively responded with a pointy elbow to the side. Uninvited, various parts of my body were touched, and my ponytail was grabbed. Confusion mounting, fear took hold of my hand. 

I spotted a market that looked familiar. Ducking inside the entrance, I paused for a moment to see if Siri and Google had rejoined each other and established an escape route for me. The respite was brief as I looked toward the ambush of merchants rapidly advancing towards me; mouths open as they literally crawled over each other to get to me, "Mzunga... buy much can I sell you?" I became both dizzy and desperate as I attempted to push past them unscathed. With his large stature, a man blocked my path while he shoved a handful of bracelets and belts in my face. "How much," he coarsely demanded?  Exasperated, I stood my ground as I looked him straight in the eyes. Gathering the roll of panic with my survival instincts,  I yelled loud enough for the entire market to hear,  "Leave me the f--- alone!" 

Shocked stillness came on the heals of my outburst, even though I was fairly confident they did not understand a word I said. I didn't care. I felt better! The man puffed his chest a little more as he sized me up. Curling his lip in complete disgust, (culturally, women do not yell at a man in public), he preached to the crowd, "You are rich, we are poor." 

In a calmer tone, I replied, "How do you know that I am rich? Are you assuming this because I have white skin? Does this assumption of yours give you the right to hassle me and treat me this way?" Refusing to let anyone witness the tears forming, I pushed past him and made my way to the nearest exit.

 I eventually found my way back to the safety of the compound, exhausted.

"Othering" is abusive. While my experience was frightening and overwhelming, it was minor compared to the unrelenting and oppressive "othering" of so many, by people who somehow feel entitled to place individuals with any difference in an inescapable prison. 


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Mekatilili Wa Menza
"Mother of the Resistance"

I don't want to read these same pages again. 
                 Look in the mirror and imagine me.  (Kirk Franklin)

     Nairobi is waking up early this morning. The dewy air, kissing my skin and rolling through my hair, asks me to sit and place my agenda aside. Accepting this invitation, I sit with my cup of coffee, relinquishing everything to the bloom of the morning, watching as she frolics with amusing potential. I close my eyes and inhale this offering, content—just me and the Divine.
     While the sun promises a terribly hot day, for now, felicity abounds as Mother Nature plays. I am entertained with shimmering droplets of water dancing across banana leaves and mango trees, accompanied by the melodious chirps of the speckled mousebirds acrobatically rolling and hopping over the grass. It is a luxury, to be sure, having the option to pause and witness the unfolding of a beautiful day. I am aware that in a few hours, I will exit this sanctuary.  I will walk passed many who are not afforded this same luxury. Scarcity is their motivation of the morning, like most mornings, with the goal of surviving one more day.

     This last week flew by. I never realized until now the impact time has on my state of mind, as well as my emotional well being. In stark contrast to the seemingly endless drudgery of the week prior, resulting in a tiring and blue disposition, I ended this last week happy and fufilled. A change of scenery is often the antidote for stagnation. I was grateful to be part of a group asked to cover a different  hospital, one that none of us had worked in before. While the destination was much farther than the usual 45 minute walk we had grown accustomed to, the feeling of adventure and curiosity made this fact insignificant.
     The hospital was built during the British occupation, to serve as a hospital for infectious diseases. As I looked around, acquainting myself with my new surroundings, I kept thinking of the movie The English Patient. The architecture—one story stone buildings painted in a cheery pale yellow color with large open windows framed by heavy wooden shutters painted evergreen—lends itself as a perfect backdrop for a romanticized World War II movie.
     As we walked along the cobblestone pathway that meandered through luscious tropical foliage, connecting the various hospital wards, I thought to myself, "What a serene and spacious place for an ill person to recuperate." Unlike the public hospital that feels like an enormous block of dirty concrete stifling any opportunity for freshness, this hospital felt spacious and airy.
     My revelry in the nostalgic feel of the hospital was mercilessly quashed as I took my first step inside the patient wards. As in the other hospital, I can't imagine how anyone could think an ill person could recover in this dismal and unsanitary environment. The patients lie in beds so close to each other that privacy is impossible, much less any chance of infection control. The rooms are cluttered with  archaic medical equipment scattered in pieces and haphazardly thrown in corners, dirty floors with bugs feasting on old pieces of food dropped on the unswept floor, copious amount of flies buzzing around and landing on the patients faces and bodies, and odious smells of waste and old food. I felt dirty just standing in the doorway.
     Interestingly, I have recently noticed my ability to work in these dire environments without the abject disgust and raging emotionality experienced during my first 7 weeks of work. Admittedly, I am unsure how to interpret this. Could my assimilation be a sign of growth, crass denial, or errant complacency? Honestly, I think it is more a survival technique.

       Saturday, I escaped the compound with an energized and adventurous spirit. I had 3 goals for the day: sip on a  good cup of coffee, successfully navigate my way to the infamous outdoor market, and spend the afternoon at the African Cultural museum. Tucked inside these goals was the ever present desire to end my day with an icy cold beer.
      I completely ignored the warnings from friends who heard I was heading to the outdoor market by     foot, advising me instead to go with someone who knew the safest path to the market and could act as an informed buffer between me and the aggressive merchants who equate white female from the West with a walking ATM.  Believing myself invincible and brave, I casually waved them off with a slight tilt of the head and shrug of the shoulders, "Nah, I think I can handle it just fine,"–internally translated as, "I do not want to go with you or anyone. I need alone time."
     Within the first 30 minutes of my hour or so walk to the market, a fairly well dressed man crossed the busy street and rushed towards me. He accompanied me a few steps before he introduced the small talk—"nice day," "where are you from," "where are you heading to," and so on. Being co-dependent as hell, I did not want to offend, or hurt his feelings by rudely ignoring him. So while my inner red flashers were rapidly pulsing, I repressed them by making small talk in return. Instead of saying, "Please leave me alone," like a wise woman not from the South would say, I babbled on and on as if he was my best friend. Surely there are studies analyzing this pathological phenomenon —when one disengages so completely from the appeal of her higher functioning brain that is screaming, "Warning, warning," just to feed the deeply dysfunctional fear of hurting the stranger (who obviously picked me out as gullible).
     No, I did not get mugged or robbed. No, he did not throw me into oncoming traffic...all those    possibilities streaming through my mind while simultaneously carrying on mindless chat with this total stranger in a strange country. After remaining by my side until I arrived at the outdoor marked, he simply bowed his head and said, "Don't think me a poor African man, but I have 10 orphans at home needing food."
"Hmm, here it is," I internally mused.  I handed him 1000 shillings, thinking that was pretty damn generous. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow of expectation and said, "But they need medicine as well." Mustering my courage, I replied, "Thats all I have." Frustrated, I turned and walked away.

     I made my way to the gates of the outdoor market, agitated and befuddled by the stranger exploiting me for cash. Before my body fully cleared the entrance gait, I was bombarded by merchants pushing their wares in my face, all the while screaming, "I give you a good price." When I learned the market was "cash only," the vendors literally encircled me, each offering to escort me to the ATM across the street.  I quickly became overwhelmed, exacerbated by the relentless heat and shoulder to shoulder crowds of sweaty people screaming at me. Exasperated, I turned toward the merchants clinging to me like baby birds pecking for food, and yelled, "Stop following me!" I rushed toward the exit, hid behind a shade tree, and texted an Uber in hopes I could escape the scene unscathed.
     I almost gave up for the day. My initial goals set in the nascent morning hours seemed far off and impossible.  As I sat gathering myself together in the air-conditioned Uber, I thought about going back to the compound, taking a cool shower, and spending the rest of the day in bed with a good book. However, a small voice reminded me that my time in this country was rapidly coming to an end. I requested the driver take me to the museum. I promised myself a leisurely, unencumbered walk through the exhibitions.
   I purchased my ticket and walked through the gate, happily anticipating a quiet, informative afternoon by myself. Entering the first hallway, a very tall Nigerian man stepped in my path, forcing me to stop.  With a childlike smile he loudly announced, "Welcome. I am to be your guide for the day." "Great," I half-heartedly replied;  all the while my inner self was screeching, "Just say no!"
    Granted, he was incredibly informative. He supplied stories for me that I would not have surmised perusing the exhibits on my own. I did not realize that Kenya gained its independence as recently as 1963. As my guide led me through the portrait hall, he told stories of the lore surrounding the insurrectionists, the prophets, and the leaders who fought against the powerful and oppressive British. While used to viewing American history from an awe-filled passage of time, the Kenyan fight for independence continues to be with in reach.
     The Kenyan culture is ripe with traditions that fortunately, and unfortunately, continue today. The tribal sense of community remains foundational. While modernity is beginning to eek in to most areas of the country, many long held tribal customs and rituals maintain an unyielding hold. Children are cared for by the community—encouraged to run around naked and free. After chores, they spend the day playing with handmade  toys sculpted from banana leaves and olive wood. At 15, however,  all the play things must be forever abandoned. Fifteen is the age of circumcision, the rite of passage in to adulthood. In many tribes, boys are taken away from the community for a week or so, where they are instructed by "aunts" and "uncles" the rules of being a man. This includes warrior techniques,  hunting rituals, and lessons on how to be a good husband. In some communities, young women are brought to them to assist in learning the "ways of sex." At the end of the week, the boy is circumcised in a festive tribal ceremony. He can no longer play like a child; nor is he permitted to ever cry.
     Girls go through a similar ritual. They spend time together with "aunts" and "uncles" learning how to be wives, mothers, good cooks and housekeepers. When my tour guide added the caveat, "They are taught how to take care of their man," I had to roll my eyes. Although female circumcision is outlawed in the country, it unfortunately continues to be a rite of passage in certain tribes.

The best part of my day? Hands down, it was sipping an icy cold beer in the museum cafe.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A rest stop on the highway
(has nothing to do with my post, just loved the pic)

I had to give myself a firm pep talk as I walked to my new cafe. You see, last week felt interminable; in fact, I experienced it as the longest week of my stint here in Kenya. Between the heat, the dismal conditions in the hospital, and the repetitive meals of ugali, spinach, and cabbage, I longed for home. I pined for my children, my friends, and the unwavering love and affection of my bed partners—Forrest and Nala—my two large fluffy friends.  I craved conversations with my adult children about nothing and everything, and wine with my lifelong girlfriends who just "get me." Every cell of my body cried out for toilet paper in bathrooms, paper towels in paper towel dispensers, mattress pads on beds, ice in glasses because drinks are supposed to be cold, and the dependability of warm water when I turn on the shower. I longed for a succulent wine or a frosty mug of beer, bagel sandwiches and Mexican food. I wanted to get dressed up and go on a date...with a kind and interesting man. My week was filled with constant reminders of all things homey. I love home.

Following my incredibly delicious cup of coffee and chocolate croissant, I decided to take the long way back to the compound while I finished my pep talk, congratulating myself for making it through these past 7 weeks without manifesting a totally historic meltdown. Only 3 more weeks! Unfortunately, like many a weary traveler, I have reached that tipping point of no return— counting the hours instead of the days.

As I rounded the corner of the cafe,  I discovered a hair salon that I had never seen before. Musing in the joy I felt in this discovery, my pep talk abruptly came to an end. I giddily walked in the front door and stood mesmerized, relishing in the smell of exotic shampoos and nail polish, and the sight of lavender and sea foam green bottles of conditioners, hair gels and tonics...oh how familiar and how lovely!

My dreamy state was rapidly broken. In a matter of seconds,  I found myself the object of a forward trajectory loaded with boundless and inescapable energy, "Oh, welcome!  Please, how can I help you?" The owner was literally skipping towards me, clapping his hands to his exuberant sing-songy welcome. Bowled over and uncomfortably embarrassed by his histrionics, I responded with an unsure, "Um, yes. I think so?" Taking note of my hesitant committal, he shoved a menu of services in front of my face. As I perused the menu, I sensed the bubbling of my vainglorious self awaken from her long winter's (or summer in Kenya) nap. Not to be outdone by the owner's enthusiasm, my vanity valiantly and without hesitation took control, rattling off in a sensually-self indulgent voice, "Well, yes! I would like a manicure and a pedicure...and oh, an eyebrow weaving...and, hmm, why not a wash and blow dry while we are at it." I was fully committed.  Oh, the things we do when we are feeling homesick!

My docket of services was done by a beautiful, very large boned Kenyan woman with considerably massive hands. She required only one hand to wash my hair, occasionally palming my skull like a basketball as her fingers dug deeply in to my temples. This formidable woman embodied moxie, channeling her enthusiastic blend of Swahili and English chit-chat through her fingers, unawares that I was beginning to wince in pain.

As our exchange of language fell in to an accessible rhythm, I discovered a brilliant woman with an inner being matching that of her powerful hands. She fit the narrative I hear and observe daily: the backbone of this country are women. With odds stacked against them, from the legalization of polygamy, to the inbred misogynistic culture and lack of legal recourse for amoral and abusive treatment, it is a wonder these women have not crumbled under the heavy weight of oppressive and often dire circumstances. They are forced to remain silent out of fear. Just a couple of weeks ago, a female human rights advocate was suspiciously murdered.

Everywhere I go, I am unremittingly stared down by the consequences of an androcentric culture that treats women as objects, measured by her transactional worth to a man. Walk through the wards of the public hospital, where the cultural damage to women and children is painfully visible. A man can walk out on his wife and children at any time, for any reason, abandoning her physically, financially, and emotionally—without any legal recourse for support. Many women are admitted to the hospital as a direct consequence of this draconian paradigm—bodies burned and beaten by a husband, discarded for another wife. The units are teeming with mothers and their children whose husbands walked away the day they entered the hospital, abandoning her with a large hospital bill, no home, and no source of income. It is appalling. Yet, I have never met women anywhere with as much might and fortitude as Kenyan women.

Lately, I have been asking myself, "What can I do to help bring about change? Struggling with questions like this always brings me back to the Parable of the Babies in the River (please google the parable if you do not know it). Issues of injustice and violations to the human person can overwhelm, resulting in paralysis. Often I resort to honorable, yet not effective solutions, like prayer. I am discovering the difference between performing charitable activities, and doing the difficult work of social justice. One of the most challenging places to start the heavy work of social justice is in our own homes. Unless we are willing to be honest about our own biases and judgmental attitudes towards others, we will never be able to roll up our sleeves and use the privilege of our station in life to do the hard work of changing oppressive and false narratives.

I just finished a book by Dr Brene Brown, called Braving the Wilderness. The focus of Brown's book is true belonging—that primal desire that all humans crave and need. We long to be part of something bigger than ourselves— to be real and authentic. She writes, "True belonging only happens when we bring our true and authentic self and perfection in to the world. Our level of true belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance...once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, that is when true belonging occurs." Beautiful, huh?

But this is her challenge: Being ourselves often requires the courage to stand totally alone in the wilderness–standing for what we believe in. 

I will end this long and meandering post with this:

We are connected by love and human spirit, no matter how much we disagree, we are part of the same spiritual story." (Dr. Brene Brown)

                                                                                                                    The Banks of Lake Victor...