Friday, August 29, 2014

somewhere in the middle of nowhere

on the drive out to Masai land

"You drive out to the middle of nowhere, and then end up somewhere."
- Jeff, Alabaster teammate, reflecting on what it felt like to be in Masai land

I wish you could have made the trip with us.

From Nairobi it was a six hour van drive, they said. So when we agreed to leave at 10am, I figured we'd make it there by 4pm, or maybe 5 to account for a lunch or potty stop. Though we'd just arrived in Kenya, I'd already heard some of my teammates who'd been on this trip before use the phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) to explain the unexpected and out of the ordinary that seemed to be very expected and ordinary here. But I wasn't yet applying it like I should have. Meaning, I ought to have known a 6 hour van ride was not a 6 hour van ride.

Before we left Nairobi, we all got out of the van and crammed into the tiny chemist (pharmicist) to pick up and repack more vaccines for the Masai clinics. Next we stopped at the Girl Child Network (GCN) office. This is the nonprofit we partnered with on the ground. All out of the van again and standing around in a circle, we met a few more of the staff, including the deputy director, which led to the first of many spontaneous conversations I wished I'd been ready to record (more on that later). Then back into the van and to the mall to pick up some food and snacks.

It was about 1pm, and finally we were on our way out of Nairobi.

At first the road was smooth, though there was traffic to navigate and the smell of exhaust to bear with. We all happily dug into our lunch and snacks, Shannon passing out freshly-fried samosas we'd bought at the mall. I opened a bag of chips and a coke, not realizing this would be my last cold drink for a few days (and not realizing that I would care). About an hour into the drive, the rode turned more narrow, more curvy and, eventually, filled with potholes. Chris, our driver from GCN, swerved all over the road and off the road to avoid them, but bumps and jerks were unavoidable. It reminded me of the drive to Hana when I was in Maui last summer, and the landscape, quickly transitioning from green hills to flatter arid land, was similar, too. This was part adventure, and part understanding: this is the way to the people who are in need.

Another hour or two, and we were in Magadi. This small town was built around a salt lake that an Indian soda company now owned. Buildings that looked like dorms were clustered together, and I assumed that's where the workers lived. We pulled up next to a canteen with a swimming pool and all got out of the van for our first potty break (read: the first of many holes I peed in). When we left, two Masai men jumped on top of our luggage that was piled into the back of a truck to make the rest of the journey with us. I don't remember if they were with us at clinic or if they just needed a ride, my mind so full of new ideas and details by that point in the day.

The next leg of the journey turned from potholed roads to off-roading. Evenutally what lie ahead and behind and to both sides all looked the same: brown dusty ground pocked by low, brown trees or bushes. No roads or paths or distinguishing features. I couldn't be sure how Chris knew the way, but I trusted he did. We looked eagerly out the windows for animals: a heard of zebras ran off in the distance, and we scared a pair of ostriches from behind and saw them run off in different directions.

Another stop in Kiserian to pick up a teacher for our clinic. Then another in Oloika, where we learned there was a dispensary. The clinic worker was coming with us, we also learned. Our team wanted to see the clinic, so out of the van again, and again another conversation - about government funding for the clinic and what kinds of needs they're able to meet - that I wish I could have recorded.

By now it was getting dark, which meant it was probably close to 7pm. We had added four people to our traveling group. Only about 30 more minutes of driving out in the middle of nowhere until we arrived. I felt lost with no road signs telling me how many km until the town we were headed for and no other markers to suggest any kind of life besides the animals we'd seen.

Like most things in the bush, eventually it just appeared: there was the small school building where we'd hold our first clinic the next day. Now it was dark, and we were tired from the 6 hour van ride that had turned into a full-day adventure. New solar panels on the school provided light for us to set up our tent, and a little while later Albert and Chris called us to the fire pit for our first dinner of rice with cabbage and carrots. Afterwards Veena and I peed into the dirt by the light of our headlamps, then wiped down with baby wipes and changed for bed. Even after such a full day, once we settled into our tent I couldn't fall asleep. Jetlag, excitement, disorientation kept me awake most of the night.

Do you understand now? Have I been able to tell you what it was like to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere? I'm still not sure I understand myself.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

their names inscribed in my notebook

 "... I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands..."  -Is. 49:15-16

School was on break, but still nearly 40 children and a few parents came to hear our health training presentation. They crowded into the dim classroom whose windows weren't allowed much sun. The clouds and tightly packed buildings - if you can call them that - made sure of it. Outside, along the muddy paths that dilineated the villages of Kibera - one of the largest and poorest informal settlements (euphemism for slum) in the world - people busily rolled chapatis and fried samosas and stood solemnly at their little market booths. I wondered how many thought today could be different from the day before. Garbage lined every path and sewage stream, more abundant than the flowers in the average American town. A mix of feces, sour garbage and exhaust filled the air.

Inside the flimsy walls of the Urishika Children's Centre, it wasn't so easy to remember what I'd seen oustide. Here, the paved path had little trash on it, and the accosting smell wasn't so strong. A new structure was being constructed - a latrine, library, and kitchen, designed in such a way that the biogas from the latrine would power the kitchen - which hinted at the capacity for change, and for hope. I saw the same hints in the eyes of the children who showed up for our training, and in their raised hands and quickness to "repeat after me."

After a little while, we split the girls and the boys for a short sex education talk. We had about 10 girls and a few adults walk with us to another classroom, where we talked briefly about what happens to women's bodies during puberty, and how to say no to a boy who wants something you don't want to give. The girls were mostly quiet but attentive and polite. As I looked around at each one of them, I was struck my how much beauty and joy I saw in these young girls who had spent their lives in one of the poorest, least secure, and probably most dangerous places in the world. I wanted to remember these girls.

Evelyne sat right in front of me. I had remembered her from our large session, when she volunteered to do the timed wall sit. She was a small, ten year old girl with large beautiful eyes framed with thick curled lashes, in stark contrast to the camouflage sweatshirt that she wore with the hood up. On another girl, this might have been a sign of intended toughness, but on her it simply indicated need, resourcefulness. At the end of our session, when we handed out pens with the slogan of our organization, I asked her to read aloud what it said. 

"You will not be forgotten," she read in a quiet, clear voice. Then she looked up and smiled at me.

"Here, write your name in my notebook," I said to her. I flipped to the next page and handed it to her. She wrote in methodical script, her first name, then her last. A few of the other girls were sitting nearby and crowded to see her write, and so the notebook got passed to each girl, and each one wrote her name with their new pens.

My first instinct was to have Evelyne write her name because I couldn't be sure that she had ever used a pen like this before. And more than that, I suppose I wanted to show the girls that the marks they make - their words, their names - matter. I wanted them to know that they are not forgotten.

When we said goodbye, I gave Evelyne and a few of the other girls a hug. I had a strange feeling that my connection with these girls wasn't over. My urge was to stay, to see how they might grow in the next months or years. Back at our hotel later that afternoon, I opened my notebook and saw the girls' names in their own handwriting and felt that I'd unknowingly gathered a treasure from them. I have their names written down permanently, and in their own handwriting, a kind of souvenir of themselves. They will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

after Kenya

map of Kenya painted on Light Rays School in Kingemi slum, with pupil

instant coffee, roasted goatmeat, Albert's tomato rice, soft ripe papaya

breakfast and dinner around the fire in the bush

communicating through smiles instead of words

shy giggles and hand-covered mouths of Masai children

learning from amazing, committed, intelligent Kenyan clinicians, community workers, and advocates

doing things together

green hillsides filled with banana trees, dirt red as fire, flat arid land that stretches open and empty and still hides so much life

asking questions, and learning how to ask the right ones, in the right way

the most meaningful conversations when you least expect them

improving my squat and aim (yes, I'm talking about peeing)

joy forceful enough to overcome days of dirty feet, hair filled with the dirt of the bush, growing up in the slum, generations of poverty

the beats, the dancing, the singing, the voices

many plates and cups and a heart filled to overflowing

being left wanting more

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


For me, finding stories is all about taking the time to stop and follow your curiosity whenever something sparks it. That’s sometimes harder to do than it sounds (you’re busy, you’re tired, you’re doing something else, etc.), but it’s so essential.
Rebecca Skloot, via here

Sunday, July 20, 2014

a little bit homeless (if there is such a thing)

I've got the routine down now, so that when my fellow runners ask me, "Do you shower at work?" I know how to answer them. The question comes up every time I tell another non-res member (i.e. not a resident in a transitional living facility, i.e. not a person who is homeless) that my office isn't too far from skid row, and that I go straight to work after our early morning runs. They usually relate stories of cleaning up somewhere after a run, using baby wipes or something. One person said something about febreeze, but I think she was being facetious. I couldn't tell.

So here it is: after I stop for coffee, I pull into my parking garage, park my car, and gather all of my things: purse, food bag (breakfast and lunch), getting ready bag (deoderant, change of undergarments, shoes, makeup, etc.), and my clothes on a hanger. I take the elevator to my floor and walk fast to the bathroom, hoping that nobody sees me in running clothes and quickly-caking sweat. I open the door to the bathroom and find it empty, since only a few colleagues are crazy enough to start work at this hour (about 6:45am). I unpack my getting ready bag, plug my curling iron in, and get to it. Washing my face, rinsing my whole body, putting on clean clothes, blow-drying the sweat out of my hair (gross, I know), putting on lotion and makeup, then putting the finishing touches on my hair (usually hair up, bangs fixed with the curling iron).

The routine doesn't end there. I lug all my stuff to my office, and hang my washcloth and sweat-soaked sports bra (yes, it's only 3 miles we run, but I sweat a lot, ok?) on the hook on the back of my office door to dry during the day. The first week I laid them out on my back counter, hoping nobody would look carefully enough to see what was back there. But my boss did, and tactfully suggested the hook idea. Unfortunately, I hadn't planned ahead for the days when someone might come in and close my door, thereby seeing my dirty washcloth and sports bra. The first time this happened, my coworker and I were interviewing a candidate for an open position. I tried to laugh it off, but my cheeks turned red. The second time it was two male coworkers who came into my office with a question, and before I even knew what was happening, they closed the door behind them. Their eyes moved together from the washcloth and sports bra to me, puzzled. Then, as if one queue, we all burst out into laughter. I tried to explain, but they shook their heads like they didn't want to hear it. "Do you live here, Betsy?" one said through his laughter.

The irony isn't lost on me: for that one morning every week, after running with some homeless guys around downtown, I feel a little bit homeless. But I am not. I laugh with my coworkers, pack my bags at the end of the day, and throw the wash cloth and sports bra in my wash basket at home. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

reading strengthens the soul

Because they can be consumed in a sitting, we tend to think of short stories as the equivalent of literary bonbons, small bites to satisfy a small craving or to fill a little space in the day. Short they may be, and yet the work of digesting a good story is anything but quick... The best short stories I've read over these years have seemed to require nearly as much of me, the reader, as of the writer, a kind of passionate engagement that challenges not only my intellect but my humanity. Reading, reading actively, strengthens the soul.
-Katrina Kenison, Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2006

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

places you will not go

After a Back on My Feet run from Skid Row to the Water and Power Building, where we watched the sun rise over Los Angeles. A quick prose-poem of sorts.

Are there places you will not go? Maybe they are places you believe to be off limits to you. Where your type of person doesn't go. So far you wouldn't even know the way.

And so you don't even think about how much you really want to go, you don't bother to wonder whether the sunrise looks different from there or if the breeze is a little cooler, the stars a little brighter. You have never felt the urge to climb the steps that lead there because you question if your legs could carry you the whole way. You don't want to brave feeling alone or out of place, you are afraid of needing to run out, and fast.

But what is the alternative, the overcrowded streets you live along now, where your home is as small and flimsy as a cardboard box?