Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ahhh! Big Snake Big Snake Big Snake!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 Those were my words as I ran back into the guest house after attempting to walk to my room and instead found a 2 meter long cobra snake slithering by the doorway to the kitchen. As I proceeded to climb on to the highest piece of furniture in the room the remaining staff and volunteers rushed to the doorway to see the commotion. The snake was deathly close to Brian (a current volunteer)’s room and therefore we yelled for him to stay in his room as the men retrieved rocks from the garden to throw at the snake’s head. As I heard a sufficient number of rocks being thrown I dared to venture down to assess the situation for myself. The stench was overwhelming! John, our visiting forestry consultant, explained that the snake emits an over-powering stench when it’s stressed. This snake surely was stressed! The rocks didn’t quite get its head but just below it. Unfortunately the thing was still alive and dying a very slow and painful death. On to the scene came Corporal, the head of our police post in the village. Upon seeing the snake he declares,

“Aha! These snakes come in pairs!”

Thanks for that information Corporal. Thank a lot. I feel really good right now.

As the crowd is still around I dared to venture to my room to make sure there weren’t any snakes in there. As I open my door I see a thin black line at the edge of my door frame and I scream. John comes over to look at it’s just a belt strap. Whew! I didn’t really think there would be a snake in my room but I think I needed to scream just to release some adrenalin.

The crowd finally started to thin but the snake was still not dead. It was slithering around in one spot and opening and closing its mouth. Ugh! Not a pretty site.

Since we couldn’t leave the snake on the doorstep of the kitchen to die a long, painful and smelly death we started brainstorming what to do. John suggests we place it in the 3 stone open fire stove in the hopes of scaring the cooks into using the rocket stoves. I’ve been fighting a long battle with the cooks, John and Senator, to use the rocket stove over the open fire since it saves significantly on firewood. This idea was tempting and it would take advantage of their superstitions for the greater good of the environment but I couldn’t do that to poor old John and Senator. Plus I might end up contaminating the food with the poison from the snake. So that was not an option. Godfrey, a member of staff, then suggested we burn the snake. Apparently if there is such a large, poisonous snake in one’s surroundings you must burn it to kill it, destroy the poison and ward off any more snakes looking for an adventure. Just great…I’m going to have to burn a half-dead (more like half –alive) snake. As I’m contemplating having to light fire to this snake (I guess they thought I should do it since I spotted it first) questions such as ‘Why am I in the most rural fellowship in Africa?” “Why am I in Africa”,  and “ Why did I choose to make no money and put myself in a situation to have to burn a snake?” kept popping into my head. As we were debating the logistics of burning the snake Godfrey got a long stick from the pile of firewood on the other side of the guest house and began to stab the head of the snake to put a final end to it. I couldn’t watch. It looked too sad and painful. The snake took its final breath and slithered no longer. As much as I felt relieved I was sad that we had to kill it. I wish it had just kept to itself and stayed away so it didn’t have to end up dead.

Part II

So after the snake incident the volunteers asked that I notify management so that if there is ever an incident with a snake, we’re prepared. This simply meant blocking the gaps between the doors and the floor so the snakes can’t enter the buildings and having a protocol in place with the health clinic so that if someone is bitten, we know what to do. It seems like I’m the only one though who is taking this incident seriously though since my requests for help with this have simply been shrugged off as not really that important. Having had enough of it I decided to talk to Sr. Mary (the director) about it when next she visited. With pictures of the snake in hand I approached her after lunch a couple days later. Showing her the pictures of the 1.5 METER LONG cobra snake on the doorstep, to my surprise she responds, “oh, that little thing?”. Uhhh…that little thing can kill you Sr. Mary. Unconcerned by this fact she begins reminiscing of her life in Kenya and that she’s never had any incidents with snakes in over 30 years. Hoping to get her help I try to bring her back to the issue of the cobra.

“You know what you should do Amanda. You should cut a strip out of an old tire and put it in the gap between your door and the floor.”

Apparently it was totally wrong to think that I should get help from the staff. This is obviously something I need to take care of myself. And of course we have lots of unused tires in the village (NOT) I can just cut up and snake-proof every door in the guest house . The issue on getting medical help if someone is bitten by a snake is yet to be addressed. It’s unclear if there’s anti-venom serum in the health clinic and given that we have no refrigeration I would guess that’s a negative. Being 2 hours away from a real hospital doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

So here’s my solution: Every night I place my tool bag in front of my door which blocks the gap so snakes can’t get in. I’m also looking for a book on snakes to learn how to deal with them in case another one comes around, which is pretty likely given this snake is one of about five I’ve seen so far. If anyone has any useful suggestions on what to do if you run into a snake please let me know!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Zambian Christmas Photo Collage

okay so I know this is short-cutting things but I'm in Nairobi for one night and I thought I'd upload some pictures when I have fast Internet available. More stories will ensue!

Merry Christmas everyone! miss you all.
Our first peek at the beautiful Victoria Falls

Jane and I on one of our many lookouts with a beautiful rainbow

takes your breathe away

Vic falls again with my favorite Zambian clouds (the clouds in Zambia are ridiculously cool)

Getting some afternoon exercise on the climbing wall

About to meet our elephants on Christmas morning :)

getting ready for our walk by striking a pose

Our happy walking partners for the day!

Getting ready to head off on our elephant walk.

Our elephants didn't really want to stay on the track

Erin and her elephant posing for the cameras.

getting a little wet on our elephant walk

He sat down so I can sit on his leg; too cute

I'm totally in awe of my elephant right now

just hangin'

working hard at our gingerbread man (I'm providing invaluable creativity advice to Jane)

we're so proud of our handiwork! (ok, well, we had a gingerbread man kit to work with)

opening Secret Santa gifts

Christmas dinner with my Zambian friends

Christmas Day desserts presented  by myself, Jane and Erin. They're so color coded! (our gingerbread man had a bit of an accident)

looks like I'm cozying up to my guide haha
that's all for now folks!
lots of love,

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Case of the Sacrificial Goat

I returned to Nyumbani last week refreshed from vacation and ready to tackle finishing the rainwater harvesting tanks and installation of the first water filters. Upon putting down by bags and getting my news update from John, the guest house cook, I was informed that the elder members of the village were given a goat from management to be sacrificed for the rains. I was confused by approval of the head of Nyumbani village, Sr. Mary, to so willing give a goat to the villagers who are, from my understanding, all Christian. Upon querying staff, I found out that animal sacrifices are a common part of Kamba culture/ religion. Going to church and praying for rains wasn’t enough for the villagers, some thought that in order to bring rain to these “cursed” lands, they needed to revert to their traditional practices of sacrificing to God. Since Nyumbani does not discriminate against religion, the elders are free to practice whatever they believe.

Now this is my understanding of events. The sacrificial goat has unfortunately caused much unrest among zealous Christians in the village and those who are okay with continuing Kamba tradition. I’ll give you a summary of each camp’s opinion on the sacrificial goat.

Camp 1: Management
Nyumbani village strives to maintain Kamba culture. Father D’Agostino, the founder of Nyumbani Village (who is treated very much like a saint here), supported the Kamba tradition of sacrificing a goat therefore Sr. Mary sees nothing wrong in donating a goat since Fr. D’Agostino did it. Now I didn’t ask Sr. Mary directly about this since she’s a very busy woman, but every time I asked someone in management about the goat, they would revert to the excuse “Fr. D’Agostino did it so Sr. Mary is doing it.”

Camp 2: zealous Christians
These Christians in the village believe the elders have sacrificed to their evil spirits on Nyumbani land and have therefore cursed the land, brought no rains, oh and we’re all going to hell since we knew about the sacrifice and didn’t stop it. Maybe I forgot to mention that Kambas are known, back in the day, to practice witchcraft. It’s no longer a common practice but there is still a strong belief that Kamba land is witchcraft land. Take for example my recent return to the village last week. I was with Becky, a Kenyan volunteer, when unfortunately one of the tires of the matatu burst on the way back. As we shuffled out of the matatu so the driver could replace the tire, Becky leans over to me and says, “The old woman who was sitting in front of us witched the matatu. That’s why we got a flat.” As crazy as this explanation sounds I’m sure Becky was not the only one who thought this. I remember seeing the su-su (grandmother) in the matatu happily bobbing her head to the music and I thought, poor woman, everyone thinks she’s a witch.

The priest and seminarians who live in the village also fall into this camp. They were most offended by the sacrificial goat so much so that the priest made an announcement before mass ended on Sunday that no one was allowed to make any sacrifices on Nyumbani’s land. I got the impression from speaking with a seminarian that they believe the elders are praying to evil spirits. They are therefore preparing for an increase in exorcisms to vanquish said evil spirits.

Camp 3: the moderate Christians
These Christians see nothing wrong with the elders practicing their traditional religion. This is how their ancestors worshipped God and only when Christianity came around, this practice was seen as evil. To them, sacrificing a goat is just Kamba culture and we shouldn’t feel threatened by this since they worship the same God. 

Camp 4: me (all alone, by myself, solo)
Climate change anyone? Deforestation? Do any of these things ring a bell? No? okay, I’ll just keep my thoughts to myself for now since every time I talk about this with most of the staff (excluding management) I get skeptical looks. I could almost see how easy it is to believe that “witchcraft” practices have cursed Nyumbani land. Where we’re located is very flat and you can see in every direction for miles, therefore you can also see different weather systems for the different regions. I’ve witnessed heavy rains in every area around Nyumbani village but Nyumbani village. No wonder they think the elders have cursed the land, I probably would too if I never learned about climate change and just watched every where else get rain but my village. It also makes sense why the Kenyan government was willing to give 1000 acres in this area to Nyumbani Village since historically this land has very short, unpredictable rains. Nyumbani village has become the biggest village here since most Kenyans, given the choice, would relocate to lands with more rains. For those living in Nyumbani though, relocation is not an option and in order to cope with the lack of rain they need to blame something/someone. Unfortunately the easiest targets to blame are the elders who practice the traditional religious rituals. Just like the su-su in the matatu, the unknowing elders in the village are conferred blame, which probably wouldn’t be the case if the average level of education in the village was higher.

Until education levels improve though and people are more aware of what’s happening on a global scale I think I’m going to join in with the rain rituals. I’m off to find a drum to beat, some chicken feathers and a horn to blow. I’m going to come up with a powerful muzungu (this means white person, Westerner or foreigner) rain dance and cheer everyone up, or just scare the zealous Christians in Camp number 2!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vacation in Watamu

Finally a long needed break from work! Last Thursday was Kenyatta Day (or Hero’s Day) so Jane, a fellow stationed in Nairobi, and I decided to go to the coastal town of Watamu for the long weekend. The house we stayed in was so beautiful and lacked any sort of privacy whatsoever. I’m pretty sure the surrounding village can tell you our weekend schedule since our house lacked curtains, in some places walls and in others ceilings; all in a very artistic way of course. Being poor volunteers we really had to budget our money, which meant we weren’t the typical Italian tourists Watamu sees, we were the never before seen muzungu breed of calculating hagglers.

Our first day’s activities involved the frustrating task of deciding our meal budget with the house cook, a tall, dark, helpful Kenyan with an ole St. Nick belly named Joseph.  Testing the waters Jane and I asked him how much money he thinks he would need to cook for us for 3 days. After a moment or so of hemming and hawing he says with conviction “About eight to ten thousand shillings” (so around 80 to 100 USD). Jane and I look at each totally confused as we try to hide our shock. This makes absolutely no sense since you can buy an extremely nice meal at a fancy restaurant for around 600 shillings. (6 USD). We decide to draw up a menu for the days so we can figure out how much money Joseph actually needs and eventually we decide that four thousand shillings is much more than enough for us and another friend who plans to arrive the next day.

“So we’re good now? We’re on the same page and agree that this is enough money?” I ask Joseph.

“Ah yes. This is good” he replies assuringly.

As we’re about to turn he quickly adds, with a glimmer in his eye, “Ah yes, we’ll see, pole pole.”

Jane and I are confused as to what else needs to be considered but after going around in circles with Joseph and always ending in “pole pole” we give up and decide that if we need to ask for receipts we’ll do that. Pondering to ourselves as to why Joseph thinks he needs so much money, we decide that he’s used to catering for wealthy Italian tourists (this argument also supports my Kenyan friend Becky’s belief that the Italian mafia vacations in Watamu).

The next day our second bout of haggling involved driving the price down to a reasonable figure for our tuk-tuk to the beach. After much disputing we finally arrived at the beautiful white sand beach in the squelching heat. We positioned our towels as far away from the beach boys as possible and soaked up the sun and sand. Having spent enough time in Kenya to have no interest in engaging in conversations with random men, the beach boys were sadly disappointed and probably a bit confused as to our blatant disregard of them. Jane was quite exceptional at this task, refusing to even acknowledge their existence even though sometimes I gave in with a short answer to a question or two.

“We must seem like some really grumpy vacationers” I said to Jane chuckling.

“Yea we are” Jane replies coolly.

Totally settling in to our new grumpy personalities we complain that there should be more clouds in the sky and the sun is much too hot (this is after torrential rains on the coast the previous week) and so we pack our things up to head back.

Our weekend involved many wonderful activities such as couch lounging, watching really bad action movies like the Expendables, and an interesting visit to Gede Ruins. But the highlight for me was Joseph’s phone call to our tuk-tuk driver to take us to dinner on our last night. Always willing to help he calls the driver and after a while begins to laugh in surprise. When he hangs up the phone we ask him to explain what happened (since the conversation was in Swahili).

“He said you don’t pay enough and he doesn’t want to pick you up.” Joseph laughs heartily.

We all crack up in amusement and astonishment.

“I told him you are our friends and he has to help you so he’s coming.” Joseph adds.

You know you haven’t been screwed over by prices when the tuk-tuk driver would rather make no money than give you a ride.
Our open air living room

Board walk to the creek which was 5 mins away from the house

Sunset at our house

"Window" in my bathroom

Open air shower

Getting ready for our bird watching expedition at Midas Creek

Pensive monkey at Gede ruins

Gede Ruins

Enormous rocket tree at Gede Ruins

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nyumbani Test Hydroponics System

Hydroponics system at work

how to get things done less "pole pole" (slowly) in the village

This week I was assigned with the task of installing a new pump on the test hydroponics system in one of our greenhouses in the village. The hydroponics system is pretty cool; it consists of  fish tanks and beds of vegetables that are connected by circulating water. This water runs from the bottom of the fish tanks, where it is filled with waste from the fish, into the beds of vegetables. When the vegetable beds fill with water to a certain level a siphon is triggered and the water returns to the fish tanks, filtered of bacteria and aerated for the fish. Symbiosis at its best!

The pump was pretty simple to install but I needed extra wiring to connect the new pump to a DC voltage source since the source used with the old pump was AC. So I arranged to meet with Benjamin, who works in maintenance, at 2 pm to finish the job. At three thirty there's no sign of Benjamin and he's not picking his phone up. The sun is hot, my patience is waning so I decide to take drastic measures. I unplug the old pump so the water is no longer being aerated, I change all the wiring I can in preparation for the new power source and I call Patrick, who I've asked to look out for Benjamin for me.

"Patrick, I've turned off the pump. The fish are suffocating. Where's Benjamin with the wires?"

"Hold on. We'll be there in 5 minutes" Patrick responds.

"You better be; the fish aren't looking too good" I say in my most worrisome voice.

Five minutes later guess who shows up! Benjamin, wires in hand. I ask him why he didn't come at 2 pm and he says he didn't think it was a serious job (because you know, some jobs are serious and some are just for kicks I thought).

As we're doing the wiring together he says to me accusingly "The fish are crying". Without skipping a beat I respond  "Damn right they are".

I've never felt the need to potentially kill an entire school of fish  but hey, if threats of death are what I need in my arsenal to get something done, then I need not waste any more time writing this blog, I'm going out to look more potential victims!

Celebrating my birthday in Nyumbani

me at 24 in Nyumbani. Thanks for testing out my camera on me Magdalene :)

thanks Lucy, Becky, Lillian, Patrick, Jackie and Nicholas (he took the picture) for a great birthday dinner!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lunchtime conversation gone ridiculous

Classic example of a volunteer whose heart is in the right place but has totally impractical ideas. Today’s lunchtime conversation among me, Chris (the fellow I’m replacing), Ange (Nyumbani Volunteer) and Clueless Volunteer (the name is quite fitting as you’ll see).

Before I begin I’ll give you some background on Nyumbani Village. It’s located in Kitui Kenya, a semi-arid region where clean drinking water is very scarce, especially since the rains gave a no-show last year and the Horn of Africa was hit with the worst drought in 60 years.

Clueless Volunteer: Nyumbani needs a swimming pool.

Chris (trying not to choke on his lunch): um, I don’t think a pool is a priority for Nyumbani right now.

Clueless Volunteer: yes, it is. It’s not that hard to build, just dig a hole and put some water. It will be great for a wellness center for the su-su’s (the grandmothers in the village). The US has them, we should have them.

Me:  Building and maintaining a pool is not as easy as you think. It requires a big investment and the demand on water is ridiculous.

Ange: There’s no way a pool can be sustainable in this village if we want to be self-sustaining by 2018 (a goal the Village has set for itself).

Clueless Volunteer: What about a golf course?

Chris: Are you serious?

Clueless Volunteer: Or a driving range. We can definitely do a driving range. The next Tiger Woods can be from Nyumbani. All they play is football.

(at this point I can’t breathe as I’m holding back laughter)

Chris: So you want to stop the children from running and exercising and make them stand swinging a stick?

Clueless Volunteer: Yes, it will be good.

(after talking down Clueless Volunteer about this idea he moves on to plan B)

Clueless Volunteer: We should have a factory here. The kids sit around all day and do nothing.

Ange: They’re on their summer holiday. During school they are in classes and help out their families with caring for the younger children and making food. They don’t have much free time.

Chris (sarcastically): maybe we should get them to make golf clubs.

Clueless Volunteer: well, the village should try to make things to export and sell. China does it. What about quilts?

Chris: the su-sus make baskets that they sell.

Clueless Volunteer: but we can teach them to make quilts. When they brought African slaves to America they taught them how to make quilts.

Chris: I don’t think it’s a question of whether they can learn to make quilts. People like to buy the baskets not only because they are useful, but they are a part of the culture of the region.

Clueless Volunteer: Really? Oh, okay. (Clueless Volunteer looks totally unconvinced).

There’s so much more to this conversation but I’ll stop my summary here. To the benefit of Clueless Volunteer he did finally come upon a good idea of exporting the baskets to sell in other countries using aid for shipping costs from NGO’s operating in the region.

What an unbelievable character! ( I didn't make this up I swear!)

Nyumbani Tour with Chris

Entrance to the Administration Offices

Chris standing at his office desk in the Sustainability office

Harvesting melia seeds. Amazing flexibility! She totally outshines that tiny Asian woman who turns herself into a pretzel as she stands at the front of my yoga class in Dillon gym

Tea and Chipati at the canteen

Some of the village boys off to a football match

Biogas reactor for the guest house. It powers a methane stove in the kitchen.

Pit Stop in London - Day 2

King Henry looking for his next wife in the crowd of tourists

Hampton Court

Found the center of the maze after getting lost only um, a small number of times :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pit Stop in London - Day 1

Entrance of Westminster Abbey

The line to enter Westminster Abbey :(

yay Mandela!

Afternoon Cream tea with Sue (I could do this everyday!)

Magician hammering a nail into his nose, eek!
which my aunt volunteered to remove for him, with her teeth!
and she got to keep the nail as a souvenir.