Saturday, August 13, 2011

Country of Contrasts - Visiting the Maasai tribe at Ol Donyo Nyokie

Still processing: hard to believe that in the same day, I visited a tribe in rural Kenya (picture colorful robes and beaded jewelry - brilliant spots of color against the drab scrublands)... and sat at a café using the wi-fi only a few hours later.

And I'm still processing the sight of a Maasai tribal leader welcoming us into his manyatta (tiny homes of mud/clay, sticks and brush)... and then excusing himself to answer his cell phone!

Yesterday a group of us from HEART drove three hours out from Nairobi into the country to visit the Maasai village of Ol Donyo Nyokie, where HEART has helped implement several projects. I spent the whole drive in rapt conversation with Huma Kaseu (HEART's public relations manager) and the McGregors (a family also volunteering with HEART), soaking in all their stories and laughing at cultural differences.

At the same time my wide eyes were absorbing the things rushing past our hurtling vehicle (driven by the intrepid Jackson, who has no fear - if you possess any timidity whatsoever, you better not drive in Nairobi!). We passed an ornate Hindu temple, and then dozens of beautiful homes surrounded in green, set behind stretches of stone wall interrupted by beautiful sections of ironwork. We passed men running, men working, tall thin tropical trees with drippy leaves, the occasional guard carrying a rifle, women selling produce and painted jars and vases, people setting up small tables to sell newspapers and even baskets of candy - and then suddenly slums with corrugated tin roofs crammed up against each other, and people in scruffy clothes sprawled around makeshift fires burning in the middle of a used tire, their collection of belongings piled or scattered nearby. Tiny tin stalls no bigger than a walk-in closet served as stores and shops for every kind of product and service imaginable: electrical items, phone charging, “cafes,” auto parts, and anything else you can think of. Couches and furniture sat out in rows for sale right there on the dirt, at the side of the road. The dichotomy between the clean, colorful fabrics of the couches and the mud beneath them was startling – and the salesmen could be seen sitting on them, making use of their product as they waited for customers. Slums blurred by, then suddenly a nicer shopping center and a KFC – and back to slums.

Then we were leaving Nairobi behind, traveling out into the country and the scrubland. Scanning the landscape with all its sandy shades of brown and tan layering out to the horizon, my eyes felt dusty, thirsty, aching for color.

Tree we passed - you can barely see it though the mist
But then a Maasai child would appear alongside the road, blazing orange and red cloth wrapped over one shoulder, staff in hand, herding cattle or tiny little goats through the bush. Or it would be a group of young men, their clothes a blend of modern and traditional – or a lone elderly woman, her neck and ears dripping with colorful, beaded jewelry.

This visit to Ol Donyo Nyokie helped me understand a bit of the Maasai tribal structure, as Vickie Winkler (HEART’s founder) explained it to me: there is an Assistant Chief, under the Chief, under the Counselor (an elected position), under the District Officer, under the District Commissioner. We were there to deliver food and water to Counselor Jackson and the Lodokilani clan, as well as to visit his manyatta. The Counselor introduced us to his wife (we could call her the Mama), brother, and children, and welcomed us into his home. Sitting on the bed area – a flat section in the closet-sized home covered in cow hide – we found it surprisingly comfortable!

The others asked the Counselor a few questions while I just sat soaking it in – my first time in such a home. I’ve seen photos often enough, but sitting there with the smell of wood and animal hide and smoke around me was quite a bit different. “If you want to come one day to sleep – guest house!” the Counselor told us, laughing, gesturing around at the manyatta.

“You have a beautiful home and a beautiful Mama,” Catherine told him. She was beautiful:

The Counselor's wife inside her manyatta

The Counselor also told us a bit about their lifestyle, including the fact that his home is located 20 kilometers away from any water – really, there is none. Especially during this current drought ripping through East Africa, life is hard for the Maasai. He told us that they now buy their food, instead of hunting like they used to; but they still retain pride in their tribe’s reputation. “We Maasai, we don’t fear animals,” he said. “But no animals here. Maybe some hyena… but hyena, we say, it fear everything.” He also said he now employs people to take care of their animals so that his children can go to school.

Counselor Jackson’s children were lovely… the little ones sat shyly on the rocks, gazing at us with a mix of fearful eyes and big grins (especially when we handed out some chocolate granola bars!). One little one, probably no more than two or three, started crying and waving his hands when Huma came near, telling him in Swahili to “go back, go back to the bus!” Huma cracked up at that one. The older daughters (and the Mama) sold us some beaded jewelry they had made, strung up on display on the branches of a bush.

Passing out granola bars to the kids

Next, we drove down the road a little ways to visit the Chief’s office, currently manned by the Assistant Chief. Today, the tribe had just received a donation of 60 bags of maize and 9 bags of beans – meant to feed 600 Maasai families. As we arrived, we entered a crowd of brilliantly dressed women and children, all waiting in line to receive their portion of the food: one bucket’s worth of maize.

The bags of maize to be distributed to the families
Down the path we visited the tribe’s clinic, built and supplied partially through HEART contributions. A young girl, Evelyn, was introduced to us as one of the managers of the clinic (though they said she had received almost no first aid training). 
Evelyn, who works at the clinic
Evelyn's daughter Abigail.
Before entering the clinic, the Assistant Chief showed us a chalkboard they had used for record keeping. It listed things such as how many children had come in to be de-wormed, how many kids had received immunizations, how many mothers had come to the clinic to deliver their babies and how many had delivered with unskilled attendants, and more. You can see the numbers for yourself: 

The clinic at Ol Donyo Nyokie

 Finally, they showed us the school HEART had helped build, as well as the girl’s dormitory they are in the process of building (so that the girls don’t have to walk such far distances each day to attend class). School is not in session during the month of August, when the children take a month break, but the facility was pretty nice for being out in the middle of nowhere. They could use more supplies – but it’s a start.

We had only visited a few hours, but considering everything we had learned and absorbed, it felt like far longer. On the way home, to complete the afternoon, we drove straight through a herd of cattle. Surrounded by a mooing cacophony, I couldn’t stop laughing. Kenya is a country of contrasts and dichotomies, it seems, retaining its traditions while assimilating certain inevitable parts of modern life – cars, cell phones, internet. Case in point – a member of the tribe in traditional robes, wearing a modern hat, leaning absently against our truck:  

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!)