Under African Skies, a note from Kate in Kenya

Kate,  my son Max's squeeze, is in Kenya right now working with a women's group as part of her senior project.  A few days ago, she sent us the following note about her experience. Her observations/experience moved me so that I asked Kate for permission to print her letter here, to share with you.  She said yes so enjoy: Msawa Ahinya Osiepna,

I write now after a very pleasant afternoon rain.  Mrs. Opondo and I have just reached home in time.  Yes, we have had another busy day.

I suppose I'm really here now.  It certainly feels that way.  I believe it has really taken this long for me to get used to the pace, the routine, the climate, and the feeling that I am really here in this remarkable part of the world.  I miss a lot of things about home.  So much of this is not easy.  And for every time my spirits are shot, or my heart broken, something happens to make it all better again.  It is that roller-coaster-like sensation of really high high's, and very low low's.  The hardest part, so far, is the sticking out so much.  I am really sick of it.  Really, really sick of it.  It's entirely awkward and generally  just very annoying.  I constantly work to accept that things are just this way, and I am so happy to have real refuge here at the Opondo's home.

Mr. and Mrs. Opondo are really, really lovely.  Their home is very lively.  They have many people moving in and out.  They have animals running all around.  They also have Charlie, the houseworker's son who is about 2, I think (but no one really knows).  He and I are officially friends since I brought out the bouncy ball yesterday.  He brings so much joy to my days.  It's true, I am really liking the food.  I have to say I'm even coming around to ugali.  In the beginning I would always grab myself a utensil when sitting for a meal, but now I'm beginning to enjoy just using my fingers as everyone else does.  Yesterday we stayed home, where I learned a few things in the kitchen.  They cook over fire with a very limited supply of pots and pans.  Thanks to all of my time cooking in the woods, I am pretty well practiced for this kind of culinary routine.  I also practiced milking the cows.  As it turns out, this is indeed much more difficult than I had always thought.  Go figure.  Armundi is the name of the other permanent resident besides Rose the houseworker.  Mrs. Opondo took him in after meeting him and becoming friendly on the streets in Nairobi and discovering that he is a total orphan.  He is currently attending day school and is in grade eight, though I believe he is older than just 18.  I have perhaps never known anyone to work as hard as Armundi.  He starts every day at 1am, when he gets up and studies until 5am.  At five he gets ready and walks about 10km to school, where he sits in class until about 6pm.  After reaching home, he immediately goes to help Rose to cook dinner.  After dinner he studies some more, bathes, and then goes to bed by 11pm.  Only two or maybe three short hours later, he is up and at it again.  I wasn't sure this kind of lifestyle was possible, but he is proving it so.  He is also one of the most jovial people I have met here, always smiling and laughing and chatting.  I like to spend time with him in the kitchen in the evenings.  He is but one example of a person working so very hard against such great odds that I have seen so far.  There have been many others just as impressive as this, if not more so.

Mrs. Opondo and I spend our days traveling to schools in the area.  NYASHEP has students in 23 schools in the area, and none are easy to get to.  We spend a lot of time waiting for buses, riding in buses, switching buses, waiting again for different buses.  It is truly exhausting.  Transportation limitations are NYASHEP's biggest challenge, it seems.  There is only so much time in a day.  We come home every evening completely worn out having done what we have managed, and yet there is still SO much more to do.

On some visits we check in with students who may or may not be having some troubles with discipline or marks.  Sometimes we just meet with administrators to introduce ourselves and the Girl's Empowerment vision.  Sometimes, we meet with already established Girl's Clubs to see what they have been up to.  We worked on one particularly delicate case just last week where a young girl named Dorcas, just 15 years old, had been expelled from her all girls boarding school on the suspicion that she had been practicing "lesbianism".  Oh the restraint it took to sit in that room while the school's disciplinary committee read out loud from the Bible, further insisting that homosexuality is an abomination.  This poor girl.  The story that they had which supposedly proved her engagement in this forbidden behavior was totally mixed up and choppy.  She was to stand in this room of mostly big men, and tell us the exact details of her history of lesbianism.  It came out she was sexually molested as a young child by a woman.  Oh I tell you.  I forget how lucky I am to live in a place that is so free.  Dorcas has been traumatized yet again.  Her friends have all abandoned her.  Her widowed mother is ashamed.  She is still so confused about what homosexuality even is, if she is indeed interested in it, and she will never find out.  All of this will just be repressed for her.  It will go deep down, and manifest itself slowly and subtly for the rest of her life in damaging ways.  And all I could do was to take a moment alone with Dorcas outside when it was all over to tell her that I really thought that she was ok.  I told her that I didn't think that she had done anything wrong.  I couldn't do any more than that.

There are other tender cases such as this.  We have a never-ending supply.  Mrs. Opondo is a very modern woman.  We are generally always on the same side of things.  Although she does not necessarily embrace homosexuality as I do, she understands the damage being done to the girl, and that is the most important thing.  She is a remarkably compassionate woman.  She really cares for people.  She practically runs a rescue home right here in her own house.  She has been this way her whole life.  It is rare that a woman be such a prominent social worker here, and for this she deserves additional respect.  She is really taking good care of me.  I have been introduced to all of the important people around.  She has amazing connections in the educational world, as that is where she worked as an inspector for most of her life.

We have just come back from a Women's Group meeting.  Women's Groups are like grassroots feminist clubs that are somewhat monitored by the local government.  They work usually doing small scale farming, tailoring, or even weaving in order to make a bit of cash.  They then use this cash to serve the community and particularly women and girls however they choose.  There were about 200 people, all gathered at a school.  Mrs. Opondo and I walked in and were taken right to the front panel.  I had to address the whole crowd and introduce myself (using the Luo vernacular of course).  Then the rest of the entire day's event proceeded and was conducted in Luo, meaning I got only 2% of what was being said, but was sitting in front looking very important the whole time.  It went on for four and a half hours.  Something else good did come of it for me, though.  Next week Mrs. Opondo and I have a date to visit one of the weaving groups (Mom this is most definitely because of you) and figure out more about what they do.

It is so hard, once I get started, not to tell all.  I am doing some good writing on my own, which has been a great outlet.  I am feeling very healthy, no more intestinal problems.  My running routine is almost as it was before I left, only I have to go at the crack on dawn.  I wish you all could see the looks I get when running.  People are saying to themselves, "now why would anybody go out and run so far, only to turn around and come back".  It just doesn't make much sense.  Which I suppose is true, only where I come from it is a very normal thing to do.  I get people who start to run alongside me, laughing, laughing, laughing.  I get people yelling at me to stop.  I also get every single person who is out staring at me the entire time I am in view.  Talk about self-conscious.  But I continue to do it because it is worth it for the way it makes me feel.

I'm just about two weeks in now.  Two months from today I'll be headed home.  I know there is so much more coming.  I will do my best to keep you all updated.  If I haven't already told you, I have the mobile modem up and running.  It works very well here.  The only problem is charging the computer.  I can only spend a limited amount of time each day.  But feel free to write when you can.  I love getting news!  I wanted to tell those of you for whom this place, Kenya, means so many treasured things, that I have taken you with me here.  Kenya says hello to you.  I am so happy to be getting to know it as you have.

And so now I sign off as I begin to digress.  I am safe.  I am happy.  I am really growing.  I am missing you all terribly much of the time.  I miss the comfort.  The knowing look.  The hand to hold and the ear to bounce my ups and downs off of.  Slowly I am making friends who I can begin to trust to be those people for me too.

So much love to you all, Aherou, Kate