Friday, July 31

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: First journey into Pokot

Ironically named, East Pokot is actually in far western Kenya, very nearly on the border with Uganda. A chief, who earned the position through an application process, told me it is a wonderful place during the rainy season, lush and green and full of cattle. East Africa, however, is in the midst of a five-year drought, and that time has not been kind to Pokot. It resembles a desert now. Rough, fist-sized rocks outnumber tufts of grass, and every shrub and every vine is well protected by thorns both long and short. Outside one small village, the people were forced to dig for water in a dry river bed. Over this same memory of flowing liquid, two-thirds of a bridge stretches. Perhaps the contractors decided it wasn't worth the effort to finish when one could just as easily drive through as over what had once been an obstacle.

The International Humanity Foundations has deep ties to East Pokot and the people who make it their home. Many of the children at the center are of the Pokot tribe and still have family there. The Foundation also runs two unique program in it, the Famine Feed and Survival, both of which I participated in for the first time this past weekend. Through the Famine Feed, we delivered bags of cabbage and maize flour to supplement the people's limited diets. International sponsors donated money through the Survival Program which we then used to purchase chickens, goats, calves, camels and cows at the local market and give them to families in need.

About a week before the trip out, the director of the Foundation began sending me emails dealing with issues of cultural sensitivity while among the tribal people. These were not minute items of etiquette like what the proper greeting is (The people, like all Kenyans, are great fans of handshakes. Conversations both between friends and between strangers all begin with one.) or with which hand one will be expected to cut their meat (They use their fingers). No, these issues were absolutely fundamental. She warned us that tribal people have a hard time thinking in terms of the future tense because they are so focused upon surviving in the present, that garbage and trash as filth are entirely new concepts as so many of their tools are made from stone and wood and can be disposed of wherever, that the feast-or-famine mentality is very real and very present. I needed to be aware of these differences and be prepared for them. For better or for worse, I read her warnings and remembered them but put in little further thought. Had I paid more attention, I would have realized this would be culture shock to the nth degree. These were not going to be like the differences between middle-class America and Western Europe or urban Kenya where, despite the physical distance, people still hold specialized jobs and buy most of the goods they use. These differences go to the very core of our lives.

It all washed over me while I was there. Without the earlier emails, I would have thought the Pokot only differed from me in their choice of homes, languages and dress. That's the consequence of dealing with any people only briefly and mostly in the very superficial role of photographer rather than friend or equal.

Before my journey into Pokot, I had wanted this post to offer great insights into the Pokot culture and life, but now I am afraid of such ambition. I spent a few hours with them. I know nothing beside what another has told me. Insight and revelation can come only later and a little bit at a time.

Thus this post is a reflection on the simplest of observations, the visual. Coming in, I was subconsciously prepared for something out of National Geographic: people in minimal clothing and that made out of animal hide and bone. I joked that I would struggle for an answer if the women went topless, and people asked me why my eyes were averted. So it was disconcerting to discover how similar their dress was to that which I see everyday. Many men wore polo or collared shirts, and both sexes sported tank tops. I saw plenty of T-shirts and wool caps for Arsenal. Short of their walking sticks and stools, nothing seemed as though it were handmade from materials available in the desert. The women's dresses may not have been bought from the local Tusky's, but they were at least made from printed cloth. Their sandals were crafted from strips of tire, not exactly a material cultivated in East Pokot.

Still, their style was distinctive. Those fan chokers on the women may have been made from beads built in some factory in China, but I certainly don't see anyone in Nakuru wearing them. Other plastic beads were used in original earrings for both the men and women. Some men wore skirts made from the same cloth as the women's dresses. Those men with hats kept a single feather in them.

It was a fascinating blend of the traditional and contemporary, the Pokot finding ways to make modern materials meet their needs and lifestyle. After all, culture is not a static thing, no matter whether you are in the suburbs of a rapidly-changing Western city or part of a tribe which prefers the lifestyle untold generations before practiced. Culture constantly changes and adapts according to the people and ideas and technologies and materials available to it. The difference between us of the West and the Pokot here, I believe, is whether we prefer to make those things adapt to us and our ways or whether we change for them. Given the Internet, our essential means of communication and business undergo an intense evolution. Given tires, the Pokot make sandals, a much different form of transportation than first intended. Marshall McLuhan may argue that our technologies structure our thoughts, but there may be more agency in this process than he anticipated.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong about all this. Perhaps my observations and reading of them totally missed the mark, and later journeys into Pokot will reveal this. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 29

Reflections on the House of Charity: Death on the Street

A life on the streets is not typically a long life. Diets consisting largely of day-old doughnuts and other expired foodstuffs from supermarkets, severely limited access to health care and prevalent substance abuse on all levels are not exactly practices conducive to good health. And that's not mentioning the frequent violence.

Of course clients of the House of Charity died, five during my tenure. In accordance with papers I signed before working there, I cannot reveal their full names, but I would like to list their first names here lest they be forgotten entirely. Vickie. Sarge. Albion. Mary. Eddie.

I believe Vickie was the victim of abuse. In the weeks leading up to her death, every time she came in, it seemed as though she was sporting a new bruise or had her arm set in a sling.

A writer for The Inlander covered Sarge's memorial and final days.

I liked Albion. He was a quiet man but respectful and caused no problems. I think I worked the night he died of exposure. I can't remember whether he had come in for a bed, whether we had turned him away when all were claimed.

I attended Mary's memorial service. The director of the House asked me to attend since the rest of the staff was participating in training, but he still wanted someone to represent us. It was held at Women's Hearth, one of Spokane's day shelters for women. It was heartfelt. The friend who delivered the eulogy fought tears the entire time. When the microphone was opened to all who wanted to share a memory, one woman admitted that she had never known Mary but was moved by the many who did come forward and by what they said.

I remember the last time I saw Eddie. He was drinking a beer across the street from House of Charity, and I had to ban him for breaking our rule against alcohol on the premise. He was dead less than two weeks later. Massive internal bleeding. I remember the first time I saw Eddie, too. He had an itch on his back and leaned against a column near the House's front door, going up and down it like a bear, a comparison only more apt because of the fully beard he was wearing at the time.

I have been fortunate in my life in regard to a lot of things, death among them. Only rarely has it come upon my family and friends, rarely have I had to grieve. How, then, do I deal with this? How am I supposed to feel? None of them were old, the oldest in their fifties, though all looked far older. Probably none of them went how they would have liked.

Should it bother me that their deaths did not impact me more, that I heard about their sufferings and ends and was able to keep working? Of course people die all the time, and I don't care a whit for them. I can, after all, see the obituary page and not burst into tears. Still I feel as though it should have been different with Vickie, Sarge, Albion, Mary and Eddie. As so many of the clients are estranged from their own relations, the staff of the House of Charity becomes a sort of family for those who spend time there. If I can't care for their deaths, who will? This is more than a little arrogant of me. The services for Sarge, Mary and Eddie were more than well attended. Sarge's daughter visited him in his hospital. Eddie had his own family in Spokane. There were plenty to mourn for them. But what about Vickie and Albion? I don't even think any memorials were held for them.

I don't know what I should have done, but I hope these memories mean something, maybe recall experiences for the others who also knew them.

Wednesday, July 22

Considering Fr. Gary Smith's “They Come Back Singing”

I was hoping for some sort of guidebook from They Come Back Singing. Fr. Gary Smith and I have similar backgrounds, if you kind of squint and cock your head to the side that is. I'm Catholic and he's a Jesuit. I attended Gonzaga, and he attended Santa Clara. I worked part-time at Spokane's House of Charity for about a year and a half. He spent the greater part of the '90's working with the homeless and mentally ill of Portland's inner city. We both even enjoy our little forays into the literary arts, his book Radical Compassion being a collection of his experiences and thoughts while in Portland and very worth your time to read. I thought this shared background would make Singing, written by Fr. Smith while serving Sudanese refugees in Uganda, a suitable guide to my year (or two) of service of Kenya. Thought it might give me an idea of the challenges I would face in this foreign land and concrete advice on how to overcome them.

Not so much. Not surprisingly, the expectations of a Jesuit serving the pastoral and spiritual needs of the displaced and a recent college graduate serving the academic and physical needs of over one hundred children are rather different. If I wanted to know that dramatic re-enactments of the parables would be one of the better ways to teach the Gospel and reveal their active and continuing presence in our lives, Singing would have no peer for me, but I'm trying to explain quadratic equations with an acronym that means nothing in Kiswahili. And it goes without saying that refugee camps in northern Uganda constantly under threat of attack by the Lord's Resistance Army and an orphanage on the outskirts of one of Kenya's major cities and a center of tourism to boot are rather different places and have their own challenges.

But I discovered something much more important in Singing than any practical advice: a kindred spirit. In the introduction, Fr. Smith writes that after eight years in the inner city, life had become too comfortable. “I wanted to be with the poor in a different way,” he writes. He has no delusions about his ability to cure all the ills which afflict the refugees, but he wants to go to them and provide what help he can. When Fr. Smith first arrives in Africa, he is overwhelmed. Unused to even the basic traffic laws of Uganda, he is almost hit by a car driving on the left side and suffers doubts about his ability to make any difference. To know that this man who has gone through so much more than I yet still know these same anxieties, is heartening in its own way. There is another like me. I am not alone in this. I think.

From this inauspicious beginning, Fr. Smith muddles through the best he can and sometimes even succeeds. A lot happens during these six years. When one of his catechists is accused of abusing his wife and the his seminar on theology is turned into an impromptu council of elders, Fr. Smith does not decline the position but does the best he can. When a friend is hungry and another needs money to pay for further schooling, he does all he can. It's the only real option available to him. When Fr. Smith has to use the open-air latrine in the center of a distant village, there is humor. When he is stricken by malaria and, later, appendicitis, there is terror. When he learns of the death of a dear friend in the United States, there is grief. Still, Fr. Smith gets through it all. And I know I can, too.

A theme of service is revealed in Fr. Smith's letters and anecdotes, something I believe to be of the greatest importance, much more so than some simple goal. Service of any sort, whether passing out sandwiches to the homeless or spending years among the displaced, can never be only about what we can do for them. We must acknowledge, too, that we are learning from them and being served at the same time. Fr. Smith learned the depths of love from a man who sacrificed all his savings to put his wife into a hospital for bilharzia treatment and sacrifices weeks to be with her yet still must ask Fr. Smith for money to pay for her coffin. When parishioners give him gifts of chickens and goats worth weeks of wages, he knows the greatest charity. Service is not about them, it's about us and them together.

Tuesday, July 21

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Football

The popularity of football everywhere but the United States is a widely acknowledged fact within the United States. In one of those fascinating paradoxes, we know what our ignorance is. National Geographic made it a cover story, and the book How Soccer Explains the World was a best-seller.

It is one thing to be aware of this in the abstract, though. It is something else entirely to actually see it in person. Nakuru and the boys at the center are no different from the rest of the world in their love of this sport. Football is their game. They have a dirt field: mostly flat and mostly clear of debris and about the right size. They have sidelines: shrubs and patches of thick grass. They have goals: long tree branches planted firmly into the ground. They have a volleyball. They have no sport shoes, but that's no problem. They have enough to play, and they play hard every afternoon.

Football gives the center a particular international flair, too, beyond the whole International Humanity Foundation thing. Pictures of the English club Manchester United are clipped from newspapers and pasted on the boys' bedroom walls. Given that Kenya has already been eliminated from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they are prepared to cheer for Brazil.

On a side note, I hate sports photography. Not the pictures themselves. Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine devote full-page spreads to single pictures for good reason. There's conflict and high emotion, all elements of a great dramatic picture. And I respect that sports photographers have skills, that their craft is not merely focusing on whomever has the ball and opening the shutter every fraction of a second, something anyone could do. What frustrates me is that the best sports pictures cannot be planned in any sense. This one? An accident. I was not trying to shoot it at all and was hardly aiming, but it turned the best of all those I took during the game. My photography should be more purposeful than that.

Friday, July 17

Reflections on the House of Charity

It is amazing for me to consider now how little I have written about the House of Charity. For the last half of my junior year and all of my senior year I worked there part-time and full-time last summer. At least one day every weekend and more than a few evenings and afternoons throughout the week were spent at the House yet all the space it has merited on this blog are a few oblique references and a single dedicated post. This is boggling. My work at the House of Charity was honestly life altering. It led me to see my life in a new light and to seriously re-evaluate the rest of my life. How is it possible that I avoided writing about such a pivot? But that is how it goes, I guess. You remember the lecture on Ovid's take on Apollo and Daphne, but the whole of your first semester of world literature washes over you even though you now find yourself reading writers you had never before heard of.

Now the task of writing about the House of Charity seems nigh impossible. By my reckoning I spent over 1,200 hours behind the front desk and wandering among the clients. How do I begin to capture all that time, all the people I met, all I learned, all I felt and experienced in a single post of a few hundred words? In the simplest terms, I don't. It comes piece by piece, a sliver of memory, a connection with the now at a time.

The House of Charity is one of three main shelters for homeless and transient men in Spokane, Washington. Of them, the House deals with the toughest. The other two, Union Gospel Mission and Truth Ministries, actively seek to take their clients off the streets. They demand discipline in order to prepare the men for life in traditional society. Acts of disrespect and signs that they are not of the highest moral standing and thus undeserving of the staffs' time receive little tolerance. The Mission requires incoming clients to pass a breathalyzer test with a 0 before they can come in to sleep. When checking whether a client could sleep at Truth that night, I was told he had been banned over a year ago for telling dirty jokes.

All those who couldn't go or were unwilling to go to the other shelters came to the House. Chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes, felons and the mentally ill freely used our services. They could be high out their minds and so drunk they couldn't stand still without stumbling, but, so long as they didn't bring their product on the premise, treated the staff and their fellows with minimal respect and avoided confrontations, they would not be asked to leave. We did this because the first need is a safe place. The House of Charity offered two hot meals a day and a bed at night to most anyone who came through the doors. It offered mailboxes and showers and gear storage too, necessities not so immediately apparent to the comfortable as food and shelter but necessities just the same. All the rest, transitional housing and similar programs, came later and only following inquiries by the client.

It could be a tough place. I called 911 on more than a few occasions when fights broke out or a client collapsed. It could be frustrating trying to accommodate everyone's desperate needs and petty requests, especially when the weather was foul and put everyone in a sour mood. But more often than not, it was quiet, skirting and crossing over into boring most Sunday afternoons, affording plenty of time to talk with anyone who felt like it. I learned a lot at those times.

I came to the House through State Work Study, a government program which would pay half of my salary with select businesses and non-profits in the hopes that I could begin to practice my professional skills in real-life situations. There were no journalism positions open when I searched for a placement, and I chose the House of Charity because I had volunteered there my freshman year and thought I may as well try to do some good in the community if I couldn't write.

I don't know how much good I did, but I know the House and its staff and clients did me a world of good. I hope I can somehow explain it all to you.

Wednesday, July 15

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Academic Day

Nakuru West Secondary, school to eight our children at the center, hosted Academic Day yesterday. It included a meeting for parents where teachers discussed the average class scores of the students in standard 7 and how everyone could help improve them scores to the level of Moyo Secondary, a school only about a 10-minute walk away. I learned a lot. Not so much from the meeting proper since only about 40 minutes of it was in English and the other 200 in Kiswahili but an awful lot from simply being there.

I can remember school board meetings where the stands of our basketball gym were filled to capacity with concerned parents when public funding was discussed. I can never remember a bond not passing the vote. I attended a private university which built three buildings and two sports stadiums and completed major renovations to the oldest structures just in my four years. For anyone vaguely associated with either of these schools, a visit to Nakuru West Secondary would be more than enough to make them scuff the dirt of the courtyard with their toe and mutter a vague apology. With every respect to my friends in Teach for America, they don't know real education disparity. The roofs were sheet metal. The walls were bare concrete blocks. There was no glass in the windows, only iron bars. The desks we sat in were made from lumber that would have been used as scrap wood in the States. There weren't even any electric lights. The only light was day light.

And the funniest thing about this? Funding was hardly discussed, at least so much as I understood. For a school where the families were personally responsible for paying their children's tuition and buying their uniforms and books and other supplies, the head teacher only asked for 400 shillings (about $5) from every family to help pay for more furniture for the buildings, some doors and the beginning of a fund to pay for a wall which would provide a barrier between the school and the metalwork business across the street. Otherwise the teachers emphasized the need for parents to set a good example of discipline for their children, to answer their questions about the changes that come along with adolescence and to educate them in protection against HIV/AIDS.

I learned, too, just how cold equatorial Africa can get. At the beginning of the final hour of the meeting, a thunderstorm blew in, bringing rain in heavy sheets. Even though it slacked off to a drizzle by the time we left, the wet coupled with the cool July temperatures were enough to drive me to put on the North Face fleece I use under a shell during the winter and the heavy socks I brought “just in case” as soon as we made it back to the center.

I also learned that Kenyans are great not only at quick greetings with friends they pass on the street but also long monologues. They bloody love the things. In that four-hour meeting maybe nine people total spoke. Three spoke mostly in English while the rest freely used English words and phrases as the situation called for it. They would not stop for anything either. Even when the rain pounding on the roof drowned out two speakers they only shouted louder. And they were all good at it. Granted many of them were teachers and used to being in front of a group, but they all used strong hand motions and made eye contact across the room. I was impressed.

So it turns out you can learn a lot at school, even in a foreign country and even months after graduation from university.

Tuesday, July 14

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Raison d'Etre

Now, two full days deep into my term in Nakuru, seems like a terrible time to consider exactly why I'm doing this. Seems more like something I should have thought about maybe a few months ago when I was making the commitment. Or maybe a year or two back when I began to actively consider a period of service after graduating from Gonzaga. Seems, too, like this is a bit of a habit.

At their most essential, my reasons for returning to the International Humanity Foundation and dedicated service are the same: when the advantaged and privileged offer what they can, in whatever way they can, to those who have enjoyed fewer opportunities, I believe it is the right thing to do, and the only thing worth doing is the right thing.

Still, there has to be more to it than that. This is a year of my life. It may not be the biggest deal, but it is still kind of important. Working in Nakuru wasn't the only right thing to do. I could have stayed in America, a country where I speak the language and understand the culture, and served through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Americorps, both organizations I respect since working with members of them at House of Charity. What drew me to Kenya, a nation wholly foreign to me and a city which will take me months, if not longer, to become familiar with? The simple act of shopping, the transfer of money for goods and services, terrifies me as I consider the many possible faux pas I could commit. I only showered for the first time yesterday because I wasn't even sure what that process was.

The reason lies beyond the simple goals of service. No matter where I would have gone, I would never have ended homelessness or saved every orphan, but as negligible as my impact may have been regardless of my placement, I can be sure it would have deeper in the country where I understood the culture and could communicate easily with the majority of the people.

But the possible good I could do is only a part of why I made this choice. The other part is personal. I want to see what I'm made of. I think it is little exaggeration to say that this coming year will be one of the most demanding and difficult in my life. Not only do I need to live in this entirely new place but I also have responsibilities to over a hundred children in assuring their health and happiness. I want to know whether I can take this and how well I will respond. Will it be a resounding success? Or will I just barely limp through? Maybe I'll limp through at the beginning until finding my stride. That wouldn't be bad. I want to know, and I can think of few better opportunities than this.

Monday, July 6

Digital photography

I did it. I honestly never anticipated doing so. In 2007 I wrote a blog post about why it would never happen. At the beginning of the summer even I would have said it was impossible. Apparently that was an underestimation of its likelihood.

Two weeks ago I bought a digital camera. A Nikon D60 to be precise. Two zoom lenses, too. An 18-55mm and a 55-200mm. Within the digital SLR world, it's nothing particularly fancy though the manual is well over a 100 pages long, and I still haven't figured out what all the buttons and dials and switches do. Nothing a professional would use but more than enough for an amateur hobbyist like me.

As must be apparent, buying this new camera was not my first choice. It was forced upon me by the circumstances of my upcoming time in Kenya. The reasoning went along these lines: In order to develop my film and print my pictures, I require a darkroom. I do not know whether there is a public darkroom in Nakuru. I totally do not want to pack my luggage full of film rolls for the flight back. A digital camera does not require a darkroom, only a computer. I will have a computer. Wait a minute. I'm philosophically opposed to digital photography. But it's the only choice. ... Bummer.

I am happy to relate, though, that despite my past misgivings, since taking the D60 out a few times, I am plenty content with my decision to go digital. I will miss the physical tangibility of the contact sheets and final pictures, but the benefits more than make up for these. I credit Google's Picasa for most of this. It's an organizing and publishing program that streamlines both processes wonderfully. Now, rather than taking months to find time to get into the darkroom and print off maybe four pictures in a night and then wait another week or two to find a scanner to upload my prints to Facebook, I can have pictures online that night. I don't even have to waste time flipping through my contact sheets to find the right negative since Picasa lets me tag my pictures and search for them in seconds. I already have two small web albums online. You can check them out here. Be sure to check back there often. All of my pictures will be going up on Picasa now.

Both my paradoxical fears of digital photography inspiring laziness and feeding perfectionism still require some assuaging, though. The camera has something like eight different automatic exposure settings depending on the lighting and subject, and the lenses even have an auto-focus setting. Together these features can take care of most of the photographer's work. Photography literally becomes a point-and-shoot affair with these at my side. What I need to come to grips with is that it is entirely possible to manage aperture, shutter speed and focus manually. Just because the features exist, I don't need to use them.

Dealing with the perfectionism is a little more difficult though. Through GIMP, the freeware-alternative to Photoshop, every aspect of my pictures can be manipulated to a ridiculous degree. I don't quite like the levels of red in my fruit still life? I can change them. I want a little more contrast in the foreground but less in the background? Those can be chaged too. Color, lighting, saturation, everything can be adjusted to the most minute level. Fortunately, Picasa has some very easy to use editing options which take care of basic contrast and color adjustments, enough to make a picture fit for the Web. With this, I will only have to delve into the deepest depths of manipulation in picture editing only for those few pictures which I want to print and frame.

Digital photography is a brave new world for me. At least I can face it with some excitement now.

For those interested in my philosophy of photography, it is contained in the final paragraphs of this post after some blather about history.

Wednesday, July 1

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Practing Swahili

There is at least one major difference between last summer's time in Jakarta and this coming time in Nakuru beside the whole different continents thing: the length of my stay. In the former case, I spent a month in the city. In the latter, I don't even have a return ticket. I anticipate staying at least a year, but I may hang around longer still depending on a number of circumstances I now have no power to predict. You know, stuff like how much do they need me and how much have I enjoyed my time abroad. Understandably, I would like to be a little more prepared this time around. Not that it would be hard. My preparation for Jakarta amounted to reading a few articles on the BBC. One was on efforts by law enforcement to reduce the number of train riders who sat on top rather than inside due to overcrowding. Apparently this can be dangerous. The police would spray top-riders with a dye so those officers at later stations could find and fine them appropriately. But I digress.

Toward this end of preparation, I have begun to study Swahili. I chose to go with the Pimsleur Compact lessons over those offered by Rosetta Stone for two reasons. First, the cost. On Amazon, the Pimsleur package costs roughly a fifth of that offered by Rosetta Stone. Second, the Pimsleur lessons are entirely audio and can be transferred to my iPod. Rosetta Stone depends an awful lot on images and having a computer, and I would rather use the product I can be sure will work regularly even if it may not be as effective as its celebrated competitor.

The first thing to note upon using Pimsleur's compact lessons is that they are more like an audio phrasebook than anything else. Almost no time is spent teaching the fundamentals of grammar. Though it is easy enough to figure out which words are which and to construct a few original sentences, the greatest stress is upon learning basic phrases like "How are you?" (Habari gani?) and "It is here" (Iko huko). This is useful but only to a limited extent since no time is spent building vocabulary. The lessons teach some highly useful phrases including "I would like to eat something" but no food words are offered. The only drinks we learn are beer (pombe) and wine (mvinyo). But this is fine because most of the phrases and mock conversations revolve around picking women up and actually eating or drinking things that are not alcoholic would just delay the ultimate goal. These lines are near direct translations from a couple of dialogues:

"Would you like something to drink? Yes? Two beers, please."

"Would you like to eat something? At my place? This evening?"

At least the lesson is self-aware enough to realize this. One of the mock conversations follows the long attempt of a lonely man to somehow meet this woman again at a later date, changing time, place and nature of meeting every time the women shoots his suggestion down.

So far, I've liked the language itself. Surprisingly, despite the East African preference for throwing around 'n' and 'm' wherever they could conceivably fit, the sounds of the words have not been terribly difficult. I also appreciate the compactness of the language. Apparently they're not very big on independent pronouns or prepositions in that part of the world, preferring to turn them into prefixes and suffixes. Even the future tense is just the syllable 'ta' glommed onto the beginning of the verb. In fact, one can make a complete, reasonable sentence with a single word. Natafahamu. I will understand. You cannot suggest that it does not have a certain elegance.

Of course, all of this may be a moot point. Swahili developed centuries ago as a trade language between Arab merchants and the local coastal East Africans. This accounts for the many nations where Swahili is present. Unfortunately, without indigenous speakers, the language never became popular enough to totally take the place of tribal languages, of which there are hundreds within three distinct language groups. So even though Swahili is one of Kenya's two national languages (the other being English), it may still take some effort to find people who speak Swahili. For the record, the kids at the orphanage all speak Pokot.

For a highly accessible article on the ways in which language structures our thinking accompanied by some fascinating examples, check out this article by Lera Boroditsky.