Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Slums

When my plane first landed in Nairobi and I stayed with the Sisters at St. Mary's Parish in Nairobi I made a huge mistake. The area where St. Mary's is located is called Racecourse. I made the huge mistake of thinking that Racecourse was a slum. When I stayed there security was a big issue and I had to sleep in a room that had to be locked at all times. Racecourse is where Arielle and Sandy are staying and since I knew that they would be working with street children I assumed that they would be living in a slum. Racecourse has many people that work from simple kiosks made of wood and sheet metal and the roads are littered with potholes, but it is not a slum. In fact, Racecourse is actually a middle-class area and most of the people do fairly well. I finally realized this when I got to visit an actual slum. Before I came to my small village, we four volunteers had the opportunity to visit the slums of Mukuru and Kibera. It is mind-boggling that there are people that live in this world in such extreme poverty. It is something that should be seen by everybody. It made me take a step back and think about the world we live in. It made me think about everything I have been given in my life. Why are some given so much and others given so little? God only knows.
We were guided through the slums of Mukuru by a Kenyan woman named Maria and it was like we were in a completely different Africa. This was not the Africa that you see in the movies or on postcards. This was not the Africa of safaris and adventure. There were no picturesque mud huts, golden grassy plains, exotic animals, or people singing joyous praises to God in Swahili. This was the Africa that nobody wants to see. This was the Africa that nobody wants to hear about.

A family in the slums of Mukuru.

The people live in tightly packed, ramshackled houses made of wood and metal and sit out front to sell things to those who pass by. Some sold inexpensive things to eat while others sold secondhand clothes or shoes to wear. Nothing seemed new or of any real value. Nobody seemed to laugh or smile.

The streets of the Mukuru slum.

We crossed over a wooden bridge under which ran a dirty river that was filled with trash. This river was the people's source for water. This river was used for drinking, bathing, washing clothes and also as a drain for toilets. We walked along the dirt roads between the simple houses and where met with stares from the people. We could have been aliens from another planet. It was not often that a mzungu (white person) would visit the slums. Occasionally children would come out to greet us with their smiles and laughter. They seemed to be the only ones whose spirits were not effected by this place. There was a narrow canal dug into the roadside only about six inches deep that contained an awful smelling sludge. This canal was the plumbing and sewage system. In most areas the sewage would not drain, but only sat stagnant baking in the sun. It was strongly recommended to us earlier that we wear shoes, not sandles and now we knew why. In some areas the canal would overflow spilling sewage onto the open street.

Children smiling in the Mukuru slum.

As we made our way through the Mikuru slum I felt compelled to take pictures but in a place like this it's always a risk. I wanted to take pictures so that I could remember this moment, but also so that I could show everybody back home the desparate situation in Africa. I took a few pictures as discretely as I could knowing that nearly every eye on the street was pointed at me. When taking a picture of a specific person it is always important to ask permission first. Many don't want their picture taken or will want money in return. Not only can taking pictures in the slums offend some of the residents, but also having a nice camera can show that you are wealthy and you can be mugged.

Mukuru Primary School grounds.

Mukuru Primary School Classroom.

Children and I at Mukuru Primary School.

At some point on our tour, Maria brought us to the Mukuru Primary School. It is an elementary school that exists right in the middle of the slums. We stepped through a metal doorway and the crowded slums opened up into a large school ground with children laughing, running and playing. If the slums were a desert, this primary school was the oasis. Once again we were surrounded by many children wanting to shake our hands and ask, "How are you?" We were taken, by a young man named Gasper, into nearly every classroom where we introduced ourselves and the children looked at us in amazement. The children that were unsupervised jump out of their desk and ran to the front of the classroom. We were celebrities. It was a very enjoyable moment in sharp contrast to only moments before.... It was very hard to believe that we were still in the slums.

Kibera rooftops that seem to go on forever.

People walk along the railroad tracks in the Kibera slum.

Kibera is argueably the largest slum in Africa. Although it is hard to determine exactly how many people live in any slum it is estimated that 1 million people live in Kibera. I was told my second week here that comedian and Saturday Night Live Alum, Chris Rock, was in Kibera at the time and was shocked by the level of poverty he saw. We had the opportunity to visit a school in Kibera that had a small library on the second floor where we could look out over the slum. It took our breath away to see the vast number of rusty, metal roof tops from the houses that seem to go on forever. If we looked closely we could see men, women, and children in the distance walking down the dirt paths between them. For another glimpse at what this very large slum looks like, there is a scene in the movie, The Constant Gardener, that was filmed in Kibera. Kibera can be recognized by the train tracks that run though it.

Some questions I asked while I was there are, "Who owns the land that the slums are on?", "How do the people come to live in the slums?", and "Do people ever move out of the slums?"

What I was told was that the land the slum is on is owned by the government. The land was inspected and was found to be unsuitable for building or any other use and that was when the slum was built. The poorly constructed houses in the slums were also built by the government. The people in the slums actually pay rent to the government to live there. The people are tenants and the government is the landlord. The slums are treated by the government like highly profitable business. Although the conditions are very bad, many of the people that live there are reluctant to move out for fear that somebody else will take their place. If they moved out and had to move back they might have to live in a house that is much worst then the one they had before. There also might not be any space available to move back.

So it seems like a hopeless situation at the moment. But hopefully as people from other countries continue to visit the slums and make them known to the rest of the world through awareness and many prayers a change will occur.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Rescue Dada

The Girls and I at Rescue Dada.

The Rescue Dada Center.

The dorms at Rescue Dada.

Last week I had the chance to visit the children at Rescue Dada. Rescue Dada is the organization Arielle and Sandy, the volunteers in Nairobi, will be working with this year. If you know your Swahili, "Dada" means "Sister", it literally translates, "Rescue Sister." Rescue Dada works with street children in Nairobi, specifically girls that are runaways, AIDS orphans, abandoned, or neglected by their families. The girls range in from 3 to 23 years old and are put into a class by age and level of learning. It is the goal of the center to educate the girls so that they can get jobs and be able to support themselves financially. Along with the school the center also provides a class in cosmetology so girls can recieve training in cutting and styling hair, manicures, cosmetics, and massage. There are numerous salons in Nairobi were they can be employed with these skills.

The day I spent at Rescue Dada I was invited to sit in on the Level 4 Class. The class was only about 12 students and they sat quietly as one of the teachers led me into the room. It was a very simple classroom. The blackboard at the front was made of wood and contained science notes that the children were copying into their notebooks. The lesson on the blackboard was all in english and I could clearly see that they were learning about the different types of teeth. The girls looked up at me in shy amazement. It was as though they had never seen a white person before, or at least not one up close. It was slightly awkward to be in this position. I was there to observe the class, but it seemed as though the class was busy observing me. I seemed to be quite a distraction. I went to the back of the classroom and tried not to cause any disruptions.At 1:00 o'clock a bell rang and the children left their books and pencils and headed outside and to another building where lunch was served. I was invited to eat with them. Together we ate maize (corn), beans, and potatoes and for dessert we had passion fruit. Passion fruit is a green fruit about the size of a lime that contains a gooey center with many seeds that, to me, tastes a lot like a kiwi.

After lunch there was time for play and this was when I really got to meet all of them. I spent a lot of time with Purity, Consolata, Brenda, and many more. They all get so excited and have so much energy and wanted to sing and laugh and jump rope and ask questions about America. They helped me with my Swahili and taught me how to count and say, "I am 29 years old." It was a pretty good time. They all wanted to shake my hand and touch my skin and hair. They were so amazed that somebody could have white skin and straight hair. Some of them touched my hair and then felt for what was left of their own. All of the school girls have their hair cut incredibly short to prevent lice. After this the bell rang again and they all went back to class.

In the Level 4 Class they took out story books and began reading. This was when I realized how smart these girls are. They could read and write fluently in both English and Swahili. I sat and listened to some of the books they were reading quietly. Once in while a girl would motion for me to come over to her desk to pronounce a difficult word. After reading I helped with their math homework. The day was done and so I said, "Kwaherini" (Goodbye everybody) and then I had to catch the matatu for home.

It was an incredible day. I've never been looked up to so much and felt so important.

Friday, January 19, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Day 1

The St. Julie Centre for Disabled Children.

Play area and sitting and standing devices without mats.

Parallel bars and tweeter platform with ball.

Hammock swing made out of a truck tire.

The cabinet full of fun play therapy toys.

On Thursday January 18th, Ryan and I began working in Malava at the St. Julie Centre for disabled children. It was a pretty good first day. The patients and staff at the St. Julie Center are all Kenyans so at points it could be a little awkward when a parent or co-worker only spoke in Swahili, but altogether everyone seemed to welcome us into our new roles. The Centre is a fairly small building with only four rooms that is rented and maintained by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Parents and children enter through the largest of the rooms which is used for "play therapy." Play therapy is physical or occupational therapy for children made fun with toys. This room has soft mats covering one corner of the floor, child seats and other devices to teach children how to sit and stand, a child-size table with chairs at another end, parallel bars for children learning to walk, a small teetering platform for children developing balance, and plenty of space for a child's push-cart and tricycle. At one end of the play therapy room there is a much smaller room for physical or occupational therapy done by trained therapists. In this room, there are massage tables and a hammock swing made out of a large truck tire cut in half. David and Angela are the physical or occupational therapists on staff. They each work with a child one-on-one usually by stimulating their nerves and senses with massage and swinging before they send them out for play-therapy. At the other end of the Centre is a small office that keeps track of patients files and also a "toy library." The toy library was set-up by last years volunteers and offers an assortment of toys of all kinds that will provide both fun and therapy for the kids. Some of the toys can be checked out and taken out of the Centre for use in the home. Everyday at about noon the staff will sit together in the office and take tea. Kenyan tea is called "chai." It is black tea made with milk and sugar. Tea is often served with bread, biscuits (shortbread sugar cookies), mandazi (a donut-like pastry), or chapatis (thin bread similar to a flour tortilla). Tea time is a nice relaxing break, but it is almost unnecessary. The hours the Centre is open are surprisingly short. Ryan and I will be there Monday through Thursday, 8:30 AM to 1:00PM. Staff meetings will take place on Fridays.

Our first day went incredibly well. We spent time with the staff and other volunteers, met some parents, and most importantly got to play with the kids.

Swahili Lessons

In Kenya there are two official languages, English and Swahili. When I first arrived in Nairobi I was surprised to see that the English language is very common here. Nearly everybody in Nairobi speaks English. Many of the signs and billboards are printed in English too. But I also realized that if I really want to live among the people here in Kenya and gain their respect, I will have to learn some Swahili.

While in Nairobi my fellow volunteers and I spent many hours with a native Kenyan by the name of Joram. Joram was our Swahili teacher. He would come knocking at our door each morning to give us an intense two hours or more of Swahili. Swahili, I heard, is supposed to be an "easy language." I can't say that I find it easy, but I have picked up some basics. Two interesting facts about Swahili are that, unlike English, every letter in every word is always pronounced and never made silent and also there are no words to denote "he" or "she." When a Kenyan tries to apply these same rules to English, Americans can get a little confused. Many Kenyas will pronounce every letter in "Wednesday," literally saying, "WED-NES-DAY." Sometimes a Kenyan will also refer to a man as "she" or a woman as "he." But I suppose they should be allow to make a couple mistakes considering that most Kenyans speak better English that American's speak Swahili. There are also words spoken in "sheng" or "slang" which is a combination of both Swahili and English.

Here are some Swahili basics.

Msamiati (MM-SAAM-EE-AH-TEE) - "Vocabulary"

Kiswahili (KEE-SWA-HEE-LEE) - the Swahili language

Habari (HA-BAR-EE) - greeting "How are you?"
Mzuri (MM-ZUREE) - response "Good"

Hodi (HO-DEE) - greeting "May I come in?"
Karibu (CAR-E-BOO) response - "Welcome"

Tafadhali - (TA-FAD-HAAL-EE) - "Please"
Asante (A-SAAN-TAY) - "Thank you"
Jambo (JAAM-BO) - "Hello"
Salama (SA-LAAM-A) - "Peace"
Kwahari (KWAA-HARE-EE) - "Goodbye"
Asubuhi (AS-OO-BOO-HE) - "Morning"
Mchana (MM-CHAAN-AA) - "Afternoon"
Jioni (JEE-O-NAY) - "Evening"
Usiku (OO-SEE-KOO) - "Night"
Leo (LAY-O) - "Today"
Ndiyo (NN-DEE-O) - "Yes"
Hapana (HAA-PAAN-A) - "No"
Bwana (BWAAN-A) - "Man"
Bibi (BEE-BEE) - "Woman"
Matoto (MAA-TO-TO) - "Child"
Baba (BA-BA) - "Father"
Mama (MA-MA) - "Mother"
Dada (DA-DA) - "Sister"
Kaka (KA-KA) - "Brother"
Mzungu (MM-ZOON-GOO) - "white person"
Nyumbani (NEE-OOM-BAAN-EE) - "Home"
Jina (JEE-NA) - "name"
Nchi (NN-CH-EE) - "Country"
Mji (MM-JEE) - "City or Town"
Samba (SH-AAM-BA) - "Farm"
Rafiki (RA-FEE-KEE) - "Friend"
Simba (SIM-BA) - "Lion"
Kitabu (KEE-TA-BOO) - "Book"
Shule (SHOO-LAY) - "School"
Matatu (MA-TAA-TOO) - "Minibus"
Baiskeli (BI-SKELL-EE) - "Bicycle"
Gari (GAR-EE) - "Car"
Gari la Moshi (GAR-EE-LA-MO-SHEE) - "Train"
Chukula (CHAW-KOOL-A) - "Food"
Kinywaji (KEE-NEE-WA-JEE) - "Drink"
Choo (CHOO) - "Toilet"
Pesa (PAY-SAA) - "Money"
Kanisa (KHAN-EE-SA) - "Church"
Mungu (MUN-GOO) - "God"

Sheng (SHANG) - "Slang"

Sasa? (SA-SA) - greeting "Now?"
Fit (FIT) - response "Well"

Mambo? (MAAM-BO) - greeting "Things?"
Poa (PO-A) - response "Cool"

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My House in Malava

My House at St. Teresa's Parish

My Sitting Room

My Bedroom complete with blue mosquito net and laptop.

Lately, I have been very busy with orientation and I haven't had much time to post entries or pictures on my blog, but much has happened since I left home and I will have to catch up in the next week or so. Orientation has been very thorough. I spent a week in Baltimore meeting the other volunteers and started my training, I took the 20-hour flight to Nairobi and spent a week there for more training and Swahili lessons, I've made the 10-hour bus ride through the Rift Valley to Kakamega, and now I'm finally in Malava. Malava is a small village in Kenya's Western Providence 45-minutes from Kakamega that I will call home for the next year.

The house my roommate, Ryan, and I are living in will take some time to get used to. It has plenty of space for two people. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a guest room, a sitting room, a kitchen, and a courtyard. The house is completely furnished and includes nice hardwood furniture made by the local craftsmen. Our bedrooms include a bed with sheets, pillows and a mosquito net; built-in shelves for clothes and personal items; and a desk for my laptop or place to write letters. The kitchen is actually in a separate building across the courtyard and includes a two-burner gas camp stove, a very old small gas oven, a refrigerator, and a small pantry. It's a comfortable place.

But before you start thinking about how great I have it you must first consider a few things....there is no running water, we have no television, and the electricity and internetare un reliable so they can go out at any time, sometimes for up to three weeks!

The water that we use at the house comes from the rain. When it rains the water that flows through the gutters on the roof of the house is collected into a large tank. From the tank we must fill buckets of water and bring them into the house. This water can be used for washing hands, laundry, showering, and flushing toilets. To make the water suitable to drink we must filter it for several hours and then boil it for ten minutes or treat it with a chemical.

Having no running water makes the simplest tasks very difficult. The bathroom is always a tricky thing. Our toilet is a porcelain hole in the floor and our flusher is a bucket of water. We must always keep enough water in the bucket to flush everything down. We keep a small plastic basin filled with water and soap for handwashing. We each have a "solar shower" which is a plastic sack that can be filled with water and set out in the sun. When the water becomes warm, it can be hung from the ceiling in our bathroom and a tube with a small plastic shower head can beopened to release the water.

We must also try to conserve water because a drought might leave us with very little water in our tank. To do so we always try to use every little bit without wasting it. For example, when we take a shower we must stand in a bucket to catch the "run-off" which can later be reused as "flushing" for the toilet.

It's all so very complicated at this point.

Monday, January 08, 2007


"Fancy" matatus often have a hip-hop theme.

On Sunday us volunteers took our first matatu ride into downtown Nairobi. A matatu is a minibus that takes passengers on a route into and out of the city, basically everywhere. Riding a matatu is unlike any bus or taxi ride in the United States. There is no schedule for the matatu. You just stand on the roadside and raise your hand at the stop. If a matatu is too full it will pass the stop without even slowing down. Traffic in Nairobi is fierce and you have to be careful for an approaching matatu that doesn't plan to stop, or it will surely run you over. If it is a busy day some matatus will offer standing room only, but this is only if you promise up-front to pay the ticket if it is pulled over by the Kenyan police. This is because it is a violation of traffic laws to seat more people than the capacity that is clearly painted on the outside of each matatu. When this law is not enforced many matatus will allow double the passengers, including very small children and farm animals. If you choose to board the matatu you must board quickly because matatus hate to stop for anything or anyone. As you climb on to the "motor-sardine can" you will be approached for the fare by the "conductor." The "conductor" is a plainly dressed man who spends most of his time hanging out the side of the matatu dodging oncoming traffic. As you stand among the seats you must also be aware of pickpockets as both of your hands are occupied tightly gripping a rail attached to the ceiling. A pickpocket's favorite mode of transportation is the matatu. It is very difficult to hear the conversation among the passengers on the "fancy" matatus because it's passengers are greeted with loud, blarring rap, hip-hop, or reggae music. One very common theme for the interior of a matatu is "pro-marijuana". Many feature graphics on the windows with the slogan, "Don't step on the grass, smoke-it." An American's first ride in a matatu is surely an unforgettable experience!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sunday Mass in Kenya

Mass at St. Mary's Parish in Nairobi.

I’ve only been here three days and already I am immersed in Kenyan life. I’m speaking Swahili. I’m eating with my fingers. I shopped at the Nakumatt in downtown Nairobi whose motto is “You need it, we’ve got it.” I’ve used the internet cafe. I even had my first ride on a matatu (minibus) yesterday, which is not for the faint-hearted. There’s so much to tell, I will have to catch up on future posts.

Today I went to the Catholic church here at St. Mary’s in Nairobi. It is a very small church with a very small parish. The “pews” are very small wood benches without backs on them. There are murals of a black Jesus painted on the walls near the ceiling. Mass in completely in Swahili and lasts between two to three hours long. Oh, and we four volunteers were the only white people in attendance!

Now I have to tell you that it was an incredibly spiritual experience! The people are so lively and full of joy. The choir director raises his hands and the choir begins…and then the entire church joins in clapping and singing. I don’t know any of the words, but I know they are singing about God and the music is very uplifting and joyful. Later, as we four were giving the sign of peace to those seated nearby, we were approached by many others including many children. All wanted to shake our hands and grant us peace.

At the end of the mass, Sister Jane, our site director with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, addressed the parish and we stood up and introduced ourselves and got a round of applause for the work that we haven’t even done yet.

And this was just the morning…

Friday, January 05, 2007

Arrival in Nairobi, Kenya

I‘ve finally arrived in Kenya! My plane landed in Nairobi last night and I am now living at the St. Mary’s school in a Kenyan slum with almost ten Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of the Sisters are Kenyan, but there are a couple that are American as well. All are very friendly and I am enjoying my stay here.

I didn’t get much sleep on the plane and after some brief greetings. We had hot chocolate, tea, coffee, and cake and I went straight to bed. Ryan and I slept last night in a small locked room (for security) under mosquito netting. We were visited during the night by a cockroach and a very large slug at our door. After tossing several times we got a few hours of sleep and final woke up at around 1:00PM.

I had tea and biscuits (shortbread sugar cookies) for a late breakfast and received my pre-paid cell phone that is now working. I can now receive phone calls and text messages!

Cat, a former volunteer in Malava Kenyan took us four current volunteers out for lunch at a very small roadside Ethiopian restaurant. We ate two orders of spicy beef and one order of mild beef served with a spongy bread. To say the least the food was delicious!!!

Later we had a tour of a The Starehe School for girls from Sister Margaret who teaches there. It is a secondary school for girls and boys whose families can’t afford to send them to school. All funding comes from donations to the school.

We had a brief meeting about scheduling for this year with Cat and some of the Sisters before sitting down to dinner.

For dinner we ate a traditional Kenyan meal. We ate ugali (maize porridge), white rice, whole tilapia, tilapia fillets (pronounced FILL-ettes), soup, kale, and spinach. For dessert we ate slices of fresh pineapple and plums.

We ended the evening with prayer and now I am heading off to bed as I am very tired and have to catch up on much needed sleep.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Well, this is it! I am now at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. waiting to board my flight. I am blogging on the airport's wireless internet service. Technology is amazing!

I will be leaving today at 6:45PM from Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. flight #216 British Airways! I will be stopping in London at 6:50AM and will arrive in Nairobi, Kenya at 9:20PM tomorrow night!

I suppose you could say that everything has led up to this moment. Up until now, it's been a whirlwind of preparation and I haven't had much time to think. Many of you have asked me, "Are you excited?" I can now finally say, "Yes, I am very excited!" All preparations have been made, all of the training has been gone through, there is nothing left, but to get on the plane.

Us four volunteers going to Kenya will be leaving behind the two volunteers going to Lima, Peru. They will be leaving tomorrow. Before this week we were all strangers, but during this past week we have all grown together and bonded and now we say our "goodbyes" with as much encouragement as we can muster. We have all made promises to keep in touch.

And so this is my last goodbye to everybody. I thank you again for all of your support and wish you well in the next year. I will keep you all in my thoughts and prayers.

Missioning Ceremony

This week has been great! The night before my flight out of Detroit was pretty chaotic and it was good to be able to slow down and regroup before I leave. The training each day was particularly informative and inspirational. Presentations were given mostly by the Sisters, but a few others. All had many years spent in foreign countries. Not only are all of the speakers well qualified in their areas, but they all talk and move about with an incredible enthusiasm for life.

Sister Evelyn - 8 years in Peru, 4 years in Congo, worked with the Peace Corps in Malaysia Sister Kathleen - 30 years in Congo
Sister Marie - 8 years in Peru
Sister Mary Ann - 25 years in Brazil
Sarah - Kenyan native for 50 yearsSister Pat - 8 years in Kenya
Sister Maura - 12 years in Kenya
Julia - Physical Therapist for 22 years

Today, as a send off, the Sisters invited us all to a Missioning Ceremony in our honor. We were told ahead of time to prepare something to say to all those who gathered.
When we arrived at the stately "Mother House" we were surprised to see that the chapel was nearly full of people on our account. Most of the people were Sisters of Notre Dame, but a few families of the volunteers were present aswell. One family even preformed as a choir.
We all sat in the front row of seats nervously waiting for when it would be our turn to speak. They opened with a prayer and continuing words of encouragement and when this was over we all stood up. We filed next to the podium and fumbled a few words of thanks feeling very proud, but also very unworthy of such a send off.

When we were finished speaking we all sat down, there was a great appalause and they all began to sing.

"I am with you on the journey,
and I will never leave you.
I am with you on the journey
and I will never leave you."
"I am with you...always with you.
On the journey..."

It was all very emotional...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Carmelite Monastery in Baltimore

Fireworks at the Harbor

So long 2006! New Years Eve is a time when we reminisce about a year gone by, but also look forward to the year ahead. This New Years has come at a time when it is particularly profound and significant. In January, I had the opportunity to travel to Rome, Italy. In August, I went on a pilgrimage, backpacking through Mexico. Now, I am about to spend a year in Kenya. It's been one incredible year.
Yesterday, the other volunteers and I went to mass at a Carmelite monastery near the convent where I am staying. We met many people who will be praying for us next year. Together, we prayed for the intentions of recently deceased Former President Gerald Ford, but surprisingly also for recently executed Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. It's been one incredible year!
Later we went to the movies to see Mel Gibson's latest, Apocalypto, ate Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and went to watch a fireworks display on the harbor here in Baltimore.
It was a good way to end a good year, and begin a new year!