Saturday, October 07, 2006

Peace Corps Bi-Polar Disorder

Depressive. I’ve been a crankypants for about two months straight. Last night seemed the worst, although everything that happens here is one big superlative, so it’s hard to say when something outdoes something else.

One of my co-workers passed away last weekend, and yesterday we all went to Eldoret to fetch the body. It was a day-long event, packing 15 people into two vehicles, driving to the hospital, waiting for the paperwork, loading the body into the back of the Land Cruiser, bringing it back to the morgue in our town, viewing the body, going to visit the surviving family.

Death rituals in the Kalenjin tribe are very subdued, and this one was no exception. I wasn’t sure if it was because that’s the way you’re supposed to carry yourself, or because everyone felt understandably somber, or because people go to so many funerals that it just becomes another obligation to fulfill.

We spent most of the day patiently staring off into space, waiting for something to happen. We drove to Eldoret in silence. We waited for the paperwork in silence. We watched the body being carried into the vehicle in silence (although some women were singing a quiet dirge as they brought it from the morgue). We drove back to town in silence. We sat in the family’s house in silence. We were served lunch in silence. There were a few speeches (of course), several long prayers, and a song, and then we all went home.

To someone from a Western country where people don’t die that often, there is something unsettling about the way people relate to death here. Or maybe it’s not so much the WAY people relate to it as much as it’s that I don’t really know how they relate. I just see a lot of matter-of-fact expressions on people’s faces, and I don’t know if it’s stunned grief or boredom or a healthy acceptance of death as a phase of life.

A lot of tribes are very comfortable with death and their rituals are very lively, emotionally intense affairs, with lots of screaming, crying, dancing and drumming into the night. The Kalenjins are traditionally very fearful of death, and before the Christians told them to stop acting like such sinful Pagans, they would simply dump sick people in the forest to die, sometimes tying a long rope to the person’s leg so they could yank on it every once in awhile from the village to see if he was dead yet, because the presence of death among the living was such a taboo. But even the Kalenjins seem more comfortable with death than the average Westerner. My conversations with people in town about my late co-worker often went like this:

Person in town: Sorry to hear about the loss of your colleague.

Me: Thanks. It’s very sad. He was so young.

Person: It’s not bad. It’s just natural. BEATRICE!! CUSTOMER WANTS CHAI! BRING IT AND HURRY!

A few months ago we were trying to develop some HR policies for our organization, and the topic of funeral leave came up. People disagreed on the appropriate number of days to grant each employee. How many days of funeral leave do you think a person might need per year? I was thinking, oh, five. They finally agreed on something like 20, which was a lot fewer than originally proposed. The argument was that giving people “only” 20 days would force them to only attend funerals of people who are close to them, rather than those of distant relatives and neighbors, whose funerals people might go to just to get free food and vacation days. My supervisor said he has lost four close family members in the last year, so 20 days (5 days per funeral) seemed reasonable to him.

I’d never been to my late co-worker’s house before, so I was surprised when we went to visit his family that the house was large, clean, and brightly-painted, on several acres of rolling farmland. There was even a stone-terraced flower garden in front of the house, something I’ve never seen before in a village home.

“Koskei loved flowers,” one of my co-workers told me.

“What? You’re kidding.” Koskei was not the kind of person you’d expect to love flowers. He was a former policeman, edgy all around, a persistent chain-smoker with stained teeth, chapped lips and a scowl.

“He could go somewhere and see a nice flower, and he’d buy it and plant it at home.”

Tough packaging around a gentle heart.

There was no coffin, so my co-worker’s body was wrapped in a thin sheet that hugged all the sharp contours of his thin shape. When the morgue worker uncovered his face for viewing, I saw that instead of a toe tag, they had glued a label to the deceased’s forehead. His widow looked exhausted and shellshocked.

I got home and felt awful. There were still two hours of daylight left, so I decided to dig in the garden a bit. Except I decided to lie on my bed and rest first. When I woke up, it was dark outside, and my nose was cold. I kicked off the sleeping bag I had somehow managed to cover myself with, stumbled out of bed and wandered through my house, wondering why it was pitch black. The electricity was out on the compound. I couldn’t even see my neighbors’ houses. I fumbled around for matches and candles, sifting through my thoughts trying to remember what was real and what were remnants of the dream I’d just had.

Fetching a body from Eldoret, real. Failing to work in the garden, real. Zafar coming to visit, not real. Feeling miserable about the world outside my door, real. Neetha and I going camping, not real. Canvas tents pitched on a university campus, wandering through a maze of corridors getting lost trying to find the library dim lights through windows losing track of time it’s night it’s evening in my dream even right now.

I carried a candle to the living room and set it on the coffee table. I was still groggy, and stared for a long time at a wet brown splatter across a piece of notebook paper. What the hell IS that? What the HELL is that? WHAT the HELL is THAT?


I looked up. There was a slug on the ceiling. There was a trace of poo a few inches behind it. The rest of it had plummeted onto the notebook paper, on my coffee table.

I contemplated ETing. Early Termination of service. Weird, emotionless funeral rituals. Weird, merciless invasions of slugs with very active bowels. Spoiled, screaming neighbor’s kid destined to be the next dictator of Kenya.

I woke up this morning at 6:48am. Then again at 7:09. Then again at 8:11. Lazy lump of protoplasm bolts out of bed, puts on a kettle of water for a bath, and sighs. Can I really take ten more months of this?

Manic. While I wait for my water to boil, I inhale the sun radiating through the windows. The sky is clear blue. Suddenly my heart is light and my soul is open. I’m not sure why. Yesterday sucked, but today I feel fine. In fact, I feel great. I haven’t felt this calm and present in months.

An hour later I board a matatu to Eldoret and don’t feel a single hint of impatience, anger, or neurotic defensiveness. I wander through the city, shopping for a belt and a black shirt that I’ve been needing for a long time. I make friendly conversation. I banter good-naturedly with vendors who quote me outrageous mzungu prices. I’m at peace; nothing can touch me.

Depressive. I’m at war with Kenya once again. The internet was so slow that I got nothing done. Three hours of my precious, limited life, wasted on waiting for pages to download. For files to upload. For logins to be authenticated. The cyber cafe staff gave me the familiar refrain. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

It continues to baffle and impress me how many people don’t mind waiting for hours on end for nothing to be achieved. I mean, it’s kind of silly, really, that Westerners should measure the quality of time spent throughout their life through achievements and money. Once you’re dead does any of that matter? But I have no other framework for conceptualizing my life, so my answer is yes. Three hours of constantly being PAINFULLY aware (watching the green squares at the bottom of the browser window slowly creeping across the white bar) that I’m not getting anything accomplished reversed the mysterious bout of calm I’d had in the morning. I was tense, agitated, and ready to clobber the next person who crossed me.

And I did. I emerged from the cyber café, and a bunch of boys suddenly converged behind me. Hm, that’s not obvious. I felt a heavy tug on my backpack. I turned around and found one pocket unzipped, exposing a wad of toilet paper and a Clif Bar, neither of which I’d be too upset to lose. But it was the principle of the matter. The boys suddenly split in different directions, and I followed one of them. When I caught up to him, I gave him a hard shove and he stumbled.

“What problem?” he shouted indignantly.

“You tried to steal from me,” I sneered. “Thief.”

“No,” he said, then tried to defend himself to everyone around us.

“I saw you,” I said. “Mwizi! Mwizi!” Thief, thief! People stared and the boy tried to defend himself more desperately. I walked away, satisfied that I had made him nervous but let it go before people around us cared enough to organize a thorough thief-whooping.

Manic. Give it another two months and maybe I’ll have something to write here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Tough packaging around a gentle heart."

6:52 PM  
Blogger jke said...

Dear Bigtummy,

sijui if you have a notebook / laptop and a gprs-enabled phone, but if you do, try Safaricom's GPRS-mobile office for prepaid customers.

The other day I was SOOOO pissed about the lame inet connections @ cybercafés + Safaricom dial up was of the same quality until fellow kenyan bloggers suggested to use this GPRS service.

Right now I am blogging from Embu and I am online via this GPRS nini with 115,2 kBit/s. It just works! And best of all: 10 bob per MB!

so long,

1:03 AM  
Blogger Justina said...

From Embu?!! Amazing! Thanks for the tip. I don't know what a GPRS-enabled phone is; it sounds expensive but I'll keep it in mind. Right now I've discovered wireless about an hour's bike away from my town and it seems to do the trick. I'm only limited by rains (gotta get there, do my business, and bike home before they soak me and my laptop). Thanks, jke!

12:35 PM  
Blogger jke said...


Yeah, in Embu. In fact i'm comfortably sitting here on my bed, the computer on my laps and surfing the net, using this GPRS thing. GPRS => paket orientated data transfers - it just requires a mobile phone that has this GPRS thing inside (check the manual, maybe yours has?). It just establishes a connection to the network and only downloads data when you're requesting it to do so - when you're reading / inactive for a moment, the connection is still there but doesn't block the network (like it would if you were using a dial up connection or make a call) so users are only charged for the amount of data they are loading. sweet!
Been online yesterday for about 5hrs, chatted with a few friends via Skype and ended up paying around 200 Ksh for the whole evening.

I blogged this the other day to share it with others:

10:55 PM  

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