Girls in my village
March is over and we’re starting our fourth month in Kenya! It seems the rains have started here, and I’m typing this as it hails outside. Yes, this morning I was sweating away in mud huts doing family visits, and now it is afternoon, it’s still hot, and we’ve got hail falling from the sky and thunderstorms booming all at once. Quite bizarre. The rains aren’t the regular rains yet where it’s supposed to rain lightly each afternoon, but any rain is good rain. Our garden is coming along smashingly, and all across Western Kenya people are planting their maize this month.
This might promise to be my longest update yet, so feel free to disregard to read later when you’re bored and have more free time. Or just skip below for pictures. It was really meant to be half the length is appears, but I included a sad story about a little girl I was trying to help this month and that doubled the length. So let’s begin, shall we?
CHICKENS: Cindy gave in and let me purchase an egg laying hen at the beginning of the month. A week later we were given a cock from a pastor to keep the hen company. (Hens need cocks for inspiration, we learned. A hen without a cock doesn’t lay eggs, and doesn’t come home at the end of the day). At first she used to try to peck his eyes out and take all of the food for herself, but now they’re friends and they wander around together all day. We let her out of the house in the morning, and she comes home on her own each afternoon around 4 or 5pm. She walks right up the front steps, passes through the living room, clucking merrily as she goes, and walks right into the storage closet that’s been her home here. Camilla lays eggs most days, and she likes it when we pet her, so in our book she’s pretty darn cool. Scrawny, our free little cock, doesn’t do much except get skittish around people and poop everywhere. The grossest thing about them is to see them pecking at and eating broken eggs… yolk and shell and all. It’s like we have cannibal chickens… no joke. Our buddy Amos built a chicken house for them, and hopefully now that it’s done we’ll be able to retrain them to go there very soon. I’ll be sad to see Camilla go outside, but know it’ll be less work and much cleaner in the long run. It’s been fun having her as not only a source of eggs, but also as a household pet and source of entertainment.
Camilla pecks at maize and fish meal, while Scrawny looks on from behind. Apparently adding fish meal to the maize makes her healthier for laying eggs.
Camilla finally lays an egg and didn’t break it, while Scrawny continues to look on from behind.
NAIROBI: We spent a one quick day in Nairobi and had lots of great conversations with women who are in their 20s and are becoming nuns. One such conversation with them revolved around differences between Americans and Kenyans. The idea of moving out of your parents’ house at age 18 and becoming independent was foreign to them. They asked how young can you get married? How many wives are you allowed? Do you have wife inheritance? Couples can divorce? How expensive is school? Is high school really free? Really? Doesn’t the church tell you to live together and have babies together before getting married, to be sure your partner is the best fit? It was a fun and interesting exchange of ideas and there was much learning on either side of the conversation. We hope to visit Nairobi again in April, and hopefully we’ll be able to stay longer than one day. (The drive there is very long, but with limited vacation time, that’s all we could manage this trip).
ENTERTAINMENT: While the chickens were pretty entertaining, the most fun I’ve had all month is visiting the Catholic boarding school nearby and learning how to do African dance from primary school girls. Call me a dork for admitting our best ever Friday night entertainment was hanging out with elementary school kids, but seriously, it’s true. They’re super duper fun, are full of energy, and are super entertaining. They’re also super obsessed with us and our celebrity status has yet to diminish in their young minds. (Cindy and I discuss regularly how weird it will be going back to the States eventually and not be followed, stared at, shouted at, and idolized by little kids and some adults too). For now though, the younger ones are content just to touch our white skin and see if it turns their hands colors. And the older, braver ones love to touch my hair. And they all love to show us how to dance, which is the best. What more could a girl want out of a Friday night in Kenya?
MEDICAL: Cindy and I both got sick this month with what turned out to be some minor bacterial infection. We went to a private hospital out past Kakamega, and got antibiotics that we’re currently taking. I started feeling better very soon, even if I am a little lightheaded from the meds. I was entertained to know that the cost of postage to send in the insurance claim form to the US would be double the cost of the entire doctor’s visit. Needless to say, we’ll be skipping the claim and paying out of pocket for both the visit and the prescription. How cool is that? The cheap doctors visit, not the expensive postage from Kenya.
WE TRIED: I brought a battery charger from home for camera, flashlight, i-pod speakers, etc. However, it fried upon first use here and we’ve had to spend lots of money on trips to big cities and buy batteries. Mostly it just means I haven’t used my nice new camera more than three times. My kind and generous parents spent $25 to ship me a new $20 battery charger from the States, that I then had to pay $16 customs on when it arrived in Malava. ($16 is a huge wad of cash when you only make $100/month, but I was prepared to do so since I knew the battery charger was inside the box). Sadly, the new battery charger also fried upon first use in our house and now we’ve spent even more money and still have to buy batteries on trips into Kisumu or Nairobi. (Why it’s fried is the big unknown frustration… I’m able to charge a cell phone, i-pod, and computer, so why my voltage converter and plug adapter combined with the charger won’t work is beyond me). I’m thankful to my parents for trying to help, but sad it didn’t work out in the end. Side note: if you’re going to mail packages, please consider writing the value as a tiny amount so I can avoid custom charges. Large envelopes so far have been getting through without us having to charges, which helps make up for the big fee I had to pay this week.
This is a still frame from a movie I took of one of my favorite kids spinning in circles. Julia has Cerebral Palsy, is epileptic, and is deaf and mute. She’s also more fun than a barrel of monkeys and on her good days there’s no stopping her from enjoying life. This week she was content to crawl all over me as her personal playground, drum on rain barrels, and spin for long periods of time in circles.
Charles has club foot. After receiving therapy, he rides a trike at our centre to exercise the foot and leg. He’s super fast, super cute, and super content to hold hands.
He’s also super smiley and happy to have his photo taken. This is also a still from a video I took.
WORK: So much to say. The Toy Lending Library opened with a good first month! I’m still doing computer work, also do family registrations for the center, and help with training meetings for CBRWs and volunteers. I also do play therapy at the centre when I have time in my schedule. This month I also did a few home visits to interview families we’re considering for sponsorship funding. It was very interesting to go way off the main road, onto private farms, and into the mud huts where our families live. Each family is genuinely full of need, it’s still hard for me to prioritize a deaf and mute teenage boy who’s struggling to find food to eat and has no communication skills, a teenage girl who is blind but can speak and wants to go to school (her family thinks she’s a bad omen and they beat her), and a three year old Downs Syndrome baby who needs open heart surgery.
However, the majority of my time this month has been spent taking families to clinics, workshops, hospitals, eye care centers, etc. A few of the nurses and doctors I’ve visited have referred to me as children’s Community Based Rehabilitation Worker. While my role is not technically that of a CBRW (I don’t make many home visits), I am indeed often playing the basic role of liaison between the children/family and the center or medical institution. One of the many trips I made this month was to an orthopedic workshop a few hours away. I took a boy named Songa and ordered him his very first pair of shoes. Hard to believe he’s almost 20 years old and is just getting his first pair of shoes. These will be custom made with lifts in them to accommodate his one leg that is significantly shorter as a result of his bone disease.
Our programme was also able to help a family purchase a prosthetic leg for three year old Mercy whose bad leg was amputated last year. It felt great being there, holding her hands, and helping her walk for the very first time! It was a definitive moment, one that confirmed I was in the right place at the right time, doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.
THIS IS THE STORY OF A GIRL: My biggest focus this month was a tiny baby named Pavin. Her mother brought her to the centre the first week of March desperate for help. Pavin was born with no anal opening and had both stool and urine coming out of her vagina. She would need multiple surgeries to correct the problem. She was also born without a left nostril which made her breathing very difficult and made eating/breast feeding even more difficult. She was three months old but was so tiny and emaciated she looked like a premie or newborn. I was put in charge of her case and took her two hours away to a hospital in Eldoret. After many clinic visits and x-rays, she was admitted to hospital and was scheduled for surgery. After a few weeks of observation and further tests, she finally had the first of a few surgeries she’d need. I visited Eldoret again and again for different trips and was so excited and proud to see her doing well after the surgery. Her mom said she was eating more, was happy, and was even laughing for the first time!
Pavin and her mother, happy after the first surgery
I ended up making six different trips to Eldoret during the month (generally 6-10 hour trips) to check in on her, talk to doctors, advocate for her care, schedule tests and surgeries, support her mother, pay fees, and negotiate with doctors and legal committees to have other bills waived. (We’d already paid 10,000/- Ksh, and her young parents were from a very poor village unable to pay the rest). I’m sad to say we got a call last Thursday from the hospital. Despite the positive recovery I’d witnessed first hand, Pavin developed complications from the surgery and died overnight. My programme director asked me to make a final trip to Eldoret and collect the mother, and the child’s body, and bring both back to their village. I was able to confidently and effectively deal with English speaking hospital staff during the month of visits for Pavin, but I had a Kenyan staff person accompany me on this trip since I had no language skills or cultural know how that would enable me to visit the family’s rural home and notify them of the death. Families here don’t have phones and hospitals don’t notify next of kin, so it was up to us to tell the family. I was told we could be stoned by upset family members, which seemed dramatic at first but became more of a real fear when I remembered that people are still stoned here in Western Kenya’s rural villages for offenses like stealing. Indeed, there were family members, including the blind old great-grandfather, who were blaming us for the child’s death. He was also blaming the mother, saying it was her fault she was cursed and brought the bad omen baby into the family in the first place. The great grandfather eventually came around, and the grandfather actually came to me later in the evening and thanked me profusely for all I’d done for the child.
Like many ordinary things, death happens all the time in America but it seemed somehow different here in Kenya. I wasn’t prepared to fight the morgue employees for the right to drive the tiny body home in our private vehicle without a casket, I wasn’t prepared to sign burial permits since the father doesn’t own any form of ID card (sub-chiefs in Kenya can also issue burial permits, but not in an accidental death), and I definitely wasn’t prepared to be the one to dress the dead, cold, limp infant in her burial clothes. It was a long drive home from the hospital with lots of sobbing from the young mother. Upon arrival to the family’s home, it was already dark and there was still a fear of how the family would react after having the day to digest the sad news. Neighbors and family members came pouring in down the dirt roads, notified of our arrival by the passing of our truck. Some people at the house were running around in the dark and throwing themselves on the ground. Others were praying. There was much shouting and wailing. There was sobbing and flailing. The mud hut of the great-grandfather was lit up by a kerosene lantern, and I went inside and cried quietly, joining the crowd in prayer.
To say the whole day was incredibly sad would be an understatement. The night visit at the family’s hut was, quite frankly, terrifying. And when I finally got home after it all, I felt like my limbs were made of bricks. I was a crying and sobbing mess. Cindy was sweet and had dinner waiting for me, but I didn’t have much of an appetite. I was however glad to be home where I had soap and water and could attempt to scrub the smell and feel of dead baby off my hands. That’d have to happen before I was going to put any food in my stomach.
I know Pavin isn’t the first child from our programme to die this spring, and I know there will be more deaths to follow during my time here. However, I suspect her death will remain with me for some time to come. As an AC program director back in Seattle, I had my team members write “Great Stories” about successes they had each month, and I could easily write more about being with Mercy and holding her hands during her first steps with her prosthetic leg. It was a really great moment and promises to change her life forever. However, the story of Pavin is the one that lingers with me this month. While Pavin’s story is more tragedy than success, it is a powerful reminder about the difficult, and often painful, struggles so many families here face on a daily basis. It’s a constant reminder about why I’m here doing this work. If you’re one that prays, feel encouraged to say a little prayer for her family and for all of the families of the disabled children we serve.
If there’s been a flicker of depression anytime over the past few months, this week would probably be it. I know it won’t last, but it’s definitely something real for this week. It’s probably a combination of many things, and while none are the end of the world, they can add up. I’m still processing Pavin’s death, am still sick and on meds, I was super frustrated by the frying of the new battery charger (and lack of further use of my camera), I’m sad that I’ll miss my nephew’s birth in exactly a month, and sad that I’ll miss Dieter’s wedding in July.
That said, I’m still feeling valued and productive at work, still entertained by the chickens, still am excited to learn and grow on a daily basis, still love cooking my meals and gardening and reading daily, still in awe daily of the beauty of Western Kenya, and still couldn’t wish to be anywhere else. What a crazy month it’s been… feels like forever ago that we went to Kisumu for a weekend away and saw hippos and got robbed and ate yummy Indian food. In reality it was just a few weeks ago and the rest of the month seems to have flown by. I hope you’re well in your corner of earth. Please do stay in touch and send on over any questions, comments, or feedback.