There and back again…

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Looking out the window of this vehicle I see the plains of southern Kenya, mountains, acacia trees, and Masaai herders with their livestock. A week ago I was surrounded by something very different. 

A number of years ago, a woman began taking in children that were left on her doorstep. As the years went by, the number went from 2 to around 60. This woman was not a wealthy heiress, or a philanthropist who was giving back because she was given so much. No, she was just a woman who lives in the slums of Nairobi. She was a tough lady with years on her face, with a presence that is somewhat intimidating, and in her care were children from the age of 2 to 17. Through the kindness of the neighborhood, and other charities, she is able to put her kids through school. She calls them future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, musicians, and she’s not joking around. And I was there.

We hung out with these kids for about 5 hours, just hangin out, playing games, being silly, and then some honest conversation with the older ones. In a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where the task of feeding ones self is a challenge, let alone one’s own family, and confidently this woman seeks to feed 60 children and youth, daily, and for as long as her days will allow her.

Kibera Girls Write Love Songs

After 4 days hanging out in Kibera with my old friends at the Kibera girls soccer academy, I felt somewhat rejuvenated again. I learned some tactics at the orphanage which taught me how to diss someone 5 different ways in Swahili, which was a huge hit at the Academy. Someone would give me a pound (you know, bumping your fists together), and at the last second, retreat my hand, extending my finger and wagging it saying “masaa badu” basically saying “come back later”, would result in screams, giggles, and the occasional threat for retribution.

Seeing Pete walk through Kibera for the first time, reminded me of my first time going through there, and how I was without words because it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I walk through the streets which once burned two years ago at the hands of thugs, and violent men and women who were paid by their elected leaders to indulge in ethnic violence and the murdering and displacing of innocent people, and also knowing that as I write this, an arms race is underway to prepare for the 2012 elections, with access to Somalia’s surplus of automatic weapons, I wonder if we can’t learn from very (very) recent history. Kenyans are peaceful, but like most places that struggle in the developing world, many can be easily bought by the wealthy to commit atrocities so that the ruling elite can stay in power. But for now, Kibera is back to normal. It is a place I love. You can’t just see a photo of Kibera and know what is happening there. You have to walk on the streets, and talk to the people, and even then you really don’t know what is happening in this place. Fried fish, grilled corn on the cob, vendors of fruits and vegetables, and the smells of the open market are mixed with the burning garbage and open sewage. There are both smiles, greetings, and suspicious looks on every corner, But through the maze, behind the mosque, and next to the beauty parlor is a haven for education, personal development and equality. And here, the girls of the KGSA are working with my good friend Peter, who is teaching them about singing, and the art of songwriting and it was on Thursday that they wrote their first love song.

During one of the lessons, the news came..

“Paul, did you hear, Mercy died.”

I felt the loss of both meanings of the word. Apparently, she was poisoned, but most people believe it was a suicide. Mercy in 2007 was a girl who worried me, I met her, she was pregnant, and was attending the KGSA with plans to drop out. She was depressed, reserved, and couldn’t look me in the eye. In 2008, I was surprised to have seen her so happy. The baby was delivered, and yet, she was still in school! Getting help from relatives, Mercy was confident, happy, and doing great in classes, I told her I was looking forward to congratulate her the following year as a high school graduate.

The news of her death really broke my heart, as she was so close to making it.

There is no time to waste, we have to act while we have the time.

The weekend brought me to the wild, where I spent a few days with Peter, photographing animals as we drove through their natural habitat. It felt great to be there with the “good camera”. The clear night inspired me to ask a hotel manager if there were any darker spots around the hotel where I could take some star photos without the risk of light pollution.  The manager suggested that he could shut off the lights of one area of the hotel, so I could take a few star photographs. I thought that was a bit of an extreme offer and at first he made it seem like no big deal, and said he would see me the following night at 11pm to make arrangements.

At around 10:30pm, the F&B manager who I spoke with the night before, arrived, but things weren’t as simple as he made it seem the night before. He said he was going to have to call guards because of things that may or may not happen in 4 seconds of darkness, and when I inquired more, the only answer I got was a stern look and the statement “I do not wish to further divulge on this topic.” It was clear that his offer had some strings attached so I quickly rescinded. 

The following conversation with this man, led me to believe that I was dealing with an egomaniacal, but somewhat powerful man, who just made us feel very uncomfortable, making threats about cameras watching me that were bigger than the SLR i had in my hand, and he wouldn’t stop buying us drinks. He went on and on about people with small heads, and dark and shady behavior. He repeated time and time again that he is just a smalltime team player, yet, when he bought a pack of cigarettes, but had his underlings open the pack up for him. It just reminded me too much of Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin but on a very very small scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We had a 2 minute break in the conversation when we thanked him and got the hell out of there.

Back in Nairobi and I have 4 days left. This one flew by.

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Keep Sarah Palin Talking

1930954_87518945170_1392_nI finish my amoeba medication today. I won’t miss the acid reflux that it caused. Yesterday, I had my first full meal since last Tuesday, and I had meat for the first time today. I ordered grilled chicken strips. When I got the bill, it read “Chicken Chunks” appetizing, right?

So this is a story about a girl named Lucy, not the Lucy that I know here, but some girl named Lucy who lives in Mombasa. So apparently her old phone number expired, and Safari-com assigned me her old number. For a while I got lots of anonymous calls and hang ups when i would answer. Finally, the other day, “Where is Lucy???” “I said, excuse me”. He replies “Lucy – has she returned to Mombasa?” “i’m sorry sir, but you have the wrong number” “No! I do not. This is Lucy’s number and i want to speak with her… NOW

“DUDE this is the wrong number” 

“No! I WANT TO SPEAK TO LUCY

This continued for a while, and I had a few minutes to kill.

5 minutes later.

“Sir, you have the wrong number”

Him, in a very pleasant tone: “Oh ok, that’s cool”

So wow, the last few days were jam packed with some good stuff.

Today I went to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, one of the partners of Seeds For Hope, to check up on the girls and see how they’re doing. We had a blast. I had forgotten how to get there, since once you get to the main bus stop, it’s a series of twists and turns through alleys and side roads, going thru a few people’s backyards, and back again. Still, every step was familiar, and every face was loving. I love the people of Kibera. Hardworking, honest, and alive. 

The walls along the main road are spray painted with remnants of the post-election violence, as well new messages of a communal responsibility towards peace and unity, once again.

I arrived at the school and saw some of the teachers, and we had some great conversation. Many of the questions were around 1) Education in the U.S. and 2) The U.S. presidential elections.

After delegating the task of slicing cabbage to me, the teacher said:
“We love Sarah Palin! With every word she speaks, Obama gets more points. Keep her talking.”


I laughed as I sliced and diced cabbage.

Teka, one of the teachers, told me to leave the heart of the cabbage. So I did this, but Byron asked me why I left it behind? So he kept on cutting the hearts. Mixed messages!

I visited the 10th Grade (Form 2) class. I’m not a good teacher, so it took a while to warm up. By the time I got to the 11th Grade class, I was ready to go. It ended up being a Q&A. Some of the main questions asked:

- My position on the presidential elections
- What are the political issues I care about the most?
- Have I ever attended the Tyra Banks show as a studio audience member?

We got into a long discussion about Tyra Banks, actually. And then I taught them a little bit about ancient Egypt. 

Onto the 9th Grade (Form 1) class. They were so inquisitive about the curriculum structure of the American School system. After a description of my high school classes, and them telling me what they learn in class, the summary was that in Kenya they study way more subjects than we do in the states in any given high school year. 

The 9th graders alone study all four sciences, as well as 2 languages, history, math, and literature, as well as other subjects. The four sciences stood out to them the most as a big difference, when someone asked me:

“If we study so many things in Kenya, why are we struggling so much, compared to your country?”

It was not a question I was prepared to answer.  It got me thinking about global inequality in general. Volumes could be written to answer this question, in fact volumes have been written on this subject.

After some discussion about this, my main focus was not to bring the girls down. Their education is absolutely not in vain. They have to understand this. We started talking then about what each of them wanted to do. So many journalists, lawyers to be in the mix. One in particular, had a very serious look in her eye about her desire to end corruption and crime.

These kids have experienced it in a very blatant way.

The subject of foreign languages came up, and they got pretty stoked when I told them I learned Spanish in school, and before I knew it, I spent about 30 minutes teaching them Spanish from English and Kiswahili. Was hard to juggle all three but I managed to get the words in all languages on the board without much help. We got right into conversational Spanish and before long, the girls were speaking to each other in Spanish, with perfect accents. 

The day ended with the echos in my ear of the girls chanting the numbers in Spanish, from one to ten, as I left the classroom and proceeded back into town to continue with the rest of my schedule.

Afterwards we met with Maboyz, and we had a great meeting today. We saw some old faces and made some new friends. It was such a powerful time of togetherness and hopefully the re-ignition of something new.

Tonite, a buddy of mine and I saw a film, Taken, with Liam Neeson. I find out later on that this movie won’t be released in the USA until January of next year. I mean, come on. Am I supposed to believe Liam Neeson, as a kick-ass international spy, who kills everyone in sight to find his abducted daughter? My friend was suggesting maybe Arnold should be cast in this role. I’m pretty sure the film still isn’t even finished yet, and this was some sort of test audience kinda deal. There’s a whole section of plot that was just not there.

I mean this guy is searching for a man, he can’t find this man, he has no idea where to find him, then it fades out and fades back in, and not only has Liam Neeson found this guy, but has him tied to an electric chair and is using non-geneva-convention-approved torture methods to get answers to his questions.
Ok, it’s time to sleep.

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Poetry for Life

I attempted olympic lifts today at the gym for the first time in years thanks to the inspiration of my buddies Chris and Tony, and the good people at www.crossfit.com These people thrive on pain, and I’m starting to get it. No vomit yet, but I believe it’s coming.


I was waiting for Grace at the Yaya center for lunch, and I was seated near the entrance, when a guard came to inform me that I appeared too relaxed. And I asked if that was a problem, and he said “of course, we do not allow sitting here.”

We’re Not In Romania Anymore


Remembering my time in Romania, and the difficulty in finding electronic parts, I reserved the entire day to find a 1/4 inch to mini audio adapter for a balanced mic cable. I had my route planned, and the strategy was near perfect. I mentally prepared myself for the hours ahead of searching and bargaining. The 4 shops I had visited previously prepared me for the daunting task at hand, as items like this are not easily found, and this is why the entire day was booked for this cause.

My plan was simple, 5 locations, covering an area of 20 square kilometers, assuming the shops would be on a floor no higher than the 2nd or 3rd, I anticipated maybe 20-25 feet of altitude gains.

11:00 am: And so my journey began, and I arrived at the first shop.
11:05 am: They had the part and it was priced very well.
11:06 am: Journey ends.

It was anti-climactic to say the least.

No Love For Wes Anderson Movies


Last night, I convinced Mena, Grace, and Nadia to watch The Darjeeling Limited with me. I’ve been becoming fond of Wes Anderson films lately, Life Aquatic being my favorite. Grace loved the movie, but Nadia and Mena want their 2 hours back. While they curse me, today, they’ll thank me one day.

Poetry For Life


I am working now on selecting poems from the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, (More Info On KGSA) in order to compile them into a book, where funds can be brought back to the school. Catherine Hanna, an educational theater specialist in the NYC area and my dear friend, was here this past summer, and held a workshop with the girls from KGSA, where she facilitated a poetry seminar, producing some fantastic works. Reading them in depth today for the first time, I have to say I was moved. Bringing in the elements from the post-election violence that was experienced back in the winter, and both the strength and struggle of the people of their community in Kibera, I want to share a few, hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Where I am From


Elizabeth Muthoni “Queen”


I am from mud houses full of idlers walking around due to unemployment.
I am from love which brings me to a very hopeful dream to change my community, my school and my family.
I am from blue, that makes me wish to know about my wonderful excellent and enjoyable future ahead of me.
I am from Jamie, Shaun, Catherine, Ryan, Abdul and my Mum, full of encouragement, respectful, understanding, advises, deliberate, which direct me from the righteous path to my wonderful dreams.

I am from Kash, the late pioneer of Kibera Girs Soccer Academy, a life of an innocent person who was shot by the thugs in Kibera Community, always remembered by your people, especially in their hearts. You played a very big role to change our future.

I am from school, a center of education and full of encouraging teachers who urge us to work hard and hope for a lovely future after our studies.


My Community, My Kibera


Khadijah Abdullah


I see shops, I see beautiful people, I see leaders working together, eating together, playing together.
I hear hungry children crying. I hear sexually harassed women crying. I hear poor people crying.
I smell Busa, I smell cuauglaa. I smell sewage.
My love home, My lovely Kibera.
I hurt for better education fir the people of Kibera to get employed.
I hurt for the mud houses of Kibera
I hurt for a better future for the people of Kibera, so as to reduce poverty.
My lovely home, My lovely Kibera.
I love the people in Kibera because they are hardworking
I love the people in Kibera because they are united
I love children in Kibera because they are innocent
My lovely home, My sweet Home, My Kibera

I am From


Carolyn Akinyi Tirus “Shakes”


I am from a chair made of wool and cotton, which makes me comfortable.
I am from a tap of water that gives me clean water for life.
I am from George Tirus, the late, my dad, who used to discipline me if I did mistakes.
I am from “instructions on youth is like engraving of stone,” which my mother used to comment on teenagers.
I am from chips, chicken and fish, which makes me feel healthy and great when I go to hang out with friends.
I am from a song which goes, “what goes up, must come down,” by Mr. Luciano.
I am from Barak Obama who is vying for presidency and he also wants to change America.
I am from Cathy Hanna, the poetry teacher who is kind.
I am from the smell of lovely and elegant people like Abdul and Shaun.
I am from National Theater which makes me safe and secure.
I am from the saddest day of my life, which is when my father passed away.

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Kibera, Hawks, Browser Memory, and the F Train

I spent a few minutes on the balcony about an hour ago, just looking and listening. Bats flying overhead, and in the distance, cars, dogs, and the faint laugh of a hyena believe it or not. I didn’t think they’d be around Nairobi, but their call is distinct. 

After reassuring my parents that I didn’t need to take any Malaria meds because I have not seen a single mosquito in Nairobi, I woke up with both ankles eaten severely by what looked like one or two very selfish mosquitos. Yet, I remain stubborn.

Hawks


There’s actually a hawk’s nest at eye level with the balcony. Every so often, the dominant male leaves its nest, and flies right past my face giving me a thuggish look. I often return the look back, face stone cold. It flew by in response, and as it flew by it gave me the “W” whatever sign, and then put an L up against its forehead. I think that’s just cold.

Whenever I see a hawk, I think of my friends back at Plainview. It was our mascot. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a hawk in Nassau County, though I did spot one, right over the county line near Cold Spring Harbor once.

The last few days, I’ve been wrapping up some work for my company back home, and began preparing for the work I’m to do here. It’s actually the reason I flew over the ocean.

I’ve been a little moody the last few days, mainly because of the stress I feel and the work ahead of me in the next month seems insurmountable, but my friend Grace told me, I just have to do what I can, and pretty much just chill, what will get done, will get done.

Kibera


I went back to Kibera last Thursday to meet up with the MaBoyz! You may remember them from previous tales. Many of them have gone west to study and make a change for their life, and there’s a new generation of Maboyz, some I’ve known before, some I haven’t. There is one in particular who is a dear friend of mine, who has inspired me recently. You make me proud dude! However, amidst the smiles and embraces of reunion, there is a sadder story to tell. Two of the guys I’d come to know since 2006, have been recently killed. It was foolish, and unnecessary, but it happened nonetheless. It made me angry, and I wasn’t sure who to blame. Blame is the natural reaction, I think. Do I blame them, society, the cops? So many stories circulate as to why they got shot at point blank by the police, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Choices we make sometimes can decide our fate.

I haven’t been to church in a long time, so waking up this morning to get to Sunday service was a good thing and it recalibrated me in many ways. Of course, I’m a music fiend, and nothing stirs my heart more than honest song. yes, a video is coming.

After the service, saw so many familiar faces, old friends. One guy in particular, has gotten acceptance to a flight school in the USA. This is a big deal. They’ve taken care of his visa and everything, yet, the school fees are tremendous! It’s beyond even our budget at Seeds For Hope. I’m looking into some scholarships or grants. If any of you know of something like this, feel free to pass it my way. He’s a smart kid and this is a rare opportunity.

So many things happening in parallel: Reconnecting with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, continuing the poetry workshops started by Catherine, and working on a book for them to take home. Continuing work on the documentary for Seeds For Hope, working with MaBoyz, and also finding time to learn and grow.

A good part of this trip is about documenting, and capturing. It’s hard to be connected behind the camera. I’ve only taken it out when absolutely necessary, mainly because my time here is so short and I want to savor every moment I get.

I write this somewhat melancholy for a number of reasons. But tomorrow is a new day.

P.S. I love Firefox. My browser crashed before I could hit save, and when I restarted and restored previous session, my entire post was in the text box. How do they do it?

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Meeting the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy

I woke up today, just like any other day. Opening my eyes minutes before my alarm clock, and the usual tension between my bed and the outside world, as to which would serve me better for the next few hours. My bed will serve me, but I could serve the outside world… and so I got up, and out.

But first Current Stats (changes in red)

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 2
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 7
Illnesses: stomach parasite, bee sting
Bandwidth: 1.5 KB/sec
Kilometers Ran Without Injury: 10km

Ok back to business:

As many of you know, I am on the board for Seeds For Hope, a non-profit org started by my sister and a few friends, in order to provide the means for young people to get educated when their circumstances prevent them. The vision is clear, and while we are small, and sponsoring about 20-30 young people, the time has come to expand. We’re working on a campaign now, to create more awareness in the US about the growing need of education in countries like Kenya in the way of fighting and eventually crushing poverty. While there are many actions needed to be taken to end poverty, education is just one of them, and that’s where SFH fits in.

Nadia gave me the responsibility to go out and find contacts and make relationships with people, that we can both build relationships with, and also interview, as part of a short film that will be one of the main venues of our campaign.

Coffee With Gerald


Gerald was a man I got in contact with, through a friend named Debs. Gerald who was brought up in Western Kenya, has made it his life’s mission to educate young people. This guy is SO active, not just in his full time job as director of a Primary School in Riruta (outside of Nairobi) but he volunteers at Vision Africa, and administers a 118 school partnership in the Kibera slums, among MANY other things.

Gerald and I spoke over coffee, and then he invited me to take a trip with him to Riruta, to check out his school and meet the kids, and see if we could arrange for some video footage, and interviews for Saturday. We took a nice but bumpy Matatu trip out to Riruta, to a place called “Precious Junctio” named after the Precious Blood Catholic Mission in the area.

We arrived at the St. John’s Academy, a primary school for the equivalent of K through 8. One room for each grade level. 9 Rooms. The teachers are paid roughly 4500 KSH per month, which is about 60 dollars, roughly 2 dollars per day. School fees cover all expenses from rent, to salaries, to food, to logistics… and they’re barely making it. The kids however, are resilient! Many of them are performing better, according to the national standards, than the “upper class” school, JUST next door. They are proud of their school, and proud of their work. Unfortunately, many will not be able to continue to high school.

The grade 7-8 classes were much smaller, and mostly women were attending. Turns out that many children drop out after grade 6, because it is a weed-out year, in the Kenyan system. Many people don’t see the need at all to be educated because jobs are just unavailable. Why spend the money for a degree if you can’t even get work afterwards? This is the big question that many people ask.. and it’s a question that our organization will have to face.

I got a chance to meet the kids, and talk with Gerald in depth, and I see this as a great opportunity to find a school to partner with.

Kibera Girls Soccer Academy


Later that afternoon, I met up with another man that my friend referred me to, named Abdul. Abdul is a technician for one of the major telecom providers in the country, and he has made it his life’s work, outside of his day-job to change the lives of a group of young women in Kibera. It started out as a soccer club, where these girls could get away from the stresses of their home lives, and some of the high risk situations that they are in, in order to form community and partake in something positive.

After some time, Abdul kept seeing the need for these girls to get educated, and to overcome their situations, but unfortunately, the money to pay for secondary schools is just unavailable! Usually girls in their early – mid teenage years can be taken to early marriages, and other less-favorable situations, but he wanted to give these girls a chance.

With very limited resources, he decided to start a secondary school of his own, and not only is he running it, but the girls themselves take on MUCH of the administration. They are making and building their own school! While their school is not government approved, the idea that they will devote 6-7 days a week to their education, even if it doesn’t have a presidential stamp on it, is something impressive.

I met these girls, and they really really were a blessing to me. On their own accord, they are taking their education into their own hands, despite what the society around them would rather have them do. The name of the school is the Girl’s Soccer Academy.

When the number of girls doubled, and private funding for meals did not increase, the girls decided that they will skip meals, in order to make sure ALL are fed all the other days.

I cannot wait to spend more time at this school, next week. This is a story that has really touched my heart, and I hope that through this campaign, these young women will be able to tell their story to you all.

Old Friends, New Opportunities


So back to my old friends, Alex and Joseph.  Yvonne Poulin, a massage therapist and CEO of African Touch, an organization that provides low-cost formal education in Massage Therapy for people in Kenya, is also friends with these guys as well, and actually has known Joseph for about 4 years! She has been working so closely with him during this time… totally encourages me to know that he has a lot of support out there. Yvonne has basically connected Joseph with the opportunity to belong to a Mechanics Apprenticeship. After we met with the man who would be J’s teacher, Alex and Joseph and I just hung out for about an hour outside the Yaya mall, where we just chatted. Spending time with those 2 is always so special to me. They are survivors, with so much potential, but so much risk at the same time. Asking me questions about life in the states. While they are able to survive in the toughest conditions, and have been knee deep in the harsh life of the Nairobi Streets, they maintain an innocence at the same time, its just humbling.

These guys share their food with me, even if it comes little at a time.

I’m hoping for the best for them. These guys, ever since my 2006 trip, have just been so much of my motivation for returning.not just for them, but the idea that they represent something huge… the potential of the human spirit, undermined by circumstance, but ready to just grow, and come alive. Empowerment. That’s what it’s all about for me. Empowering people to just live.

Small steps, small steps, small steps. But I have to keep going with this, even if it is for a short time every year. It’s the short time that I really do live for.

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