Friday, October 31, 2008

Visiting Rwanda and the horrors of the genocide

Last week the three of us piled in the car and took a long road trip west to visit Burundi and Rwanda. The highlight of the trip, er, the lowlight – okay, the most significant part - besides visiting some friends in Burundi was visiting the memorials for the genocide in Rwanda that took place in the early 90s.

I’ll write about the other parts of the trip in another entry on this blog later, but I want to give you my impressions of what we saw in Rwanda here first. We made sure we saw Hotel Rwanda before we visited. If you haven’t seen this movie, do watch it (because chances are you’ll never get to Rwanda like we did). It’s not as well-made as Schindler’s List, but it’s in the same genre and it will hopefully affect you just as much as Schindler’s List did.

When we left Burundi, we drove north into Rwanda and stayed the first night in a medium-sized city called Butare, a pleasant tourist stop with all the helpful services. About 30 km outside the city and outside a village along a rural road is the campus of a former technical school. It’s set among the hills surrounded by hamlets where people raise their animals and grow their food. All along the main road to get to the adjacent village are churches and schools. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting – today, that is. But maybe it’s only quiet because of people’s remembrance and reverence for what happened there, or maybe it’s so haunted by the horrible memories that no one dares to disturb the quiet of the place that is trying to heal its wounds.

The campus was actually never used as a school because it was under construction during the genocide. At one point, for about a week, 50,000 members of the Tutsi tribe fled and took shelter there before they were all massacred. It was later discovered that the very ones who told them they should flee there for “safety” were the government itself, which was behind the genocide. Now the campus is a memorial to the genocide, since so, so many people died there. They were buried in mass graves and then exhumed, and some were reburied elsewhere. This would all make the place significant enough and reason alone for one of the country’s major memorials to the genocide.

But what makes this place significant is the graphic way it portrays the genocide. Inside four blocks of six classrooms each are the dead bodies of a few thousand victims of the genocide, and when one “tours” this memorial/campus, the main part of the tour is viewing these dead bodies. So imagine walking into a minimally finished classroom (just the basic concrete walls and floors), and on three or four wooden-slat platforms are rows and rows of dead bodies placed side by side. To me, they looked like mummies with no clothes, and they had all been preserved with lime, so they were mummies that were bleached white. And like actual mummies, their muscles and flesh had wasted away, so they were mostly bones covered only with a layer of leathery-looking skin (again, very white). They weren’t skeletons – bones only – but contorted, twisted dead bodies.

What hits you first when you walk into each room is the smell – most probably the lime. And then the sight, of course. You see people’s faces – not a skull with empty eye and nose sockets – but covered with skin. Occasionally you would see a tuft of hair on top of a skull, and that, to Sarah, was chilling. There are things like this that remind you that these were real people – living, breathing people with lives and families and who worked and grew up – at one point. To me, they were first many, many dead bodies, and I had to mentally remind myself that, although they were bleached white “mummies,” they all once looked like the Africans with dark brown skin, like the small group that was following us around room to room (the main tour guide spoke broken English, but I think having a baby and being the only visitors there at the time attracted a few other people who appeared just to be hanging out there for the day). What was the most sad and shocking was the sheer numbers of the bodies you could see – and this was only a portion of the murdered who were exhumed and chosen to be preserved so they could be put on display at this memorial. Why did they do this, I asked the man. “To remember,” he said very firmly, but with a taste of bitterness in his mouth, it seemed – like why should something like this have happened and been forced into their memories.

Also sad and shocking was remembering that the last thing every single one of these people knew was fear and pain. When the killings happened, women were raped, some people were made to kill their children and husbands first before they themselves were killed, and people were beaten, hacked to death with machetes, or shot.

Talk about a powerful sensory and physical experience – visually, with smells, and definitely viscerally. I remember being hit this way physically when going through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and getting to the room where there were hundreds of shoes on display. The smell of old leather and sweat left in the shoes hit me first, and in that way I was reminded of the humanness of it all – that the victims of that genocide wore shoes and were ordinary people just like all of us. But this was the same sensation with the smell and a lot more – not just an object that a human used, but the human him/herself – his/her body. And it was the same sort of experience of visiting a concentration camp like we did in Germany – only worse. On our visit to Dachau, outside Munich, I remember feeling like I could hear, in the emptiness of the place, the thousands of people who had been there. I could hear their voices in the cramped living quarters, and especially when I stood inside the gas chambers, the very place people were slaughtered. But in that place, what I “heard,” the sensory experience, was inside my head. What hit me hardest in the concentration camp was seeing the ovens where bodies were incinerated. In those places, they killed people and then wiped off the face of the earth any last trace of them – that’s how much Jews were hated. But there, in that place in Rwanda, there was a visual reminder – a trace, a body - of who had been there and who was killed, and it made it much more real, tangible, but also stark and scary.

I could have taken pictures of these dead bodies, but I just would not have felt right in doing so. I felt I needed to leave them there without taking anything away with them out of respect and for their dignity. I did search on the web for some photos that others had taken at this place, and here is one:

I didn’t want to, but I made sure to look carefully and thoroughly at some bodies in some of the rooms. Yes, I looked at faces. Occasionally there was a hand on a face, and it made me wonder if that person was killed and frozen in their last pose while they were alive, one of shock and horror – a hand over a mouth that was gasping or shielding their eyes from witnessing murders in those very classrooms. Occasionally a hand or foot was broken off. There were sunken bellies and lots and lots of contorted, writhing bodies.

There were all sorts of people in all of the rooms – young and old, tall and short. There were babies and toddlers. We did not bring Lexi inside any of the rooms with us (one of the people walking around with us kindly watched her). But I saw several bodies of children who appeared to be about Lexi’s age, and I thought how awful it was to have children killed, or even how awful it is that this sort of thing is happening in her lifetime – that such horrors are still going on in her world today.

It was strange, but a woman with our tour guide went ahead of us to unlock each room (each opened to a passage outside). She did it as if there were ordinary things inside, as if to invite us to her museum of many rooms. I guess I couldn’t really expect her as a memorial employee to be falling apart emotionally in opening the door to reveal something horribly sad. This was simply her job and she had done it many times before. But could one ever get used to doing that job? Before we started visiting the rooms, I dreaded what we would see. Our Lonely Planet guidebook had described what was there, but I didn’t know what all these dead bodies would look like. I almost expected to see people’s faces and be able to look into their eyes (dead bodies like one sees at the new crime scene on the crime shows on TV).

Again, there were 24 rooms like this in all. After seeing 12, I said I had seen enough.

Our tour guide wanted us to see just one more, which was a little different than the rest. Inside on one platform were 150 skulls neatly lined up, and on the other platforms were other types of bones that had been separated from bodies.

It was everything you can imagine it was – haunting, chilling, shocking, alarming, horrific, sad, etc. It was all almost too much.

In other buildings, we were shown some of the victims’ clothes and where some French peacekeeping troops stayed.

The next day, we drove on further north to the country’s capital, Kigali. There they have the country’s main memorial. It was established by a U.K.-based foundation that educates people on genocide. It is very well-done and presents the background to the genocide – the history of the country during colonial times, explanations of the cultures and tribes, and the players in the genocide. If the earlier memorial was the visceral, sensory one, then this one provided well the intellectual side and presented the irrationality of the genocide. One could blame just about anybody – or everybody – for the genocide. You could go back and blame the countries that first colonized Rwanda – first the Germans and then the Belgians. One interesting fact about what these colonizers did is to essentially create the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Apparently before the Germans colonized the country, there were many tribes there, and then the Germans decided arbitrarily that one group was the one who owned ten cattle or more, and the other group owned fewer than ten cattle. Over the decades, the Tutsi and Hutu tribes were pitted against each other in various ways, which ultimately led to the genocide. But again, whom should one really blame? You could go back a long way or else look at recent events and players in them. But one finger that should be pointed is at the rest of us – the international community at the time, the group of nations in the West who basically did nothing but sit and watch this genocide taking place. People from Kofi Annan to Bill Clinton have later admitted that they had the power to do something to stop the killing and regret not taking more action.

At this museum/memorial are gardens where there are also mass graves of victims. We also learned from the displays there of other sites of major massacres. In some cases, huge numbers of Tutsis were killed when they took sanctuary in their churches. In one case, the pastor allowed all of his parishioners to be slaughtered inside his church. In this genocide, humanity was at its worst.

Being in Kigali today, if you knew nothing about the genocide and if you were, say, visiting the city on business, you would probably never know that the country had been torn apart in such a violent way so recently. The city is busy, alive and vibrant. It appears the economy is booming, and there’s a construction boom all over town. People are out on the streets, and business workers downtown go out to lunch and enjoy themselves. There are huge plans to clear slums and put up 5-star hotels all over the city. Foreign investors have bought large tracts of land where slums are, built new housing for the slum’s residents in other areas, have paid them for their land, and will put up their hotels. Huge houses selling for US$400,000 are being built in new neighborhoods. Business areas will be cleared in 2010 and new areas developed. Even the original Hotel Rwanda – the Hotel des Milles Collines (Thousand Hills Hotel), which, surprisingly, is right downtown – is being renovated to capitalize on the increase in tourism and its fame from the movie. We tried to go there for a drink and dinner after our tour of the city but discovered the whole place is closed. It is great to see the country moving forward, but we were a bit puzzled about who would come to stay in the 5-star hotels – can any Rwandans afford it, or what else in the city would attract tourists to come and stay there? The tourist office is very professional about marketing the capital and other parts of the country, but I wonder what reputation the country has beyond the genocide. Unfortunately, people know Rwanda well only for its violence and genocide. I didn’t see the tourist office saying, “Come to our formerly war-ravaged country to relax and enjoy yourself! We’re not killing each other anymore!” But I wondered how and why they expected tourists to come – for what now after the genocide?

On our city tour, we also saw where ten peacekeepers from Belgium had been killed early in the violence. This spot is now a memorial as well. And at various places around the country, sometimes in rural areas, by the side of roads, are smaller memorials. Some are in the form of a small plot of land that looks like a graveyard. Inside these are probably a large common grave for many people. They are usually decorated with some purple fabric and painted with words like “RIP” and “We will never forget you.”

Also a few times while driving through the country, we passed a prison and could see prisoners outside working (behind fences). I found a travel article that a journalist had written about her visit to Rwanda, and she had noticed these prisoners as well. She wrote:

" the car, Foufou, my driver's daughter, had pointed out crumbling houses bombed by the killers, smaller memorials and even pink-clad prisoners convicted of war crimes toiling in the fields.

"I asked her why they are allowed to roam out in the open.

"'They will not escape,' she said. 'They have no place to go amongst their neighbors.'"

After seeing all of this, but especially the first memorial with all the dead bodies, we were obviously very moved and disturbed by this period in the country’s history. I was outraged – and still am – that such things could occur in the supposedly civilized 20th century – and that they still do in the 21st century in places like Darfur. I am moved enough to write to my representative in Congress (but I just may wait until later next week, since my senator in my last home in the state of Illinois happens to be a man by the name of Barack Obama, and I hear he might be leaving his position soon). I hope you would be inspired too by what I have described to you here to write to your member of Congress and/or the president. In my last full-time job, I worked with my employer’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur as a result of the violence and genocide that is going on there. I could tell you a lot about the many terrible things that are happening there as well – villages being destroyed, women being raped, men being slaughtered – and that continue to this day, even after we saw what happened in Rwanda. I urge you to write to your legislator and ask him/her to work to end such situations like the genocide in Darfur. If you need help with this, to know what issue to write about or who your representative is, the ELCA's advocacy website is one place to find this information. We as Americans are in a position to do something about this because of the unique and supreme power and influence of our country, and if you plan to vote next week, then you know you have the power and privilege to participate in our democracy and elect leaders who have authority not only in the territory of the United States, but power and influence in places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Northern Uganda. Tell them, as I will, and as we heard in Rwanda, an echo from the Holocaust of Europe in World War II: Never again!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Long Road Trip

We had been planning for a while to drive to Bujumbura, Burundi to visit friends who had moved there this summer. The 20th is a holiday in Kenya so I took the rest of the week off and early Saturday morning we set out. The plan was to drive to Mwanza, Tanzania which we thought was about half way. The roads in Kenya are NOT consistently good. It took us about 2 hours to go just 100 kilometers and the day's trip was going to be 720 kilometers. We didn't really stop for lunch (we had a picnic lunch in the car) and finally reached the border between the two countries at 2:30. Luckily it only took 40 minutes to cross the border and more good luck for us, the roads in Tanzania are quite good. We made it to our planned destination 11.5 hours after we left home that morning. It was good that we started early or we never would have made it before dark (and you don't want to drive in the dark here).

We thought Sunday would be an easier driving day. We were taking a better road, even though it was longer, but we thought we could make up the difference in speed. Yes - and no. There were all of these small towns with speed bumps so you were constantly slowing down. About 1 PM, we knew we weren't going to make Bujumbura by
 night fall. We did make it to the border town and looked for a place to stay - not as easy as in the U.S. The two best possibilities were full. We finally found a guest house that had a room and after hand motions with the woman who didn't speak English, had a room for the night. It was clean and we had mosquito nets but the toilet was a squat toilet, there was no hot water and no bath towels - and of course, we hadn't thought to bring them.  We made it through the night fine, with Lexi only waking up a little early.

We set out a bit early this morning as well and finally made it to Bujumbura around 1:00 local time.  We were to meet our friend at the US Embassy (where she and her husband work) and then go to their home. The US Embassy in Bujumbura is NOT well marked. We asked three different people for directions (all in French) and finally called our friend for some more help. We had driven past it three different times. It definitely doesn't blare 'embassy' like some US embassys do.

Tuesday we will spend doing some tourist things and then Wednesday, we drive north to Rwanda where we will spend a few days before starting back for Nairobi on Friday. I think I am all ready not looking forward to that drive home!  Too bad we can't warp.

Here is the view from our friends' house in the hill above Bujumbura, overlooking the city and Lake Tanganyika:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Voting for a local boy (in more ways than one)

A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and I cast our votes for POTUS (President of the United States) and for the office of senior senator from the state of Illinois. For the latter, I voted for the venerable Richard Durban, who holds the same seat as the late, great Paul Simon. (In case you’re wondering about the questions, the answers are yes, we can and do still vote from abroad, and no, we can’t do it over the Internet yet. We receive paper ballots in the mail and send them back the same way. Remember that our last home on American soil was Chicago, where one votes “early and often,” so that city is going to do all it can to get as many votes as it can.)

For the office of president, we voted for Mr. Durban’s esteemed colleague, the junior senator from Illinois, a man I had voted for once already (in that office), Mr. Barack Obama. Although I was an early supporter during the primaries of another Illinois native, Hillary Clinton (she grew up in Park Ridge, which is a Chicago suburb spitting distance from the ELCA), I am a card-carrying Democrat and will really vote for whomever the party puts up as its nominee (except for maybe someone like Sarah Palin).

Although I still carry some disappointment that this was supposed to be Hillary’s day (and, OK, Bill’s comeback), it still makes me proud that my senator is running for president. Not since Abraham Lincoln has Illinois sent someone to the White House, so this could be history in the making in that way as well. I’m not an Illinois/Chicago native, and even though I lived there for eight long years (and it’s where I started my career and met Sarah and got married), I still feel a bit strange calling it my home and saying I’m proud that “my” state’s leaders have taken to the national stage (I don’t feel totally at ease anymore saying I’m from Seattle either, but it’s a little easier to say my heart is on the East Coast, even though I lived there for really only four years during college.) Nevertheless, the fact that we can say we are from Chicago when asked where we’re from while living in Kenya has actually been very convenient. We happen to have chosen the country to live in a year ago where Obama’s father was from. So to say that Kenya has Obama fever is an understatement (last week the man who wrote the latest book that is critical of Obama was unceremoniously kicked out of the country just before he was to give a major press conference at a huge hotel downtown. No one here would deny that the reasons were political – because he was being critical of a native son of the country, where nobody believes he has a single flaw). During Obama’s rise earlier this year, I became grateful that I didn’t hail from a small town in a less popular state, like Topeka, Kansas, or Boise, Idaho, which anyone outside the country has never heard of. It has been very easy to say to Kenyans who ask where in the U.S. I am from that I am from Chicago. It doesn’t take long for the connection to be made and for them to reply with, “Isn’t that where Obama is from?” Last week while in a more remote corner of the country, I had a little fun with this and was telling people I met, “I come from Illinois, and my senator is a man by the name of Barack Obama. Have you heard of him? I already voted for him once as senator, and now I’ve voted to send him to the White House.”

Even though we’re voting for a native son, a hometown boy (even though I just said Chicago truly ain’t my hometown), and we know that Illinois, one of those major industrial and high-population states that is a must-win for any presidential candidate, will no doubt be a blue state, I wish our votes could have been cast in a state where they would have made more of a difference. Our votes for Obama might have tipped the scales in his favor in a battleground state like Virginia if we had voted there.

I’ve had several occasions in the last few years while living abroad to tell Americans back at home of the importance of the U.S.’s role in the world and of a solid American foreign policy and good relations with the rest of the world. In the five years we’ve lived abroad, we have gained a new perspective on our own country (especially from all my studies in my efforts to join the State Dept.), and, because of our line of work with desperately poor people in developing countries, we have seen how dependent many of these countries are on the U.S. in many ways, including economically in general and through foreign aid. This election, as has been said by the candidates themselves, is an opportunity to put the U.S. position with the world right again. Although the U.S. economy is the only thing on Americans’ minds right now, I want to remind all voting Americans that, in my opinion, foreign policy is an equally important issue and just as urgent. You can read one of my earlier posts about meeting some Somali refugees in an enormous camp in western Kenya. For that situation alone, the state of anarchy in Somalia, the world desperately needs a U.S. president who is willing to work with the U.N. and pressure it to resolve that conflict so these refugees can return to their own country.

But I’ll tell ya – and you’ve all probably heard this before – if all the other countries of the world could pick the U.S. president, they would probably elect Obama. And maybe they should be allowed to vote for our president or at least have some say. The U.S. president isn’t just the president of the U.S. – he is truly a world leader. And so I hope Americans can be mindful of this and not so narrowly focused on themselves and what their president will do for them.

So, in a few short weeks, I – along with all of Kenya here – will be watching the election with bated breath. I hope the man who also hails from some of my homes – Chicago and Kenya – wins!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Springtime in Kenya

Okay, the seasons aren't actually changing here, and we're not moving from a cold season to a warmer one and toward a hot one (see one of the earlier posts on seasons). But in the last few weeks, certain trees have been blooming, including the jacaranda trees, a tree common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa (especially in Pretoria, South Africa, which is known as the Jacaranda City).
There's a jacaranda in the yard of the house behind us, and part of it hangs into our back yard. The blossoms are a beautiful pale lavender, and they are delicate, so they tend to fall off the trees quickly and easily. But then they create a pretty carpet of purple on the ground.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I’m glad I’m not a refugee.

I’m glad I’m not a refugee.

I have expressed this sentiment many times in the last several years as I have traveled for work and have visited refugee camps and met people who are in refugee and internally displaced situations.

More recently, as we have made some moves between not only homes but across oceans and to different continents, I have also somewhat jokingly expressed this somewhat opposite statement that is not as grave as the first:

There is something to being a refugee (i.e., being free from many household and worldly possessions that weigh one down and that tend to own a person rather than the other way around).

I returned last evening from my latest trip as a free-lance communicator here, for my work on my newest project of producing the annual report for 2008 for the Lutheran World Federation Kenya program. It was my first visit for this year’s annual report among the three projects that LWF Kenya operates. It was also my first visit to this particular project – the three refugee camps around Dadaab, which is a tiny town almost directly east of Nairobi and about 80 km from the Kenya-Somalia border and smack-dab on the equator. I flew there on Monday morning and back yesterday on a small-plane United Nations charter flight.

During my few days in Dadaab, LWF marked its first year of work in the three camps, although they have existed there since 1991. The camps are there because of the situation of anarchy, civil unrest and violence that has plagued Kenya’s neighbor, Somalia, for the last several years. Tens of thousands of people have been fleeing the situation for almost the past two decades, but it has gotten worse in the past couple of years, which is when LWF was asked to step in to address the influx of recent refugees.

I had been to LWF Kenya’s “flagship” project a few times before – Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, which has housed tens of thousands of refugees from Southern Sudan. That is a well-organized, firmly established camp, which LWF has managed since 1993. Because LWF’s involvement in the Dadaab refugee camps is more recent, and because LWF was asked to come in to do some desperately needed organizing of the camp (the physical layout and of the people), I was interested in seeing the differences between the two camps. The circumstances of each camp’s creation and existence are also slightly different too, which made me see some new things that I had not seen on previous visits to Kakuma and other camps in other countries.

For these reasons – learning some marginally new things about refugees – even though I had been exposed to refugee situations before, I still believe in those statements about refugees, but see them slightly differently now. I knew before that those statements could be made in a derogatory light – that they speak ill of refugees and put me in a superior place above their situation, which often they cannot help. It places them in a position of pity from my perspective – “at least I’m not as bad off as them.” I’m well aware of that and work very hard in my work to not portray that attitude of my own (I have to be objective anyway and try not to inject my own opinions into my writing for other organizations) or such an attitude from the organizations I’m working for.

My visit to the camps around Dadaab and speaking to refugees exposed me to some other angles of being a refugee that I knew about before but had not seen so clearly in other situations. I spoke to some refugees who were very desperate for a number of reasons. Dadaab is in a very hot, dry, sandy, dusty and desolate part of the country. The region is essentially a desert. It feels quite isolated. The situation in the camps is dire, mostly because of space and land issues. There is a long list of problems I could list, a vicious cycle of problems, but suffice it to say there are a total of about 217,000 mostly Somalis living in the three camps around the town. The ideal number for each camp is 30,000 residents, but each is holding or approaching 80,000. About 200 refugees arrive unofficially and on their own each day, and there is nowhere to put them – no new land to expand to for new plots for each family.

There is a lot I could write about to describe this dire situation, but I will wait to write these things for the annual report I will produce in the coming months and then perhaps post some excerpts here. But I wanted to share here my personal feelings on the situation, not to say only that I’m glad I’m not a refugee but to name the flip side of that statement – to say what I am grateful for, what I have and what I can do. So, following my visit to Dadaab, here is a reminder of what I am thankful for:

  • My family, especially my wife and daughter. I have not been separated from them by force. We are able to live together. Neither has been killed and taken from me by war. Sarah and I have not been forced by extreme economic circumstances to separate so that one of us can go to work for better pay in a better place.
  • Luxuries like TV and a computer/the Internet. These keep my mind occupied and are ways that I can continue learning about the world. They provide amusement for me daily. In other words, because of these things, my mind is stimulated, and I have something to engage with. For a refugee, there are many hours and many days with few or no external stimuli, and especially with something like a job or a regular task to concentrate on or to accomplish. In other words, I do not suffer from constant idleness, nor is it forced upon me. Plus I have a way to relax, an escape from my day. Not everybody has this.
  • My bed. It is not a flat or scratchy mat on the hard ground. I have blankets and the option to put them on or take them off depending on my temperature.
  • Access to food and a variety of it. I am not dependent on someone else for my daily ration of food. I don’t have to worry about getting tired of eating rice or maize meal every day. I am able to have pasta one night for dinner and rice the next. I can have my favorite peanut butter on toast whenever I want (because I have a toaster too).
  • (This is a big one.) Freedom of movement and the ability to move around. Also the fact that I am a U.S. citizen. I’m grateful that I can move around my own country, that war (or any other disaster) never forced me to move from Illinois to Oklahoma, or that my government never said I couldn’t live on a farm if I chose to purchase land in Texas because of my race or class. I am so privileged in this way, being an American, that I can actually chose – which I have – to live outside my country. And – importantly – this privilege allows me to return at any time! How often do I see on the web advertisements for green cards or study permits to the U.S.? There are so many people in places I’ve been who long to move to the U.S. and who would have so many hoops to jump through – legal ones, not to mention just preparing oneself education- and economic-wise for a big move like that. After seeing how much difficulty others have in moving around – within their own countries or even to visit another country on the same continent as a short-term visitor – I am ever more grateful that I have the option to simply decide at any moment that I will go to the U.S. to live and work and don’t need to ask any government’s permission, and that I can settle anywhere I want! Nobody will tell me that I need a sponsor or to go to a certain place. And I could choose to uproot myself from California and move to Maine if I wanted to. What a privilege!

Friday, October 3, 2008

To everything there is a season – except in Kenya

Here in Kenya, the weather is mostly the same all year ‘round – sunny and warm to bordering on hot. I like warm and hot weather and am happy to give up winter all together. So weather-wise, I’m happy here, where it’s essentially summer (by my North American definition) almost all year long. Because we’re so close to the equator here, the country does not have distinct seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, but it does have rainy seasons.

It wasn’t until we arrived here from our former home in the Northern Hemisphere – and after several months of living here at that – that we began to notice how much of an impact the weather seasons as well as the various holidays that divide up the year into distinct periods have on ordering our lives and moods.

Lately, people have been saying things that have sounded utterly ridiculous in my mind, which has blissfully gotten wrapped up in the constant warm weather and has forgotten the rhythms of the North American/Northern Hemisphere seasons.

We received a package this week from my mother with a Halloween outfit for Lexi in it. We’ll certainly have her wear it on or around that day, but we might be the only ones here who appreciate it or even know its significance. Last year Lexi had another Halloween outfit, and we were having her wear it well after the date, and Jane, our housekeeper/nanny, never thought it was odd or remarked that the outfit was for a certain occasion. I have seen absolutely no signs of anybody celebrating or even recognizing Halloween here at all. I must say that with things like this, especially from a retail/consumer point of view, this is refreshing – it’s wonderful to visit stores and not have them pushing such a consumer holiday like this so much and so early (or at all). However, there are parts of this time of year that I miss. Sarah’s mother has been talking in her e-mails about picking apples and making cider and apple sauce. That is one thing I love about fall – the fruits that one gets and making things like apple pie. But an advantage of living here is that rhubarb is available year-round, and we’ve enjoyed many pies over the past few months.

Last week, an American woman we know invited us (albeit a bit early) to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. This is the woman who, with her family, always hosts big parties for Americans (and a few others) on the big American holidays. We attended one on the Fourth of July at their house. I know Thanksgiving comes in November, a month that is approaching, but my mind wasn’t signaled to start thinking about that by a change in the weather, which is normally the case. So I was almost dumbfounded by her invitation. The atmosphere and people's daily rhythms here just don't feel like we're headed toward that major holiday of the year.

At church, they've been talking about the "harvest season" and how it's time to consider stewardship and giving. This seems utterly odd to me because this always seemed to go hand-in-hand with back-to-school things in the U.S., and Kenya is on a different school schedule than the U.S. (and for us to have felt connected to a harvest season even while living in cities in the Northern Hemisphere is strange when you really think about it). Sarah confirmed with a coworker that it is, indeed, harvest season in Kenya, where the majority of the population is still involved in farming in some way (this coworker, a city-dweller, was even going to return to his family's plot somewhere upcountry to help with the harvest). But in the U.S., the fall harvest time was always such a big deal because it was the one harvest time of the year, but here, they can get two or maybe three growing seasons in every year, I think, so why September or October would be the harvest season, the time to discuss what we collect, earn and give, I don't know. But at our church, I think they also marched to the beat of the U.S. church season for these types of things because they were probably so missionary-oriented years ago (both Lutheran churches in Kenya were started by missionaries).

We've been here only a little less than a year, but we feel so out of touch with these season changes and the holiday cycles – Memorial Day signaling the beginning of summer, Labor Day marking its end, etc. I like variety and do miss some of the cycles that one gets to go through during the year in the U.S. But being removed from these cycles, I see how strange it is how they order our lives so much and have so much control over us and our moods and actions.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: Church bells and mosque prayers

In nearly every European city and town, you can count on being able to hear the bells from the tower of the medieval church in the center. In Geneva, the hourly chimes and other carillon music coming from the Cathedral of St. Peter became part of the city noise we were used to. We heard it all the time when we were outside our apartment, but to hear it from inside, we needed to open our bedroom window and stick our head out. Church bells are very much part of the landscape of cities and towns in Europe.

Now, in Kenya, it’s a very different scene. Although Kenya is an overwhelmingly Christian country, there are very few bell towers on Christian churches to be found. Instead, every neighborhood has its mosque with its minaret that projects prayer chants five times daily around the surrounding blocks of houses and businesses. The first day’s Muslim prayer session is usually before 5:00 a.m., but we have gotten used to this and don’t even hear it most days (although the dogs in the neighborhood have never grown used to it and still howl at the sound, day or night). As I sit in our upstairs back bedroom writing this, I hear an extended prayer this morning to mark today’s celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan (it’s also a public holiday in the country). On Fridays at the lunch hour, Sarah and I can hear the day’s sermon being projected from our neighborhood’s mosque. It’s a different scene than in Europe, but one that still provides a rhythm for the day and week, and one that is comforting in a way, the same way that the songs from the bells of Geneva’s cathedral, sitting high on the hill over the city, meant that everything was normal. The sounds from the mosque have become part of the neighborhood for us, a fixture in our senses.