Faraja, Fotos, & Fun
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There was a silver lining, too: I had the gumption to ask for an aisle seat 5 minutes before boarding, and they had one available. And it happened to be in an exit row. On a large Boeing, which meant I had about 15 feet of leg room. Beautiful.
I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Airport at about 6am, positive my bag wouldn't be waiting for me. After being told for 4 hours I would be denied entry into Kenya, it took me all of 97 seconds to get my visa and go through security. As soon as I got down the stairs, my backpack came around on the carousel - surprising and awesome. I also met a really nice guy named Shadrack at the airport in Mumbai who was on my flight with me. He had missed the same flight the night before due to some different Jet Airways ineptitude, and was at the airport for about 36 hours in total. Eesh. We bonded over shared ridiculousness and got to talking.
He's a cross country coach in Hawaii, and is originally from Kenya. We shared a taxi ride into Nairobi, and his cousin and cousin's girlfriend picked us up (and they paid for the taxi, which was incredibly nice, and convenient, since I didn't have any Kenyan Shillings at the time) and dropped me off at my hotel. When Kenyan hospitality is good, it's great. Shadrack and his relatives were a shining example of this.
I grabbed a good two hours of sleep before waking up to grab a bus back to the airport to pick up Megan. I went to the junction around 5:30pm to get bus 34 back to the airport for only about 50 cents - much better than a $20 taxi ride. This is all theoretical, though, because the odds of the bus coming around at this time were 50-50. I waited. And waited. And waited. No bus. A nice conductor told me to get onto another bus and he'd help me get to the airport on a different route.
I hopped on the bus, waiting for the conductor to give me some instruction. That's when I saw the conductor go sprinting away from the bus as it pulled away...five minutes later, he came out of nowhere and hopped back onto it. Crisis averted.
Until the bus broke down. And took 40 minutes to repair. Then we got going again, the bus ending up in a part of town that was definitely not safe for me, as a white person, to be in. The conductor recognized this, came to the back of the bus, and told me we needed to get off and go. He walked by my side about half a mile, found me a taxi, and rode with me to the airport just to make sure I was safe. Like I said, Kenyan hospitality. Also, when the locals are scared for their own safety, that's when you know you're in some hot water.
This adventure was all more than worth it to see Megan for the first time in over three months. Few smiles compare to this.
The only time it's sort of unsafe is at night, depending on what part of town you find yourself. We had about a four block radius in which we were confined to get dinner - anything beyond that was more on the dangerous side. We found a delicious local spot for dinner, and I experienced - for the first time in three months - COLD WEATHER!!!!!!!!! So good.
6.15 - 6.16.13
I heard somebody say my name, the voice unrecognizable. It was Isaac, and it was unrecognizable because he apparently hit puberty for a second time and grew a foot taller and his voice dropped two octaves. It was great to catch up with him over the car ride back to Ngong, to see Naomi again, and get readjusted to life in the Nairobi 'burbs.
Most importantly, we were one step closer to returning to Faraja and Ebenezer, the two orphanages that sparked the idea for the Volunteer Adventure.
After being evicted from the two bedroom house, Martha and the kids moved across the road to a much more spacious house. A drawback of the new location was that there was very limited security. One night, five men armed with machetes attacked Faraja. They were looking to steal anything of value, figuring there must be money there when they saw white people going in and out of the premises. Martha's oldest son, Omare, was visiting that night. He was able to fight off the attackers enough to get them to leave, but not before taking a machete to the face, which split open. He survived.
The next day, the volunteers who were at Faraja at the time arrived, saw what happened, and wrote about it online. They visited Omare in the hospital and took pictures. The story went viral, and within 24 hours, over $75,000 had been donated to Faraja.
As often happens, out of tragedy opportunity was born. A portion of that money was used to construct a large fence around Faraja, to hire a staff of five people, and get running water and electricity. A lot of changes, to say the least, since I last visited.
After catching up with Martha for a few hours, which was great, the kids came home from school for lunch. Some new faces, some old, some I remembered, some I forgot. Martha told some of the kids who I was and, as expected, they couldn't place me. Then one of the older kids came through the line, Martha told him who I was and, in Swahili he said, "Happana Alex." (That's not Alex). He then looked at me some more, his face lit up, he gave me a handshake and hug and exclaimed, "wow, it is you. You've grown a lot!" This coming from a kid who had gone from five feet to six and looked like he could bench press an 18-wheeler.
For as much as I didn't expect to be remembered, I can't deny that it felt pretty incredible to be by some of the kids. I look forward to creating many more memories with them over the weeks to come.
There's a laundry list of improvements to be made in and around Faraja, big and small. From the daily tasks of laundry for 36 kids, making food, and collecting feed for the livestock, to bigger projects like connecting running water to a new washing machine that is waiting to be used, improving the vegetable garden, or building a kennel for the couple dogs, there's certainly no shortage of work to be done. We asked for and received a list from each staff member, discussing the logistics and costs of each possible project. One that we decided to start on was the construction of a fully draining trench.
To end the day, I got a little taste of just what it takes to keep their two cows fed on a daily basis. I went with Elcanah, who is in charge of taking care of the animals, up into a field about a mile away armed with a machete and a few empty sacks that are big enough to serve as body bags for Andre the Giant. We spent the next hour or so cutting huge swaths of grass and packing it into the bags. He took one bag, I took the other, and we trekked back with them atop our heads and shoulders, the seemingly lightweight 50 pound sack proving to be increasingly difficult to carry with each successive step across terrain about as even as the odds that the Detroit Lions will one day win the Super Bowl.*
*Note: if you're reading this in the future, and the Lions have finally won, just know that in 2013 it seemed real unlikely. Also, is George HHW Bush III president? Because his dad and grandpa were turds.
After unloading the cement it was a few hours of moving stones the size of my torso in said wheelbarrow down into the trench. Then, four hours of mixing the cement with sand, then with water, then clearing out the water/sewage in the trench before finally loading the cement into the trench.
I was waiting with a hushed calm to be reminded how weak I am, and that moment finally came. Excelsior!
I also got to spend much of the afternoon with David, one of the younger kids at Faraja. He has the chubbiest cheeks in the world, so Megan and I have taken to calling him Chubby Cheeks McGee. He also happens to be one of the most charismatic and effortlessly funny kids I've met in quite some time.
We arrived at the farm where the training day was being held, and I was surprised to see it was actually, in part, sponsored by the local government. There were vendors selling animals and advice on how to raise them, vegetables and insight on how to grow them, and many other agricultural experts providing various farming lessons. Elcanah and Becky bought some seeds for new crops to grow in their garden.
They also bought Megan a container of strawberries. To be half way around the world and have one of the most comforting summer foods that exists is quite a treat. It's also an incredibly touching gesture given the fact that they used their own money on the strawberries, their salary barely pushing $100 a month.
Best strawberries I've ever tasted.
Doctor visits are kiiiind of different here than back in the states. Aside from the fact that the only paperwork to fill out was to write my name and phone number on a piece of paper, the time it took for the consult AND the medication to be filled was 5 minutes. And it cost $20 for everything (which is expensive by standards out here, but that's what you get for being a mzungu).
Antibiotics and unknown armies of other pills in my pocket, Megan and I headed off to Nairobi for a mini-vacation vacation day. We saw Man of Steel, which was so-so, ate Indian food in a mall food court that was delicious, and booked a hotel in the heart of downtown. Or so we thought.
Tripadvisor informed us that the hotel was gorgeous, just in a not very good part of town. I was playing devil's advocate and thought the reviews may have been written by folks who consider Newport Beach the ghetto. It turns out my cynicism was unwarranted - this really was a nice hotel in a not good part of town. When the taxi driver insisted he walk us the rest of the way to the hotel (the road was impassable), and he looked scared for his own safety in the process, that's about the point I believed the reviewers weren't being melodramatic.
That said, we had a great night of ordering a feast of room service (feasts here costing about $10) and watching Speed on a flatscreen from the confines of a king size bed. Beautiful.
Since I'm right handed, and that hand is still swollen to the size of a winter glove due to the infection, I was forced to use a shovel with one hand to help mix the cement with the sand and water, and to scoop the residual waste water out of the trench. I suppose I could've taken a break today, but I'm stubborn as hell so I went ahead with it (I'm a Taurus, after all - I don't place much stock in astrology, but I do know that that stereotype is true). In the name of progress, I'll push through some pain and discomfort. Small potatoes compared to the daily adversity overcome by the kids here every single day.
Now is also a good time to talk about the strength of the sun here in Kenya. Granted, it's technically the Winter here and the mercury doesn't push much past 80 degrees, but we're also right on the equator and almost a mile high in elevation. It's remarkably easy to get a burn all over without some care taken. Since I'm a bit of a careless individual, a burn is indeed what I ended up receiving.
The trench may have taken another day or two if it weren't for the fact that we had all of the kids helping us today. What would've ordinarily been a school day for the kids turned in to a day at home as the teachers announced a national strike. Not sure how long this is going to last, but I do know that if it's anything like strikes back home it's going to involve a series of meetings to determine when to have an initial get-together to decide when the first official rendezvous can occur, at which point an official dialogue can take place and - after a series of tentative handshakes and painfully slow hand-wringings - a band-aid agreement will be reached, with both sides amicably disappointed for the next five years until it starts all over again.
Though I'd of course prefer the kids to continue their education unimpeded, it's pretty fun to have them home during the day. Beforehand, I'd get to spend an hour or two a day socializing with the kids, and now I'll get to chat with them the whole day. Looking forward to it, but hoping for a swift end to the teacher's strike.
In addition to the projects, Martha asked if I could actively fundraise online to try to help with these needs: winter coats for the kids, new hearing aids for one of the girls, donations to help them buy the house they live in so they no longer need to rent, and others. As much as I want to help, and I'll make my best effort to do so, it's tough to explain to Martha that Faraja is one orphanage among almost a dozen where I'll be stopping on my journey. The language barrier doesn't make it any easier. I'm reconciling my lack of a surplus supply of cash with the fact that I'll work as hard as I can on a daily basis. While hard work in and of itself can't buy Nancy her new hearing aids, I believe that being present and giving all that one can matters and makes a difference.
What started with only three students grew to five, five became ten, and before I knew it fifteen kids were in our little makeshift class, eager to learn the craft of hip hop. Just like with the class in Nepal, we covered all of the basics that it takes to make a rap song: confidence, rhyme, rhythm, beat, flow, bars, syllables, and more (I gave examples as we moved along). I taught the kids that, above anything else, confidence is the most important aspect of making a successful song. I know confidence has a lot of definitions, but I told them it simply meant to be proud of who you are. I'm hoping this is something that permeates beyond the bounds of our simple hip hop class.
On the bright side, I learned how to make chapati today, which is the Kenyan equivalent of a tortilla with even more deliciousness. Now while I can hold my own in the kitchen when it comes to cooking, baking is another ballgame. Growing up, I watched, observed, and learned the craft of each from the best chef in the world: my mom. I know you might be thinking, "Lies! My mom is the greatest master of foodstuffs in human history!", to which I reply, "Touche, good sir or madam, but I politely and respectfully disagree." That said, her lessons in baking just didn't stick. It's like I have oven mitts over both hands when it comes right down to it, and the simple act of rolling a flat circle out of a ball of dough is lost on me. For Megan, it's as easy as breathing, which I guess for me would make it as easy as breathing in a wind tunnel.
I'm a Viking when it comes to eating chapati, though, so I guess success is relative.
If you're yet to experience a church service in Kenya, whether you're religious or not, you need to put it on your bucket list. Last time I was in Kenya, I went to several. There's a level of passion from the pastors here that the ones I've experienced back home, except for Charlie Mays, just don't hold a candle to. Additionally, the choir at any service will be remarkable, you have my guarantee.
While the service here was great in the first hour, mainly because it was lively and full of song, in the second hour it sort of lost momentum with a 45 minute sermon that didn't really have a crescendo or conclusion. I chalk this up to the fact that the pastor was away and the sermon came from a church elder who may have never given one before, but it was still a treat nonetheless to be at the service with the kids, seeing them smile and hearing them sing.
So, we decided to be white as can be today and go to a restaurant in Karen named Osteria. One of the first things I saw there as we sat down was a thirty-something white guy coming through the door with an iPhone 5 connected to a brand new Macbook. He was holding them with a gentle urgency as if they were Faberge eggs. Like I said, white.
Some of the freshest Italian food I've ever had, and dinner, desert, drinks, and an appetizer set us back a whopping $20. Not bad for a once-a-week night out.
A new dog kennel is something on Faraja's to-do list, and we didn't really see the urgency of it as the whole compound is surrounded by a fence with barbwire. But things got a little more urgent when we were told, "Oh, it's mainly so the mom can be in the kennel with her puppies." Puppies? What? Several weeks of being here and never knew these puppies existed. They'd been living underneath the goat pen, which is a crawlspace about 8 inches high, littered with scraggly rocks. No place for a pup to grow or develop.
So, we started to deconstruct the piece of crap that the guy they hired built, and used the materials on hand to fashion a new dog kennel. Huzzah! Also, the puppies are really cute.
*Side note: you ever notice how, back home, if you have a completely lazy Saturday, and never get out of your pajamas but happen to do your laundry that day that people think you've been productive? Even though all you did was maybe separate whites and darks, hit a few buttons, and maybe add a drier sheet?
"Hey, Fred, what'd you do today?"
"Oh, you know, got up, got the paper, did the junior jumble, made some brunch, took a nap..."
"Ah, nice lazy Saturday-"
"-and then did the laundry."
Well, in Kenya, it's not just a once-a-weekend thing, and it's not necessarily viewed as productive. It's just daily life. It's also thankless, back-pain inducing work that takes hours every day, and would be alleviated by a washing machine.
So we dug and dug and dug today, went and bought the pipe, called the electrician to get electricity to the outside of the house, and called the plumber to bring the machine to do the necessary cutting tomorrow.
After connecting everything in the right place and showing the caretakers how to use it, the moment of glory was upon us: the first load of clothes, ready to be washed to sparkling whites, vibrant colors, and all stains gone without having to labor for hours...just a couple pushes of a button. Action!
Error code F8. ERROR CODE F8. What's error code F8? I don't know. And with no manual around, no manual online, and no website or phone number for the manufacturer of the washing machine, no way to find out. It's never a good sign when the only presence of a company is on facebook, and the facebook is littered with complaints - with no responses - from people saying "your microwave sucks" or "your washing machine stole my socks" or "your vacuum ate my child." Ramtons, you suck.
For the time being, clothes will continue to be washed the old-fashioned way. Disappointing and a half.
On the bright side, the kennel is holding up well and the puppies seem to be enjoying it a bit better than under the sheep pen.
Just kidding. We shot some pictures of the kids, made and ate chapati, saw some British tourists, and watched the sunset.
The kids were kind of in a sour mood today, and I don't know why. With the exception of Ester, the year-old baby who has an innate fear of white people, and therefore cries every day when we're around, bad moods aren't the norm for these kids. Whatever the case may be, it made for kind of a downer of a 4th of July.
As it stands right now, the cows are hardly producing any milk - barely enough for the kids. There is limited profit to be had, even if they were producing at maximum capacity. Chicken, on the other hand, breed rapidly and can lay an egg a day. A seemingly never-ending supply of potential revenue. I got the chance to explain my idea to one of the members of the Faraja council, who's a key decision-maker in all the goings-on.
Here's the course of the conversation, after I told him that I don't suppose to know any better since I'm an outsider, and that my only goal is for Faraja to be independent of external support:
"We can't keep chicken at Faraja, because if the county agriculture inspector stops by, we could be in trouble."
"OK. But we could keep them in a coop."
"I don't think there's room. But we do have property about 20km away. We could hire someone to stay there, fence it all in, and start the chicken project there. It wouldn't cost more than $10,000 or so."
"We don't have that kind of money."
"OK. Besides, children need milk."
"But milk isn't expensive. Why not use some profits from the chicken for milk? It'd be a tiny fraction."
"No...I have an idea. How about we keep chicken in a coop here, at Faraja."
What's the most disheartening, though, is I was trying to get the project started by using cash on hand. Asking me to fund it is still a form of begging, and I want this to start off on the right foot, without the need to rely on someone outside (not to mention, it's aggravating to more or less be told my efforts weren't my own and to assume that I have $10,000 to just toss around).
We'll see how this goes. My pride is firmly swallowed in hopes that this project will get off the ground one way or another.
7.6 - 7.7.13
We also went to a delicious restaurant named Talisman (which was, of course, in Karen) and enjoyed a really good dinner. On Sunday, we ate lunch at a local place that we just call "Henry's" after the guy who greets us most times: the meat butcher, white coat and all, who has a couple chipped front teeth and a huge smile every time. We can eat like kings here for a few bucks.
I also had the chance to interview Edgar, who's the social worker at Faraja and also a child services worker for the county. He gets called to go pick up children who have been abandoned or mistreated and need to be relocated to an orphanage, assess situations of at-risk children, etc. On top of that, he's one of the most intelligent guys I've met in a long time - it's almost as though he has an encyclopedia in his head, or a library with the fastest Dewey Decimal system ever. It was enlightening and interesting to talk with him and learn more about how the childcare system in Kenya works. Though progress could certainly be made, it's reassuring to know there are people like him who look after the welfare and rights of kids in this part of the world.
But I also realized how precious and increasingly rare this time is. Precious because in that time attention can be spent on the child directly, helping them learn something new, or sparking their imagination to take flight, or just acting like a kid with them and putting a smile on their face. Rare because we're increasingly relying upon apps and gadgets and do-dads to raise our kids for us. I'm not trying to get all preachy, and I'm certainly not one to point fingers about sometimes being glued to a smart phone or computer. It's just that I feel there's a certain magic in the moments when a kid looks at you with a sense of boundless joy and wonder because "OH MY GOSH I JUST SAW SO MANY BUGS CRAWLING IN THE SOIL AND I PICKED THEM UP AND MADE AN ARMY OUT OF THEM AND NOW MY HANDS ARE DIRTY AND MY PANTS HAVE GRASS STAINS BUT IT WAS SOOOO COOOOL!!" and it's up to us to continue to nurture and foster that sense of awe for as long as possible. Because that's the only thing that will ever save us one day.
It's amazing how such a small purchase can make a world of difference, and how buying for quality rather than just getting the cheapest and replacing it every 6 months is really something that's tough to justify when money is a scarce commodity.
Here's a picture of the work we did!
7.13 - 7.14.13
And so concludes the first month in Kenya. Amore vita!