Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kenya and the U.S.: The differences aren't paper-thin

This may seem odd, but one stark difference between the U.S. and Kenya/Africa that I noticed fairly soon after arriving in Washington, D.C., is how much paper is used in the U.S. in various parts of daily life. Of course, I had been part of this high paper consumption before myself, so it’s nothing really new to me, but it’s something that I noticed after living in Africa where not nearly as much paper passed through my hands on a daily basis.

  • Much of what caused me to notice this in Washington, D.C., and not in Seattle, where I spent several days first, immediately after arriving in the U.S. from Kenya, is that I attended a conference for about three full days during my first days in D.C. Not that I attended many (or any) conferences in Nairobi, but I don’t think they would have distributed and used as much paper as they do in the U.S. Participants in this conference received a paper folder containing various papers at registration, and at each workshop, the leader and other speakers handed out papers. If you strolled through the exhibit areas, you could pick up more paper from various organizations. At every place at the tables in the rooms where workshops were held, the hotel provided a pad of paper to take notes on. It seemed normal to me at the time when I worked for the ELCA in Chicago and I would come home from a conference with a stack full of paper to sort through, but now that seems like a real task – and almost wasteful! - after this conference. Also, this conference was held at a big, fancy high-rise hotel (a Hilton). In the bathrooms, you could dry your hands on paper towels (the garbage can for this under the paper towel dispenser was always full), and near the entrance to the bathrooms, they had a box of Kleenex. When they provided a means to dry your hands in Kenya (which was rare to begin with anyway) at a public bathroom, it was often an air hand dryer, not necessarily because they wanted to save the environment, but purchasing a continuous supply of disposable paper towels is expensive.
  • Also while living in Kenya, we took a hiatus of sorts from mail and specifically junk mail. Since there aren’t mail carriers in Kenya – mail is not delivered directly to residences (both people and businesses have to go to the post office to pick up their mail) – businesses couldn’t find us to send us ads and junk mail. We really received only what was essential to us. Junk mail is certainly a major way that a lot of paper passes through our hands every day. (As an aside, I did not really like this hiatus from mail, even if most mail these days is junk mail. I’ve always regarded mail as a gift that comes every day – I love being sent things that regularly without even asking for them!)
  • I am reminded that in homes in the U.S., people use paper towels in the kitchen and paper napkins at meals. We certainly could and did do this in Kenya, but having disposable paper for this purpose isn’t something you see in a typical African household – a poor African can’t afford to buy disposable paper products. A speaker from Kenya at this conference also noted this – how American households have a roll of paper in the kitchen and bathroom and everywhere else and how badly it makes her feel that trees are being wasted.
  • At the conference, the only meals that were provided in the conference costs were essentially lunches. And for those, we were given boxed lunches – that we ate at the hotel! So what a waste again by the hotel/the conference’s organizers. We each had a cardboard box that we threw away on-site where we got our lunch, and immediately after eating it – we didn’t really need to carry our lunches far in the box. At fast-food places, we do the same. There are boxes for Big Macs and fries that we throw away a few minutes after we’re given the food.
One bright spot in this often wasteful situation in the U.S. is that we recycle here. Thankfully, much of this paper that passes through our hands daily is recyclable, and people do recycle it in their homes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

From those still in Africa

It’s lonely here without Stephen though his sister comes for 2 weeks on Monday so that will be nice. Lexi and I have had several dinner engagements since Stephen has been gone so don’t think that we are just sitting here doing nothing. We have been going to bed early as we have both been tired.

This morning we went to church at our usual place. The African organist has actually been on time the last two Sundays; he handles the hymns well (even at a nice speed) but the liturgy just makes me cringe. He definitely isn’t playing all of the music but I can’t pinpoint exactly what he is leaving out – something in the melody, I am pretty sure. Stephen would be going nuts if he was here! They are having a church cleaning day next Saturday; I really wonder how many people will show up. Getting people to do anything besides come to church on Sunday morning seems to be a problem.

The weather is still very nice though it has been a little cooler in the mornings. It has only been overcast and will look like rain but it hasn’t been raining. People are getting concerned that if the rains don’t come at the right time, things will be even worse with the food crisis. The other major regional concern relates to Sudan; with the arrest warrant out for the President, things might get ugly.

Lexi and I have booked our tickets back to the U.S. My mom will come two weeks before and fly back with us so that I don’t have to handle Lexi alone. We are leaving on 6 May. I am SO excited about it. Lexi and I (and maybe Stephen, too) will get to see my entire immediate family – nieces and all! Yesterday, I went through my clothes and now, along with Stephen’s, we have a large box of things to give away. And on Friday at work I did all (or 95%) of the filing that had been piling up as well as threw some things away so I feel I have really accomplished something the last two days.

Friday, March 13, 2009

From the capital of Kenya to the capital of the U.S.

Time for an update on my/our relocation plans. The execution of the plan has begun!

I left Nairobi on the night of Sunday, March 1. It was a very long journey to Seattle that involved a very long flight that was extended unexpectedly. The Dubai-to-NYC leg of my flights was long anyway – normally 14 1/2 hours – but we circled over NYC because of the snow, which was preventing any planes from landing there. So add another hour on this plane. We finally started getting low on fuel (as if 14 1/2 hours in the air wouldn’t do that in the first place), so we landed in Philadelphia to refuel, which meant we sat on the plane for another hour. Then we went back to NYC. By the time we finally landed, I had missed my connection at JFK to Seattle. But I ended up spending the night in NYC at my brother’s place in Manhattan and having lunch the next day with a good college friend, so it wasn’t all bad. Plus I got to sleep in a horizontal position that night, since I was headed into my second straight night of sleeping on airplanes.

Once I arrived in Seattle, I stayed there for ten days. My main purposes in going there were to:

  • see many friends and family (and I was crazy busy seeing everybody over lunches, dinners and coffees and the unexpected phone call with some)
  • sort through and clean out my stuff that has been stored in my parents’ basement for the last 18 years and get it ready to ship to Washington, D.C. One of our reasons for moving back to the U.S. is because we now desire a house (i.e., a detached, single-family home) that has more living space so we can spread out, a place that includes a yard for our children (so far just Lexi) to play in. This is our chance to get everything we own in one place (stuff that has been scattered around the country for the last several years) and then enjoy many of the things we have collected on our travels around the world.
It is strange to be back in the U.S. Whenever I visited the U.S. while we were living abroad, and especially returning now after living abroad for 5 1/2 years, I feel like a foreigner in my own country. It’s strange because this environment and culture is familiar to me, but it’s not what I’ve been surrounded by for the past year or so. The culture of Europe was closer to that of the U.S., but the African culture was further removed from the American culture. It’s difficult to keep two cultures that are so far apart together in my mind. It was doubly strange being in Seattle as well. Even when I visited Seattle when I was living in Chicago, I never felt like I fit in anymore there. It is the place I lived as a child (until I was 18 and left for college on the East Coast). It is not a place I have spent much time in as an adult. Where I feel comfortable and where I fit in now is Chicago. That’s a city that suits me as an adult.

I have just arrived in Washington, D.C., and will begin the next – and main – phase of our relocation. What steps do I plan to take/what will happen now (the question I’ve been answering a lot since returning to the U.S.)?

  • I made my travel plans to arrive in D.C. in time to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days, an annual event put on by the D.C. advocacy offices of the mainline churches (including the ELCA) and their related advocacy agencies. This is a good chance for me to network with a crowd I would like to work with, although I have pretty much already exhausted all job possibilities with these offices for the time being.
  • For the first several days after my arrival, I will be staying with a friend who lives in a central location in D.C. One of my first orders of business will be to find a longer-term place to live. I want to find a furnished apartment to lease/sublet for the short-term – for five or six weeks – until Sarah and Lexi join me. I may be able to find a place that’s big enough to add another adult and child later so I won’t have to move again, but I won’t know until I start looking at some places.
  • Another task - my main one in the coming weeks – that I will start immediately is looking for a job. I believe that I need to acquire things in this order: a place to live (a place on my own – an apartment – see above), then a job, then I can get a mortgage to buy a house, and then (or maybe at the same time as the house), a car for our family. So this is my list of big tasks in order of priority. Then we will be able to execute the moving arrangements for our stuff to come from Seattle and Salt Lake City and have a house to receive it in. Can I even look for a job? Yes, I am finding plenty of openings on various websites that I am monitoring for my line of work (nonprofits). These are openings that I am qualified for, interested in (more or less), and at places (in addition to nonprofits, I am finding openings at universities, trade associations, foundations, etc.) where I could work.
  • As I job hunt, I also have various other networking events I am scheduled or plan to attend and individuals I have planned or can contact with to meet for networking purposes. Friends and family have given me the contact information for many people who are working in D.C. whom I can contact with for job help or networking. But I am open to more contacts if you want to share them with me.
  • In between all of this, after my “job” of job hunting, I hope to get out into D.C. and enjoy some events – concerts, festivals, etc. – that are offered and visit some of the great landmarks of the city.
As you can see, I have been and plan to be quite busy in the coming weeks and months executing my plans as I’ve described above. If you want more details or need to know more about why or how I’m doing something, unfortunately, I can’t respond to every inquiry. I hope I’ve provided enough details (about the how and why) on what I plan to do for the time being, and in several weeks, I will write another update on my progress. I’m hoping to satisfy the curiosity and interest that is coming from many of you with these written updates, and I’m sorry they have to be for a mass audience, but there are many of you out there, and I can’t take the time to repeat this information for everybody who asks.

In the meantime, I thank all of you who are supporting me in various ways – those who responded to my first update and who keep in touch through various means, those whom I saw recently, and the rest of you who read this and who silently offer your good thoughts for my well-being.