Wednesday, September 2, 2015

how much i still have to learn


Near the end of our stay in Endoynolasho, I asked one of our translators how to say the word "beautiful" in Maasai. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier, when over and over I'd searched for some way to communicate with the mothers and babies who had come to our clinics. If I had learned the Maasai word for beautiful earlier in our stay, I’d have used it many times more. It would have been circling in my head when I sat in a room full of thirteen and fourteen year old girls from the school in Endoynolasho. This was earlier in our stay, after a full morning clinic and then a round of health trainings with students and teachers. The women on our team – four of us – had decided to extend our training with one more session just for the girls. We would give them the chance to share their experiences of being girls in this community, and a chance to ask us questions. We would share our wisdom.

We gathered the girls in one of the rooms of the small clinic. The girls sat on the patient exam tables and in chairs pulled into the room. A few put an arm up on the shoulder of a girl next to her. Each wore her blue-gingham school uniform and had hair cut close to her head. The girls were shy, and, unprepared, the four of us stumbled with our questions, which were likely culturally skewed to our American understanding (or misunderstanding) of what being a girl in rural Kenya might be like. Still, we wanted to make up for an obvious lack of female leadership at their school and in their community. All their teachers are male. The government will not post a female teacher in this remote area for safety reasons. And while the local community also sponsors a few young teachers at the school - young people who had come from and still live in that same community - no female in Endoynolasho had ever continued schooling past class eight. That means no woman in the area has an education past fourteen years of age.

Eventually, a brave girl broke their silence and our awkwardness by telling us, “We need sanitary napkins.” A few more girls joined in. We pieced together the story: the school provides every girl with a package of eight pads each month. But none of the girls had received a package since the beginning of May. Now, it was nearly August. We didn't ask them what they did without the pads. I’m not sure that any of us had expected to hear such practical concerns. I nodded slowly as one of the other women promised to work with the local NGO we partnered with, who would be able to provide the girls with a regular supply of sanitary napkins.

Here is what I might have been expecting to hear from these girls: boys try to have sex with me against my will. I am worried my father will marry me off young. I want to keep going to school even though my family tells me I should marry or stay home. None of these are concerns I have had to address in my own life, and yet we – the four of us women, all of us now middle-class Americans who were either born in this country or to immigrant families who successfully settled here with reasonable ease – we all assumed these worries were tantamount to anything else in these girls' lives. Instead, the girls expressed needs that are practical, bodily, universal among women: I need something to absorb my monthly bleeding. Now, I am pricked by my ignorance and wonder at their faith in us.

After we had talked a little while longer, all of us stood on the porch of the small clinic to have our photo taken together. Now, when I look at that photo, I think of how much I still have to learn. When the translator had tried to teach me the Maasai word for beautiful, I'd botched it. A few hours later, I realized I'd been saying the wrong syllables and sounds. Unfamiliar with having the language in my own mouth, I thought I heard letters that weren't there, and made it one word when really it is two. Later, one of these young girls wrote down the words for me. And when I look at the photo, I always think of the Maasai words for beautiful: ira sidai.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

write for joy

On our flight home from Kenya last year, I found myself seated next to a tall, handsome German man, whom I eventually found the courage to talk to. On hearing I'd been in the country with a medical team, he perked up and asked with increased curiosity, "Are you a doctor?"

I responded with pride, as I always do, "No, I'm a writer."

He seemed let down. The conversation lost its momentum. Eventually, we both put our headphones on and looked for a movie to watch.

I share that story first as an example of a time I've intimated conversation with a tall good looking stranger. But more, because I find not only pride but also identity in my pursuit of writing. Like most pursuits, it's more than a job; it's a vocation. It's how I make sense of the world, live out my desire and hopefully touch the lives of others. 

But I have days. Days when I'm not feeling it, when I am failing, when I hear feedback that convinces me I've chosen wrong. And it's on these days that I remember that writing doesn't define who I am. Whether I succeed to move people or make them laugh or think differently through something I've written isn't the thing that gives me value. If I write or if I don't write, I will still be who I am. I will still be loved.

Over the past few weeks, I've been noticing how much my mood depends on how successful or recognized I feel as a writer. I've been comparing myself to other writers and creatives and professionals to understand how I measure up, but this little game is dubious. This year in Kenya, on a team with some really gifted doctors, nurses, and a videographer, I got myself a little mixed up in this comparison game. The doctors and nurses were so skilled and helpful during clinics. I mean, they had a real, concrete, in-the-moment impact, and as a result, patients expressed their gratitude. Team members congratulated each other. And our videographer - he was shooting and uploading constantly, which meant there were photos to see and videos to watch, along with excited team members watching them. And I - had nothing except for a few ideas born in conversations with people, a few notes scribble down, and some dreams. Writing can feel slow, inefficient, unpractical, ineffective, laborious. In other words, don't go into writing if you're looking to feel good about yourself, kids.

I could tell you other stories from the past few weeks when I have felt like quitting and just living a small, normal life where I come home and watch tv on netflix after dinner every night. But then I come home and open my computer and try to find a few words to piece together, and I remember, I write because I love to do it.

So, my motto this week has been write for joy. Not for identity or value or proving my skill or impact in some grand way. Find the joy in it. And just keep writing.

(Tall, goodlooking German men on airplanes be damned!)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

just kinda hanging out

hanging out before church with the girl who wanted my sunglasses































During our 12 days in Kenya, we held only four clinic days - two in Nairobi and two in the rural area of Kajiado, what I lovingly (though maybe somewhat ignorantly?) refer to as the bush. What were we doing during all the hours in between? That's a question I'm still thinking about. Here are a few of the things we were doing: packing, planning, preparing, traveling, meeting, painting, cleaning, and celebrating (i.e. launching a bricks and mortar clinic).

The rest of the time, were just kinda hanging out. There was that Sunday in the bush, right in the middle of our time there, when we lingered over breakfast and then drove a short distance to have church under a tree. Some sat on the few backless benches staked into the ground, with woven reeds that served as seats. The rest of us sat on old plastic chairs that the kids had run to their homes to find and bring for their guests. We were the first to arrive for the service, along with our young preacher. While we waited for the handful of other church goers to arrive, we sat and played with the kids. One particularly bold girl took my sunglasses, which fell lopsided on her small face.

Soon the service started. There was singing and dancing and clapping, then testimonies and a short sermon. Afterward, we all walked to a nearby boma (a homestead where an extended family lives among a few small huts). The bold girl - who still wore my sunglasses - and another who had brought me a chair earlier grabbed either one of my hands. Children gathered around most of my other teammates, too, eager to connect with us in some way. After we visited at the boma, a whole group of us sat just outside by a tree where a baby goat had just been born. Some sat on rocks; I sat on a large tin can someone brought for me. The baby goat practiced using her legs and finding her mother's milk. We waited for our van to come to take us back to where we were staying, which it did about thirty minutes later.

That afternoon, we ate lunch together, a few talked about a hike. I took a short nap on a patient exam table, then journaled. Later, our team played uno and ate pringles we'd brought from home while we waited for dinner.

I could tell you about other times when we hung out: that time I stood by Nathan, a teacher, while he taught me to make ugali (a much loved Kenyan dish); that time a few of us joined the students for a game of soccer; that time I sat by the breakfast fire drinking my coffee while Tonny told me about his grandfather's travels around Africa as a freedom fighter. Being with our friends and partners in the bush was easy and delightful. They hosted us generously and welcomed us completely and forgave our ignorance (probably more than I even know). They helped us to be ones who didn't just hand out medication to people in their community, but grew to know it, even if just a bit, in the short time we were there.

That is what sticks out to me now. When I think about the ratio of medical-to-other time we spent in Kenya this year, it can feel like maybe we were inefficient. But what I know now is that hanging out was likely the most efficient use of that time. Hanging out with people in a place helps you to put roots down. It builds an affection that requires slow time and shared experience, a knowing that a task-only mentality skims over. I would argue that this hanging out time was the foundation of everything else we did. It helped us to see our patients as our friends, it helped us to ask deeper questions, and it gave us the compassion and joy to serve when we grew tired or weary. It is also what makes us want to keep going back.

So what did we do the rest of the time? We laughed and befriended and asked and understood. We grew in love.

Monday, August 10, 2015

holding pictures in my heart

Our second night in Kenya, I didn't sleep. I knew this might happen. In my experience, the first night after more than 24 hours of travel, exhaustion covers me like a lullaby and heavy blanket. Then the second night my body resists the cues of dark and night, insists on its own internal timekeeping.

I slept (or tried to) in a tent with the seven others on my team, pitched in the middle of nowhere, Kenya, near the Tanzanian border. We'd staked it in a clearing of dirt next to the new clinic my friend's nonprofit had helped to build, a small three-room building a few hundred yards from the teacher's quarters, and then the small four-room school a few hundred more yards off in the distance. The ground surrounding the clinic had been mostly cleared of rocks and stones surrounding the clinic, though some stubborn rocks remained. By the light of our headlamps, we carefully felt around for a space that was flat and clear so that our tent wouldn't get a hole, and we wouldn't get bruised during the night.

First, it was my bladder that kept me awake, though I had peed just before settling into the tent for the night. I woke my friend, and with headlamps and baby wipes in hand, we unzipped the tent door and stumbled just far enough from the tent to not disturb the others. Back in the tent, we tried to not trip over the strangling limbs and curled bodies of those still sleeping. I settled into my space in the corner and hoped I'd still get a few hours of sleep. But then the wind started whipping the side of the tent, and some strange alarm that only activates my imagination when I am overtired in the middle of the night told me that an animal might be making the tapping noises I knew I kept hearing. Just as I drifted off to sleep, another whip or tap woke me again and reminded me of my irrational fear. I started to give up on sleep.

I turned from my side to lie on my back. I looked up through the mesh ceiling of the tent and, without my glasses, saw what seemed to be bright blurry dots poking through the night sky. I found my glasses next to me and put them on. The sky was more full than I'd ever seen it before. It burst with stars. And I did what I had been doing for so much of the trip so far - I reached for my phone to take a photo. But the light of the stars was too far away for a camera phone, and the image came up all dark.

I put my phone down and just kept looking. My teammates snored and shifted in their sleeping bags. They all slept while I tried my hardest to imprint this view of the sky in my mind. How would I describe what it was like to wake up to this incredible sky to my friends at home without a photo to show them? And how would I remember it for myself?

The truth is that even our photos are too flat, too still to capture the truest things about being in Kenya. I worry that the same is true of my words. How do I say what what it's like to look out the van window and see the red red dirt, the green grass and fruit trees, the women selling bananas, the same huge sky that somehow, amazingly, seems to stretch even further here? How do I tell you what it feels like to be welcomed so warmly by people who are so different, who laugh when we say their words and give us goats when we care for their children and mothers and sisters? How do I make you understand how full a heart feels, and yet how it wants to hold so much more, after being in this place? I try to hold these pictures in my heart and describe them to you the best I can.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

what makes the food so good

Albert's goat and potato stew


At a party last night, I told an acquaintance about my travels to Kenya. Knowing some Kenyans here in California, this new friend related to me what he knows about Kenya culture: the generosity and friendship, and the differences in spirituality. And then he says to me, "And Kenyan food is really good."

I didn't respond right away because it surprised me what thoughts came to mind. They were mostly disagreements, something like, "well, it's not spicy enough for me," or, "we ate a lot of rice" or "what I really wanted was to find some good Indian food when we were in the country" (there is a lot of good Indian food there). I asked him to elaborate on what kinds of Kenyan food he's had and we talked a little more about it, then moved on to some other topic.

Now, it's not that I don't like Kenyan food. I eat when I'm there - a lot. There is this dish called mukimo that is a mash of potatoes and spinach and corn in one dish, which for me is a combination I would imagine might be in heaven. For vegetables, there is lots of sauteed cabbage and carrots, and also some really tasty sauteed greens. My favorite are chips (french fries), which are so much better than here in America, I'm guessing because their potatoes are different and the oil they use is probably tastier, though possibly not that great for me. Still, I indulge freely. And then of course there's nyama choma, or roasted meat, most often goat in the places where we stay. It's especially good with ugali, which is a bland corn dish (similar to polenta, but less rich) because it's the perfect simple, starchy food to eat along with the fatty goat.

And this brings me to my point, because I've eaten nyama choma in a restaurant in Nairobi, and then I've eaten it around a fire pit where it was roasted by generous friends hosting us and hands down it is tastier around the fire pit. That's the whole point for me - it's about the food but it's also about the people preparing it for us and enjoying it with us. Albert is our cook (among many other roles he plays) when we stay out in the bush. There, the accommodations are a lot like camping. We pitch a tent, and bring bottled water from the city (there is no running water), and meals are cooked over a fire. The sun sets each evening around 7pm, leaving us to eat in the dark with the fire and headlights from our van as our light. Dinner in the cool, dark evening around a fire is our time to shrug off our long, full, hot days. We tell stories and laugh. Or, sometimes I find a quite space to myself and watch the fire as Albert cooks. The fire crackles and Albert moves quickly between pots and a bucket of water, and every once in a while we catch the smell of our food cooking.

We know dinner is close when someone comes around with a pitcher of water and a shallow bucket holding a bar of soap. One by one, we rub the soap between our hands as our host pours water and the dirt from the day washes away. Then come the bowls and spoons and the invitation to scoop rice and whatever it is that we're eating: lentils, cabbage, meat stew.

Albert is hesitant to give us his recipes, and maybe it's because he knows. He is clued into the fact that, though his food is very good, what makes it special is less about the ingredients he puts into it and more about the way that sharing a meal with people you love, in a place you love, is, when you get down to it, what makes that food so darn good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

traveling home through ten time zones

I am back from my second trip to Kenya. In the past twenty-four hours, I have done mostly basic things: sleep, laundry, mail sorting, unpacking, a to-do list, a few groceries to eat. I have also texted my teammates, sat and stared out a window, cried, and made lots of coffee.

As I walk around in a haze of jet lag and memories, I keep thinking about all of the ways that the physical adjustment of returning from a big trip mirrors what happens internally. The travel required to get home from being half way around the world - moving through ten time zones with two long flights, a layover, drives to and from the airport, not to mention checking bags and going through security and customs and... - all of this can feel cumbersome and disorienting, but I'm glad for it. With the long travel and accompanying jet lag, I remember that I have just lived in a space a world away from my every day life, and that to incorporate everything I saw and felt and desired will take time and intention. It is unpacking and putting all my things back in their places, it is telling my body to stay awake when I'd rather be sleeping, it is allowing myself a day off before returning to work. It is sharing photos of my trip and digging up words to accompany them. It is letting the stories start to take shape so that they can be shared. And it is knowing that what has just taken place these last two weeks isn't only in the past, it is also something I now carry with me, a precious souvenir that beckons the people I laughed and cried and prayed and walked with to be with me always.

Monday, July 13, 2015

a steady gaze

Sometimes I settle in a pew in the back of the sanctuary. The musicians start playing on the stage up front, and families and couples and friends walk down the aisles and file into rows. I watch them from my spot in the back, friends greeting each other with hugs and parents settling their children next to them. The littlest of the children stay in their parents' arms or stand up on the seats and face the back. I know these children from those times I talk to their parents, the children shyly hugging their moms' legs or demanding their dads pick them up. I also know them from helping in the toddlers' class once a month. I give the kids wipes before serving them snacks in tiny paper cups and make revving engine sounds when we play cars together.

Ethan is one of these young children. He just turned three. He has many words, though most of them are slurred together. I have heard him say guacamole and tortilla, but the rest has been a guessing game. Except for when his mother leaves him in the toddlers' class to join the rest of the adults in the sanctuary - then I hear him clearly and loudly call for his mommy, whose neck he was tightly hugging just a few minutes ago when she brought him into the classroom. Most of us know that Ethan is one of the children who will be consoled by our picking him up and distracting him with a toy, so when I am in the class with him, this is what I do. Soon enough he's wriggling free of my arms and making pretend breakfast in the play kitchen in the corner.

Yesterday, from my spot in the back of sanctuary, I saw Ethan and his mom and dad and sister make their way down the aisle to the front where most of the kids and their families sit. Ethan was in his mothers arms, and when they turned into the pew, she deposited him in the seat next to her so that she could unload her bag and reach up to fix her hair. Ethan scooted himself around and put his hands on the back of the pew to pull himself up and look back. His eyes met my gaze and I smiled at him to signal I remembered him from our times in the toddlers class together. His mouth turned up in only the slightest smile. Then he ducked his head behind the back of the pew. One hand still gripped the top. And then, a few seconds later, Ethan slowly lifted his head again so that one sparkling eye met mine again. Though his mouth was hidden from me, I detected a smile. He was having a little bit of fun with me.

This makeshift game of hide and seek went on for a few more short rounds. Soon, Ethan moved on. He turned to his dad at his side and allowed himself to be lifted up so that he could rub his tiny hands against his father's bald head.

The music still played on stage as the rest of the church-goers faced the front, read lyrics from a screen, sang and clapped or swayed along. I listened, but was still thinking of Ethan and how he met my eyes with his over and over, his delight slowly growing at knowing that he'd see me there each time. This is worship, these childlike attempts to see God, as delightful as a laugh that grows in our bellies and spreads a smile across our faces. I wondered how often I peer over the edge of what's in front of me and expect to see Him holding a steady gaze, looking right back at me. I wondered at His joy in being the constant one, in waiting for us to lift our eyes to him again, and again, and again.