One Last Reflection

Well, every good blog must come to an end, and it looks like this one’s finally reached it.  What follows are my thoughts, as typed while I was still in Kenya.  I didn’t finish writing them while I was still there, so it will just drop off mid-essay, but I think that’s more truthful than wrapping it all up with the benefit of hindsight.  Also, heck, it’s not like I finished DOING what I wanted to do in Kenya, so it’s only fair that I didn’t finish WRITING the last blog post.  This is what Peace Corps experience really was—a jumping-off point, not a totally self-contained experience.  Well, without further ado, here’s my (incomplete) last post:

Well, here I am in the Peace Corps Kenya office in Nairobi.  I’ve finished all my paperwork, I have my plane ticket ready, and this afternoon I’ll head to the airport to leave Kenya, and to leave Africa for the first time in over two years.

Everything has been so rushed at the end that it’s a rare moment when I find myself reflecting, but I suppose just now is such a moment, here in the eye of the storm.  Peace Corps was almost nothing like I expected, but was in some ways perhaps better.  If you’ve followed this blog from the beginning, you know that before I left for Kenya, I was preoccupied with making sure I could run my laptop off of a foldable solar panel I could fit into a backpack.  I wanted to be ready for anything, even the most remote village.  I was pretty proud of myself for getting it to work, but then I almost never used it.  For all the warnings in the Peace Corps brochures about how we probably wouldn’t have power, the reality is that the vast majority do, and those who don’t aren’t usually that far from it.

Water was a bigger problem these two years, but not in a “must hike to the river ten miles away” kind of way.  My home in Mombasa had running water.  It’s just that it only worked a few hours a week, and usually it would come on in the middle of the night.  This in many ways is indicative of urban life in Kenya.  Mombasa had so many things available that, if you were just looking a list, you might be tempted to think it’s no so different from America, but the catch is that it has almost everything, but it’s never where you want or when you need it.  Also, despite the fact that my Internet connection was halfway decent for Kenya, and in my last few months a pizza place opened nearby that offered delivery, I still had a bucket for a bath, a squat toilet, and pesky leeches.  It’s a confusing mixture of worlds.

Being a teacher was extraordinarily rewarding.  I have never before felt such an urge to track down my old teachers to tell them how appreciative I am.  I also learned that teaching, at least teaching in a primary school, isn’t my calling.  I often found myself devising less-than-perfect day-to-day activities for my classes as I fretted about the larger issues in the school, staying up late in the evening designing activities for the computers, or English workbooks for the classes, but those take too much time to be able to have them ready on a daily basis.  Focusing on big problems makes it harder to solve the small ones, and I think that good teachers can focus on each small issue for each small student in a way that I found difficult to handle as a day job.  In the end, I think I made a difference for my students, but I can definitely identify amongst my peers the ones who were naturals at solving the small problems.

I really love Sign Language.  That’s something else I learned here.  I’m not quite fluent—technically I’m “Advanced,” according to yesterday’s exam—but I’ve come a long way from knowing no sign language at all.  It’s extremely practical.  I can have a conversation in a loud bar without straining myself.  I don’t need to roll down the car window to understand what’s being signed on the other side.  And because it’s not a common language, I can have secret conversations with ease.  Discussing how much to pay the taxi driver can be done in complete silence in the back seat.  But Sign Language is only one part of the larger Deaf community.  The Deaf community is hard to explain, exactly, and I dare not try, since I’m still an outsider and it’s a hot topic that would generate undesirable comments, but I just really, really, really, liked the Deaf world, and I‘m glad I got to peek into it.  I want to transition from Kenyan  to American Sign Language when I return, and I hope that desire doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

Culture is something I struggled with while I was here.  It wasn’t all roses.  In fact, it was mostly not roses.  I lived in Mombasa, a big enough city that around town I was seen as a tourist, except for at the few businesses that I visited regularly.  What happens is that the strangers I actively deal with are usually workers who are trying to overcharge me because I’m white, or they’re local crazies who are drawn to me like flies, or they’re idle young men who shout rude things at me, or do impressions of me by pinching their noses and and parroting what I say in a high voice.  So if I were to judge the culture from a trip around town, I would conclude that people here were pretty awful.  And on bad days, I really believed that.  The people I got to know were the exact opposite, though.  I got to know people who were kind, who had their own ambitions, and who I can really call my friends.  But far more often, I dealt with rude strangers, some of which were pretty aggressive.  This was far from the Peace Corps ideal stereotype, where an entire village would have sang songs and danced every time I turned a corner.  I worry about this part of my experience, because it is so contrary to what people will expect.  I worry that when I share this part with people, I might come across as a bit of a jerk myself, someone who must have just failed to integrate.

And that’s all he wrote!  Kind of a downer at the end, huh?  Well, in re-reading this, I can’t help but want to add a few small things, although everything I have to say now is tainted by the fact that I’m back in America.  Firstly, I miss my students like crazy.  Secondly, I miss my fellow volunteers.  I think I’m almost ready for a visit back to Kenya.

Third, and lastly, I wanted to point out the hard work done by my members of “The Nairobi Project.”  This is a project I’ve referred to periodically throughout this blog, but never really talked about in detail.  Well, now that I’m gone, let it be known!  I was on the team that designed the Kenyan Sign Language standardized tests (the KCPE and KCSE) for the Ministry of Education.  Because of the security around these exams, I couldn’t really discuss them, but I can now say that the exams debuted in November, and went without any show-stopping hitches.  This project is the reason I took so many train rides to Nairobi (in case you noticed that I seemed to be taking too many vacations there).  The exams are still a work in progress, and I hope that the team members know what a positive impact they’re having by working on and improving these exams.  I am flattered to have been invited and to have seen my work distributed to the students, especially in the DVD-based KCSE high school graduation exam.  Thanks to all of you, and to the Peace Corps for bending the rules just a little to allow me to work on that project.

Well, now I’m off to see where I can apply my momentum now that I’m back in the States.  See you on my next blog!

-Paul

4 Responses to “One Last Reflection”


  • Paul- i finally read your final blog tonight after being a little down over the fact that I miss my young-uns in Cali. Your final reflections caused me to feel more assured that the outcome was a positive one. I’ll never forget how your entire demeanor changed the day Elise and I watched you teach the first class of the semester. You were so animated and happy – you were loving what you were doing. Keep loving what you’re doing PLEASE. If you’re not passionate about it, let it go Jambo

  • Paul Your reflections have caused me to feel more assured that your experience there was mostly positive. If I could only pass along one thing it’s this: follow your passions – if you’re not passionate about something you’re doing, let it go. I’ll never forget how animated and happy you were “talking” to your deaf students. It makes ME happy thinking about it even now. Hope you have many more experiences like that one. Love

  • Oh, oh – typed this twice

  • Hi Paul, Great blog! I’m actually leaving for Kenya May 30th and it’s good to have a blog to reference for my many questions. I’m more than excited to start my journey. How is it being back? Has it been a difficult transition to readjust to American culture?

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A Day and a Night in Amsterdam

Oh right, I forgot about this whole “winter” thing. I did a little sightseeing yesterday, since I missed my connection due to snow-related delays. As someone who doesn’t even have a coat with me, I must say that it’s quite cold. After walking around for a few hours, I took my hands out my pockets when I entered a Mexican (!) restaurant, and I had to rub them against my coffee until they could again open, unclenched.

People here are in Christmas shopping mode, which is a phemomenon that I haven’t seen firsthand for quite some time. Other things that have struck me now that I’m out of Africa (just a short list of the first few things that come to mind):

  • People have pet dogs. Inside. On leashes.
  • Everything is really bright indoors. Lots of lightbulbs everywhere.
  • I can eat lettuce. I don’t have to push it to the side of my plate for fear that I will get sick.
  • There is design everywhere. In Kenya I was impressed if the wall paint and the chairs matched.
  • People understand what I’m saying, even if I say it quickly and with my own American accent.

Well, I should head over to my gate. Hopefully this flight leaves on time!

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Less Than 48 Hours to Go

I’m in Nairobi, back from Lodwar and the Lake Turkana region.  Our trip was filled with all sorts of cramped transportation and intense, constant bargaining, so in a way it was a nice final Kenyan trip, because it was nice to see how much better we can handle all of it than when we first arrived, but also it made us feel very, very ready to not have to deal with it anymore.

We spent a few nights at a lodge from the 70s that appears to have been abandoned long ago.  If you can get past the lack of any toilet paper there and in the surrounding village, and if you put aside any fear of the long snake that sleeps in the beds, it’s really quite nice.  Here’s a view from it, looking out at Lake Turkana, where the locals spend all day fishing, bathing, and singing songs.  This particular village felt so idyllic that it really challenged my understanding of poverty.  Unlike everywhere else I’ve seen here, people here really seemed quite content.  Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t there long enough, but it left a very different first impression on me.  I think it was the singing that did it.

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In the middle of Lake Turkana is an island, and on the at island are three smaller lakes, if you can believe it.  Here’s “Flamingo Lake,” taken from one of the higher points of our pretty strenuous hike around.  If you look closely there are about five flamingos in the bottom left corner.

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Here we are in front of “Crocodile Lake.”  I saw two crocodiles, but was assured that there were thousands hiding in there.  We did see a tracks of a crocodile that ran across the hiking path in one spot.

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And it’s a little out of order, but here’s a picture from the “blow out party” I mentioned previously.  There was a lot of this—sitting around with the Indian Ocean in view, doing nothing in particular.

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Today was a big day in Kenyan politics—a bunch of high-level politicians got subpoenaed by the International Criminal Court—so I was a little worried that there might be protests and violence, and when they said the announcement would come in the next hour, I skedaddled from the office where I was saying goodbye to my colleague from the Nairobi Project, since it’s about a block from parliament and it seemed best to head to the suburbs.  So far things have been calm, though.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing all my final paperwork, closing my last bank account here, and taking my final Language Proficiency Exam.  I’ll be doing my best not to use any American Sign Language on accident, but we’ll see how it goes.  In the evening I’ll be attending the Ambassador’s Christmas party, and then the following day, I’m stepping onto a plane that will take me out of here.  For the past to years, the farthest I’ve gotten from Kenya has been Rwanda, so I’m bracing myself for the culture shock that everyone tells me I should expect.  Personally it’s hard for me to imagine having difficulty adjusting to a world that has an abundance of Dr. Pepper, but there may be some things I’m overlooking.

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