Monthly Archives: July 2014

Reiteration: Helping Ain’t About You

We weren’t important.

That’s the thing to understand about the situation. That’s the thing people back here don’t understand, and how could I really expect them to, when I only recognized it myself after two weeks over there? We taught, but we weren’t teachers. We participated in a program that we weren’t running. We were substitutes, filling in for the Real Deal while it went off and upgraded itself. We weren’t important, and it’s questionable whether we were completely necessary. What we were, was helpful. And really, that’s all that matters.

When we first walked through Kibera, we thought how friendly the area was. “How are you!” was shouted to us by every single child we met on the street. Some smaller kids even took to chanting it as we went by, and it was as if their cries alerted the children still inside their homes to come outside and pick up the call, so that not one moment of the trek between bus and school was without greeting. Others came right up to us to shake our hands. We’d been told not to refuse anyone’s hand, regardless of its state of cleanliness, as this was the height of rudeness and cruelty. It wasn’t a problem. Everyone was so kind and adorable you wouldn’t want to refuse them, even if you’d seen them sucking the remains of a treat off of their fingers, or sneezing, moments before coming up to you. This happened a few times, but it was okay. We were welcome.

By the second week I realized that with the exception of men, people were only calling to me a little less than half the time. Hands were actually being pulled back when the greeters saw my face emerge after another volunteer’s.

“You look like one type of the locals,” I’d been told in a brief orientation. “People won’t expect you to be with the rest of the group. They’ll be annoyed when you can’t speak Kiswahili.”

It was happening. One morning, the only person to greet me was a woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand, and rapidly spoke to me as the rest of the group continued on their way to school.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “Kiwezi kusema Kiswahili. I’m sorry.” She finally let go, scowling, and I was in the predicament of wanting to catch up with my group, but not wanting to run from her. It didn’t help that later we had a meeting with one of the organizers, who talked about what a great job the volunteers were doing, and how loved all of the mzungu teachers were. Though I was sitting in the front row, it didn’t register that she was excluding me from the praise. In Kibera, I’m not a mzungu. I’m not lumped in with the others. People don’t care about how I am, the majority of the time. Am I not supposed to be volunteering? I’d wonder. Am I not at the mzungu level? Is it only the white people who are expected to volunteer abroad, who are expected to come into other lands, sprinkling their white fairy dust and making things better? Should I have stayed in the US, if my services have no value?

No, as it turns out. Two nights later we learn that “how are you” is not a greeting. It is a name. The Howareyous are the whites. The children chanting and pointing are not asking about the volunteers, but counting them. “There they go!” is what they may as well be saying. I’m slightly more okay with this. Some of the other volunteers are not.

“What is a ‘howareyou’ anyway?” laments one guy, actually the only male American. “It’s just another volunteer, who are like a dime a dozen here, who come in for a little bit, and then leave, and don’t come back. They don’t do anything. And if you think about it, when you say, ‘how are you’, you aren’t really saying anything. You aren’t sitting down with a person and getting to know them and their troubles. You’re just saying it to say it, and it’s all meaningless, just like this!”

I wonder how many white volunteers came through Kibera, saying “how are you” to people, before the name stuck. The guy is still going.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been a minority, and now I know what it feels like,” he’s saying. “It feels awful. All these people are calling me this thing, and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t have the power to stop it.”
“Wait,” I say. “You’re talking about ‘Howareyou?'”
“Yes,” he says.
“So you feel like a minority, because people are calling you Howareyou and you can’t make them stop.”
“Yes,” he tells me. “What am I gonna do? Tell them all not to call me that?”
There’s no way he’s comparing this to the n-word right now, I think. If this mzungu thinks “howareyou” comes close to “nigger”, he is demented.

“But you know they’re calling you that because they recognize the power you have,” I say out loud, telling him, rather than asking him. “You are a minority here. But you only have this experience. Volunteers here are freaking out because passersby are touching their hair. My hair gets touched all the time back home. You’re counted, you’re seen as ‘different’. It’s the same way people of color see you back home, only there you have so many other white people around you, you don’t have to think about it. So you can think about it here, and recognize its problems, but don’t cry about it.”

This seems harsh, so I decide to talk about myself, instead.

“When we were in Margaret’s Safe Place, that was hard for me,” I tell him. MSP is a gated home in Kibera that’s somewhat hidden from the rest of the community. It’s a safe house for girls with undesirable family situations. ‘Undesirable’ meaning anything from having parents die, to being abused, to being raped, to I don’t know and don’t really want to think about it (sorry). It’s where girls go who desperately need it, and it’s good that it exists. I’m happy my girls have somewhere to go, but I have mixed emotions when, on a field trip, one of the girls in my homeroom excitedly tells me that we’re going to eat at her home, at Margaret’s Safe Place! It fills me with something, sadness, and a desire to track down whatever evil is responsible for making MSP a necessary place for my girl to go, and punish it. You don’t hurt my girls. Please.

“When Marte walked into the living room, I wanted to cry,” I continue. “I wanted to cry, because she’s my favorite girl in the whole school, and possibly the world, and I didn’t know she lived there. And wondering why she had to live there, and what sent her there, made me so angry and sad. I wanted to cry, but I knew that I couldn’t. She’s happy there, and she isn’t crying. Who would I be to sit there, crying over her misfortune? What if she had to comfort me? That would be too selfish. All I could do instead was stay there, and try to make her feel better for a little bit.”

“Do you think that’s what this program is like?” Our mutual friend asked. “Is that what we’re doing? Staying here and trying to make them feel better for a little bit?”

“No,” I said slowly. “Actually, yes, just not with those words. I used the wrong words. I think that what we’re doing is like the time at Margaret’s, except we aren’t really making them feel better. They don’t need to. They aren’t unhappy. We’re just staying with them, and allowing them to keep going. The teachers are training, and developing curriculum. The school will advance, and more grades will be added. We aren’t important, but we’re helping them to keep going.”

It was something we all came to recognize, not without some difficulty. One volunteer confided in me the nervousness she felt about returning to the US. She’d gotten a lot of sponsors for her trip by telling them that she was going to an impoverished place to empower girls and make their lives better.
“And now, when I go home, I’ll have to speak at a bunch of meetings and tell them how this went, but I haven’t empowered anyone,” she worried. “I haven’t done what I told them all I would do. I’ve just been here.”
“Well, you’ve done some good work with the girls,” I told her, trying to find a way she could have the experience sound more meaningful to superficial ears. “But wouldn’t it also be better for them to know that America wasn’t the answer to Kibera’s problems? That they didn’t need us to fix everything.” That maybe it was incredibly ignorant to think we held the answer to their problems in the first place, and more people should be made aware of the reality.
“Oh, definitely,” she said. “I’m not going to say I changed their lives or anything. I just want them to feel that their money went to something worthwhile.”

I think it did, just not in the way anyone expected it to. We came in thinking about all that we would be doing. We wanted to be actively helping. It turns out that the most help we did came passively, by allowing Kibera to take care of itself. We weren’t important. Allies are never the most important part; helpers should not expect to outshine those they are giving aid to. They probably will expect to, anyway. But they shouldn’t.
We weren’t important; we were needed, like tools used by the community to fish for the rest of its life.

Embracing Patriarchy to Escape Patriarchy, and Yourself-Sacrificing Coordinators

It’s Friday, and I’m walking back from KSG to the spot from which the bus will pick us up. I’m working out a budget in my head. Who I still need to buy gifts for, where we’ll be going over the weekend, what I owe people, the ride to the airport. Will I extend my stay? That’s money. Is it worth it? Will it affect my job? Being worried about money sucks (thinks the American walking out of the slum).

My thoughts are interrupted by one of my coordinators, who suddenly jumps up beside me and clenches my shoulders.
“No, stop, stop, he’s really scaring me!” she cries, which would be startling enough if she wasn’t also suddenly pushing me into the path of an oncoming man.
“I love you!” He is slurring his words and yelling, arms reaching. “Why are you leaving me all alone?”
I try to get out of his way, only to realize that my coordinator is wrenching me in place. She’s using me to hide, pushing my body toward his to block hers. Or as a trade? Is she trying to give me up to save herself?
“BABY! Dn’t leave me, ALOOOONE!”
The man is getting closer, still yelling. My coordinator is still pushing me toward him. Residents are watching us and laughing. Having got me into this slightly dangerous situation, she clearly isn’t going to save me. So I have to save her? Fine. I shove her along the path, trying to move away as quickly as possible. I can’t decide if it’s safer to ignore him and keep moving, or to tell him to go away. Looking around for help, I see Jake behind us.
“Will you please do your job as a man and make him go away?” I ask, but he doesn’t understand. As a trainer for the teachers, he’s only been with us a few days, and it’s clear that no one has let him know about the level of patriarchy here. He doesn’t get that right now, what will be safest for me is for the man to think that Jake is in charge of me, my coordinator, and the rest of the female volunteers.
“Hey, man, why don’t you leave them alone?” Jake says, weakly. Yeah, that’s a real stay away from my property warning. The man ignores him and keeps coming, shouting his ‘love’.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Esther, the angel, our saviour from SHOFCO Youth has showed up. She says a few words to the man in Kiswahili, then turns him around and pushes him back down the path. Thank you. We’re okay.

I’m feeling weird about having embraced the messed up gender structures, if only for a second, in an attempt to save myself. Especially when it didn’t even work out. It seems I’ve been conforming a lot to things that are against my beliefs, just to get by here. I keep biting down on things that I’d otherwise proudly be saying. It’s part of the reason I wouldn’t be able to stay. My feminism is too radical here, even at KSG. I feel like shit for thinking this, and for being able to leave, as I currently walk out of the slum for the day. There it is, though. I like to think that I’ll find a way back to Kibera for a bit, but it still wouldn’t be permanent. I’m lucky enough not to have to stay here, yet.

And my coordinator, what is she doing? She’s finally let go of me. We are no longer struggling with each other. She’s gone.
I look behind me, at the line of white volunteers. She’d come from the back, running around all of them. Why did she choose me? Was it my race? Was it random? Why did it happen at all? She’s supposed to be in charge, protecting us. It is not supposed to be the other way ’round.

What the fuck was that?
She pushed me into his way.
She pushed me into his way.

PCOS Doesn’t Give a Shit about Body Love

I’m hungry. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, because for the past four weeks my only assured meals have been breakfast and dinner, and I’ve had mild hunger pangs in between. It’s just for a different reason. That hunger was bearable, because I always knew that in a few hours I would have something marvelous to eat, and if things got really bad I could buy a snack. Chapatis and lollipops for KSH10, y’all!

This time, I know that in a few hours I won’t be able to partake in as much of the marvelousness. At my next meal, instead of getting to go crazy and enjoying myself, I’ll get to cut back and watch others enjoy themselves. I can’t really snack in the meantime, either. Oh, I can have all the fruit I want, but fruit is expensive. “Have all the fruit you want” really means “eat a couple pieces of fruit today so that there’s still fruit tomorrow, and then just drink water and pretend to be full until dinner.”

I’m on a diet. It’s not by choice.

I have grown to hate visits to my endocrinologist. Not that I’m not supremely grateful to even have an endocrinologist in the first place. I’m thankful that my parents have jobs that give them health insurance, thankful that I’m young enough to still be covered by their health insurance, and thankful that their health insurance still covers birth control (sort of). But going to see the woman, who holds the only hopes of my having somewhat normal hormones and possibly having kids one day, is not a fun experience. Mainly because at some point, I know I’ll be weighed, and her reaction to my weight will not be good.

I’m stepping on the scale, and it comes to 167.5. I’m pretty content with this because at this point last year, I would’ve guessed my weight to be 168. Technically, I’ve lost half a pound (it must’ve been the dancing) since I last checked myself, but she hasn’t seen me in a while. The last time she saw me was right after first semester freshman year, when the freshman 15 was real and I found myself at 160. To her, this is serious. My BMI is a whopping 25.1% or some shit like that. In the four years since I’ve started seeing her, I’ve gained about 40 pounds. I’m not overly concerned (“And why would you be?” my friend tells me, “Like 20-30 pounds of that went to your boobs and your butt!”), and ask her if the BMI scale takes body type and muscle into account. I can’t help but feel that I’m being compared to some flat-chested, flat-assed twig of a girl, basically who I was before I stopped constantly playing soccer and started taking birth control, someone I don’t particularly want to be again.
“No,” she tells me. “It doesn’t take stuff like that into account…but in your situation, that doesn’t matter. Someone with PCOS needs to be vigilant when it comes to managing their weight. You don’t want to get diabetes, or have a heart attack.”

Now I’m paying more attention, for two reasons. First of all, I wasn’t aware until just now that PCOS was a definite for me. I’ve seen pictures of girls with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and I’m definitely not as big as most of them. Also, once birth control regulated my periods, I figured I was home free. Everything’s flushing itself out on schedule; I’m healthy and fertile; it’s all good, was kind of my thinking. But apparently it isn’t good at all, and as I look over the packet of symptoms and things to look out for, I realize that child-bearing is not my main problem. (That’s enough of a worry, let me tell you. Despite the fact that women are capable of many feats, bla bla bla, the ability to bring forth life is still one of our main selling points. I’ve also just spent four weeks with people who referred to women as vessels. Imagine if they’d known how close my vessel is to being broken? Where would my value go?)
There are also some real health concerns. It’s like the heart problems and miscarriages and various syndromes of all my relatives collected and dumped themselves into this one this one thing that sucks. And the thing that puts me at increased risk to fall into everything is weight gain.
“Carbs are the devil,” my endocrinologist is saying, among other things. She offers me what seem to be diet pills and I turn them down. For now.

We have company over. There are crescent rolls on the table, right in front of me. I love crescent rolls! There’s butter right next to them. I love butter! And I love my curves! And I don’t want to lose them, and I want to eat the Twizzlers in my room, as well as the giant chocolate bar I brought back with me (chocolate is better overseas), and the Pop Rocks that my mom surprised me with right before my appointment. And I don’t particularly want to start running again, or do much more than the same basic abs and pushups routine I’ve been doing. I have no motivation to change at all. Except maybe that I don’t want to die.

It’s just weird looking at people of all sizes. How did everyone’s bodies get to be the way they are? Is anyone else concerned about their size, their weight, not for aesthetic reasons, but for health? It’s not fair, I think. I take better care of myself than some people. No one’s pressuring them, except for maybe themselves. I wonder if every fat person’s doctor tells them they need to lose weight. I wonder how they respond. How they feel.
I remember when I was underweight. I remember the stress I went through, trying to gain 10 pounds. Now I need to lose 10 pounds, to start. I wonder how many bodies I’ll have had by the time I die. Maybe I’ll keep this one and die sooner. Maybe I’ll be a twig again, and live longer. Maybe I’ll get rock-hard abs, and then turn into a bodybuilder(unlikely). It shouldn’t matter. I should have the same mind regardless of the shell I’m living in, but now more than ever it’s feeling like our shells are important.

It doesn’t matter, though. PCOS doesn’t give a fuck about my inner musings.

Goodbye, crescent rolls. Hello, salad.
Mmmm salad.