Thursday, August 11, 2011

Welcoming the Mzungu

Thick, strange, smoky... the first thing that hit me as I stepped off the plane into Africa was the smell of the air. It washed over my face, heavy and exotic, like smoke and woodfire.

After an excruciating 30-hour journey, I had finally arrived in Nairobi, Kenya! Maybe it was a cultural thing (or maybe it was just because we survived the crazy turbulence), but everyone had started clapping as soon as the plane landed. I've traveled quite a bit - to Europe, Australia, the Bahamas, and around the U.S. - and that's never happened before. But I approve.

Another hour and a half waiting in line for a visa, staring around at the striking variety of cultural backgrounds clustered around me (a flustered British couple... some hippie-looking Americans... a woman in a full-length toab), and I was in the cab heading to the HEART lodge in Ridgeways, Nairobi. Another mzungu (white foreigner!) to add to Nairobi's mix of people - but one with an open mind, open heart, and willingness to help and learn as much as I can while I'm here.

A little background
For the next 30 days, I will be working as an intern for HEART (Health Education Africa Resource Team) here in Nairobi. HEART is a small nonprofit with only a handful of (mainly Kenyan) staff here at the lodge, but it runs programs in slums and villages all over Kenya. Honestly, the extent of their work amazes me.

HEART's mission is "to empower current and future generations of Kenyan people through disease prevention education and economic development." Their work encompasses these main projects:
  1. Women's Empowerment Equality Project (WEEP) - empowers women with HIV/AIDS by providing them with medical care and living support, ultimately training them in a trade (beading, tailoring, etc.) so that they can support themselves and break out of poverty
  2. "Freedom For Girls" Program - provides girls with undergarments, sanitary napkins and hygiene education, enabling them to stay in school during the course of their monthly cycle and not fall behind in their education
  3. Kids For School (KFS) Program - provides female breeding goats and uniforms to orphans and vulnerable children throughout rural Kenya (the goat provides them with added nutrition and income, while the uniforms - which many kids cannot afford - are required to attend school)
  4. Health education and HIV testing - reaches out to villages in rural Kenya with prevention seminars on HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria, Typhoid, and Hepatitis B; also offers testing for HIV 
  5. Medical, surgical & nutrition intervention - helps sponsor surgeries for children who suffer from physical deformities; also provides food staples, vitamins and nutrition information during home visits to AIDS affected families
HEART does other work as well, but I will mainly be involved with the first three programs I listed, especially WEEP - working with HIV positive women and digging into the program's successes and areas needing improvement. Expect lots of stories, both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Impressions so far
Since I've been here, I completed orientation, explored the beautiful HEART lodge (made with wood and stone, set like a jewel in the middle of lush greenery), checked out the Village Market (where I bought some handmade jewelry and laughed at the "Boozy Coffees" option at the cafes), and organized some files of the women involved in WEEP. The briefest glimpses I've had of their stories, handwritten in the paperwork ("before my children didn't even have any clothes... now they have clothes and are attending school") have already snatched at my heart.

Everyone here is so welcoming... eager to ask habari yako (how are you?) and to offer me Kenyan tea and a warm smile. If only the weather matched those sunny smiles! (Rain and chilly air = Kenyans wrapped up in shawls and this mzungu wishing she had one.)

Tomorrow: off to the Maasai village of Ol Donyo Nyokie!

Random thoughts: today's sky was a strange color that shifted between yellow and purple... intern coordinator told me some stories about female and male circumcision in the villages (will write a separate article on this)... need to pick up some Kenyan newspapers... rode in cabs over winding roads past kids trudging to school, elegant houses behind stone walls, workers digging pits or carrying woven baskets, small vendors selling produce, past the U.S. Embassy which was bombed several years ago... told to keep the car windows up to avoid bag snatching - "Nairobbery" so they say!)