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My Mini-Me

I’ve always said the real reason people have kids is because we are all, at heart, narcissists.  I was absolutely right.  I gave birth almost 12 weeks ago to the most darling, beautiful, amazing little Celena—ahem, Mari Mae—who continues to inspire and delight me every day.  With her splotchy hair that is growing in weird places that still hasn’t made up its mind which exact color it wants to be and what are turning out to be big blue eyes, my little Gummibärchen is everything I ever wanted in a tiny daughter.  Except she’s not so tiny.  8 pounds at birth, she’s still growing like a weed. And looking so cute and chubby in her swimsuit, also like me! Oh, how I wish I had her confidence on the beach! ;)

MM Chubby Beach

I used to wonder how parents of ugly children could think they were so cute, and now I understand why. It’s not that parents think their kids are necessarily the most beautiful of all; it’s simply that they are enamored with having progeny that look like themselves. I don’t think I was the cutest baby. From all accounts, I was a hot purple mess until I was at least 6 months old! (Or maybe that was just the photo quality of the 1970s??) But when I compare pictures of me with pictures of Mari Mae at the same age, she looks like utter perfection: just like Mommy!

Hi World

Perhaps this is the real secret of evolutionary genetics? Passing on genes that mimic us, tapping into that selfish part that loves ourselves the most… Maybe that’s really why parents love their kids so much, simply because they are an extension of themselves.

Poor Luke. He has to endure me talking about this incessantly.  “Doesn’t she look like me, babe? Look at those dimples on the top of her cheeks! Just like mine!”  I’m sure he wants to gag sometimes. So far, the only thing Mari Mae has inherited from him is her temperament, for which I’m very grateful. Luke is super easy going and kind, while I’m high strung and impatient. If she acts as sweet as Luke, that’s wonderful. Not that I don’t want Mari Mae to look like him—if she ends up inheriting his height, thick golden locks and gorgeous lips, even better! But I’m sure no matter what she looks like or acts like, we will join the throng of annoying parents who think their kids are the best at everything.

She is, of course, a genius. I realized from the beginning that she was exceeding her milestones at a rapid pace. Eye contact? Check. Neck movement? Check. Cute gurgling sounds? Check.  We even practice rolling over and standing up several times per day, along with lots of tummy time.  How could she not be ahead of her peers, with two full time parents hovering over her every movement, praising her efforts?  She’ll be talking and walking in no time, for sure!

Alas, my glorious babymoon is coming to an end and Mommy will return to work full time soon. Boo!  If I had my way, I would be at home gazing into those smart little eyes and practicing baby pushups with Mari Mae all day long!  Lucky Luke! Now Mari Mae’s real education begins: learning German, or rather, Bavarian.  I’m hoping she’s a quick learner, so she can teach me her linguistic tricks and I can finally communicate with the Bauer side of the family! Get cracking, Mari Mae!

AF Mommy

In all seriousness, the past three months have been the very best of my life.  All of the clichés are true: when I first saw Mari Mae, it was the single best, most emotional moment I have ever experienced. She made and still makes my heart swell to proportions I never thought possible.  Everything is now about this child. Every decision, every meal, every job, every vacation—it’s all about creating the best environment for our little girl.  She deserves it! I can’t wait to see how Mari Mae turns out, but if it’s anything like her parents, I’m sure she will be pretty amazing! ;)

family

Since my last post, I’ve continued to study on this idea that depression might be a result of the lifestyles of the modern world.  I’ve enjoyed reading the comments on this blog as well as casually exchanging ideas about the topic with friends over beers.  It’s interesting stuff!

I’ve recognized some common threads in my discussions, but the most telling one of all is that:

It’s taken for granted that living in the modern world is better than living primitively.  In presenting arguments about the causes and treatment of depression as an illness, there tends to be no discussion about whether or not lifestyle contributes heavily—if not exclusively—to the effects.  It’s ironic that the one thing people never seem to think about or want to explore is the very thing I believe is the prime cause.  Most of the people I encounter in my life, across America, Europe and Asia, come from developed countries and enjoy a very high standard of living.  That “high” standard of living affords them luxuries like electricity, running water, permanent houses, motorized transportation, easy access to processed foods (e.g., grocery stores teeming with already-picked-and-cleaned vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, you name it) and restaurants—all designed to make life “better.”  In this case, BETTER = EASIER.  And for the purpose of my thesis, EASIER = BAD.  “Bad” in the sense that 1) having more time on our hands means more time to think, and 2) thinking can lead to self analysis, and 3) self analysis can lead to sadness or depression.  If you take 1) out of the equation, then you might still get 2) but rarely 3).

I recently read an interesting article published in the New York Times Magazine online entitled “Depression’s Upside.”  Although the author presents the case for potentially positive reasons for depression which are dubious, I gleaned from it some interesting parallels to this discussion.

To start off, it’s necessary to put this debate within a historical context.  The author writes, “Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. that ‘all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.’ This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem ‘Il Penseroso’: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.’ The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?’”

It’s true that the three men quoted above made a living out of thinking and writing (as opposed to physical laboring), but doesn’t that make my argument even more compelling?  I know what you’re thinking: So you’re saying we’re better off without our artists and musicians and geniuses, or the very people who made it possible for you to type up this diatribe on your laptop? For the record, no.  Sure, we have great works of art and accomplished amazing feats of engineering and progress in the sciences, but are we presumptuous enough to believe progress wouldn’t come along without side effects?  Perhaps all that free time for introspection also paves the way for our mental unraveling.

Relatedly, I was pleased to read there’s some actual science behind my thinking.  The author writes, “In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination [the thought process that defines the disorder] as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.”  So if there’s a behavioral process and cause behind depression, then it follows that changing or stopping that process might curb it.

Even in the “Depression’s Upside” article, there’s no question about whether or not a lifestyle in which one simply has more time to think is better or worse than one in which an individual is so consumed with living in the present that there isn’t time to agonize over and replay sad events in his or her mind, again and again.  Put another way, rumination might be the process or vehicle of depression, but what causes rumination?  Is it a foregone conclusion that humans will ruminate from time to time, some more than others?  Or is rumination just a symptom of a larger problem, perhaps that modern lifestyles are basically unfulfilling?

When I say that maybe modern lifestyles are unfulfilling, I mean the coupling of two things: 1) the modernity itself, defined by easy access to technology in developed countries, and 2) the lifestyles/jobs/careers chosen in our modern age.  So it’s not just that you have extra time to sit around and think due to technological advancement, but also that the things you have to sit around and think about aren’t that great.  If I’m unhappy cleaning people’s toilets or making my uber-rich spoiled brat of a CEO even wealthier, it’s even more miserable to have the time to sit around to stew about it.

It’s human nature to take things to the extreme to which we’re allowed, right?  So if you eliminate the option to, say, throw a tantrum if your survival depends on it, you’ll probably be more prone to make the wise choice.  I’m reminded of the stark differences in the way modern women give birth and the way women give birth in the bush.  Women in developed countries enjoy maternity leave, bed rest and comfortable hospital beds for recovery, if they choose.  African women in the bush are lucky to have a doctor or nurse within 20-50 km, much less the luxury of not having to work right before and after birth.  And you can forget painkillers!  I’ve seen a Kenyan woman work until the very moment of delivery, then promptly get back on her feet the following day with a baby strapped to her back so she can work, arms free.  My point here is not to disparage women who choose to take it easy before and after giving birth (god knows they’ve earned it), but that we generally deal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.  If my American friends had to give birth in the Serengeti sans doctor, they would deal with it and bounce back accordingly. If that meant having to walk  a kilometer or two to the nearest well the next day to draw water for drinking and cooking, they would do it.  Humans are great at rising to the occasion, when the occasion calls. But we are also great at choosing the easier path, given the option.

I’m rambling on about this only to substantiate that if self pity is allowed, then people will do it if it suits their purposes.  When it ceases to suit their purposes, they will stop.  In the same vein, there are those who suffer from depression and stop grooming, bathing, using the toilet, and even neglect their children. Isn’t it possible that people do this because they can get away with it?  Unless they have a death wish (and some seriously depressed individuals do try or succeed in committing suicide), they probably have enablers in the form of people or technology.  Maybe they have doting companions who pick up their slack in the home, or maybe they are able to sit around the house and rely on pizza delivery for nourishment—whatever the case, that wouldn’t fly in other parts of the world.  If you’re useless to people who depend on you for money, food, protection or nurturing, you don’t get coddled; you get straightened out. Try getting shunned, kicked out of your hut, carrying only a wooden stick to defend yourself and hunt in predator infested grasslands.  I bet you would take notice.  I realize I’m supplanting one extreme case for another in this example, but it makes the point.

I hear people all the time saying things like, “It’s all relative.”  Exactly, everything is relative.  What’s horrible to one person might be wonderful to another.  The realization and experience of this might just be the cure some people are looking for.  I can see it now on TV or in the travel agent’s office window: “Depressed? Sad? Can’t stop ruminating?!? No worries!  For the low cost of $X, you can enjoy a week- long stay in beautiful Stockton, California, working alongside migrant workers.  Depression be gone!  If you have time to think about anything else besides staying hydrated, finding enough food to eat and keeping a roof over your head, we’ll refund your money, guaranteed!  You’ll return home to your mortgage, beat up Chevrolet and crabby boss a changed person!”

In an attempt to explain how depression can be a useful tool, the author highlights the research of Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia:

“Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

We could go around and around all day about whether or not it’s good to be sad because it makes you more introspective and, therefore, more prone to change your circumstances.  But the most important takeaway from this story is that depression has a cause and that cause is preventable—or, at the very least, manageable.  Although I can’t prove it, I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as depression without a reason. I suspect there are good reasons for it: boredom, idleness, feeling disconnected from family, friends or people in general, or feeling (and perhaps actually being) useless or underutilized, just to name a few.  It shouldn’t be a given in the mental health community that depression is part of the human framework and here to stay.  If we explore further, maybe we will find that we’re “paying the piper” for our evolutionary choices and we’re not moving in the right direction.  Put simply, maybe modern folks are not leading the lives we were programmed to live.

Has it occurred to anyone else that maybe we got it all wrong?  I don’t just mean slavery, nuclear weapons and trans fats—I mean just about everything?  Jared Diamond is the well known author of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” but well before he wrote his best seller, he published a little essay entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” published in Discover Magazine in May of 1987.  The shocking argument of the essay is that the adoption of agriculture paved the way for “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.”

To substantiate his claim, he provides examples of diet:

“While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and ninety-three grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat seventy-five or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.”

“Today just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and corn–provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.”

health and nutrition:

“One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’9″ for men, 5’5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5’3″ for men, 5′ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.”

disease:

“…the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp.

Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.”

class divisions:

“Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, nonproducing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses…. Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a Bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?”

sexism:

“Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts– with consequent drains on their health… Women in agricultural societies were [are] sometimes made beasts of burden.”

Could we add depression to that list of Diamond’s examples?  He sums it up well:

“Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited us from outer space where trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a twenty-four hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. It the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day,from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p.m., we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade and that have so far eluded us?”

If Forgas is right, we should tap into that part of our brain that’s generating depression, collectively ruminate on this, learn the lesson and make the change.

But knowing our species, that’s not likely.  We’ll wait until we’re forced to.

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of advertisements for anti-depression medication, and it’s reminding me of a thought I had when I was back in Kenya: I’ve never met a “depressed” African.  When I asked some of my Kenyan contacts if they ever experience depression, they looked puzzled and retorted, “You mean like, if you’re sad? Like if someone dies?”  I tried to explain that depression could mean someone is just sad all the time, for apparently no reason at all.  It was a difficult concept for many of them to grasp, and the more I tried to explain it, the sillier it sounded.  Yes, there are people who are just sad, for no apparent reason, even though they are well fed and healthy, have jobs and decent family support units.  It’s kind of absurd, when you’re forced to explain it out loud.   

The more I travel to Africa, develop relationships with individuals and understand the underpinnings of 2nd and 3rd world living conditions, the more I’m coming around to the idea that many of our Western societal ills are fabricated and artificial.  Maybe depression is what happens when people have too much time on their hands and start feeling sorry for themselves.  Most of the Kenyans I know live in rural areas with no running water or electricity.  Their exposure to outside media is minimal and they are primarily consumed with finding a way to feed, clothe and educate themselves and their family members.  Who has time to sit around and be sad?  It’s perfectly acceptable to be sad at a funeral, but other than that, tears are for babies.  I’m no doctor, but I suspect some cases of Western depression could be treated with a quick dose of Get-Off-Your-Ass-and-Do-Something-With-Your-Hands medication.

I’m willing to point the finger back at myself here, too.  There are times I’ve wallowed in self pity and taken journeys to “find myself” (whatever that means) or sort through my really tough problems, like how my job is sometimes annoying and that the long German winters make me sad.  Yeah, it’s a hardship to bundle up in my ankle-length coat and boots and make the bitterly cold trek to my less than always stimulating day job in my company provided car.  It’s tough, let me tell you.  Sometimes I even have to do paperwork I find irritatingly beneath my qualifications and boring. 

I recently visited the www.depression.com  website and read, “Depression is not something you can just ‘snap out of.’ It’s thought to be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals, along with other factors.   Like any serious medical condition, depression needs to be treated.  Take charge of your depression, one step at a time.”  If you let your eyes wander to the bottom of the page, you’ll quickly realize this website is maintained by GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.  Which brings up another angle to this issue, that depression and the treatment of it is a proverbial self-licking ice cream cone.  Drug companies convince us that we need it, that it’s a condition beyond our physical control, and so we medicate ourselves and continue to fund the pharmaceutical machine.  I wonder what’s next on the medical forefront.  Medication for laziness?  Maybe laziness is also an imbalance of brain chemicals.  Or what about my temper?  It would be convenient to blame an anger problem—or any negative emotional tendency—on physiology.    

Before I start to sound like I believe that depression is completely made up, let me interject that I think those sad, negative emotions are very real.  There are times when I’ve felt depressed, and I know it can be extremely hard to wrangle yourself out of mental distress.  However, I also believe those feelings of sadness and despair surface when humans feel disconnected and lack a sense of purpose in their lives. 

As technology advances, humans simply have less to do.  It’s not just the modern housewife who has benefited from inventions that eliminate back breaking chores like washing clothes and cooking.  The modern business and office equivalents to the washing machine and stove are high speed computers, Smart boards and teleconferencing.  In some cases, you barely have to get out of bed to work a full day of “work.”  So with minimal housework at home to accomplish and more automated services and processes in the workplace, what’s left to do?  To the average Westerner, that means trying to make more and spend more money on goods to give us something to do in the “spare time” that is comprising more and more of our lives.

Just the other night a friend reminded me about the general themes in art during and after the advent of the Industrial Age.  As machinery began to take over many of the time consuming tasks previously performed by people, humans had more time to sit in the house, get bored and paint—very depressing paintings.   Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m looking outside my home office window watching people aimlessly roam the streets of Stuttgart.  Why? They have nothing else to do on a Sunday.  They are so desperate for some fresh air and exercise that they content themselves to peek inside the windows of shops that are closed, no doubt scheming about how they can spend some of the money burning a hole in their pockets, to have something to do tomorrow.  It’s all very sad.  I’m happier to see groups of old men getting together every week in the local pubs, laughing and exchanging stories over beers.  At least they maintain consistent human contact, another commodity that seems to be lost in this Technological Age.  Increasingly even our “socializing” time with each other is becoming less social.  Among the Wii and Rock Band marathons, movies, concerts and bites of food, how much are we really saying to each other?  Are we really connecting?

Again, I’m no medical professional, but I’ll just throw out the idea that lack of human connectedness is making modern humanity sad.  It’s our own form of poverty, the absence of real human relationships.  What we might have gained in the modern world with technological feats is no match for the feelings of identity and comfort that come along with having a sense of place and purpose in a community.  My Kenyan friends might deal with HIV/AIDS, food shortages and economic hardship on a daily basis, but they also have a strong family network and tight human bonds to get them through tough times that would cause the average American or European to spiral into the pits of despair.  There’s no local psychiatrist chair to rest upon and dredge up possibilities for why they might be struggling emotionally; instead, there’s old fashioned work therapy.  Nothing like a 4 mile hike to school to clear one’s head, or a few hours digging up sweet potatoes or taking the cows down to the river for water to provide a sense of perspective.  Life goes on.  It’s hard, but this too shall pass.  At the end of the day, my African friends go home to others who all depend upon each other to survive.  That dependency—once scorned by independent women like me who dreamed of a world in which I could do everything by myself—may in fact be the necessary ingredient for human sanity.   Remove human dependencies, and what do you get? Divorce, broken families and friendships, chronic job dissatisfaction, geo-bachelors and bachelorettes and lifestyles that center around the value and happiness of individuals—individuals who eventually find themselves taking anti-depression medication to cope with all that hard earned personal time on their hands.  

If I could, I’d round up all of my depressed friends and coworkers and take them to Africa with me the next time I visit.  I’d wager after a couple of weeks of working with kids who just appreciate the squeeze of your hand and a smile, or milking a cow for an old widow or literally walking miles in a Kenyan’s shoes, they might be a little happier.  It certainly works for me.

The next day was Saturday, which we spent in relative relaxation.  We awoke, walked outside to splash some freshly warmed water on our faces and put our contacts in our eyes. Once I could finally see, I noticed how everything around me shimmered in the morning dew.  The air was moist and clean, with a faint tinge of smoke from the fire wafting through the small kitchen hut window.  Roosters crowed, some cows mooed, a hen and her four chicks daintily pecked around the yard for food scraps, and a skinny kitten skulked around the perimeter.

I went up to use the latrine and took notice of it in the daylight.  Peter is so proud of this latrine, which I helped him build over the Christmas holiday.  About 12 feet by 5 feet, the latrine is broken up into three sections: two for toilet use and the other solely for bathing.  The pits for toilet use are dug at least 20 feet in the ground to ensure maximum… hygiene.  It will take his family a long time to use up this latrine, especially with two toilet areas.  The bathing area has a cement floor with a drain that also leads to a large pit below.  Otherwise, the small building is very bare.  No shelves (they would come in handy!) or any other amenities—mainly because it’s located outside where animals can potentially investigate and disturb.  However, we were able to convince Peter to put up curtains for the toilets and the bathing section.  Although the area is generally very private, it helped having that extra layer of modesty and protection!  Despite what people might think, this set up is actually very clean.  When bathing, you simply wear flip flops and wash directly out of a basin.  A large canister of boiled water is provided, and you scoop out the water you need.  Washing my hair was a bit tricky in this fashion, but I only washed my hair twice that week (much to Jordan’s dismay…) to avoid the awkward situation altogether. Plus, hair washing uses a lot of water!   As for the toilet, well, you certainly can’t dilly-dally.  I suppose you could, but you will only last as long as your quadriceps allow, since you are basically hovering over the pit, strategically positioned so as not to “misfire.”  As long as you keep a steady supply of wet wipes and hand sanitizer on hand—which I did at all times in my cargo pockets—you’re totally fine.  I rather liked not making too much of a production out of bathing and using the bathroom, to be honest.

Another wonderful thing I love about living in this fashion is the lack of mirrors.  I brought one small mirror with me just in case, but I hardly used it.  It’s amazing how quickly you forget about yourself and stop caring so much about your appearance when you don’t have mirrors everywhere!  At home, I have at least five mirrors: one right by the front door, one in the big bathroom, one in the small bathroom and two full length mirrors in the wardrobe room.  There’s no escaping vanity!  But at Peter’s, I didn’t take notice or spend time on inconsequential things like a hair out of place or lack of mascara.  It was a great feeling, to just jump out of bed, throw on some clothes and get going!  I could concentrate on more important things, like breakfast.

Breakfast at the Kisirkoi home is always good.  On this day we sat down to hot tea (which they made without milk, special just for me), an egg omelette and buttered bread—quite a feast!  I’ve never been much of a breakfast eater, but I managed to eat everything to be polite.  We talked with Peter and Margaret briefly in the living room, then made our way to the banda, a round, elevated outside seating area, to relax even more.  Peter filled us in on the farming projects he and the family have been tackling for the past two years.  In addition to paddocking his 6.8 acres to rotate crops and feed the cattle, Peter created two large fish ponds with the intent of raising and selling tilapia, which is rare in Transmara.  He installed these fish ponds completely on his own, and his resourcefulness continually amazes me.  For the full effect, we took a walk down to his ponds to see for ourselves.  He showed us the original spring he tapped for the water source.  The area is very lush and bushy, and he figured that the large plants were drawing from a good source of water below.  So, he just started digging!  Once he established enough water was there, he dug two huge ponds off to the side of the spring to capture the water once it was released.  Once the ponds were dug, he undammed the spring and let it fill up the two ponds.  When the ponds were full, he dammed up the spring again and bought some fish.  He started with just 14, and now he estimates the ponds contain hundreds of tilapia!  They are still very young and require some more growth, but he hopes within the next six month to start selling them at the market. 

Peter has been so successful with his home projects that his accomplishments have reached the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture.  Three representatives showed up at his compound a few days later for observation, and they asked if they could host a field day there in May to demonstrate some of his techniques to other local farmers.  Peter and Margaret were so thrilled and honored by this recognition, and it set into motion plans for getting the compound ready for the big day, when they expect to have over 100 visitors at their home. 

After walking around Peter’s compound and taking in the magnificent views surrounding his home, we trekked back to the banda and had a very filling lunch of brown beans, sakuma wiki (kale greens) and rice.  As always, I enjoyed the vegetarian fare very much.  I was absolutely stuffed afterward!  Jordan and I read a little bit, completely taking advantage of the much needed lazy weekend for us, although I did feel a little guilty that day just hanging around.  During my last stay in Kenya I filled every moment with work, rushing all over the area talking with women, girls and community groups.  I was determined this trip to slow down a bit, but even so, I felt a bit restless and anxious to interact with the school children. 

Later that afternoon we took a hike to the top of Peter’s hill for some of the best views in all of Transmara.  I had been to the top before, but it never gets old.  I knew Jordan would love it.  We trudged up the now familiar stretch of trail lined with gorgeous blooming plants and trees, winding our way to the clearing.  Out of the foliage, we could see rolling green hills in every direction.  We continued to hike upward until we reached the very top.  I felt the same stirring inside of me as the last time I stood on this ground, a beckoning and calling of sorts to plant my feet right there and set down some deep roots.  I couldn’t even speak, I was so overwhelmed with the beauty and magic of that hill.  I could tell that Jordan felt the same way, as he lay back on the soft grass in the shade of the tree grove and just took it all in.  We didn’t speak for a long time.  Peter, Margaret, and three of their kids were with us, and although they had probably made this hike many times before, even they were content to just sit and stare and enjoy the scenery.  It was at this point that Jordan and I started making plans.

I noticed Jordan staking out territory on the hill with his eyes.  “Who owns this piece of land?” he asked Peter.  Peter said he didn’t know but he would find out.  I asked if he thought it was for sale, and Peter just smiled and told me that everyone has his price.  I was also reminded of the relatively cheap price of the land: only about $1,000 per acre!  That’s a steal.  At that point Jordan started getting really excited, whispering to me hurriedly about all the ideas he had for landscaping and home building and fencing and farming.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  This was exactly how I felt when I visited this hill for the first time.  We talked and talked about our future place, imagining elaborate floor plans and eco-friendly designs that would serve as environmental benchmarks for the fledgling community.  I knew we were starting to get carried away when we began discussing how the prominent tree on the slope could be decorated during the Christmas season.  But it was a fun mental activity that continued to consume our thoughts and daydreams throughout the trip.

As we arrived home from the hike, we took a short cut through the Kisirkoi shamba, or family garden.  Peter suggested we find some sweet potatoes for dinner, and immediately everyone started digging up the soft, dark soil in search of them.  I pried a large branch from a tree and started digging around the plants Peter told me probably contained ripe potatoes.  Sure enough, a small sweat later, I had three in hand!  It felt so wonderful to feel the cold dirt between my fingers and forage for fresh vegetables just out of the earth.  My mouth started watering in anticipation of eating them.  Next we found some ripe bananas for dinner, which would be mashed much like potatoes and seasoned similarly—one of my favorite Kenyan dishes.  We arrived at the house filthy but in great spirits.  I wouldn’t be able to get rid of that dirt under my fingernails for almost a week!

Jordan and I took quick baths and then took seats by the kitchen hut to observe the Kisirkois in cooking action.  It’s an impressive feat.  On one side of the hut are the fire pits, with clay mounds on top to hold pots of various sizes.  Holes are cut on the mounds to allow the fire to heat the pot.  They have cooking down to a science.  They gather water, boil it down as needed, and set it aside for later use.  Then they peel, sort, cut and dice the vegetables.  Simultaneously, others are stoking the fire and preparing seasonings.  Once the fire is ready, they start cooking the food on different “burners” at various temperatures.  By this time the sun is usually starting to set, so the kitchen is getting really dark and kerosene lamp is lit.  Also around this time the hen and her chicks are getting cold, so they move into the kitchen hut for warmth.  They are so cute.  The dinner preparation takes anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours, depending on what’s being made.  When chipati is on the menu, it usually takes longer.  Each chipati, or tortilla-like flat bread, is hand tossed, flattened and cooked on a flat metal plate.  It can take a while to make enough to feed ten people! 

After dinner, Jordan and I took the opportunity to share some of our gifts from home with the Kisirkois.  We brought a hodgepodge of Western delights with us, from Tony Cachere’s Cajun seasoning to Girl Scout Cookies.  We included drink mixes like Kool Aid, Crystal Light and Gatorade and packed a plethora of candy.  The biggest hit of the evening was the beef jerky.  At first they were very suspicious of the odd looking bits, but after they chewed them for a while, they seemed to like it.  Joshua, Peter’s oldest son who came home from college just to meet us, beamed a huge smile with his peppery-jerky mouth and simply said, “I like meat!”

Indeed, the Maasai like meat.  But I’ll save that story for later.

When I stepped outside the Nairobi airport on 28 January, my nostrils were immediately filled with the familiar scents of the city: car exhaust, dirt, and the smell of something that I can’t exactly put my finger on but is definitely Kenyan in all of its attributes.  Riding downtown, horns were honking, taxis lurching, and as the buildings and people whizzed by I was content to lie back in my seat smiling and take it all in.  It felt like home.

The last time I was in this city was December of 2007, right before the Kenyan elections that set into motion the political unrest and violence from which it’s taken the country almost two years to recover.  Even now, there is an unsettling current underneath the seeming peace that causes many Kenyans to shake their heads and worry about the next election in 2012.  In their minds, the peace is only temporary.  However, to an outsider unscathed by the partisan and tribal clashes, everything was fine.  Kenya was just as wonderful as I remembered.

That first night went by quickly, with just enough time to check into the hotel and crash out after a long day of travel from Germany.  My boyfriend Jordan and I were so tired we didn’t have the energy to explore any Nairobi nightlife and opted for a full night’s rest instead.  When we awoke, the morning light was infectious.  After months of enduring an unusually cold Stuttgart winter, we were energized by the sunny weather.  We enjoyed a leisurely hotel breakfast and then eagerly walked the warm, bustling city streets in search of an ATM, a cell phone charger and some local phone credits to last us for our week abroad.  

Instantly I was back in “Kenya Mode,” a term I’ve coined to describe my drastic change in attitude, outlook and overall behavior when I am back in this place.  Perhaps it’s the adventure of simply being in Africa, or knowing that I don’t have to be a slave to my Blackberry for the next week, or maybe that I have no certain schedule ahead of me, instead just heeding the call of whatever strikes my fancy or interest.  Whatever it is, it’s wholly liberating!  I was pleasantly surprised to witness Jordan, a newcomer to Kenya, slowly falling into this mode as well.  At first he was very anxious about my crossing the street (Kenyans drive on the left side of the road, so it’s not always intuitive for Americans to look the correct direction!) and would protectively put his arm in front of me or hold my hand or shoulder as we traversed.  He insisted on walking on the sidewalk closest to the road, gentleman style, and instinctively pulled me toward him when he saw potential thieves or thugs or anyone who was deemed unsafe to get too close.  I found his protectiveness endearing to a point.  This was how he always treated me, even back in uber-safe Deutschland.  However, I gave him the Africa lecture again, about how I had to be able to be free and adventurous and experimental here, and if that meant falling out of a tree and breaking my arm, or daring to walk 5 blocks with 20,000 Kenyan shillings in my pocket, then so be it.  We could be a couple here, but we also had to just be chums sometimes.  So he, reluctantly, backed off and started to relax.  This was his vacation too!  Eventually even he was making small talk with the street vendors and interacting with beggars.  “It’s okay to say no,” I told him. “Just be nice.”

We visited five electronics stores before we found a charger to match my outdated mobile phone—Who would have thought even here the technology would have advanced so much in two years’ time? A few of the shop girls chuckled when I inquired about the part I needed.  “No , we don’t have that here.  Try Ebrahim’s place around the corner—he carries all sorts of OLD things.”  I had almost resigned myself to buy a new phone entirely when we stumbled upon a tiny electronics shack that carried the right part.  We took that as another good omen for the trip.  So far, we were fairing pretty well: Our flight from Stuttgart landed in London with enough time to change planes, even though we were almost an hour late taking off due to lousy weather; our leg from London to Nairobi went off without a hitch; all of our luggage arrived safely with nothing misplaced or stolen; we exited Kenya customs and the airport in record time; to our surprise, the hotel had arranged a car to pick us up at the airport, without our asking; and the hotel room at the Hilton was simply perfect.  With the phone charger in hand, we were 7 for 7! Now it was time for a Tusker.

Tusker, if you aren’t aware, is a brand of Kenyan beer.  It’s my favorite because its logo contains a cute elephant, and the brew is also rather tasty.  We found a local Irish Pub (indeed, one can be found in every nook and cranny in the world!) and watched about an hour of football (read: soccer) before it was time to catch our next flight to Transmara.  It was only my first few hours back in Kenya, and I already felt like a new person.  A more centered, perfect Celena.  The Kenyan brand of Celena that is laid back, energetic, creative and ready for any challenge.  I could sense Jordan looking at me quizzically from time to time.  Who is this girl?? He’s used to seeing me uptight, stressed, incessantly talking about work and ranting occasionally about a host of hot-button topics, worrying about my hair, throwing mini tantrums in front of the wardrobe mirror as I try on outfit after outfit in utter disgust…  Now here I was, wearing a slightly wrinkled t-shirt, pants and flip flops,  no make up, hair in a pontytail, laughing and relaxing with Tusker in hand.  I had told him before about this personal Africa transformation, but until he saw it for himself, it was pure fantasy. 

It’s funny how things—things that would normally be considered ridiculous—can become normal and routine just by a change of time and place.  We encountered many of these things during our trip, such as our rides on the small prop plane that took off and landed on dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere.  What would the Force Protection folks say about this?!? we would tease each other every once in a while, nervously laughing.  We asked the same thing as we bounced along an uneven, rocky road in a careening, top-heavy van for three and a half hours en route to Kilgoris, and even more so the following morning when both of us hopped on the back of a motorbike, sans helmets or any protective gear, for the 15 km trek to school!  Ah, Africa!

I loved flying over the Mara, the beautiful expanse of land Kenya shares with the Tanzanian Serengeti.  I would have loved it even more had I not experienced—for the first time in my life—motion sickness; even still, the visions of the Rift Valley geologic formations were breathtaking.  We could make out small manyattas below, circular Maasai dwellings that house people and protect their cattle from lions and would-be thieves.  As we began our descent toward Kichwa Tembo, we saw groups of antelope and elephants near the landing strip.  Gradually they meandered away, barely fazed, as we touched down.

After our luggage was unloaded from the plane, we were met by the Kisirkoi family.  Peter Kisirkoi is the headmaster of one of the primary schools where I taught during my last stay in Kenya. Over the past couple of years, Peter and I have worked together on multiple community projects with the Maasai in Transmara, and he has become a good friend.  We stayed with Peter and his family for most of our trip, about 20 km outside the small town of Kilgoris.  When they greeted us, there were introductions and hugs all around.  They had all heard of this mysterious Jordan, but now they were meeting him for the first time.  Peter presented Jordan with a traditional Maasai shirt, decorated with silver and multicolored beads.  Jordan laughed out loud as the family started dressing me in traditional female Maasai attire, wrapping a red decorated skirt around my waist (over my pants) and tying a red cape around my neck. Then came my headdress—a large band of colorful beads around my forehead—and a giant necklace that came down almost to my knees.  What a sight!  Especially to the gawking tourists at the airstrip who were waiting for flights back to Nairobi.  This was a very strange display, for sure, and even more incredulous that we were getting in a van with these people and taking off to god-knows-where in the bush! 

I probably should have prepared Jordan better for the ride home.  I knew, having survived these remote Kenyan dirt roads the last time, that it wouldn’t be a very smooth drive.  He wasn’t expecting the constant bumping and jolting nor the precarious tilting as we navigated some of the um, tricky parts of the trail.  Not to imply that Jordan is a tenderfoot (although I did jokingly refer to him that way a few times), but he is normally a very level-headed, safe fellow.  He drives the speed limit, takes pride in being prepared for every occasion and always has a back up plan.  Let’s just say he was kind of out of his element in the bush, at least in the beginning.  I noticed his eyes darting around, looking for emergency escape routes and devising alternate courses of action in case of disaster.  He eventually just gave up and gave in to the magnificent views surrounding us as we made our way out of the Mara.

We made it home that first night at Peter’s just after dark.  Fortunately we had our headlamps handy to strap on and wheeled our luggage up to the top of the hill where the Kisirkoi home resides.  We settled in our designated room and joined the family outside while they cooked and prepared some tea.  Immediately we were impressed by the intense moonglow; the moon was full and so bright we hardly needed the lamps outside to make our way around the compound.  Secretly I was a bit disappointed because I was looking forward to viewing the sparkling African night sky—a splendid display of stars that reaches all the way down to the horizon in every direction. It’s amazing what the lack of light pollution can do!  I would get my wish a few days later, when the moon waned.  I would have to be patient, like with everything else here.  Patient for my tea to brew, for my food to simmer, for my bath water to be drawn and heated, for the welcome greetings and post dinner speeches and for the time for my head to finally hit the pillow, after a long-awaited, absolutely wonderful day.

Avatar Worlds

I’m sure many people by now have seen the movie “Avatar.”  I watched it a few weeks back, in 3D no less!  The colors and animation were amazing, as were the story (if a bit predictable and preachy) and the cast of characters.  It’s definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.  I left the theater feeling alive and also with a tinge of sadness that I didn’t live in that beautiful world.

I read a week or so later that many moviegoers were experiencing “post-movie depression” after leaving the show.  Bloggers everywhere were leaving dejected and bitter comments about how boring our world is by comparison and the sense of let down they felt when they returned to work the following week.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to have his or her own bird to fly around instead of being stuck in a 2-hour commute on the Washington beltway driving a Nissan Sentra?  Or running around barefoot on moss-covered tree limbs the size of sidewalks enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, as opposed to being cooped up in a windowless office 8+ hours a day in a stuffy suit?  Magically suspended mountains? Oooooohh.  Grown up sized tree houses?!?  Aaahhhhh.  Flourescent flowers that guide your way in the darkness?!??  Yes, yes, yes!  Crummy old Earth… We don’t have anything that cool. 

But aside from the special effects and bright colors and awe inspiring landscapes in the movie, something else hit home for me: the idea of belonging to a people and a place and feeling a sense of purpose.  And I don’t mean a purpose in the spiritual sense, but in the day-to-day, get your hands dirty and know that you accomplished something kind of way that seems to be missing from modern life.  I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced that sensation a few times in my life, albeit under interesting circumstances.  The first few times it happened during military deployments, when I was focusing 100% on the mission with few distractions.  I didn’t have to worry about paying bills (automatic bill pay) or keeping in touch with friends and family (you get a pass when you’re at war, I guess), or making appointments for the salon (the “Moustache March” tradition is apparently not just for males…), or anything that was normally a source of stress or on the To-Do list in the “real world.”  I worked, slept, ate and exercised–that was it.  And it was pure heaven!  Aside from the killing and destruction uprange, of course.  The simple life has a way of bringing along with it as sense of peace and contentment that you can’t experience in the middle of the rat race.

Similarly, I experienced the same kind of zen when I volunteered in Kenya a couple of years ago, except this time my living conditions were a bit more austere.  I didn’t have electricity or running water, I had to walk most places, I was on a meager vegetarian diet and used every single one of my muscles every day!  My fingernails were always dirty, I had to keep my hair pinned up with a scarf because I couldn’t wash it frequently, and body bathing was intermittent as well… By any standards, it wasn’t glamorous!  But to me, it was delightful.  Every morning I woke up, splashed cold water from the bin on my face, threw on some clothes and was ready take on the world!  No make up or hair routine to slow me down, no waiting for the coffee machine for artificial energy, no traffic jams… It’s amazing what you can accomplish when “work” is right outside your hut door.  And every night, after collapsing into bed completely exhausted, I rested my head on my pillow feeling completely satisfied, knowing I had accomplished great, worthwhile things in just the past several hours.  Day after day, night after night it was like this.  It was difficult to go home!

I have a theory that our human brains have evolved faster than everything else, and other parts of us are lagging behind.  Although we have amazing technology at our fingertips, I believe there’s something still very innate and primal about wanting to feel the sun on your face or smelling pine trees or swimming in the ocean.  The lack of human connection alone is probably the cause of more suffering in our modern world than we realize.  One week in Kenya felt like two months in “real time” because we enjoyed and took advantage of every minute of a day; we conversed with each other all day long, not taking breaks to get on the computer to read email for hours or watch TV in silence; and took the time to listen–really listen–without any other distractions.  I felt so close to people I had just met days before, simply because the QUALITY of our time together was so much better. 

I’ve spent years of my life “hanging out” with people, and I hate it.  No, I don’t want to “hang out” with my boyfriend on a Friday night in a noisy bar and exchange a series of sound bites in between actual bites of food because we’re rushing to make a show…  I don’t want to “hang out” with my best friend window shopping or trying on clothes together at the mall… I don’t want to “hang out” at a concert  and smile at each other, nodding to the beat of the music for three hours… Can’t we do better than this for the people we care about?  I’m tired of it.  How about, for a change, we turn off all electronics in the house–heck, maybe even all of the electricity–and just TALK?  You know, the old fashioned tradition of speaking one sentence after another until they start to form paragraphs, and then we do this back and forth for a couple of hours until we feel like we’ve figured something out, or reached another level of understanding with each other?  To make it more interesting, we could even introduce some wine into the mix (in vino veritas…).  I bet if couples forced themselves to do this with each other at least 3-4 times a week, we would have less divorces. 

Since I returned from Kenya two years ago, I’ve fallen back into some of my bad habits.  I sheepishly admit I watch at least an hour’s worth of TV/movies every night, if not more.  It also didn’t take me long to get back into the morning hair-and-make up routine that plagues my existence.  Why does using eyeliner and a blowdryer have to look so much better!?!?  I find myself feeling as if I’m going to DIE without a weekly dose of fudgecicles… It’s all so ridiculous.

Thankfully, I’m returning to Kenya again this week to make myself useful and hopefully get my priorities back in order.  Because if we don’t have an “Avatar”-like world to enjoy, at least we can try to create special nooks in smaller spaces, right?  At least for short periods of time, I can live simply… and completely.

During the winter of 2007, while many people back home were enjoying what I consider to be the best time of the year, I was in Kenya as a volunteer teacher. Everyone in my American circle was busy holiday shopping, going to see “The Nutcracker,” making plans for New Year’s Eve, hosting parties and wrapping gifts. But in Transmara, the western part of Kenya that shares the Serengeti with Tanzania and boasts the famed Maasai warrior, there were some different traditions underway.

One Wednesday morning in November I saw seven girls mutilated.

My attendance at this event was precipitated by several important encounters and realizations, some by pure luck and others intentional. I had been in Kenya for almost two months by this time, having spent the majority of my weeks there as a primary and secondary school teacher, focusing on basic subjects like English, social studies and science. I never planned to get caught up in what essentially became an anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) campaign; on the contrary, I was shocked to learn that the custom was still practiced in Kenya at all, since the procedure had been banned by the “Children’s Act” in 2001. I quickly learned after a short time with the Maasai tribe that not only was the custom still deeply entrenched in their culture, but it was boldly advertised to ensure maximum participation by the villagers. My host, in fact, received a beautiful invitation to this particular event, the family obviously going to great (and expensive) lengths to ensure the ceremony was well attended.

I first learned of the prevalence of FGM in Transmara from one of the local school principals. I was in the middle of pitching an idea to take an afternoon with the older students to hold a health class of sorts in which we (the three other volunteers and I) would discuss adolescence and the onset of puberty and provide basic information about HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual reproduction. In the course of this planning, the principal mentioned that the class would have a great educational benefit for his students, particularly for the girls who were planning to be circumcised. Startled, I asked him to explain what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that several of the girls’ families were planning ceremonies to circumcise the girls to prepare them for marriage, and this was not just a moral issue with him but also problematic as an educator, since most of the circumcised girls never returned to school after having the procedure performed. I probably asked the poor headmaster a million questions that day, trying to comprehend the underpinnings of this Maasai custom and why it was still so prevalent. Over the course of that afternoon and over subsequent weeks, I gathered a wealth of information about FGM, drawing upon interviews with women (some of whom had been circumcised and some who were not) in the community, online research and any book I could get my hands on about the Maasai.

After my conversation with the principal, I spent the next month traveling with a fellow volunteer to local schools holding FGM awareness classes for girls and boys. It was immediately clear that there were several misconceptions perpetuated about female circumcision. We were asked by girls whether or not one could still contract HIV if she was circumcised and whether or not it was true that childbirth was easier post-circumcision. We were also asked by the girls if “Christian” circumcision was okay, since Mary (the mother of Jesus) had been circumcised. It was difficult to penetrate this very thick layer of indoctrination the girls had been subject to on the topic. Despite our attempts to lay out arguments against the practice, mainly medical, it was evident that it would take a long time for the culture to change its stance on FGM and provide girls and women more options for their future.

We also realized that, while our sessions with the girls were good exposure to other cultural norms, our legitimacy only went so far. We would need to enlist the help of local women, who had personal experience with this procedure and who could dispel myths about what constitutes a “good” Maasai woman. The Maasai take great pride in being courageous and withstanding adversity. For them, the circumcision ceremony has less to do with promoting female virginity and sexual fidelity (as is the case with FGM in other regions) and more to do with proving oneself strong or “mature” enough to join the tribe as a full-fledged adult member. It was surprisingly easy to find Maasai women who disagreed with the practice, with reasons ranging from religious conviction to the worry that it was keeping women in the cycle of dependency and submission to Maasai men. These were the women who eventually formed organizations dedicated to eradicating FGM in the community, continuing the work we started in those weeks leading up to the ceremonies.

I had serious reservations about attending the ceremony, and I wrestled with this decision for many weeks before I agreed to witness the procedure. I didn’t want the locals, especially my students, to think that my presence there meant I somehow approved of the practice. Even though I had been educating students and interviewing women for about a month at this point, I was still relying on secondhand accounts. The girls I was teaching had much more experience and knowledge about the procedure than I did, and my ignorance hampered me at times. A good friend of mine cinched the deal for me when he said, “Celena, if you go you will find your own truth, and you won’t have to rely on the stories of others.” That perspective was just what I needed to hear to convince me that I should go, with the hope of later taking this story back home to raise awareness about the issue. But it was still very difficult.

The ceremony actually started the day before the circumcision, at a compound near the school where I had been teaching. The first thing I noticed was how many guests were there—probably upward of 500 people, dressed in traditional Maasai clothing, congregating in colorful groups. It was quite a celebration indeed. Lots of food, drink and laughter, with all the makings of a great party.

After scouting out the expansive compound, I followed the crowd to the cow pen, where the seven girls stood in a line, chanting, singing and whisking wildebeest tails in time with their music. The bells attached to their legs jangled loudly while they danced. Their outfits were an odd mixture of African and Western clothing: red baseball caps with the bills flipped up so their foreheads were exposed; slip-on rubber soled shoes; white tank tops stained from the red ochre plastered all over their bodies; skirts that were very short, much shorter than any skirt I’ve seen a girl wear in all of Kenya; several gorgeous Maasai belts of all colors wrapped around their waists; and an assortment of necklaces and bracelets covering their necks and arms. Some women kept wrapping scarves around their necks, too, as well as crocheted shawls. Their faces were the eeriest, painted orange-red with black circles around the eyes. It was a very haunting look.

The girls appeared to be in sort of a trance as they sang and gyrated, closing their eyes for long periods of time. A few women circulated behind them, coaching them constantly. One of the women in particular gave me chills. She was old and thin and bald, with ears lobes hanging down to almost her shoulders (per “old school” Maasai tradition), with hawkish eyes and manacing eyebrows. She didn’t want me there, I could tell. Other women observing the activity pushed me to the inside of the circle where the girls were being surrounded so I could get a better view. The “coaches” eyed me suspiciously, knowing, I’m sure, that I didn’t approve of all of this, despite my attempts to appear unaffected. I continued to watch for thirty minutes or so, taking it all in. There were many other girls dressed similarly, I suppose in a show of support for the circumcisees. They all walked around in packs, giggling and giddy with excitement over the event. A few of the women were noticeably drunk.

I then walked around to the other side of the compound and saw several groups of teenage boys dancing and singing. They were performing the traditional Maasai “jumping” dance whereby the boys stand in a circle or square and two of them at a time go into the center and start jumping, their bodies completely taut and straight. They can jump very high, some of them a couple of meters. It’s impressive, and meant to be so to attract female attention.

One of the local boys I befriended joined up with me then and was able to explain many of the traditions. He pointed out the hut that had been specially made for the circumcised girls, and I ventured over. Inside I saw several of my Class 7 and 8 female students there as well as some boys, who looked a little sheepish given our discussions about the risks of FGM at school. The hut is specially made for the girls to retreat to after the procedure is performed. They are kept apart from the rest of the community for several weeks to heal and receive special instruction. Although these girls are barely teenagers, this is surprisingly age appropriate: usually the girls are married off right away, after they emerge from the hut and their training is complete. It’s the opinion of several of the women I interviewed about FGM that this time in the hut may have a more negative impact on the girls than the actual cutting. The indoctrination is quite severe, likened to hazing. The girls are not just instructed on how to be good wives and mothers, but they are also told to sacrifice themselves at all cost for the sake of the family and the community. They are also subject to degrading rituals like strapping a baby doll to her back and walking on her knees around and around the hut, all night long, presumably to prepare the girl for the inevitable hardship of motherhood. In some cases, the girls are stripped of clothing the entire time they are in seclusion. Not only does this facilitate the domineering instructor-to-student relationship, but it also serves as a constant reminder to the girl that her body is not her own.

It’s the kind of instruction that motivates the typical Maasai woman to get up every morning before sunrise, start the fire, milk the cows, gather more firewood, prepare the calabashes (gourds which carry milk and other liquids), make breakfast and tea, then get her husband out of bed. After she feeds him and the other children, she takes a jug or two or water to the well, fills them and carries them home, perhaps with a baby tied to her back if she’s a new mother. When she returns home, there is laundry to do (by hand, mind you), cleaning to do, cows to be taken out to pasture, other animals to be fed and more cows to be milked. Two more meals and another serving of tea will likely be prepared before day’s end. If she’s “lucky,” she’ll have a large brood children to assist with some of these back-breaking chores. She won’t go to bed until after everyone else in the house does, and the next day will be more of the same.

If Maasai men engaged in similarly rigorous activity, maybe all of this hard work would be understandable. But because of a lack of employment in the rural areas, many Maasai men suffer from what the locals call “idleness.” I was shocked when a Maasai man unapologetically told me, after I asked him about this obviously unequal division of labor, that they take their lessons from the lion, who lounges around all day long taking naps. They wait until a lioness has made a kill for herself and her cubs, then the lions get up off their lazy haunches and go take half of it for themselves.

The next morning I woke up while it was still dark for the main event, threw on some clothes and tried to psych myself up for the circumcision ceremony during my walk up the hill back to the compound. I arrived at the ceremony about an hour early, giving me plenty of time to observe the excitement and early morning drunken revelry as preparations were made. A crowd had gathered in the cow pen forming a half-circle, comprised disturbingly of mostly young children. The older boys and men hung back and congregated at the sides, leaving the best view for the girls and women. Everyone seemed very happy. I wish I could say that an ominous cloud hovered over the event and there was a sense of dread, but unfortunately there wasn’t; I suspect I was the only one there whose stomach was turning cartwheels. Even for the ones there who disagreed with the practice, at least it wasn’t anything new.

I wasn’t sure how I would respond, but I was determined not to show any sort of weakness. I wasn’t going to get sick or make a scene, no matter how difficult it was to watch. The Maasai pride themselves very much in their strength and ability to withstand pain (hence the coming-of-age ritual), and I knew I wouldn’t have any “street credit” with them if I fainted or did something stupid.

One of the older Maasai men (walking around taking swigs out of a large whiskey bottle) saw me on the fringe of the crowd and insisted that I move to the very font, in the very center, the best seat in the house. I stood there at first being gawked at, then sat down on a rock at my feet to get out of the limelight a little. It didn’t work. Everyone still whispered to each other, wondering why the “mazungu” was there. This worried me because I noticed several of my students were in attendance. I think, unfortunately, that many of them were left with the impression that I did somehow agree with the goings-on by being there, but that couldn’t be helped. It was an unfortunate side effect.

A line of girls behind me were dressed up the same as the day before, singing/chanting similar music. In front of me the older women laid out large animal skins over the dung and sparse grass in the cow pen for the girls to sit on during the procedure. At one point one of the women came over and asked me something in Maasai I didn’t understand. A girl next to me translated. She wanted to know if I was circumcised, because if I was, I belonged on the other side with the women. Uh, no. Some of the girls and boys around understood the exchange and giggled. Silly mazungu’s not circumcised! She’s like us: a child!

Over to the side, next to the fence, several women grabbed a goat, tied its legs together, took a big knife to its throat and sliced it. They waited a brief moment, then started cutting it from neck to anus. I had to look away.

Finally, in the distance I heard some whistles and chants and cheers. It was the group of girls, on their way. The crowd started yelling and the women ululated loudly. The girls arrived in a line, escorted by older women and their mothers, blowing whistles feverishly. They looked almost possessed with their eyes closed, gyrating rhythmically together, their faces painted red with those haunting black eyes. The bells tied to their legs jangled incessantly, adding to the chaos.

The “nurse” administering the procedure started preparing with the help of another female assistant. I watched them carefully throughout to see how sterile the instruments were and how strictly she ensured that blood was not spread from one girl to another. She took great care to use a different razor blade (yes, razor blade) for each girl, and she changed gloves in between each girl as well. This practice has evolved with the times, with the reality of rampant HIV/AIDS in this region. These aren’t bush people (although the practice is still performed in the bush under much more austere, dangerous conditions)—this community has access to alcohol pads, syringes, needles, rubber gloves and stainless steel razor blades procured at local clinics. In fact, after interviewing the circumciser privately after the event, I learned that the girls received a reasonable degree of medical attention before and after the procedure. She told me she injected the girls with a tetanus shot one week prior to the circumcisions. Right before the cut was made, on the morning of the ceremony, she gave them local anesthesia. She confirmed that the girls didn’t feel any pain while she was cutting them with razor blades. A few minutes after the procedure was finished, she gave them each two painkillers. About ten minutes after that, the girls were administered penicillin shots in their legs. Later, after the girls were brought into the hut, they were given a cleansing wash to clean the affected area with every day. And one week after the ceremony she followed up with a visit to clean the wounds and ensure there wasn’t any infection.

Even though it’s obviously better for the health and wellbeing of the circumcised girls in question to receive this level of care, this new method makes some medical arguments against FGM no longer valid. If the perpetrators of this practice have managed to make it virtually sterile, almost healthy (not many other children receive tetanus and penicillin shots in Transmara), then the physical risks can be equated with the same medical risks posed by male circumcision that is widely practiced around the world and which many Westerners are loathe to condemn. Being shut in a hut with a dirt floor wrapped in a recycled animal skin for a month may present some problems, but for the most part this community has managed to prevent the spread of disease and infection with regard to FGM specifically . This theory was supported by the district hospital and local clinics I visited, who reportedly receive very few patients who have been recently circumcised. Of course this could be due to the lack of clinic use to treat minor infections, but it’s clear that young girls are not dying by the droves as a result of FGM. A greater threat to their health and one of the long-term effects of certain types of FGM is difficulty during childbirth. Because the affected skin is scarred and loses its elasticity, circumcised women commonly tear while giving birth, causing a whole host of other problems in unsanitary environments. These cases are reported in much higher numbers among Maasai women.

As the crowd chanted and sang, I was pushed/grabbed/pulled to the very front, so close I could have touched the girls if I’d wanted to, to see everything clearly. The first girl was pushed onto the ground, then whipped by an old woman so she would open her legs wide. The circumciser proceeded to bend down, pinch the girl’s clitoris and pull it away from her body, then use the razor blade in her right hand to cut the prepuce off. Immediately the area started bleeding profusely and the girl’s legs were shut tight. The entire procedure, from start to finish, took about five to seven seconds.

It was evident that the speed of the cutting was intentional as well as many other elements of the ceremony. The whistles, for instance. The girls kept blowing them the entire time, which prevented them from crying out. The whistles reminded me of pacifiers, which was exactly what they were. The sound of the whistle also seemed to have the same effect that chanting does in a military formation—sometimes what pushes the soldier through fatigue is the constant rhythm of the jodie, sung in unison. The girls were also herded very fast and kept in a line to keep them from seeing all the blood and the activity happening in front of them, until it was too late and it was their turn. Just like cows in slaughter houses, I thought. Additionally, the girls had been kept awake all night long, so they were undoubtedly exhausted. The girls were probably running on pure adrenaline by the time the cutting took place, when one takes into account their lack of sleep, the excitement of the crowd and the requirement to constantly sing and dance.

After every girl was cut, they were all told to stand up, jump around and celebrate for a few minutes. After their ecstatic display, they collapsed onto the animal skins, soaked with blood by this point, and fell into the arms of their mothers. The mothers themselves had tears streaming down their cheeks, crying tears of joy. Their girls were now “real” women, ready to be married to the man with the highest number of cows. What respect, pride and wealth the girl was helping to heap on her family!

After the circumcisions were finished, the girls (very wobbly by this time from the loss of blood) were given orange Fantas to drink while they accepted congratulations for another fifteen minutes or so. Later, they were assisted by their mothers to the area outside the hut I mentioned before, underneath a shady tree. They lay down on the grass while women fussed over them. Most people were staying away from the girls by this point, and I debated going home right then, feeling pretty worn out myself. But I mustered some courage and charged the hill in their direction. I walked over and looked around, trying to figure out what was happening and how the girls were faring. Two women approached me, talking in Maasai very heatedly. A young man was summoned to translate, and the women essentially said that I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I was interfering with their custom, and I needed to leave or I would be caned. Fortunately, no international incident occurred that morning. I simply left, reminding myself, once again, why I was there and why it was important that I remain calm.

After the threat of violence, it occurred to me that the Maasai women must feel very empowered by this custom, for it is one of the few times in their lives when they are afforded complete control by the men. There are a handful of rituals and practices in which Maasai women are extended this power, and no doubt they embrace those times. I wondered then if this practice was partly perpetuated because it allowed the women to not just rule among themselves, but to also steer the men (and anyone else they desired) clear for a change.

On my way out, I passed merrymakers all around the yard, dancing and drinking on the lawn. They continued this frenzy all day and into the night. I could hear them up on the hill well after dark, well after the girls had been shut inside the small hut for their weeks of seclusion.

To get to the crux of the issue of FGM, there are many other aspects of the Maasai culture that are worth examining that I haven’t already mentioned, not least of which is tradition of a wedding dowry and the bride price. At first when I heard that it was required of a prospective groom to offer gifts (usually cows) to the family of the bride, I thought this might be a positive thing. I figured it showed a degree of respect for the value/worth of a future wife (if eight cows can be considered a “good” value), as opposed to the dowry required by the bride’s family in other cultures, which always seemed to smack of bribery to me. Here, take this daughter off my hands, she’s just a liability. But what’s problematic about the Maasai tradition is that it encourages marriage—including early marriage of girls to much older men—to increase the wealth of the bride’s family. The father has a financial incentive, perhaps the worst kind of incentive (and a very compelling one in this poverty-stricken region) to marry off his daughter. And since the culture demands that circumcision take place before a girl can be married, you can see how this plays out. The tradition contains the trio of sex, money and power combined, with the girl a helpless victim in this societal construction. She is the quintessential piece of property Western feminists have been railing against for a hundred years or so now.

Witnessing FGM is an event one never forgets. But what struck me about the procedure wasn’t so much the physical aspect, though certainly the associated pain is a huge part of it, but the emotional effect. The cut isn’t just skin deep; it’s also a circumcision of the spirit. The girls are now part of a process that has been centuries in the making and will likely negatively affect another generation of Maasai women. The circumcision is just the beginning. Afterward comes almost immediate marriage, then children in rapid succession. It is not uncommon for these girls to have three children by the time they are eighteen. And they will, on average, have six or seven.

The focus of anti-FGM campaigning should extend beyond just education of the risks posed by the procedure. It should also include assisting women to become financially independent and in giving them more reproductive choices. It need not be a foregone conclusion that Maasai women struggle to support large families. This is not to suggest that having large families is wrong or ignorant—but surely it’s obvious that having a family that can barely have its needs met isn’t ideal for a parent or child in any culture.

Several Maasai women mentioned to me during my time in Kenya that they were desperate for information about birth control options. I remember very clearly sitting around a rickety wooden table at the local school, discussing this topic with a couple of the female teachers. Their eyes widened as I described different types of contraceptives to them, and they looked rather puzzled when I tried to describe how an IUD works. They clamored for more information from me, even after my own personal knowledge was exhausted. I learned from the local clinicians that certain types of contraceptives are made available, but most women don’t take advantage of what’s offered for various reasons, to include the lack of transportation to and from the clinic, taboos and myths surrounding birth control and initial negative reactions/side effects to the contraceptives that cause the women to lose the motivation to keep trying new types until the right one is found. I heard on more than one occasion from local women that ingesting birth control causes barrenness, and this made many of the women too anxious to try it.

If the world is to make any real contribution to eradicating the practice of FGM, we must take a multifaceted approach and extend into many arenas. Educating communities about FGM risks, facilitating women’s organizations and support groups, providing culturally appropriate trade training for financial self sustainability, helping local clinics make health care and reproductive options more readily available and interacting with women and girls on a personal level to show them different examples of womanhood—these are just a few ways that we can make a real difference.

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