Friday, April 30

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The ocean

Without fail, every morning before it is light and before I am completely awake I am terrified that a massive windstorm has moved in. I hear the gusts and wait to hear the crash that means the wind has tossed a branch or child or motorbike through every window at the center. I imagine the palm trees bent horizontal and their coconuts cannoning into the stone walkway. I imagine the roof freeing itself from its terrestrial restraints.

Then I remember that the Pacific Ocean is not more than a hundred meters from the gate. Those are the waves breaking on the shore. Everything is good because late that afternoon I am going swimming in it. It doesn't matter what day it is. It doesn't matter what is going to happen that day. I am going swimming in the ocean. I moved from a land-locked state to the wrong side of the Cascades to the wrong half of Kenya. I am going to appreciate this ocean every day. I will walk along its fine sand beaches with only a sprinkling of stones. I will frolic in its shallows. I will sit and let the waves crash down around me like a punch in the face. I will tread in the deeps and race back in.

And it absolutely kills me to see the locals kicking soccer balls on the beach and playing in the sand. The most adventurous stand in the shallows. Only once have I seen an Indonesian come near to half as far out as I normally go. Not coincidentally, this was also one of the only two I ever saw take a single proper swimming stroke.

It blows my mind. Come on, you guys. You live on an island. I can see two others just from our little beach, no more distant than Britain and France on the English Channel, I'm sure. You should have to swim to one of them to qualify for secondary school. You should not be focusing your Olympic efforts on badminton but on knocking out Phelps and Thorpe. It should be no problem with free access to the only requisite for training facilities (deep water). You bump up your GDP a point if you started installing Indonesians as beach lifeguards. Seriously. You may feel safe in the shallows, but what happens when a wave pulls you out? What about those canoes that glide past me? I don't see lifejackets in those. What happens when some falls out or the whole thing capsizes?

I think it would be great if the IHF center began swimming classes for the kids. It's a safety issue. It should be a matter of national pride. Whether it would be cool for me or someone like me to see girls in bathing suits or be touching them to improve strokes, especially in a heavily Muslim nation where the local mosque is even closer than the ocean, is something else entirely.

Of course there could be great reasons for the locals' hesitancy in swimming deep. There might be sharks. There might be jelly fish. Seems like something I should check up on. But I won't. I'm not going to let anything spoil this.

Wednesday, April 28

"Attention Whole Foods Shoppers"

Say it again, Mr. Paarlberg. In particular, say, "Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work," again. That is a choice quote.

Tuesday, April 27

What money buys

In middle-class America I believe the general consensus on the difference between being wealthy and being poor is the difference between driving a next-generation Lexus and driving 1980 Ford, between shopping at Prada and at K-Mart, between a night out at an establishment with a few Michelin stars and a night out at Perkins. The difference is quality. This is true. More money doesn't necessarily mean more things but better things.

This isn't the complete story, though. In describing the difference between the most common American means of transportation and Kenyan matatus and Indian trains or Indonesian ferries, Carol Hoffman, the author of The Lunatic Express, said in his interview that what money really bought was “space, quiet, cleanliness and solitude.” I had never thought of it in this sense before. It's counter-intuitive in a sense. When we say money can buy something, the immediate following thought is the price, and it's silly to try and price quiet or space. What would five minutes of absolute silence be worth? More or less than twenty minutes of twenty decibels of background noise? Would ten dollars be fair for a meter radius of personal space for ten minutes and twenty dollars fair for a two meter radius of personal space for the same amount of time? Like I wrote, silly, but our memberships and homes do buy us these things. Want more space at the gym? Buy a membership with some private club and get out of the YMCA. Want a little more quiet at night? Move out of your city apartment and to the suburbs.

What else does money buy? Time, for one. All the money in world will never allow you to outrun death, but it can help keep it at bay and give you more free time before getting there. Afford some more vegetables and fruits and have enough to not need to eat at fast food joints and all their attendant health risks. That's maybe five years right there. Afford regular check-ups with a doctor and surgery as necessary, and that's potentially another decade or two to your life. While keeping death off with generally better health, buy yourself a washing machine to hurry up with cleaning the dishes. That can be a few hours a week with a family. Have the money and hire a maid to do the cleaning, and that a few more hours a week for other interests.

Money buys choice. It may not help you make that choice in the end, but it does broaden the options a fair amount. Have enough money to afford a plane ticket and you can choose to go absolutely anywhere in the world. Only have enough money for a bus ticket, and your choices are pretty well limited to where the Greyhound stops. That is considerably less than the world. Short of having the intelligence or athletic skills to qualify for some excellent scholarships, you are going to an in-state public university or community college.

Money buys more money. There's the wider sense that if you're leaving paycheck to paycheck, you certainly aren't going to have any money to put into the stock market or mutual funds where the money accrues without any further effort from oneself, but there are smaller ways, too. Maybe those designer jeans do cost twice as much as whatever Target is stocking, but if they last three times longer, they are the better buy. I learned this one in freshman colloquium. Don't have a car and live in the inner city, and your grocery options are pretty well limited to the local gas station or convenience store. Ever see the price for cereal or tuna in those places. A few steps on the wrong side of ridiculous. Have a car and Costco membership and a pantry to store it all, and the difference from a week's of groceries from the convenience store can probably pay for the gas.

Something to keep in mind, I guess.

Sunday, April 25

Nine and a half months in Nakuru: The Weekly Kid: Chepembee


I haven't made it to the villages in Bali yet, so you get to enjoy another Weekly Kid from Nakuru.

This is the previously alluded to Chepembee. She always looks like that. You couldn't surgically remove that smile from her face.

If you would like to make her smile still bigger, please consider picking up a sponsorship and paying for the children's medical and education needs.

Friday, April 23

Considering “Anton Chekov's Short Stories, Norton Critical Edition”

I'm still terrified of reading the greats, pillars of the Western canon, and finding them lacking, only proving my lack of refinement in the process. Emmett did his best to reassure me that my feelings with regard to Dostoevsky were shared by such luminaries as Harold Bloom. The Millions, Bookslut and Tobias Wolff disagree. I can convince myself the other don't want to be caught out as Philistines themselves and lay on the praise, but that last one rankles.

With Chekov, I came prepared. I made my collection of his short stories a Norton Critical Edition. It has essays that give me some context and tell me exactly why he is so great with specific examples from the assembled stories.

That's a good thing because my initial reaction to this selection of his works was, like my response to every Russian so far, underwhelming. The first, “Chameleon,” was just silly in its close adherence to a conceit too thin to hold together for the three pages. No doubt, there were scattered poignant moments. The father's tears at his daughter's requiem service. Iona telling his misery to his horse, the only one who will listen to him. The trouble is, even these beautiful moments don't seem earned. In Chekov's earliest works, there is no conflict. They are sketches of a scene, more anecdotes than anything else. They seem more appropriate as stories like those told by the three friends in the trilogy of “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” They don't seem to serve much purpose in themselves except to illustrate a point about what misery or boredom is truly like. According to the essays, this is the point. They're part of Chekov's psychological aspect. They illustrate a a precise state of being with a minimum of words. What that state of being ultimately comes to is something else.

Conflict does appear in the later works, mostly in the form of men and women falling and out of love. These would seem more suited to my interests, but the characters normally appear to me as wholly detestable in their willingness to abandon their families and responsibilities for the sake of some new lust, that none of my sympathies or interests come to them. This is not what Chekov expected, I think. He honestly cares for them and about will happen after the story is done.

In contrast to earlier pictorial pieces, the attached essays suggest these mature works are stories of ambiguity where the end is in question and can only be answered by the reader though Chekov's brilliance makes a multiplicity of conclusions possible, even diametric opposites. It is very possible that Nadya does find the happiness she expect outside of her family home. It is also very possible that she does not. All we know is that, after her family collapses around her, “She went upstairs to pack, and the next morning said good-bye to her family, and left the town, gay and full of spirits—she she supposed, forever.”

I don't know. I appreciate that these people have enjoyed Chekov and found something special in him, but to have it explained like a complicated pun is less than great. I may still get a chuckle out of the joke, but the spark is not there. But this is literature. It does not depend on the final twist but on the craft of getting there. Maybe I will enjoy them more on the second or third go around. Donald Rayfield's essay did a lot to redeem “The Student” for me. We'll see have to see.

For what it's worth, I don't much know the state of the short story before Chekov's time, but the advice he dispenses in his letters seems awfully modern. He advises Gorky to “cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.” To Avilova, he says, “The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” If these contributions to literature are original with Chekov, he deserves his place in the canon.

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Departure

This time last year I had only known for a few weeks I was going to Kenya with the International Humanity Foundation instead of Micronesia with World Teach. Nine months ago I wasn't sure whether I would stay in Nakuru for a year or for two. At the beginning of the year I was planning on leaving Kenya after ten months to spend a month in Thailand and another in Indonesia to spend time at those centers, too. Three weeks ago Demetra left Nakuru to train new directors in Chiang Rai. Now I am in Bali to train incoming directors.

Things change.

The Meeting Place, the restaurant with the best ndengu in Nakuru, painted over their red stripes with purple. The city stopped locking the gates to its sole public park. The matatu owners started using white signs with blue lettering, replacing the blue signs with white letters, on the main stage. Sponsorship from SuperSport allowed all teams in the Kenya Premier League, even bottom-dwelling Red Berets, to buy kits with their names on them. Ticket prices for football matches doubled. Some construction projects were completed, and others were started, and others still were left neither here nor there.

There are things I am disappointed in, things that I never did or saw in my nine months. I'm annoyed that we didn't go to Aberdare because our alien cards didn't really give us resident prices. I'm disappointed that we never made it to Lake Victoria or the mountain rainforests of Mount Elgon or Lamu Island. I'm disappointed I never saw an elephant or lion or cheetah or any of the other big cats. I wish I had taken more pictures. I'm sorry I never wrote a blog post about Chemolingot, strong contender for my favorite town in all of Kenya, a little piece of the Old West in Pokot. I'm disappointed that I never saw registration completed despite our first final check by the Children's Office being in October. I'm sorry I never punched in the nose all the people that screwed me and the center. I'm disappointed that I never got around to teaching the kids please or fixing the computers for regular classes. I'm disappointed I didn't realize there would a half-marathon through town and train for it or run much at all after coming back from Egypt.

There are things I am proud of, too. It wasn't all disappointment and regret. I'm glad that I visited as much of Kenya as I did and that I saw Pokot especially. I'm glad that I ate at least once at one of Nakuru's representatives of Ethiopian, Indian and Chinese cuisine. I'm happy that I made it to live soccer and rugby matches. I'm happy that the kids learned to say thank you. I'm happy that we welded a solid steel plate plate in front of the TV. I'm glad that we bought a DVD player and that I was able to introduce the kids to Star Wars, even if Revenge of the Sith was their favorite. I'm very happy that the kids didn't cheer when I told them I was leaving. I'm happy that I never heard anyone laugher harder or longer then when I let them watch a half-hour slideshow I put together as a going away gift to them. More than anything else, I'm simply happy that the center didn't burn down and the kids all stayed alive.

It was never easy. It was the hardest thing I had ever done most of the time. I can think of three discrete occasions where I was seriously considering quitting. There were other times I wished I would catch malaria so I would have a break from work or something worse that would have to send me back to the States for treatment. But I stuck it through. That's something to be proud of too, I think, I hope.

For the last week or so I had the urge to tell everyone I met, everyone I had any form of a relationship with that I was leaving. I wanted to tell the center's pro bono lawyer. I wanted to tell the teachers at the children's schools. I wanted to tell the people who fried my morning mandazi and the guys that sold us the kids' school uniforms. I didn't. It probably would have been uncomfortable as they tried to think of something appropriate to say to someone whom they hardly ever spoke with otherwise.

We'll see what the next two and a half months have in store for me in Bali where no children live at the center and where the Pacific Ocean is not more than one hundred meters from the center. No point in wishing me the best now because I think I found it.

Sunday, April 18

Nine and a half months in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Apedur

Ah-PEH- (like the first syllable of 'pedal') dur (like the first syllable of Dürer)

Apedur and his younger sister are nothing alike. He is quiet and avoids me as much as possible. His sister won't stop laughing and clings. When I pull out the camera, he looks terrified. When she sees my camera, she can't show enough teeth.

It's my last weekend in Kenya. I won't have access to the center's sponsor lists anymore, but I certainly would appreciate it if you would pick up a sponsorship or two for someone like Apedur.

Saturday, April 17

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Not white

I've griped about being white in Indonesia. I've griped about being white in Kenya. I've never considered here on Spice of Life, or in the rest of my life really, what life is like for the rest of the races here. Today that changes. For now I will accept that it is truly impossible to understand life through another's eyes, especially when I have had no long discussions with the locals about race in Kenya. Beside, I figure it would be nigh impossible to capture the magnitude of the vision of all those here in the five-hundred-odd words this post will take, but I would like to share some observations I have made.

First, the Indians. I use it as a catch-all for the various Middle Eastern and Indian sub-continent types that make Kenya there home. I hear that the Emirates is one of Kenya's larger trading partners. That accounts for the Middle Easterners here. For those from the Indian sub-continent, most have been here for generations, the first wave being brought in by the English to work on the railroad to Uganda.

I have personally known one and a half Jews in my life. Though I was born in New York, it was upstate and we moved before I remember anything. I've never visited the City or spent much time in any other city with a long-standing Jewish community. All this withstanding, I feel comfortable saying, because I've read a fair number of books by American Jews about American Jews and am aware of the stereotypes, that Indians are the Jews of Kenya. They own a lot of the stores and mostly take care of management. In turn, they have a lot of the money. It's a surprise when I see Indians walking on the street and it's not from a store to their car, in my nine months I have seen just one ever on a matatu, and you never see them in Githima. In turn, black Kenyans don't much like them. Waiting in line at the bank, I caught a report that said Middle-Eastern and Indian Kenyans are being targeted for kidnappings and carjackings. Doesn't surprise me if you want the best odds the family will be able to pay the ransom. When I was trying to get out of buying a jacket after bargaining the owner down to 1,500 shillings, I told him I didn't carry that much money with me because I was afraid of being robbed. He immediately told me about the two times it happened to him. They got him just before he walked through the gate to his house. A few months later I did get pickpocketed and stopped carrying that much money with me ever.

In turn, the Indians don't much care for the black Kenyans. They're not smashing windows and holding up black Kenyan stores, but they are avoiding them as much as possible. I met an Indian who lived here most of her life and didn't know enough Kiswahili to speak with the kids. Another told me he went to university in Canada instead of Kenya, his homeland. I've gotten by with only a few words of Kiswahili in Kenya and I'm sure that the least Canadian universities are competitive with the University of Nairobi, but those seem like extreme measures to just "occur."

I kind of feel sorry for Indian Kenyans, but I feel sorry for the black Kenyans, too. They are the absolute majority in Kenya, and they still have an inferiority complex about their skin color. I guess that's what happens after freedom from more than a half century of British rule and the continuing dominance of American and British media. Even in the blackest continent in the world, a local still has to sing that black is beautiful. I kind of assumed it would be the standard, but I guess not. Fair & Lovely, a skin lightening lotion, is popular enough here to afford prominent advertising. I saw that ad the same week I saw pictures of Sammy Sosa's zombie-bleached skin. More than a little frightening.

When I heard reports back in the States that the new fall line-up of shows on the major TV networks had one or two or zero new lead roles for blacks, I never paid attention, but that's changed. I hope that it doesn't matter and doesn't cause one race to think less of another because it has fewer starring roles, but it has to mean something when you only ever see people who look like you in supporting roles. That's why I let the kids watch Blade when they're asking for Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan. Wesley Snipes is not my idea of a role model, but at least he's the undisputed star.

Funny thing. Early on, maybe two or three weeks after arriving, Demetra and I were trying to describe one of the kids to our Tanzanian director because we didn't know his name. We got it narrowed down to two, and she finally asked, "The brown one or the black one?" She has since married an American and is only waiting for her paperwork to be processed before receiving her American passport and moving back to join him in New York City. I have advised her to avoid making that distinction in the States.

But, hey, I could be misreading all of this. Without a doubt, I am missing the vastness of inter-racial relations in a foreign nation and all its particular intricacies and idiosyncracies. Like I wrote, it's not like I talk to the locals that much.

Friday, April 16

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Street children

I think it surprised me to find homeless people in Nakuru after walking through Githima, the neighborhood the center borders where the roads are dust, the houses are one-room, concrete rows and there are no street lights because every bulb has been stolen. It's a fairly common statistic that half, a quater, a third of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. Some of those people live in Githima where a room can be rented for 1,600 shillings a month (about 21 dollars at 75 shillings to the dollar). The rest can go to food. It may not be a totally safe life, it may not be a healthy life, it require involve scratching to make through every thirty days, but it's a life with a home and better than the alternative of life with no home and sleeping in ditches.

The other factor is just how many people in Nakuru are doing something. Again, these may not be high paying jobs and most are a few steps below menial labor, but there are jobs for people who couldn't make it through primary and chances to afford one of those rooms in Githim. There are bike drivers and motorcycle riders for those who only know how to get from one point to another. In Gilani's, Nakuru's major supermarket and wholesaler, there is a cashier and packer personally assigned to every row. These aren't floaters moving between registers as customers come up. They stay there and wait. That's not counting the people in the aisles proper, waiting to assist shoppers or the ones stocking shelves.

Of course, none of this makes a difference for Nakuru's street children. Sixteen hundred may be affordable rent, but it doesn't make a difference if you're too young to hold a job. I don't know where they come from, but knowing the stories of some of the kids at the center and those whom the Children's Office have dumped on us, their parents probably abandoned them. Maybe because they didn't have the money, maybe because they didn't want the responsibility anymore and wanted a new life. Who knows? Who cares? The point is they're on the streets.

Most of them hang out around the Coca-Cola warehouse. When the empties come in, the movers don't mind if the kids lick out the drops. It's easy enough to recognize them when they fan out from there. No matter what they're wearing, the kids are a uniform tan color, close to that of desert fatigues. It's the layers of Nakuru dust. They're normally wearing a coat. Even during the height of the dry season, the nights in equatorial Africa can get cold, and when you have nowhere to keep it safe, you keep it with you. Most keep hanging off their lips a flask-sized plastic bottle, empty but for an amber layer of glue on the bottom. It's the same glue the shoe fundis use to attach the soles to the rest. Sometimes you can see a group of them crouching in a circle on the edge of the street, rolling dice and dropping cards. I don't know what they're gambling for, what they have that they could wager.

People who aren't Kenyans and who have money care about the street kids. Not the Kenyans. Donors come in and meet with the city officials and organize meals and clothing donations and classes for the kids. They take them out of the city to give them a fresh start away from their old haunts. This happened last October. For near three weeks you couldn't find a street kid in all of Nakuru.

Then they were back. The donors had left, the cooperating officials had sold what the donors had brought, and kids were back in Nakuru. Not the same ones should the donors come back and recognize them, but a new set, previously of Kisumu or Nairobi, ready for some new bleeding heart to feel for their plight and offer them a better chance with the aid of the local officials who best understand their problems and the solutions.

There's a reason poverty is systemic. It profits some an awful lot.

Wednesday, April 14

Considering Michael Chabon's “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”

About a year ago a friend and I came to agree that the single most vital element of literature is character. More important than plot, the emphasis of which generally bestows upon a work the dubious title of “genre fiction.” Far more important than setting, temporally and physically. Only marginally more important than voice, an element very closely associated with character, though, but character is still dominant among all those aspects of fiction we were taught in junior high

Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most difficult elements to do right. While there may be no single way to do character right, there are so many ways to do it wrong. The character can be totally abominable and unsympathetic, and the reader can only hope for their every ambition to be thwarted and their death to come swiftly and painfully. They can be clichés with as much depth as a puddle in Utah, whose every choice and every action can be predicted. They can be whiny. They can be boring. They can be a lot of things to make the reader not care in the slightest what they do or why.

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay goes about screwing its characters by making them too nice. I admit that making making genuinely kind and good characters is near impossible. The only one that comes to mind is William Thackeray's Dobbin in Vanity Fair. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to personally know more genuinely good people in my life than I have encountered in literature, but Chabon tries so hard to give them flaws and make them complex. Sammy Clayman is so closeted he keeps a sham marriage for well nigh on a decade. Josef Kavalier, more than most anything else, wants to kill Germans and runs away when he is most needed. The problem is that they are still so endearing. They have good reasons for it. Everything comes out alright, and everything is forgiven. After his main characters, Chabon must have run out of ideas for flaws because they become really boring then. Tracy Bacon lies about his past to get close to Clayman. Rosa Saks gets fat. Even the nearest thing the novel has to a villain with a face can be given a pass because he is clearly more than a little touched in the head. Sympathetic characters are key to most literature, but this goes beyond. There is not a single character you don't want to hold and tell everything will be alright, you will have better.

It's a shame because I really want to like the book. Chabon deserves respect for telling a story that spans the Great Depression and runs through World War II before ending in the mid-50's. He is able to share something of his obvious love for comic books and magic and escapistry with the reader. His language is fluid. His ambition is clear. His ability to execute in the whole is less clear.

One other problem with Amazing Adventures, quite minor in the greater scheme but of particular annoyance to me. It's when a work of historical fiction practices anachronisms for the benefit of its characters. A writer wants his characters to be intelligent, progressive, right, and what time is more intelligent, progressive and right than the present, at least in comparison to the past? Your characters certainly can't be singing the glories of zeppelins if not for humorous effect. We'll call it Master and Commander Syndrome only instead of discovering natural selection during the Napoleonic Wars, Kavalier and Clay watch Citizen Kane on opening night, immediately discern its brilliance and begin writing comics for adults. The first adventures of the Escapist have him punching out Hitler on the cover years before Poland is invaded. Very progressive of them.

In another trusting the reader to understand anything important on their own. Every allusion and every symbol has to be explained. Take the very first paragraph of Amazing Adventures. “'To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,' [Sam Clay] would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. 'You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in.'” And then he meets his cousin, Kavalier, who happens to be a trained escapist. Then they create a comic book character named the Escapist. Then they both escape their true selves and their responsibilities. Get it? Do you? What about that moth Kavalier finds after visiting the bedroom of Rosa Saks and finding it infested with the insects? Could it mean something? “'Rosa,' Joe said, under his breath.”

It's a little annoying and so are the anachronisms, and taken together with the too good of characters, it becomes a distraction that breaks the narrative.

Tuesday, April 13

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Freaks

The literature of my childhood and recent months has been littered with freaks and aberrations, from the mundane bearded ladies and dog boys in R.L. Stine's carnivals of horror through to the transcendent transvestites and lame of Flannery O'Connor's short stories.

My life has not been so littered. I imagine this is the result of living first in a town of just 1,000, not nearly large enough to provide the services that those with abnormal bodies may require, and then moving to a college campus populated by the young and affluent, of good stock and with the resources to manage and even cure physical aberrations. I long considered these freaks something akin to elves and werewolves, creatures of fantasy. Popular enough in the imagination but less than entrenched in reality.

Like so much in the past nine months, this has changed as well. Now, I see deformities the size of a child's fist behind ears and on the backs of necks. I share matatus with albinos who wear the same coiled, piled hair weaves as their colored sisters. I pass dwarves with back problems who can only walk with the aid of crutches on the street. Having never before known someone completely deaf or blind, I am now responsible for one of each at the center.

The most common are the afflicted by polio. On a two-room school built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006 in Pokot, there is a ragged poster urging parents to vaccinate their children. It is a reminder still necessary in the cities. If the afflicted are lucky, it is only a single limb. A single crutch can replace a twisted foot. A useless arm can be covered by a sports jacket, the only evidence being a dangling sleeve. The less fortunate wear their sandals on their hands and drag themselves across the rough roads or sit on a modified tricycle which they can pedal with their hands.

There is a sense of there but for the grace of God go I. Lucky does not begin to describe not only being born into a loving middle-class family but also America where vaccinations are mandatory, a full array of nutrients are readily available and where accommodations are made for the otherwise abled. The homeless I worked with in the House of Charity were less than exemplars of human health, but even they were better off than many in Kenya. Health care reform, withstanding, America takes care of its people far better than most.

Greater than this feeling, though, is one of amazement. Losing an arm, losing a leg, losing sight, losing hearing are terrifying thoughts for me. I depend on them. Without them, I do not know what I would do. Collect disability insurance payments, I assume. With all its medicines and procedures and technologies, the physically aberrant still break through in America, but there are places for them there that cater to their particular needs and keep them away from the otherwise healthy. In Kenya the aberrant are in the offices and on the streets. They are living. Yes, some are reduced to begging but many more are not.

Losing an arm, losing a leg, losing sight, losing hearing are not the worst that can happen. Unfortunate, yes, but not the end. In my long isolation from the most severe of physical imperfections, I forgot that.

Sunday, April 11

Nine and a half months in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chepkopus

Chep-KO-poos (still an 's' sound, not 'z')

This one is the big Chepkopus. She also talks more than the little Chepkopus. Otherwise we couldn't tell them apart. Yeah, and that's Sheila in the background.

My grandparents sponsor this Chepkopus, so you can't have her, but there are plenty of other kids similarly cute and in need of sponsors. Give it a thought.

Saturday, April 10

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Another advertisement in Travel + Leisure

Remember how I posted that ad about a month back? Well, we got it as part of a three page ad deal with Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and this is the second in the series by yours truly. The first one wasn't terribly popular with the editors due to the dominance of Kenyan faces in a magazine intended for southeast Asians. This is an attempt to remedy that problem. Those are real Indonesians and everything. I took it while in Jakarta in 2008. I think I'll be able to visit again before going back to the States, and I'm very excited for that.

Thursday, April 8

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Shopping on the street

A lot of things terrified me upon arrival in Kenya. Nairobi. The driving. The water. The food. Even shopping at a supermarket. I was scared of holding up the line while trying to figure out how much a coin was worth and grabbing mouthwash when I really wanted shampoo.

That's to say nothing of shopping on the street. Then the horrors centered on having to bargain with kiosk keepers who would lean in too close and being tackled by international agents after accidentally buying a knock-off not made at the companies' official factories in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Kind of pathetic, I know.

I got over it. It took nine months.

Realizing how well the average Kenyan dressed was a key feature in this change. You pick a random man off the street, and he will almost certainly be wearing a buttoned collared shirt. Not a bad chance he'll also have on a jacket. Pick a woman, and she'll either have a dress or slacks paired with a blouse. Their clothes may be sun bleached from being used every other day for the past five years, but they take pride in their appearance. Maybe it's a reaction against their single-room, concrete-walled homes and only-slight-improvement offices, I don't know. The point is they have to get those clothes from somewhere, and I feel pretty confident that most of them aren't paying a thousand a shillings for a shirt at Ukwala and Tusky's.

That got me to dawdle the next time I passed by the parked van with pressed shirts falling out of it. Then the second, far more important half of my about face with regard to street shopping occurred. The clothes were dirt cheap. I've thrift stores twice as expensive as Kenyan street clothes. I've seen few hand towels cheaper. The only place reliably cheaper than the Kenyan street was the clothing room at House of Charity, and that's only because we were giving those away.

So I've spent a couple of days this week wandering around the many street offerings Nakuru has. I walked slowly past construction where entrepreneurs hung shirts and jackets off the corrugated steel walls that separate the site and street. I passed through alleys hemmed on both sides by tables of shoes and underwear. I stopped at a few kiosks cobbled together from scrap wood and plastic tarp. I bargained. I bought some shirts. I think I look good in them.

At some point, the question "Where do all these clothes came from?" must be answered. The truth is I don't know, though I desperately want to. Where are these people getting designer clothes? No joke, I've seen Dolce & Gabbana in kiosks. I've also seen Kennel Club shirts. It's not like they naturally come from the same distributor. It's not like they're being sold by independent business people either. They are organized. It's not just that some only sell shirts and some only shoes. It's that some kiosks only sell blouses and some only long-sleeved collared shirts and some only soccer jerseys. If you want shoes, you better know whether you want black dress shoes, soccer cleats or sandals because the kiosks don't mix and match. Someone has to be organizing all of this.

First guess is World Vision. I don't know who else could provide such a stunning variety of clothes from Relay for Life T-shirts through to oversize American Eagle polos. At the very least, they admit of the possibility on their Web site, but I don't buy that there are no local clothing economies here to compete with the import donations. Just done the road from the center is a blanket factory. Don't tell me they can't make clothes, too. It's not like America wants to buy Kenyan clothes. They may as well buy their own.

Monday, April 5

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Movies

The kids at the center love television. When Demetra and I arrived near nine months ago, the last thing we did nights was kick the kids out of the TV room. Fridays were lame telenovelas. Sundays were lame Japanese soap operas. Most every other night was professional wrestling, whatever NTV had the license for in no particular order. I saw Hulk Hogan fight the Undertaker one night and John Cena throw Randy Orton off a cage the next. Sometime past midnight once, driven from my room by mild diarrhea induced by whatever I had that week, the kids were watching a recording of some Man-U game.

It was so frustrating that, after six months, we finally ordered a welder put a solid steel plate in front of the screen. Then we threw a solid steel lock on that. We bought a DVD player around the same time to lessen the blow. That may have been the only thing standing between the directors and revolution.

Now I have the one key, and the kids are allowed to only watch movies Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sometimes Friday nights when I feel generous and at peace with the world. It's taken a few months, but I've finally trained them to that schedule. Before, I couldn't get work done with a new kid knocking at the door every fifteen minutes to ask, "Movie, Chris?" It took them a while to figure out what "After lunch" meant. Even now, they will run me down wherever I am eating to ask "Movie, Chris?" They don't understand "After my lunch" yet.

When I finish and go for the lock, they start jumping up and down and shouting. The others, attracted by their call, come running in from the soccer pitch and from the top of the hill, also shouting "Movie," thereby bringing in those even further out. Their first choice? Schwarzenegger's Commando. Second choice? Anything with Chuck Norris. Third choice? Anything with Jackie Chan. It doesn't matter that I haven't provided them with any of these. First three requests every bloody time. I've managed to distill this down to movies with extended action scenes and tried to lead them toward better fare on this scale. Forget movies with Bourne-style editing and cuts between handheld cameras every 0.4 seconds. It might take a decent-sized screen and the ability to distinguish between two white men in dark clothing fighting in twilight conditions to enjoy those thoroughly. Freaking Revenge of the Sith was more popular than the original Star Wars. Other hits with them have included any of The Matrix trilogy and Blade. Yeah, I know they're R, but I justify it by not having to listen to them chant for something different.

They absolutely hate cartoons. If I leave the room with one on, they'll switch to anything else. They wouldn't even give The Incredibles or Toy Story a fair shake and trust my recommendation. The only one to survive in its entirety so far is the better-than--it-had-any-right-to-be TMNT. I don't know what they would have thought of Lion King. That scratched about the point the baby giraffe raises its head to the rising sun.

Sometimes the kids show up with their own DVD's off the street and ask to watch those instead. In this way they have introduced me to dubbing in Kiswahili. It's one of the most horrific things I have ever experienced, but it draws me in like a black hole of suck. On most every conceivable standard of value, these movies are terrible. The video quality suggest that they were recorded from tapes and now drop frames until they run about ten a second. The movie themselves are the most generic action films possible. They don't bother dubbing the good stuff. No Lord of the Rings or The Dark Knight here. Not even The Transporter or XXX. But if it's a Hong Kong action flick with no recognizable actors and poor lighting and worse fight choreography, they're all over it.

Then there's the dubbing itself. It's not the neat job done for movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the soundtrack and effects are preserved. No, the Kenyans just cut it all out and paste in their own voices. I think only once actor does it all. He doesn't bother changing his voice between characters. Spitting into the microphone is the only notice someone new is talking. The only change between a man and woman on screen is that he kicks it into a falsetto. I think he gets paid by the word. There's no other reason for them to talk that fast or that often. Even when someone is just looking out a window, contemplating the body just thrown out of it and mouth firmly shut, the hyper-caffeinated narrator doesn't shut up. The words just spew from his mouth. Probably would have added some quips and one-liners for the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

All this considered, there are no people better to watch a movie with than the kids. Once they stop shoving each other off the benches and a hierarchy of seating is established, they get into it. They yell when the villains succeed. They cry when someone dies. They cheer when the leads kiss for the very first time. One girl literally ran from the room when the agents send the bug in through Neo's belly button. It's like being back on the U of M's showboat, except there, those responses had to be encouraged in the program and by the actors.

Sunday, April 4

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Michael

This is Michael. He is not Pokot and has only been at the center about three months now. He and his brother Albert arrived at the center this January, like William at the order of the Children's Office. It's doubly annoying since the Children's Office told us to reduce the number of children at the center while handing over more and since they have so far refused to cover his and Albert's expenses like a year's worth of back tuition at their preschool.

So, if you have some extra money and can pick up a sponsorship for another child and ease the financial burden on us, please give it some serious thought.

Happy Easter, everyone.