Monday, December 2, 2013

About Medical Trips, Bush Clinics and Going Home

This last week I spent on a medical trip in the area of Amboseli and Tsavo national parks, in southern Kenya. (Funny enough, this is exactly where my journey started out three months ago.) Scott, Heidi, medical students and doctors from the US and I drove out every day to a different site, set up tents and provided medical treatment to the resident Maasai people. I worked in the registration tent, being able to make use of the Swahili I had learned during my stay. 
I am very satisfied with the level of proficiency I have finally reached in Swahili, as I can communicate and hold simple conversations without problem. Being able to speak the people's language makes an immense difference, brings you much closer to the people and changes the quality of the experiences you make.
We treated between 30 and 100 patients per day, and could cure quite a number of their diseases. As always in Africa, however, you question the work you are doing, the efficacy, sustainability and long-term effects of your help and the radius of its outreach. This is nothing bad, it simply shows again how hard helping in the right way is in the Third World. You can't simply walk in and change the whole country.

For me, it was interesting to witness Western people walk into African culture, and only now I realized that this experience had quite changed me after all.

I am going back to Austria today, and I wish to take with me the many qualities and strengths of the African culture as I cross the ocean.
"How was Africa?" the people will ask, and I will despair in trying to answer the question in a few words. After all, in the end, Africa cannot be described in words, cannot be understood with the mind, cannot be pinned down; it can only be felt, be experienced by yourself, be perceived as a vague idea. It is unpredictable, ever changing, demands flexibility and openness and the readiness to take life as it comes. Africa has given me a new idea of what life is and who I am, it has given me something to stay with me forever.

Poverty and Happiness

Scott: "One of the most important things we want you to learn out here, Flora, is the complexity that lies behind poverty." 

I have started to comprehend that being poor implies so much more than the material or monetary aspects we refer to. Indeed, material poverty is often one of the lesser afflictive, or at least lesser tragic.
Poverty can be economical, if there are neither jobs, nor stores, nor consumers in a certain area; environmental or ecological, when the earth suffers from severe droughts, overgrazing, or the excessive  felling of trees for firewood and does not provide vegetation the way it used to; social, when wives and children are neglected by their husband because he prefers his younger one; spiritual, when the religion does not give hope,  consolation and freedom;
The poverty of opportunity, however, has been one of the most tragic for me to witness. The lack of future prospects, of the mere possibility to climb the "social ladder" or find a way leading out of your situation is what is so devastating. A girl born into a Maasai boma does not look upon a life of great opportunities. 
"Education is the key" is what the Kenian nursery school children used to sing every morning (not being able to pronounce the word, let alone understand it). Education, indeed, is the key, the golden key to open up doors to other worlds.
However, it is not as simple as it seems: lack of money, failing of exams, incompetent and drunken teachers, the lack of a studying and learning atmosphere turn out to be big obstacles for the students. For many girls it is unexpected pregnancy that terminates their education, or they have been promised off in marriage as soon as they leave school. Finally, all the Maasai children one sees herding goats and cattle never have and never will set a foot into a school building.
This poverty of opportunity is especially tragic for me to observe because I have such an abundance of it. When I look ahead at my future, I see a road that broadens as it runs along, pathways leading off in all directions. The roads that lie in front of my age mates here in Tansania are narrow, some dead-end streets or only leading back to the starting point. When I think of the future of the friends I have made here, my personal wealth seems to lie in the abundance of opportunity, of future prospects lying in front of me, and the freedom I have to choose. 

Enough said of poverty, hardships and other calamities. It creates the impression that life here is constantly depressing and sorrowful, when so often it is everything but that. Despite (or even because?) of poverty, people laugh so much, are so friendly, and seem to be so happy.
It is a very different kind of happiness I am experiencing here, a much more genuine and profound one. We are not happy because we bought a new product, achieved something great or because we are indulging in some kind of luxury. We are happy when we sit in the boma together, enjoy our chai and each other's company, always surrounded by a hoard of children and women stopping by to visit. We are happy simply because we are, because we are alive today. It is a more true happiness, one that endures longer, sits deeper, a happiness that feels more pure.

I have left Tansania after a week of hard labour, building the foundation of a house for a patient with muscular dystrophy.
I was picked up by my friends Scott and Heidi, doctors from Florida. We went to Lake Natron together, a beautiful, empty and silent place where I saw flamingos, slept on the porch under the African night sky, went swimming in a waterfall and saw a double-rainbow. I called this place God's Playground. Look at the pictures and you will understand why.

The pinkish hue on the shore are all flamingos.

Mount Oldonyo Lengai, a still active volcano.

Mount Gilei

Monday, November 11, 2013

World Hopping

I did some world-hopping these last few days. Hopped straight from the Third World into the First. If you thought that time travel doesn't exist, let yourself be convinced otherwise: Get on a shuttle from the remote, out-in-the-bush town Ketumbeine to the metropolis Nairobi, and in less than five hours you will have traversed 200 years or civilizational development. The First and the Third World lay apart not in distance, but in time.
I spent three days in Nairobi (I had to take an exam for my college applications), enjoying the benefits of the First World: hot baths, sit-on toilets, breakfast buffets,... constant stress and required anonymity, disinterest in others. No, to be honest with myself, I did enjoy those luxuries, and, more importantly, this world felt very familiar, even natural to me. You cannot deny, nor fully forsake the background you come from, after all.

Coming back home, I had some very enjoyable experiences to remind me of realities in African life. "So, how many people are traveling in our car?", I asked Bethany after we had met up. "Are you asking in the back or on the roof?" she said in her matter-of-fact way. Good joke, I thought, and laughed. Well, turned out it wasn't a joke: We were bumping along the gravel-sand-rocks road for two hours with three men on out car roof. In the meantime, I was holding a three-year-old sleeping boy that had just had a successful heart surgery. Welcome back.

Everyone is desperately waiting for rain at the moment. The drought has reached such a severe stadium that cows had had to be taken elsewhere to graze, grass has to be fetched from the far-off mountains for the starving goats, and both, cows and goats, are not giving any milk any longer, causing the women and children to be malnourished and sick. At Steve and Bethany's, we have started handing out high protein milk powder to nursing mothers and infants, to relieve hunger on a short-term basis.
Finally, a last interesting fact: Maasai like the color black, as it reminds them of rain clouds. So much for the relativeness of cultural affinities.   

Here a picture of Kili:

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Not So Black-and-White World

One of the most important things I have learned so far is that there are always two sides to a coin. However banal or obvious this discovery might sound, it has yet applied to every single situation. That is the reason why, for instance, the most severe drought can have the dropping of the birth rate as consequence (the women and men finally realize that they cannot provide for 9 children in hard times). That is also the reason why camels that have recently been introduced to the area, though giving milk even through dry seasons, on the other hand throw the local ecosystem off-balance with their different eating habits. (Also, they sometimes just run away in search of their old home, making Steve have to drive around looking for them all evening.) Anyway, it soon becomes evident that things are not simply black or white in Africa.

A similar situation is being brought about by donations. There has been such a long tradition of donation, funding and developmental aids that (some) people have become prone to believe that things in life come for free. If you are needy, ask the wazungu (Westerners) for help, and you will get it. If you run out of that money, ask for more... and you will get it.* In this aspect, Western donor funds have harmed the African people, as they have failed to teach them how to work hard for what they want.
There is, however, one great project I have encountered that demonstrates the exact opposite. The bead project NAAPOK, under the coordination of Bethany (my host-mom), allows 60 Maasai women to sell their bead work in the Western markets.
The Maasai women traditionally live in mud huts with straw-thatched roofs, leaky in rainfall. As the environment is so dry, women must travel a several hour journey in order to get new grass for patching their roofs. So, one day, they decided to build better homes with tin roofs. Instead of simply asking Bethany to raise funds for them, however, they asked her to sell extra bracelets they had made.The revenue they saved up. Momentarily, there are 60 houses in the process of building.
To see projects like these is very encouraging. They give the women self-confidence, a work ethic, an opportunity to spend time together and prospects for the future. More on good projects and great problems soon.

*Of course, this is a generalization and formulated in an overstated manner.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tansania or: In the Middle of Nowhere

These last couple of days have been very eventful ones: I moved to Tansania to stay at the home of two missionary doctors working with the Maasai people. "We live out in the bush", they informed me, and that was by no means an understatement. The next paved road is about a one and a half hour drive away (but we saw giraffes, zebras, antilopes and dikdiks on our drive home!). We do have running water in our home provided by a well nearby and we gain electricity through solar power.Yesterday, Bethany and I baked bread in a solar over, a very extraterrestrial looking thing: a box surrounded by four solar panels to increase light absorption. I am getting accustomed to the idea that walking actually serves to take you places. I am learning about the work the missionary doctors are doing, seeing some great, effective, reasonable and adequate projects, and I am being introduced to a new culture, that of the Maasai tribe. Plus, I have started taking Swahili lessons at a young Maasai woman's home, sitting under an Acacia tree somewhere out in the desert.
To understand what life is like out here in Tansania, it is essential to get an idea of the landscape: The soil is extremely dry, dusty and stony, the vegetation consists solely of Acacia trees and thorn bushes, water is very, very scarce... and there is simply nothing else there. As a result, life is reduced to a very basic dwelling, to the fighting of a daily struggle for survival.
I myself, that do not have to make a living off of this land, rejoice in its beauties: the quietness and peacefulness, but at the same time its harshness and inaccessibility. Today, for example, I woke to the sight of the Kilimanjaro in the sunrise and went to bed to the full moon illuminating earth and sky...and all that to a temperature dropping seldomly below 30'C.

I do often ask myself what on earth I am supposed to do, learn or achieve out here, in the middle of NoMan'sLand. If I have learned one thing so far, however, it is that you never know. Just go with it, whatever tomorrow might bring, and in the end, you will know where you were headed all this time.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Afrika, ein Seiltanzakt

This time a German post, to my dad for his 54. birthday:

Umso mehr ich mich mit der kenianischen Kultur familiarisiere, umso dringlicher stellt sich mir die so komplizierte Frage, wie man den Leuten helfen soll. Es tut sich jedoch nicht wundersamer Weise eine Antwort zu allen Problemen auf; Vielmehr kristallisiert sich langsam die Problematik der Aufgabe heraus: Womit fördert man Weiterentwicklung und hebt den Lebensstandard und womit zwingt man schlicht und einfach - und unnötigerweise- westliche Werte auf und vernichtet (oder vergiftet) die ihnen eigene Kultur?
Was man den Leuten geben sollte, ist die Chance, die Vorteile des 21. Jahrhunderts nutzen zu können: den Gebrauch von Elektronik, andere Teile der Welt zu bereisen, eine wohl-fundierte Bildung zu erhalten, von medizinischen Errungenschaften zu profitieren, oder bloß das Feld nicht mit der Hand ernten zu müssen. 
"Afrika ist in seiner Entwicklung 200 Jahre hinten und wird in den nächsten 30 Jahren aufholen," prophezeite mir gestern einer von Mama Maries Söhnen. Doch was soll das Ziel dieses Aufholrennens sein? Ein 1.-Welt-Staat nach westlichen Vorbild? Wie wenig das zu diesem Land und dieser Kultur passen würde, können die Afrikaner nicht erahnen - und wir Weiße oft nicht erkennen. Wie soll man einer Kultur, in der es kein Bedürfnis nach Zeiteffizienz, Produktionsrationalisierung und Gewinnmaximierung gibt, das kapitalistische Wirtschaftssystem aufzwängen? Weshalb müssen alle Fächer in den Schulen in einem seltsam und ungeschickt klingenden Englisch unterrichtet werden? Und schließlich, muss ein afrikanisches Kind wirklich wissen, was eine Gabel ist und wozu man sie verwendet? Durch unsere Blindheit für viele kulturelle Feinheiten des Landes sind uns, was die richtiges Hilfs- und Fortschrittsmaßnahmen betrifft, oft unsere westlichen, weißen Hände gebunden. Noch schwieriger wird das Problem, wenn es zu Fragen um Weltgeschichte und "Weltkultur" kommt. Die meisten Kinder, mit denen ich bis jetzt gesprochen habe (Alter 13 bis 17), könnten mit dem Namen Hitler nichts anfangen. Gestern habe ich einem Mädchen mit Hilfe eines Buches über den Zweiten Weltkrieg erhält. Bis jetzt hat es noch niemand geschafft, Austria nicht mit Australia zu verwechseln, doch auch als ich sagte, dass es in Europa liegt, ging den meisten kein Licht auf. Mit Mozart, Schubert, Aristoteles oder Platon brauche ich daher gar nicht erst anzufangen. Nachdem der erste Schock über dieses fundamentale Unwissen verflogen ist, frage ich mich, welche und wie viel von dieser Information, dieser kulturellen Bildung ein durchschnittlicher Afrikaner wirklich braucht. Aus der Geschichte kann, soll und muss man lernen, das ist verständlich - aber Mozart? Schon wieder balancieren wir auf dem so unglaublich schmalen Grad  zwischen "Development" und Neo-Kolonialismus.
Zum Abschluss ein letzter Gedanke: Es existieren in dieser Kultur keine oder kaum negative, boshafte Gefühle. Ich spüre in den Leuten keinen Stolz, keinen Neid, kein unbegründetes Misstrauen, kein Vorurteil oder Ablehnen. Wäre diese natürliche, diese echte Freundlichkeit der Preis, der für die Entwicklung zum westlichen, reichen, fortschrittlichen Staat zu zahlen ist? Wenn ja, ist dieser Preis zu hoch?
Antworten habe ich, wie du siehst, noch kaum. Ich weiß nur: Afrika muss sich einen verschlängelten Weg durch den Urwald des 21. Jahrhunderts bahnen.

Ps: Alles Gute zum Geburtstag an meinen Papa. Deine Flora

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Culture so Different from Ours

When entering into a new culture - especially one that is so foreign to one's own - it is extremely important to be susceptible and sensible to the cultural differences existent. Their extent is enormous, their omnipresence always visible and tangible, but the scope of these differences manifests itself best in the small occurrences of every-day life. I will try to pick out a few examples in order to paint a picture of the nature and essence of this culture:

The rhythm of life is a lot slower than the one of Western countries, the days are not so much focused on maximum productivity and time efficiency. Punctuality is basically non-existent and waiting (even for a couple of hours) is never a problem. The culture is much less stressed, hurried or under pressure.

Especially since I am living in a rural area, the values held are still very traditional and conservative ones: First of all, the "revolution of the pants" has not quite reached these areas of Africa yet. Women wear long skirts. 
Most strikingly, however, is the difference in the mindset of the people concerning marriage and family structure: Even though the young generation no longer approves of it, polygamy is still a widespread and widely accepted phenomenon - just as contraceptive measures are not. This leads to families consisting of up to ten wives and an uncountable number of children. A woman should give birth to at least four, preferably six or eight children - the more, the better. Why? Having sons grants security in old age, having girls signifies wealth - they will be sold off  into marriage for about 10 cows each.
At this point, one may be shocked at the extreme "old-fashionendness" of these values. It is thus important to avoid looking upon the cultural characteristics with our Western eyes, condemning them as delayed in development or classifying them (even if only unconsciously) as lower than us. In my opinion, the culture is simply different and worthy of respect even if we don't approve of many of its attributes.

Another very significant difference is the fact that people are essentially positive. Other than in many western countries, people are able to approach each other unprejudiced. They are friendly without expectations, they are not suspicious, they are curious and open-minded towards strangers. This contributes largely to the warm, the friendly, the happy atmosphere to live in - and is one of the reasons why I am enjoying my stay here in Kenya so much.

Ps: I haven't really mentioned what exactly I am doing here: I am mostly teaching/playing/painting with the preschool kids, but I have also already helped with the building of a house and the harvesting and threshing of maize. Next week we will start to set up a library for the students, a project I am very enthusiastic and excited about.