Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kenya: Re-learning, re-living, re-loving.

Three years ago I arrived in Kenya, fresh-faced, overly talkative and unsure of myself or of the complications of voluntourism as a whole. I arrived in the small town of Kitengela, Kenya, having traveled several times already to Ghana - but this time instead of teaching I was placed in a clinic where I worked as medical assistant...Now, in so many ways this goes against everything I believe in. Being a fake nurse with no credentials - yet I was trained to give injections, take blood pressure, do HIV testing and counseling and so much more. Now, I have arrived back to visit for 12 days. It has been truly incredible. (Though, I forgot how cold August was. Especially in comparison to Ghana. I have a thin sweater and some leggings...but I could easily wear a fleece and jeans and boots.) We shall see how I manage...enjoy reading! :)

Small Veggie Market near work

Fire in the Airport
Due to the fire in the Nairobi International airport, when we arrived we walked through tents to customs and for visas. Our baggage was outside in a line and we had to walk around to find it. Then we walked to find the people waiting for us. Mama Lucy, who is 23 years old, my host mother and dear friend, was there waiting for me at the airport. It's been 3 years but she is still the same sweet, goofy woman. I spent that first day re-adjusting and doing errands.

Ghana v. Kenya
On the ride home to Kitengela (also referred to as Kitengesh) I was reminded of the familiarity yet differences between Ghana and Kenya. Kenyans drive on the opposite side of the road as US and Ghana, which surprises me every time. ( I often think a car is driving with no driver and then I realize I'm looking at the wrong side). I watched the sprawling market places whiz by as there was a grey-ness to the morning from smog and dust. Colorful, yet falling apart in places, the motor bikes zooming in and out of traffic - it is quite an experience to visit Kenya - or Ghana.

Though in many ways the two sub-Saharan countries are similar there are distinctive differences between the two countries (at least in what I have observed and in places I have been). Where Ghana has a handle on 'pure' water sachets (clean drinking water), they have mostly open gutters, public toilets and going to the toilet in public is acceptable (not to say this is wrong, just different) - Kenyan's mostly drink tap water, though there is bottled water for mzungus  (whites/foreigners) and others who choose to drink it, but essentially have a good sewer system and I have yet to see an open gutter anywhere in Kenya. (Though I've heard that in the Kibera slums it is present in some forms/ mounds of feces everywhere). Additionally, going to the bathroom in public is not done that I have seen here.

Both countries have many areas with colored shops that stick out against the grey or red-copper dirt roads. The little shops selling various items look very similar and the areas are similarly crowded in the market places. Open produce markets, like a Farmers Market, dominate both Ghana and Kenya in where people buy all of their food.

In Kenya there are dozens of butcheries around with skinned cows (full sized, but missing the head) hanging in the glass windows. It is quite a jarring site at first.  
The cow corpse hanging in the window

Faux Nurse Jessye at St. Therese Dispensary
After a wonderfully warm welcome by the staff at St. Therese Dispensary, especially those who knew me 3 years ago, I was immediately back in the baby clinic (which has now been separated from the maternal clinic because of high demand) and I was working alongside Faith, my previous supervisor once again.

In breaks, we would chat about our lives, me about my love life, school and Thailand, her about her husband, her new son and her daughter. I showed her pictures from Ghana and Brandeis, and she showed me pictures of her kids.

Within a day we had a routine. I did  the charting, weighing, nutrition counseling, birth polio droplets, vitamin A doses, and collected money. She did the injections for the babies. On days when we were really busy, I was left alone and would call her when she had to do an injection. Though seemingly mundane work, the days go by quickly. I'm exhausted by the end of them, but here, more than even in Ghana, I feel useful. I help lessen Faith's load. When it's very slow, I fill prescriptions in the pharmacy or tidy up offices.

After a few days, Faith and I were practically inseparable. Though divided by different worlds, her a mother of two, a wife and a nurse (she's 30) and me a 22 year old recent post-grad with an interest in learning and observing things (and a baby lover) - yet we get along perfectly, our conversations flow - there is little to no gap between our socioeconomic and cultural differences that impair our friendship.We spend the quiet moments trading stories or teaching each other different words in our respected languages.

The other staff, besides Faith are also extremely warm hearted and welcoming and during Tea Time (a mandatory 10am-ish break of tea and mandazi (boiled/fried bread) and lunch I interact with all the other staff. St. Therese is run by Catholic Sisters, the head sister is from South Korea. Since last time I was here they have built a new building and expanded many of their services.

Working as a fake nurse really makes me interested in medicine and nursing. Every time I leave work I want to be a doctor and a nurse. I even found myself researching post-bacc degrees in order to train to be able to do this work all over the world. Would love to open a clinic or a school in Kenya or Ghana some day.
My office station - immunizations book and weighing table

WARNING - not for the faint of heart
 Sometimes Faith and I are called to the injections and dressings room. The last time I was in the dressings room was three years ago when a young lady's heel had been cut off in a motor bike accident and with no anestheia they were trying to stitch it back together. I was tasked with keeping the young girl talking and holding her hand, but when I looked at the heel hanging off her foot... I promptly fainted and woke up 10 minutes later on a hospital bed. Oops.

Though I haven't fainted this time, we've had some very difficult wounds to deal with.
We had a 4 year old girl who was so badly burned a year ago that she still couldn't walk and from her hip to her knee on the side was ripe and bloody still. Pulling off the dressing was the most horrific part, I had to hold her as she screamed and flailed, while Faith cleaned the wound. She had been sleeping in her bed when it caught fire. She has a twin who was unharmed. The smell of burnt flesh and antiseptics left me wriggling my nose for quite some time.

Another day there was a woman with a wound on her ankle that was three inches by three inches circle and nearly a third of an inch deep. It looked like someone had taken a knife, cut a poorly done circle fairly deep and ripped it off. She was hit by a motorbike two weeks ago.

There have been others, but those two stuck out to me the most.

Welcomed into Faith's Home
This past weekend I went to Faith's house in Mlongo, about 30 minutes from Kitengela. Unlike Kitengela, which is a short 10 minute walk from the matatu (bus) station, Faith's home is a good 30 minute walk from the matatu station and parts of it are terrifying slippery and steep. It was like a small mountain at points/climbing a rock wall with mud, water and rocks. Faith went slowly to keep her energy, but I raced to the top. Eventually we got to her house, placed in the middle of nowhere, with only a few cement huts nearby. Faith has a 4.5 year old girl named Joyce and a 18 month old boy named Pius. I was immediately welcomed into the family. Joyce warmed up to me right away.

Communication - Joyce began speaking to me in Kiswahili very quickly, and assumed I understood. I often had to ask Faith to translate, but I found that despite her not knowing more than a few words of English and me no more than a 10-12 phrases in Kiswahili, we were able to communicate very well. We used sign language, pointing, gesturing - and were able to communicate. When it was time to sleep on Saturday night, Joyce refused to sleep in her bed (the bunk bed next to where I would sleep) and instead, I again, shared my bed with a 5 year old. Only this time I was urinated on in the middle of the night. But, worse things have happened. :) The best part was having to sleep in the same peed on bed the next night. When in Mlongo... :)
Joyce is an energetic, friendly young girl and as always I quickly opened my heart to her - despite her peeing on me.
Faith, Pius and Joyce using the crayons I gave them

Joyce & Pius posing on the floor

Before church in the morning

Virginiah Muthoni - My sweet sister
Outside of my 8:30am-4:30pm work day at St. Therese, I spend my remaining waking hours, from 4:30pm-9pm most often with Virginiah. Virginiah is now thirteen years old, but was ten when we met. Three years ago, we would also spend most afternoons together. Talking, teaching each other things, buying food, cooking, and watching badly dubbed Spanish soaps on the television. Now, we've gotten back into our routine.

Sadly, Virginiah's mother has been evicted from her home. Virginiah now stays with her aunt (her estranged father's sister) in a one room apartment with her aunt and two cousins. It's cramped and Virginiah's things hang in two plastic bags near the front door. She's miserable there, as her aunt does not treat her well. It's painful to see and the hours we spend talking about it cause me to cry later because I wish there was more I could do. Yet, I know that someday when I have money, I will be able to help her. She wants to be a journalist or a neurosurgeon and suggested recently she might want to be a psychologist because she said that talking to me made her feel better (that bold is for you mom & dad).

She is such a giving person. When I took her to lunch during the school day one day, we came back to eat at school. Several of her acquaintances did not have money for lunch or any lunch, and she gladly shared the lunch I bought her with all of them. Giving them sips of coke, bites of her food and plenty french fries. It made me grin to ear to ear to see how much she reminded me of myself in her selfless ways that I try to also have. 

I will miss her very much when I leave, but I've realized that all of these goodbyes are not goodbyes forever, because I know I will find a way to return to these people and places that I love.
Me and Virginiah at a fundraiser for St. Therese

Thoughts about Voluntourism - My Oxymoron Self 
 I've been struggling to separate my negative thoughts on the impact of neo-colonialism, paternalism and a lack of understanding of reciprocity in these volunteer programs. In my senior honors thesis I found that medical placements were often the most problematic, but that was mostly due to feelings of entitlement on behalf of the volunteers. I know there is no way I should be doing the injections, yet when given the opportunity to learn how to do so safely and inject the pregnant mothers with tetanus shots, I enjoyed the experience of learning. Where at first I was feeling like I was contradicting some of the work I spent the past 1.5 researching and writing, to avoid problematic problems, I think it is all about the attitude you put into it. Most days all I do is paperwork, weighing and giving vitamins or birth polio droplets to babies. For Faith, I know it lessens her load (besides from just her telling me it does) especially when we are short staffed and she is working other rooms as well. I think the most important thing about voluntourism is understanding there should be no entitlement and a clear understanding of reciprocity on both sides.

Last few days
These last few days I will be busy at work, going back to Faith's on Friday night and headed to Nairobi on Saturday. On Saturday I will meet up with Cynthia, a friend from Brandeis who is native to Kenya and Ruth Okello, a co-worker from St. Therese from 2010 who moved. Then on Sunday I'll return to Kitengela and Monday I fly to JFK! Just 4 weeks until Thailand. Thanks so much for reading! Hope to see lots of you in Boston when I return!

More Pictures for the Visually Inclined:
Kids playing rope in the morning
Walk to work in the morning
The neighbor who visits lucy's shop

Making Pancakes


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