Saturday, August 11, 2007

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By Kelly Teagarden

Amosi! I am writing to you from Migori, Kenya. I wish I could update you from the comfort of our front porch and our little house in Muhuru Bay but seeing as how there is no electricity or internet access, the one and a half hour drive along bumpy dirt roads to the slightly larger town of Migori is the only option. The last two times we have been to Migori there has been a power outage so the only option of internet was a small shop with a generator.

The trip to Migori is an adventure in and of itself. We flag a car down that is coming from Customs—the small town in Muhuru Bay—and we pack anywhere from nine to twelve people inside. The front seat has four people with someone sharing a seat with the driver, the back seat has four to five people and the trunk has three people crammed in along with all the luggage of the car—usually some sort of smelly fish. Seatbelts are a safety precaution long forgotten, speed limits are non-existent and even traffic lanes are a foreign concept. The goal of the driver is to avoid the most holes and rocks in the road forcing him to adopt a slalom-like movement. We all grasp the seats in front of us, or one another for comfort and support as we pray we will get there safely.
After the hour and a half of driving along dusty roads trying not to awkwardly touch the person next to you, breathing in dirt and body odor, and wondering if you might just rather be left on the side of the road than continue on, you hit the stretch of pavement! A sigh of relief is heard throughout the car as a mutual understanding of gratefulness is felt. The smooth pavement under the car wheels is a luxury we will never again take for granted. We pull into the center of town and get out of the car our legs still shaking as we walk a few paces towards the grocery store still shocked that we are in one piece.

Everything here is a bit like the trip to Migori. A simple enough idea, drive a car into the closest town with power, use the internet, get groceries and get home before dark, but in reality there are unforeseen complications, larger ditches in the road and larger boulders in the road than you have ever seen. The cars drive at 45 degree angles and create new paths to keep the ride as smooth as possible. I played a game with myself last week trying to figure out which path the driver would take on the road outstretched before me. After about 5 minutes I turned to April, explained the game I was playing in my head and she asked, “Are you winning?” My only response was to laugh and say, “No.” I clearly could not read the road as well as the local drivers and my paths continually ended up in pot holes or unseen impossible turns.

The same is true for Camp WISER. We cannot see the road as well as we may have liked. We have already run into many bumps and holes as the first week comes to a close. The last thing any of us have ever intended to do was to be imposing our American ideas on the Muhuru Community. The goal of WISER is to work with the community and to incorporate everyone’s ideas and knowledge as we try to find the best “path along the dirt roads”. We want to work together and bring WISER and some good practices to Muhuru but only if they are put forth within the Kenyan system and Kenyan way of life.

Halfway through this week there was an incident involving my favorite camper, Wilmer (pronounced Wilma). Wilmer was not in class so I went to the dormitory to try to find her. As I walked in I saw her belongings laid out on the bed and her empty school trunk before her. She was packing up to leave. I immediately sat down on the floor preparing for the worst. I asked her what was wrong, what she was doing and why she was packing. She could not even respond. She just looked at me with downtrodden eyes and pointed to a note on the floor. A tear began to roll down her cheek as I saw the note had my name written on the front.

I have been a camp counselor for five years and I was a camper for the five years before, I thought I had seen everything—homesickness, broken homes, self mutilation, lack of confidence and all the other trials of adolescence. After 5 weeks of being here I had even begun to adjust to many of the initial shocks here in Kenya—girls my age are mothers and having to take care of their children, families need their children home for the break to help around the house and children are often caring for other children while parents are absent, working or dead. I asked Wilmer if her family needed her home and she just continued to cry harder. As I read the note I became more confused. As much as one can try to prepare to be in another country and world you cannot fully understand all the inner workings of a different culture or all the ramifications of your actions. The note explained that she would be going home because she had broken dress code last night by wearing pants and that some of the older girls had told the Matron who would soon tell the Head Master and she may be kicked out of school. We had not enforced dress code because this was Camp WISER and not Rabwao Secondary School. Apparently this freedom and privilege that we saw as so innocent and that they so deeply wanted had larger significance than we had realized.

As I finished reading the note I felt tears well up in my eyes, I forced myself to blink them back. Her note had explained that it would be better for her to go home and stay as she is now because we will leave in a week and she will still be here to deal with this life. She will be left behind. She is better to remain as she is. I told her I was still confused and I asked her to explain a bit more. She now had tears streaming down her face and she told me that she had had pneumonia for a year now and that she has chest problems and must keep warm all the time. She had worn pants the night before to keep warm, as it is winter here and it was a cooler night. I had no idea how to respond. I immediately reached over to my bed and gave her my blanket—one of the small blue ones I had taken from the airplane on the flight over. I told her to sleep with it at night and that she could wrap it around as a skirt during the day and wear pants underneath. I told her we would work something out. I was searching in my head for a way to allow her to stay. I told her she was one of my favorite campers and I knew she was learning so much and would continue to do so. She was helping others in the classes and demonstrating leadership amongst the girls.

We left the dormitory ten minutes later, after I had helped her pack her school things back in her trunk. But as the day continued I wondered if that had been the right decision. How could I ever comprehend the impact of all my actions? Something that seemed so simple to me, wearing pants to stay warm, meant so much more. She had been sick for a year! And she was trying to keep healthy. But here, it is traditionally inappropriate to wear civilian clothes at school and especially pants as a girl. Just when you think you are beginning to understand a place you realize you still have so much to learn.

I am ready to learn more in this last week. I know that every single one of these students have so much to teach me about their traditions, their culture, their reality, their dreams, their lives and their futures. I hope that I can begin to find the best path along the pothole covered dirt roads and get a little closer to the path the locals would take. I hope that I can continue to understand more and become able to drive a safe path -avoiding as many holes as possible. I know that I will not always be able to see what is before me but I hope that these students will help to guide me each day and teach me how to best navigate their roads.

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