Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Growing Up

"So, what do you think you might like to do when you grow up?" I ask
the 17-year-old girl sitting across from me. She promptly looks down
and away and says nothing. 30 seconds elapse; still not a word. I
try a different question: "Have you ever thought about what your life
might be like when you leave this home?" She continues looking away
and heaves her shoulders in a sigh. No reply.
This month we are launching a program at Cornerstone Children's Home
to help the children reintegrate into their families and communities
when they reach the age of 18. The program aims to teach them a
vocational skill, learn to create and manage a budget, and find a
place to live. To help them along the way, each child age 16 and over
was assigned a staff mentor to guide them through the process over the
course of one to two years. It is a big step forward for the home,
which up to now has had no exit strategy for the kids – several of
whom are already in their early 20s.
I expected to encounter resistance; the kids are being asked to
shoulder the responsibility for their own futures. They are learning
by doing – learning agriculture by growing food and raising chickens.
They are expected to work 10 hours each week on a project around the
home. This program marks a significant paradigm shift, and this
change – as with all change – feels both difficult and frightening.
As I sit with the girl, however, I realize something I hadn't
expected: she isn't resisting me because she doesn't like the idea of
work, nor because she is afraid of the prospect of change. She isn't
even actively resisting me; she has just never thought about the
future before. This is shocking to my American sensibility, to my
proud cultural heritage in which we start preparing children for
university while in utero. When I ask her what she thinks her life
might be like in five years, she can't answer because she has never
thought that far ahead.
I take a deep breath and begin again: she went to visit her older
sister at Christmastime – what was that like? What did she do while
she was there? Did she like cooking? Really? What can she cook?
What else? What else? Did she cook with her sister? Would she like to
become a tailor like her sister? But what if someone taught her to sew
first? Does her sister's husband have land or are they just renting a
house? Would she like to live there with the sister's family? Was it
fun seeing her sister's children? Would she like to have children of
her own someday? Aaaaand…that's when we were imagining too far into
the future. But on the way there I discovered that this young girl
not only knows how to cook, but she enjoys cooking. She knows how to
embroider and might like to learn to sew. She definitely does not
want to become a nurse. She has tried growing food before but wants
to learn the right way.
All in all, I'd call that a productive first meeting.
Of course, I can't get the other five children with whom I need to
meet to stop running away every time they see me coming.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Longing & Settling In

I’ve always told friends when they move to a new city, “you have to give it 6 months, the first 6 months are always bad.” I found myself having to take my own advice on more occasions than I’d like to admit these past months.

Sure enough six months in I’m happier here than I’ve ever been. I have adjusted (resigned) to the 105° weather and that not much will get done between 1 and 4 in the afternoon. I can juggle several children’s needs without having a complete meltdown – sometimes even with a smile. I am no longer surprised if not yet comfortable with the creatures I may have to remove from my house at any point in the day (here is a short list: bat, monkey, goat, scorpion, rat, spider, one-eyed dog).

I am truly enjoying my days here, my time with the people and even the town in which we live. Let me tell you this is no small miracle. It has taken me all these six months to say “I’m glad we are here, it’s been worth it.” Most days I didn’t feel that way.

Now we are preparing to go home for three weeks. We will be leaving the compound to begin the three day journey back to Denver in exactly 10 days and I cannot wait. I can smell Denver, see the mountains, imagine every street corner and each friend and family member’s laugh and smile. The longing for home is possibly stronger, yet with less grief than ever before.

Then I see our four year old Amana smile and run to me and I can’t stand the idea of leaving for a month. I see our older children working in the gardens and hate that I will miss the first planting. I know life hear will go on just fine without me, Amana will run to the arms of one of the other mother’s we have hired and there are people here who know more about planting than I do, but now this is home and I’m going to miss it.

Malaquan for Me

“ You going to grow in that rocky place?”
That was the most common question I heard when I started purchasing supplies for my small garden.
The children and neighbors laughed at me as I began chipping at the small plot of cleared earth with a pick ax (come on, you would have laughed too). They laughed as I collected dried grass, manure, and kitchen waste from around the compound and piled it near my hopeful square.
But then it started to take form and others joined in. They removed stones bigger than some of our children and made my pile grow taller than me.
Of course, when it was finally time to plant everyone had an opinion of what I should grow. I had imagined it as my garden with all the things I would want to grow and eat. A perfect little kitchen garden. Here was my second lesson in how nothing in Africa is mine (I’m not sure how many dozens of lessons I’ve had since then, but I’m still not getting it). Everything is communal, everyone gets a say, and so it was determined that I would grow okra and malaquan (sour greens) in all four of my small beds.
Water had to be pumped and brought in 20L jerry cans from the well about 150M away. I paid my child laborers with “Cornerstone Shillings” and promises of okra.
We ended up growing enough greens for all the children to eat several times - that is more than enough to feed 70 people once a week for four weeks. I even had two people come by from the community to see if they could buy my malaquan – booya!
Okra it turns out will produce, produce, produce. Even after we stopped watering and were letting the pods dry to collect the next seed, small determined blossoms would arrive on the stalks, letting our young girls cook and enjoy the small pods all through the dry season.
The first garden has been dug up and we are preparing to plant again as the rains come this month. I now have teams of kids 16 and older starting their own gardens, all part of our new “self-sufficiency” program for young adults at the home and no one has said to me “we can’t grow here.”
Recipe for Malaquan (I’ve never actually made it, just eaten it):
Malquan – Sour leafy green grown by the Acholi tribe in East Africa (substitute: any leafy weed, add lemon)
Sweet Potatoes
Groundnut and/or roasted sesame
Over an open fire roast sesame and/or groundnuts in oil. Remove from heat and grind nuts into a fine butter with a stone. Sauté Malaquan with oil, add nut butter. Serve over boiled sweet potatoes

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Death of Johnny Cash

What do you say about a monkey who died? On February 22, we found one
of our monkeys, Johnny Cash, dead in his cage and the other monkey,
June Cash, standing by the corpse in a bewildered state.
I liked Johnny, but I wouldn't say we had a close personal
relationship. Instead, I'll leave it to others to share about Johnny.
The following was said by the mourners gathered around the funeral
pyre (because we had to burn the body, because it would have been
super gross to bury it. And yes, someone did sing 'Ring of Fire' at
Johnny Cash's funeral pyre. And yes, it was me):
"Why Johnny Cash? Why not Simba [our dog]? Simba deserves to die." -
Lawa Joyce, our head cook
"Johnny Cash bit children and scared them. Johnny Cash bit me and
scared me." - Dorothy Mandera, 7-years-old
"I am not sad that Johnny Cash died." - Kasara Lamwaka, 12-years old
(who, nonetheless teared up a little bit)
And then there was 13-year-old Amacha Emmanuel, the happiest and most
resilient child at Cornerstone. In my 6 months here I have seen Amacha
deviate from happiness one time (when he got angry and bit another
boy). Other than that, he has an ever-present smile and cheery
disposition. Perhaps it was because of his unflappability (read, the
fact that he never screamed and ran away when a monkey came near him)
that he and Johnny Cash had developed a special bond. Johnny climbed
all over Amacha, and Amacha just laughed.
As the fire was burning down, I realized I hadn't seen Amacha and went
to see if he was alright. I found him in his bedroom, lying on his bed
and drawing a picture. He seemed a little quiet but otherwise fine, so
I asked him if he had heard the news. He looked at me, nodded, and
broke into his trademark grin, and I realized: no, he hasn't.
I told him, and his face was crossed with a look of pain and shock.
The knowledge settled over him, and he began to sob. His body shook,
he wiped tears away again and again first with his hands then with his
t-shirt, and he kept trying to make himself stop and failing. Before I
knew it, I was crying with him.
And I asked myself why, because I thought Johnny Cash was alright, but
I had no special affection for him. And I realized: Johnny was
Amacha's friend, and more than that Johnny gave Amacha the opportunity
to feel like he was good at something special - when every other child
fled, Amacha stayed; when Johnny was acting like a crazy monkey,
Amacha could calm him down. Johnny made Amacha's life more full, and
Amacha did the same for Johnny. Amacha has other talents and
abilities, other ways that he feels special now - but it's distinctly
possible that being the monkey tamer was the first time he was able to
feel that, and now it's gone. Amacha will move on, but that's
something to grieve.