Archive for June, 2011

No Mother Teresa

The title should say most of it. I am no Mother Teresa, though I never thought or imagined I was or could be. My mom met Mother Teresa once, and she even wore pink roller skates the entire time. What I remember most of the stories my mother told me about meeting this incredible woman at the soup kitchen my mother ran was two things – that Mother Teresa carried a small purse the entire time—who would have guessed the woman in a white and blue habit originally from Eastern Europe and completely synonymous with the poverty of India would be so inseparable with her hand bag, but she was. The other thing I remember was how moved Mother Teresa was by the showers for the homeless at this soup kitchen. The showers are made completely of the same beautiful deep ocean blue tiles as are in our house, because my mother felt everyone was entitled to a moment of beauty in their day. But this post is not actually about Mother Teresa or the day she met my mom. I just wanted to clear the air that I am not Mother Teresa but nor is the woman who runs the orphanage where I am working in Kenya. I bring this up because it has been an unbelievably trying and hard week.

If the general life of Kenya in a small town is not hard enough, in the past seven days life has tried me, at times it broke me, and at times it has given me more hope than I could imagine. As I have said before, our orphanage mama, who will forever remain nameless for reasons that will soon be clear, has become more domineering, aggressive, flat out mean, and perhaps just misunderstood in some very strange “cross cultural misunderstandings”. I have spoken of the plight of these children and I will not rehash their sad living conditions, because how many times can I explain kids sitting in their own waste, eating scraps of garbage in hopes of something sweet, and very clearly being denied basic human living rights not to mention LOVE. But it seems last week on an especially trying day for me after a previously trying day I sent a simple message to my roommate who was in Nairobi trying to extend her visa. On that day to make her point that I was showing one child too much affection by holding his hand, the orphan mama snatched this young boy’s hand from me and shook the boy and his arm to prove how he had become attached to me. I worked another hour and then chose to leave for a short respite to collect my thoughts. As I walked 25 min one way home only to find there was no power, and then sit for 20 min, before walking 25 min back down the same dusty red road to the orphanage, I sent my roommate an exasperated, angry, discouraged, heartbroken, and I will admit it, a mean but truthful text message about the woman who likes to be called mama. I called her a name I am not proud of, but that I staunchly stand behind. My roommate replied only once with some also unkind words.

And that should be the end of the story of how I am not Mother Teresa, I don’t think she ever called someone names. But the sad part of this story is that actually the person who is not Mother Teresa is the orphanage mama, and now begins her snarly tale. It seems somehow this orphanage mama intercepted these two text messages, and by that I mean she went into my purse, unlocked my cell phone, and forwarded the messages to her phone. We arrived on Thursday to a very angry and even harsher Kenyan mama than normal. She called us into her office and proceeded to yell at us for 45 min along with her two grown daughters. All of the kids were outside watching through concrete windows, the images of their scared and horrified faces are burned in my memory to this day. She threatened to call the police or take us to court (neither of which she can legally do, we have found out). She accused us of abuse. She told us we were evil and said she received the messages from “GOD because she was a good woman and we were cruel creatures here to hurt her”. She seriously went this far. She called us lazy. She called us stupid. But the worst was when she called us racist and said we did this because she was African. My heart shattered. Kids cried, my roommate cried, there were harsh words in Swahili. She brought in a traveling nurse to take her side but the woman was unfortunately not swayed and our mama proceeded with the insults that it was because she was like us mzungu (foreigner). After a 45 minute tirade in which we never could voice our side we were kicked out of the orphanage for four days until we returned with our volunteer organization representative.

While all of this happened, the young 5 month old baby who has asthma and pneumonia, and who I have seen with a lollipop in her mouth from the care takers at this orphanage, was removed from the premises by the nurse. The children’s department was called. And the tears of workers, children, and volunteers continued.

I spent the long four days feeling ashamed for saying something in private which I know is preposterous. I called my dad and it was the first time I cried and on the phone at dusk behind a fence I heard the familiarity of the San Francisco street traffic in the background and the yelling of children peering over that same fence to get a glimpse of me. At times I feel like I am the creature in the zoo here and on this sad night I felt like the scared creature who only wants to return to its natural habitat. We met with our organization in Nairobi on Friday. I spent the weekend not traveling for the first time but at home with my French roommate. We made our comforting eggs with garlic and tomato. We talked and talked. She is empowering me with the facts of how to possess the French woman’s confidence. I cried. It is surprising but the way I have reacted to the RAvolution is nothing of how I expected to act. I have impressed and shocked myself with my strength, determination, willingness to change, adaptability, and openness. But this weekend alone for a short bit in my room under my mosquito net, I listened to music and felt the crushing depth of the past months and I sobbed.

We had our meeting on Monday where we endured more irrational tirades about things that didn’t make sense. We were never apologized to. We reexamined how we hurt this woman, by her invading our privacy and reading a personal exchange I may remind you. She contradicted herself. She actually made such harsh racial slurs that our organization started yelling at her in her mother tongue and then in a tribal tongue. I stared at the wall and a sign about stopping FGM (female genital mutilation) just so I could avoid her gaze. She stands staunchly by the fact that GOD sent her this message and refuses to show her phone and the way she read the notes. But we were allowed back! After much pestering, and a very long meeting that confused the heck out of me, somehow in the kindness of her heart she has allowed us back in. Her and her daughters are icy and cold to us, I would use other language but I have learned my lesson. The staff is overjoyed to see us and the kids who had their heads freshly shaved this weekend are ecstatic. Their hugs have been the one thing that have brought me to my knees in relief and have given me the courage, determination, and desire, not to mention appreciation to be back within the otherwise unwelcoming walls.

Sadly the 5 month old baby is back and the child department was not able to move her, despite the continued valiant work of the nurse. I have to call the nurse tonight to give her an update. Also sadly another child was delivered to the orphanage.

My time here is filled with so much it is hard to keep up or believe how fast it goes, let alone allow much if any of it to sink in. I am off to safari next week. And soon I will be back in the US. I don’t say home because I don’t know what home is anymore. I have found a home in myself, in my ability to adapt to a new place. I have found home in what was once shocking and now becoming familiar. I have found home with friends in Southeast Asia, Salinas, San Francisco, Ashland, New York, Brooklyn, and now Kenya. Mostly I have found a deeper truth in what my mother always told me when I was young, “if I look into my heart, I carry everything I have ever wanted or needed with me wherever I go.”

Love,

Ramona

28

06 2011

Seeing June 22nd In A New Way

June 22nd has for a long time been a very special day in my life. Twenty-three years ago on this glorious day my sister was born and showered me since then with such love and joy. So first let me take this opportunity to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY NUGGET!!!!!

When I first had the idea of the RAvolution and told people close to me, I cried at the thought of these last months. I cried for what I was giving up, for what I would experience during this time, and for the life that had brought me to that moment. But when I told my sister, I had an especially hard time, partly because she is so important to me; partly because she is one of the closest living links to my mother, who we both miss so much; and mostly because I would very literally be half the world (although it feels like more) away from her on this birthday.

But when I woke up this morning, when it was still last night where she was, I felt very different than I expected, I felt fine. To be honest I feel more than fine. While I miss everyone during this time of revolving/evolving, I have more than anything felt so wonderful. I feel like this is the life I have waited too long to have. I don’t know why I was so afraid to take this plunge, other than that the plunges into the unknown are always frightening.

But to give up my apartment and travel in this way has been nothing less than a dream come true for me. As trying and challenging as it has been at times, this experience from Cambodia, to California, to Kenya has been everything I wanted and so much more. And it makes me pause to think, if this is true, how many other places in my life could this be true? Facing the frightening unknown may hold more gifts for me than staying in the secure and predictable present.

I am indeed missing my sister so much on her birthday, but I am also boundlessly appreciative for this time and place in my life. And I am so grateful to all of you who have been part of the journey and have helped me along the road. The future holds infinite possibilities once I allow myself to embrace the uncertainty of them.

Love,

Ra (fillet to you dear one)

PS – For the record my sister was nothing but supportive of me, this experience, these trips, and my life entirely.

PPS – Another thing I am so appreciative for these days is reliable electricity, after yesterday when we lost it unexpectedly for the entire day. The best part was when our “Kenya Mom” Easther came home and said, “And its Tuesday, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Thursday because we always lose electricity on Thursday, but never a Tuesday.” Well I am just thankful it is back, and that I live most of my life in a place where this sentence is not true.

22

06 2011

Leaning Into Life in Kenya and Hopscotching the Equator By Weekend

Greetings, and postponed greetings at that! I have been trying to get this blog post here for the better part of the week and an African Cyber Journey it has been to get here. We have had no internet service in our village since Monday. Day after day and morning and afternoon we stopped by our meager little four computer connection to the outside world and the woman shook her head, “still no connection–try back later, try back tomorrow, try back, try back”.  Then Thursday having had enough, I ventured out of Olekasasi and into the bustling town of Rongai. To my relief, they did have internet, but after only 20 minutes and enough time to browse and send back a few messages, we lost power. Losing power has been a pretty familiar fact this week as storms passed most nights, so I wrapped it up until I tried again today. Olekasasi was the same “try back, try back” but Rongai seems promising so here I am!

I am becoming more familiar with my life here and the pattern it resembles. That is to say life doesn’t feel anywhere near normal to me, but it is starting to feel more like a routine of sorts. I have become a pro at the squat toilet and my thighs have never been stronger. I still lust for the days I will return to a royal porcelain throne each time I stare doggedly at the square cement hole I use.

I am very quickly seeing just how much one can clean in buckets and believe me, it is more than you ever thought. In addition to washing ourselves with buckets, we wash babies and children. Margrete (the 16 year old woman who cares for our home and us and the two kids) washes the dishes and floors with buckets (no, they are not clean, there is an entirely new concept of “clean” in Kenya) and I have learned to clean my clothes in buckets (some of the most back breaking work I have ever done). But I revel each day in the ways buckets can be used.

I have become more accustomed to my daily commute, a far cry from the subway in New York or BART in San Francisco. I know the route each morning cluttered amongst the early rush of cows and goats. And in the afternoon under the heat of the equatorial sun, I walk with kids in uniforms as they make sometimes up to an hour long journey from the paved road to Nairobi down our long dusty path to their villages and homes. I recognize the greetings every time I venture out from children who run alongside me and reach to shake my hand or have the slightest brush with my skin. I repeat and repeat the ritual of “Habari?”, how are you; and “Nazuri sana”, very fine, and hand shaking as I go about my business.

The orphanage and the true purpose of my travels here is as complicated as the country, its corruption, customs, and my confused self. The children are of course beyond AMAZING! To see such bright, resilient, intelligent, spirited souls in the most degrading and inhumane standards is more than heart wrenching. The mama as she is called at the orphanage makes Miss Hannigan from the musical ANNIE look like the patron saint of children. When she refuses an asthmatic child medication and claims “children die every day in Africa,” my heart broke. Today she scolded me for comforting two crying children saying, “tell them to not cry or they will get my shoe on their bottom”; one child was crying because he was in his own soiled pants and I was the only person to bath or change him; the other was crying because he had not eaten in more than 10 hours. And did I mention both these boys are two years old!

I have watched Sarah, a young girl break her wrist and never cry. I watched two kids roll a dead double A battery back and forth as their only toy. I saw another young girl retrieve a discarded wrapper from biscuits out of a muddy puddle to try to savor any amount of sweetness that might be lingering. I told her “hapana/no”; and fifteen minutes later I found her embarrassed and trying to cover up her vomit beside a tree with leaves. In a class of 10 kindergarteners we watched as they fought over one eraser and my roommate and I went that day and bought 6 erasers, 10 pencils, and a sharpener. To see children lick their finger and try to erase a mistake in pencil is beyond what I previously could have imagined, but how could I have imagined any of this?

As my means of comfort, if one can call it that, I escape each weekend with a fellow volunteer from another town. We seek out our western “luxuries” of toilets, showers, and in her case–electricity. Last weekend we hopscotched across the equator crossing it twice in three days. We went deep into the Central Highlands of Kenya and the small town of Nyahuru for promised walks in nature. The town was a shock, hotels with no toilet seats, greetings of welcome and karibu from ladies of the night, and then we ran to the one hotel that the Lonely Planet named as a western comfort. We settled in at the top of a magnificent water fall and nestled amidst the back drop of Aberdares National Park. We spent our day hiking to Thomson’s Falls and then to a Hippo sanctuary. I revel on my matatu drives on these weekends as zebras and baboons are seen as frequently from the window as deer are back home.

Life has proven harder in every way than I ever could have imagined here, but also in a shy and passive way it proves more rewarding. Dancing under Acacia trees and an African night sky is exhilarating. My Kenyan family feels like a real home and a part of my life, they have even given me a Kikuya name, Wairimu. The hugs from children are worth every second and penny it has taken me to get here.

I am in awe beyond belief at my own human spirit, and even more the children who have found permanent places in my heart.

In deepest respect and in desperate need of a real shower,

Ramona Wairimu Sky Collier

17

06 2011

Karibu Kenya

Jambo and greetings from Kenya!

I have been here just under a week and can barely believe any of it. The first two days I spent in Nairobi getting to know the intense city. Nairobi is like no city I have ever seen; it is crowded, the matatus go speeding by and are overflowing with passengers who sit on each other’s laps and lean out of windows. After an orientation we took a walk through the Kibera district with a local resident and a location scout for THE CONSTANT GARDNER.  Kibera is a shanty town that is listed as one of the world’s worst slums, housing somewhere between 800 thousand and one million residents in some of the most shocking conditions you could imagine. Homes are made of corrugated and rusting tin and metal and others of compressed mud, with no running water, flying toilets, and chickens eating out of the floating raw sewage and trash in the streets. And then you are approached by the kids and their infections and delighted greetings of “how are you” and enticements to join in a soccer game. They sang and danced and held our hands through the streets and you couldn’t help but be uplifted by their resilient and open spirits.

After the two days in Nairobi, I was transferred to my permanent location in a small village outside of the city. We drove through where they filmed OUT OF AFRICA, and passed where Karen Blixen lived. We drove down dusty, bumpy dirt roads, passed the Nairobi National Park, yep–some of my close neighbors happen to be lions, zebras, and countless baboons. We drove further out of town and through the countryside. I am living in a village called Olekasasi, if you can call one hardware store, Internet stop, bar, and water store a village; our village is outside of the town of Rongai, which is where I am told we go for all necessities. I live with a delightful family on what can only be compared to as almost a farm. I walk past donkeys, ducks, chickens and cows to get to the house each day. Along with one other volunteer, we live in a four room house with two small children, a father who works two jobs, a mother who works two jobs, and a lighthearted and energetic 16 year old who cooks, cleans, and cares for the family. To go to the bathroom I must once again leave our corrugated metal house with concrete floors and walk past the donkey and chickens and ducks to a small two part shack made of wood and concrete flooring. One side is a shower, when it works, thus far only bucket baths for me, and a hole in the ground to do all of my business. Yep I have become a p***ing rock star (shout out to Eniel, I did it!) But the family is so welcoming and calls me auntie that it is hard not to immediately fall in love with the people.

The orphanage I work at is a twenty minute walk down the dusty bumpy road. The conditions are like nothing I could have imagined or thought of.  No diapers on babies–they are swaddled in towels, children over a year are left to soil their clothes, the smells are intense, and their noses are always running. And yet the kids are amazing, heartbreaking, inspiring, and wonderful.  They are the smartest, warmest, most open children I have ever met. And with every shout to “look, watch, hold my hand, or sing” you can see the deepest desire for nothing more than attention and appreciation.

I went camping with ten other volunteers this weekend to Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley. As we descended the cliffs into the majestic backdrop it was like a scene from a living moment in THE LION KING, complete with light coming through the clouds. We camped alongside a lake filled with hippos and fell asleep beneath expansive star filled skies to the sound of hippos munching.  We woke up the next morning to a hot sun and monkeys playing outside our tents. I learned to cut acacia wood with a machete from a man named Felix. Then we went for a bike ride (thank you again Anne and Beth) through Hells Gate National Park. We biked passed zebras grazing, giraffes staring at us, a lone lion, and ostrich. I sat beside Lake Oloiden and watched the sky turn to pink clouds under a million flamingo wings.

Life is a stretch here for me, but I am learning to move with the stretch. I am learning to hold in tears at the orphanage and to let them out late at night under a mosquito net that keeps falling in on my face. I take deep breaths where I can and hold it in the bathroom where the smell is too intense. If one is going to be stretched and pushed to discover new places in themselves, I have to say Kenya may be one of the most wonderful places to do that.

With deepest love from one city slicker in deep shock somewhere in the center of Kenya,

Ramona

06

06 2011