Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Cliched Connection…Or Is It?

Living thousands of miles away from those who hold my heart the tightest – the friends and family whom I never have to worry about connecting with because it comes automatically – my soul finds itself searching for another source of human connection. It’s as if something in my core is innately aware that I can’t do this things called life alone. So, here in east Africa, I’ve been working on finding new ways of connecting – repeatedly assessing my definition of human connection.

Maybe human connection is a topic you’ve talked about so much that it’s become that banal book report theme you had to write about all four years of High School English.

Maybe it has always seemed vague and intangible; to try to wrap your mind around it is far too reminiscent of your childhood attempts to sell cups of homemade lemonade in order to buy that shiny red bicycle from the toy-shop window – you were always just $100 short.

Maybe it’s always been packaged in fluff: laughter and love and relationships, rather than the raw edge with which you can empathize: insecurities and dependency and unmet expectations.

Maybe you feel like every time it’s brought up, it’s as if someone is trying to shove all things appreciation down your throat. And maybe this is something you want to consume on your own.

Maybe you’ve heard it too much. And now it’s boring. But, maybe you can’t hear it enough…

Maybe, in order to deepen and broaden and strengthen your relationship with yourself, others, and that something beyond you, it needs to be talked about. Over. And over.

I believe you care about humanity. And I believe you are aware of life outside of your world.

So maybe this blog post is more for me. Because I know that in the midst of my so-called ‘daily grind’, I become so distracted that the only connection taking place is the zapping of my brain waves – firing off at one another thousands of millions of times per minute. And, embarrassingly, these brain waves are often concentrated on me: my work, my food, my nails that need to be cut, and my sweaty walk home.

When I allow my mind spiral into itself – I clearly lose focus on anything other than, well…myself. I’m not able to see that which I can learn from, find peace in, connect to, be challenged be, seek solace in, and experience profound beauty.

Even looking up from my LED screen right now, I am struck by the fact that I have been sitting in my swirly chair in a square room with three other individuals – all of whom I have not even glanced at in over two hours!

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” – MLK, Jr.

If I’m continually re-learning one thing, it’s this: Human connection is more than living in close proximity or appreciating one another’s commonalities. It requires looking up, speaking out, grasping a hand, sharing a taxi ride, eating together…acting as if I believe that what I do and think is connected to something, and someone, outside of me – because, dear people, it really is.

“The only difference between man and man all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species.” – Gandhi

Below are photos from the past 11 months that remind me of the incalculable beauty found only in human connection. My hope is that you can take the time to find ways to personally connect to each image and/or individual. (And I’d love if you shared your stories of connection in the comment section below!)

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Lamu, Kenya.

Lamu, Kenya.

Mpiro, Kenya.

Mpiro, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Nairobi Marathon, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Naroomoru, Kenya.

Naroomoru, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Olkinyei, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Kamelil, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Mpeketoni, Kenya.

Goz Beida, Chad.

Goz Beida, Chad.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya.

Wau, South Sudan.

Wau, South Sudan.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Lietnhom, South Sudan.

Kiambu, Kenya.

Kiambu, Kenya.

 

 

Value in Wrinkles

Oh Wendell Berry, how your words fascinate and prod me; seamlessly flowing in and out of the last eight years of my life.

The following is an ode to Mr. Berry, Mother Earth, her creator, and the value in wrinkles.

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“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

value in wrinkles 2 value in wrinkles 3 “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”

value in wrinkles 4 value in wrinkles 5 “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” value in wrinkles 6 value in wrinkles 7 value in wrinkles 8 “My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.” value in wrinkles 9 value in wrinkles 10

And Then She Was Here. // The Transient Expat Complex.

If you’ve ever been an expatriate (a person who lives outside their native country) working in a developing country, you will find the following equal parts comforting as well as affirming of the challenges/loneliness/confusion/(fill in your blank) you may face on a frequent basis.

Home base. // Nairobi, Kenya

Home base. // Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi is one of the largest international development hubs in the world. This means that within Nairobi’s parameters, and estimated 4 million person population, you can essentially throw a stone and hit someone working for a development organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). And if you throw a stone at an expat (I am in no way recommending this), their NGO employment is practically guaranteed.

As of today, I’ve been living in Nairobi for 10 months (minus the extensive travel involved in having a regionally based position – example here).

I am the proud owner of a Kenyan resident card (meaning I pay local prices at hotspots such as the Maasai Mara, local museums, etc. and I don’t have to carry around my passport – hallelujah).
I can walk, drive, or take public comfortably around the city. When driving, I  generously use my horn – hooting is a beautiful thing.
I am accustomed to blowing brownish-black boogers.
I say things like ‘imagine’ and ‘even me‘ and ‘I’m from U.S..
I can bargain in Swahili.
I know which markets have the best deals.
I am a pro at rocking the bi-weekly headlamp and lighting rooms using candles in wine bottles (the power tends to get cut…a lot).
I know the best joints in town to eat fish. And listen to live music.
I have learned to find solace in the constant honking and bartering of matatu drivers throughout all hours of the night (AKA ear plugs are my best friends).
I love it when people say ‘Sorry‘ every time I trip (Yes, every time meaning this has become a casual occurrence).

Kenya: The land of plentiful hikes. // Apple break.

Kenya: The land of plentiful hikes. // Apple break.

Living in Nairobi, I have met a copious amount of ridiculously talented and fascinating individuals – lawyers, UN workers, freelance journalists, pilots, entrepreneurs, researchers, business developers, teachers, students, web designers, whistle-blowers, app designers, dreamers, photographers, and doctors…the list goes on.

It is safe to say that 89% of my conversations transmogrify into an attempt to mask my obvious jaw-dropping expressions – I’m in a constant state of ‘impressed’.

In terms of networking, feeding off of other’s motivation, intellectual conversations, innovative passion, and career growth opportunities – Nairobi seems to have it all.

In terms of steady, deep-rooted community,……hmm.

For those who truly call Nairobi, Kenya home, solid community is not difficult to find. The longer one has lived here, the more likely he or she is to have nearby relatives, friends of old, and established social circles.

Then there are the many of us who profess Nairobi as home, and mean it from the depths of our hearts. Yet, we constantly find ourselves searching to know, to be known,…for that something steady.

I’ll be the first to admit it.

It’s a tightrope act. Or, to bring it closer to home – it’s like walking down Gitanga Road, while wearing heels, venturing to balance  on uneven road – attempting to stay steady between a sea of pedestrians and the aggressively oncoming jam.

If forced to describe the early 20 – mid 40 year-old Nairobi population in one word, it would be: transient.

We are on the move. Here for a few month internship. Out to the field to teach a workshop. Gathering stories for two weeks in South Sudan. Traveling to South Africa for some R&R. Staying on a one-year contract, waiting for our next placement.

Don’t get me wrong, if you can handle it, the constant change in the wind is a life of adventure. You will never have any issue finding an empty room to rent.

Spontaneous friend camping adventure in Naivasha, Kenya.

Spontaneous friend camping adventure in Naivasha, Kenya.

But when the adventure somehow becomes a normalcy, and after only ten months, eight of your potentially new best friends have left the country (or moved to different areas within), the excitement of it all is slowly peeled off. [But never without resistance. It’s like Velcro – because who ever really wants to leave this amazing place?!]

There’s a nice ebb and flow to life in Nairobi. Work hard to be a social butterfly, make a few solid groups of friends, say goodbye to most of them at once (for some reason it tends to happen this way), then do it all over again. It’s exhausting. Yet, it also means bounteous opportunities for sharpening up my socializing skills and meeting an insane amount of people. Again, the balance.

In such a transient community, it’s expected to learn about a person’s current job, favorite local restaurant, and views on development work. It’s usually not-so-expected to learn  about how many siblings they have, what their college major was, or what sport they played in high school.

At the end of the day, I’ve been blessed to meet too many beautiful people in this crazy morphing city. And at the end of my two years, I don’t doubt that I will have established mini pocket communities all over the world (truly, this might not be an exaggeration).

Some of my dearest (2/4 will be departing this month).

Some of my dearest (2/4 will be departing this month).

So, for now, I’ll work on this transient complex. The complex of here, but not here; known, but not known. And I’ll continue to practice walking in heels (like a local) down those pot-hole infested dirt sidewalks.

 

Achta of N’djamena // Starting Over in Chad

Sharing a bowl of light-brown water and some strips of mango, that appear to have been drying in the infamously harsh Chadian sun for endless hours, Achta carefully situates herself under a dilapidated wooden shelter. Even in times of difficulty, the tradition of Chadian hospitality remains.

Alone on the compound, Achta explains that five of her children are currently out farming, three live outside of the village, and four have passed away. Whoa.

As she talks, tears softly stream from Achta’s eyes and roll down her previously upturned cheeks.

“I was born in N’djamena. I was married in N’djamena. Four of my children died in N’djamena. Then the Janjaweed came and we lost everything we owned.”

Achta.

Achta.

Situated miles from any sort of permanent infrastructure (namely schools, hospitals, clean water sources, and markets), the people of N’djamena have spent most of their lives toiling to meet, what many would consider, basic human needs: potable water, food, shelter, and health. Unfortunately, for the people of N’djamena, the process of obtaining such things is not so basic.

Due to a large wadi, a riverbed that contains copious amounts of water only during times of heavy rain, positioned at the village’s entrance, N’djamena sits on fertile soil. For the purpose of collecting water for cooking, cleaning, and farming, N’djamena would appear to be in an ideal location. Here’s the significant downside – the wadi’s water is far from clean.

With a disheartened look across her face, Achta quietly says, “I have never known the reason why my children died. The hospital is a two-day journey by donkey. By the time we got to the hospital, they were already too sick. Maybe they died because of the dirty water, but I do not know.”

The wadi located on the outskirts of Achta's village.

The wadi located on the outskirts of Achta’s village.

Appearing to still be processing all that has happened in her life, Achta proceeds to explain that by the time the Janjaweed, a local militant group, came to her village, she was still healing from the death of her four children, “It was too hard as a mother to see your children dying.”

The Janjaweed, a nomadic militant Arab group known for their merciless killing, burning, and looting of villages across Sudan and Eastern Chad, invaded N’djamena village in 2007, killing 20 people and leaving the village emptied and flattened.

According to Achta, “When they came, we ran from our village. But every village that we went to turned us away. We eventually ended up in Gassire camp.”

A two-hour plus drive outside of N’djamena, Gassire has served as an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp for thousands of Chadians over the last ten years.

Evidence of the Janjaweed.

Evidence of the Janjaweed.

Achta, her husband, and her eight children remained in Gassire for six long years, returning to N’djamena only months ago.

As reported by Achta, and a large majority of the thousands of other Chadians forced to inhabit the camp, “In Gassire we had no food. We could not farm our own land.”

When asked why she would rather return to her destroyed homeland than live in a secure place with clean water access, Achta promptly responded, “We would rather die in our own lands than in the camps.” This was not the first time I had heard this remark.

Afraid that it would be so, upon returning from Gassire to N’djamena, Achta discovered that everything she had ever owned or worked for had been demolished or stolen – homes, livestock, goods, tools.

“We only had small food upon our return. I worked on a nearby farm to get some small amounts of millet to feed my family.” Ranck_OVT Assesment_July_N'djamena village (15 of 159)

Exhibiting profound strength and tenacity, Achta and her family were slowly able to rebuild their home. They are now farming their own land and, along with other returnees, praying for a bountiful harvest season.

Though the population of N’djamena is less than half the size that it once was, families continue to return as they grow weary of the IDP camps and learn of the village’s restored safety.

Achta displays the bowl she crafted and gifted to me - it now sits on my kitchen counter holding a variety of local fruits.

Achta displays the bowl she crafted and gifted to me – it now sits on my kitchen counter holding a variety of local fruits.

In an attempt to create a sense of normalcy as she settles back into life in the village, Achta dreams of furthering her five children’s educations. Because there is no school within walking distance, she plans to send her children all the way back to Gassire, unable to fully separate them from the life they tried to leave behind.

When I asked her if it would bother her to be alone while her children are away studying, she confidently affirmed, “It’s okay because my children will be at school!”

In Eastern Chad, Achta’s story is not uncommon. Thousands of others are currently in the process of returning to their villages – where land, property, and life has been unfairly taken and destroyed.

Later touring around her newly restored compound, I grab Achta’s hand. Moved by her resilience, I tell her she is very strong. Despite her evident circumstances, laughter proceeds to emanate from Achta’s radiant face.

Acknowledging N’djamena’s restoration, Achta is able to picture a future transformed. 

Shida Of The Past.

It’s noon, the least ideal time of day for interviewing and taking pictures. Stomachs are rumbling, the brisk morning air has been swallowed up by the afternoon heat, and the sun is positioned directly over our heads.

Ilova Kokoto, a translator, and myself move into the shade of Ilova’s meager brick home. She lives here with her daughter and granddaughter. Natural light streams through the doorway and frames Ilova’s face – exposing her wisdom-induced wrinkles and deep brown eyes. “I’m not able to know my age,” Ilova shares, but it is apparent that she has lived to see a thing or two.

Ilova

Ilova

We are in Basuba, a rural village in Lamu county – a detour off of the journey up Kenya’s coast, the road toward Somalia.

“Life in Basuba is difficult. For many years, we have suffered from famine due to numerous droughts,” Ilova explains in perfect Kiswahili, an infamous attribute of Kenya’s coastal region.

Resting her chin on her weathered hands, the mother of four continues, “Until two years ago, we had no clean water. We traveled far to collect dirty water, and many people died from cholera.”

Though proud of Basuba’s recent clean water improvement, Ilova further informs me about the village’s ongoing challenges – many of which will soon be considered a shida (Kiswahili for trouble) of the past.

Take hygiene, for example. When World Concern first visited Basuba, the community was living naively in hygiene indifference. Having never been educated about the importance of drinking clean water, relieving oneself in a contained area, and washing one’s hands, preventable diseases were rampant among local residents.

Because of their partnership with World Concern, Basuba's residents are now able to collect clean water in this djabia.

Because of their partnership with World Concern, Basuba’s residents are now able to collect clean water in this djabia.

In the past three years, World Concern has partnered with the people of Basuba to install a large djabia (a clean water catchment pictured above) and 20 latrines.

Ilova laughs recalling her defecation memories of the past. “When we would relieve ourselves, we would have to go deep in the bush. Even at night. Sometimes I would encounter snakes and buffalo and have to run for my life. It was very hectic.”

It did not require much consideration for the Basuba community to insert latrine use into their daily routines. Ilova explains, “The toilets are nice, we are using them often. We now don’t have to go where there is a lot of danger.” 

Sitting on the dirt in Ilova’s doorway, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the glaring simplicity that is such an immense issue – an issue that is lessening both the quality and length of human life all over the world. Simply put, many survive without available, clean water and hygiene education. These should be a basic human rights, yes?

Though the people of Basuba still suffer from poor farming conditions, World Concern’s partnership has transformed a significant part of their daily life. According to Ilova, “Because of the toilets, we don’t feel the sicknesses we used to have. We used to complain of stomach issues but we no longer do because the conditions are clean.”

[Right to Left]: Ilova, her granddaughter Basho, and her daughter Ahaldo.

[Right to Left]: Ilova, her granddaughter Basho, and her daughter Ahaldo.

Peter Okongi, a Basuba primary school teacher who has been translating for me throughout the interview, proceeds to chime in (though I will toot my own horn a little here – I could understand about half of Ilova’s sentences. Mimi nimefahamu!), “When I first moved here, there was no clean water and no latrines. Clean water was very difficult to find. People could travel between 4 – 5 km to collect unhygienic water. My students would often complain of stomach ache. Even me, I was often sick.”

Peter stands proudly in front of the Basuba primary school.

Peter stands proudly in front of the Basuba primary school.

A Nairobi native, 36-year-old Peter was assigned to teach in Basuba three years prior – just before World Concern installed the djabia. Frustrated that his students frequently missed school as a result of their poor health and the distance of the remote water locations, Peter is particularly jovial about the community’s recent improvements, “Even school attendance has increased. Students used to travel so far that they sometimes had to stay a night away. But now that the water is available, more are able to attend school, where we are also teaching about hygiene.”

Ilova's daughter, Ahaldo.

Ilova’s daughter, Ahaldo.

Ilova’s gorgeous daughter and granddaughter step into the home, plopping themselves into plastic chairs. Looking at her loved ones, Ilova warmly expresses, “Now that the toilets are built, we are no longer afraid. We feel supported.”

Snakes, buffalo, and cholera be gone. “We feel supported.”

Support empowers people live with dignity – to live a quality of life that is deserved by all human beings. Empowered with clean water and education, in partnership with World Concern, the people of Basuba are jumping across stepping stones toward holistic transformation.

Here’s the most beautiful part: with education, training, and proper equipment, on their own, the people of Basuba are going to be able to maintain a lifestyle that includes clean water and hygiene for years to come.