Saturday, August 30, 2008



I want to express my deepest thanks to everyone who contributed to giving money for helping the Deaf community in Kenya during the post-election violence this year. From your generous contributions, we were able to raise about $2,100! Unfortunately, as I came at a bad time in Kenya’s economy, I encountered a horrific exchange rate (about 60 shillings to the dollar). Nonetheless, that still gave me about 126,000 Kenyan shillings to work with, which is enough money to do some incredible things. Here is a summary of what your donations went towards (some amounts are not exact, but pretty close). I wish I could give more details to some of the stories, because each one is amazing. But in honoring confidentiality, I will do the best I can. You can’t imagine what a difference you have made to some of the individuals and groups below, and to the Kenyan Deaf Community as a whole:

1. Food for the members of the Anglican Church of Kenya, a Deaf church in Kisumu – The pastor and I bought maize, sugar, tea, salt, cooking oil, and rice, and gave it out to the congregation of about 30 Deaf members after service the following Sunday. 12,200 KSH or $203

2. Food/supplies for students at Maseno School for the Deaf – Deaf staff member from Maseno and I bought maize, sugar, tea, soap, and other items for the students. 6,000 KSH or $100

3. School books and materials for a Deaf teacher who is currently going to school at Kenyatta University for a degree in Special Education. 3000 KSH or $50

4. School fees paid for one term, for a Deaf student to go to Karen Technical College in Nairobi (a technical college for the Deaf). He will be studying agriculture, in hopes of becoming an agriculture teacher for the Deaf in the future. 17,790 KSH or $297

5. Mumias School for the Deaf – Food, supplies, and development programs to help students at the primary school. 9000 KSH or $150

6. Food and medical supplies for the Deaf community at Nyan’goma – Maize and other food supplies were dispersed to at least 10 Deaf adults in the Nyan’goma community, as well as medical fees paid and medication bought for one Deaf woman who was very sick. 12,600 KSH or $210

7. Food and school fees for one family – An array of different types of food and clothing was bought, and school fees were paid for a family involved with the Deaf community. 18,300 KSH or $305

8. New house/kitchen for another family – One family came back to their community during the post-election violence but had no home, so the mother and two children were sleeping at other people’s houses. This money built them a structure that was half a kitchen, and half a room where they could sleep. In other words, a new house. 15,750 KSH or $263

Here is a letter from one of the families involved in receiving and dispersing some money to the above community:

Hello Friends,

Thank you all! I wish to register our appreciation to you all for the support you have given to some of our displaced families following the election violence in 2007. You helped a family to have a house. Some Deaf adults were also helped with food stuff. Life is difficult for many of us in almost all the areas of life including food, health, education, water, and clothing. If we could be assisted to start some business to help us improve our standard of living, we would be very grateful. There is a Deaf family who needs assistance immediately – She is a widow with three children who are all in primary school. Another family-who is hearing-is in need of transportation (e.g. a motorbike) to start a personal business and help them pay school fees for their six children who are in both primary and secondary schools.

Otherwise, thank you so much for your help!

Kenya Federation of Deaf Teachers:
KFDT is an organization consisting of Deaf teachers from a number of primary and secondary schools for the Deaf around the country. I was fortunate to have been able to work with 10 members of the group, at their respective schools and while preparing for and presenting a weekend workshop near Kisumu. During the workshop, these KFDT members shared their knowledge of Deaf culture, sign language, classroom strategies for Deaf students, and other ideas and insight to a large group of hearing teachers for the Deaf. The KFDT group is extremely motivated, resourceful, and innovative. I have seen individual teachers from the group assist and develop their respective schools in amazing ways, and the group has facilitated monumentally positive changes in the development of the Deaf community in Kenya and hearing people’s attitudes towards them. For these reasons, I wanted to give some of the money to the group, to help sustain the continuing development of the Deaf community in positive ways.

9. KFDT office in Kisumu – an office for KFDT to hold meetings, pool resources, and plan workshops. This money was enough for 4 walls and a roof, but the office still lacks a door and windows, a concrete floor, and any furniture. KFDT will be holding a meeting there in early September to see what can be done to pool resources to help finish the office. 19,000 KSH or $317.

10. KFDT video camera – plans for use of the video camera include: continued workshops for Deaf and hearing teachers, which emphasize sign language proficiency and teaching strategies; videos for students and teachers of the Deaf focusing on topics such as Kenyan Sign Language, HIV/AIDS, Deaf educational opportunities in Kenya; videos for parents of Deaf children, to assist them in areas of Deaf culture and Kenyan Sign Language; videos to put on the internet or local news stations to spread awareness about the Deaf in Kenya. 15,000 KSH or $250

Here is a letter from KFDT:

Dear Friends/International Community,
Receive greetings from all of our members!! We would like to take this opportunity to thank you very much for your assistance and quick response to the matters affecting the Deaf in Kenya. As a result of post election violence, many were left starving. Your contributions helped many people through a difficult time. We greatly appreciate your double donation towards the building of our temporary office (19,000 ksh) and the purchase of a new video camera (15,000 ksh), a total of 34,000 ksh.Please welcome to Kenya, it is now a safe place to live and visit, so encourage others to do so!!

Thank you once again,


Benard Mulama
Secretary, Kenya Federation of Deaf Teachers

Continue To Help

There are many continuing needs in Kenya, for members of and those involved in the Deaf community. If you would like to continue to help, here are some current needs of the community. The amount given is an approximation, but of course you are welcome to give more, or as much as you can spare:

Food/medical supplies/school fees for family ($100) – A single Deaf mother and her 3 children are in need of food, medicine, and assistance with school fees. This is an immediate need.

School fees for Deaf student ($300) – This amount will cover the 3rd term of a student’s education at Karen Technical School for the Deaf. He is going to school to study agriculture, in hopes of becoming an agriculture teacher for the Deaf in the future. This is an immediate need, since the 3rd school term starts in about a week (September 2008), and without school fees paid, he will not be allowed to attend.

School fees for a family ($450) – A hearing family with 6 children is looking for assistance with school fees. Their children are attending primary school, secondary school, and a college program, all starting in January of 2009, and they are expecting their cumulative school fees to be over $1,300 for the year. However, they have a small business plan, in which they only need a minimum of $450 for a down payment. After starting the business, they will be able to earn their own money to cover school fee expenses for next year, and in the future, and that will allow the family to become more independent. The above amount is needed by October 2008.

School fees for Deaf teachers at Kenyatta University (As much as you can spare) – Four Deaf teachers from different schools for the Deaf are enrolled at Kenyatta University in Nairobi to get their degrees in Special Education. This will give them even more skills to help individual students, and develop the Deaf Education system in Kenya. Unfortunately, the NGO supporting their tuition for the last year is now no longer able to support their university education. Their tuition per person per term is $750, not including interpreter fees (which are about $200 per term). Although these students are battling with the University to provide interpreter services for them for no cost, they don’t know if it will be successful. Anything you could give would help ease the burden on these students. Contributions for these tuitions are needed before December 2008.

If you would like to contribute, please email Becca at

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I felt like a movie star, or a rare species of animal, as the two of them stared down at me: one teacher snapping pictures amidst the other teacher’s “Oooh’s” and “Ahh’s.” It was, in fact, a rare occurrence and one that I would probably also document: a mzungu making ugali. This solid, pasty conglomeration of maize flour and water is the filler to most meals, the staple of Kenya, and barely a thought to Kenyans who make the food daily, scooped out of the pan resembling play-doh in a thick, rectangular block. “If you miss a meal of ugali,” my friend Joseph proclaims, “you absolutely must eat it with the next meal.” When my ugali came out tasty, albeit looking like a crouching frog, I said maybe I should start charging Kenyans to mold their ugali into animal shapes.

Everyday activities such as cooking and eating ugali and sukuma* continue as Kenyans rebuild. The post-election violence continues to be discussed frequently, often termed “The Unrest,” or “The Violence.” As the rebuilding of homes, businesses, and lives continue, the effects are genuine and legitimate. I often hear “we wanted to do (insert project here), but you know...there was The Unrest.” I relate with sympathy, since my own trip was delayed several months for the same reason. “We would have had plenty of time to plan our sports competition,” says the Headmistress, “if it weren’t for The Violence.” Kisumu, my Luo home and favorite city looks relatively normal at first glance, if not a bit worn down. As you look closer you notice the few empty shops on each block with broken windows and debris covering the floor, which were hit during the riots. Then you notice the burned-out buildings, which dot the city like random mosquito bites. The most obvious destruction is the two main buildings sitting on the roundabout in Kisumu’s city center that are blackened shells of wood and steel, cruelly decorated, it seems, by a completely burnt palm tree out front. On my first trip to town, my friends pointed out a gas station that was burned to the ground, and another that was spared because it gave out free gas to rioters. Most of my favorite haunts are unaffected, but it took me several trips to Kisumu to notice that Mona Lisa’s restaurant, one of our frequented breakfast venues, is an empty shell of broken glass and debris. As with hurricane destruction in Jamaica, it astounds me to watch how families and individuals take this loss of everything in stride, build up again from nothing with very few complaints and no assistance. But it makes me smile inwardly when the post-election violence, two months after the coalition agreement is signed, is still occasionally used to excuse the fact that something simple hasn’t been accomplished.
“Ahh…yes,” said the Headmistress, we were planning on cleaning out the storage room to use as a classroom, but you know…The Unrest.”

The large, quiet expanse of Maseno University and other neighboring school compounds dwarf the actual town of Maseno, a mere thirty-minute matatu ride from the hustle of Kisumu, and my home for the last three weeks in Kenya. My daily ten-minute pilgrimage on foot takes me from my house through the gates of the Deaf school, along the dirt road leading to Maseno University, through the market to the post office and the end of town where the only cyber café (pronounced “cyber caf” by Kenyans) is located. There, I am befriended by Ken, the cyber café owner’s son. Ken is a tall, stocky middle-aged Luo man with large front teeth and massive spectacles, the lens cracked on the left side. Although this is my only chance to communicate with the outside world, Ken doesn’t care. He will talk to me, asking me questions about my opinion of The Unrest, Maseno, and Kenyan culture in general as I’m navigating the painfully slow internet connection, and writing an email to friends or family, until I’m forced to completely ignore him until he stops talking to me. This does not sway Ken, an ardent admirer of mine, I discovered, who gives me a piece of poetry he’s written on my second trip to the cyber café.

On that day she came, yes it was a bright afternoon down South of the Sahara at the equator, tilted countryside of Maseno and there she was; straddling her strides, graciously walking into the cyber. Angel gal she is…ooh my.

I can’t recall anyone writing poetry for me before, so besides now feeling incredibly self-conscious about the way I walked, I found the gesture to be very sweet, and tried to thank Ken without giving him any encouragement for a future visit to his parents’ home or acceptance of a marriage proposal. A week or so later another poem followed, along with a small wooden carving of an African rhino. This caused my friends to joke about what may be next on Ken’s repertoire of gifts, and caused me to look into opening my own cyber café.

This trip to Kenya brings two distinctly different feelings to my work that I rarely experienced my first time in Kenya: the feeling that I am an experienced professional and know what I’m talking about, and the feeling that I am a welcome resource. Although teacher training is new to me, it’s been enjoyable and challenging to use my experience with Deaf Education along with my knowledge of Kenyan culture, to help the incredibly receptive teachers at Maseno’s Deaf school. Initially nervous when I entered their classrooms, the teachers soon let down their guards, talked about the difficulties they have with the curriculum, teaching strategies, students with multiple disabilities, and their lack of materials and training. Many teachers taught a lesson for me, trying their best as they stumbled through the material with their minimal sign language skills. Of course, lack of teacher’s sign language and the many other negative facets of the Kenyan Deaf Education system remain. I rolled my eyes and held my tongue when I witnessed one teacher divide her class into two groups: one group could answer a verbal question correctly, and one group could not. “The stupid children can stand over there,” the teacher announced. Another teacher, who seemingly had not done any work all morning, was seated at her desk while her fifteen young students played with different colored bottle caps. “They need to rest,” she exclaimed, “they cannot learn so much all at once.” When I asked what type of activities they used to teach certain material, most teachers just blinked, staring at me blankly. But during my short two weeks of training, I witnessed a few teachers actually implementing new ideas, and as I finished the two-day teacher-training workshop, they seemed to have a better idea of what I meant by “activities.” Their only complaint was that I wasn’t staying in Maseno to help them implement those ideas in the classroom.

Amidst the teacher training, all students not involved in sports were shuttled home and soon afterwards, five schools for the Deaf within the province, including my former school, shot in on large buses topped with jerricans, plastic bags full of sports uniforms and drama costumes, and stacks of mattresses that looked like they wouldn’t survive the sharp right turn into the school compound. The Deaf school was a bustle of activity; simmering food and large pots of chai sat continuously on outdoor fires made of coal and wood. The drums signifying the dance competition practices sounded from early morning, well into the night. Old and new friends, as well as former students of mine carpeted the compound, so that there was always a conversation to be had, or an old story to tell. At one point during the drama and dance competitions of the next few days, I seated myself next to two young girls from a neighboring Deaf school. They obviously had never had the opportunity to talk to a white person before, and the less shy of the two turned to me bravely and asked, “Do you paint your skin?” When I explained to her that no, I was born this way, just like you were born with dark skin, she turned away and sat thoughtfully for a few minutes. Just when I assumed she had accepted my explanation, she turned sharply to face me again, and asked, “Is it glue?”

At every spare moment throughout the sports competition, all eyes were glued to the few phones with internet access, to see the outcome of the Kenyan government’s newly formed, excessively bloated cabinet, comprised of 42 members. The Cabinet pick was delayed several days, sparking fresh riots in Nairobi, Kisumu, and the Rift Valley. It seemed Kenyans were no longer satisfied with the government’s stalling techniques, they expected peace and wanted it to last. Opinions were many (although strictly one-sided in my area) and the government’s actions allowed for easy humorous ridicule, so political conversations between my friends and I were beat to death, until Austine’s brother Stephen came to visit and we were able to listen to a fresh perspective.
“So each Minister,” began Stephen, “has an assistant. The Assistants alone are paid one million shillings a month**. Forty-two cabinet members and forty-two assistants, that’s eighty - four salaries needing to be paid.”
My question was an obvious one. “What do they need forty - two cabinet members for?”
“They don’t,” Austine said, “it’s just another way for them to steal money. Do you know the ridiculous Ministerial positions they are inventing? They have the Minister of Special Programs – what exactly do they do?”
Stephen and I laughed, then he added, “There’s also the Minister of Semi - Arid Area of North Kenya. The Roads and Transport Minister has been divided into two Ministers, one for roads and one for transport. There’s also Minister of Higher Education, in addition to the regular Minister of Education.”
“Pretty soon they’ll be developing a Minister of Ugali,” I said.
Austine joined in, smiling, “the Minister of Ugali, the Minister of Sukuma, the Minister of Omena***.”
Stephen continued, “And did you know that each Minister, along with their salary, gets paid an “entertainment allowance?”
“For what?!” I cried, aghast.
“For going to the beach!” Laughed Austine.
“So who is going to be paying for all of this?” I asked seriously.
Stephen and Austine looked at me, at each other.
“American donations?” Austine guessed.
“Fantastic,” I said, “My tax dollars are going to the Minister of Sukuma.”

I’ve never felt as close to the culture and the people here as in the last few weeks, as though I’m a part of something: the rebuilding of lives and homes surrounding the unrest; bitter frustration, resignation, and hope for the new coalition government; the Deaf community and their daily struggles and successes. However, after weeks in the Western Kenyan bush, I was excited to get to the civilization of Nairobi and eat something that wasn’t ugali. I wandered through city center as night approached, subconsciously snubbing the expensive, Western restaurants serving bagels and fancy sandwiches to wazungu. As I longingly peeked into Kenyan café after café, I became resigned to one simple fact: I wanted ugali. I craved the feeling of it in my hand, molded against my thumb and settled on my index finger as it scoops up pieces of steaming fried tilapia topped with salted sukuma. For the first time, I understood Joseph’s need for his daily fix of the tasteless carbohydrate, and why Kenyans who move to America answer “ugali,” when ask what they miss most about their home. I never imagined I could feel so much love, and utter devotion, for a pile of starch. If the Minister of Ugali position were open, I’d be the first applicant. So I ducked into the first respectable-looking café and sat down, content with my decision. The waiter approached my table looking apologetic. “Sorry, the ugali is finished.” My heart sank, and I realized how ugali was just one of the many links between my Kenyan friends and I, the raw, open beauty of Western Kenya, even Ken and his poetry, and how much being a part of life there during the last three weeks has meant to me.

For that reason, I have decided to extend my time in Kenya for two months, continue my work, and stay with the people who mean so much to me and make Kenya my home, for a little longer.

* Sukumawiki is another Kenyan staple - a green, leafy vegetable similar to spinach or kale that is cut into small pieces, boiled with onions, tomato, and salt, and served with ugali, and/or meat if the family can afford it.

** About US $17,000

*** Dried sardines, a common Luo dish eaten with Ugali and Sukuma

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sweeping Water

“Who do you think would win as President of the United States,” I ask, “Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo?”
Austine and George laugh. “I would have to go with Arnold, because he’s already Governor” says Austine.
What had started as a playful but riveting political discussion about the current American primaries, had somehow gotten off-topic when Austine asked why movie stars always became political figures in the U.S. Austine and I taught at the same school my first year in Kenya, and he and George are two of the Deaf teachers I’m working with this time around. Satisfied with our three hours of work, we started in on Arnold, I informed them about President Reagan’s past cinematic fame, and then George, in his dry, deadpan humor said, “Okay, now where’s Rambo?”

I don’t know what’s been a more interesting discussion with Kenyans, talking about the recent political situation in Kenya, or the current political situation in America. Obama is a local hero in these parts because his father’s home is “just there” in Siaya. Siaya is actually a good two hours away by public transportation, but if you’re from the same tribe and live in the same province in Kenya, the guy in the town four hours away might as well be your brother.
“Obama is my cousin.” George said with a completely straight face.

On the surface, Kenya shows the illusion of being a content, functioning African country. Life seems to run with complete normalcy, barring an increase in food and transportation costs. I have absolutely no concerns about my safety, but I’m able to feel the buzz of tension below the surface of every look, action, and conversation. I drive past “Adhiambo’s* hair salon” in Nairobi, which stands open but empty, and I wonder if Adhiambo is still there, and what she had to go through to remain. I hear numerous accounts of children whose homes were burned along with all their belongings, and the thousands of people who are still afraid to go back to their homes. The principal at this school told me how she and a group of about 20 students couldn't leave the school for several weeks, because of the instability outside. When a policeman came to the gate at one point, she and other school staff hid the children in a back classroom and locked the door. The principal said, “You never know with the police. They could just start shooting.”

She says the violence has caused so much mistrust throughout the country. Two good friends from different tribes could be having a smiling, civil conversation. But below the surface they are suspicious, and very angry, and they don’t talk about it. I’ve encountered this obvious anger and sadness in the Kenyans I’ve spoken with, but I’ve also noticed their pride for the fact that their country stood up for what they believed in, and in true Kenyan fashion, the humor underneath it all. Austine, George and I talked about the seriousness of the civil unrest and it’s aftermath for a long time. How the disruption of this African island of civility and relative peace for 40-odd years have opened Kenyan’s eyes to the possibility of what the country could be – and should be. How we hope that Kofi Annan gets the recognition he deserves. But we also laughed at how Condoleeza Rice berated Kenya for its behavior – from the faraway safety of Tanzania. We laughed about Moi**, who calmly stayed in his home and chanted his support for Kibaki and continued to do so after Kibaki “won” the election, until Raila supporters started throwing rocks at his house. Moi lost absolutely no time in flying off to the safety of South Africa. In which his neighbors lost absolutely no time in breaking down his gate and stealing all of his cows, slaughtering some right on Moi’s lawn and cutting them into pieces to share around the area. Moi came back when the unrest had settled, to an empty lawn, and neighbors who had a good thing to say about him for once. Or at least they had a good thing to say about his cows.

The story that had us holding our sides was from Kisumu. At the height of the unrest after the election, when buildings were razed to the ground and a curfew was imposed, a mzungu*** and his young son were seen riding their bicycles down the center street of Kisumu. They were talking, laughing, and enjoying the day as if they were off to a picnic in the English countryside. Every Kenyan stopped what they were doing to stare with their mouths hanging open as the two of them passed on their bikes. The spectators were too shocked to even whisper the obligatory call of “mzungu” to the seemingly oblivious parties, who couldn’t have been more incongruous to their surroundings. After navigating the roundabout at the end of the road, the pair parked their bicycles in front of a large poster of Raila Odinga. They stood in front of the poster and father imparted his wisdom, supposedly about the recent election, in true museum quality, as if describing the intricacies of a rare Da Vinci. Once finished, father and son mounted their bicycles and rode down the street out of site, leaving hundreds of Kenyans staring at their wake, and at each other with blank wonder, as if they’d all witnessed the exact same apparition. As our laughter began to subside at the end of Austine’s story, I wondered aloud about the stupidity of this man, and why he couldn’t enlighten his son in a more stable area, like their home, or hotel room. Austine giggled, and said, “True, but the Kenyans aren’t going to bother the mzungu visitors, they’re not interested in hurting them.” His smile disappeared and a shadow crossed over his eyes. “Because this is not their home.”

Africa is like a second skin that's so easy to crawl back into each time you return. In the taxi from the airport, we listened to a 90’s love ballad by an unspecific boy band, a bad version of an 80’s power ballad, and then Celine Dion came on. “Now I know I’m back in Africa,” I said to my riding companions. We were late for our flight from Nairobi to Kisumu because the taxi drivers here tend to ride on empty and stop at a gas station on the way to your destination. At the pump you give him a piece of his fare which he uses to add just enough fuel to allow him to pick up someone else and stop at the gas station on their fare. I’ve had six cups of chai since yesterday which has given me a constant caffeine buzz, and when I got up this morning, I took a bath in a bucket on a cement floor, and then swept (yes, swept) the remaining water out of a tiny hole leading to the grass outside with a broom made of pieces of thick straw tied together on one end with a long piece of black rubber. It’s surprisingly effective. These little African idiosyncrasies make me forget the hideous travel time and jetlag, and wonder why I waited so long in between visits. It also gives me the hope that in this country, anything is possible.

Since my return from Jamaica was so recent, I had expected to compare everything in Kenya to Jamaica, which is what happened in reverse when I first arrived in the Caribbean. Although I truly love Jamaica and all of it’s outstanding qualities, hospitality is generally not one of them. It took me living there and returning here to realize how truly astounding Kenyan hospitality is. People I barely know cook and serve me remarkable meals (which I’m led to and sternly but graciously forced to eat as though I’m a head of cattle), because there is minimal or no running water at this school, they bring buckets of water for me and a stool (“how can you bathe without a stool, when your bucket is just on the ground?!”) and spend hours of their precious time visiting and talking with me so that I’m comfortable. After being with people constantly in the last day, Austine left my house after a visit, claiming he was doing something and coming right back. He walked out the door, and I was forced to reassure him when he immediately poked his head back in looking concerned and asked, “If you’re alone, are you bored?”

Tonight, the rain beats down on the tin roof so hard it drowns out my music and all sounds from outside. I’ve just finished a meal big enough for three people of scrambled eggs with tomato, sukuma, and ugali. I’ve revisited the joys of boiling my water and squatting above a hole in the ground to use the toilet. The electricity has just gone out, which cuts my writing short and squelches any chance of watching a movie with my friends on my laptop tonight – a rare, rare treat for them. I put “candles” on the mental list of things I need to buy in Kisumu tomorrow, and feel the excitement and apprehension of seeing my favorite city in Kenya, and what has happened to it. I sit in the pitch darkness and realize, despite the fact that I have no idea where my flashlight is packed, that I’m so happy to finally be here.

Happy Easter

* Adhiambo is a common Luo name for a woman. Although Nairobi is home for people from every tribe, there is a large population of Kikuyu people there. Many Luos have been forced from their homes and killed in parts of Nairobi. The Luos have done the same thing to the Kikuyus in Kisumu. There are still 300,000 people in displacement camps around the country who are either afraid to go back to their homes, or have no home to return to.

** Former President Daniel Arap Moi was President of Kenya for decades until 2002 when he retired and Kibaki began his first term as President. President Moi was suspected of “altering” the results of many of his elections, and is also one of the top 10 richest men in the world, in charge of one of the poorest countries in the world.

*** White person