Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Observe the Sensation of Rabid Mosquitos Injecting Malaria Larvae Into Your Bloodstream

I had a moment of clarity a few days ago where I decided I could benefit from incorporating a ritual of relaxing and unwinding into each day. At first my idea was to meditate, but meditation is always one part relaxation and fifty parts frustration for me. I’m told it gets easier and more beneficial the more I practice it, but observing the rants in my head and the hysteria around me and then letting them go doesn’t really create much closure for most of the inane stressors around me. Primal screaming would be much more satisfying, and less time-consuming.

Anyway, I finally decided to take a tea break at the end of the day as a way to just put stuff on hold, and create distance, chronologically and emotionally, between me and the rest of the world trying to invade my sanity. So I everyday come home, fix myself a hot drink, munch on a snack, and imagine that I’m English.

Basically I’m trying to be a little more grounded, a lot less tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-KABOOM! Being in Kenya for 19 straight months made me forget how much I have back home. Everything had kind of faded into a distant reality that seemed like the past, without a present and future. Going home last month, and then coming back to Kenya having been reminded of what makes my home home, makes everything here seem less isolated from the people and places that are familiar and comforting and important, and the old habits and haunts that reassure me that I’m the person I think I am.

We haven’t had running water in ages on my compound. I’ve been fetching from my organization’s storage tank, which will soon run dry. Today a neighbor told me she had gone to see everyone who might be in charge of water, and was told that we all have to pay a bribe so that they can restore our water. I launched into a loud rant about selfish, opportunistic and corrupt officials to no one in particular. It’s a good thing I was on my way to my new tea break, although I’d prefer it if primal screaming were culturally acceptable here.

My language teacher, Nicholas, came over for a session and excused the fact that I was so irate I could only speak Swahili in simple present tense. I finally gave up and told him the story in English.

“We’ve been living this way for all this time,” he said. “Justina, I tell you Kenya is so bad. If I could go away from this place I would.”

He told me about an old boss who told him to pay 500 Ksh out of his 900 Ksh monthly salary as “thanks” for being given the job. If Nicholas didn’t pay this each month, the boss told him, he would be fired. “I have a wife and kids,” Nicholas told him. “How am I supposed to support them on 400 shillings a month?” So the boss fired him.

400 shillings is about $5.50.

The poverty line is defined as less than a dollar a day.

I’ve heard Nicholas’s story a hundred times. It’s everyone’s story. Unemployment is ubiquitous. Jobs are hard to come by unless you know someone. There’s never enough money for anything. And yet those who have the power to help their poorer neighbors or their community instead add to their hardship by asking for bribes.

I think it's easy for me to forget exactly how poor some of my friends are, especially if I've never been to their house, only to find out it's made of mud and dung. I hired another friend's wife to wash my clothes for me, which used to go against my principle of doing things myself simply because I can. But over time I realized that it provides income for someone in the community who needs it more than I need the validation of being able to say I can wash clothes almost as well as a Kenyan woman. Anyway, this woman came over with her baby tied to her back, and I offered to let her put him down on my bed while she worked (often Kenyan women do housework, dig in the shamba, or fetch water and firewood with their babies tied to their backs). She asked if I had a large plastic bag. All sorts of disturbing images came to my mind, but she explained that the baby was still young and it would be prudent to put something under him to protect my bedding. It still seemed weird, but I obliged. She put the baby down, and suddenly my room was filled with the odor of ripe diapers. I was extremely grateful for the plastic bag. Later I noticed the woman had the same odor about her. I've always known that her husband struggles to earn enough money to support their family of three young kids, but it upset me that for whatever reason they couldn't practice basic hygiene, especially for the baby.

I stopped feeling obligated to save anyone a long time ago. It’s unrealistic. And I’ve stopped feeling sorry when I hear the 5,000th stranger telling me the same sob story, which I know will be followed by a request for money. But when it’s a friend’s story, I want to do something. Americans always think there’s a neat solution to every problem. But the only thing I seem to be able to do is get angry every time I hear about people knowingly perpetrating injustices against each other without remorse. That’s why I’m so tired, and have taken up tea-guzzling and biscuit-dipping.

In the end, the only remotely meaningful thing I’ve gained is a much more profound understanding of how lucky I am. I stand here and call a place outside these borders home. (DELETE FLAG-WAVING ANIMATED GIF.) I can, and am expected to, leave Kenya one day. There is a story that New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof tells in his book, China Wakes, that I now relate to more than ever. Kristof is commiserating with a Chinese friend about how deeply saddened they are by the political and social ills of modern China, a country that Kristof has lived and worked in for awhile and feels a connection to despite its flaws.

This friend observes, “There are two brands of bicycles in China, Flying Pigeon and Forever. You foreigners, you are like Flying Pigeons. But we Chinese, we are Forever.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the bicycles here are copies of Chinese brands.


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