Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in South Africa: The Cape

Blessings were in abundance today---thanks to UFS and the Fulbright Commission, I had one of the top five experiences of a lifetime!  Great White Shark Cage Diving in the ocean off the Cape in South Africa!  Indescribable! I never imagined I would have such an up close and personal opportunity.  While under water, I was inches from the teeth of Great Whites as they missed the bait and attacked the cage.  Beautiful and magnificent.  Truly an example of nature’s perfection!
At the dive center and before the wet suit.

Attacking the bait---tuna.  This is the cage used for diving.

We encountered a total of ten Great Whites.

In my wet suit---following the dive!

Having survived my encounter with the Great White, I encourage everyone to create opportunities and pursue international travel experiences.  You never know what the day will bring! 

Following the adrenaline pump of the day’s adventure, I was on a mission to have at least one pumpkin related food item.  While walking along the beautiful streets of Mossel Bay, a man stopped to ask if he could offer assistance.  I explained I was an American on a quest for something "pumpkin" to celebrate our national holiday.  “Ah,” he said.  “Follow me.”  Just across the plaza was a grocery store with a bakery department where the baker was instructed to serve us freshly cooked pumpkin fritters.  Incredibly delicious!  When the man walked away, the baker explained that our host was the owner of the store.  Just another example of the hospitality in evidence throughout much of South Africa.  Again, I am extraordinarily thankful for the opportunity to live in this fascinating country---"Expect the unexpected" is one of South Africa's slogans.  How fitting!

Next stop for Thanksgiving?  Viewing a movie for the first time in a South African theatre.  I was a bit nervous about the experience since I'm a bit of a fanatic when it comes to movie theatre environments.  I like a quiet and polite audience.  Enormously so.  Probably to a fault.  I was particularly concerned upon learning that seats are assigned to movie goers.  And our seats were behind eleven students who had just graduated from high school.  The movie, CLOUD ATLAS, was estimated at three hours in length, so I was more than a bit apprehensive.   The audience?  Fantastic.  No texting.  No talking.  No interruptions of any sort. "Expect the unexpected."  Why do we have these problems with American audiences??

Reflections regarding the movie?  If you enjoy movies that challenge your thought process, leading to in-depth discussions regarding inter-connectivity, then run to the nearest movie theatre to see this film.  Rarely am I eager to see a film again and at the next available opportunity. The plot of CLOUD ATLAS is one that I will ponder for some time, and welcome the conversations it will provoke.
While I wasn’t aware that shark cage diving was on my bucket list (it mysteriously appeared today, but now it has been checked off!), it seems a good time to discuss the removal of another item from the list:

I am delighted to report that “No Artificial Sweeteners” Improv Troupe Benefit Performance raised the following for the women of Mwariki:

16lbs of yarn
Sewing needles
Instructional Books/Manuals
$225 Cash Donations (Mailing Costs)

Using the advice of Solms (from an earlier blog post), WE are manifesting change one person at a time.  Again, I am incredibly fortunate to count among my friends the professional theatre women from our own “Indigenous Village in Pennsylvania, who have found sisters on the other side of the world.  I am sending “thanks” in a shout-out to them—with gratitude, love, and peace.

My visit to Kenya, however, included more than interacting with the women of Mwariki.  The Fulbright community is international and extensive.  In the spring of 2009, Professor Egara Kabaji, a Fulbright Scholar from Kenya, was assigned to my US office.  Since Nairobi is a mere 4.5 hrs  flight from Johannesburg, I made it my objective to visit with Kabaji in his native city.  Kabaji kindly met me at my hotel and introduced me to Nairobi.  We visited the grounds of the University, where I viewed several moments of a live theatre performance, and I marveled at the distance college students walked between classes and buildings.  In addition, Kabaji's lovely wife invited me into their home for a traditional Kenyan lunch.  The function of the delicate sink in the dining area, which seemed peculiar, was made clear when utensils were not provided.  After a delicious meal comprised mostly of vegetables, Kabaji and I traveled to a local publisher’s conference where I had the opportunity to meet editors from numerous national and international publishing houses.  Then it was back to my hotel to meet the group with whom I would spend the next several days traveling through Kenya.

With a few hours to kill prior to departure, I opted to visit the local art market which, following the advice of the hotel concierge, would require the hiring of a driver/body guard.  Quite an excellent suggestion:  the market was overwhelming, with 4-6 men at any one time crowding my personal space in an attempt to direct and obtain what business I was providing.  This detracted from the market experience and made it difficult to view the art work.  On the other hand, the concierge’s advice proved wise.  As a woman who is clearly not a resident of Nairobi, I was happy to have a man approx. 6’4” and topping out at a minimum of 250lbs as my companion.  Incidentally, James spoke seven languages, including Japanese and Spanish.  The cost of his services was worth the pittance I paid.  I tipped him generously.

After meeting my travel companions, we departed Nairobi early the next morning and visited an orphanage about one hour outside Nairobi and on the way to the Great Rift Valley:

My bucket list has always included a visit to the Masai of Kenya.  One of the indigenous tribes of Kenya, the Masai value cattle as a symbol of wealth.  The role of the Masai males is to tend the herds of cattle and protect the village.  Masai women are responsible for constructing houses and managing the household.  Houses, largely composed of cow manure, are small and dark.  Which makes sense since nearly every task is performed out of doors. 

Our guide knew a few Masai personally, which ensured that our visit was a bit different and more personal than the usual “tourist experience.” 

The women of the village.

Warriors wear the fur of animals they have killed.  Warriors become men at age 16.

Jumping is a mating tradition.  The men jump as high as possible to attract the female.

The chief's son is looking through binoculars, which I provided, for the first time in his life.  He is wearing a lion's mane on his head---he killed the lion.

A warrior with whom I traded jewelry.

The scar from a lion attack.

Starting a fire.

The Masai I encountered are beautiful people linked to the earth.  They live simply with few material objects, and share a profound understanding of the importance of family and relationships.  The chief’s son communicated to me that a white woman from America married a Masai and currently resides just as any other female villager.  I wish I had the chance to speak with her, for I’m curious about the life in America she abandoned to live an extraordinary and alternate lifestyle in Kenya.  Is she fulfilled?  Content with her new life?  Ever homesick?  What does she miss (or not miss)? 

Of course a trip to Kenya would seem incomplete without viewing the abundant game, which was at its best in the Masai Mara Reserve.  However, I'll load those pics in a later post.

I should mention that having a Boomslang fall out of a tree at night and attach itself to the opening of my tent was…..well……surprising.  Boomslangs are one of the most venomous snakes in all of Africa.  As for me, I knew nothing about Boomslangs until a Masai warrior, who guarded our tents in the evening, did not hesitate to dispose of this deadly snake.  I was thankful for the presence of the warrior, and was reminded of the fragility of life in the wilds of Africa.

Comparing and contrasting Kenya and South Africa?  I can offer very little.  My experience in Kenya provided a small window of observation.  I encountered few white people.  Everyone I met was open and friendly.  Unlike the vast economic disparity of South Africa, the population of Kenya seems to remain overwhelmingly impoverished.  While the infrastructure of South Africa is highly problematic, most Kenyans seem to exist in what I can only describe as a severely challenged society.  I must emphasize the warmth of the Kenyan people I met.  Strangers, including children, would often approach me, shake my hand, introduce themselves, learn my name, then walk away.  No one ever requested or begged for money in Kenya, which is a common occurrence in South Africa.  In both countries I frequently encounter individuals living in horrible conditions who extend kindness and generosity.  I find myself reflecting upon the hospitality we as Americans extend to foreigners.  I think we can do better.  I will do better.  

I am thankful for my many blessings, which are abundant.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Linking Sister Villages: US and Kenya

I am very fortunate to be part of a group of professional theatre women who greatly enjoy occasional get-togethers and outings which always guarantees wonderful camaraderie, insightful humor, and spontaneous behavior. We aren't a club by any means, or a professional organization.  Frankly, our time is spent sampling adult beverages, sharing tapas, and laughing until we cry. Literally.  Late one evening, we decided to band together and form our own sort of "indigenous village", although I must admit the definition eludes me (us) to this day.  I recall it had something to do with horrible holiday themed sweaters....   I am blessed to call this somewhat eccentric collection of intelligent and creative women my friends.

Among the elements that bind us together is a strong desire to support women in need.  Women helping women.  My work as a Fulbrighter has frequently brought exposure to numerous situations in which my immediate thought was "How can I help?"  Or, more importantly, "How can I NOT help?"

During a recent visit to Kenya, I visited Mwariki, a small and somewhat remote village where I met a woman, Eileen Waithera, who served as my guide and translated when necessary. Since 2007, due to tribal warfare and economic strife, the majority of the Mwariki's men either died or did not return to their homes and families. As a result, the women did (do) not have a steady source of income to purchase even the basic necessities of clothes, food, and shelter for their children.

Recently, Eileen worked with the women to create sustainable projects that would support the purchase of food and shelter, and quality education for their children. A co-op was formed to serve the community as a whole. Funds are pooled to send the brightest children to university so they will return and share their knowledge to the benefit of Mwariki.

Some of their immediate goals and projects:
1. Fish farming: experts were brought to the village to teach the women how to create a hatchery in the village. The "hatchery" is a large hole in the ground, which the women aerate daily. Each year, over 3000 fish are supplied to area restaurants.
2. Construction of a "house" for HIV positive children: HIV is an epidemic in Kenya, and support services are essentially non existent. I saw the house the women have built for the children. Small and very, very basic. But it will provide shelter and love for the patients upon completion.
3. Funds are pooled to purchase land: the women currently rent land and houses. They are working together to own the land and houses.
4. Clean water harvesting: the local water has dangerously high levels of fluoride that leads to flourosis skeletal and non skeletal disease. They are trying to purchase water tanks to hold clean water.
5. Loans of 1%: the women are working collectively to raise enough funds to offer loans that carry a 1% interest rate towards small business practices.
6. Purchase of sheep: they need sheep! Why? Because most of the women are knitters, and sell their knitted projects to support the collective.

 This hut is made from recycled water bottles.  It provides clean water for hand washing.  Water pours from the jug when pressure is placed upon the wooden plank.  The women in the photo is Eileen.
Some of the knitted products created by the women.

All wool is spun by hand.

This little girl followed me everywhere, but I
could not get her to smile.  Haunting.

 Mwariki's school.

After completing the tour and making a few observations, I spoke with Eileen regarding an idea that began to formulate.  I noticed the women's knitted products were rudimentary and involved simple patterns using only two or three stitches.  The women could clearly knit, but lacked the knowledge base to create and design more advanced----and thus more marketable----work.  Would the women welcome the idea of learning new stitches and techniques?  With an overwhelming, enthusiastic "Yes!" from Eileen, I was on my way to linking the Indigenous Village in the States with Mwariki
village in Kenya.

After making contact with the village in the US, members devised the idea to create a fundraiser:
On Wednesday, November 14th in the Gamut Theatre located in Harrisburg, PA, the all-female improv comedy troupe No Artificial Sweeteners is hosting a special performance to serve as a benefit for the women of Mwariki.  Audience members are asked to bring knitting books (paperbacks are best), yarn, or money toward the purchase of these items, which will be shipped to Kenya in time for the holidays.

Perhaps it is now clearer why I'm blessed to be part of an Indigenous Village in my own country.