Saturday, February 5, 2011

It takes a village...

... for us to visit villages in the Kwale district that is.

We are home from our best trip yet and we are thinking back over everything that happened and how none of it would be possible by ourselves.

Long before this trip even started, it was a group effort. Lindsay's advisor, Dr. Orsega-Smith, has been so supportive of our interest in health issues in Kenya. Dr. Orsega-Smith knew about this travel/research grant opportunity through the Institute for Global Research at the University of Delaware and encouraged Lindsay to apply for it. All through the duration of Lindsay's experience at school, in fact, studying Health Promotion at the University has given Lindsay the practical tools and skills that we needed to enhance our development work in a strategic, methodical way. Because we do everything as a team, this means that our goals here have benefited from her education and the resources that have come along with it.

Lindsay was then awarded this grant that covered all of her travel expenses, and every expense on the ground (rental car, housing, food, etc...) but it didn't cover airfare for Senya and me. Our little family has been going through some difficult financial times recently so we weren't sure what we were going to do. We mentioned this once around a few loving friends and family members and they immediately put that worry aside. They decided to help us raise the money. In a span of 2 weeks some of our very generous friends and family members had done a whirlwind of baking, cooking, pitching our cause at church, and staging fund raisers that raised enough money to cover every cent that wasn't included in the grant. Some people went way above and beyond with their generosity in time, AND money (you know who you are). All of our expenses for this whole trip were covered. Astounding.

Lindsay's parents took it upon themselves to send Senya to Africa in style and comfort. They bought her a suitcase full of cute, comfortable warm weather clothes, and an incredible supply of diapers, wipes, food, first aid stuff, sun-screen, and just about anything you can imagine a baby needing on a month long trip. We used and appreciated every single thing they sent and can't imagine what this trip would have been like without that. They also thought of lots thoughtful, practical details like a handful of small bills to tip people to help us with luggage (we had a lot... traveling for a month, carrying research supplies, delivering goods from people at home to friends and charities there... this wasn't a classic Collin and Lindsay trip with 2 backpacks).

Our friends in Kenya took fantastic care of us while we were there. Terry and Paul made us delicious vegetarian food to welcome us back. The Nicolles, who introduced us to Terry in the first place, made sure to write to us to make us feel welcome and even gave us some tips about places to get out into nature while visiting the coast. Our entire month and all of our work there wouldn't have even been possible without the constant help from people there on the ground, primarily Terry and Paul.

While we were in Kenya, our dear friends and family kept in touch with us in a number of ways. It is difficult to describe how much this means when you are living in such a different setting, but wow. It was so nice to get pictures of people we love back here enjoying the snow, phone calls just to touch base, emails to fill us in on the daily happenings, facebook messages to encourage us when things were tough, and blog comments/emails from people communicating with us about our work. Keeping in touch like this wouldn't have even been possible in the recent past (I didn't hear one thing from one person at home the first time I visited Africa) but it really works wonders to enhance your time away from home. It just ties it back in to other parts of life that mean so much to us and reminds us how interconnected the important things in life really are.

Also while we were in Kenya so many people offered to take care of stuff back here for us. Nathan came to check on the house for us and take care of Lindsay's plant. Ian stopped by to check on things for us and his help. My property managers, Chris and Lil kept things with the rentals ship-shape. Shane took care of some essential business dealings while we were gone. I actually gave him power of attorney over real estate, financial, and business transactions. It's pretty special to have a baby brother who can be trusted with things on this level. My parents did a great number of things for us. Perhaps most significantly, they adopted our beloved Zuri while we were gone and took wonderful care of her. We really wouldn't ever leave if we weren't 100% confident that she was safe and happy. They would send us frequent updates about her well being and enjoyment of things like fresh snowfall and warm fires.

When we got back to the airport in New York, my parents were waiting for us with a balloon for Senya, a cart for our luggage, and food for us. They drove us home to a house that had been fully prepped and made to feel like a home again. Nathan had cleared the driveway. Ian and Laura had cooked a huge batch of some of our favorite food. My parents had stocked the fridge with foods that we love. They had built a fire, and turned on the heat to make sure that we wouldn't freeze on our first night back from the tropics. Our dear friend Jessica had left a delicious batch of home-made cookies on the porch for us.

All of these things mean the world to us and really, that is just the beginning of it. Our friends and families love us and support us in such an incredible way. I can't imagine doing what we do without having such an amazing team of people making things possible for us at every turn.

Thank you all for everything. We love you so much. Thank you for helping to make our dreams come true.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Returning to winter

We will be leaving here tomorrow afternoon. We spent months preparing for this trip. In truth, we have arranged our entire lives around the work here to an incredible degree. It is a strange thing to have sacrificed so deeply and poured so much of ourselves into something and then leave it without any concrete plans to return.

Coming here requires a lot of time and money, both of which are scarce these days. People have been asking us when we will return and it is difficult to know how to answer. This is our fifth time here. Each time we have left without knowing the future, and each time we have found ourselves back here. I have to imagine that it will be the same way again, but without knowing the details of timing, funding, or the practicalities of our own lives, it is difficult to answer that question with any measure of confidence. "I'm sure we'll be back before long. We always come back to Kenya" is the way that I have been replying.

This month here has been busy and we have worked very hard, but it has also been exactly what our little family needed in a lot of ways. It was time that we could spend together, away from the stress and busyness that has been so present for the past several months. Sure there were stressful and confusing elements, but there was also a tremendous amount of laughter, and a great sense of accomplishment. Most importantly, it was all experienced together. It was a time to focus on a common goal. It was a time to live in the present. It was a time to talk about what we need to see in our lives when we are back at home.

So tomorrow we'll be leaving the summer time and we'll be heading back to the icy cold winter. We'll be leaving the life of being together 24/7 and we'll go back to work, school, business and the other countless things that take us in separate directions. However, we will be returning with a fresh sense of identity as a family and, hopefully, a refreshed sense of ability to tackle the challenges before us and not only survive them, but complete them with excellence.

We'll also be returning to family and friends and we know that those reunions will be filled with joy.

As far as the research and the projects here are concerned, like I said, we always come back to Kenya.

We are leaving the already established projects in the very capable hands of our partner and project manager, Terry Awendo. We will maintain consistent communication and we will be heavily involved in the facilitation of these dreams from afar. These projects are ever evolving and we look forward to that happening even while we are on a different continent. I think we'll always have one foot in both places.

In terms of the new HIV/AIDS research, we are also very excited about that. Time and funding both hold a voting seat on the board of that future, but we are confident that all of this work will not be in vain. We are optimistic that we will have a role in a brighter, healthier future for this place that we love so dearly.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More random updates

I know that at this point in the trip you may be expecting a concise wrap-up of the month's events or some conclusions about the trip here. The thing is, we have been so frantically trying to get everything finished that I feel a bit scattered. So, here are more disjointed stories from the day.

I got a terrible flat tire early this morning. I must have hit something really nasty because there was about a 3" rip in the tire. I wasn't really prepared for this type of event. Turns out my spare was flat (thanks rental car company) and I didn't have any money on me at all. Not even one shilling. I was, in fact, so unprepared that I didn't even have shoes with me. Barefoot. Broke. Broken down. I had to rely completely on the kindness of strangers to get me to a place to fill my spare and then back to put it on. An hour or so later I had bummed several rides and found some friendly guys to help me and I was back on the road.

I visited Pamoja Nursery School today to distribute the items that some kind souls from VCF sent over here with us. The students and the teachers were so grateful for the much needed supplies. Witnessing that was very special.

I spent some time with a woman from our micro-finance group today. I wanted to observe her business in action and hear a first hand account of how things are going. I sat with her as she made chapatis to sell in the village and listened to her tell her story. The small loan that she received was just enough to bump her business up a level to where she was able to buy school uniforms for her kids and send another child back to school. Also, for the first time in years, she has enough money to give them lunch when they return home for the lunch break. Her gratitude business of selling food in the village is finally covering her basic expenses. I stopped back by her shop about 8 hours later just as she was starting to sell the dinner foods that she had prepared during the day. I bought a delicious dinner of chapatis and beans in a coconut sauce complete with some sweet breads for dessert. The whole dinner for Lindsay and me together cost a total of 50 shillings (that is 62 cents).

Lindsay and Terry went out to lunch today. Lindsay wanted to thank Terry for all of her help with the study and just spend some time relaxing and talking rather than working. They had a great time together and I had the privilege of having a special little date with Senya. We went to Hollywood (one of my local favs in the busy town of Ukunda) for lunch and then went to the beach. The beach where we went has lots of giant baobab trees that grow almost up to the water's edge. Incredible. Senya was mesmerized by the beautiful water, crashing waves, and strong ocean breeze. That girl laughs and smiles a lot these days and I just adore moments like this.

I love that this restaurant is called "Hollywood."

Look at these trees!

I just love her joyful little spirit.

Tiny Senya. Giant tree.

We went to our final school for the final focus groups this evening. Turns out there was a scheduling mix up and they weren't anticipating us (this was the second week in a row at this school). They can't fit us in before we leave, so we are officially done collecting data. It was a bit of a bummer, but Lindsay has enough data for her study so it's no big deal. Also, we came here expecting this to happen a lot and we had a surprisingly low number of incidents like this. Because we have been working at a breakneck speed for so long, the realization that we were finished with the research didn't strike us until a few hours later and we both had a good laugh about the anticlimactic ending.

We leave the day after tomorrow to head home to a cold, snowy winter. It is hard to believe that our time here is almost over.

P.S. I talked to my friends at Pamoja about the matatu crash that I mentioned yesterday. 3 people died on sight and the rest of the passengers were rushed to the hospital with serious injuries. So sad.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Random Updates

It has been a while since I have written here on this blog so I'll post a little of this and a little of that to catch you all up to speed on some recent developments of these past few days.

We are just about finished (re)working out an agreement with Terry, our project manager here on the ground for how all of our various projects will be run in our absence and what kind of reporting/communication should take place. It is very hard to partner with someone else to realize your visions at all, let alone from half way around the world. We are fortunate beyond words to be working with her. She has made many of these dreams possible. This new agreement will hopefully make these things even better. After hours and hours of meetings, I think that we have things fairly well ironed out.

On Saturday we tried to take Senya for a camel ride on the beach. She did not like it. Not one little bit. For the time being, she prefers her little yellow floaty inner-tube. That's fine with me. I am not sure which one of us loves our swimming time more.

Today we visited a few of the schools where we have finished gathering Data. We wanted to thank the teachers and exchange contact information. We are excited that there seems to be a genuine enthusiasm to work together again in the future.

This evening Lindsay, Senya, and I went out to dinner with 2 other people we met here who are working in the schools to implement a health and reading intervention that was designed by a Harvard professor. We had a wonderful time together and it's a shame that we didn't get to meet them earlier. It was very refreshing to spend an evening with a couple of people who are working hard because they believe that they can make a positive difference in this crazy world.

WARNING: The rest of this post is a little on the heavy side (it contains descriptions of violence).

We had a surreal and strange experience at one of the schools today. We happened to be there during the time that the corporal punishments were being administered. Kids were forced to kneel in the dirt and hold up their hands to be violently and repeatedly beaten with a wooden stick. They had to hold their hands out in anticipation and then, after the painful beating, turn their hands over to receive the same treatment on the back of their hands and knuckles. The agony in the student's faces was heart wrenching. The brutality of seeing them literally dragged through the dirt for their turn to be beaten was repulsing. The fact that over 100 kids were in line to receive this treatment was mind boggling (as it turns out, these were the kids who were late to return to school after lunch).

It was difficult for me to overlook this situation. As someone who cares very deeply about human rights, it didn't sit well with me but I did what i thought was best and I bit my tongue. I thought that saying anything to the headmaster might be counterproductive. We are literally on our way out the door and we are leaving with an open invitation to return and implement an intervention that could be life-saving. We want to come back here and work to bring lasting, positive change. That means working within a system that is obviously flawed. If we make enemies in that system, our chances of succeeding in helping these kids diminishes.

The lines that we walk in order to do this work are mind numbing. Choosing our battles and trying to weigh potential future outcomes against one another is so confusing. Will the end results be the greater good for which we strive? We are constantly faced with situations like this and we often agonize over our decisions, but in the end we often just have to hope that we made the right call.

Remember how a few years ago Lindsay and I talked a lot about how riding the matatus every day was a harrowing experience? Each and every one of the HUNDREDS of miles we have traveled on matatus was passed in the hope that we wouldn't wind up careening into the afterlife. Well on Friday, on our way back from Kwale, we saw one of the vans we had ridden many times (literally one of the exact, same vans) shattered and crumpled into a charred mass that hardly resembled a vehicle. It had flown off the road (apparently at a tremendous speed) and into a ditch, rolling many times and finally coming to a rest in the precise location where we park our car when we visit the Pamoja center! I couldn't believe the fact that it was in that location... if this had happened the day before, it would have landed on our car. If this had happened 2 years ago, we could have been on it. Everyone except the police were already gone when we passed, so I didn't stop, but I'll have to check with my Pamoja friends tomorrow to see what happened. The wreck was so horrific looking, I can't imagine what happened to the people inside.

So, as the title of this post indicates... random. I know. That's a snapshot of our past few days though.

We are wrapping up here and sifting through all that has happened over this past month. There has been a lot that is confusing, some that is discouraging, and some that is very good. Recently we have had some big doses of confusing and discouraging, but over all I would say that the scales tip heavily toward the "very good."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A new literacy class

Today we visited the newest of 3 literacy classes that have been started since the last time we were here. It is located in a rural area called Mwachome which is a farming community quite a distance from the main road.

Thankfully, our friend Sayidi offered to ride with us and show us the way. Without him in the car telling me where to go, I never would have made it. I probably would have turned around at the point where I literally had to drive through the play-yard of the local school, or maybe the part where I had to weave through a cluster of mud huts like so many cones on a drivers ed course taking care not to brush into any, or perhaps one of the many places where the route looked more like a dried up stream bed. There were no other car tracks and the crowd of laughing children running behind our car was a testament to the fact that 4 wheeled traffic is rare indeed in this area.

Here is a picture of Sayidi talking to some of the local kids. It gives you an idea of the setting.

Our new literacy teacher is named Ainea and she is fantastic. She runs 3 classes and they each meet 3 times per week. She told us that this is her favorite class because the women here are very dedicated students. They are working hard and grasping the concepts quickly.

Senya is continuing to adapt very well and has even started to pick up on some of the local customs.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sometimes important steps aren't great blog material

I had a financial meeting that lasted for HOURS today. It was the kind of meeting that people don't want to read about on a weblog, but it was definitely needed and productive.

Communicating across continents and different first languages can be a little tricky when you think about how involved some of these projects really are. We really wanted to set aside some time during this trip to go through the budgets line by line and discuss in painful detail things like expectations, reporting, transparency, etc... Like I said, not something for a blog, but very necessary.

We had our first real focus groups today. Mine, with the boys, was excellent. It was much like yesterday in that the students in my class didn't mind discussing this subject matter one little bit. Unfortunately for Lindsay, there is a cultural expectation on girls here to keep quiet about these kinds of things. She said that getting people to talk was actually a lot of work. She still got a lot of good information, it just wasn't quite the same setting as my classroom. I am eager to go back through the recordings and compare the data we are gathering.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taking an opportunity

Today we were supposed to start holding focus groups. Something was miscommunicated, however, because when we arrived, all of the students that had filled out questionnaires last week were in exams and a large group of students we had never seen were waiting to speak with us about HIV/AIDS.

We explained to the guidance and counseling teacher, Mr. Shikuku, that, because these students had not been given consent forms to take to their parents, we would not be able to hold the focus groups and they could not be a part of the study. He apologized for the confusion and asked us if we would be willing to stay and talk to the students about HIV/AIDS even though they were not eligible to participate in the study. They were expecting guest speakers today (that would be us) and he didn't want to disappoint them.

We were already there and we didn't have any conflicting plans for the remainder of the day because we had been planning on doing the focus groups. We decided to stay and speak to the students and it turned out to be a great experience for all of us.

The majority of the students are Islamic and the subject matter is somewhat sensitive. We had been advised by teachers at this school last week that, due to religious beliefs, the girls would not speak openly about issues of sexuality in a mixed group so we broke into groups of guys and girls.

I was placed with a group of about 50 male students and was asked to lead the class. I told the teacher that this is not what we had been planning, so I didn't have a lesson prepared. He told me that after observing the administration of the questionnaire and the ensuing question and answer session last week, he really wanted me to lead a class for this group of students too. He said that if we could do more questions and answers like we did last week, that would be great. These students hadn't been a part of that time and could really benefit from something similar.

OK then. Time to lead a class.

We spent the entire hour talking about HIV/AIDS and sexuality. Some of the questions that the students asked highlighted the fact that people living in an area afflicted with AIDS live with a very different reality than others. "How long after someone dies of AIDS do you have to wait before you can wash the body without risking infection?" "Can I get AIDS from sharing a bathroom with family members with AIDS?" There were questions about transmission. There were questions about prevention. There were questions about cures, myths, and rumors about AIDS.

It is can be a sobering subject, but I am also of the belief that life not should be lived without laughter. There were lots of questions about condom use and sex and it would really be a wasted opportunity to not throw some jokes into the mix. I figured a bit of a joke here and there was a safe bet for a group of 50 guys in their teens and 20s and it turns out I was right. The students didn't mind the jokes one bit and they would chime right in with some of their own. There were a few times that we were all howling with laughter to the point that I thought we might get shut down, but we never did. In fact, a few of the teachers came to hang around the periphery to see what was going on and I saw that they were laughing too. The levity that this created really seemed to put the students at ease and foster a very open environment. After the laughter, I would always try to make sure that I had fully addressed the most recent question and this usually led to much more serious follow up questions.

Mr. Shikuku told me afterwards that he had never heard his students be so open before and that he thought that the class went very, very well. The headmaster of the school, Mr Zani (a very serious man who runs a tight ship) told me that he had asked some of the students about their time with the researchers and he said that he had been getting excellent reports. He said that he is grateful for what we have done in the school and we are welcome any time. We exchanged contact information and he asked me to keep him informed of our progress with the study and any plans to come back.

Lindsay's time with the girls was also very successful. They all enjoyed their time together so much that they asked for consent forms to take to their parents so that they can participate in the study. Lindsay scheduled a focus group and a teacher interview for next week.

So, what started out as a bit of a bust turned out to be a very productive afternoon.

Not big news but still worth noting:
  • I fed monkeys out of my hand the other day.
  • I caught an old world chameleon last week.
  • I love the geckos living in our little house here.
  • It is strange to me that January is the dead of summer here and we are in it rather than the icy cold we grew up expecting to correlate with this month.
  • I haven't worn socks in weeks because I am always barefoot or wearing flip flops.
  • My flip flops sport the colors of the flag and say "Kenya Power." They cost less than $1.00.
  • We ate 1kg (2.2 lbs) of spinach for dinner tonight. I made sukuma with it and it was delicious.
  • We eat a pineapple every day.
  • If you ever get the chance to try Chips Masala (french fries covered in a spicy indian sauce) your mouth will believe in God.

When things don't go according to plan

Sometimes life requires flexibility. Sometimes life requires holding your ground. Today it required both of those things.

We visited our 7th and final school to administer the questionnaire today. We had been there about a week and a half ago to explain the study and drop off the consent forms. When we arrived, it took a long time to assemble the students. When we collected the consent forms we started to see an issue arising. About half of the students in the room didn't have their forms and we couldn't let them participate in the study without the signatures of their guardians explicitly giving their permission to do so. After much discussion with the deputy head teacher, we decided that we would break for lunch, the students who had forgotten their forms would fetch them from home, and we would reconvene in a few hours.

Lindsay and I returned a few hours later as planned, but Terry wasn't feeling well and couldn't join us. We have done the questionnaire on our own a few other times and it went fine, but today was different.

We had been advised by several people that English is the official language of instruction and that our materials should be in english, so that is what we brought with us. When the english has been too tricky for particular questions, Terry steps in and translates. At the rural school today almost nobody could understand our english (thick with our american accents).

The Deputy Head Teacher (who shouldn't have been there to begin with but kept popping back in) was quick to offer to translate. This was very kind, however, the IRB protocol clearly states that Lindsay, Terry, and I are the ONLY ones allowed to conduct the research. Lindsay tried to kindly explain this to the Deputy, but he was quite zealous about his participation and just grabbed the questionnaire and started to run through the questions. He was also hovering over students' papers and enthusiastically prompting them to answer in specific ways.

Lindsay tried to stop him and reason with him a few more times but he wouldn't hear it. She then tried to find me to back her up (I had taken a very bored Senya out for a walk) and she couldn't find me. At this point she was faced with a difficult task. She could not in good conscience let him continue on to the questions that go into detail of the students' sexual history. The ethics of having a school administrator forcefully extract that kind of personal info... no way. She had to put her foot down and, as she explained it, channel the persona of the wonderful Liz Lemon and "SHUT IT DOWN."

She was polite but insistent.

Senya and I returned from our walk just in time to see Lindsay resolutely gathering up the papers and seeing the students out the door.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Almost done with the questionnaires

We administered the questionnaire in the 6th school today. I don't have a total count at the moment, but we are getting very close to our goal of 300 participants. We would surely have reached 300+ if one of our schools hadn't cancelled our meeting today. Not a big deal. We are only half way through our time here, so we will be sure to get the data that we need.

The next phase of the study will be the focus groups and teacher interviews. We are so excited about that phase of the project because we will get qualitative data that just can't be gathered by a predesigned questionnaire. If the question and answer times are any indication of what the focus groups will be like, we are going to be in great shape. The openness of the students has been surprising and will translate to excellent data.

We also plan to start on the teacher interviews next week and we are really looking forward to that as well. All of the headmasters and teachers have been incredibly helpful and accommodating. It will be excellent to get a chance to sit down and talk to them one on one with specific questions to cover.

It has been a bit of a surreal experience to be here during this month. We knew that we would be coming here for this trip even before Senya was born. Now that everything is actually taking place, it has been even better than we could have dreamed. This is, by far, our best trip here. For one thing, we have a specific project that is going very well and will, hopefully, result in an intervention that will help literally thousands of people. Secondly, as I wrote about last time, it is just an incredibly special experience to be here, in this place that we love, with Senya. Finally, we feel like we have our life back. We have been so busy and stressed out over the past several months, it has been wonderful to spend all day every day this month working together on a shared goal and then hanging out together in the free time. This time has been perfect for our little family.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Senya's Magical World

Today we administered the HIV/AIDS questionnaires in 2 more schools. It was a long day, but a very productive one. However that is not what this post is about. My last few posts have been a bit long winded and heavy, so today I wanted to dial it back a bit and share a snippet of the joy that our family has been experiencing here.

This past year has been quite a ride for our family. The birth of Senya and her first seven months with us have been surreal. My eyes have been opened to a beauty, and my heart to a love, the kind of which I never knew existed. However, in other ways, this past year has been more difficult than I care to communicate on this blog. We have experienced many kinds of loss and gone through tremendous upheaval that has resulted in stress that we never dreamed we would experience.

Coming here to a place that we love and spending all day every day together has been just the kind of healing we needed.

Being here with Senya is an absolute dream. This has been a special place to Lindsay and me for many years, but to come here with Senya has been such a wonderful experience. She loves the warm weather. She wears a onsie all the time and revels in the freedom of it. She squeals at the monkeys. She rides wherever she wants in the car (they don't enforce car-seat laws here and we aren't exactly driving on busy interstates). She has mastered the art of sitting up on her own. She kicks her little feet and babbles in delight when she sees the beach. She has recently started standing up in one of the seats of the car or in her car-seat (when we are parked) and absolutely howling with laughter. We aren't sure exactly what she finds so hilarious about the situation but her zeal is contagious and we all wind up just looking at each other and laughing until we are in pain. It is adorable.

Today was her 7 month birthday and she see was so happy all day, it melted my heart. We took a few hours this evening after our work was finished just to have fun together and celebrate life.

We went to a restaurant that serves dinner on the beach. We went out just as the full moon was rising. The white sand, the balmy breeze, the lapping waves, and the silver moonlight were the stuff of fairy tales.

Afterward Lindsay and I wanted to go out for ice cream. We picked our flavors and went out to a table in the moonlight (I love that everything is outdoors here). I was holding Sen on my lap while I ate mine with a spoon. I didn't realize until she opened her mouth expectantly and then watched in confusion as I bypassed her and fed myself that the little spoon looked just like the one we have been using to feed her and the ice cream looked a lot like baby food. It was so cute that Lindsay and I caved immediately. I took Senya back into the shop to get a tiny bowl of pineapple sorbet for her. When we went back to our table, she was thrilled with this new arrangement and showed us by shaking her arms and exclaiming her delight between each bite.

It was a pretty good day in the middle of a pretty good month.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The questions we are asked these days.

Today we administered the questionnaire at Golini Secondary School. That school is a personal favorite of mine. I really like the head master and the guidance teacher. The location of the school (on the edge of a tall ridge overlooking the coastal plane and the ocean) is really hard to beat. There are lots of coconut trees that provide shade and there is a perpetual breeze that is a wonderful respite from the relentless January heat.

Today was the first time that I administered the questionnaire. There are a lot of questions (8 pages worth) and the subject matter is pretty intense. I was a little bit nervous at the thought of standing in front of 40 students and asking them to divulge that sort of information. Writing the questionnaire in the weeks before we came was one thing, but actually reading those questions to a room full of students... wow.

The study is about HIV/AIDS. Our goal is to design an intervention that successfully communicates the life saving information that the current curriculums fail to deliver. If we are going to find out where those curriculums are failing, we need to ask some pretty detailed questions about what students know and what they don't know.

There are lots of reasons why the current efforts are failing (perhaps a topic for an entire blog post in the future). One main reason is simple. This stuff isn't easy to talk about. The classes are mixed gender, mixed age, mixed religion groups of students. Talking openly about sexual behavior in a setting like that can be uncomfortable for the teachers and the students.

Seeing the young, innocent faces of the students in the front row really took us aback the first day. Lindsay and I exchanged glances and I could tell we were both thinking "Gosh, look at these little kids! Should we really be talking about this stuff in front of them?"

We discussed it on the drive home and we had both gone through a similar thought process. We felt like blushing and making excuses at first and then we remembered the stats... the 12 year olds getting AIDS, the 13 year olds getting pregnant. If they are old enough to be facing those issues, they are certainly old enough to be taught about safety and prevention.

So back to the questionnaire:
Our questions are bold and really go after sensitive information. We make a few things very clear to the students so that they feel comfortable answering such questions. We assure them that the questionnaires are anonymous and that their answers will be kept confidential. We also tell them that they are free to ask any questions at all without being afraid or embarrassed.

Some of the questions we get are heartbreaking. In response to the early question "have you ever had sex before?" one little boy (about 12 years old) raised his hand and asked Lindsay if it counts if you have been raped. Wow.

From there, the questions started to get more detailed. It is tricky because we want to be open and answer everything. After all, the end goal is to provide information that empower people to make healthier choices. However, we don't want to give answers that will skew the results of the study and thus cripple the resulting intervention. What we have resorted to doing is holding a question and answer session at the end to address issues that go beyond understanding the questionnaire.

After everyone had finished with the questionnaires this evening, I collected them and then asked if anyone had any questions. Silence. I suggested that perhaps some of the questions had made them wonder about something. More silence. I asked if maybe they have heard conflicting things from friends and teachers. After a little prodding, one boy timidly raised his hand. "Is it true that using condoms can help prevent HIV/AIDS?"

As soon as one question had been asked and I answered it honestly without expressing disapproval or judgement (and perhaps throwing in a bit of a joke to lighten the mood), the floodgates opened.

"Isn't it true that condoms are have microscopic holes that let HIV/AIDS infection through?"

"If you have HIV/AIDS, won't the condom burst?"

"Is there a way to protect yourself from infection if someone you have already had sex with finds out that they are infected?"

"Is it true that if you have AIDS and you have sex with a virgin, you will be cured?"

I have read about misconceptions and false beliefs about HIV/AIDS in Kenya, but to hear questions like that with my own ears really drove something home for me. This isn't just something you read about. This isn't overblown in the news for shock value. These are real questions with easy answers and the information needs to be made available in a format that it will reach the people who need to have it.

The questions just kept coming. A teacher stepped in to tell us that it was 6:30 and that we were already an hour past school closing time. We needed to wrap up so that students could walk home before dark. There were many many more questions and I couldn't just walk away leaving them unanswered. We promised to return next week to continue the discussions.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Choosing your focus

We have some days like this every time we come to Kenya. Probably everyone goes through this in one form or another in their life, but it really stands out to me when we are here.

The need here can be overwhelming. When I walk from our cottage to go buy fruits and vegetables, I pass by a village where large families live in mud huts with thatched roofs, no electricity, and no running water. Right outside the door are piles of trash that will never be collected by a municipal trash service. On the corner, a man with spina bifida drags himself through the dirt to beg from passers by. When I reach the markets, I quickly duck into the stall of my trusted fruit seller who knows what I want and treats me well. I don't dare walk past the other shops because I just don't want to deal with the desperate calls to please just take a moment and look in their shop... consider promoting their business so that they can afford school fees and food for their kids.

On the way to where we work we drive past several villages without electricity or enough water to keep the crops healthy through this dry season. We pass a school with 900+ students and 13 teachers (all crammed into rooms rooms without lights or running water... rooms that would house about 1/10th of that number at home). We pass a "school for the mentally challenged" and an underfunded hospital.

I can tend to be overwhelmed a bit when I look around and then realize that this is KENYA, one of the most developed and affluent countries in the region. At least there ARE schools and hospitals. At least this isn't Somalia. Seriously, have you read about that place recently?

There is just so much that we can't even begin to address. One thing that is challenging in this kind of work is simply being exposed to all of that need and feeling like what you are doing isn't even a drop in the bucket.

In order to combat this feeling, we have adopted a few strategies.

#1. Define a Focus:
If your goal is "to do good" you run a great risk of either burning out or spreading your resources so thin that they won't make a lasting difference. Our high level goal here is to implement projects that improve the lives of Digo people living in the rural Kwale district. Beyond that, we define a few specific target areas. "We want to promote Chidigo Literacy," ... "We want to assist single women in starting a business to support their families," ... "We want to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among primary school children." Once those criteria are in place we move on to the next step.

#2. Set out with measurable goals and objectives:
Whatever we do, we like to be able to build evaluation into the process so that we can step back and say "is this working? Did _____ happen in _____ [amount of time]?" If the answer is yes, then it is working. If no, then we have some reevaluation to do. We try to do that to stay objective enough to run the numbers and see if our ROI is making sense. However, in order to keep a human face on these efforts, to communicate the heart of what we are trying to do, and to encourage ourselves during the tough times, we go to step 3.

#3. Remember the individual stories:
It is encouraging when your criteria are all met, you implement a program, and then you come back to evaluate it and it is operating like you hoped. It really is. When you see 20 women succeeding with their small businesses, it is an amazing feeling. However, after a day where you had to say "no" to a group of women asking you to help them start a new project in a neighboring tribe, you didn't have medicine for a sick boy with one of the mothers in the literacy class, and you didn't have any food to give the teacher's son who is obviously malnourished, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by that whole "drop in the bucket" feeling.

That's when we have to sit back and remember that 2 years ago we visited Fatuma at her house and she was completely broken. She simply couldn't provide for her 2 small children. She was in tears because she honestly didn't know what she would do to keep them alive. This year, our visit with her was in the context of the new Micro-Finance group where she is a successful participant. Her business is doing well and sustaining itself. Her kids are healthy.

Maybe these are drops in a bucket, but a brighter future for these cute kids... these drops are quite worth while.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Finishing out a good week

The research project is going well. We have visited 8 schools and had 7 agree to participate in the study (we are waiting to hear back from the 8th one). That will be our entire sample. Things are going much more smoothly than we anticipated. We are so excited.

We had initially intended to take weekends off to rest, but one of the boarding schools in our sample has such a busy program that they can't fit us in during the week, but they really want to participate. They asked if we could come tomorrow, so tomorrow it is.

A light-hearted aside:
Living somewhere so different from home is really fun. There are so many details that are just a common part of every day life here but they really stand out to me. Some of those things that I enjoy are:
  • Thatched roofs.
  • Mangos.
  • The ability to send money from one person to another with cell phones.
  • Dumptrucks that look like they are from a WWII movie.
  • When people say "salaam alaikum."
  • Red dirt roads.
  • Warm blue ocean water.
  • Monkeys.
  • Produce stands selling local, organic goods for pennies.
  • Internet access anywhere there is cell service.
  • Change that can be used to buy more than a gumball or 12 minutes at a parking meter.
  • The fact that there are elephants in the woods.
  • Tea-Time
Of course there are things that I don't like too, but the good far outweighs the bad.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When Dreams Become Reality

Wow. What a fantastic day.

We started the morning by visiting the new Micro-Finance group that we co-founded with Terry last year. This was especially exciting because Micro-Finance has been a personal dream of mine for years. Last year we did all of the planning and laid the groundwork while we were here in Kenya. We returned home with the goal of eventually raising the start-up costs, but we thought it might be a while. People's generosity and eagerness proved us wrong and we found ourselves finalizing the plans with Terry via email and then sending the money overseas.

Even with complete confidence in a partner's character and ability to implement projects, there is somewhat of a disconnect when a dream is realized in your absence.

Terry has been giving us reports since the start of the project, but not until today when we were actually able to meet the participants face to face and hear them tell their own stories did the reality of this project sink in. These 20 women have all been profoundly impacted by this project. They have started or improved various small businesses that provide enough of a cash flow that they can provide the essentials for their families. The difference that this makes is monumental.

Today was a big breakthrough for Senya too. Thus far in the trip, she has been having a marvelous time, but that time has been spent almost entirely in our arms. While completely happy whenever she is being held by either Lindsay or me, she has been exhibiting a fair amount of stranger anxiety if anyone else tries to hold her. In her defense, she has spent most of her life in a quiet log cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania with only her parents around. The people we have been meeting in the villages look, sound, and act in a way that is different than what she has come to know as normal.

This morning when she saw Terry, she broke into one of her big smiles that she reserves for people that she loves. That smile marked a change of heart for Senya. She was outgoing and happy to interact with people all day long. It was adorable to watch her make some new friends. Here's a picture of Senya participating in the Micro-Finance meeting.

The next milestone of the day was returning to one of the schools we visited earlier this week and actually conducting the research. When we arrived, they were ready for us. The guidance teacher had previously collected all of the consent forms and sorted through them to see which ones had been properly completed by parents who would agree to let their child participate in the study. He had all of those corresponding students seated at desks and waiting to fill out their assent forms and then complete the surveys. These technicalities are a departure from how things are normally done here, but they are absolutely essential for Lindsay's grant, research credit, and IRB approval. We were so grateful for the help of this teacher.

The students were fantastic. This was our first time having anyone from our target demographic actually complete the questionnaire. We were a bit nervous about it because it asks very in-depth questions and it is 8 pages long! We were all holding our breath, but the students remained engaged and every one of them completed the entire project in about an hour and a half. This was our first big batch of data collection and it seemed to be a success!

During the time that we spent at the school today, Lindsay and I were both struck with the same impression. Up to this point, this project has been so much work. We agonized over the forms and refined the questions. We have read studies and publications about research findings for similar interventions. We have spent hours on end theorizing about what might work where other efforts have failed. We have tried our best to be thorough, but up until now, this has been an issue to us. Today it became the lives of those specific individuals.

Watching actual students check the boxes and turn the pages of the questionnaire... seeing hundreds of gleeful children frolicking about the school yard... hearing the laughter of kids playing games... the humanity of this whole thing found its way into our hearts this afternoon. The ideas of human rights and social justice were embodied by smiling kids.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rolling along

We are making great progress in the research project. We visited three more schools today. Things couldn't have gone more smoothly. All of the head teachers were very receptive and eager to participate in the study. We have now visited a total of five schools to meet with the administration, explain the project in detail, and drop off consent forms. We will visit 2 or 3 more schools and then we will have all of our participants!

Tomorrow we return to the first school we visited. We are very excited to actually be conducting the research for the first time (rather than simply explaining the protocol).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess a personal bias before I say this next part. I really like Lindsay. A lot. Actually, I have a bit of a crush on her. That aside, I think that I can still say with some degree of objectivity, that she is an incredible student and researcher. She is amazingly well organized. She planned for this project in great detail. Her cross cultural communication skills are outstanding. Her attitude in facing monumental challenges is inspiring. I am very fortunate to be here working with her on this project.

Now for 2 fun little side notes.

1. When we rented this little car in Mombassa, I doubt they had ANY idea what we would be doing with it. Every day, we wind our way farther and farther into the interior of this beautiful but rugged landscape. There are good roads in this part of Kenya, but the villages where we are working are located a good distance away from them. To call the tiny little red dirt tracks that we follow "roads" would be a stretch by just about anyone's standards. I honestly cannot believe the terrain that we are covering. I often drive about 1 mph as I precariously pick and choose the best path over the rutted and washed out paths, but I am still amazed that we haven't gotten completely stuck yet.

2. It is really wonderful to be living and working within minutes of a beach that is a picture perfect paradise. We are so close that we can swing by and take a quick dip after we are done working for the day but before it is dark. Can it get any better than that? Yes it can! The beach where we like to go has the cutest infestation on earth. These little guys are everywhere.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our first day of research

Today was our first full day of research. It was a great day and we accomplished a lot.

We started out the day by driving for miles back the winding red dirt roads that typify the Kwale district. We passed through the lush jungle and the green farmland. We were so far out into the villages, I was imagining a little one room school house with about 30 kids in it, but came to a clearing and pulled up to a school with 476 students!

The students greeted us warmly and we got the impression that it isn't every day that this school receives visitors from another country. The range of shouted greetings, shy smiles, stolen glances, and even the curious hand reaching out to touch senya's soft white skin all hinted at the unique nature of our visit.

Although Terry has spoken with the headmasters of each school to arrange for our study, we are still expected to meet in person upon our arrival. We spent a couple of hours explaining the purpose of the research, going over the consent forms and questionnaires, and discussing our hopes for the outcomes of this study. Our vision was strongly supported by the headmaster and the teachers and we were granted full access to the facilities and any assistance we may require.

The teachers gathered the older students who will be participants and we spent a couple of hours sitting under a thatched pavilion explaining the study and passing out forms. The students must now take the forms home to their parents/guardians and return with signatures that grant permission for their participation. We are scheduled to go back on Thursday to do the questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups. After our reception today, we are looking forward to our return.

We had a short break in the afternoon before going to a second school to repeat the process.

In non-research-related-but-still-exciting-news, I (Collin) used the afternoon break to visit my friends, Idi and Sayidi, the grounds keepers at Pamoja. It was a scorchingly hot day and Lindsay had developed a craving for Madafu, coconut milk found inside of green coconuts. I knew that Idi and Sayidi posses a coveted skill that could help us acquire such a treasure. I wanted to get Madafu for Lindsay and I wanted to learn how to scale the tall, swaying coconut trees.

Idi went first. He kicked off his flip flops and virtually sprinted to the top of the tree. It looked so natural and easy. He used his feet to walk up the tree while using his hands to pull himself toward it so that his feet would stick. When he came down, I asked for a few pointers, took off my boots, and went for it. I thought I might get about 10 feet or so before deciding that I was good enough at my new talent, but the feeling of climbing the tall, swaying, trunk was so invigorating, I just couldn't call it quits until I reached the top. The view of the green countryside rolling down to the turquoise ocean seemed to magnetically pull me upwards.

When I reached the top I realized 3 things that were all slightly embarrassing.
  1. In my eagerness to start my climb, I had forgotten to bring a knife with me, so I couldn't cut any coconuts down.
  2. I was exhausted! Idi had made it look so easy, but apparently, I am not in shape like he is.
  3. When you look 40+ feet down from the top of a leaning coconut tree and see absolutely nothing between you and the hard ground, you tend to question the untested grip of your bare feet on the bark of the swaying tree.
I climbed back down in partial victory. Idi and Sayidi were both very encouraging and told me that it was an excellent first climb. Idi was then kind enough to scamper back up and chop down a few choice coconuts.

After the whole ordeal, I was resolved to hone my skills later this month. Lindsay was grateful that I wasn't dead. Senya was happy to try Madafu.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Starting a month of research

It is good to be back in Kenya. It truly feels like a second home.

Our trip here was great. All of the flights were smooth. All of our connections were easy. All of our bags arrived with us. All of our reservations (flights, cars, hotel, house, etc...) were ready upon our arrival. We had no trouble with customs, visas, or any other legal technicalities. We had a day-long layover in istanbul that was marvelous, and a day and a half in Nairobi that was very restful. This is our first international trip with Senya and it couldn't possibly be going any better.

Being here with Senya has been a very special experience. This place feels like a part of us, and it has been magical to share it with her. She loves the warm weather (no more bundling up like Ralphie from A Christmas Story). She is enthralled by the leaves on the banana trees and the vibrant flowers everywhere. We took her swimming in the ocean (as warm as bath water this time of year) for the first time and she never stopped laughing and squealing with delight.

After making our our epic journey here, taking care of all of the practicalities of living somewhere else for a month, and resting up for a bit, we were ready to dive into a month of intense work.

We drove up to Kwale (ohhh how nice it is to have a car here!!!) to meet with Terry and Paul, our partners and project managers here on the ground in Kenya. It was so good to see them. Of course we always keep in touch, but there is nothing like meeting face to face and getting to be introduced to new babies for the first time. Their son, David has grown into a very cute little boy and their daughter, Pendo is a beautiful baby. It is cute to imagine Senya having familiar friends and playmates here as she grows up.

We spent the day plotting the course of the next month. Every day promises to be packed to capacity. For example, tomorrow we will meet at Pamoja Center in the morning and then spend the day visiting primary schools in several villages distributing and explaining consent and ascent forms for students to participate in our HIV/AIDS study.

We are hoping to have about 300+ participants. Our 50 lb. suitcase filled with nothing but forms and questionnaires speaks to the volume of data we are hoping to gather. After the forms are distributed, we will return to conduct interviews, focus groups, and have students fill out questionnaires.

Amid our busy research schedule, we are planning times to visit all of the previously established projects. We are excited to hear reports of progress made, see new projects that were nothing more than dreams the last time we were here, and visit with the wonderful people who manage and participate in these projects. We can't wait for this aspect of the trip to unfold.

This promises to be a busy month, but we will try to update this blog periodically so that our friends and family members back home can keep up to speed with what we are doing here.

Thank you for reading and for helping to make these dreams a reality.