Monday, November 06, 2006

Droning On About Stuff

My Laptop Is My Life. Especially after I discovered wireless internet nearby. It’s pretty amazing how much more normal I feel when I can access the internet and do my work on a single machine again. IBM ThinkPad, I love you. Last Saturday I spent a solid six hours surfing, downloading, checking email, blogging, reading PDFs, cutting and pasting and saving like a normal human being. My friend even brought me a slice of homemade cake and homemade cereal while I was working. HOMEMADE CEREAL! There are some benefits to living in a place where cereal is unaffordable. People make it at home. It’s brilliant.

On Sunday I’d planned to spend the whole day writing grad school essays and making lesson plans for the workshop I’m teaching this week. On my laptop, of course. The kids next door were screaming their high-pitched, ear-piercing, spoiled-brat, I’m-training-to-be-the-next-Idi-Amin screams even before I woke up in the morning. I decided, once I was out of bed, that today was not a day I could deal with it. I mean, no day ever is, but today someone’s screaming brat would surely be promoted to glory rather unpleasantly if I had to listen to glass-shattering squeals all day. I went outside and approached some of the kids wearily.

“Hi, I want to talk to you,” I said in English. I was tired of having this conversation and didn’t feel like trying to say it in Kiswahili. “I have a lot of work to do today, and I really need you all to be quiet today.”

The kids looked down at the ground and didn’t say anything. “Are you getting me?” I said in Kiswahili.

The oldest girl whispered, “Yes,” still staring at the ground. I wasn’t so sure, since I had never spoken to them in English before.

“Mzungu anasema nini? Anataka nini?” their mom screamed from inside the house.

“She’s saying she has a lot of work to do and she wants us to be quiet today,” they replied in Kiswahili. I guess they understood after all.

That didn’t mean, however, that they did anything about it. They continued to scream for absolutely no reason (the usual reason they scream) while I made breakfast, washed my earplugs and sporadically yelled, “Nyamasa!” (Be quiet!) from inside my house when their screaming became unbearable – I mean, more unbearable than usual. Somehow I did not beat a single one of them.

Suddenly, after an hour, something started to feel strange in my house. Something unfamiliar, but welcome. Silence was everywhere. I looked out the window and there were no kids. Had they gone to church? I doubted any pastor would tolerate these spawns of Satan screaming through his entire service, and their mom probably knew better than to put her spoiled, uncontrollable kids on display for all her church friends to see.

Whatever the reason, they were gone. Quick, bust out the laptop! I wanted to take advantage of the quiet before the kids came screaming back to their house, screaming for attention so that they could scream about nothing for a mother who would just let them scream.

Curses! The electricity was out in the whole town. All this peace and quiet and no way to power my laptop. I decided to try to get some work done anyway, thinking maybe the electricity would be back by the time the laptop battery ran out of juice.

It didn’t come back, and my battery was at 8%. I was starting to feel a strange yet familiar sensation – Type A anxiety. I have work to do! I have no electricity!

Neetha saved the day. I packed up my laptop and hopped a matatu to her house. When I got there I immediately plugged in, put on some MP3s, and started typing. We gossiped and ate chocolate Hob Nobs (the best non-American cookie in Kenya, because Oreos are found in some supermarkets) under the bright warm glow of a light bulb. She boiled water in an electric tea kettle, then later did her toenails…why? Because thanks to electricity, she could see them. Beautiful, friendly electricity.

This Chick Drives Me Crazy. I just read a book called The Cruelest Journey, a travelogue of one American woman’s 600-mile kayak trip down the Niger River to the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa. Kira Salak is a travel writer, adventurer and pretty kick ass lady who decided to do this trip that few Westerners have attempted, much less survived. Not to spoil the ending or anything, but she survives.

Her prose is pretty straightforward and precise and, in my opinion, not particularly lyrical, although who am I to judge since she has written for National Geographic Adventure, among other enviable pubs, and I am a prolific, expert contributor to my own blog (readership: approximately 6 fans around the world.) Despite this, I found myself relating deeply to her insights about her trip, cross-cultural navigations and travel in general.

I came to Kenya knowing my two years here wasn’t going to be a safari in paradise. At the time, of course, I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew that I was willing to do it because I would get something valuable in return. I never thought too much about what that thing was; it was always some abstract notion of understanding and awareness of the world beyond what I could get by staying in the States.

But then Salak says, “Hardship is more honest: it tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude…Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion.”

I’d add to this, that while I have a lot more compassion after being here in Kenya, I also have a much more realistic view of things—one that might, to someone who hasn’t been here, seem cynical, pessimistic or racist. I think that you can’t truly have compassion for people, places and cultures you don’t know unless you’ve had a good dose of their reality.

I think what I had before I came here was a lopsided compassion. It came from this idea that people are oppressed because of Big Bad factors beyond their control – governments, white colonists, cultural imperialists, capitalists. It was a perspective that, while well-intentioned, removed any personal responsibility from people’s situations. It’s true that most people who are suffering were forced there by circumstances beyond their control, but I’ve also seen – and been frustrated by – the ways individuals allow these situations to be perpetuated. The implication here is not, however, that all they have to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s not that simple, of course. I think compassion comes when you understand all the forces acting on a particular situation, and you go away accepting it. Not judging whether it needs to be changed or not, but accepting that it just is, for now.

It’s not a very easy thing to have, compassion. Most of the time mine is obscured by frustration and judgment, my usual reactions to hardship. Humility allows us to reach through these clouds and find our compassion again. I think most of the time I don’t open myself up enough to feeling humbled.

The friendly smile and warm greeting from Neetha’s neighbor who brings her milk everyday.

The reminder that my co-worker, who I normally think of as a simple village grandmother whose job has become a mindless routine to her, has raised a house full of kids and grandkids while holding down high-profile jobs and well-respected positions in the community for decades, in a culture where few women hold leadership positions and those who do are often not taken seriously.

The young mama sitting next to me on a matatu who kept asking whether I knew where I was going because she saw that I wasn’t a local and wanted to make sure I arrived safely.

My friend who went out of his way to help me find wireless internet last weekend, then brought me “lunch” – freshly baked cake, homemade cereal and fruit.

Stopping to notice a breathtaking sunset over the escarpment, or a long hedge of bougainvillea in Nairobi blooming in seven brilliant colors.

At one point during her trip, one of many days when she is exhausted from the baffling and often hostile reactions she gets from villagers she passes on the river, Salak describes seeing a flock of birds diving and rising again and again over the river in perfect unison, at one point swooping so close to her kayak that she thinks she can touch them. In that moment she’s able to step outside herself just long enough to appreciate what she’s just seen, and she realizes that even when you’re not in a frame of mind to notice beauty, it will always find you.

Beauty finds me through these moments of humility. The beauty not only of nature, a force so powerful that my mind can’t truly conceive of it, but the beauty of humanity, which I usually forget exists because I find myself surrounded constantly by the ugliness of humanity, much of it my own.

Too much philosophical reflection; my brain hurts and my face has a serious, serious expression on it. This is the stuff heart attacks are made of.

But before I move on, I want to recommend this book to some people I know would really appreciate it, for various reasons. First and foremost, Phillippa. This book is all you, sister. Also Nandita, Patrick McD, Kroll, Dan (the Man) and all my other travel buds around the world.

Keep That Milk From Getting Lonely. Neetha sent me to the supermarket to get a liter of cold milk one day when she came to visit me. (The supermarket in my town just got a refrigerated case and I put in a request for cheese!! IN MY TOWN!! Also available now: butter and yogurt. Dairy heaven.)

I met her at my house, milk in hand, and she announced that she had brought some treats. She reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a package of real, live, genuine Oreo cookies. I almost keeled over with happiness.

Milk was poured. Oreos were dunked. No one said a word. We just smiled big cookie-stained smiles.

It sparked a bit of patriotism in me. Those of you who know me know I’m not exactly a flag-waving patriot. (My mom might say I’m a flag-burning liberal.) From now on when I visit other volunteers, I try to bring a package of Oreos and cold milk, just for the ten minutes of silent camaraderie. For the unspoken understanding just between Americans: Oh, Ar, Ee, Oh.


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