Pole pole

The past week has been partially marked by great, curious and fascinating new impressions, and partially by the hardest task in the universe for people like me who have a strong allergy for the lack of activity: getting used to doing pretty much nothing.

With the exception a few things everything in Kisumu is in honour of the word ‘pole pole’ (slowly). Kenyans talk slow, walk slow, have slow internet, have no hurry to rush to the essence of a story in documents or speeches, show up late or not at all, and when I ask people what they do in the weekends for fun, their answer has been without fail: sleep. In fact, I have kind of started to believe that Kenyans favourite hobby is actually watching TV (especially Nigerian movies or Spanish dubbed shows) or ‘just hanging’ in a fairly literal interpretation of the word. My philosophy is that this has to do with the fact that they might not really have the resources to develop other hobbies (and doing nothing – let’s face it – is a very very cheap hobby).

At K-MET I decided to join the program ‘Urban Livelihoods’ which offers micro-grants of about a hundred euros to the poorest of the poor in the slums in order to start a micro-enterprise (a fish-cooking stall, or a refreshment stall or some other shop as a means to earn an living and provide economic empowerment). Besides the micro-grants vocational training is provided (car mechanic, electric wiring, plumbing, tailoring, IT courses,…) to young vulnerable individuals from the slum community, usually directly or indirectly affected by AIDS. What I really like about the program is that they want it to be community-based as much as possible. The individuals who qualify to get a micro-grant or training are selected through criteria the community itself has set up (so they themselves decide who are those most in need of economic empowerment). K-MET also only pays for their tuition but expects the community itself to support the individuals pay exam fees, notebooks and a pencil etc… if they cannot afford to purchase one themselves. The idea behind the not 100% funding is that they don’t want to be charity but merely pull the engine to start empowerment and then let the community own the process of their development so that they learn to be independent. Right now 200 hundred people are receiving a grant and 200 training.
Sounds awesome right? Except for pole pole is not just a phenomenon that effects the dark corners of fly infested mud huts, and has been truly testing my patience at K-MET itself as well. I have been here two weeks and still feel like I haven’t really done any real work besides looking for donors and setting up commitment letters. I get to go to trainings and field trips to sit around a little bit an deworm children and so on, but as for now the work that requires speech or brain activity is not entrusted in our mzungu hands.
Don’t get me wrong, my two weeks here have been filled with invaluable impressions and experiences that will stick in my memory until Alzheimer takes it away from me, but so far I feel like I have mainly been observing Africa, while I came to interact with Africa.

But activity might just be ADD-like jumping up and down for me behind the corner, in the staff meeting this morning they mentioned that since Obama has stated he was accepting of homosexuals, a lot of them have come out of the closet and now they have a community of about eighty gays in the slum ‘Obunga’ right behind K-MET. Being gay in Kisumu significantly increases your chances of being murdered and almost certainly results in social rejection. The gay communities main issue at this moment is access to health facilities and of course social rejection. Telling the doctor you suffer from STI’s caused by same-sex intercourse likely leads to rejection of the facility (men having sex with men is illegal in Kenya), telling your parents is often an even worse option. The problem that was raised in the staff meeting was that even the staff members do not really feel comfortable discussing anal sex or homosexuality. Since discussion in detail or issues that arise from men having sex with men (MSM) does not really make me lose my appetite or make me uncomfortable by any means (I most likely feel more comfortable with gay Kenyan men than with straight ones), I think maybe I could create a program to sensitize K-MET staff and particularly medical staff to perhaps at least start addressing these issues. We’ll see…

On the other hand usually once singing or dancing comes into the picture, I have a strong desire to have been born with African blood (and six pack) and suddenly it feels like slowness has never been a part of their life. When these people get to dance or sing, it is like Africa abandons all its issues in the rhythm of their music. We got to be part of a scouts competition where they African danced and sang it up around a bonfire; we got to sit in on religion class grade seven and listen to the kids burst out singing in a gospel song in the middle of it; we saw the African booties shake like nobody’s business at a dance bar last Saturday and Sunday we got to go to mass and get lost in the middle of what I estimate a 3000-ish singing, smiling, dancing and gospel singing African Christians led by their singing tuxedo dressed dancing preacher. After let’s say an hour of gospelmania, – though I was mainly trying to concentrate not to faint and have Africans try to chase the spirits out of me as a consequence – the real preaching was no less interesting than the singing and instead of the yawn triggering monotonous reading of the bible, the priest would act, yell and point as if he had been taught partially by a comedian, partially by seminary school. Maybe if they would give some seminars in to Belgian priests, they would get more than twelve people to attend Sunday mass.

So far Mzungu life in Africa, live from Kisumu.



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