[Note: I post these articles from a cyber cafe in Nairobi. I work in the Bush and come to Nairobi infrequently. I don't ask for Editorial Feedback because I don't know when I would be back in Nairobi next. Please bear with me.]
The last term began, in a style befitting the Catholic roots of Holy Rosary College, with a High Mass. Having missed the previous term's mass
because of my late arrival in Kenya, I was looking forward to attending. During my first term at the college the plaintively beautiful notes of the students practicing for the church choir often reached my home in the compound of the college. On evenings and weekends strains of the songs would waft through. On Saturday nights the singing would shift to more popular songs and would get rowdy with whistles, good natured shouting and hoots. I tried a couple of times to get closer to the celebrations but my presence seemed to make the students shy and quite.
While we were waiting in the dining hall for the parish priest to arrive to conduct the mass, the students sang soulfully. The deep baritone of
of my male colleagues and the high notes of the girls stirred something in my depths. I didn't have to be a Christian or even a Believer to enjoy the music. It all sounded very Ladysmith Black Mambazo-ish. I tried following the lyrics of the English hymns in the little book that were scattered all around the room. Oddly, I enjoyed the songs in Kiswahili and Kikamba - languages I do not understand much - more than the ones in English. It was as if not having to pay attention to the lyrics left me free to appreciate the rhythms more fully.
The priest from the local parish finally arrived. To the strains of "Amazing Grace" he donned on ornately decorated priestly smock over his
Western garb of trousers and shirt. The singing paused as he launched into the service. For the first time I observed how ritualistic the Catholic Mass was. Memories of the rituals of the Hindu prayers of my childhood came flooding back. Was there a meaning to some of the things these people say and do, I wondered. If there is, how many of those that are saying "Our Father, who art in Heaven" and crossing themselves at the appropriate places know it?
As it turned out, the rituals were worth enduring. The priest launched into his sermon for the day. I forget what the sermon was about. It might have been Paul's letters to the Corinthians or some such thing. I was struggling to understand the relevance of the sermon to the lives of the students in the twenty first century. In my disinterest I almost missed the next bit of the sermon about family planning.
"Family planning?," I wondered, "Did I hear right?" As if to leave me in no doubt, the priest repeated himself. He confessed that the Bishop of the Diocese was not exactly happy with the priest's un-catholic sermons. "I told the Bishop that there was nothing wrong with talking about family planning as it is not about contraception," said the pastor. With a twinkle in his eyes he added conspiratorially, "Though, between us, we know it is." The Sisters who run the college were visibly uncomfortable with the direction the sermon was taking and shifted
uncomfortably in their seats. I was elated. Perhaps there is hope for the African fight against HIV and AIDS with such modern priests as these.
The JS class turned out to be trickier than I expected. Since JS was the fourth programming language that my students were learning (C, Visual
Basic and C++ being the others they'd learnt before), I assumed that they had a decent understanding of the syntax and semantics of programming. A few weeks into the term I was surprised to find out that even after studying
other programming languages my students didn't have a firm grasp on the algorithmic way of breaking a problem into small steps so that it could be implemented in code. I felt under pressure as the syllabus was vast and I wanted to spend more time in teaching them practical uses of JS. When I asked my students to write a program to calculate the factorial of a number or convert temperature between Centigrade and Fahrenheit I was met with embarrassed silence. It would be incorrect for me to say I was met with blank stares. Kenyans, I've learnt, don't stare when they don't know an answer. They avoid your gaze and look away. I lost my temper.
Being angry didn't help much. I had been aware for the past few weeks that I had lost over 6 kilograms in 7 months in Kenya. I was angered by the smallest of things and was increasingly tired. I decided to consult a doctor in Nairobi. Extensive medical tests turned up nothing. It turned out that my change in diet
was to blame for my loss of weight and short temper. The doctor told me that weight loss was a common problem among VSO volunteers.
Wanting to find out if my foul mood was seeping into my lectures and affecting the mood in class, I asked my students to write down what they liked
and disliked about the classes this term. It was worse that I suspected. My unrest was oozing into my lectures. The feedback could best be summarized best by the comment of one of my students. "The teacher's attitude should be changed," she had said. I realized that it was probably better for the students to acquire strong fundamentals of programming rather than the specifics of JS. I decided to concentrate more on the technique of breaking a problem into steps and the algorithmic approach to doing a task. I remembered one of the comments
posted in response to the first part of this series. The author of the comment had recommended a useful resource to teach the basics of programming. I printed out the book and used it to help in teaching the basics.
The specific peculiarities of JS I decided to skim over. To compensate for the shallowness, I printed out lecture notes on JS and gave them as handouts. Classroom handouts are rare in resource poor Kenya. At the end of the term the students thanked me for them. When the final results came out a few weeks ago I was glad that my gamble had paid off. Two of my students had distinctions (A+ or over 80%).
Much Ado About Male Genital Mutilation
For the past few weeks a circus has been going on in Nairobi. In the run up to the elections at the end of last year one of the campaign promises
made by both the then ruling KANU and the then opposition NARC party was the implementation of a new draft constitution. Readers of the second part of this series might recall my report on the draft constitution. The hopes of the people ran high when the NARC party came to power riding on an Unbwogable
(Luo word meaning unbeatable that has entered the English language. In Kenya.) wave in January. In typical third world politician fashion, one of the first things the new MPs did was vote themselves a whooping big pay rise. Better paid MPs, the argument went, were less likely to swayed by corruption. Hah! Regime change didn't really change much in Kenya.
After much dillying and dallying the NARC government finally called a constitutional review conference last month. Sitting MPs, representatives from Civil Society and religious groups were chosen as the delegates to debate the draft constitution. Everyone I spoke to was happy that the conference was finally underway. When the non-MP delegates complained about accommodation and wanted to be paid three times what they were being paid, public anger flared. Fully utilizing their new found freedom of expression Kenyan newspapers flayed the greedy delegates. The Letters columns of the
papers were full of ordinary Kenyans writing to express their dismay and displeasure. "If you are not willing to do this prestigious and vital job for 3,000 Kenyan Shillings a day," one representative letter writer wrote, "I and
hundreds like me are willing to take your place and work for free and consider it an honor."
The draft constitution has some radical proposals in it - Majimboism (federalism), a bicameral parliamentary system and a reduced retirement age for the judiciary. The draft was created after a lengthy process of interviewing Kenyans from all over the country on what they wanted. I am watching with horror as some of the truly revolutionary proposals in the draft are being heavily watered down, or worse still, totally thrown out as being impractical or (gay rights, for example) "un-African".
Perhaps the most contentious issue in the draft was an overhaul of the structure of government. The draft proposes a great reduction in the powers of the president, making the post largely ceremonial. The draft proposes an executive made up of non-directly-elected US-style cabinet headed by a British-style Prime Minister. When the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) came together to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to fight the then seemingly invincible KANU party, they signed a memorandum of understanding on how the spoils of the election were to be shared. Mwai Kibaki (NAK) was to contest for the post of President. The post of a Prime Minister, if and when it was created according to the new constitution, was promised to Raila Odinga (LDP).
During the current constitutional review conference divisions within NARC have become pronounced. Kibaki, after having gained the presidency after long years in the opposition wilderness, is having second thoughts on having his powers curtailed. Tribal divisions are raising their ugly head. Kibaki's faction, composed mainly of the economically powerful Kikuyu tribe, is reluctant to give up the power it has attained. During the 24 years of former resident Moi's regime the Kikuyu were systematically side-lined. Raila Odinga, the minister of Roads and Public Works in the NARC government, is mobilizing the Luo, Luhya and Kamba tribes to get what was promised to him in the MOU. Odinga is currently wheeling and dealing with the politicians from other tribes. Wamalwa, a Luhya, is being promised the Presidential post in the 2007 election. Charity Ngilu, a Makamba, is
promised the post of deputy PM when the new constitution is adopted. An attempt to outmaneuver what has been dubbed the Mt. Kenya Mafia (Mt. Kenya being the home of many Kikuyu) is currently taking shape.
The weirdest aspect of these tribal divisions seems to be that they echo deep-seated mistrust among the tribes. When I asked my Kikuyu colleagues if they would accept Raila, as the PM, many of them hemmed and hawed. One outspoken colleague had the courage to speak her mind. "Raila? How can we accept him as a leader? He is a Luo. A Kihii," she said. Kihii, I learnt, is a derogatory term for an uncircumcised man. The Luos are one
of only a handful of tribes in Africa that do not practice circumcision. (Luos traditionally knocked off the 6 front teeth of a teenage boy to
initiate him into manhood).
Being an uncircumcised Indian myself I was unable to understand this deep seated and irrational bias. I must declare my interest at this point. I am a fan of Raila's left-leaning and uncompromising late father Oginga Odinga. The Odingas have struggled long and hard, at times tortured in Nairobi's infamous Nyayo House cells, for the cause of multi party democracy in Kenya. It is a shame, I feel, if Raila's future is to be decided by the presence of a foreskin. Beneath the modern Kenya of mobile phones, internet cafes and e-commerce seems to be a society riven with the fissures of languages, tribal affiliations and pre-Biblical traditions. Being from another culturally diverse country I can appreciate the dangers of division on cultural or ethnic or religious lines. "I am a Kihii myself," I told my colleagues, "and so are many Wazungu" (Caucasians). "It is OK for you. You are not African," they reply. I am amazed about the belief that circumcision (unlike those conducted medically in the US when the child is only a few days or months old, the ones in Kenya are performed when the boy is 12 or 13 years old. Without ansthetics.) makes a man. I suspect that circumcision is only the, pun not intended, skincovering deeply ingrained mistrust.
I expect to finish my placement in early August. As I'm coming towards the end of my placement I have been increasing thinking about what the future holds for me. My long term goal is to get a Developmental job in Laos - a place I feel strangely attracted to. I know that this goal is impractical in the shorter term. There is one thing I am certain about. I won't work for a heartless big corporation if I can avoid it. I have been applying for a few jobs in the Development sector. I saw an advert for a dream job doing open source network building and advocacy in Malaysia. Considering myself fully qualified, I applied for it. I was thoroughly disappointed when I didn't even get a regret email from the organization (that shall remain nameless). I am not despondent. Yet. I know my future is not as bleak as that of some of my friends I will be leaving behind in Kenya. There are other options open to me while I work myself towards my goal of living in Laos. Perhaps I will freelance in the Bay Area. Or help my friend with his company in India. Whatever I do, I hope to write articles in K5 about the beauty of the karst mountains, golden spired wats (temples) and verdant green rainforests of the most bombed country in the planet.