Learning to live

I like the fact that most of the people ask me if my parents live in Kenya and think that I was brought up here. I am learning a lot of things and I’m totally immersed in what they call ‘traditional’ lifestyle.
Everybody has something to teach, but there is nothing like learning with the children.
They are everywhere, they are many and they are playing/learning 24/7.

When I’m not teaching at school I travel from place to place with Thomas. He likes to ride his motorbike through the bushes and I just sit back enjoying the panorama. Eventually we end up in remote villages where we visit uncles, grandparents and cousins that he calls brothers and sisters . Most of them live in huts made of mud and wood and live a humble but happy life.
When a visitor arrives is always welcomed very warmly and offered a chair with the elders. After some time I’ve learned to refuse that chair and sit on the ground with the youngest members of the family. As an outsider I have also great social mobility that allows me to learn everyone’s duties and to move around the village freely.

We don’t have electricity in the house and cooking is not easy with just a torch and a jiko. Tom and I are also very lazy and I got used to the fact that the reproductive labor is considered woman’s duty. We are often invited for dinner by neighbors and friends and I never refuse.

In my village in Kilifi lives Sidi. I’ve had dinner at her house for the past week.  She’s the greatest friend and the greatest Kiswahili teacher. She lives with her father Eddie who is the breadwinner in the family, her mother MamaSidi, her sister Kazo and Aunt Salama.

Sidi goes to kindergarten and will start primary school in September. She speak fluent Swahili and I speak fluent English. She speaks kidogo – a little- English and I speak kidogo Swahili. From her I’ve learned that the spoken word is only one of the thousands channels of communication available to human interaction and not necessarily the most efficient. I’m rediscovering the pleasure of living each action as a ritual, the pleasure of enjoying the very space where the bum lies because given by unspoken laws and not always chosen. She has taught me that simplicity is not poverty and I’ve started believing that a humble life can lead to real happiness.

Salama, MamaSidi’s sister, is in charge of cooking. She doesn’t speak any English and is a good way to test my improvements with the language. Salama cooks a lot and she loves it. I’m learning to cook the local way, one of my favourite dishes is Ugali with Fish and Kachumbari.

Ugali is just maize flour cooked with boiled water. It’s the staple food of the Mijikenda people and it’s part of their identities. A local proverb tells: “Give rice to a Mijikenda and he will tell you that he has not eaten”.

Kachumbari is just an onion and tomato salad, simple and quick to prepare. Cut the onion very thinly and wash with salted water to get rid of the strong taste. Cut the tomato thinly, mix together and add lemon juice. The only thing I’m struggling with is cutting vegetable up to perfection without a chopping board. Salama is very proud of her technique and of her ability not to cut herself with the sharp knife. She holds the tomato in her left hand and the knife with the right, being moved horizontally the knife touches her palm to make a perfect slice.

Nothing has to be said about the fish. Just go to the beach, find a fisherman and buy a kilo for 200Ksh (2euro). Boil or fry and will be delicious.

Enjoy your meal, more food stories to come.

Jambo!

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Building the house – 10 Days later

Investing a big stake of my budget in blocks, cement and fundi was a great idea. The house is coming up pretty quickly and the foundations -the toughest part together with the roof- have been completed yesterday. It’s very rewarding to actually see the walls being built day by day, block by block. Pole-Pole.

The first time I went to Kilifi was on the 21st of July, Saturday and while I was there I couldn’t stop thinking of how to settle in this village without being perceived as a tourist and not being accommodated in a Hotel or Guest House.I loved that place, that lifestyle and that culture.

Thomas favorite uncle is called Samson. He lives in Mombasa and in the weekends comes up to his village in Kilifi to stay with his family and to supervise the works on a water well that he is building for the community.
He speaks good English, not very fluent but we understand each other. “Water is life” he told me on that day: “this well is only 9 feet deep at the moment and we need to reach 40 to find water. Pole pole (slowly slowly)”. I knew the meaning of Pole pole in Swahili but I didn’t realize that it actually is a way of approaching life, problems, plans and ideas. It’s a powerful way of thinking, very humble but efficient that often goes along with the motto that Disney taught us all ‘Hakuna Matata’ – No Problems, No stress, Don’t worry amigo, It’s going to be alright

It was my first encounter with the Mijikenda and with people whose lifestyle can be described as indigenous. It went pretty well, I gave some sweats to the children (a dozen) in Samson’s household, greeted the neighbors with my poor Swahili and eaten the most amazing fish with Ugali, tomatoes and onions.
(I’m allergic to tomatoes, other vegetables and some fruit but I keep eating bananas, mango and raw vegetables and it’s fine. My allergy is not really real and I need to find out why I feel sick eating fruits and veg in Europe).

Samson was the first relative I met and I think I passed the ‘favorite uncle test’ because straight after we went to meet Tom’s parents in Tezo. From the village near the beautiful creek where Samson lives we did a 30 minutes motorbike ride off road and finally reached the house were Tom was born and grew up. This area is known as Teso, on that day we took the road through the forest but it can be reached following the road along the coast going north for 7 kilometers.

Tom has a wonderful family, 9 sibilings, 3 nephews and loads of uncles and aunts. Fred and Grace, his parents, own a farm where he grows maize (mainly), tomatoes, sukuma, coconut trees (I counted 17), mango, mukunde, pili pili, mnavu, cundes, casorina trees and comasa trees. When the dry season kicks in he’s not able to feed the family from the shamba (farm) therefore he gets money selling coconuts for 8/10 shillings each. The thing that strikes me the most is how little they rely on the monetary system spending approximately 1 Euro per day and winning the bread cooperating with the community through an informal economy.

_____Fred, Grace, Tom and I_____

It took a while to figure out where I was and what was happening around me; after a walk around the shamba I was leaning on the walls of the house that Tom –pole pole- is building for his family. Up to this point my plan for the rest of the ‘holiday’ was to travel up north the coast to Lamu,  go to the Masai Mara park (south of the region, almost Tanzania) to see the wild beast migration, go back to Nairobi, visit Lake Victoria, Kisumu and Eldoret and finally go back to Italy. After a quick summary of the expenses of the travel and with the hammering thought I had all day since I met Samson I said “What if we build the house? Me and you, I don’t need to go to Lamu…”.

That’s how it all started. I may have missed out a lot of really cool things but I have no regrets so far.

Grace calls me Mwanangu – my Son and when I’m introduced to people I’m always referred at as “Tom’s brother”.  🙂

I would like to say a special THANK YOU to Roberta and Raffaella. I have received your generous gift and bought a trip of blocks for the house. Everyone is really grateful and your initials are now written in the cement!

 

Tales from Africa

I have been sitting in a cybercafe for 2 hours now and haven’t come up with anything interesting… I need some time to figure out what to do with all my jottings. I spent a week teaching how to write stories in English and I feel like I can’t put one word after the other now…

Every student had to write a story and this is my favorite so far:

Once there was a poor man who lived with his wife in a certain town. One day a fairy came and promised to give them any three things they wished for.

Just as they were having tea the wife said:” I wish we had bread”. Immediately there was bread on her hands. The husband was very angry because the wife chose the bread instead of a long life. “I wish the bread goes into your nose instead of your mouth” he said.

The bread got stuck in the wife’s nose. It was uncomfortable and she could not breathe.

This short story is written by Patience, a student in class 5 at Mkombe Academy.

The experience at the primary school has been amazing and I have been welcomed very warmly by the children and teachers. Today I was given a red pen by the headmaster. There are only 5 red pens in the all school and holding one makes you a teacher at all effects. It’s the greatest award I’ve ever received.

Next week the Mkombe Olympic Games will take place, I will update you on that.

 

 

 

Liminality

Liminality in anthropological terms is the disorientation and ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of a ritual. It’s the transitory process of someone who no longer belongs to a pre-ritual status but has not yet reached the status that will hold when the ritual is complete.

My liminality has been very intense and often frustrating – I guess it always is. I was on the borderline, I came to Kenya as a tourist, I was willing to be an anthropologist and I ended up being a volunteer. I prefer to think differently now, and not try to fall into a category. Whatever I was it made my experience unique and life-changing.

Pre-Ritual status: The tourist

I arrived in Nairobi on Sunday and moved to Mlolongo with Tom and Winnie the day after. Even though I was staying in a non-touristic area and in an unconventional accommodation I spent the first five days as a tourist: I visited a couple of museums in Nairobi, enjoyed a trip to Lake Naivasha with hippos, eagles and flamingos, visited the US embassy that has been blown up in ’98, went to the seaside near Mombasa and spent a lot of money in food and transports.

Thomas was my guide, our deal was that he would have shown me the central highlands area for a week in exchange of $200 and all the expenses –food, travel and accommodation. We immediately became good friends and agreed that all the saving we could make on a $600 budget will have gone in his wallet.

It turned out that he was renting a house in Bamburi, Mombasa therefore we decided to move to the coast on Thursday 19th of July. The 8 hours bus ride was very comfortable and the bus had a big screen showing funny African comedians; I’ve noted a joke on my notebook and stumbled upon it this morning. A Kenyan comedian called Pablo was talking about Kisumu where Obama is originally from. “Do you know what O.B.A.M.A. really Means?” He asked the crowd…

“One Black African Managing America!” I thought that was kind of funny… Wait, don’t forget about his name: “Barack: Born African Raised American Certainly Kenyan”.

We arrived in Mombasa at 7pm and after a 40minutes tuc-tuc ride we got to Bamburi. It was getting dark and most of the places look very dodgy when it’s dark. Tom was telling me that this particular district is less dangerous than Nairobi but you still need to be careful if you are white and people don’t know you. It happened that a Muzungu –white man- was given drugs with food and robbed. I was already pretty scared and when we got to the house there was no electricity, a strong odor and it was infested by cockroaches. I wanted to die.

Tom, who studied electrical engineer, went to fix the fuse while I was left alone in this beautiful scenery. Luckily my girlfriend called me and I had the opportunity to moan with someone and get some comfort.

One hour later the electricity was fixed and we went with some Muslim neighbors to celebrate the last night out before Ramadan kicked in.

On Friday we went to Bamburi Beach all day with the same friends and when we got back we watched a movie; I can’t remember the title but there is a quotation that really helped me changing mindset and coping with the first cultural shocks: “It’s all in the mind. Your vision creates your reality”.

I wasn’t enjoying being a tourist a lot and I think Tom realized I was looking for something more.

___

Today is Sunday and Winnie came to visit us. She doesn’t know about the house yet, it’s going to be a great surprise! She’s now waiting outside the cybercafe, I don’t have time to finish this post! Damn!

How to make an African Bed

Need a new bed? Tired of sleeping on wooden slats? Looking for something alternative?

Here a simple guide on how to make an African Bed with 1.000Ksh in 5 easy steps:

1. Go to Africa.

2. Find a Fundi (lit. a person who is learned) who can make a solid skeleton – 700Ksh – 7 Euro.

3. Buy 50 meters of coconut leaf rope. 300Ksh – 3 Euro.

4. Tie the rope around the skeleton as shown.

Nine times vertically

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then horizontally

____

5. Get a big friend to test it and enjoy your new bed!

Ciao!

Back to primary school

Tom has nine sibilings, the youngest is called Emmanuel and is attending the fourth year of primary school.Yesterday, while taking a break from the house building works, I followed him to school.

We walked for ten minutes on this road and finally reached Tezo Primary School.

There are 113 students and 4 teachers at Tezo Primary School. The first impression was really great, the children were playing football and as I approached the field everyone stopped and looked at me astonished.

I’m so grateful to have adventured myself on this road, these people are so enthusiastic and full of joy!

Tomorrow I’m going back to school, 10 o’clock English class and 2 o’clock Science. I will teach children in the fifth year how to use reported speech and why liquid expands when warmed up! It’s going to be exciting!

I also have a lot of projects that relates to Anthropology and the headmaster, Mr. Kaengo, gave me total freedom to carry out any kind of research.

I wasn’t expecting so many things to happen in such a short time. If you read this and you know something about anthropology and ethnography please leave a comment, I need your help! I have some ideas but when it comes to make them happen it’s not always easy so, I’m open to suggestions.

Last night I was talking to Tom and I had a great idea. In order to get an insight on their lives I would like to organize a writing/anthropology workshop where the students in the fifth grade will have the chance to learn how to draw a genealogy tree (all of them have at least 7 siblings) and to tell stories of their relatives. I will gain a lot of useful information about the tribes they come from and they will get the chance to practice their writing skills. I’ll probably need to buy some pens and A4 paper.

I am also tempted to give to some of them my camera and find out more about indigenous media.

I’m going to the beach now, this afternoon we’re hiring a lorry and move a sofa to the new house. I will finally move all my stuff to Kilifi!

Few pictures of the neighborhood:

__

Take care,

Marco

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