Thursday, November 6, 2008
I never would have wanted to carry around the crappy American flags provided by the Ambassador's Residence before.
Seeing Obama elected was one of the best moments of my life. I was part of a group invited to watch the election results come in at the Ambassador's Residence. This was seriously amazing. I'm bad at estimating numbers because counting is icky and for boys, but I'd guess there were around 750 people there, Americans and Kenyans, and virtually everyone was for Obama. We got there at 5 AM to watch the results come in -- Pennsylvania had just been called before we left, so the mood was positive but uncertain.
Erin and I made good choices and chose front row seats for the huge TV showing CNN. We didn't realize that everyone and their mom and every news station and it's mom was going to crowd around that area later.
I didn't think it would happen. I really didn't. I didn't trust our democratic process, I didn't trust Americans, and I didn't trust the establishment -- if Obama was to be president, I really thought it would be a drawn-out thing where Florida would fuck it up, McCain would be a whiny bitch about it, it'd go to our biased Supreme Court and we'd be crossing our fingers for days.
I wish I could re-live the moment when I saw the words "BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES" again and again and again. I expected to be excited but didn't foresee how moved I would be -- it was indescribable. I started crying as soon as I read those words -- just crying tears of joy and disbelief and joy and disbelief. Everyone was hugging and jumping and cheering and crying, and every time I read those words I would cry again. I couldn't stop. In fact, Kenyan TV interviewed me and The Standard kept snapping pictures of me because I couldn't stop crying.
I always thought that I was proud to be an American despite all the things I disliked about the Bush Administration, but now I'm realizing that I don't think I've ever been proud to be an American as much as grateful for being an American. I've always recognized the privilege and the opportunities being an American provides and I respect our history and ideals, but my entire political consciousness since I was 12 years old has been hating -- literally, hating -- my government. Maybe this is an outdated way to think about it, but I seriously think Cheney and Rove are straight up evil. There is something sinister, truly sinister, about them. Obviously some politicians are better than others, but I've basically come to the conclusion that they're all full of shit and stopped caring.
I never considered what it meant that I took it for granted that I hated my government. I never thought of it in terms of stress or state of mind or anything like that.
And now, for the first time, I realize that that's because I never knew what I was missing. It feels so amazing to be proud to be American, to feel faith in my political system, to feel like something big and positive is happening in my country. My country. A country that I want to belong to, that I want other people to know I belong to.
I never would have had the faintest desire to take a crappy plastic American flag from the Ambassador. But I took the flag, put it in my hair and paraded it around Nairobi. Because I wanted people to know that I'm American, I wanted them to see me as an American before they saw anything else about me.
I actually believe that Obama will do good for the world. I don't think he's the messiah and I do think he'll do things I don't like and he'll make mistakes and etc., but he is a force for good and that's enough for me.
Appropriately, we went out in red, white and blue and partied at a club called "Changes." I enjoy this because it was themed! Kenya is a good place to be right now because essentially everyone is for Obama, so you don't need to be sensitive about McCain supporters. I enjoy being insensitive and parading my love of Obama. Thanks Nairobi!
So I'm not worried about being disappointed by Obama. I am, however, concerned about Kenya's behavior. I can't even describe the Obama fervor that's been here in Kenya since I landed. In the US there's a vague awareness that Obama's half Kenyan. Here, people are literally like "Obama is Kenyan," "Obama is Africa's Son," and, since he's been elected, "Obama is our president." The front page news of The Standard and The Nation, Kenya's main newspapers, has been Obama-related every day since I've been here. A reggae song about Obama plays like 24/7 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPIMkDjzAlc), and some people just yell "OBAMA" to any white person who walks by. If you bargain correctly, sometimes you get the Obama Discount. Today (which Kibaki declared yesterday is a NATIONAL HOLIDAY in honor of Obama), every open restaurant had the "Obama Special." Shit's crazy!
The thing is that Kenya's government like...doesn't really work. It's all based on ethnic lines and power patronage. If the president's a Kikuyu, basically all Kikuyus support him regardless of his political agenda and the civil service will be all Kikuyu. And since the post-election violence last year, Kenyans have a lot to learn about the success of American democracy.
The ambassador and the Kenyan liason to the US tried to make this point, highlighting how McCain gracefully accepted his defeat and pledged to work with the winner. I love McCain's speech, btw, it made me cry along with everything else. Anyways, the lesson should be that, you know, peaceful elections are possible and such and that if Kenyans want democracy, they should follow the US example.
But no. My friend heard an announcement on the radio by a Luo leader predicting that Obama is going to give all Luos "electricity and green cards" since Obama is a Luo. A Kenyan speaker got up right after that and said that Kenyans should try to marry Americans. A lot of Kenyans seriously think that Kenya will be Obama's #1 foreign policy priority and that he's going to turn around and give Kenya a shit ton of money and/or let them all come to the US like his first second in office, if not sooner (we've been asked why we're waiting till January 20th).
This attitude is honestly harmful. I'm thrilled that Obama is an inspiration to Kenyans and to Africans in general -- that's great. He should be. And I get being extra stoked since he's half Kenyan. But Kenyans need to internalize the message that it's "yes we can," not, you know, "yes, Obama can...give you mad free shit and solve all your problems."
Also, Kenyans legit have no idea and/or don't care what Obama's policies are...even a little bit. When he said "gay and straight" in his speech, Kenyans giggled. That's right, we were not in a middle school, yet the word "gay" merited giggles by many, many people. Kenyans are generally homophobic and anti-abortion (it's illegal here), but I'm pretty sure nothing Obama says could tarnish their image of him.
Anyways, I really wish Kenyans would be inspired by Obama and see him as a reason for them to work within their system rather than a potential escape route to money and the states.
Last but not least...today when I got off the bus at town, I saw a friend from USIU who said there was a picture of me in the paper. I thought that was pretty cool, but expected that that meant I was, you know, in the crowd or something. So imagine my surprise when I saw this on page 2:
Look at that awesome view of the inside of my mouth!
You can't read it, but the caption definitely says "Ecstasy. Relief. Disbelief. Call it what you may, but this woman's reaction to the news Barack Obama had won the US election speaks volumes about his ability to inspire."
So basically, it's saying "It's unclear what the crap is going on with this woman. But it's something positive. We think."
I'm getting this shit laminated!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
I was at my externship site, Heshima Kenya, and they had a guest speaker to explain counseling to the refugee girls. The counselor spoke English, which was then translated into Somali and...an Ethiopian language I ignorantly forgot the name of.
Most of the girls had never heard of counseling, and the speaker was struggling to explain that it didn't necessarily solve your problems, but rather had you work through the emotions surrounding those problems to help you arrive at a more productive place.
Though I know many of these girls have had shocking experiences, I can't help but be newly surprised and depressed every time I hear it. I'm sure I'll be come desensitized at some point, but it was a bad moment when the counselor opened with the question, "Why would you need counseling? What kinds of things happen that you need counseling for?"
Immediately, the examples were "seeing your parents killed in front of you," "rape" and "not knowing if your parents are alive or dead."
As the conversation went on, some of the girls became hostile to the idea of counseling. The Somali girl sitting across from me, who I think is around 17, said, "You can counsel me all you want but it won't change the fact that I was raped."
The counselor explained that no, she couldn't change that, but she could help her cope with it and move on with her life.
"It won't change that no one will marry me because I was raped. No man wants someone who is not a virgin."
"It's better to be dead than raped because you are so ashamed," chimed in another girl. The raped girl did not seem to take offense at this comment.
The counselor said that yes, some men are like that, but not all of them are and that they should marry you for you, not your virginity.
"But what if I like a man and I tell him I was raped? Then he will leave me. Maybe I'll find another one, but I liked the first one."
This kind of went on for a while, with the counselor trying to explain that counseling is a way to cope with trauma and the girls being irritated with the inability of counseling to solve or reverse their problems. I think most of them ended up signing up for counseling, which I think is a good idea.
It's not that I've never heard of the whole "blame the victim" mentality of rape before; I've done enough research on Darfuri and South Sudanese survivors to be aware that that mentality dominates a lot of the Eastern world. But it's still very hard for me to sit across from a 17-year-old and hear her, completely disempowered, essentially say that she has no future because she was raped and she is so ashamed. I do believe that these girls can be empowered with education and counseling, but it's really hard.
Happily, some of the girls have taken a liking to me. One girl asked if I was married (an oddly common question here, though usually from Kenyan men). I told her no, but I have a boyfriend. She said, "When you marry your boyfriend, I will dance at your wedding!" I laughed and thanked her for the offer, but explained that I didn't know if we were going to get married. She looked at me like I was on crack.
I said something like, "sometimes, in US, people are boyfriend and girlfriend but they don't know if they are going to get married." They were perplexed and amused by this.
Then one of the girls became concerned. "How can you leave your boyfriend until Decemba?" I told her that yes, I miss him.
She pressed on "How do you know he won't find someone else while you are gone?"
I told her that I trust him. They started laughing and said, "You can't trust him!"
I thought this was kind of hilarious, and it was cute that they were joking with me, but at the same time it's pretty sad that they find it laughable that I would trust my significant other. Here, the assumption is that all men cheat. And the sad thing is that it's totally true -- even Kenyan men basically admit that they have multiple partners.
In conclusion, Heshima is intense. I haven't really been given enough to do there yet, but I'm meeting with the program head on Thursday to talk about it and get more concrete tasks. So that should be good.
I'm off to bed, but my next entry will be about an improbable experience at Black Diamond, a club here, this past Friday when I got hardcore hit on by a Sudanese Lost Boy! So get excited.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Well look at that, I just greeted you in a formal manner! Hooray!
Today was the first day of my internship at Heshima. It was cool besides the part where it basically kicked my ass.
The girls have very limited English proficiency and speak almost exclusively Somali with a little Swahili. Hilariously, Osop, the teacher there, asked me to help teach math. An overwhelming feeling of ineptitude and uselessness abounded as I realized that I was attempting to explain my worst subject in a language the students don’t understand. Hoorah! I spent the majority of the lesson thinking that there must be someone more qualified than me to do this.
I had a bad moment when Osop was reading one of the English compositions out loud. She was looking for grammar, especially for capitalization, because apparently the upper level girls keep using capital letters in the middle of sentences.
So casually, Osop's reading, “I don’t know if my parents are alive or dead…that ‘t’ doesn’t need to be capitalized.”
There was also a funtastic hour where Osop just talked with the girls in Somali where I sat there confused. What fun!
Apparently you have to be a hard-ass with the girls; they beat each other up in the safe house sometimes and are all obviously traumatized.
It’s going to be a rough externship, but I think it’ll be good for me in the long run. Osop says that I’ll figure out how to better communicate with them, and Talyn (the founder) is working out some human rights education and leadership kind of stuff for me to do. It was only the first day and I'm excited to go back, but I just felt sort of useless.Nairobi's intense and I'm tuckered out!
Saturday, September 13, 2008
I’ve actually been somewhat of an Emo Pete for most of my
But today I had a jolly good day!
As part of the Study Abroad program, each one of us (us being the 14 girls participating this semester) is placed in an externship. Our program adviser tried to explain why they call them externships as opposed to internships, but all I really heard was “blah blah blah this is arbitrary but just go with it.”
We’ve been visiting all the available ones over the past couple of weeks, and this morning we had to make a case for the one we want and then leave it to our program adviser to place us. I’m pretty stoked on life because I got my first choice! Score and a half!
I’ll be working at Heshima, a very new NGO that gives refugee girls (mostly from
A few of the girls and myself had a little touristfest in Town today, which I’m making a proper noun since everyone refers to downtown Nairobi simply as “town.” We went to Maasai Market, which sells mostly curios. It’s fun, but also pretty stressful to shop there. There are endless stalls selling fairly similar items, and if you stop to look (or even if you don’t) the assumption is that you will definitely buy something. Saying “just looking” is silly and quaint in this situation.
If your eyes happen to linger on an item for more than a second, the seller will just be like “Which one do you like? How much will you pay for it? I’ll give you good price!” It’s weird because they act like you’ve somehow betrayed them if you don’t want to buy anything, as if entering the market is a promise that you will purchase something from every one of the 100+ vendors. If you explain that you don’t want anything, they’ll just continue to ask how much you’ll pay, that they made it themselves, that you can see the quality, etc.
Also, various people will come and introduce themselves to you, tell you how attractive you are and then drag you to all of the stalls they’re affiliated with. By the end, you feel obligated to buy something since they spent so long with you.
You meet some fun people and get some exciting dating and marriage proposals, but it’s a little exhausting after a while. One of my favorite ones went like this:
Kenyan Vendor: Hey, you are cutie. You have boyfriend in
Me: Yes, I do.
Kenyan Vendor: You have boyfriend in
Me: (laughing) I don’t think my American boyfriend would like that
Kenyan Vendor: How about me?
I like how he adapted his requests based on what I said!
The best, though, was back in Thika. I was talking to this guy in a mix of Swahili and English, and at one point he was like, “Unapenda Obama? (You love/like Obama?)” I told him ndiyo, yes.
So then he gestured to himself and said, in English, “You think you can love a black man?” I laughed and said “What?”
He then pointed to his arm, showing me that he was black, and slowly, in English, repeated “BLACK MAN” as if I didn’t understand. I was like…dude, you said it in English, I understood you.
I’m not sure if these stories translate that well in written format. But I promise that they were actually pretty funny. If you skype me, I will narrate them for you.
You’re supposed to bargain at the market, but I suck at bargaining and probably could’ve gotten stuff cheaper. I guess my mentality is that I really do have a ton more money than the seller, I can afford it, and even their high starting price is a third of what that item would be in the
No one in
I got some sweet scarves, jewelry, and these amazing carved coasters that I’m in love with. The market is problematic for me because I love black and white spirals, and a lot of the vendors were having a black and white spiral party. After the market, we proceeded to consume more at Dormans, a super-Americanized coffee place with epic mocha shakes.
I think I’m going to continue the consumerism trend by getting me some dinner. But it was a glorious day of good internship news and consumerism. Hooray!
*Note: This direct quote from my interview totally sealed the deal on this job!
Monday, September 8, 2008
This post is a cop out. It requires no effort on my part because I'm merely posting the life update I sent to some of my friends and loved ones about a week ago. Don't feel left out if you didn't get it; you're still my friend and/or loved one.
Written Monday, September 1 2008:
Today is my first day of school here at USIU, the United States International University in Nairobi. For some reason, even though they claim to be all about the US (it's even in the school title!), they still dare to start school on a federal US holiday! I'm offended. Labour Day is not only my favorite holiday, but one I actually know the point of.
So USIU basically makes AU look like a piece of crap. It is GORGEOUS. That's right, caps are merited. There are AWESOME grounds and an EPIC library, awesomely funded in part by US-AID. This is cool because it's a private university that only wealthy people come to. Hooray! I get to take a US-East Africa Relations class and an International Human Rights Law one, so I'm pretty stoked about that.
Kenya is out of control. I know everyone ends up loving it, but so far I'm kind of not getting what's particularly likable about it. Things are very inconvenient, but I'm not seeing like the "this is awesome" part that justifies those inconveniences yet. Like everything's a really crappy dirt road that you need to walk forever on, the public transportation is very crowded and dirty, it's a real project to go anywhere, you need to be obsessive about security (we aren't allowed to walk outside after the sun sets), etc. I am aware that these are spoiled American complaints, but I gots to be real and my feet are not happy.
I figured Nairobi would be somewhat diverse since it's such a major city. Psyche! There are no white people! It's pretty intense if you go to a market or poorer area, because legit everyone will stare at you the entire time you're there and a lot of people yell "Mzungu!" 24/7. Mzungu means white person or foreigner...it's not really derogatory, but it's kind of awkward when you're walking aruond and then people are just like "YOU ARE THE OTHER! I POINT AT YOU LOUDLY!" all the time.
I guess I expected Kenya to be a lot like South Africa, but that doesn't really make sense because they have very different colonial histories. There are some things that didn't shock me since I saw them in ZA (the slums in the middle of the city, cows by the road, etc), but it's a lot less secure here, the cities are not as built up, private security is everywhere and wazungu are a real novelty.
Where we're staying is really nice and I get to bust out my Swahili a lot. Pikipiki for realz! And there are awesome little towns with little colorful shops and hand-painted signs in English and Swahili. I find this adorable. There is a lot of beautiful countryside and Obama fervor, so that's cool. I've had some pretty amusing interactions.
I know this sounds really whiny, but I'm glad I'm here and I'm glad that I'm having this experience. And there is a nearby baby animal orphanage, so I'm pretty stoked about that.
Since all of you at home miss me so much, I decided to grace you all with a travel blog so you can learn about my life without actually having to communicate with me in any type of personal way. Hooray!
I wasn't intending to write a blog since I typically lose interest in this sort of thing and neglect to write. I was just going to send irregular life updates. But then I received insistent requests to write one.
Ravenna: You REALLY need to start a blog (Caps were merited).
Nathan: I support the idea of you starting a travel blog.
As you can see, this blog is filling a very real need shared by many, many desperate individuals. You are welcome.
To fill those in who don't know, I am spending this semester studying abroad in Nairobi, Kenya. I am taking classes at the United States International University, doing an internship (hopefully with refugees, but tbd) and learning Swahili.
So there you go! Hopefully I'll update this in some sort of consistent way -- feel free to harass me about it! Lord knows I enjoy discussing myself, so this shouldn't be a problem.
Kwa heri (good-bye)!