Peace Corps

I spent a little over 27 months living and working a small village in Mberre, Kenya. I taught at St. Luke’s School for the Deaf. I carved out a little home in that school, inevitably my 97 students carved out a place in my heart as well. Here are some of my posts from that time, which will always have special meaning to me. Complete archived blog here.

 

 
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

 Pericles 

1/3/2009 The time has come once again to leave the familiar and venture out unto the unknown. Tomorrow I will leave Loitokitok for Nairobi; I will then meet my supervisor and head to my site, which remains nameless. I trust the Peace Corps once again to decide my fate.

I will leave Loitokitok with a heavy heart, but with many astonishing memories. Today in the market I wanted to feel the buzz of whole town–alive. I stood in the middle hearing the hum of bargaining, the back and fourth drama, the friendly greetings. I breathe in deeply the fresh breeze from Kilimanjaro, hoping I will never forget what it was like to stand here, in the middle of it all. On my walk home I greeted all my favorite neighbors and hugged them, trying desperately to memorize the contours of their smiles as they wished me luck. I approach the small red house on top of a hill, I see three familiar faces running toward me, as I run toward them. My sisters all giggle as I chase and tickle them; I hold the smallest one in my arms and toss her up into the sky. She squeals with delight as I remember, this may be the last time for it all. The sun setting in the distance and the world is showing off—the most brilliant blues and greens dance in the sky, as the sun’s rays hit the hills and plateaus reflecting bits of orange and reds, all painted across the canvas of green rolling shambas.

Change visits once again, and only demands flexibility and courage. This time, I will begin my work as a teacher and although nervous, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be involved in work I truly believe in.

 

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

Rachel Carson

3/3/09 It’s hard to image a place more beautiful then Africa. Routine settles in and my senses numb, but on occasion I am engulfed with the sheer splendor of the land. I fell asleep on a matatu (mini bus of death) once, and awoke to the most vibrant blues, greens, and purples all in one sky; it’s infectious and overcomes you like a teargas.

On the surface Embu can appear as a mixture of noise, people and cars but after time you begin to notice the brilliant blue of the sky- a pastel blue of an Easter egg. Huge white clouds hang over the town, and as time drags on they alter into lavender then eventually to a deep royal purple. Mount Kenya can sometimes look forbidding with its black jagged edges, but the light here in Embu transforms its rigid appearance to an unfathomable shade of purple, you appreciate the power and beauty it demands.

On my bicycle I take to the road, and trace the green hills with my wheels. The golden grass sways to the humming wind, I can feel its authority; helping or hindering my safari. I often feel like I am the only person in the whole world—all this land is my own. There is also a beauty in the rhythm of life here; life is a series of routines to survive. It can, at times seem painstakingly monotonous, until you stop trying to fight it and just realize the happiness you can find in the motions. Day to day life has become simple, and I welcome the questions, the challenge, and the unknown.

Signed Conversation:
Me: Electricity finished?
Thomas: Electricity go to Embu, lunch time. (mimics getting into a matatu and eating lunch).

6/24/2009 Teaching is strange and wonderful thing. What is it to teach? What is it to learn? I have spent the majority of my life in a classroom—but standing on the other side I imagined would be completely different although I find that its not. As a teacher I also want to be a constant student—always looking for new and different ways to learn. I feel comfortable in front of the classroom; and that is most likely because I know my students. From sweet and shy Silas when he answers a question correctly smiles into his shoulder, class know it all Dennis, to the hilarious Pauline, this is not a mass army staring and judging ( as I imagined it would be) but rather a group of students who want to learn. I am inspired by their curiosity and wit.

My most enjoyable times I’ve had teaching have been showing them a different world outside their own. I show them pictures and books from the far reaches of earth. I can see their eyes—discovering these whole new worlds from the comfort of the classroom. Every Sunday I try to have a “lab” day where we have class, but try to do something that the 35 minutes would not allow. I had a few back issues of National Geographic sent to me, but surprisingly most of the topics I was covering were inside the covers. I can sign about what the ocean is but to children who have never seen an ocean—its the equivalent to signing about dragons or mythical lands, but with these magazines I can show them a four page spread of oceans, icebergs, and deserts! More then anything I encourage their curiosity about the world around them, because it is curiosity that has taken me to 5 different continents and here to Kenya. It is this unexplainable feeling when you can see minds at work, a deep and resounding joy that radiates. When we are done my students all sign “thank you for teaching” and at that very moment everything seems to fit.

Another step I’ve taken as a teacher is devote time to instilling confidence. Many people in Kenya believe Deaf people are dumb, even a common name for the Deaf ‘bu bu’ means dumb in Kiswahili. I know the students internalize some of these cultural thoughts, and I have been trying to change that. I made posters that say “Yes I Can” and had students write their names and draw pictures of their desired future professions. The class normally stands and signs “Hello Teacher” when I enter the room but I have changed the greeting to “Yes I Can” before we start class—and remind them when they approach a difficult task. And it has been difficult! Many of my students cannot read and very few can write. I have spoken to teachers who have alluded to the fact that they have “sort of given up, teaching writing” focusing rather on reading comprehension. I tried to jump into writing short stories and then realized we needed to start from square one, what is a noun, verb, and object? I know I am asking them to try something new, and I realize how difficult it must be, somehow through all of this I have found a patience, I never knew I had. Perhaps it comes from memories of my own struggles in school, until one day something just clicked. I’ve spent the last two months encouraging and explaining, but I do see progress! I am lucky to have such a fulfilling job. Working with children, I am guaranteed a laugh, a hug, and satisfaction in a day of work. Do I need to mention the cuteness factor—look at those faces!

I have also been busy with the Deaf adult community. In the past month I have attended two Deaf leadership seminars and unbeknownst to me was also a speaker at the events! I gave impromptu speeches about being a leader, and peace. Both I sort of rattled off things about Obama (a sure crowd pleaser), the goals of the Peace Corps, and volunteerism. My speeches were very short, but I think enjoyed! The most rewarding part is meeting some very charming and clever people, that I am happy to call friends now.

Being here is often a roller coaster of emotions. Born from romantic ideas of distant lands and far off places. At times I am alive with curiosity and wonder, other times alone with just my thoughts. I am realizing there is more too it then just living here. A place or home is not anything until you invest something into it, live it completely; the pain the pleasure, and all the questions. It is bigger then the romantic ideals, or stories, or blogs I can throw together. I am far from everything I have known—but not lost, or maybe just not wanting to be found. This is my home.

Searching for Silas

It’s an interesting thing when your heart breaks—you feel as if it should be something everyone could witness and say “aww” or “do you need help?” Or perhaps that it should make a sound–cracking or slow buzz of sadness, running through your veins, pumping throughout your body. That is the thing about the heart, it has its own prerogative, maybe that is why matters of the heart feel so unresolved in our lives, the palpitations of sadness have to be felt, but perhaps never quite understood.

Living in Africa has its share of heartbreaks. It demands honesty with the world which from a far could seem impossible. I see a reality that I could imagine but never really felt. Sometimes you look the world in the face and you enfold yourself in the brilliance that it possess, and other times you want to look away. The difficulties can truly overwhelm. How can one person even consider change when the world is full of such unanswerable and unreasonable situations?

 

He is bright beyond his meager 16 years, though you would never guess from this reticent, unassuming boy, who is often times found wandering alone. Once you get his attention he’ll inform you with a shy smile he is “thinking” signed as the pointer finger touching the temple. Silas is often found thinking, which is evident from his test scores—he is a curious by nature. He always knows the answers to questions in class yet is hesitant to “show off.” Often times he waits until everyone else has tried before he answers (the correct answer he knew all along) and you can bet when he explains his answers it is clear and with confidence, when you praise him a huge smile grows on his face but he always tries to cover it by turning into his shoulder. While he is not the most athletic, or outgoing, Silas really comes into his own at school; he is well liked amongst all teachers and pupils a like. In a school for the Deaf he is able to socialize, debate, joke, be understood and appreciated.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Silas, he lost his hearing when he was 7-years-old, when asked how he reenacts a slam on the head—when I inquire who? He looks at his feet for a moment and signs teacher in class 4; he is told to say it was illness, but he was beaten so badly for “misbehaving” that he became deaf. Since then everything has changed: he was moved to a boarding school, has learned a new language KSL, and has found a new family at school.

Despite the fact that Silas is at the top of the class (and has been for his total duration at school) he has never arrived on the day school has opened. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months of phone calls asking about the boy until finally he arrives at school. Yet he never misses a step in class despite his absence, but is often times recovering from some wound or another. Last term he returned with a two inch open wound on the back of his head, he was embarrassed when questioned and stared at his feet. I tilt his chin up and sign “problem nothing, better soon” he stares at me for a moment I can see the tears building in his eyes. “OK?” I sign, he shyly signs “ok” I sign jokingly with a grin “don’t smile, please don’t” “ I see the sides of his grin turning upward and he covers his mouth. “I said no” I sign with a smile, and then we are both laughing, I pat him on the back; sign “you good, you know right, you good”. I leave with the uneasy sense there are no limits to the times I could sign that to him, and no limit to the times he needs to see it.

He has just finished class 8 and sat for the national exam the K.C.P.E., the test is given in November and pupils report to schools to receive their scores in January, yet no one has arrived. I remember the last day class 8 was at the school, I chatted to them about the future and Silas looked me in the eye and signed, “I want to go to secondary school” then looked away. I know he belongs in school and deserves an education. He left that day and I had a heavy heart, the chances of him coming back were slim.

We have received the results for the K.C.P.E. and Silas has been accepted to secondary school ( In Kenya secondary school is not mandatory and pupils are accepted on a competitive basis, it is also not paid for by the government). He is the only one of our class 8 to achieve this. This is a huge accomplishment; the whole school is proud of him yet Silas has not been seen. For the past 3 weeks we have been trying to find Silas. We have called his family, asked neighbors, asked students, and yet it is to no avail. I cannot explain the utter despondency I feel–to see this young, bright mind go missing. Theories have arisen and concerns voiced but what action is to be taken?

My work, everyday, is to give these children the best I have—every time. Sometimes I struggle with what my role is, or what affect I am having here, because what I am doing has no tangible signs, no buildings, or computer labs, or businesses, if I left you would hardly know I was ever here. What I have done is not that easy to define. Teaching a child to read, and write it does not provide a lot of glory, but I know education is the most sustainable and powerful way to change the world—but on days when a smart, creative, warm, student is just lost—what is left?

I wasn’t settled with the idea of Silas not being in school, everything about it just felt—wrong. I asked my teachers again what could be done, and they said “find him,” I knew instantly this is what I have to do. The teachers told me of the closest school to Silas, I could travel there and find out where he stays from the school. I was told his home was very “interior” meaning far from the tarmac, in a village. My only hesitation was the language barrier because I do not speak enough Kiembu to explain why I was around. Luckily another teacher offered to take me there and help interpret.

I woke up 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the journey, I was nervous, questions ran through my head, “how will we find this boy?” “what will happen once we do?” I somehow managed to make it out of the door. I met the teacher in town and we headed out, stuffed into a matatu, we passed the thick shambas filled with mangos, and people became sparser. We walked about 6 km into a small village, where a man nearly fell off his bike at the sight of a mzungu. We finally reached Kasafari Primary School where we were greeted, and told Silas’ brother attended this school and could lead us to his home. We were taken down a small path and lead to a small homestead; the home is quite traditional, made of earth with a tin roof. We were introduced to the his father, mother, and grandmother– they shrieked when they saw me.

They questioned in Kiembu:

“How did you get here?”

“I walked,” I said.

“But why?”

“To visit my bright student Silas, and find out why he is not going to school.”

They shrieked again. Soon Silas appeared and was shocked to see us, but greeted us warmly. The Silas I found here was very different then the one I knew in school, frightened and shy. I asked him to show me around his compound, and he opened up explaining what each plant in the shamba was, yet the moment he was in front of his parents, he closed down, embarrassed to sign.

We asked the parents if they knew he was accepted to secondary school. They were shocked and said “ but he is deaf, he cannot do well.” The teacher with me assured them that Silas was very capable and would undoubtedly excel in secondary school( his family may mean well, but in the culture, sending a Deaf boy to school at all is a altruistic endeavor). They told us they could not afford to pay for secondary school, because they have five other children. Silas sits quietly observing, yet unaware of what is being said, in his own world. He is surrounded by a world of misunderstood solitude, at Saint Luke’s he is a hero, a success, but here, what is he? I ask him again what he wants to do with his future. He looks me in the eye then to his father, then rapidly back at me and signs, “ I want to go to school.”

My heart breaks, a million times over. I am not a big fan of throwing money around, because often times it is not sustainable or creates a false expectation; and the truth is all the children at my school have similar stories; all heartbreaking and tragic in their own right, but this child deserves an education. I must try to do everything in my power to see that Silas gets an education.

The truth is there are hundreds of Silas’, deaf children brushed aside, oppressed, misunderstood, and when I think of that I am overwhelmed. Silas is just one of many. One child— although small and to some insignificant, can represent a whole population of change. I can recognize my smallness, and the fact that could never give enough, do enough, change enough, but I sign to Silas “you will go to school” and I mean it, somehow it is enough.

 

9/13/2010 100 days (give or take) until I am done with Peace Corps service. I have taken stock on a lot of past memories and things I have written, it feels like a whole life wrapped up in 21 months. I feel as if I left for Kenya 10 years ago, so much has changed.

 
Behind the purple prose of this blog, are my experiences here, which literally full of dramatic highs and desperate lows. I sit here with a mere 100 days left its hard to encompass the magnitude of all that has happened and everything that will come.
 
I have started my third and last term at St. Luke’s. I try to count how many pots of water I warmed for my bucket baths, how many bowls of oatmeal I’ve eaten, how many times I have seen the morning parade performed by class 4, how many books I’ve read at my desk, how many lesson plans I have prepared, how many children I have taught, how many letters I’ve received and written, how many chickens I’ve chased from my house, how many times I laughed so hard I cried, or how many times I cried so hard I had to laugh, how many times my students thanked me for teaching, how many times they’ve understood concepts, how many conversations I had with my neighbors,how many lessons I’ve learned in the silence of the evenings on my stoop, how many times I’ve just appreciated life. Its an eternity.
 
For now I’ll let Christine sit on my lap, Caroline play with my hair, Patrick carry my books, Jackline practice finger spelling my name, Consolata hold my hand. 100 more times.