Good-Bye Kenya

I have about less than a week left before I return back the States. I thought this trip was going to be about accomplishing something, but it was more about learning, and discovering. I accomplished a lot in the short time I was here. I had developed a new system for the Hope Center. In the process now if a few last minute changes, and training a new developer to take over the project long term.

I have a lot to think about when I leave here, especially about next steps. My sister told me the other day “Do you realize all that you experienced while you were here?” She was kinda laughing, it was intense for sure. Between Massimo, and the software program, and the Tuesday meetings, and everything, I think despite all these things, life in New York has a way of making it seem as if those things never happened, and though that will be a challenge, I don’t even think life in NY could ever let me forget.

I still have a good 7 days left here, and although they will mostly be spent working on the software, and tying up loose ends, there will be room for a few things to take home with me.

I’m meeting with the guys for our last “Tuesday Night”. There will be no movie, but we are going to spend time together, just talking, maybe a few games. I’m trying to put together a little gift for each of those guys, though I’m not sure exactly what I can give. Maybe framed pictures from our trip. attached with a note or something?

Anyways, it’s almost time for lunch. The above pictures were drawn by H and J. They gave em to me last week. One says “Goodbye Kenya” and the other says, in a nut-shell, “Remember us”. Like that’s even a question!

I don’t think I could ever forget.


On both extremes

Had a little plumbing issue yesterday. For a while, it was just cold showers.  Wait, no, not because I had to, I didn’t have a choice. And just when I thought I could get used to being bathed in ice cold water from the rivers of Kenya, the water just stopped completely. But the water came back yesterday, and hot too, except the water didn’t stop. A leak under my sink filled my entire apartment with water, while I was out. I came back to find everything just soaked in nasty bathroom water.

My copy of Dry, is wet. See under definition of “dripping with irony”.

What I did notice, when iIpicked up the book from the puddle of water it was floating in, on the inside cover, a strange image of a hand print appeared in the creases of the galvanized cardboard. Not since the Virgin Mary appeared in a grilled cheese in eastern Florida, has such a phenomenon caught my attention. Could it be the impression of some alien being? Has the author himself made a metaphysical appearance? Dan Aakroyd and Bill Murray are definitely going get a phone call from me.

Oh man. This is highly embarassing. Mr. Burroughs, or Augusten, if I may, if you read this thanks for checking out my blog. Sorry the book got wet. But aren’t you stoked that it was used as a medium for some sort of supernatural communication? I am.

It was a day of extremes. In one day, I intersected with both far ends of the global socio-economic spectrum; and in such a short span of time, that I’m left with a bad case of The Bends™. It started at 6 AM, when I was summoned to help staple packets of informational fact-sheets on AIDS statistics in Nairobi. 6AM is never a good time to operate a stapler. I never want to appear that I need to use the table in order to get a successful staple to occur, yet these industrial strength rusty hinges call for some severe table action, because 6am muscles rarely do much unless coupled with a nice up of Néscafe. But my pride in stapling is fierce, and I rarely want to look like a wuss, so the one-handed stapler in the air stapling began, and it was only after the 5th time I had to re-staple something, did I table it, and table it good.

For real.

And why was I wrestling with a staple gun at 6 AM? We were having guests in a few hours from Washington DC. But these were not just any guests. We had with us, Mark Dybul, the director of PEPFAR, 2nd to the President of the United States in the federal hierarchy, as well as Michael Gerson, Pres. George W’s speech writer. The Hope Clinic, only a couple years old, is really high profile, and serves about 3,000 patients, all receiving free care, treatment, counseling, medication, support, etc.

But the very serine and humble air that normally circulates around this place was exchanged for the hustle and bustle of first-impressions, project proposals, shaved goatees, and imported cheese platters.

Nadia presented everything that we do here at Hope, to these gentleman. I was stuck in a back office putting together packets of 20 leaflets, organized in numerical order, except for the fact that, we’d run out of pamphlet numbers 6 and 7. Until now, no one knew of this, except for the gentlemen who received the leaflets, assuming that rubberband actually came off.

It is exciting to know that in about 24 hours, these guys are going to have lunch with the President of the USA and tell him about our little operation (which our American tax dollars of course are funding).

And not even 5-hours later, it was Tuesday at 5pm, and the boys were arriving. This was our biggest turn-out, yet! We had 20 guys, aged 13 to 30. It was one of those days, though, that if something were to go wrong, it absolutely would, and with a vengance from hell, no less. We were starting Return of the King , and of course, Nadia had the movie locked in her office, and she had left for the gym. The computer we normally used to play the movie, was being used for some training, and the speakers were no where to be found. Of course, the boys are early on the day we needed them to be right on time. And Patrick, oh boy, he cracks me up. His sarcasm is priceless, and he, probably because of his height and confidence, commands a sort of respect from the other guys.

We had a few young kids there, as well. These guys were homeless kids, aged 13 and 14. The ranks and lines of prestige became very clear. The younger kids seemed innocent, untainted, not as jaded, and very polite. The way they stood, and addressed each other, and the other guys. You could tell that the older generation of street kids were sizing up these newbies, tryin to see who they could take under their wing, and who they’d let fall to the wayside. The young kids, are the focus of a few of our guys here. They wanna work with them, while they’re young, and new to the streets, because the success rate of leavin the lifestyle of hustling and addiction is far greater, the earlier they are worked with.

Eventually, at 6pm sharp, the movie, computer, and speakers arrived, at which point my inner battle against “everything’s gone wrong but I have to make the best of it” had chaffed against my inner layer of skin, just enough for me to exhale rather loudly when it call came together.

What’s wonderful about watching this movie in Kenya is the natural surround sound. So many of the scenes of nature just fit in so nicely with the sounds around us in this city. With the certain birds you hear flying by, the wind gusting through the cross-ventilated room, the sounds of branches hitting the outside of the building, the crashing of rain, the roar of the thunder, the smell of burning garbage outside while Orcs are burned on screen; it’s as almost as if, even nature herself has had a hand in making this experience a special one for these guys.

It was during the scene in Return of the King when Frodo rejects Sam, dismissing him after a lifetime of friendship, and hundreds of miles of treacherous journey together, when the tears started flowing around the room. It was very touching. Friendship is so key to these guys because they are each other’s family. One if the men, had to stay behind when the rest left, to get some food and see a doctor, and another waited for him. I told him he was a good friend to wait around all this time, and he just looked at me straight on and said “I love my friend. He is the good friend.”

Between both extremes, I definitely felt most at home with the guys that evening. I don’t know why, maybe there’s that brutal honesty that’s there, that allows us all to breath easy. No pretense, no first impressions, no foreign plates of cheese, and definitely no program proposals, because they certainly don’t have enough money to take the matatu home. But we were arm around each other in a circle that night, laughing, sharing, talking, and just being real. It’s nice to see these guys smile, and I’m glad they can make me smile, because I damn well need it after spending what is now 18 hours a day programming.

I guess my goal for now is to see if we can set up a permanent support group for these guys. Resources are so few here, and if I’d stay for any reason, it would probably be for them, but alas, I have college loans to pay, and I know how Sallie Mae gets when here money ain’t flowing in.

I’ll leave you with this strange pic. Symmetry kicks ass.


Dhosas, Leg Injuries, and an SMS

The worst thing about waking up early on a Sunday, is the fact that you gotta wait that much longer to take communion and eat lunch. It’s bout 7am, and I’ve been up since 5, just chatting with a few friends from back home.

This last week has been a little intense, as you may have read, but I’m grateful for sure. I feel New York has numbed me from some basic feelings, and I’m starting to see that balance again between joy and sadness, and I welcome it with open arms. I’m learning that life isn’t fair, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

So last week, I got a chance to taste the best of North and South Indian cuisine here in Nairobi; I gotta say, hands down, the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. This fact alone is reason enough to move out here permanently. There is one difference, however. “Chicken Tikka Masala” is called “Butter Chicken”. Doesn’t that sound so great though? Butter Chicken? mmmmmm

Ashok, and Cameron, both roommates, and med students from University of Washington have been great at showing us around different places, and making us feel at home here. They cooked us up some dinner last week, too. You know, I think it’s time we returned the favor.

So, Friday evening, we had a farewell dinner for the ITECH team. What is ITECH, you ask? It stands for the International Training and Education Center for HIV/AIDS. They develop curriculums, offer trainings, and support for people and organization dealing with HIV/AIDS relief around the world. And they’ve been with the Coptic Church here doing a pilot program, and it’s been such a great time having them with us. They’ve offered the Hope Center so much in terms of resources and support. Dr. Charles, Claire, and Jennifer (who they endearingly refer to as ‘J’) were on their way to South Africa the next day, after a two-week training session with us, so we took them to the Westlands (a neighborhood in Nairobi) for the best North Indian cuisine in the region. It was such a great time, catching up with everyone, sharing many laughs, thoughts. I was surrounded by people who’s life’s work is to help others. Doctors, administrators, and educators, all in the non-profit sector. These are the kinds of people that inspire me, and I have to say being here is making me wonder if I may have found my niche? Who knows – time will tell ;)

Me, J, and Nadia

Cameron (mid-chew) and Ashok

Claire, Jennifer, and Charles in the glow of Nadia’s brake lights.

So yesterday, Ashok and I were supposed to run through Ngong Hills with the Kenyan Running Club, but the guy who was supposed to take us there never showed up, which is fine, because we were gonna cancel on him anyway cuz it was too hot. This isn’t a regular run i’m talking about. It’s 3 miles, straight up hill, and 3 miles back down again! No thank you, not in yesterday’s heat!

So instead we did a short run by Ashok’s place. Getting to Ashok’s was interesting. I asked the guard where I could find a cab, and the guard looked around and whistled at some random guy sitting on the corner, the guy comes over, obviously intoxicated, and the guard asks this man to help me find a cab. Why I went with him, I don’t know. So he takes me to Dunga. Dunga is basically a set of food take out stands, that violate just about every health code known to our galaxy and beyond. Mena ate from there over a year ago and is still suffering the consequences. But at Dunga, there was a cab driver who wanted to charge me 400 shillings for a ride, and I was like “No way! I may be mzungu (swahili for white-man) but you’re not gonna take me for a ride (budum ching!)” And he was like “Ok ok! 375 KSH”. I’m like “Dude. 200 KSH” he’s like “My friend we say 350” to which I reply “200” and he says “ok ok $250” so at this point I’m tired and agree. The man who took me to Dunga said “Now you will buy me a drink?” So I convinced the cab driver to do it since I didn’t have change. What an ordeal.

Anyhow, Ashok and I had a great run through some of the backroads of Nairobi. We got some hillage, some downage, some sewage, and some carnage. My favorite sight, however, was the “Jesus is Lord Butchery“. How random.

I decided to run back home after we got back to Ashok’s, it was only about a mile or two away. So I’m running, feeling good, feeling good, feeling good… I look and I’m approaching a bus stop. No big deal, just some people here and there. I run, I run through the people, sweat dripping on my brow, and I pass by this man, and as I was right next to him, mid-stride, he decides to come out of the apparent day dream he was in, and tries to catch the bus that was pulling away and starts running, and he runs into me, in such a perfect way that his left leg catches my right leg and i go flying into the street, and land on my thigh against the corner of the curb.

The man freaks out and was like “I’m so sorry, so sorry” to which I whipped out the little confrontational Kiswahili I knew. He wouldn’t get on the Matatu (the privately owned public mini-buses that have fun sayings painted on them like ‘Praise Jesus’ and ‘Smoke Blunts’ on the same matatu).

a matatu

So, after I got up, the man was still apologizing profusely and a crowd gathered around us. I just patted the man’s back and told him to get on the matatu, and he thanked me. Strange situation huh?

Anyhow. I’m left with a hematoma my thigh and it’s very painful to walk. Why am I so injury prone these days?

The other night, I received an SMS from Judd…

Arrived safely in Rome with Massimo. He is in the hospital here and doing well.

It was a great way to end the evening.  I’ll end this off with a few more photos. Chau! xox


How About Some Ice Cream?

I’m currently listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” It kinda seems appropriate at the moment.

I just left the hospital, Room 3, where I said goodbye to a little-buddy of mine that I’d made while I’ve been here. His name is Massimo, 14 years old, and he loves ice-cream.

Massimo is a brave. I told him I’d tell you all about him, and his eyes lit up! I told him I’d tell you all about what a cool kid he is, and how one day he’s gonna be riding down the streets of Rome on a Vespa with a hot girlfriend.

Massimo arrived at our hospital a few weeks ago, in very bad shape. I don’t wanna air out his laundry, so I won’t mention details, but in summary, he wasn’t supposed to make live.

I’d been visiting him every day since I’d been here. His story stood out to me, and I wanted to meet the young man that faced a world of trouble, and that could still hold his head up and smile like a kid his age should.

The visits were the same, we’d have small talk, we’d make jokes, he’d ask for ice-cream,  he’d remind me how bad I was at playstation, and that would be it.

Last Saturday, when i went to see him, things weren’t as normal. He was in really bad shape (he had been getting progressively worse as the week went on). The doctor told me “we’re not optimistic”. He had come down with a deadly opportunistic infection, and wasn’t expected to make it. I went off alone for a while and just tried to understand all that was goin on. Why someone so young had to face such a short life and have it end so quickly, but in such a slow and painful manner.

Heavy meds, the latest medical technology, and a lot of love and care from the people around him was all we could hope for. I wasn’t optimistic, I mean—I am a cynic after all. I don’t expect things to go well if they shouldn’t, but I do like to be pleasantly surprised. Nevertheless, i continued visiting him in those days when things were on the down-down-down.

Then there was the night the doctors thought we would lose him. I visited the room as usual, but there was no request for ice cream.  There was no playstation music rattling the neighbors. It was quiet, and there was slow, belabored breathing. He looked at me and said “I’m cold.”, and he was shivering, and asked me to please keep him warm.  So I went over and put my arm around him and just sat next to him as he shivered. I was heartbroken. And I also felt completely unqualified to be the person to give him warmth on what may be his last night on the planet.  No mother, or father. He was stuck with a privileged Egyptian guy from New York who sucked at Playstation, who was just trying to find himself.

As deeply painful as that experience was, I had to be like a rock, stone cold, positive energy. But inside, I was breaking down. But the emotional response, was nothing compared to the body that was breaking down in front of me, while he was fighting for dear life. We talked a bit and I wished him a good night, and I left expecting never to see my little buddy again.

Then Sunday came around, I went past the room expecting it to be empty, or closed.  I expected bad news, and I had been preparing for it. However, I was met with a very different reality. Massimo was sitting there in his room, and he was looking at us with eyes wide open for the first time. I’d never seen his eyes before. They’d been kinda half closed for the 7 days that i’d been there, but this time he was looking at us wide-eyed, bossing the hospital staff around, requesting all kinds of food, it was wonderful!

Visiting Massimo became a very important part of my days. He started to grow on me. I felt honored the day when he kicked out a bunch of nuns who came to visit him, and asked me to stay. He’d tell me stories bout his growing up in Malindi, and I’d tell him about New York, and my day, and the people I’ve met.

I’d learned something very important here. I started to visit this kid, because I felt pity. But the one thing he didn’t want was pity. I learned that very quickly. He was just as alive as anyone else, and that had to be respected. So even the way I dealt with him changed as the days went on.

And as this past week went on – he got better and better! We couldn’t believe it. Before we knew it he was walking again. Ashok, Massimo and I took a stroll down to the cafeteria – and he stood tall, although his body was frail, his resolve was pretty friggin’ diesel!

He also ordered 3 samosas and housed them! I barely got through my plate of fries.

Because of his late-father’s nationality, Massimo is actually an Italian citizen but had never been there, so the staff, the Embassy, and the orphanage decided that Massimo would have a better chance of being adopted, supported, and treated in Italy.

So before we knew it, he had a ticket booked and was about to leave. We were all so excited that his life was gonna improve from this moment forward, when only a week ago, we were gearing up to say goodbye for good. But we have fear still, cuz of the unknown. The entire staff, doctors, nurses, and even people at the center are pulling for this guy.

So in a few hours, Sam will say goodbye to the country he grew up in, and had never left and head on to a new place, a new land, with new promises: pizza, gelati, and Italian women.

I stopped by tonight, with some ice-cream, and we made some small talk. I was about to leave until the nurse came in and had to put in an IV in his other hand. Looking back on those 15 minutes that followed the nurse’s entrance, brings me to a fit of tears. Although there was pain in that room, from those needles, it didn’t compare to the amount of pain this kid has had to face in his lifetime, and why someone that young should face all that pain,  I have no idea. but he faces it, and he is strong… and he is alive! That’s why Massimo is one of the bravest people I know. And I’m honored and a much better person having known him.

But it still boggles me. This whole thing not only confuses me, but scares me more. The amount one young life has to carry. He’s brave – that’s all I can say. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. courage means knowing exactly what’s at risk, and living life anyway.

We talked about New York and Italy some more, and he asked me why they call it “Hell’s Kitchen” and he had a big grin on his face when I told him all about the gang wars. He plays way too many video games.

Dr. Judd is gonna accompany him to Rome. Let’s hope for a safe journey and a long wonderful life for Sam, filled with gelati, pizza, and people who love him with all their hearts, because he deserves nothing less.

It feels good to cry sometimes, no? I almost thought I forgot how.