Friday, March 27, 2015

Eat, Pray, Change

Travel changes you.  And the longer you travel, the more profound the change.

Eat, or not eat 

It is 3 a.m. on Saturday morning in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  I've had parts of this post brewing in my brain for a couple of months.  I knew from about 6 months in Africa that my body had certainly changed.  A 55 pound weight loss left me with energy to spare, which I needed every joule to make it through the day, and into the long nights with friends.  When I moved to Nairobi, the demand for that energy tripled or quadrupled -- there was night life, not just sitting with friends bullshitting over water.  Alcohol with pretty good taxis, a thriving expat community and my German housemate Silke, demanded a level of energy I don't think I ever needed before in my life, even in university.

So there's the more energy change -- not a good thing, Martha, but a great thing.  And I could go on ad nauseum about how your perceptions and understanding of people, of poverty and the politics of it, of the lives of the poor, etc., change and you change.  But no one wants to hear yet another person who has returned from their foreign study/gap year prattle on about this.


During my time in rural Uganda, the poverty of the people I worked with was stultifying.  Families of 6 or 10 or more living on about $400 USD per year.  I had and still have no true comprehension of how they made it work.  The school fees alone for the local average of 6 children per family consumed about $200 of those dollars every year, not including the uniforms.  If the family purchased the uniforms, then the children lived and played and worked in the uniforms because it was the only clothing they had.

For most of my life I have prayed in one fashion or another.  To those who read my Facebook ranting, it is probably a surprise to you that I do this.  I have a love/hate relationship with the God of Christianity and it is an understatement to say that I find organized religion the anathema of any relationship with God that it purports to extoll.  But, nevertheless, I find myself praying for understanding of life's events and people most of the time.

But when I came to the community of Kapuwai, Uganda, this encounter with the stark reality of life shook the foundation of everything I believed about issues of faith and belief in God.  In the worst of circumstances of life, the people of this community praised God and prayed to God with a sincerity that I had never seen in my life and my usual prayer for understanding abruptly changed.

I didn't pray for understanding of others anymore.  I began to pray that I would do nothing to destroy the one source of hope these people have in their lives of nothing but the worst suffering.  I became less sure of my belief that there was an all-powerful and all benevolent God, not that this belief had ever been sure in my life before.  But I knew I would be damned if I would take away the hope and the joy that their Christian faith brought them.  Others' joy became more important to me than my own beliefs to the extent that I censured myself on expressing my own beliefs to anyone but a very small minority of very close friends.

I don't know or even believe that prayer changed me, but seeing living and sincere faith certainly changed my prayers.

Change, at least from the outside

Sometimes travel can change a stranger's perception of your nationality.  You read that correctly.  When you travel internationally, because the rest of the world is so truly hospitable, people learn greetings in as many other languages as they can so they can make you feel at home.  If you are a taxi driver, it is good business to greet potential passengers this way.

Case in point:  I arrived in Zanzibar Thursday around lunch time.  After unpacking a few things, I headed to lunch at Mercury's Bar and Grill.  It was close and since I was in Zanzibar, I felt I owed the  spirit of Freddy Mercury a little homage.  The owner of this restaurant purports to be a childhood friend of Freddy's (more likely, I think cynically, the primary tormentor to a young gay boy during a time that didn't allow you to be gay).

As I walked to Mercury's sporting my new Jackie O. sunglasses and a smart dress, red lipgloss and heels, a row of taxi drivers are lined up under an impossibly large tree trying to solicit passengers.  As I approach, the first driver hops off the hood of his car and looking directly at me, raises both his hands in the perfect gestures of an Italian and shouts "Grazi!!", "Ciao!" and "Grazi" in rapid fire succession with all the gusto and sincerity and hope he can muster to win a passenger during the off season.

Mama mia, I have changed.  Cincin to me.

Channeling my inner Italian

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Revised: Sunday morning, 1:33 a.m.  Still in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania and I realize I have finally been to a place in this big world that my husband has not visited.  Next, hopefully Arusha, Mombasa or Masai Mara National Park (Charles has been to all of these).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Look for the Bright Side

Look for the Bright Side.

This is my favorite blog by my college friend, and Unit 6 Basement alumni, Julie Loewus Rich.  It is about her family's experiences as her husband is deployed to Japan for umpteen years.  She vowed in the beginning of the blog to start looking for the bright side in any situations she encounters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  The result is her cheerful blog about surviving culture shock in Japan, having the military move you ⅔'s of the globe away from home, educating her two young children and her marriage to a fantastic, but too frequently deployed Navy man.

You should also know that Julie despises social media, so don't even bother looking for her on Facebook.  Although, I think she should get a Twitter account to share her thoughts on life with the world in just a few characters.

Love you Julie!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Everybody has their own NGO

Absolutely every single person in Africa has their own NGO.  And absolutely every single one of those people wants you to hear about their "program".

There is a neighborhood drunk where I work named "Sam".  A couple of weeks ago while I was buying a bottle of water, he accosted me with his "program".  Everyone with an NGO feels they MUST tell ME about their "program" every time they see me.

The basic tenets of Sam's particular "program" are as follows:

1) To remain drunk at all times;
2) To "do something" for the youth of Kenya/Africa while remaining drunk 24/7;
3) To "do something" for the youth of Kenya/Africa who suffer directly or indirectly from the scourge that is HIV/AIDS while remaining drunk 24/7;
4) To "do something" for the orphans and other vulnerable populations in Kenya/Africa while remaining drunk 24/7;
5) For me to finance all of the above, most particularly the portions of these programs that will allow Sam to remain drunk 24/7.

Nope, I'm not the least bit cynical today.  This post is dedicated to Perfesser Kevin Hill, Florida International University

Friday, March 6, 2015

Things I miss from home

  1. My home.

2.  Charles, especially his very dry wit.

3. My Imelda Marcos sized shoe collection

4. Scott and Alex (and Oscar-baby)

5. The Rhines

6. Pascal's

7. The Pantry's jalepeƱo pimento cheese spread

8.  My car and driving

9.  My rose garden that I perpetually ignore

10. My pets -- those departed and those still with us.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Culture Wars

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work in Kenya.  I try to live by the aphorism "When in Rome, do as the Romans" and I want the people of this country to know that not all Americans are jerks.  But I'm left with the nagging question of cultural practices.

Most of the men that I work with are of the Luo tribe of Kenya.  Kenya has 42 distinct tribes, each with its own native language.  The Luo also have the reputation of being the most restrictive when it comes to women's rights, but fortunately they do not participate in FGM.

I come from a culture that values women as equals, even though the pay gap and the glass ceiling are alive and well.  At least we say we value women.

In Africa, there is much talk from men about how women need to be empowered, but little is actually done on the personal or national level to achieve this goal.

And so, as a guest in Kenya and as an American woman, how do I manage the situations when the two cultures clash?  If it is inconsequential to me, I let it pass.  Why bother rocking the boat?  But in doing that, am I implicitly accepting the cultural practices of these Luo men that I do find offensive.  And how about when I am faced with the choice of how to respond when a cultural practice I find repugnant is unavoidable?  Or what about when the practice is just plain stupid?

In my fantasy world, I'd like to think we could meet in the middle and take the best of both cultures and forge a compromise that leaves both sides feeling good about their culture.  But in the real world, I find that I am most often on the short end of the stick.

And what of others respecting my culture and its practices?  Am I to abandon my culture completely because I am a guest and want to be a polite guest?

Comments welcome.