A New Way of Seeing Things

Life, research, and travel in Kenya

Coming to an end. July 10, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 3:51 pm

I’m sitting here in the office at Mudzini Kwetu after an amazing week and an amazing day, with a young coconut sliced open for me to sip while I write. I just finished my whole-hearted (but slightly unsuccessful attempt) to learn to climb the coconut tree in bare feet with a rope around my ankles, went SCUBA diving yesterday for sights of beautiful fish and sea life, and have been continuing to nosh on mangos and passionfruits far too often. We ventured into Mombasa two days ago, and I’m waiting for the tailor down the road to finish making me my dress out of my kanga (the colorful fabric wraps the women wear around Kenya).

I was invited to the girls’ school today to give a presentation on health (water, sanitation, hygiene, HIV, and STIs) to the 5-6 form students in the morning, and the 7-8 form students in the evening. Apparently I pull off being a teacher pretty well, since all of the girls said they really enjoyed my presentation and thought that was my actual job! The students are really well informed, as health education is part of the national curriculum every year, and they make a point of teaching about safe water practices, hygiene, sanitation, and HIV.

The topic of HIV is specifically introduced in the fifth form, and they continue to talk about it every subsequent years. As most of the girls at the home have been orphaned by HIV, one is positive, and the Coast province has a high prevalence of the disease, it’s particularly important for children in the area to be informed. The Bhari Parents Academy, where the girls attend, has a very open policy about the information shared with their students; they greatly encourage teachers and staff to be open with students and answer any questions they might have, which created some very long, lively question-and-answer sessions after each presentation. I had them write the questions down on paper, to avoid anyone feeling uncomfortable asking something in front of their peers, and got quite the variety, including a, “Do you have a boyfriend or a husband?” from one of the 8th form boys. It was a great experience to get to work with so many of the students, play with the little ones at lunch (if you ever come to Africa, bring loads of bubbles!), and get to know the headmaster and one of the teachers.

I head back to Nairobi early Sunday morning, so I only have one more day with the girls. Then some errands and last minute sight seeing around the city, and it’s back to the States late Monday night. I can’t even believe I’ll be back in Chicago at 10:30 on Tuesday morning…Many people told me, before I left in May, that once I visited Africa I would never want to leave, and would spend my time at home longing for my next trip. I never understood quite what they meant until now. It tears me up to think about leaving these wonderful girls, and not having a gaggle of children around my ankles when I walk out of my house in the morning. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I have such a great appreciation for all of the work the people here at Mudzini Kwetu and so many other homes in the area do to make the lives of these children better than they could ever be on the streets or on their own.

I’ve become so accustomed to life here, with the rice and beans, fresh fruit, laid back lifestyle, walking everywhere, matatus, kangas, and the genuine, pure love of life each person I’ve encountered has shown me, that I can hardly imagine going home to what now seems to be a sterile and commercial lifestyle back in the States. Of course, I’ll enjoy having constant access to flush toilets (with TP) and the ability to get any kind of food I want at a moment’s notice, but there are so many things here that make my cup of joy overflow, as Okello would say, which I won’t have back in the US. Africa and especially Kenya, with its people, culture, and love, will always have a dear place in my heart, no matter where I am.


Thoughts and reflections July 5, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 2:25 pm
With Mpesi, the little baby who just arrived recently. The flower was from one of the girls.

With Mpesi, the little baby who just arrived recently. The flower was from one of the girls.

After two days here, I can’t even explain how tempting it is to bump my two plane tickets back by a month and just stay until the end of the summer. The girls are beyond amazing; so bright, energetic, and vivacious, despite the challenging pasts. They range from three month old Mpesi to a few who are away at boarding school, and all have incredibly unique personalities. One of them, Rziki small (when there is more than one with the same name, they become “small” and “big”), follows me around all the time, running and jumping into my arms whenever I see her and sticking by my side constantly.  She doesn’t talk too much, but she has a knack for finding the just-ripe mangoes that have fallen from the trees. I could write little blurbs about each one of them, and their little quirks, but I’ll save those ramblings for when I show pictures back at home.

Rziki small (my little tag-along) slurping on a mango.

Rziki small (my little tag-along) slurping on a mango.

I can’t even explain the contrast between this place and the orphanage we visited in Loitikitok. From the size of the compound to the size of the girls’ beds to the happiness of the children (living in tropical paradise might help that a bit), Mudzini Kwetu is a mecca compared to the other place. From what I understand, there is a lot more private funding that comes here, ensuring that the children are always fed, clothed, and happy. It’s so wonderful to know some of the girls in Kenya left without parents have found a safe, secure, and loving home – the staff, all local Kenyans, treat each of the girls as though she was their own.

On a more fun note about what’s been going on around here, we managed to walk to the beach yesterday! It was about 5km, and took

All of us who went to the beach! It was really windy!

All of us who went to the beach! It was really windy!

about and hour with all the little ones in tow, but it was beautiful! We saw a rainbow, way out in the distance where the waves were breaking on the coral, and the girls entertained us with tae kwon do, push ups, and all sorts of antics. The path to get to the beach is a long, winding dirt path that goes through all these trees and maize fields, so it’s literally like walking through a jungle! The houses here are made from coconut fronds, palm leaves, mud, and sticks, and everyone still walks around in kangas (the pieces of fabric you’d probably associate with Africa). It’s strange how much this feels like home.

This morning we all headed off to church in the school bus (yes, they have their own pink and purple school bus to get the girls to and from school each day), and I was treated to a lovely Baptist service and the launch of the church’s two year fundraising campaign to raise money to rebuild their sanctuary. The singing was a mix of Swahili and English, though all the speaking was in English, and the songs were beautiful. One of the men, during the fundraising kick-off, actually told a story about Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia that was really touching, and everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming.

The rest of the day, or what has been left since we got home from church at 2:30 pm, has been filled with more games, photos, and mangoes…I think I may gain a kg from the mangoes if I’m not careful! The in-country director, Alice, who is based in Nairobi, is here for a few days, so the adults are going out for dinner tonight or tomorrow in town. We’ve even finalized plans for me to go SCUBA diving (the continued pain of my toe is not going to squelch those, no matter what). It’s hard to believe that in just over a week I’ll be on a plan back to the States, and I can’t even start to think about the wonderful reverse acculturation process; there are so many things about this amazing country I’m going to miss.


From Auntie Amanda July 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 9:45 am

Another hello from Mudzini  Kwetu Center! I’m sitting at the computer with Jumwa and Mary, after a fun morning of eating mangoes and passion fruit that fall right off the tree! One of the many treats that we don’t have in the States…The girls have been showing me around the compound all morning, staring at the fish tank with the hundreds of tilapia, and taking some wonderful photos with my camera. They’re all so full of life and fun, and have more energy than I do…or at least they did when I headed to bed around 9:30 pm last night!

Jumwa  is 6 years old, and she loves chips and coco. Her favorite subject in school is english, social studies, and CRE (learning about God – religious education). Mary is 5 years old, and she loves cheese and chicken. Her favorite subject in school is CRE as well. The girls go to a private Christian school in Mtwapa, and have exams all next week, starting on Monday! They say that they love you, and that you should come visit! (You really should – it’s wonderfu here!)

I wish I could post the pictures from last night and this morning, since they’re so much fun, but those will have to wait until I have them uploaded them onto the computer! The girls all run around calling me Auntie and Mama, and have started to teach me fun games and some more Kiswahili…I have to say I’m not very good at learning languages, but it helps that a lot of them have Swahili names that mean different things.

I’m not sure what the rest of the afternoon will bring, but I hope everyone at home is enjoying the fourth of July! The tropical weather (complete with flash rainstorms), the fruit, and everything about being down here is just amazing, and gives me an entirely new perspective on life back in the States. Photos and more fun updates coming soon!


At One Home Many Hopes July 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 1:51 pm

You’re probably all surprised to be hearing from me, but there was another infrastructure surprise when I arrived at the orphanage…we have landline internet! So not so cut off as I thought. My flight went well, and I was there early enough that they just had me hop onto an earlier flight. Joanne, the 30 year old teacher from Boston, is already here and will be my roommate for the two weeks; she seems great so far!

I’ll try to post pictures about the orphanage, but let me say just how amazing this facility is. It’s a compound with a huge wall around it. Inside is a massive building where each of the girls (35 total) have their own beds spread across three massive, airy, beautifully painted rooms. There’s also a sitting room in the large house, a kitchen, and bathrooms (with more flush toilets and running water!). I’m in the director’s house, which has a guest bedroom…nothing too posh, but it’s really comfortable, airy, and light. We have a private shower/toilet/sink attached to our room, which is nice.

They also have a huge farm-ish plot, of sorts, where they grow all their own veggies, mango trees EVERYWHERE, and everything is amazingly green, especially after weeks of red dust! There are cows for milk, a donkey, chickens, baby chicks (so fun to play with!), and even a….tilapia farming rig? Plus tons of turkeys. They have an amazing facility for the girls (who are all at school still, except for a 3 month old recently rescued from the street…seriously), and the staff is wonderful!

I’m so excited for the next week and a half, and know it’s going to fly by…I almost wish I was staying longer. My stupid toe, that still hurts, is the only downer. We’re helping out with teaching the girls tomorrow (I’m on math duty….and yes, they do class here on Saturday since they’re not in school), and then hopefully off to the beach on Sunday, which is within walking distance!

I’d really encourage you to check out the website for the organization at http://www.onehomemanythopes.org. I’m so excited to see what the next week and a half bring, and to meet the girls when they arrive home from school in about an hour!


Kissing giraffes! July 2, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 12:18 pm

Yesterday was incredible! We’re finally in Nairobi, having arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and had a crazy dinner at Carnivore (all you can eat meat meat meat, including some interesting ones like ostrich and crocodile…my favorite was the chicken though) on Tuesday night, a full day of fun yesterday, and running around doing last minute errands in Nairobi today with a friend of a family friend. I’m loving the Cyber Cafe, since the prices are so cheap, and thought I’d splurge on a blog post.

Yesterday was unreal. We spent the morning at the Rothschild Giraffe Sanctuary where I got to pet, hug, and get kissed by giraffes! Don’t worry, their saliva is completely aseptic (or so said the park ranger).

Lounging with the cheetahs.

Lounging with the cheetahs.

Then it was off to the animal orphanage, where we go to sit in the cage with the cheetahs and take pictures, hop a fence to get a closer look at the 1 week old baby monkey, and actually go with the Kenya Wildlife Service trainee to feed the four massive lions! Apparently that was against the rules (as evident when he said, “Quickly, quickly, my boss is coming!” to usher us out), but throwing massive legs of beef into cages and being within 1 foot of a fully grown male lion…or two…and two females…was incredible! And incredibly scary. And possibly incredibly stupid, in retrospect, but it was wonderful to watch and an experience I’ll never have again! Again, get excited for pictures!

We arrived at one of the great Indian restaurants for dinner, before my friends flew out last night, only to find that they were closed! Not to despair though, since the kind woman managing the place opened an hour early for us. Apparently fortune was smiling on me after my toe incident on Tuesday morning that has left me nearly missing a big toenail (it’ll be gone soon…), and good karma was with us.

Last night I was with a family friend, Rosalind, and stayed at her place outside the city, and today I’ve just been picking up last minute things. Off to Mombasa and the orphanage on a 10:15 am flight tomorrow!

I’ll try for an update from a cybercafe in Mombasa about the orphanage if I can; send happy thoughts and hopes that my toe heals up so I can go SCUBA diving with out any problems! I’m crossing my fingers that global warming works in my favor,  and the whale shark migration season kicks off early. I’m not quite sure what I would do if I saw one (it’s a shark the size of a whale…that eats plankton), but it would make my trip.  Send more good karma for that too…


Last Day at KBC June 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 6:10 pm
A magical picture looking up at the top of Kili (thanks Kim).

A magical picture looking up at the top of Kili (thanks Kim).

I’m wrapping up my last day at the Kilimanjaro Bush Camp as I type this post; tomorrow morning will be the last breakfast with way-too-buttery toast, the last morning view of the mountain, and the last desperate attempt to check my e-mail before heading off for two weeks with little to no internet. As such, my almost-daily blog posts won’t be quite so regular, but I plan on writing daily anways and will post them when I have access.

It’s been a pretty amazing five weeks. It’s hard to believe all we’ve accomplished in such little time, and I still feel privileged to have been welcomed into the homes of so many Maasai in the area. Despite dominating postcards and tourist lore, the Maasai make up only 1.4% of the population of Kenya and retain a fascinating tribal culture; few people, even in international work, have the chance to work on such a personal level with this community. For that experience alone, I will be eternally grateful.

Time to pack, and happily accept the bug spray donations being tossed my way – the mosquitos and other flying critters are supposed to be far more dense (and brutal) on the coast than they are here!


Amboseli safari #2… Elephants and HIPPOS and giraffes! June 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 5:41 pm
Another shot of me and the elephants - there are so many of them at Amboseli!

Another shot of me and the elephants - there are so many of them at Amboseli!

Today was far and away one of my favorite days of the trip. We have no work hanging over our heads, and got to completely and totally enjoy the day of obscenely packed animal viewing at the nearby national park, all the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We had a pack of around two dozen elephants surrounding our Land Cruisers as the crossed the road at one point (including a bunch of little ones!), saw a ton of hippos out of water (unheard of around here), and saw more lions, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, hyenas, and other creatures. Strange how this has almost become normal, but I know I’m going to miss the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro (or kili, as we call it) in the distance. I’ll let some of my photos from today do the talking, since I think I said enough yesterday, so enjoy!

Jumping off "the deep end" after finishing the project....Actually, we're up at a park overlook point.

Jumping off "the deep end" after finishing the project....Actually, we're up at a park overlook point.

Diana and I outside the Serena Lodge, after lunch and relaxing by the pool.

Diana and I outside the Serena Lodge, after lunch and relaxing by the pool.

Check out the giraffe (near the left of the tree trunk) in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photos can't do the view justice!

Check out the giraffe (near the left of the tree trunk) in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photos can't do the view justice!

The hippos! Well, two of them!

The hippos! Well, two of them!


Our Community Presentation and the End (June 27)

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 4:29 pm

I find it so hard to believe that today is drawing to a close, our research project is all wrapped up (well, our part of it anyway), and we just have two more days at KBC. After five weeks of insightful, interesting, and often frustrating work, our final report is complete, and we’ve shared our findings with members of the community, who were quite receptive to our ideas and suggestions.

Faces of glee and joy after finishing our presentations!

Faces of glee and joy after finishing our presentations!

Let me explain how today, and our community presentation, went. Each of the five research groups prepared a presentation of their key findings, targeting community members and local leaders who have the influence and power to effect change. Our team decided that I would do the introduction, acknowledgements, and give an overview of the project because I’m one of the stronger public speakers in our team. As the entire presentation was done with a translator, who translated everything we said into Kimaasai, it was very different from presentations I’ve done in the past. You have to stop after every few sentences or after each point you’re making, and it actually turned out to be a challenge to not uptalk all the time (where your voice goes up at the end of a sentence). The translator was wonderful, though, and dealt eloquently with off the cuff questions from the audience that hadn’t been rehearsed during our practice run on Friday.

As I mentioned, the audience included many local leaders, as well as many of the individuals who we had interviewed during our study; each respondent was given the information about the presentation after completing the survey, in case they were interested in hearing our findings. LandCruisers went out on multiple trips this morning to pick up groups of people, with drivers taking the cars down the main roads in our target area and picking up anyone waiting for a ride back to KBC for the presentation. A group of Peace Corps trainees (25 of them) also attended, changing the dynamic of a meeting a bit from what we expected, but not necessarily in a bad way. While the questions from the community were mainly about behavior change, and how to put our recommendations into practice, many of the questions from the Peace Corps volunteers targeted our study methods, the validity of our findings, and ideas about other things we could have looked into as well (which would not have been possible in our five week study period).

The presentations went off without a hitch, and everyone complimented me on my introduction (which was a relief). After the presentations, some of the community members, the former chair of a large NGO operating in the region, a regional chief, and the district public health officer all made brief speeches responding to our findings and recommendations.

Playing Apples to Apples after our community presentations...such a wonderful way to end the day.

Playing Apples to Apples after our community presentations...such a wonderful way to end the day.

I don’t know what your expectations would have been, if you were presenting three hours of information on the need for improved water and sanitation practices, and the need for additional supplemental vaccination programs, but I anticipated much more criticism and animosity than we received. Maybe it was all of the “cultural competency” built into us, but I didn’t expect the questions and responses that we received. Community members, like one of the mamas who had been interviewed, spoke about their desire to take our recommendations home, put them into action, and share them with other people. Simple things, like using only narrow mouth storage vessels for water (to avoid contamination through hands and cups dipping into the vessel) and burying fecal matter – the “cat method” – when individuals need to use the bush to go to the bathroom, were incredibly well received; everyone from the mama to the chief supported our suggestions, and were eager to put them into practice. We shared our final reports with anyone interested, and abstracts were available of each of the five study areas’ reports.

My own take-home lesson of the day was definitely that there is a desire for improved health and a willingness to change in these less-developed regions of the world. The people in this community care immensely, and are willing to take advice and change behaviors if explained in a comfortable, non-confrontational way. You can’t tell someone their way of life is wrong; I may not want to live in a boma built from cow dung, but that is a choice I can make.

Every single person who spoke mentioned the need for education, and education specifically on many things we take for granted as common knowledge. For example, one of our findings from my group was that one –fifth of the study population didn’t even think water could cause illness; individuals who did not understand that link were far less likely to practice good water treatment regularly, most likely leading to the increased water-borne disease burden seen in this region. Simple education on how drinking contaminated water can lead to illness and possibly death (especially for young children) is powerful, and hopefully will be put into action both by the stakeholders who showed interest in our research findings and through the continued partnership between BU, Moi University, and the School for Field Studies to do work in this area.

Time for the ceremonial fire, where we’re burning symbolic things for some sort of cathartic outpouring; my plan is just to write a few things on a piece of paper and tossing it in the fire, but I won’t regal you with more stories of my frustrations and problems since I’ve been here. If you’re curious, let’s have lunch when I get back home. I learned such a great deal about questionnaire research, the Maasai, Kenya, working on a true research team, and myself that I know it’s an experience I will always reflect on positively, in the broad scheme of things.

Also, if you’re interested in hearing about/reading about more of the research findings and recommendations (for any public health-y people out there), please let me know and I’ll be happy to forward you the documents. There are separate reports on Childhood Illness and Vaccination; Water Storage and Use; Water Collection; Hand Hygiene; and Household Sanitation, with abstracts available for all.

Amboseli tomorrow for another safari day, and a celebratory lunch at the Serena Game Lodge (delicious!!!). Send happy thoughts for lots of amazing game sightings and some more baby elephants!


Sending thanks back to all of you… June 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 4:30 pm
birthday breakfast, with my special pancakes

Birthday breakfast, with my special pancakes

Thank you so much to all of you who sent cards, Crystal Light, and other goodies to me in Kenya! While I got the first pile of cards on Sunday, a bunch more (including all of the bubble mailers) arrived today, just in time! It completely made my day, and I still have the remnants of mail and confetti (thanks Teresa and Rachel) surrounding my computer on the table.

Two of the other cook crew members this morning made me special pancakes in the shape of an “A”, an elephant, a giraffe, and Mickey Mouse, and I’ve had a great day (mainly filled with work). They’re finishing up roasting two goats for a birthday feast (and celebration for the VP of SFS arriving….but they keep calling it a birthday feast lol), and there was a cake and a pinata (homemade to look like a lion with a mane of bright blue duct tape) for some fun after dinner!

Blowing out the candles with my birthday twin here at KBC.

Blowing out the candles with my birthday twin here at KBC.

If you’re interested in contributing to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and supporting me on the 150 mile Scenic Shore bike ride, please make a donation at http://wi.llsevent.org/abmakulec. I’m trying to reach the $250 fundraising goal by July 14, when I get back to the States!

We’re dubbed today Christmas in Africa, since it’s four days past the winter solstice, so we’re watching Christmas movies, listening to Christmas music, and just filling the camp with cheer today just for fun! Tomorrow our final reports are due, and we have our presentations on Saturday, so we’re busy little bees!


Work and one last market day June 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ABM @ 4:33 pm
The orange pyramids at the Kimana market - one of my favorite things to see all lined up in front of the mamas.

The orange pyramids at the Kimana market - one of my favorite things to see all lined up in front of the mamas.

Yesterday was our last Market Day in Kimana, tomorrow is my birthday, and today marks the due date of our last draft of part of our final report of our findings. I’ll miss seeing everyone lined up with their cabbages, shredding them by hand with make-shift knives, their oranges, in tidy pyramids (see the picture), the bags of maize and beans, the bars of laundry soap…I won’t miss having the mamas follow us mzungus around trying to sell us their beadwork, or some of the smells, but I’ve really got accustomed to Kimana and life here.

What have we found from our research, you might ask, after all of this work? Lots of baseline information to be used in the future, a relationship between perceiving water as a cause of illness and performing regular water treatment, and some other interesting facts. What I’ve learned has extended far beyond the content of our report, though, as I hope has been evident through all of my musings over the course of the past month.

I was signed up for the Scenic Shore 150 yesterday, so when I return to the States I’ll have four days to train for a 150 mile bike ride. Thank goodness the ride goes over the course of two days though! The ride benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; Dad has ridden for (I think) the past 6 years, and is a fabulous fundraiser, but I’m not going to have the same lofty goals as he does. If you’d be interested in supporing the LLS and me on my quest to complete this ride, I’ll be posting a link sometime soon where you can donate by credit card online. There’s a minimum contribution of $250 I have to meet through pledges, so any small donations are appreciated. Let’s hope my time living at a high altitude proves to be helpful in completing the whole thing…

I’ll have limited internet at the orphanage in about a week, so this will make my last week of relatively consistent blog posts. I can’t say often enough just how quickly my time here has flown by, and thank everyone who’s supported me while I’ve been overseas. The e-mails and blog comments have been wonderful :).