Cows, Spears & Dust
This summer has been something of a whirlwind for me, with trips to Kenya and Ireland and numerous games of Frisbee with the Boston collective, family, The Girl and other social engagements. As a result, and as has been correctly pointed out by my parents (as usual, thanks M&D), that I am a bit behind the times in terms of keeping you all up to date. In point of fact, it has been well over a year since I've posted to this site, which is shameful even by my own lax standards. Not that I have been completely silent in the world of the internet as I started a second blog in collaboration (or attempted collaboration) with my housemates, which is more a city life, random thoughts and happiness collection than it is a chronicle. You are all more than welcome to pursue that fine body of literature here... Of course, I've moved now so that site will cease to have the same level of input....
In terms of working on a life... some background details from the last year are necessary before my summer adventures will really make sense. As many of you no doubt already know through direct contact or other sources, I have taken up residence in the greater Boston metro area and, for the last year have been working towards a masters degree in Public Health and the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Boston University's School of Public Health. (For those that are now saying epi-demi- what?? and scratching your heads the word epidemiology is actually a link to Wikipedia where all answers reside) Thus far, this experience has been wonderful and fulfilling and right up my alley; a combination of hard science, personal interaction, travel possibilities and interesting people and new ideas. It has also been difficult and occasionally frustrating and generally what you would expect from a high caliber graduate degree program. I plan on wrapping up my masters this coming December and once again entering the wild and crazy world of job hunting in a recession... That, however, is a different story for a different time.
As part of my degree program I was responsible for completing a practicum, where I get out into the real world and get some experience in Public Health on the ground and get a little time away from the abstract theories, a little distance from the power point slides and chalk dust... Since my wandering tendencies are well known I decided to take advantage of a program offered through the school and do my practicum working with the Maasai people's of south-western Kenya, near Mt. Kilimanjaro. So, on May 25th I once again crossed the Atlantic, spent 8 hours sprawled out over 3 chairs in front of a shop that sold 30,000 dollar watches in London's Heathrow airport and felt the freedom of African skies... eventually.... There was a 5 hour land-rover ride in there someplace as well...
I should probably also mention at this point that there were 20 odd other people on this trip, none of whom I knew before getting in those land rovers (at least not very well) and all but one were women... We met up with 5 Kenyan students who joined our group, 4 of whom were men so that evened things out a little bit)... The drive to our camp was kind of fuzzy, both because I was seeing the landscape through tired eyes and because there was a great deal of dust obscuring the windows of the tired old land-rover. (which looked to have seen action in WWII but I later discovered was actually a 2008 model) The bumpy roads and questionable seat belts often made clinging to something for dear life a priority over sightseeing. We arrived at our final destination, Kilimanjaro Bush Camp (KBC) completely exhausted but with the heightened senses and interested attitude that is my favorite part of being in a new place for the first time.
CHAPTER 1: KBC
Despite being the beginning of winter and the end of Kenya's rainy season, it was near enough to the equator for the sun to be fierce and hot and the rains had not come for several years a set of circumstances that combined to completely parch the landscape and, we would later discover, made life extremely difficult for the proud people that called it home. The camp, run by the School for Field Studies (based in MA) was an oasis of thorny Acacia trees, tended by dedicated local Maasai staff and watered by wells and pumps bought with tuition money. Most of the year the camp served as a research station for wildlife management and environment students who lived there for 3 months at a time and learned the basics of big game conservation and human/wildlife conflict scenarios where it was actually happening. Somewhere along the line the community had confronted the school in the jovial African way and pointed out a simple truth that I learned myself during PC in Morocco. They would be much more capable of interacting favorably with the wildlife if their own families weren't dying of diarrhea, malnutrition, malaria, or one of the myriad other health problems that come from being a resident of a place that often seems to be doing it's best to cause you grave bodily harm. In response the school began taking summers off from wildlife programs and instead started bringing in graduate student public health researchers to gather the baseline data needed before health interventions can be made. Its long slow work, especially for those who are suffering while it happens. My group represented the third year of data collection.
The camp itself is located inside a mile long circle of fence designed to keep the animals out but which did a better job of trapping students inside (for our own safety of course). We did often see a plethora of wildlife inside the compound also, including monkeys and baboons, many birds, the occasional poisonous snake, scorpions in our laundry sinks etc. The fence had been knocked over and repaired several times when the elephants had decided that they wanted inside to have a go at the relatively lush vegetation. Nothing gets in an Elephant's way for long. They were kept at bay by our Maasai night guards wielding traditional Maasai clubs and spears and modern high powered flashlights. The camp was beautiful and in early mornings and late evenings when the cloudy haze cleared it was dominated by views of Kilimanjaro, humbling to all who have stood in it's shadow. Accommodations were fairly nice overall with 4 person bungalows draped with mosquito netting. Power was provided by solar during the day and by generator for a few hours each night... even internet was sometimes available on a connection routed from Italy, through Dubai and on to KBC by satellite. It was slower than molasses on the best of days and we didn't have many of those.. Running water was the greatest luxury, complete with showers and flush toilets, which blew my mind. Hardly roughing it (depending on who you asked).
As people in confined close quarters are wont to do when stuck with each other for 4 weeks, we all became friends at an accelerated pace and found entertainment in Kenyan campfire stories (usually with a moral that defied translation) books, crossword puzzles, soccer, Frisbee, disaster movies and frenetic dance-offs in the Chumba, (our all purpose meeting/dining/working/classroom/library hall), advanced discussions of poop and food we missed (familiar topics in any African ex-pat community), pinata making and destroying, cooking/baking, running and comparing how dirty our feet got (the red dust got in everywhere, socks and shoes were seemingly no barrier at all). When we escaped the confines of the fence to check out the local market town, Kimana, we frequented Club Kimana, a bar run by the former chief of the region and listened to Ace of Base on repeat because it was the only tape the
Oh.. and we managed to do a bit of work here and there as well...
CHAPTER 2: MAASAILAND
Their culture is enviable and still strong, even in the most disrupted areas. All Maasai belong to age-sets, or groups that have birthdays between certain years, and their position in Maasai society is determined by these groupings. The younger age sets are herders of small animals (sheep and goats), the teen years are reserved for Moranship, or the warrior years where they range long distances with the cattle and formerly raided other tribes. Older men are junior, then senior elders whose only responsibilities aside from lounging and drinking tea involve maintaining the customs and leading the tribes with their collective wisdom. Song, story and dance were practiced with great gusto and I was privileged to witness and even participate in these dances on several occasions. A testament to American culture, at one point the group of us sang the theme song of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to a group of Masaai women, much to the delight of everyone involved.
As our research was about to show, these people were widely variable even within the tribe and had just as wide a range of health issues and other problems. It was yet another situation that left me wondering if it would have been better just to leave them alone, rather than to introduce too much of a new world too fast. Of course the answer is that you can't deny any people equal opportunity, but it still sometimes makes me sad.
CHAPTER 3: THE WORK (and the malaria)
I mentioned that the group of us were there to fulfill school requirements at the same time as we met a community need to gather health data. The process was interesting, often exciting, more than a little frustrating and yet, somehow, we managed to pull it all together at the end and put on an awesome presentation for the community stakeholders. The researchers/students were divided into 5 teams, covering a number of water based health topics, including Hand washing (my group), childhood diseases, water sources, water collection and household sanitation. Each team devised a survey with questions geared towards finding the status quo of health practices and problems among community members. The 5 surveys were compiled together into one massive survey, formatted and then conducted in the community by researchers with Maasai translators. And here in one sentence I have described many, many hours of work. After the 45 minute survey had been conducted in more than 200 households we returned to the camp to do some basic statistics and prepare our reports.
At some point in the analytical process following the survey I managed to contract malaria, which didn't aid much in my participation in my groups analysis. I still managed to hold my own. (I hope, its possible my group was just being kind) Let me tell you though.. Malaria is no fun. I was on medicine to prevent it, and while clearly, that didn't work out as I had hoped, it did work to keep my case relatively mild. I'm not sure I would have wanted to experience the full blown version. I was out of it for days, with headaches and muscle fatigue and general malaise. The local medical staff was wonderful and the doctor went into great detail to describe the mechanism of my treatment once he learned that I was a student of Public health and had an abiding interested in Malaria. In most ways, I'm actually glad now to have had the disease, as I'll have an even better understanding of the situation faced by hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and Asia daily. Also, its a great get out of homework free card....
Once data was analyzed and reported, it was presented... and in this presentation was I think the best result of the whole process. Many members of the local community came to see us, and to see what we had done. Figuring out how to present the data to an illiterate audience was a challenge but also a wonderful experience, and their questions were no less thoughtful or thought provoking for not being based in the literate word. Many local public health experts who had participated in the design of the questionnaire and provided us with useful cultural and health related background information also attended and got to see what it was they they had helped to create and to see why it was so important. The community as a whole can see that the school is working to help them, and not just the animals. Eventually, interventions can be performed that specifically target the problems identified by this baseline research, doing the most good for the smallest expenditure of resources. Anyone who wants to see the final survey or read my groups report on hand washing can feel free to contact me.
CHAPTER 4: SOME OTHER STUFF TOO!
Not all life at KBC was related to the project. As mentioned, fun was had around the camp in other ways also. (Yay Frisbee!) That said, it was certainly the out of camp field trips that proved to be most rewarding. We had a number of community service days, most of which were awesome. The first was manual labor helping to build/cement water irrigation ditches in a way to maximize efficiency and minimize water lost to evaporation and seepage into the soil while reducing contamination somewhat. Part of this project also included building a wall around a spring that served as the areas primary water source, so it couldn't be contaminated by drinking animals, people bathing, or other general missuses. On day two, we went to pick up trash around town with some school groups but ended up being the showpiece for an environment day spectacle where we sat out in the blazing hot sun for hours watching group after group of school kids sing and seeing elected officials give speeches in languages we didn't understand. This was a very typically African day, and I must say one of very few. The camp ran amazingly efficiently considering it's location. On the third day (which I missed due to the malaria) the group went out and helped weigh and vaccinate babies and distribute drugs to the populace. Lastly, we visited an orphanage and played with the children for an afternoon of fun and excitement.
We took a hike to touch the border with Tanzania and visited a local volunteer counseling and testing clinic for HIV sufferers. Ohh and shopping... lots of shopping... mostly for bead work and other Maasai artifacts
CONCLUSION: (bet you're glad you're almost done)
Love you all!
Until next time,