Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rambles and Reflections

A day does not past when we do not hear of a community member passing away. Group members are absent or have to leave meetings early to attend funerals. Also common is a group member being absent due to a sick child. I'm increasingly interested in grief and approaches to death in societies where early death and serious illness is much more pervasive. What constitutes a "tragedy" in these communities? In the US, it seems like anyone who dies with children college age or younger, or is under 60 has met a tragic death. How does the death of a child affect a parent when such an event is not so rare, and is somewhat expected if one has upwards of 10 children as many people here do? I do not presume that the level of personal loss is less, but I suspect that the stages of grieving differ. Personally, I have experience grief over the loss of a loved one differently in part due to how society reacts to the loss, and how I have been raised to value life at one age over the other. My friend Alex taking his life at 20 years old was a much different death to grieve than the loss of my grandfather to cancer. How do people react to early death by road or construction accident compared to AIDS? I have met women whose husbands died the previous day, yet they are working a half day at the market selling cereals. How much of their apparent togetherness is a fa├žade of strength, and is that expected by the culture? How different is the death of a husband when he has not helped provide for the family for years and spends his days on the road idling with friends or at the bar, like so many of the men in this community do? I wish I had more time to explore these questions, but probing into grief is far beyond a four week stay.

Yesterday, as I sat in a community loan meeting of HIV+ women who have come together in support of one another, these questions and many others filled my puzzled head. I sat across from one of the women I interviewed last week, a cereal seller named Kevin. At 45, the same age as my mother, she already had two grand daughters (sorry Mom, I guess Megan and I are slacking). She sells maize, dried cassava, millet, beans, and other cereals and wants a Kiva loan to diversify the goods she sells and make a greater profit so that she may buy chickens and goats to improve the diet of her family. Kevin is HIV+; her husband is deceased and was police officer who infected her. While I struggled to understand some of what she explained to Mike regarding loan repayment difficulties, I glanced outside and a flash of neon yellow caught my eye. I squinted into the sun and realized it was the back of a Reebok tee shirt, and that the wearer of it was a young man who was crawling on his elbows and knees. I could not see his legs from where I was sitting, but he was clearly severely handicapped and had to rely on speedy crawling to get around. He managed to keep up with the elderly gentleman in a soiled white coat who road a bike passed the meeting. My mind flashed back once again to Khartoum, where lame men and children positioned themselves on small scooters with their useless legs folded awkwardly underneath them and dangerously darted between the traffic to beg from car to car. From there my memories jumped to similar scenes in New York City, of the handicapped homeless and the gawking passerby's who drop a few quarters in a box and thank god they have not been cursed with that kind of life. Poverty is everywhere, but poverty is not the same. Here it is before your eyes, permeating your nostrils, dirtying your feed, lingering in your hair, and in your hand as a small child with flies buzzing around her mouth and eyes clutches you. This is not the Africa I have portrayed in mass rambling emails of the past. This is not the Africa I describe when people here ask me "how do you find our country," and it is not the Africa I can capture in film and turn into Shutterfly albums to share with folks at home. I do not write to evoke abstract pity like an adopt a child commercial, but too often I numb myself to the reality that is poverty, illness, and desperation. Instead I focus on the beauty of the landscape, the incredible generosity of the people, and the strength and perseverance of their spirits. These things are present in Kenya, but people are desperate here as they were in Sudan, India, Morocco, Tanzania, and many other impoverished places I have seen; poor men smoke and drink themselves into a stupor and street children carry bottles of glue to sniff. And all the while the women are responsible for keeping their families safe, health, and educated in addition to frequently supplying the only income to sustain their family and deadbeat husbands. Why am I Development Studies and Gender Studies major? To remind myself I can simply talk to Kevin, supporting her family and dying of HIV because her husband slept around, or to Evelyn whose husband is around and healthy but has moved out and stopped providing anything to support their 10 children. These experiences are what drive me academically and eventually professionally, and also what make me at times overwhelmed and a little crazy as I think of the contrast between what I am surrounded by now and where I will be in two weeks time, perhaps on a beach in the Hamptons or an office in New York City working abstractly on women's rights. I have rambled enough, but too often I forget what is actually going on around me in an effort to be culturally sensitive and efficient in my work. Now back to wars with the internet and perhaps a walk into town to pick up more potable water…

I couldn't post this right after writing because of… shockingly… the internet connection. Since I finished writing this morning, the director of PEMCI received an email from someone who read the journal I wrote on Evelyn. A woman in San Diego wants to find a way to give to Evelyn and support her children's education. The journal I wrote was primarily how Evelyn's children had to repeat primary school levels over and over again so that they can stay in school even though Evelyn can't afford to support them in secondary school. (Primary school is free in Kenya, but most parents in the community struggle to offer their children anything beyond the primary level) This is going to get tricky, as far as figuring out how to get her the donation without making it seem to the community that this is a likely result for them if their profile is put on Kiva. Nonetheless, it was definitely a needed positive affirmation that the work we are doing as Kiva journalists is having an impact on lenders and may inspire further giving.

Off to Kisumu this afternoon...

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