# 28 Winding Down

Thursday, August 25, 2011

# 28 Winding Down

I’m back at SFG, staying 4 nights in Jecinta’s (p) house so I have the evening classes.  Monday I spent 2 hours with the Form 4, beating vectors to death.  They teach really gnarly vector questions here, of a kind I had never seen before.  I’ve struggled with them for several years, but decided enough is enough.  I spent some hours solving vector problems and tonight I strutted my stuff for 4A.  They have felt defeated (I know the feeling!), but we worked through so many, by the end of the 2 hours, they were laughing, flexing their vector muscles and feeling very proud of themselves.

The Form 4’s have been GREAT!  Both classes are cool with vectors and if a reasonable vector question is asked on the KCSE in November, most will get it.  Now we are working our way through graphing trig functions and they are beginning to feel empowered!  Watching the transformation has been a gift!  They even went to see Jecinta to tell her how good they are feeling about math.

I’m also teaching the Form 2B’s, whom I did not teach last year so they’ve been a bit shy and reluctant to respond.  But now that I’ve taught them for 1 1/2 weeks and they are much more willing to offer suggestions and ask questions.  They too have slogged through some hard questions and are now much more confident.  Just interpreting the question, in English, is hard for them.  Often when I clarify the wording they know how to answer the question.  Many of the kids have huge language hurdles to overcome.

Monday morning was one of those days when I wakened late, lolled about a bit, trying to get my brain turned on, then suddenly had no time for a shower nor to gather up clothing for my 3 nights at SFG.  “Oh well,” thought I,  “I’ll just go back home in the afternoon, take a leisurely shower and get my packing done. “ Oops!  No electricity!  Here at SFG we have our solar and wind power.  We never have a blackout.  At Ndingi and at the parish there are blackout’s virtually every day, in addition to the scheduled one on Thursday 7 – 9:30 pm.  So I still didn’t get the shower!  Had I come earlier I might have gritted my teeth and taken a cold one, but lately the warm morning’s have morphed into overcast and chilly afternoons.  Even when I used to backpack in the Sierra, I hated jumping into those cold lakes.  Guess I’m just a wuss.

But I was glad I went.  I found our 2 newest residents at Mji Wa Neema, Lucas and Joseph, 2 of the sweetest little boys I’ve ever met.  They were in front of the pile of wood pieces which are donated by coffin and furniture makers, of which there are many in town. They were doing what kids do—building out of the odds and ends of boards, having the best time.  I think they are among the best toys. Below are Joseph on the left and Lucas on the right.

All for now,


#27 This and That

Sunday August 21

#27 This and That

This had been a slow news week.  I spent 3 nights at SFG, teaching the form 4’s in the evening (read on to see why I don’t drive at night).  They’ve done their mock KCSE exam, which we are now “revising”.  Alas, the results were disappointing, with a fairly large group failing the math part.  Today I met with them to talk about why they couldn’t do some of the questions and what sorts of things they might do to at least try the questions.  These girls are still frightened of math, they don’t like it and the have no confidence that they can succeed.  This last is what I hoped to address.  We talked for about 45 minutes and they assiduously took notes.  We’ll see.  When kids have had a poor start in math it’s really hard to overcome it.

I spent the nights in the principal’s house.  It’s fairly spacious as Kenyan homes go, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, sitting room (as it’s called) and kitchen.  That said, it is spare.  For example, there are no electric outlets in the room where I stay.  When I pointed that out to Fr Kiriti he was surprised.  Evidently that wasn’t part of the plan.  The kitchen is small with few cupboards and no stove, except for a 2 burner gas cooker.  Most of the cooking is done on a jiko (no idea how that’s spelled), a small charcoal burner, that gives off copious quantities of noxious (and probably toxic) fumes.  Like most domestic activities, the cooking on the jiko is done on the floor.  Every Kenyan woman can bend like a hairpin, knees straight and butt up.  They do the laundry like that, as well as cooking and farming.  I once opined to Catherine that that might explain the prominent, muscular bottoms of Africans.  She exploded in laughter, but it makes sense to me.

Jeninta (p) has a housegirl, also named Jecinta (hg) and a niece of the same name.  Jecinta (hg) takes care of Jecinta’s daughter, Marylynne while Jecinta (p) is 30 yards away in her office or in class.  As housegirl jobs go, she has it pretty easy.  She and Marylynne spend a lot of time watching either cartoons or dubbed soaps, mostly Spanish.  I’ve bought Marylynne some books of African folk tales, which she immediately devoured, then went back to the soaps.

You may recall I’ve written about Elizabeth, the Sudanese girl who joined form 1.  When she arrived she had literally nothing.  Esther, the matron, had to do the shopping for her, uniform, shoes, socks, underwear, toiletries, most of which she had never seen, hair and skin care products, laundry and showering soaps, mattress, sheets, blankets, pens, pencils, books…  At the end of the term she went to Nakuru to stay with her uncle.  I had hoped she would agree to stay at SFG because she did very badly on her exams, but she was a bit homesick for Sudanese cooking, language etc.  It’s not that she’s not bright, she has never been to a regular school.  She didn’t have the idea of sitting in a desk in a classroom.  Yet she did pretty well on the KCPE, which is why she was admitted.  Last week, when the students returned for the tuitioning, Elizabeth didn’t show up.  I became concerned about her and emailed Gabriel in the US, the mentor of all the Sudanese kids in our schools to find out what he knew.  He called the uncle and discovered that she hadn’t understood about coming back to school.  After emails flew back and forth, we got the phone number of the uncle and sent some money for her matatu fare as well as for someone to bring her, as she had no idea of how to get here.  More shopping had to be done, although fortunately not all the expensive stuff, but more soap etc.  Esther and I took her to the supermarket, but I hadn’t brought enough cash for  everything.  She needed a second pair of shoes—she has only one pair.  School shoes are heavy laced black klunkers that must be kept clean and polished.  During the rainy season, they have to have 2 pair so one can be drying out.  She also needed something warmer than the sweater and “jumper”, which we would call a fleece jacket, as at this time of year it’s cold at SFG.  In fact, this year I have been colder than I ever remember.  The wind blows there, which is why our 2 windmills are so efficient, but in winter (now) it is not comfortable.

So today I walked down to the big outdoor market.  It’s actually 2 markets, one produce, which is held on Wednesday and Saturday (today is Sunday) while the more permanent part is a rabbit warren of small platforms on which goods are displayed, covered with some roofing that leaks.  The aisles are about 1 foot wide, very uneven because the water leaking from the roof makes ruts, washing away the soil and uncovering rocks which make walking through it very uneven.  I found myself grasping at posts from time to time to keep from falling.

Wish I’d taken a picture.  This one is the produce section from last year.

The more permanent part features used clothing—a vast display of almost anything one would want, at very low prices.  I’ve been told that markets like this are the destinations of some of the gift clothing sent by churches and other well-meaning- groups.  We may be dismayed at this, but it provides a living for many people and shoppers pay very little.  It may be much better, psychologically, that getting a hand-out.

I wanted a vest, either fleece or down for Elizabeth as well as a knitted hat.  It took some wandering about, but I finally found a nice warm vest for ksh 250 (about $2.75).  I couldn’t find the hat, so I walked over to the school uniform shop, owned by my friend, Mr Kingori.  As I neared the door, I saw him inside with someone massaging his right arm.  He greeted me effusively, as always, and explained that several years ago he had been shot during a mugging.  Only recently had the pins in his bone been removed and it pains him from time to time.  In case I thought about driving at night, this convinced me it’s not a good idea.

He had the hat I wanted and even has someone who will stitch names in the garments—even in the vest I’d bought down the road.

I haven’t written about the scene on the day the girls returned.  I had never been present on opening day and it was definitely a new experience.  All day girls come traipsing along the road that leads from the main highway, lugging their plastic bags of shopping, plus the backpacks stuffed with books and papers which they supposedly spent time pouring over during their 2-week break (Right!!!!)  All over Kenya on opening day, teachers search every item, looking for money, spray bottles, gum, hair straightening chemicals and in some cases, drugs or alcohol, although that has not been a problem at SFG.  This took place in the staff room, where I sat at my desk and watched the mob scene.  Two women teachers did the bag search, while 2 male teachers collected and recorded the pocket money anyone brought.  They can get it from the secretary whenever they need things, although there are no stores nearby.  In addition, shoes had to be removed to check for toenail polish—not permitted.  This is a tough place!

They’d been told to arrive before 5 pm, but matatus are unreliable and many were late, even some of the few brought by parents in cars.  The lateniks had to leave everything in the staff room until the next day, at which time only one teacher was there (rest were in class).  I volunteered to help, although I didn’t feel too comfortable piling through all the belongings.  In all the bags I searched, I found only 1 contraband item, a small piece of hard candy, which I gave to Patricia, the English teacher whom I was assisting.

Time for sleep.  Tomorrow is another day of teaching.

NOTE: if you’d like to learn more about the Kenyan ceramic jiko stove click here

#26 Coincidence or ????? You’ll have to read to the end to find out what the title means.

Monday August 15, 2011

#26 Coincidence or ?????  You’ll have to read to the end to find out what the title means.

I spent my day off going to Nakuru to visit my friend, George Mbugua and Mwangaza College, where he teaches .  (I forgot to take his picture, so had to hunt up this one from 2008.)  It’s something like a community college, but some of the students have no high school at all.  They are learning skills like hair dressing, tailoring/clothing design, accounting, computers, cooking/catering etc.

It was a bit of an adventure b/c I went by myself (no babysitter) on a matatu.  It’s about 1 ½ hours on what I once dubbed “the road from hell”, but now it’s a very nice highway, no potholes, just a few traffic bumps in the town.  George had to finish teaching his classes before he could meet me, so I wandered around a market with many, many produce stalls, full of luscious looking fruits and veggies of every description.  I then regretted having bought a papaya and mango very quickly before I left Naivasha.  It’s the usual thing to take a small gift when you go visiting and I thought I was going to be visiting George and his wife, Louise, in their home.  Duh!  Of course they were working!

Everyone wanted to sell me their goods and I had to be firm, but it was fun to wander through the narrow aisles, dodging shoppers, vendors, potholes, garbage/trash and small trenches full of water from recent rains.  This is not a place for the unbalanced!

When George arrived, we hopped on a matatu to his school, which is very nice, lovely buildings, plantings, and very welcoming.  I met the president, Brother Bernard, a Christian brother from the US east coast.  He spent a generous amount of time talking to me and praising George.  I had written a letter of recommendation for him when he left SFG, which he claims is what got him the job.

I got the full tour, including his class, where I spent a few minutes teaching them my favorite topic, FOIL.  These students are not the top of the class at all, but they seemed to pick it up (some of them).  It was fun, as it always is and the students were appreciative, as they always are.

I saw the catering class, a large kitchen, where students were busily cooking (what else?).  They served me a tasty lunch of ugali, stew and greens—a very traditional meal.

We peeked into the large library, equipped with computers where students can use the online services without charge, a very nice perk.  The tailoring class was practicing for their fashion show of clothing designed and executed by the students.  Nothing would do but I should stay to see some of the designs.  Here are several.

I remembered Virginia, SFG class of 2011, who wanted to be a dress designer.  I spoke to Brother Bernard about her and was told that even though her KCSE score was low, she would be a top student at Mwangaza, so I picked up a brochure for her.  Later as I got off the matatu back in Naivasha, I heard my name and turned to find a man I didn’t recognize clearly speaking to me.  He stuck out his hand, “Hi Margo, do you remember me?  I’m father to Virginia.”  Klunk!  Could have knocked me over with a feather.  I guess I had met him or how would he know who I am and my name.  This is what blew me away.  I’ve been here for 2 months, have walked by the stage (matatu station) where he works selling tickets many, many times, but today is the day I picked up the brochure for her and the day he spoke to me.  Too strange!  I gave him the brochure, in which he was very interested.  He is still paying off her fees at SFG, but hopes to have that cleared soon.  She can’t receive her certificate until the fees are paid, so can’t go further, although she has taken a computer class, as have most of the graduates.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  After leaving Mwangaza, George and I hopped on piki pikis to go to his wife’s work.  She is a waitress in a petrol station fast food shop.  We had never met, but I liked her immediately.  She’s cute, open and friendly.  The 3 of us chatted over a glass of mango juice (my favorite).  She told me she grew up on a farm in a very fertile area and loves that life, raising cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and growing maize and other foodstuffs.  George, too, grew up on a farm, but in a very dry, unfertile area, so it was hard to scratch out a living.  He loves teaching and while he didn’t say it clearly, my guess is he would be happy not to be a farmer again.

I had stopped at the local bookstore to buy some African folk tales for their daughter.  I had to guess her age, and thought it was between 6 and 8, so I bought accordingly.  Hmmm—she’s 3.  Oh well, mom and dad can read them and save until she grows into them.  It’s the thought that counts!  George tells me she is in baby class, which is the youngest of the 3 levels of preschool.  “What does she learn at school?”  “Letters, numbers (she can count to 50), colors.”  Sounds about like what our kids learn.

Back at the stage, George found the right matatu for me, but the express cars don’t leave until they are full.  I was only #2, out of 8 (this is a smaller version, not the 14 passenger ones).  While it slowly filled up, those of us already seated were considered fair game for all the hawkers and there were LOTS!  Some had baskets filled with peanuts, lollipops, gum, candy, cookies, others sold handkerchiefs (no one uses tissues here), socks, watches, cell phones, calculators, wallets, soft drinks, sausages, yogurt, water.  One after the other rapped on the window, which was closed on my side but open on the other end of the seat.  Some believe that “no” means you’re not interested, but some are so desperate they just keep pushing in hopes you will be worn down.  It always makes me very uncomfortable, as I know they are the poor and needy.  If I bought from each and every one of them, I’d be broke and it would not make a dent in anyone’s poverty.  I’m sure that anyone who has traveled in the developing world has experienced this and more.  I recall that the Chinese hawkers were among the most aggressive, but that may be b/c I was in an obvious tourist group, whereas here I’m just one mzungu on the matatu with a bunch of Africans.

Tomorrow I begin 2 weeks tuitioning at SFG.  I’ll spend three nights each at Jecinta’s house so I can teach the form 4’s in the evening, and the form 2’s during the day.  After that I have 3 days and then come home.  As much as I miss my family and friends, it is always very sad to leave.  But in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the time I have left.


#25 Peter Marries Peris

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#25 Peter Marries Peris

Peter Muigi, deputy principal at SFG, was a patient bridegroom today, when his wedding began at 11:30 am, having been scheduled for 10. 

I was even earlier, as Jecinta (p) had told me the time was 9.  I thought that was a bit early for a wedding anywhere and particularly when family was coming from far away and many guests depend on the vagaries of matatu schedules.  Guests generally stand outside the church until the bridal party arrives.  These young ladies shyly greeted me and were delighted to have their picture taken in front of the rose-covered arch through which the couple would enter the church.

The tradition here is that the bride must be fetched from her family home (hers was in Nakuru—1 ½ to 2 hours away) by the groom’s family.  She is accompanied by her family to the church.  However, when the distances are far and cars unpredictable, weddings are often delayed.  Here is Peter (left) with his best man.  He explained there had been a car breakdown (later Fr Kiriti told me there had been an accident and they were using his car).  Peter told me it would be another 45 minutes before the bride’s family would arrive, so Jecinta (p) and I decided to go to my house for some tea. 

When we came back we found the wedding had begun w/o the parents and a few of the bride’s attendants, but no matter.  It was a beautiful ceremony and a very happy couple.  The complete party arrived eventually, in time to fulfill their parts, which seemed to be a formal giving of the bride to the groom with all 4 parents participating.

Girls from SFG danced, the wonderful St Francis Xavier Church choir sang, there were roses everywhere, even petals  strewn in the aisle.

After the wedding part, the mass began, with Peter and Peris bringing the bread and wine to the alter, preceded by dancing girls and the attendants and followed by ladies of the parish who brought traditional gifts of bananas, potatoes and cabbages.

The mass was celebrated by 3 priests, all, I believe, former colleagues of Peter’s when he was in the seminary.  He left just a couple of years ago, right before he was to make the final decision.  He once told me it was a hard decision to leave, but he has not regretted it and I’m sure today he was GLAD!

The reception was held at SFG, which is about 10 kilometers from the church.  People who had no cars were transported in specially rented matatus or jammed into cars belonging to other guests.   The multi-purpose room, beautifully decorated with roses and pink and gray wall hangings.  The large and hungry crowd was fed generously with traditional foods—rice, potatoes mashed with green peas, so it looks light green, stew, ugali (it’s not a meal in Kenya without ugali), chopped cabbage, chapatis (fried bread) and sodas (it’s not a celebration in Kenya without sodas!) 

While the guests ate, the bridal pair was being photographed somewhere else.  Shortly they arrived, honking at the gate, where they were greeted by the groom’s  female friends and relatives.  They danced and whooped, teasingly slowing the car as it drove in.  Just as the B&G stepped from the car, the heavens let loose a true African downpour.  Someone produced an umbrella for the B&G, everyone ran back to the hall, but I had worn shoes I couldn’t run in and I’m not sure I could have run even in my Asics.  I was drenched.

I had worn my very best African dress and used Judy’s black shawl which she had kindly left for me.  My dress, the shawl and my hair were dripping.  And it was cold!  I knew if I stayed I would be deeply chilled, which wasn’t going to be fun, but how was I to get home?    Someone took pity on my poor shivering self and drove me back to the parish, where I put on every warm garment I have, which is not too many, made myself some hot tea and climbed into my bed.  Two hours later I awakened, warm and dry, evidently none the worse for the soaking, but sad that I had missed the party.  

A few years ago I had attended another wedding here and enjoyed seeing all the traditional dancing, presentation of gifts and other fun things.  I’m really bummed to have missed the best part, but there was no question of my staying.  I’ll just have to wait until next week when I’ll be Jecinta’s house guest, during the “tuitioning” at SFG, when students review the material they’ve studied for 2 terms before they begin the 3rd and last term of the year.  She will tell me all about it, but it won’t be the same as my having been there.

Friday I finished my 2 weeks of “tuitioning” at Ndingi.  It got better every day and by the end I felt quite good about the sessions.  The boys were very sweet, thanking me for having come.  Fr Kiriti tells me the kids I teach will always remember the mzungu who came to teach them math.  I would prefer to be remembered by what I taught rather than my skin color, and I think that will be remembered too.

I haven’t written about the 3rd workshop I gave, this time at the Pastoral Center in Nakuru.  It was the one promised me by the bishop.  Schools in the area were required to send 1 math teacher each and it seemed that some were not all that pleased to spend a day of their holiday listening to a gray-haired mzungu lady.  However, as I talked I could see the change in body language, facial expression and attention.  By the end, they were very engaged, not just in the calculators, but perhaps even more in the challenges I set them to think outside the box, be more independent, allow their students to be more creative in their thinking, delete the tedious, boring parts of the curriculum, discuss and share with colleagues (not too common here) and to try to effect modernizing changes in the KCSE, which drives the curriculum as well as the teaching.  It’s a message I have presented every time I’ve done a workshop and will continue to push.

At the end, when I asked for comments, several teachers spoke, saying they agreed and wished I could talk to the big honchos who set the curriculum and the exam.  I wish I could too, but I don’t know how to do that.  There is always next year!


#24 Kennedy

Monday, August 8, 2011

#24 Kennedy

I met Kennedy in August 2007 when he came to the rectory door, asking to see me.  I had attended a mass with Fr Kiriti at the home of Kennedy’s parents on the prison grounds, where the father was a guard.  Fr Kiriti had told the people I would be doing a “revising” session for 2 weeks at Ndingi.  The next day Kennedy was there, asking whether he could attend, even though it was supposed to be for Ndingi students only.  He was a quiet-spoken, earnest young man, just finishing form 1 at Naivasha Day High School.  He knew he needed help with math and he grabbed at the opportunity.  I told him to meet me at 8:30 the next morning so I could show him where to go.  He was there before 8, not wanting to be late.  We walked up the path to Ndingi that day and every day for 2 weeks and again the next summer.  During that time he told me his story, 2nd born of a large family, father approaching mandatory retirement age of 55, with primary school aged children to educate.  Kennedy’s

hopes of going to university seemed pretty slim.  His dream was to be a pilot.  I was taken by his maturity, strength of purpose and idealism, and wondered how it would all work out for him.

Unfortunately it wasn’t good.  In early 2008 the post-election tribal clashes occurred.  Kennedy and family had gone north to the Luo tribal area for a family funeral.  It may well have saved their lives, as many Luos were killed in Naivasha and other Kikuyu areas.  However, their house was looted and they lost everything!

I’m trying to remember how it was that he was here later in the summer, after the tempers had cooled and the people tried to understand what had caused neighbors to kill neighbors.  I do know that he was here for 2 summer tutoring sessions, but gone the summer after that.

The second summer, Cyrus, our oldest at Mji Wa Neema also attended the tutoring sessions, and often walked up the path with Kennedy and me.  They became good friends and began to work together in the afternoons here in the dining hall.  Several times I wandered in to find their heads together, trying to sort out some problem I had given them.  They were about 15 at the time.

After that summer Kennedy’s family moved to the north, to Kisumu, in the Luo area.  However, the father was never able to find a steady job.  He became what is known as a casual worker.  Kennedy wrote to me, saying his parents couldn’t even afford a day school for him and I ached for this boy who wanted his education so badly.  I had originally decided to focus on the students at Ndingi and at the newly opened SFG, but in the end, I couldn’t let Kennedy founder, not even completing high school.  Despite this and many other unforeseen problems, like having malaria the day of his exams one year and in fact having malaria quite often b/c it is rampant in the Kisumu area, he soldiered on.

Last year he sat the KCSE, earning a B–, which is a quite creditable grade in Kenya.  Since then he has looked for jobs, but they are even scarcer in his area than in Naivasha.   Like his father, he finds casual jobs and hopes for things to improve.

Today he came to see me, traveling all night on a matatu and then waiting for me to finish my stint at Ndingi.  He has accepted that he can’t become a pilot, the cost is too high, but he told me his brother and a friend had both died due to medication errors and he thought he would like to study pharmacy to see whether he could make a contribution in that area.

He’s the same soft-spoken young man, now 5 years older than he was the day he knocked on the rectory door.  His situation is so sad, and unfortunately repeated millions of times, not just in Kenya, but all over the developing world.  Again, I can’t let him just stagnate.  He’s just too fine a person.  I remember conversations we on our daily treks up and down between the church compound and Ndingi, on making a contribution to one’s society, on staying in Kenya to make it as good as they all think the US is—all those ideals he and I both hang onto in the face of harsh realities.

One thing that impresses me greatly is the lack of bitterness and blame.  At best his life was going to be a challenge, but the clashes, the loss of the family material goods and his father’s inability to find work have made these past years bleak.  Yet he just keeps on trying to figure out how he can achieve his dreams.  Sometimes I get a bit irritated b/c I get asked so often for help.  But he didn’t actually ask me today.  He just told me his story.  Again I told myself, “Margo you can’t save them all!”  and I answered, “Yeah but I can save some of them.”  Kennedy’s a keeper.

So, he’s looking into doing something like a community college course, leading to a diploma (sort of an AA).  After that he can work and eventually get a bachelors degree in pharmacy.  It’s a long road, but I’m betting on him.