Archive for January, 2011

There and Back Again, a tale by volun-traveler

January 25, 2011

This, I guess, is going to be my last post on this blog for quite some time, unless I pack up and head off to another adventure.

Looking Back

As I said more than one year ago, at the very start of this blog-post, the weeks have been rolling by. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been 3 weeks and 4 days here. Not at all. It feels like I’ve never left. As if Kenya was all a lovely, remote dream. If life were a straight line, Kenya would be one huge balloon tied to it on the 24th year, and kept tied to it by a thin piece of string.

I guess it’s just the brain’s way of dealing with it.

Here we are back to ‘normality’. Job-seeking, rat-racing, stuff-consuming, master-applying normality. I don’t feel like I’ve just spent one entire year working in one of the world’s greatest slums… and yet, what should I expect? that the world changes around me as I have changed? Or that people look at you in a different curious way? Not really. One is, yet again, a number in a crowd of millions, moving about their daily life.

It is hard to explain what it feels like at times. Imagine yourself walking down the Main Street of Valletta, Malta. Or the busy street just away from Piccadilly Circus in London. Or the road near Hilton, Nairobi, for that matter. See the throngs of people moving in one direction or the other, walking on, and on, with or without purpose, but with an aim or a self-defined determination. And suddenly, you stop and stare around you. Everyone keeps going on to wherever she or he wants to go, but you decide to stop, look around and in your mind, a voice is screaming.

It’s hard to explain. We too are part of the rat-race, oblivious to all else, walking on or walking back or going to wherever we decide to go. Most of the time, I guess, we don’t even know we are alive, that we breathe, and that our hearts are pumping 5 litres of blood all around. We hardly realise that trees look at us pityingly as they gradually soar up towards the sun, sucking in our polluted air. Or, to look at it less poetically… we hardly realise that we are WE and you are YOU and that we all are lovely people to discover, but we are too busy to have time to do so.

Welcome to the 21st century society, I guess. Or to the urbanised world. What does this have to do with my year in Kibera, one might ask? Not much, I guess. But leaving the current and veering off on a tangent to a totally different world, and an alien culture, makes you see things that others don’t. I remember the many times in Kenya when I felt guilt, a senseless guilt based on not what I had done, but what I wasn’t doing. And guess what I wasn’t doing? Living the rat race. I was refusing it. I was an outsider, to it.

One example is Malta, where the mindsets are perhaps more traditional than most other countries. You do well in your A Levels. Of course “Don’t be silly” – with those good grades, choose medicine. You torture yourself through 5 years of intense study and make it. You graduate. You work in hospital for hours on end. In the meantime you find a wife, marry her and have kids. When you reach the age of 61 you retire, find something to do and age gracefully. And then you die.

Period.

And if you decide to veer off that path, even for a little while, most people look at you with hostility, as if you’ve done something terrible. You want to be different? Prepare to be treated differently. Even when you come back, most people tell you “How generous of you to do what you did. Ohh, how nice!” Then you realise, with the words that follow, that what they actually mean is “Now you are back and you have to go back to the way it was before. You played your “crazy-time”… now is the time to be back. Join us. It’s terrible, you know, but we hate different people, so join us”.

How have I experienced this? I’ve experienced this not through my friends, who are quite jealous of me sometimes. No, I say it because society in general and people around me still question why I don’t want to work in hospital. Why I would “abandon a work of prestige, good pay and status” for another wild card. I understand them as much as I disagree with them. Life is not easy, and can never be. However, I have a right and possibility to make it as interesting and exciting as possible – why would you negate me that chance?

It’s hard to express how I feel. I remember on the second day back from Kenya, I went to watch a film in the cinema, all on my own. After that, I was strolling down Bay Street, Paceville, and headed to Mc Donald’s “Coz I hadn’t tasted Mc Donald’s for over a year”. I remember having the most unsatisfactory meal of my life, and feeling extremely nervous. People all around you, consuming for consuming’s sake. Eating, chatting, talking, Gossiping, Noising, Shopping, shopping, shopping. I felt so strange – 1 year in Kibera changes your perspective on things. Suddenly you become and outsider to the world. You are “part of the world, but not OF the world”. This doesn’t mean I’ll turn into a Greek cynic or something. But I have heard it so many times – “I hate my job”, or “I can’t keep living like this”, or “I haven’t been to the countryside in months” and all I can tell them is “Go for it – change your job, dream, wish things. Don’t be overafraid. And yet, most of us are too addicted to not wanting to discover ourselves and each other. That, perhaps, is why so many youths of my generation simply live for the weekend and then drink themselves to a stupor. They don’t realise they CAN enjoy life, and out of fear, they stay where they are, and drink themselves out of their own consciousness. It is no wonder that we, in the west, live very stressful lives. We may have a great life expectancy and tons of comforts, but we may not have the quality of life enjoyed by someone in the middle of Turkana desert, who lives for perhaps 50 years, sleeps with cattle and can see the stars in all their splendour every night.

Enough preaching.

People back in Kenya

I am still in touch with the many people we lived with and went out with in Kenya. Kenyans, Italians, Koreans, Mexicans – once you meet such people, who are sharing the same experiences you are, you realised that a bond is formed that cannot be broken. I call them my family in Kenya – the family I had there, the brothers and sisters who I met in my daily life – be it to give English lessons to, or to watch a film with, or to do a home visit to. In such situations, bonds are formed that go beyond “being acquainted” – they are bonds of a deep understanding, though we do not understand. I remember the many times we had conversations with other volunteers there about one issue or another, and we never really reached a conclusion. But we can understand one another, on a deeper, soulful level, because we are living through the same inner mind-conflicts. Isn’t that, in a way, what makes a family?

Evaluation Weekend

I’ve just come back from a 2 day evaluation weekend which, contrary to my admittedly low expectations, proved quite useful in organising my experience a bit, in my mind. I realised that the goals I had set off with on that cold December day, 2009, had been met, though differently to what I had expected. I also realised that one of my main aims – to find out where I’d like to forge a path for myself – had been met. I now know that my dream, at least, is to go into the world of the Environment. There, to me, is a passion of sorts – I have grown to realise that protecting and enhancing the environment is the one great challenge of the 21st Century – and that if we lose it, we lose our souls, our sanity and our very selves in the process. I want to be part of that world – to do my best to encourage a more harmonious balance in life – be it through promoting solar technology or protecting wildlife, or even using my medical background to discover what diseases or effects pollution may bring about, and ACTING upon it.

Additionally, this weekend, shared with the volunteers from Egypt and Ethiopia, made me realise that I am not alone. That there are many people, just like me, who dared be “crazy” in the eyes of the world and did “crazy” things which most people tend to ridicule, and that we can find comfort in each other in the fact that life is uncertain, that our lives are uncertain and that we are uncertain of ourselves as much as we are certain of our experiences. It was good to know that. It was also good to admit to ourselves that we did not change the world, though the little impact we made DID actually serve for something, and something good. We also, now, will try to share this experience in any way possible, not just because it is part of our EVS contract, but because it would be selfish of us to keep it for ourselves.

Epilogue

This is why I wrote this blog. In these many posts, I wanted to share with you, dear reader, a little taste of what such an experience is about, in all its beauty, adventure and miserable occurrences. I wanted to share with you what it means to be “crazy” in the eyes of a world that is blind except to itself, and, I believe, loses itself along the way in the orderly chaos of everyday life. I wanted to challenge people into thinking about what the world has to offer, and how prejudiced we all are, starting with myself.

And what I can tell you, finally is this. If you hate what you’re doing, and if you have opportunities ahead of you, just go for them. Don’t overthink. Don’t worry too much. Things will turn out well, even if most of the things you imagine don’t turn out to be the way you wish them to. Just go for it, and don’t let anyone tell you what you SHOULD do.

Go for it 🙂 It will be the best thing you will ever do. And when you’re back, you will feel alive 🙂

John

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The Journey Back

January 18, 2011

Once home, an empty shell at that point, I said a hearty farewell to the apartment that had been our home for the past 8 months, and left. I had a very heavy luggage to carry, and was scared of the consequences. We went to Kenya with 30kg, and were expected to come back with 30kg… not exactly an easy feat. I had no idea how much my luggage weighed, but it was way over the mark.. but with what Egyptair website had promised – calculated to around $2.50 an extra kg, I wasn’t too worried.

Except that I should have been. At the airport, they were charging a hefty $12 a kg! Apparently they obviously neglected to include some company whose services make up the rest of the cost! I was furious. I also had luggage weighing at 47kg – I had tons of stuff to leave behind.

At 3am, this isn’t pleasant. It ain’t pleasant at all, I can tell you that. Especially when you have to pay another 10 euros so that someone can make a carton box for you! But I had no choice. I basically dumped all my books and summer clothes in that box, and, mistakingly, some of my gifts-to-give too! I only realised that at home, and was extremely disappointed. Thankfully, I managed to trim down my luggage weight to 35kg.

To cut a long story short (involving waking up a currency exchange lady sleeping on the floor of the booth who complained she couldn’t get a good night’s sleep – well, you took the night shift didn’t you, my dear?) we eventually got onto the flight, and try as I might, I couldn’t get more than half an hour’s sleep.

Cairo with Alan

I had forgotten how beautiful Cairo Terminal 3 was.. it is truly a masterpiece, in a country where otherwise most buildings are shoddy at best. Once outside, we met Alan Pulis, a dear friend of ours who is working with an NGO in Cairo. We were to stay in Cairo for 1 whole day and a half, so we immediately set off to his place in Zamalek to leave our luggage. I couldn’t help but stare out of the window at this Noisy, Chaotic city, where millions upon millions of people hive around their busy lives, shouting and DOING things, or simply lazing about on roundabouts! the traffic, I confirm, is much worse in Cairo than in Nairobi… maybe the worst anywhere. I’d been to Cairo before, and everytime I realise I love and hate everything about it (except it’s history – you can only love that).

After dumping our luggage at Alan’s 4th floor apartment in Zamalek, we spent the day going round Cairo, visiting the places we had never been to before, such as El-Saladin Mosque in the Citadel. However it was, of all days, the only day of RAIN in the whole bloody year, so we didn’t have a nice vista of Cairo from on top of the Citadel’s walls. We of course also did the thing all Mediterranean people love to do – EAT, and we did go out to eat, twice that day, for lunch in a shoddy place, and for dinner in a lovely restaurant on the Nile. 2 extremes… and you get to love both in Cairo 🙂

Malta

The next day Alan set off for work at 9am, and we headed to the airport to catch the 1.30pm flight. At that point I couldn’t wait to get home. It had been a long journey back, and not that I hadn’t enjoyed it, but at that point you just want to reach your destination and stay there.

And we got home all right. As we flew over Malta (in about 30 seconds) my heart simply started beating full-throttle. When the plane landed, the first thing I heard was a “Mario ZUR MIN-NOFS!” which was a rude awakening, to my mind, that not only I was “Back in Malta” but also that from this point onwards, I couldn’t speak or gossip in Maltese any more wherever I wanted. As I went down the escalator and saw the crowd of friends who had come to greet me, I wanted to cry…

It’s hard to express how one feels at such moments. On the one hand, the realisation that you’re back feels terrible because you’d have built a life in Kenya, and then suddenly you realise that that life is over. On the other hand, seeing your family and friends again makes it all seem like a dream, an episode on TV that you’ve watched and finished, and that’s it.

In other words, I was stunned.

As I went outside into the arrivals area, it all seemed like a blur. I immediately ran to my family, and then was greeted by inYgo people (our hosting organisation) and then went round my friends in turn, one by one, thanking them heartily for coming, but at the same time telling them and making sure that whatever it was my eyes were showing, it was definitely confusion. And I truly was. I didn’t know where I was, what I was doing and what was happening to me. Suddenly the realisation that a new year was at the door, and that our time in Kenya was over, that I suddenly wasn’t Mzungu anymore, that I was nmo longer the “odd one out” with all its benefits and uncomfortable stares… all was gone now. I was home.

And so, after some time we headed home. I remember, almost robotically, going up the stairs, going into my room, noticed the changes made to it, sitting down on the bed and, just as dear Samwise Gamgee said, at the ending of the best tale ever written, I said to myself with a sigh.. “Well, I’m back.”

Farewells, Packing and an empty house

January 10, 2011

Back in Nairobi

And so I got back home in an altogether sad mood. Our 1 year was finally drawing to a close. All that was left was the dreary process of packing and leaving. Not much to look forward to..

KIDS, 27th December

On the 27th Pauline and I walked, for what was to be our last time, into Kibera. I remember telling myself “Take it all in, John. This is the last time”… and it was. We got to KIDS’, where we had planned a party for the mamas and the children, who, surprise, susprise, turned up terribly late. But we didn’t mind. This was to be our last time there, and Julianah and the workers did their best to make it a party to remember – singing, dancing, speeches (mostly in gratitude of all we did for them) and all in all a good time. It was sad… I remember saying bye to the children one last time and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. When Sochil came running to me and jumped onto me, I can’t really describe what I felt… hope? Was it pain? Was it “I’ll be back”? I’m not sure what I felt, but it was with a negative yet hopeful feeling that I left our dear little home in Kibera, looking back and seeing Franziska smile whilst washing the plates for one last time.

Will I ever be back? Who knows… not for some time though… but it felt a bit like saying farewell to home.
Looking back, I don’t really miss Kibera. You can’t really miss Kibera… the dirt, the pollution, the whole misery of it. What I miss of it is the people we met there. And that, after all, is what makes a place special. The people you meet, and the family you make out of them.

Packing, Moving, Stuffing, Sobbing

That evening, on the 27th I said farewell to Catherine and Javier at Java near Yaya, and gave my last english lesson to the Korean Fathers. We had been reading ” The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” for over 8 months, and since we had finished it we decided to watch the film without any subtitles, and it was a good ending to a “course” :). I then went with them and met all our other friends – Marlene, Chiara, Sandro, Xochitl and others at Furusato restaurant, which was to be our formal farewell. The meal was lovely, but being with our dear friends, who to me had become family, and saying farewell to them for one last time, was no easy matter. I set off home that night, climbed onto my jittery bed and realised this was to be the last night in Kenya.

And so came the inevitable…the tedious task of moving out all the furniture in the house… in 2 days. It wasn’t exactly fun, I can tell you that. Moving out a cupboard is one thing. Moving out your dining table, your sofa, your bed and everything in the room is quite another thing. It’s funny how we human beings attach ourselves to silly things like a stove, or a fridge, or a bed. But when you move them out and give them out, you feel a part of you, an experience or a memory is going with them.

That morning, on the 28th, Marlene and Xochitl came for one last time to our then empty-apartment to share and exchange photos. It was terrible, seeing family for one last time, and I couldn’t help but cry at sob at the end of it. But so it was… they went down the long flight of steps, and it will be some time before I see them face to face again. I only hope to see them soon.

On the 28th, the workers from KIDS and some students came to bade farewell for one last time, and to take some of the furniture. The workers, Julianah, Lilian, Franziska and Sarah quickly started looking around the apartment for things they could take which we might have missed. Torn clothes, even a broken bed was good for them! I was quite surprised when they took my broken bed, saying that “we can fix it”. Of course they could! But where would they keep it in the meantime? I figured out that these people are more than skilled in the field of keeping things safe, and I left it up to them to make sure all things were to be put to good use.

The only time I had to stop them was when it came to taking the light bulbs! Julianah asked me to take the lightbulbs, and I said “No… we found them here, so they’ll stay here” and she quickly obeyed.

The end result was that at the end of the day all that was left was the bare floor, nothing else. After tearful farewells at the apartment, where we hugged the workers and our dear students for one last time, it was just us 2 and our friend left, Abraham. We spent the rest of the day sitting on the bare floor of the apartment, waiting for time to pass. All had been packed, all prepared and we were set to go. At this point, I couldn’t wait to leave. There wasn’t much left for us to do here, except bade farewell again, this time to Chiara and Sandro at Brew that evening.

Brew Bistro

We went to our favourite hang-out place for one last time, to say farewell to Chiara and Sandro. Brew is one of those places I’ll miss in Nairobi, in what would otherwise be an ugly uninteresting city. It has a great atmos to it, and we always left there in a great mood… it’s one of those places that never get boring or “worse”, but better over time. They had, in fact, just improved the menu, but we vouched for the amazing fries they sell over there, had a good laugh and waited for time to pass. We were to leave at 3am that night, so we couldn’t sleep before 4am at the least.

We had one final surprise when Marlene and Francisco managed to make it to Brew at 1am, where we said our very last farewell. We took the boligatory “do not leave” photo, hugged each other one last time, promised to keep in touch and left for the apartment.

Our time in Kenya had come to an end.

Christmas in Turkana

January 10, 2011

Imagine spending Christmas time in a desert in 35 degree heat, in a lovely mission house in the middle of nowhere (which has a name, and it’s Kainuk)… imagine taking 13 hours to get there and realising that this place is going to be just a lovely adventure..

That what it was like on the 20th of December… stepping off the bus in the middle of the desert, being picked up by our Mexican friends and taken to a lovely house not far from the Weiwei river. I felt that this was going to be the best Christmas ever, and I was perfectly right.

How did we pass the time there? Easy. Imagine the Africa you see on television. Goat-herders with bow and arrows, and a kalashnikov by the side. Women singing Turkana songs, jumping with every beat, with neck-beads at least a stretched-hand width thick. Spending the day just relaxing, playing sherades or watching a good film, or even setting up a crib made from chicken bones and local materials.

In other words – Bliss!

I also got down to do some good work, namely finishing my CV and doing the first draft of the personal statement for Oxford. I must say I managed to do work, even though I was sweltering in the heat. Also, we had a great time just being with each other.. Marlene, Chiara, myself, Sandro, Xochitl, Francisco, Raul, Riccardo and Roberto. What better company to have than 6 mexicans, 2 italians and a maltese?

Happy Spicy Christmas

Mexican food is not traditionally associated with, in the minds of Europeans, Christmas. But I must say, a dish doused in chilli on a hot desert night with Mexicans is the best way to spend Christmas. Even if you run out of tears in the process. In other words, I’ve just elevated Mexican food up there with Korean/Japanese Cuisine.

Children Children everywhere

And not a moment of peace!! You try taking a walk out of the fenced compound to the river and suddenly over 60 children come running around you, begging to use the camera! That is what walking to the Weiwei river was like! It was fun being with them, but after a while it gets tiring. You know… children, little bundles of energy that never seems to dissipate!

Lorogon

On Christmas day we set off with Francisco (a Guadalupe priest, by the way) to the nearby village of Lorogon. There is no road to it, so we stopped the car a good half hour walk away from it, crossed the river on a bridge and headed into the shambas surrounding it.

Lorogon is one of those African hut villages, with goats everywhere, palisades and a general feeling of simplicity all around. The church building itself is a small low solid building, with paintings of the “Via Sagra” all around with an african theme – Pontius Pilate, here, is a village elder by his hut! We had a long, Turkana mass with people singing at every opportunity, however it was an enjoyable experience. Turkana people, when speaking, tend to shout out loud, and the fellow who was translating from Swahili to Turkana for the local people seemed so angry you’d think he’s screaming about a fight he had, not joyously proclaiming Christ’s Birth! Something on the lines of “Today Jesus was born” would be translated into “ABARKADIGO APPOLON YAGA YAGMENZA” (invented words btw).

After that stuffy, hot mass we handed out sweets to the kids and left for the car. Francisco kindly decided to stop at a little shop where we bought ice lollies to slake our thirst and cool our heads! I can vouch for the old saying – “nothing in the desert is more precious than water”.

I’m poor but I’m happy

We have a lot to learn from the Turkana people. They have very little of our comforts. A good number of them live in tiny straw huts with no electricity, and basically none of them have running water. However they are HAPPY people. Not just plodding along, as they do in Kibera. They are Happy, and you realise it when suddenly out of nowhere they burst into song, like some musical or something. They truly have an enthusiasm for life that we can’t really understand, we who have cars, television sets and internet. They have so little, but they are happy, and they are happy because they are not attached to material things, but to the spiritual and to their families. We are losing that.

And then us westerners go to these regions, convince them that they need this, and that, and destroy their way of life forever. Sometimes I think that leaving these little communities as they are, with all their defects and all their issues, for themselves, and not lead them into our rat-race world with no purpose. This is not to say that the Turkana live perfect lives. Their generations -long conflict with the Phokot has caused them much pain and grief (as much as they have undoubtedly caused to the Phokot). But western technology in the form of AK-47s has brought them great pain and devastation; whereas bow and arrow technology does not necessary kill a person, a bullet to the head would. Thus it is yet again western intervention that has brought about their greatest sorrow.

Basically the Kenyan government, through China, is giving arms to both the Phokot and Turkana peoples, accelerating the intensity of the conflict. The Kenyan government has nothing to lose, only to gain from this situation… basically, if ever Sudan intends to attack Northern Kenya, it will have a free firece army that trains on itself waiting for them!

All good things come to an end…

And so, on the 26th of December we woke up to pack our bags and plod our way to the 4 wheel drive cars that would take us home. I was not in the mood for packing… and the worst bit about it was that this was just the start of a long series of farewells, packings and going away. Back in Nairobi all that awaited me was farewells and packing, and moving of furniture. Not something to look forward to. At 11am on the 26th of December, I finally realised that this was the beginning of the end, and that in less than a week I’d be back home, for better or for worse. This left me in a sour mood all day, although I tried my best not to think about it.

I must say, however, that Christmas in Turkana was a splendid ending to what will probably one of the most meaningful years of my life. Whereas Europe and US was enduring a big freeze, I was there, in the middle of the harsh Turkana desert, enjoying a genuine African experience that I will never forget.