The event was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. All of the kindergarteners were dressed up in traditional Kenyan clothing and the day ended with a fashion show. I asked whether they were all dressed in clothing from a common tribe, but Ravena told me they were mixed. There are over 40 different tribes in Kenya! Rather than explain the event, I’ll let my photos speak for themselves:
The families of the students at Alexia’s kindergarten were asked to wear traditional clothing for their cultural day event. What is traditional American clothing I wondered? Jeans and a t-shirt? A cowboy hat? Something with the American flag on it? I threw on a dress and called it a day. I hoped the pattern was vaguely Kenyan...but it was probably more Native American looking than anything. I suppose that counts as traditional American clothing?
The event was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. All of the kindergarteners were dressed up in traditional Kenyan clothing and the day ended with a fashion show. I asked whether they were all dressed in clothing from a common tribe, but Ravena told me they were mixed. There are over 40 different tribes in Kenya! Rather than explain the event, I’ll let my photos speak for themselves:
As we were waiting to get our car out of the gridlock I danced in the parking lot to my new favorite song, Sawa Sawa Lé, playing over the speakers. Ravena said, “You’re more African than I realized!”
“This is my daughter” Stephen said as he introduced me to his friend.
I was anxious to get back to the PEM ward and see Udadisi again. The nutritionists were down the hallway in a meeting when I arrived and told me it shouldn’t be a problem if I sat in on it. I was hoping to sneak in and find a seat in the back, but when the door swung open I was standing in the center of the room with a ring of 20+ people sitting along the walls staring at me. I snagged the only seat, in the center of the front row, and sat down awkwardly.
The latch on the door was broken and it swung open periodically as we learned how to fill out various forms. One woman talked about HIV prevalence in Meru, of 415 patients tested, 2.4% were HIV+. When tests were repeated again later, the rate was 2.7%.
The head nutritionist discussed the two options available to HIV+ mothers when feeding their infants. The first option is exclusive breastfeeding for up to six months with the possibility of continuing for up to a year if the mother is on prophylaxis. The alternative is exclusive replacement feeding with commercial formula which for 6 months would cost KES 50,000 (about $530). She stressed that the mother, and not the doctor or nurse, should choose the regimen that’s best for her. Animal milk, including that from cows and goats, is not recommended because it can lead to malnourishment and cause infections which may lead to death.
After the meeting one of the men attending shyly walked up to me. “He wants to greet you” one of the nutritionists said. I stuck out my hand to shake his “Fine” he said before I could ask how he was. That tends to be a common occurrence, people saying “fine” to me before I say anything to them. I can’t quite figure it out. What’s also interesting is that everyone I’ve met so far has given me the “dead fish” handshake we’re told in America is unprofessional. I guess it’s unusual here to shake people’s hands firmly. I've been trying to remember that.
Udadisi immediately recognized me when I walked in the PEM ward. She pointed me out and started babbling. There was a small blanket wrapped around her waist, under her overalls, acting as a makeshift diaper. She waddled as she walked back and forth in her crib. She held a smelly hot pink rag in her hand which she hit me with over and over again. She got upset when she dropped the rag on the dirty floor and I wouldn’t return it to her. Then she took off her little fleece jacket, and holding me with one hand, she hit me with it with the other.
Tea was served in silver metal buckets to the women in the ward and Udadisi was given some milk to drink. It dribbled down her chin as she drank. She peered at me from over the top of the cup and wagged her finger as I laughed.
I was nervous when I first arrived in the ward and realized that a number of the children were missing. One in particular had been in critical condition and my first thought was that she had died. I found out to my relief that a number of the discharged children had been moved across the hallway. Mwanafunzi took me to see some of the children.
I immediately recognized the first toddler I saw as the girl with the peeling face who had been in the critical ward during my first tour. She was sitting up in bed happily chewing on bread dipped in porridge. Much of the swelling from the edema had gone down and she was looking much healthier. It was nice to see a success story through from bleak beginning to full recovery. Mwanafunzi told the mother that she should try and leave the hospital as soon as possible. Her baby was healthy but risked getting illnesses from the other children in the ward if she didn’t leave soon. She can’t afford to pay the hospital bills and will most likely be there for a while waiting for a waiver.
As I was leaving the pediatric ward, a woman walked by me carrying a stack of papers with two bags of blood precariously balanced on top.
We returned to Karima Primary to drop off roughly a month’s supply of porridge. The head teacher recruited a few of the older boys to help carry the heavy bags into the front office. When they turned their backs to me to unload the car, I noticed many of their pink uniform shirts were torn and one boy had blue pen marks all over the back of his shoulder. The pockets were missing on some of their shorts while others hung by a few threads.
Their excitement was tangible as they carried the porridge inside. It was incredible how happy the sight of food made them. The head teacher translated what one of the boys said, “He said he will come with a big mug and they are very happy”.
On the way to visit and meet a group of old women for another feeding program, I saw something truly incredible. Three men drove past on a single motorbike. The man in the middle balanced two live sheep, one on top of the other, on his lap. No one seemed to give them a second glance. I saw a family of five on a motorcycle in Guatemala once, but somehow this seemed slightly more impressive.
An elderly woman smiled with what teeth she had left and led us to meet a few of the other women in the group. She was wearing a bright blue sweater with cows embroidered on it and a gray leopard print scarf on her head. The floor inside the house was made of compacted dirt and the women made room for us on the couch. They served us masala tea and slices of white bread. My hands were full when one woman arrived late and went to shake my hand, so she hugged me instead. The women were cheerful and when I asked, via Dorcas’s translation in Kiswahili, what types of food they would benefit the most from, they said anything would do. They were grateful to receive whatever we could give them.
That night I met up with a bunch of American volunteers for pizza at a place called Sherlock’s Den. Afterward we headed to Simba Wells, a club which has a swinging wood bridge for an entrance.
“What the parents lack here in this area is the resources, they have the will…They are very hardworking.”
On the way to our first primary school of the day, Dorcas and I drove past a man sitting along the side of the road selling an array of blue and green tarps. He shouted something in Kiswahili that I didn’t understand.
“I don’t know why but when people see you they see money, he just asked you for KES 20. I guess there is a mentality that if you ask a white person for money they’ll give it to you.”
I was immediately transported back to a small shantytown built along a river under a bridge in the Dominican Republic. The organization we were working with is usually reluctant to bring visitors here but agreed to take us. The people here are living in extreme poverty in cramped tin and wood houses. Young boys can often be seen fishing along the trash-laden river hoping to catch some food for the day.
Some years back a group of visitors from the United States was brought to the town and without a word a woman in the group pulled out a wad of bills and started handing out $20s to every person she came across. First of all, the Dominican Republic uses pesos…what are they going to do with US dollars? Second of all, handing out money to people may make someone feel like they are helping out a community and improving the lives of the people they give it to, but in reality it can create dependency and a mentality that white people=money and gifts. Handouts usually aren’t the way to go. It's best to empower people and give them the resources to provide for themselves. For a great example on how harmful handouts can be, check out this article my co-op adviser sent me about volunteer short-term international medical visits.
Here there are no road signs and the best GPS seems to be asking locals for directions. These directions are always in Kiswahili and as I don’t understand them, I imagine them to go something like this “Continue straight down the dirt road, when you get to the first blue gate take a right, at the bottom of the hill is a big bush with purple flowers, here you will take a left. If you see the coffee farm or reach the primary school, you’ve gone too far.”
Karima Primary is perched on the edge of a steep hill and overlooks a beautiful valley followed by more hills. I really didn’t think our car was going to make it up to the school but somehow it miraculously did. The head teacher invited us into her office and told us about the issues the school is currently facing.
The students are supposed to carry lunch to school but most don’t have anything to bring. At least 10 students are HIV+ and aren’t getting a proper diet. Alcoholism is a major problem among the parents, “fathers are drunkards” she said. They often spend the little money they have on alcohol instead of food for their children.
She gave us a quick tour of the school and showed us the latrines MKMF built. A small group of women were seated outside of her office when we returned. They were mothers of some of the children. One said something in Kiswahili and Dorcas said, “She wants you to greet her.” A toddler timidly held out her hand to me.
Then we returned to the office to sign her guest book. While there she keep thanking us for all the Foundation has done, saying how grateful she was, strangely focusing her attention solely on me as she said it. I couldn’t figure out why she was directing her thanks at me until she referred to me as a “donor” and said “People from the United States are so good. I had a sponsor, but she died.” Later I asked Dorcas why she’d called me a donor when I’d been introduced as a volunteer helping out at MKMF, “I guess she just saw you and figured you were a donor”, she laughed, “We’ll have to tell her next time that you’re a volunteer.”
“The situation is pathetic, it is just pathetic” the head teacher at Kathithi Primary told us, referring to the lack of food among students. Teachers are often forced to feed the children, sometimes giving away their own lunches. A girl had just been in the office before us complaining about hunger pains. Approximately ¾ of the students have issues with hunger.
The school is packed past capacity with over 700 students and the numbers are rising. Despite their huge population, they have some of the best performance rates in the area and the students try to avoid missing class as much as possible. One young boy was missing his morning classes and the teachers thought it was because he was looking for food. It turned out that he only had one pair of shorts which he would wash at night but the thick material stayed damp into the morning hours causing him to be late for school.
I asked how starting a feeding program at Kathithi would affect the school, “they will go crazy” she said in reference to the students. They predicted that the population would increase dramatically as students moved there from other schools. Once the other schools are “drained” of students they will have to start feeding programs themselves to retain enrollment. They believed that starting a single feeding program at Kathithi would, in turn, benefit the entire community.
Our meeting concluded with a story about two twin 9 year old boys. Their mother couldn’t feed them anymore so she ran away to find work. They were left to cook and take care of themselves, “locking the door at night.” The little food she had left them quickly ran out and they approached the head teacher looking for food. She tracked down the mother yesterday who told her that if she could get food she would return to her sons, “She cannot just sit there and watch her children die and herself.”
We walked from classroom to classroom to say hi to the students. Each and every time we walked into a classroom all the students would stand and recite a rehearsed welcome. We walked to the back field to see the toilets MKMF had built and the borehole which had recently broken down, leaving them without water. On our way back to the car the head teacher said, “They didn’t sign the visitors book!” Of course we couldn’t leave without doing that first!
On my drive home I recognized an old man hobbling along the dirt road. I couldn’t mistake his faded maroon sweater vest or the red flip flop held on by string on his left foot and leather work book on his right. Dorcas had given him a lift a couple of times before so I stopped as I passed him to say hi and offer him a ride. He thanked me profusely, calling me ma’am each time.
Ravena, Alexia’s mom, came to visit for a few days and took us out to dinner that night. A cat kept wandering into the restaurant and each time we’d point it out to Alexia to chase it away. She loved it.
“1. Testimonial” and the teacher’s first name and phone number was all the sticky note said.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your message” said Stephen.
The note had come from Alexia’s school where I have been trying to help out for the past couple of weeks but each week I’m asked to submit more materials and wait until the following week.
I had no idea what I was being asked for. “Testimonial” for some reason made me think of the few Real World episodes I’ve seen where people sit in a room alone and talk to a video camera about their experiences in the house during “confessionals”. I had a feeling this isn’t what she wanted. Dorcas explained what she thought it was and agreed that my resume should suffice. I think she was more interested in getting a letter of recommendation from me.
I stopped by the kindergarten’s office later in the day and handed over my resume.
“I wasn’t sure what you were asking for, but I brought you my resume.”
Glancing over it, “Where are your certificates?”
Having no idea what she was referring to, “What certificates?”
“Your certificates! From secondary school.”
My high school diploma? In disbelief, “Umm I’m pretty sure that’s in a binder in the back of my closet back home. I’ve never been asked for it before.”
Obviously frustrated and unsatisfied, “OK. Then where is your CV?” A CV (curriculum vitae) is essentially the international version of a resume. The ones I saw in France included a picture as well as things like marital status. It’s a little more in depth than the resumes we’re used to in the United States. Keeping it to one page isn’t really a rule.
“That is my CV.”
“Hmph. OK I will submit this and get back to you.”
Haven’t heard back since. I didn’t realize it was such a process to play outside with kids during their 30 minute recess, as that’s all they want me to do. I’ve been learning that most of the projects I’ve undertaken here require a long, drawn out multi-step process before things really get going.
Patience is crucial.
Dorcas, looking over the notes I'd taken, "What does that say?"
"Nazarene kids aren't fed the entire day."
"You know, kindergarten."
"No it's Nazarene." Then in response to my confused look, "Let me type it."
Oh now that makes a lot more sense! How many times had I heard that said and thought people were saying Nazarene? It always confused me but I just figured a religious term was used for kindergarten. Maybe I am having some trouble with the accents here and I didn't even realize it!
In Kenya there are 3 years of kindergarten (so our 2 years of preschool and 1 year of kindergarten). Kindergarten is included in primary school in addition to classes 1 to 8. Next is secondary school with classes 9 to 12. In 8th grade students take a placement test called the KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) to determine what secondary school they'll go to. Those with the highest scores go to the national schools.
In the head teachers' offices there are no computers or laminated posters or framed paintings. Cell phones take the place of calculators and hand written class schedules hang on the walls. Past student enrollment is written on chalkboards and piles of browning paper hold old records. Every front office without fail has a visitors book and signing it is almost a tradition. What the schools lack in recent technology, the teachers make up for in dedication and enthusiasm. They all have a desire to improve their schools and help their students reach their highest potential.
We visited three schools in a severely drought stricken area to assess them for feeding programs but found out they'd all been given porridge by the Red Cross. The following are photographs from the schools:
"why does people die" said the first slip of paper I pulled out of the "Question Box". I think I'm going to have to Google "explaining death to children" to help me formulate a response they'll be satisfied with.
My new classroom!
Yesterday afternoon I taught my first health class at Kaaga Primary to a group of 33 students ages 10 to 14. I was a little nervous having never taught a class by myself before but I decided to push past my trepidation and stay upbeat and positive.
Dorcas and I arrived early to set up a classroom in the library. The teacher in charge of the health club arrived to help out, commented on how dusty the room was, and sent for a few kids to wash the tables. A few young girls arrived and smiled and chatted as they dipped rags in a bucket of sloshing water.
Kids slowly trickled into the room all wearing their mandatory forest green uniforms. As they sat down I passed out name cards to place on the table in front of them. They didn't understand my instructions to write their first name in big letters on the front of the card, so I showed them the one I'd made for myself. A boy grabbed a marker and started scrawling a big "G". "Oh sorry, not my name, I know my name, I'd like you to write your first name". He giggled and flipped the card inside out starting over.
Once everyone was seated I started to introduce myself but the teacher cut me off briefly to introduce me to the class. She told them to be attentive and ask questions and a number of other rules all followed by "isn't it?" and a unanimous, affirmative "yeeesss". I started out by listing off the topics that we will be covering during the term then asked if there was anything missing that they would like to learn about. A 7th year boy stood up and listed off the topics he had already learned "Malaria, Peer Pressure..." Dorcas tried to clarify for me that I was asking if there was anything else they wanted to learn. Everyone seemed satisfied, or just didn't want to answer.
The topics we will be covering are as follows:
Next I wanted them to list off some ground rules for the class because we'll be talking about some sensitive and awkward topics. The boy who had spoken before walked up to the front of the room to list the rules the class came up with. I prompted them by starting with the rule "No talking while someone else is talking." I was hoping that this would at the very least generate a few head nods, but the students remained still and silent. I tried a few times to ask them what other rules they thought were important but no one answered. I think they weren't quite sure how to react to me and were just being a little shy. The teacher then spoke to them and got them a little more motivated and soon the rules were rolling in. "No shyness!" one student ironically said, and then another "no abusing others". One boy raised his hand and said "no sneaking out of class". Two rules dealt with not eating in class and another two with not talking during class and another two with being clean. I thought they'd exhausted their rules when a boy timidly raised his hand, "Be courageous" he said. The last addition to our list.
We still had a fair amount of time left so I went back to an activity I'd skipped. I wanted to know what they knew, or thought they knew about the United States. I was expecting to hear some common stereotypes and told them to come up with whatever they thought of and that I wouldn't be insulted or feel bad.
I gave them a chance to talk to their groups of 3-5 first for a couple of minutes. Then I said that each table should send up a representative to say one thing their group talked about. They were too shy to stand up and stayed seated. "Wildlife" was the first response and "climate" the second. I realized they'd actually come up with questions for me about the US, which ended up being fine but wasn't exactly what I'd been getting at. They asked me other things in short phrases or single words "president", "diet", and "that the streets are clean?" were other responses. It's hard to make any broad generalizations about the US so I tried to explain that it's a big country and the climate depends on where you are as well as the wildlife but I listed a few examples and talked about the four seasons.
At the end of class the teacher asked them "Are you happy?"
Referring to the "visitor" aka me, "Do you love her?"
Wow wasn't expecting that! Then she talked to them about the importance of the class and the importance of being clean and bathing. She went off on a tangent about some people smelling so bad it makes you "want to vomit" and underscored the fact that they must bathe each and every day. She also told them that the classroom was a dusty disgrace and being the health club they needed to come in every Tuesday during their free time to clean it in preparation for Wednesday's class. Then she asked a girl to stand up and say a prayer. I was really surprised by this being completely unaccustomed to religion in school, especially a public school. Unfortunately class had just let out and it was loud outside so all I caught was something about "bless our visitor". It was a nice gesture and I felt very welcomed by them.
Although the students were shy they were very attentive. I think they'll warm up to me a little more next week and will be a little more interactive. If not, I'll just point to the rules and say "be courageous"!
I stayed after to go through books for the "Reading Stars" promotional library activity I've been working on. A few little girls gathered by the door and peered through the window at me. Whenever I turned around and made eye contact they would squeal and quickly duck behind the wall. A couple of the braver girls snuck into the library and hid behind a bookcase. I asked them their names and found out they were in grade 1.
Leaving the library a group of students gathered around me and followed me to the car. They all started imitating my voice, "Hiieee" and "Hooow areee you?" they said. I hope I don't sound that whiny!
Before class ended I gave them an opportunity to write anonymous questions and put them in a "Question Box" for me to answer at the beginning of next week's class. I left the instructions pretty open and said they could ask a question about me, the US, or if they already had a health question to ask that. Here are some of the ones I found most interesting:
Questions about the US:
"Is america the best country in the world?" No?
"Can america colonies Kenya again." Uhh I don't remember that happening in the first place...
"Can you send an email from united states to come in Kenya."
"How amerika lokes like."
I got six different questions about farms in the United States and what we grow, "I want to know either you grow plants large farms"
Questions about me:
"Teacher Gwen I want to know were you are born" Two students referred to me as "Teacher Gwen", so cute!
Questions about health:
"growth of foetus in the uterus."
"AIDS was brought by?"
"Why do some body kiss here friend and do not get HIV/AIDS"
"How can I over come PEER Pressure."
There were a few other really great health questions. I'm excited to be the one to answer things which they have been wondering but either haven't had a chance to ask or have been afraid to.
And finally, ones I may need a translation for:"Doe's you know 'kung fu'? Where is the centreos training 'fatesco skills' (football)" I have no idea what this means. Maybe they're talking about a football field or a gym?
"Do they cling like us" Hmm...
I'm writing this as I watch "Triumph of Love" the dubbed Mexican soap opera (or should I say telenovela) that I'm hopelessly addicted to. Max just proposed to his model girlfriend Maria but little do they know they're actually half brother and sister. Scandal! It's so ridiculous and dramatic. I never watch TV so it's funny I've taken such a liking to this show. AND it's on every night from 8-9 pm!
I switched days this week at the hospital to visit the CCC (Comprehensive Care Center) this morning. Today was the pediatric clinic so the "waiting bay" was full of young children with HIV and their parents. Every few months they come in for a checkup and to receive ARVs (antiretrovirals). All services offered including the consultation and prescriptions are free.
Alexia just interrupted me to ask what I was doing, "homework" (my common reply when working on my computer).
"You didn't finish your homework from yesterday?"
"No, I just got more today."
"Why are there no dashes?"
"So you can write nicely!"
She's learning to write in school and copies letters on the dashed pencil lines her teacher makes in her notebook.
I caught up with Mwanafunzi as we walked to the clinic. He'd gone to a rave on Saturday night and said I should come next time to "relieve some stress."
"Sounds like fun" I said hesitantly, not wanting to make any sort of commitment, "What kind of music do they play?"
"Mostly Western." (Meaning European/American, not country)
The waiting bay is essentially a covered cement porch with a long cement bench on one side and a metal-barred window on the other. They were short staffed today, meaning there was only one person checking people in and taking their weight and height, Mwanafunzi, so I was given the job of passing out people's folders with their medical history.
Files lay strewn across the table in a mix of brilliant colors. Some said "Ministry of Health--Meru District Hospital" with an official seal, but many were plain with a single patient's name and file number written along the spine in black Sharpie. All were torn and tattered on the edges.
People, mainly mothers, walked up to the window and handed me a small, folded piece of yellow paper through the metal bars. On the cover was their name and file number and the date they started their treatment. I handed their cards back and fetched their folders for them and their children (if they both had HIV) or just their children. After getting their files they were redirected around the corner and into the check-in room. Here Mwanafunzi would take their height and weight to determine their BMI (Body Mass Index). If a child's BMI was too low, they were prescribed F-75, the same formula initially given to malnourished kids in the critical room of the PEM ward.
A woman carried her toddler into the room and placed her on the scale. She cried and kicked her pink pants covered legs under a beautiful white embroidered dress. She wouldn't stay still long enough to get her weight and giving up, the mother grabbed her and hopped on the scale too.
Mwanafunzi left to get something leaving me as the only person running the check-in room. A few women came to the window to get folders then walked around without a word and set their children on the scale to be weighed. "Uhh we need to wait for the doctor." I was met with confused looks and frustration. Why wasn't I writing down their measurements? Realizing the women didn't speak English I repeated and waved my hands hoping my gestures would make more sense. Luckily the Swahili word for doctor is daktari, so they understood the gist of what I was saying and went back to sit down in the waiting bay. Another woman walked in wearing a shirt with "Hakuna Matata Kenya" emblazoned across the front and a young boy named Armstrong. The power flickered out a couple of times as I waited.
Dorcas was running a little late to pick me up so I decided to check out the Youth Center I'd seen a sign for. The external walls of the building are painted with a series of images giving tips on how to avoid rape. They included such things as not wearing provocative clothing, walking alone at night, or getting drunk. Inside I explained that I'm teaching health classes at a primary school and I wanted to see what services they offer in case anyone ever asks me for advice on something I can't help them with or don't know the answer to. They provide free services dealing with everything from unwanted pregnancy to forced marriage.
Entering Meru National Park on the way to our first food drop signs warned us "Beware Elephant Crossing". A few cattle illegally grazed along the dirt road running through the park. We drove past the town dump, essentially a large pit for burning trash, and the smell lingered in the car. I rolled down the window but the air was thick with dust. It gathered on my lips as I wiped a thin, gritty layer from the notebook on my lap. It was a hot day, one of the hottest yet and the option was to either open the window and choke on the dust or close the window and breathe the increasingly warm air. I chose to alternate between the two.
Bora Bora Nutri Mix for the food drops
Earlier that morning we'd prepared and tested the porridge we will be delivering for the food drops to the primary schools which have been severely affected by the drought. The best way I can describe the porridge is that it tastes like Cheerios that have been left in milk a little too long and have gotten soggy. Don't get me wrong though, it tastes pretty good.
We spoke to the headmaster for a bit before handing over the 98 one kg packages of Bora Bora Nutri Mix we'd brought. In addition to bringing their own cups to eat the porridge in, each student must bring water for the porridge's preparation. The school doesn't have a reliable water source and has been borrowing water from the neighboring houses.
The headmaster gathered some kids to get in a picture with the porridge. They laughed as I talked. "They've never heard anyone talk like you before" the headmaster said. I was asked to introduce myself so they could hear me talk more, unfortunately no one understood my accent and everything had to be translated into Kiswahili.
While there we also assessed their latrines. MKMF had built a block of toilets there which the girls are using, but the boys are still using old dilapidated wooden toilets. Another project is underway to build a new teachers toilet, but digging the pit has been a slow process. When the parents are called to help out, only a few come, usually women, who have trouble digging in the rocky soil. The headmaster said it's hard to ask the parents to dig on an empty stomach. Dorcas recommended providing food to parents who come to dig in the future as a form of payment. We're looking into this as an option to get the project moving along.
We didn't see any elephants on the way back but there were a bunch of baboons along the road!
"The world is beautiful" Alexia said as she stepped outside. It was such a simple thing to say yet it held so much power and had so much meaning behind it, whether she knew it or not. I may end up learning just as much from Alexia while I'm here as I will from the projects I'm working on.
This afternoon Dorcas took Alexia and I to the pool. I was a little nervous and wasn't sure what to wear, knowing that no matter what I'd stand out. I'd brought a bikini and a one piece which Dorcas recommended wearing. It's a children's bathing suit and it's hot pink with flowers on it. I had to buy a one piece when I was a camp counselor and it was the only one I could find in the store that fit me...go figure. Alexia and I actually ended up matching.
A box truck pulled into the driveway of the cultural center (where the pool is) right before us. The white box on the back was about 10 ft long, 8 ft wide, and 6.5 ft tall with no windows, just double doors which swung outwards. Three men clung to the back. I had assumed that they'd just jumped on to hitch a ride. However, when the truck parked people started streaming out of the back one after another. I counted 23 people and a goat before we walked on. There were still a few silhouettes standing in the back of the truck. It turns out they were there for a wedding.
Once in the locker room Alexia grabbed the sunscreen, squeezed a sizable blob into her palm, and began slathering it on herself before we could stop her. She was covered in a thick white layer so I said to her jokingly, "You look like a mzungu!"
We walked out to the pool and everyone turned and stared unabashedly. A group gathered along the perimeter, including some members of the wedding party, to look at me. I felt like a zoo animal with the fence around the pool being my cage. It was pretty awkward but I pretended not to notice.
As Alexia and I splashed around in the baby pool, a man sitting nearby asked me my name.
"What is your name?"
(Thinking I was being rude and not answering) "I'm just trying to be friendly."
"I know, my name is Gwen."
Geeze. Introductions are always so difficult with my name.
"Gwen, did you fly British Airways?"
"No, I flew Virgin Atlantic."
"I took a different airline."
"How much is a flight?"
(Lying, not wanting to say) "I don't know."
"Oh so you were sponsored? Where is the money?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Where is your money, I know you have money. I want American dollars for food."
"I'm sorry, I don't have any." (I really didn't and I wouldn't have given it to him anyway. I was told before I came not to give handouts. I'd also already learned from past experiences abroad not to.)
It was so awkward. Stephen had told me when I first arrived that people would look at me and see money. Up until that point I hadn't had any encounters like that. He said if anyone ever asked me for money to redirect them to him and say "He is the one with the money". And then they "would go running in the other direction".
Alexia and I got out of the baby pool to dry off. We laid down on our towels and looking at her hands she said, "I think they are getting whiter."
"Hospitals where you're from, they are very different?"
"Yes, I guess."
"When you saw this you must have thought, 'This is not a hospital'".
There were a total of 11 tiny preemies today in the nursery. Five lay spooning in a single incubator as they waited for a second to be cleaned. They were so incredibly small that it was hard to believe they were actually humans who would grow to be mature adults someday.
The student intern I've been working with, whom I will call Mwanafunzi (student in Kiswahili), explained to me how the babies are fed. He cupped his nonexistent breast with his right hand as he told me the mothers must first "express" or breastfeed before the formula can be prepared. One part formula is mixed with one part breast milk and babies are fed depending on their weight. Preemies are characterized as weighing less than 1 kg (2.2 lbs) or being born before a 9 month gestation period. Seeing so many preemies today made me think that this was a common occurrence, but Mwanafunzi guessed that only about 10-20% of babies born in the hospital are premature. (According to the March of Dimes website, about 1 in every 8 babies in the US are born prematurely. That's about 13%.)
In the adjacent room were three babies sharing a crib. They had originally been classified as premature but had gained enough weight to be moved out of the incubators. One of the abandoned babies had found a home, but the other adorable boy who we saw last time was still there. He giggled as Mwanafunzi picked him up and tickled his belly. Turns out the nurses have named him Obama!
Walking into the critical room of the PEM ward I braced myself for what I was about to see. Two mothers shared a bed lying head to foot as their malnourished babies lay nestled against them. This time there was no crying mother who had lost her son sitting next to them. We were met with a much happier sight.
The severely malnourished girl was actually sitting up in bed today and talking. It was really incredible and gave me hope that she will get better. Flies gathered on the taught skin of her forehead as she stroked her legs. I couldn't quite put the look on her face, but she seemed to know that something was wrong with her and that her legs didn't look as they should.
I'm a little worried about her because she weighed 10 kgs on August 4th when she first arrived and she still only weighs 9.9 kgs. She only consumes formula and I asked Mwanafunzi whether that was substantive enough for a five year old. He told me that it had all the nutrients and vitamins she needed. When I repeated my question, worded slightly differently, he repeated the same answer. I obviously have no expertise in this area, but it seems like she should be eating some normal food by now instead of solely surviving on formula.
Three more malnourished children had arrived at the hospital in the past three days, one having arrived just yesterday. We talked to her 20 year old mother and received many of the same answers we had from the other mothers. She too brought her child to the hospital for coughing, not knowing that she was malnourished.
With the three new children in the ward, that brings the total to 13 mothers and 13 children and still only 6 beds. Five of the children have been discharged, one over two months ago, but their mothers remain, unable to pay the hospital bills. Mwanafunzi said the women were "ignorant" and saw their time there as a kind of "vacation" where they had food delivered to them, could use the wash rooms, had a TV to watch, and beds to sleep in. He made it sound almost like the women want to be there. I'm not so sure I agree with that statement especially because many of the women have other kids back home.
The little abandoned girl, who I will call Udadisi (curious in Kiswahili), sat in a yellow bucket tub as she got a bath. One of the mothers cleaned her with a child's wet long sleeve shirt she was using as a rag. They dressed her in a halter dress with fabric fruit slices sewn on it then put her back in her crib. I found out today that she is two years old and had been found left behind the hospital's pharmacy.
Mwanafunzi left for a while to check on some things, so I amused myself taking notes. It wasn't long before I heard some babbling and when I turned around Udadisi was pointing at me from across the room. She continued to stand in her crib and point, making some of the mothers in the ward laugh. I walked over to her and she looked at my buttons and explored the contents of my jacket pockets. She beckoned me over again later after she'd eaten and waved her blue plastic mug at me, splashing drops of porridge all over my jacket. I was covered in porridge by the time I left. We played peek-a-boo and she giggled and hugged me. Mwanafunzi came back and saw us playing together. Looking at us he said, "She is so in love with you." I hope they find her a home soon, but I'll be sad to see her leave.
Mwanafunzi needed to write down the day's formula measurements, so we went down the hallway to the "acute" ward and sat at a picnic bench. Not finding a ruler, he grabbed a paperback copy of the New Testament and used it as a straight edge. As we left the ward, two men pushing a metal cart with a metal cover walked past. "That is for the dead" Mwanafunzi said walking on.
As we waited in the nutritionist's office we sipped on some sugarless masala tea and Mwanafunzi told me how the cost of living in Kenya has been rising. One kilo of sugar now costs about 200 KSH (about $2), a price which the hospital can no longer afford. When the nutritionists arrived for their afternoon tea, I noticed they took their bread without margarine as they had before. Perhaps that too has gotten too expensive?
Dorcas picked me up and we headed straight to Kaaga Primary to pick up the health textbook and curriculum. As we waited I noticed a sign posted on a bulletin outside. It said the following:
HIV cannot be spread by touching, sneezing, or coughing.
HIV cannot be cured by having sex with a virgin.
HIV is not a by-product of political warfare.
Respond to the facts, ignore the myths, and together we'll reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
I'm interested to see if there are any myths the students believe in when I teach the after school health class about HIV/AIDS. I teach my first health class this Wednesday!
In the afternoon we drove to a nearby town to assess one of the schools there for MKMF's feeding program. I couldn't believe how quickly the landscape changed as we left Meru. The land went from lush and green to barren and dry in the span of only a few miles. There were row upon row of crops which never grew for lack of rain. If food doesn't grow, many families go hungry as they cannot afford to buy food.
The center door is the chief of Rwarera's office
We first met with the chief of the Rwarera Location to discuss with him the feeding program and our intentions in the area. He was cheerful and welcoming, inviting us to sit before him in his small office. The walls were bare save for a black and white photo of President Kibaki. His photograph seems to be on display in most offices.
In the corner was a stack of sacks full of rice, beans, and maize meal to give to the most needy families in the area on Monday. Rwarera encompasses 74 sq km and includes 11 primary schools and 2 secondary schools. He was very grateful for MKMF's feeding program which will provide porridge to around 3 of these schools for all of the students for the full term. He said, "feeding the children, you have fed us all." He predicted that enrollment in the schools would double once word of food got out. Many children stay home to work or look for food and the drought has made the situation especially bad.
Before we left he offered his full support to us saying, "I'm a servant of the people. Anywhere you call me, I'm there." Then we signed his guestbook and were on our way.
One of the board members, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture, accompanied us to Rwarera Primary for the assessment. She pointed out cotton crops along the way which hadn't been harvested in 3 years as a result of the drought.
We walked through the schoolyard to meet with the headmistress. At first a couple of children stood in the doorway of each classroom, but I soon heard "MOOZOOONGOOO!" and the doorways were full of students. Others stood at their desks craning their necks above the windowsills to get a look at the mzungu.
Enrollment at the school peaked in 2006 with 339 students, but currently only 207 are enrolled. This is almost certainly due to the drought and a lack of food. The headmistress told us that many children leave to find food during lunchtime and never return. Even the kindergartners aren't fed for the entire day. She expects that enrollment will increase once food is provided and we also hope to see a rise in test scores as the children will be better able to concentrate on their studies if they aren't focused on their hunger or finding food.
A school nearby has a feeding program and many students have transferred there as a result. I was worried that an influx of students would overburden the school and its already limited resources, but I was reassured that the classes aren't at capacity and they have room to take in many more students. I would like to collect data on the enrollment rates and test grades of each school in Rwarera before, during, and after the feeding project is put into effect. I think this should be a good indication of the program's impact in the area.
The other day in the office I read a children's book about Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai and The Green Belt Movement. In the 1970s after returning from her studies in the United States, she noticed that many of the trees in her hometown of Nyeri, Kenya had been cut down. She started the organization by giving poor women seedlings to plant as well as a small wage for the seedlings which survived past 3 months. As a result, over 40 million trees have been planted. There is a great documentary about her and the organization, which I watched on Northeastern's campus. You can watch a short clip here. The book talked about how women had to carry sticks on their backs long distances for firewood. On our way home today I saw a group of three women walking hunched over each with a large bundle of sticks hung from their back. Right down the road from them a boy no older than 8 or 9 watched over a handful of cows. Most children were in school at the time, but he had obviously been out watching the cows .
After dinner Alexia wanted to tell me a story about a mzungu she had once seen. She started with, "When I was a small girl..." Stephen and I burst out laughing. "So you mean yesterday" I said. "Yes, wait, NO!" She's so funny. Later she kissed me on the cheek and said "Clever girl. You know I love you." "I love you more Alexia" I responded as usual.