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


Monday, August 5, 2013

6th Trip to Ghana: Making the Familiar Strange

Ghana is such a familiar location to me now that I do not know how to create a cohesive picture of it for those who have not been here. How do I explain the colorful life of Accra, mixed with poverty, disparities, joy, music, color, food, people, familiar faces and places - and so much more? More than descriptions I am unclear as how to portray my extreme love for this country and the people I know here - though perhaps it being my 6th trip here in 4 years sort of...explains that. When I am here, I am so blissfully stuck in my own head, observing and thinking - weaving together descriptions of the life here - that I forget the majority of people reading this blog have never been to Ghana. I hope in this portraiture piece of my three week return here, you are all able to get a glimpse of the chaos, color, beauty, pain and wonder that I too see in Ghana.

Ghana is fantastically colorful, friendly and musically inclined. There is so much laughter and smiling, and general fascination with the world. There is pain and extreme poverty - and culturally things that make me feel uncomfortable - but it is such a beautiful, inviting country that I still find myself feeling at peace here. I do not know how to begin to explain the love I have for this country, nor the daily experiences I am having. From the food, to the children, to the traveling, to daily conversations - all of it is so fantastically wonderful and intensely difficult at times. It's exhausting daily.

As I walk along the reddish-brown dirt roads that weave in between small shacks and cement compounds, my mind strings together colorful sentences to attempt to describe what I am experiencing here in Ghana. My mind is constantly in motion thinking of a hundred different things at once. Processing my surroundings, as well as considering things outside the daily and bold motions of everyday Ghanaian life.

This trip is my last for a long time - though I hardly think I can stay away forever - I don't think I'll be back soon. But I am okay with this. I feel ready - ready for new adventures. Time to wrap up the NGO, say see you later and enjoy my time in this beautiful place.

Ghana: Forever a Second Home - How to Process 
Walking through the familiar customs area of the Kotoka International Airport, I weave through the crowds, eager to find Joeshmail, my closest friend in Ghana (a 21 year old preschool teacher at a school I work at). Entering the main room, Joeshmail appeared with a big smile, waving at me -- and holding her hand was none other than HOUDA! Houda, last summer was one of our (me & my friends) favorite babies, (now she is two years old!). At school, Houda was always on our laps, (especially me or Emma's). She was a bit confused to see me, but at school the next day she came running up to me and even said my name (which she had not done last year). It was a very sweet surprise.

Driving back from the airport, the familiar sites and smells of Accra greet me. The stiffly hot air, the smells of trash, feces, mixed with fruits and meat, create a familiar smell that no longer phases me.Many people are walking around with baskets, buckets, bowls on their heads - filled with various items for sale. Everything from dish rags to super glue to plantain chips and tigernuts. Joeshmail escorts me to my new place, where we are staying in the back of a large family house (a friend of her boyfriends). The walls are pink, with large purple diamonds - there is a large ceiling fan, a table, a queen mattress, a toilet and an area to bath. We do not have running water, so we fetch water down the road every day to bath and to flush the toilet. It is comfortable (ghana comfortable) and I love living with Joeshmail. We spend a lot of time together, but I also have my own independence here and can go off on my own often.

And so I'm back and the adventures begin.

Houda in my glasses

In the US - and most other 'western' places we take water for granted. Drinking and bathing. Here it is not the same. Water is drunk from plastic bags called pure water sachets - you bite the corners off and drink. Water for bathing varies. Last year, we had running water and a trickle shower. Other years, I've done bucket showers but had a tap flowing nearby. This time, no running water nearby - we travel half a mile to get buckets of water and drag them back to our house.

for three days there has been no tap running.  This has resorted to some expensive and time consuming showers. As I have taken a bucket and filled it with water sachets. Each one is about 500 ml of water. I use about 20 for a shower. Thank GOODNESS I cut my hair so short recently. I'm getting use to the hour long bucket showers that include biting 20 sachet and squeezing them into the bucket. It's almost like I EARNED my shower at the end of it. :)

So - be grateful everybody - for the things you have that you think of as necessities - because so often they are not things that other people around the world can count on, on a daily basis or even at all sometimes. This is just one example.

Watching Children Grow: Vision Seed & Home visits
Over the past four years, there is one school I have worked at for all four years: Vision Seed Academy. There I have had the pleasure of watching many children grow up. This has been such a highlight for me, seeing students whom when I first met them were barely talking, be going into Class 3 in September, now 8 years old! Isha Beauty and Naa Dromo have both consistently been special to me since 2009, the two of them have each called me when I am in the United States, (both of them are now 8 years and were 4 years when I met them) and I always end up spending the most time with them.

As I walk into the familiar grounds of Vision Seed I am greeted by the laughter and hugs of over 40 children as they all sing song my name and pull on my arms. It's a warm, yet exhausting welcome. Isha and Dromo are by the door, 'make way' Isha calls and runs into my arms, Dromo following behind her. Teachers welcome me back and ask what I've been up to the past year. I feel at home.

One of the days during this trip I took Isha and Dromo out for ice cream to celebrate and say farewell. Who knows if I will see them again? Traveling on a tro, small, clammy palms clasped in my own, Isha and Dromo chatter to one another in English (instead of Ga) about how I will take one of them to America - they are arguing over which one. I quiet them down by telling them I'm not even going to be in America next year. Wide-eyed they look at me - confused as I explain I'll be somewhere else.

After the field trip I escort the two children back home, through winding roads and many greetings along the way. Everyone wants to talk to the white girl with two small Ghanaian children holding her hands. After bringing Isha home, Dromo's mother wants to cook something for me. So I am escorted into her living quarters. A small dark blue room, with a tv and wardrobe. I don't notice it until later, but there is a small bucket in the corner. I later learn this small bucket, the same kind I use for bathing, is their toilet. I notice this as Dromo hops over there and pees and then comes back to sit on my lap. I try not to squirm. This is Ghana.

Though I could take a moment here to talk about the poverty in Ghana - the way most people live on less than a dollar a day - I think it takes away from understanding what I love about this country. Often times I will take about my sicknesses or having no water or other things that would drive a million people crazy I'm sure - and they tell me 'Jessye, you are not selling Ghana very well' - Well, I'm not trying to sell it exactly, but I do want people to see the kindness. Here was someone who can barely afford to take care of her own three children, cooking my dinner - and she even paid for my cab home. Thanking me profusely for helping her daughter with English and for loving her.

I thank Dromo's mother extensively for the meal and then head home. Another one of those long days.

Isha (left) Dromo (right) and I at ice cream parlor

Sticky Fingers, Pounding Fufu and MASH: The Coming King
At The Coming King, another school I work at, I receive perhaps the warmest welcome - staff and kids alike screaming ' Auntie Jessye!!!' and hugging me into extinction.  At first it used to frighten me and I felt liked simply because I was white and therefore different, but through time I have come to accept and understand the boundaries and welcomes. I love the kids and staff at this school, and likewise I am also deeply cared about. There is a system of reciprocity we have established, both from my returns and interns and art classes - as well as from general kindness toward one another. Bouncing from classroom to classroom, everyone is asking if I will come to their class. I promise to visit everyone. I teach short lessons, explain to the teachers what is happening with the NGO and enjoy the delicious rice with tomato stew that is my favorite food in Labadi. (Seriously, last summer we made the Auntie write us a recipe we loved it so much).

Working with the babies, rice slips between my fingers with an orange oily stew staining my pale hands as I fed babies with my finger tips - the rice that does not want to ball up easily. Diapers to be changed, methodically throwing diapers away and putting new ones on, kissing cheeks and tickling bellies for the all too cute smiles. It's a routine I know.

Later, I move to my upper level classroom and we do some writing exercises. Followed by a series of MASH games (an old school matchmaker game) and several different cootie catchers. The kids greatly appreciate the game MASH and when I return a few days later, they are still playing it in their notebooks.

One of the days I was there, it was their last day before vacation so they were pounding fufu. A playdough like consistency that is sticky, and must be pounded for quite a long time until it is finished. It is made from plantain and cassava. It's one of my favorite Ghanaian foods. Uncle Nat, the headmaster, snaps a picture of me attempting to pound the fufu. Everyone is laughing.

The Coming King will forever be a special place for me. It was the place last year - where a bunch of students trampled me and broke my foot. But it is also such a special place, with wonderful teachers and students. The cement compound, across from the beach, with its falling apart walls and chipping paint, will forever be a place of warm comfort - with its loud singing and delicious rice with tomato stew.
This is the fufu process!

Playing Mom
Adelaide is 5 years old, with a bright smile, great hair and a desire to play and laugh. Her mom does not like having her around the house - apparently her mom is often sick and so Joeshmail often has Adelaide sleep at her place for a night. For two nights of my visit I played mom to Adelaide. She came home with us after a long day at her school, I would bath her and feed her dinner, read her books (I had brought two kids books for some friends who had small kids) and draw pictures with her. Around 8, I would place her in the middle of our bed and kiss her goodnight. Joeshmail and I would sit at the end of the bed talking or reading, and then would slip next to her. One time she woke up and wasn't feeling well so I held her in my arms, and we fell asleep like that entangled limbs and all.

Tomorrow morning Joeshmail, Adelaide and I are going to Kumasi (another city) for four days. Then Joeshmail, Fred (her bf) and I will go to Kokrobite (a beach town) for the weekend - then I'm off to Kenya.

This Adelaide on her ice cream trip. She was very excited.

Highlights and Lowlights
In the intrest of the skimmer reader -- here are some highlights and lowlights 
  •  delicious Ghanaian food - from fresh pineapple and mangos, to indomie, fufu, omotuo and more!
    • omotuo = balls of rice served in soup
    • indomie = kinda like ramen but served just the noodles and with eggs and vegetables
    • fufu = mashed plantain and cassava, takes a long time to make - served with soups
  • Houda surprising me at the airport (thanks to Joeshmail)
  • warm welcomes at all the schools and being reunited with students and friends
  •  traveling to Pokuase for Joeshmail's cousins graduation ceremony and seeing a new area in Ghana
  • Taking Joeshmail shopping in the central of Accra with markets piled high with everything from clothes to pots to pig hooves and live snails!
  •  having a 5 year old student sleepover for two nights (and getting to play mom) (Adelaide)
  • new hiplife music to learn and dance to!
  • dozens of babies laughing and smiling 
  • hundreds of photos taken
  • successful last lesson plans in schools I've been teaching at forever
  • good transitional conversations about the NGO
  • familiar faces and places 
  • three days of sickness (two times) both required a trip to the pharmacyone day I couldn't even get out of bed. 
  • finger slammed in a tro-tro door
  • not enough hours in the day to see everyone I want to see - not enough time to see everyone I want to see
  • not enough fufu or omutuo for my liking!! 
  • never enough time with Joeshmail, going to miss my sis so much!
  • the no water to bath was kinda a drag, but what can you do! This is Ghana. :)

Here are some more pictures for the visually inclined:
Philia classroom - exams

Vision Seed Girls (Jess, Isha, Vicki and Dromo)

Dancing day

Isha loves to dance

Houda being a goof

Michelle goofing

So now Kenya 
Leaving Ghana one week from today, I'll be traveling all this week and won't have much access to email and what not - plus I wanted to get this done. :) I'm sure I'll update you in the Kenya blog about the trip to Kumasi and Kokrobite if anything eventful should happen.

Next Monday, I head back to Kenya for two weeks - haven't been back for three years. Am very excited to see my family and friends there! 

Hope to see some of you in September.

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