I have not been able to write as much during this trip as I would have liked, partly due to time constraints, and party due to delayed processing speed (both brain and computer). This trip has been an emotional journey through peaceful being and a still mind, extreme self doubt, intense inquiry, and contemplation of the thoughts that churn through all of the above. It's hard to parcel out each of those moments and dig up their roots, but I have been able to glean a little off the top.
Last week I traveled to Kisumu alone, and it was the first time in my life I have gone entire days without seeing another white face. There was nothing threatening or fearsome in my environment, yet I felt an intense urge to return to my hotel room after even a few hours out, because I grew weary of being so obvious, so foreign. I can't quite think of the words to describe the experience, but it reminded me of my recurring dream that I've gotten on the school bus wearing no clothes. the obvious thread is exposure, and fear of it. At the end of the day I wanted something familiar, a need that was somehow fulfilled by the environs of the New Victoria Hotel. The New Vic is fairly basic and inexpensive--its rooms are furnished with wooden beds with nets circling overhead, a small table, a black and white TV, a plywood dresser, and ceiling fan. The bonus features are the en suite bathrooms, hot water, window screens, and balconies with a view of Lake Victoria. Downstairs there is a restaurant, managed by two Yemeni brothers who are very kind. This was my third stay at the hotel in the past three months, so I am beginning to have the status of a regular; this means freebies from the brothers--water, juice, and cakes. There is one server there, Wilfred, who is very kind and has a nice smile. He always brightens when he sees me, and we have a clear affinity for each other in spite of linguistic and cultural barriers. Each day he taught me a bit of Kiswahili, and I greeted him exuberantly. And somehow he became an anchor of familiarity when I felt otherwise adrift.
I spent time with colleagues in Kisumu, which also provided much food for thought. It's always humbling to realize that one's achievements and overall development are largely a function of geography, which is largely a function of luck. I have met so many intelligent, enthusiastic, and hard working people and can't help but think of the opportunities I've had that they haven't had, which also makes me think carefully about whether I'm living up to my full potential. I spent an evening talking with my colleague Benard, getting his thoughts about globalization, public health, and their intersection. We talked about the "brain drain" and U.S. agencies and NGOs plucking Africa's scientists and health professionals, leaving their communities bereft of the talent and dedication of their best and brightest young people. While this practice is vilified in the liberal enclaves of the U.S. (ahem, Seattle), Benard sits on the flip side of the argument. Who are we to say he shouldn't leave for the comfort and security of American professional life? Who are we to say where he should or should not work? He talked about his sister in law, who is a Kenyan doctor and works for a Western NGO, and pointed out that she is helping Kenyans, she earns more money than she would at the Ministry of Health, and that earned income goes back into the Kenyan economy. He feels that Western organizations and researchers have influenced national policy for the better, and doesn't see a problem with Africa's scientists abandoning government agencies for Western organizations, or even Western countries. It was an interesting conversation, and quite a different story than the one that is often told in Seattle.
I also had my first teaching experience while here, and it was terrifying! I let my nerves and fear get the best of me, and I wasn't able to be the kind of teacher I would like to be. I was tentative and scripted, unable to think through my fear to provide good examples and stimulate conversation. I am usually my harshest critic, but this time I just didn't excel. It reminded me of the first time I went to swimming lessons. I can't recall all the details, but I do remember the fear. I was terrified when my instructor put me in the proper diving position and pushed me in. I thought back to that, and realized that the first time I swam, I didn't do it well. I just survived it, basically. It reminded me that sometimes I need to know what it means to struggle to do something well, and taking that first plunge can tell help me learn what it takes to get to the end goal. I think the biggest lesson in this experience was trying to be kind to myself, and let go of my perfectionism (as much as possible!).
Today we are going back to the field to disseminate research results to the community members who participated. This is the part of the trip that I always really enjoy, even though I can't understand much of what is said. Our project has been very well received, and I will write more about that soon.
with love, gratefulness, and careful thought,