Monday, September 05, 2005

You're the Only Bean in My Githeri

I have some groupies from the girls' school where I live. They come over on Friday and Saturday nights to talk about boys and teach me slang. Soon I will be speaking Swahili like a 16-year-old and scoffing at pickup lines like, "You're the only fish in Lake Victoria." P.S. Githeri is a local dish made of beans and maize.

Thanks to everyone who has said they sent mail: Mom and Dad, Frances, Lynn, Felix, Michelle, Anne Roberts...I know I've forgotten others. I haven't received it yet, but I've put a call into Nairobi to find out what's wrong (the answer: I live in Kenya) and will let you know when I receive anything. I trust that *something* will arrive by 2006. Hope you did not
send live animals. Also congrats to John and Nancy on getting married. And finally, apologies for not posting more frequently to the blog; it's not for lack of anything to write, but rather that I only get access to email about once every week or so and most of my time is spent reading and replying (really, I do reply...eventually) to emails. Couple that with power outages at the post office (the only place in town
with an internet connection) and sick postal employees and you get Big Tummy not updated so often in Kenya.

One of the weirdest things I'm still getting used to is the unconditional trust many Kenyans place in anything that I say because I'm a mzungu. One day I told my workmates that I wanted to tag along with the hospital's mobile clinic (watching health workers give vaccinations and pass out mosquito nets) instead of going with them on a school visit to teach about AIDS. They both paused uncomfortably and then said, "We really feel that if you're there, that the students will listen to us more." I get told repeatedly that Africans have been educating people about AIDS for years, but it was only when a mzungu (a VSO volunteer, the British version of Peace Corps) showed up and started teaching the exact same things that people started listening. "We don't know why, but black Africans will listen to a mzungu before their own people."

Last weekend I was summoned to the home of a woman who I've seen around town. She approached my workmate Hillary and requested that we visit her over the weekend. She showed us around her boma (homestead) and told us that she had contracted HIV from her (lyin cheatin drunken) husband, who died five years ago. She
said we were the only people she has ever told about her status; not even her kids know. Until then AIDS had always been a disease that conjured up this generalized compassion and deep anger about The World's Inequality and Lack of Access to Opportunities and Resources, anger about Government Corruption and Culturally-Reinforced Ignorance and Gender Roles that Disempower Women. The New York Times reports Whole Villages Wiped Out by AIDS, It's So Sad, So Devastating. That sort of thing.

This woman talked to us for hours and even though her story sounded like it came straight out of an NGO case study - her husband worked away from home for awhile, passed HIV to her, which she then passed to one of her kids who died at 6 months, she gave birth to another son who is now five and HIV negative, her late husband's family rejects her, she fears stigma and ostracization from her employers, her kids are teased for not having a father - it transformed the disease from this distantly dramatic scourge sweeping through muddy villages in poverty-stricken African countries 15,000 miles away, into this thing that is a living, breathing part of this woman's life...this woman who is 36, only five years older than me, who is telling me her story in fluent English, whose cement house is airy and bright and clean, who cracks angry jokes about how good-for-nothing men are ("We're not all the same," said soft-spoken Hillary, the nicest person in the world), whose kids race around the boma until they're tired enough to come inside and sit next to the mzungu and blow quietly on her arm hairs. She's a strong woman, honest about her fears and her bitterness, but not devastated by the path her life
has taken. She takes care of herself, protects and provides for her kids who are known throughout their village to be the brightest kids in their schools, and takes each day as it comes. Her life continues, with a new life partner called HIV.

On Friday I went to visit some orphans in a village outside Ndurio, about 5 km from my town. We walked into the mountains, over green ridges and lush valleys dotted with fuzzy sheep, tea, millet and coffee plantations. At one point Hillary told me to look up at what appeared to be thousands of dandelion seeds
floating on the wind. "Termites," he said. "They're very sweet when you fry them." Ah. As we approached a boma where some of the orphans live, we saw a bunch of kids huddled over a mound of grass picking at it. "They're eating them straight from the ground," he explained. I asked if he would eat one for me. "No, I prefer them fried," he said. "You'll have to try them one day." I agreed.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my neighbors, both young men in their 20s, about the US. One of them said, "We hear there are a lot of niggers in America."

"Um, we don't say that word," I said. "You mean
African Americans?"

"Yes, that's what I mean," he said. "They're black like us. But we hear them saying, 'What's up nigger?'
in music videos."

Well it's not easy to explain the concept of reclaiming racial slurs as a form of cultural solidarity, I learned. They continued, "How come all your athletes and movie stars and musicians are all

"Could you stop saying that?" I said. "We don't use that word in America."

"Sure," he said. "When you take us back to America with you, we'll remember not to say it."
Like a lot of young educated people in Kenya, the doctor at the hospital in my town is very opinionated and outspoken about corruption and the need for reform in Kenya. He even showed me scars on his leg that he got from being shot at by rubber bullets when he was a student protester at university. He said that one way local religious leaders exploit public opinion and cheat people out of money is by taking advantage of their ignorance about mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Many babies don't contract HIV through childbirth, but through breastfeeding. However, since babies will retain antibodies from an HIV+ mother right after birth, newborns will often test positive for HIV antibodies even though they don't actually have the virus. Eventually the baby's antibodies die off and the baby tests negative for HIV. But all this time the pastor will be praying for the newborn to be cured of HIV, and when the baby finally tests negative, the pastor will declare that he has performed a miracle through prayer, and the offering plate gets passed around. (A week later the pastor buys another cow...)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good update n thanks..B. in Ca.

9:58 PM  

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