Remembering the turtles

Yesterday, we sat in a majestic garden as everyone presented on what they did for the independent study. The garden is in the backyard of our neighbor who is an architect. You could tell it was the home of an architect: the backyard twisted and turned, every shade of green was visible, big rocks elevated from the pond so that you could jump across it and a willow tree shaded the area where we sat in a circle. Oh there was also a zip line – totally cool.

Jon gave a presentation about working with turtles. It reminded me of the day on Manda Island (the island just across the way from Lamu) when I watched the turtles hatch. I promised to put up a few videos so here they are:

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missing Lamu

Much to my dismay, I am back in Nairobi. I didn’t miss the smog, the traffic, the sour faces, the overwhleming Maasai market (that I went to today to get a few final presents for people at home), or this compound that is totally not part of the local community. In Lamu, I was part of the community. In the morning Banga sold me bottles of water and bananas. The woman at Blue Rhino, a great boutique, greeted me with a warm smile and soft hello every time I walked by. Salim, the street vendor who grills some sort of yummy smelling but grimey looking meat, yelled mwanafunzi (Swahili for student) when we made eye contact. It was a great yell. The kittens filled the sides of the roads. Ali King, the tailor,  shared stories with me. And Mary screamed ‘Katherine’ literally every single time I passed her shop because she got lonely working and knew I would chat to her when I had time. Sometimes she drove me crazy and I would scurry by so that she wouldn’t catch me. I already miss all of this.

Salim and his smile grilling meat.

Street of my guest house, the Simba house.

kittens on a doorstep.

We left Saturday afternoon. But we got in a great morning: we went to the beach at at Shela, ran around to drop off thank you notes, snapped last minute pictures of the dhow sail boats and then sipped on our last banana chocolate shake at Bush gardens with Musini.

last minute pics of dhows, be happy 🙂

On the KenyaAir flight from Lamu to Nairobi a British man in a pink collared shirt had the window seat next to me. He leaned back in his seat so that I could look out the window to get my final glance of Lamu.

But I was lucky that my final week in Lamu was filled with bliss. I interviewed many women. I will put up summaries of the interviews later on this week when I go through all my notes. Best of all, during one of the interviews with Aisha, a woman who workd for the Muslim radio station who I have become great friends with, I got invited to her wedding – a huge honor! If I were here in late December I would be there.

One day this week, I caught a look of the newspaper: On Tuesday, November 30th The Daily Nation wrote about the 1,427 US diplomatic reports linked to Kenya which were leaked and have been obtained by the whistleblower website Wikileaks. These documents describe Kenya as “a swamp of flourishing corruption.” The article explained that the reports spoke negatively about President Kibaki and the Prime Minister Rialia Odinga. While not all of the reports have been released (only 226 of the total 251,287 are currently accessible) the reports that are out have the world in a fury with the American take on international players. Brute. Ruthless. Degrading. These reports, it is important to note, did not just refer to Kenya’s weaknesses. Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Keruscolini, Afganistan’s president Hamid Karzai, Libya’s leader Moammar Gaddafi, Russia’s president Dmitry Medceded, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy were all presented in a negative light. This isn’t the first time that Kenya has been at the brunt of Wikileaks; in 2007 wikileaks disclosed a report, which proved massive corruption from the relatives of Daniel arap Moi and claims to have influenced the elections of 2007.

I read the whole article and was interested but, in all honesty, I haven’t read a newspaper much while I have been here. I say all of this because I feel disconnected to this drama while I have been in Lamu. When I was in Nairobi I felt that the changes in Kenya’s corruption were so close to me, I felt like I was a part of it. But in Lamu, I didn’t. I saw this newspaper article and I had mixed feelings. Should I feel more connected to the political event sin this country right now? Then I realized that it is okay. It is okay that I am disconnected because I am connected to something else right now.

On my last night, I celebrated at Petleys which is the bar in town that Anna and I have been going to a lot. The Beach Boys, who are known for harassing the tourists, have become our friends. They are great guys. The other students have also grown to be our new friends. And after a night of drinking we went to the beach, made a bon fire and toasted bananas with chocolate on the fire. Soo good!

fun at Petleys.

bananas and chocolate in tin foil. yum.

Now the long last week is over and I’m back in Nairobi (people in Lamu call it Nai-robbery). My muscles cringe because I am cold here. My mind is dizzy with thoughts. I am torn between my extreme excitement for a roaring fire, the couch and my family at home next week and trying to really live the my last week here to the fullest. Only 6 more days!…?

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I forgot to put up this post last week about celebrating my first Muslim holiday here in Lamu. So, its my last full day here in Lamu and I want to make sure I have it captured so here is the day I celebrated Idd:

I stand on the roof of our building, in my bare feet. It is 7:30 am; the sun begins to shatter the clouds in the sky. My ears are becoming accustomed to the mosque prayers. Today the prayers will go on all day because it is Iddi (Eid al-Adha), the celebration of the Muslim people who have finished their pilgrimage to Mecca.

The imam’s voice echoes. The words unclear as the prayers crackle through the loudspeaker reaching every inch of this seaside village. Or perhaps the words only seem unclear to me because I do not know what they mean. It is not my language. It is not my religion. But, right now I am a part of this village and in Lamu one must grow to accept the Muslim religion.

No one works today. No children go to school. It is like Christmas in the U.S. I am going to Khadija’s home, I feel honored to have been invited into her home for such a sacred, celebratory, family day. I take my final glace on the town from rooftop; everything looks like it does any other day. But then I look more closely and I see more smoke than I normally do. Families are lighting fires for the slaughtering of a goat. This is because Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for god but god saved him and had him slaughter a goat instead. I know this much. And I know that this day is to celebrate the people who have gone on pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which is done by Muslims worldwide. I am off to explore the day.

Three little girls dressed in shimmering dresses hold petite purses and scurried around the corner as I opened my door to head to Khadija’s home. Their eyes are mounted with eyeliner making them look wide. The eyeliner also makes their faces look more womanly, as if a woman’s head has been placed on a child’s tiny body. Their fingers, slender, are enveloped in flower designs: henna tattoos.  I had never seen the little girls so dressed up in Lamu. I saw that this holiday is a lot more than an excuse for the town to take the day off from work to slaughter a goat.

Child in the streets on celebration day.

She needs the heels and purse.

Playing with balloons.

Khadija is dressed differently today, too. She wears a black and white bui bui, beachy looking, not the same tidy black bui bui that she wears to the Fort each day.

I sat on a green couch on the second floor of Khadija’s home. Children ran up the stairs all morning and the pitter-patter, pitter-patter of their footsteps played a melody that I loved. And when they arrived their hands extended towards Khadija, asking for “pesa,” money. On this holiday the little children dress up in their best clothes and go to all of the homes in town. At each home they are given money. It is a Muslim tradition to give away money. One of Khadija’s niece’s explains to me that by giving money to children they are cleansing themselves.

Dressed up and celebrating in the living room.

drinking chai, decorated in henna.


No goat is slaughtered in this home but a large feast is set before us for lunch. Everyone in Khadija’s family joins. I truly feel welcomed and apart of this Muslim holiday even though I am not of their religion

I talk with Khadija’s niece for a long time. The pink gems fill the neckline of her black bui bui. We talk about her school, Lamu Girls Secondary School. We laugh about her new strict headmistress who I met last week. I ask her about Islam, she goes through the 5 daily prayers with me, explaining each. Our conversation is comfortable. She explains that she wants to go to college to be a doctor. So many kids here want to be doctors. But I am less interested in the profession she pursues because I know that she is going to enter into the working world someday. So I get to the nitty gritty religion question: I ask her if she will always be a Muslim. It is a blunt question, I am hesitant to ask it. But I do. And she responds without hesitation but with squinting eyes which makes me think she is thinking hard about her answer. “Yes, I think so. I was born a Muslim. I mean to say you never know but I think I will be.” She has modern dreams but her religion doesn’t seem to be slipping away anytime soon.

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A Lamu night.

“Why not coconut?” has been the theme of the past few days. Why this random saying? Because we have been hanging out with the locals here and Coconut, one of the dhow captains here in Lamu, always says this. He tries to make it rhyme by pronouncing coconut: coconooot.

Last night Anna and I went to dinner at Abdul’e Eco Nest. Coconut and a bunch of locals were there with us along with a guy who is from Canada, a Peace Corps volunteer from New York, his friends visiting from Boston and a Swedish couple. Abdul is from Lamu and actually lived in the US for 11 years. After living all over the US, everywhere from Jamaica Plan outside Boston to Ohio to Albuquerque where he was a big time DJ and bartender, he came back to Kenya. He took a 6-month leave from his job, which was at a hotel at the time so that he could figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He decided, in the last week of his 6-month soul-searing escapade, that he was going to start the Eco Nest. So he built it and it was finished about six months ago. The nest is outside the Old Lamu Tow. Walking there in the dark is like wading through the soccer stadium in Nairobi which is packed with people – you cannot see more than an inch in front of you but here you can’t see because the night is truly pitch black.

Straw mats in sand, a few lanterns scattered around, “Rasta” Damien Marley music playing from an ipod speaker, wooden huts on stilts all around us and plates filled with fresh Swahili food. The dinner was fabulous: calamari and shrimp curry, grilled Tuna, coconut rice and fresh vegetables all fell together.

Laughter. Stories. About deaf children on the coast of Kenya from a peace corps volunteer. About tuna fishing from Coconut. About the problems with drunk driving in New Mexico from Abdul. About Boston University from the recent graduate who loved the school but hates how much money they spend each year n giving their school a “face lift.” About the terrorist who bombed the US embassy in 1998 and lived in Lamu for many years before doing so. About the non-chalant attitude of Canadian police from Sequoia, 25-year old who came to Lamu planning on staying for a few days and has now been here a month. About a Kenyan wedding with 800 guests from a Swedish couple who is staying in the Eco Next. Another night in Lamu.

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For some reason, I didn’t expect to see the Muslim women on the beaches. But they are there. Just like anyone else they enjoy the thick sand, the ocean wind, bumpy rides on boats mounted with small motors and documenting the beauty of the ocean with photographs. Some of the Muslim women who are not from Lamu will even take off their headscarves on the boats.

Here are some photos.

Muslim women on the beach.

Photographing Muslim women.

View from the boat

Muslim boating.

Enjoying the sand.

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hijabs and the Red Sox B

Looking through the hijab is like watching TV on a fuzzy static-filled screen. I know this because I spent this whole week in my buibui (long black dress) and hijab (headscarf) and some days in the ninja (covering my whole face except the eyes). It was a hot week. And it was not an easy week. On the days I came home for lunch, I flung the bui bui off and enjoyed the freedom of my skin breathing in fresh air. I missed this cooling sensation when I was draped under the thick black material. And, after lunch it was never easy to get back into my attire. Everyday, my eyes wandered to the skirts in a pile nearby. I wanted to grab one of them instead of the bui bui. But I didn’t. And I am glad that I didn’t because it was also a week where I felt as if my relationships with women in particular took great strides.

Me in the ninja.

Comments like “you are one of us now” or “you look beautiful” or, simply, “wow,” all made my day. Originally, I expected that some women would consider my dress to be mocking them, that they would disapprove. But my analysis of what would happen didn’t pan out: not one woman said a negative comment to me. Women actually stopped me to make sure I knew that they liked seeing me in the bui bui. I have decided that next week, although I will not be working in the school, I am going to wear the Muslim women’s clothing again because I think it is important for the work that I am doing. It makes sense when you think about it.

To put it into American lingo: a Lamu Muslim women seeing a white woman in a buibui is sort of like an American seeing someone wearing a t-shirt or a hat with the logo of their favorite sports team. American’s cannot contain their excitement when they see that. The guy from Boston may not know the person in the Red Sox B baseball cap but, to them, who cares: they share a common interest. So here when women see me in the hijab it doesn’t really matter that I am not a Muslim (and I am open with explaining to them that I am not a Muslim). Rather, they are magnetically drawn to me because I am similar to them. And I am a lot more similar to them than if I were dressed in an American skirt from Anthropologie and a t-shirt. So they stop me and talk to me. In America strangers are connected with sports attire, in Lamu strangers bond over Muslim dress. Interesting.


So it may look fuzzy through the hijab but it is clarifying my understanding of the Muslim women here in Lamu.

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Madafu chat

The Lamu Cultural Festival flooded this island with energy, color, music and thick crowds of visitors.  On Friday I was able to talk to Muhammad for a long time when I worked with Kikozi at their small table in town to educate people about what they are doing. Kikozi is the non-profit working to empower women and i have been working with them while I have been here. And Muhammad  is the manager of the group. He is also one of the most humble, selfless people I have met during my whole time in Kenya. The way that he works with these women is truly amazing. He has a quite way of leading them, laughing with them and giving them direction and guidance in the work that they are doing within their local communities. Each of the women (there are about 47 peer educators) have their own women’s group in the areas that they are from. Thus he gives them the structure from which to work abut how they should be educating these women abut HIV/AIDS. His eyes are soft and his tone is like that of a child in a primary class who is quiet but brilliant: the kid who may wear glasses and sit in the back of the classroom most of the time. But, when that kid gets to the front of the classroom to solve a math problem on the board a powerful force attracts everyone’s attention. Side conversations are quelled. Other students stop bounding their pens on their desks. Everyone knows that this kid, the quiet smarty-pants, is going to solve the problem correctly so they want to watch. Closely. And, sure enough, seconds later the problem is solved flawlessly. This is exactly how Mohammad works. He is truly a source of stability for the Kikozi group as a whole. They watch him and learn from him. Now this is kid of odd or ironic because he is a male and this is a women’s’ group. But I think it is very cool because is shows that gender relations are not always what we think they are: men over here and women over there, men leading women with force, women being speechless.

Mohammad and I escape for a bit sit together at a local joint on Saturday morning when I am helping with the Kikozi stand. Flies covering the table. Almost all men around us. The smell of fried food emanates from the kitchen. The plastic chairs rub hard against the cement floor as we take a seat. We each get a Madafu. A Madafu is a coconut cut open so that you can drink the juice out of it. Refreshing. As we sit there are moments of silence. The sounds of the wild streets are still present but we have escaped their crazyness for a while. And there are moments of silence over our Madafus. But we know each other well enough that the silence is okay it is not that awkward silence that you feel with someone you don’t know. Then, I ask his what his plans are I the years to come. I want to know if he will stay with Kikozi. “I have no plans of going anywhere,” he responds. I almost feel bad for asking the question. But I needed to know because I Think that strong leadership can truly make or break and organization – and, right now, his strong leadership is making Kikozi great. Thus, the success of Kikozi rests in Muhammad’s hands. That was  good Madafu chat.

I hope that when I go home I can find a way to educate people about Kikozi and the great work they are doing. I would love to do a fundraiser to get more money for them because I feel passionately about the positive influence the organization is having on the Kenyan coast. Next week I am going to brainstorm ideas for a fundraiser and talk to Mohammad about how I could get the funds I raise here to Lamu and into the hands of these amazing women who so selflessly volunteer their time to better the community.

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