Monday, May 4, 2015

My 30 Day Goal with Gwen

For the last 30 days in our apartment I made it a goal to watch the sunrise every morning. I've had to say "goodbye" to our apartment before and I knew I wouldn't regret taking advantage of the beach, plus Gwen was waking up at 5:30am. 

A few weeks into our goal, Gwenji started to sleep in, Hallelujah! and we decided to switch things up by going to the beach when the tide was right. Gwen loved kicking in her floaty, splashing, grabbing seaweed, stealing all the towels, long naps on the beach, and eating sand. We had a fun little routine and I fell in love with our walk home. Our walks were either in the early morning or late afternoon, and we'd both be exhausted from a poor night's rest or an eventful afternoon. Together we were a hot, soggy, sweaty, sandy mess. Not to mention all of our beach supplies and 15lb baby in hand. As I started walking, Gwen would rest her head on my shoulder, go limp and fall asleep. Then I would just melt. I'd think about the great time we spent together and realize it doesn’t matter how exhausted or heavy our load is, our time was worth it.

I'd think about how happy we were just hanging out together, even if it lasted only 11 minutes (blow out). On our walks home I'd think about how Gwen will never remember our time in Kenya. How I'll never live this close to the beach. How Gwen will soon be too big to fall asleep on my shoulder. How our lives will be dramatically changing. Having a baby basically puts a timestamp on everything and watching her grow before my eyes has pushed me to appreciate living in the now. Our time in Kenya is coming to an end and soon we will be off on another adventure that will also have an end date. Normally these transitional times are hard for me, all I want to do is plan and get ready for our departure; but saying goodbye last September taught me everything I am looking forward to will come to pass. I just need to be patient and content. I am excited for our last few weeks in Kenya and hope Gwen continues to enjoy and get all tuckered out on the little adventures we go on. Even if she’ll never remember them.

And she's out

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


MAASAI, aka Kenya's most famous ethnic group

Kenya has 42 different ethnic groups, or tribes, depending on how you count all of them. Each tribe has their own language, culture, and lifestyle they are known for. Kalenjins are runners, Luos are fisherman, Kikuyus are farmers (as seen in Out of Africa), Kamba are craftsman, and the list goes on. Thanks to the tourism industry, the Maasai are the most famous tribe. They've maintained their culture by wearing tradition clothing, living a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and have come to represent tribal life for almost all of Africa.

I like seeing Maasai strolling around Mombasa's urban areas. We see them herding their cattle across busy streets, or hired as security guards since they are fierce lion hunters. When we first arrived in Kenya I would notice every Maasai from a distance because of their colorful clothing, but I have never taken a picture. (Side note: In Kenya, I hardly ever take pictures of strangers. It's rude, I'm scared to ask and I rarely get the impression adults enjoy getting their picture taken. Kids are a whole different story.) On our way to City Mall Ben stopped to ask Julian if I could take a few photos. When Julian said yes I was pretty excited. This is the exact backdrop I want to remember. On the road that takes us to the grocery store, work and church. To me, these photos represent our home. Nice beach homes on the right, our apartment on the left, City Mall, I mean Dominos is about 500 meters away, and here comes Julian with his rafiki and little goat herd.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Things I Didn't Expect to Experience in Kenya THE HELP

When I told my Kenyan friends I was having my baby in Georgia people would give me a bewildered look Why? Babies are so much easier to have in Kenya (than in the States and Europe). I knew what they meant, I could get a help. A full-time nanny meant no diapers, bottles, fussy Gwen for about $100-$150 a month, depending on how "fair" we wanted to be.

Georgina is one of the security guards at our apartment. She was also the first person to find out I was pregnant. She knew something was up when I would sneak home for a power nap.  
Househelp was one of the first things I noticed and researched when we got to Kenya. Every house has a servants quarter and almost everyone I met (on the wide economic strata) has some type of help: drivers, cooks, security guards, maids, gardeners, nannies. You name it, people got it. Most homes have a few forms of help and some mothers hire a nanny per child. After researching help, I told myself I would only get it if I paid above average wages. Of course I was trying to make myself feel less guilty about someone doing my laundry, because the whole concept of paying someone to do routine housework was totally foreign to me.

Towards the end of my pregnancy I watched the movie, The Help. After bawling my eyes out I vowed to never hire a nanny. There were too many similarities between the movie and Kenya. Different toilets, hoity-toity people treating others poorly, unfair pay, uniforms, and more. I got back to Kenya and everyone kept asking us who was helping with Gwen and we'd reply we haven't found the right person yet. Then Mary left and I felt cooped up, lonely, and needing help. I don't know what it is about motherhood that makes you feel like you can't ask for help, but you need it. Especially in Kenya. Ben and I started to discuss what I wanted and outlined my terms. I wanted a mother, someone who cared about Gwen (that's pretty easy to find), and needed them to be flexible. Mary's sister recommended their cousin Harriet.

Harriet has been part of our lives for about a month and she's been a wonderful friend. Harriet comes Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 2-4 hours at a time. It's amazing how much I can get done when I know my time is limited. When Harriet arrives she greets Gwen Jambo! My best friend while Gwen bounces in my arms diving towards her. Like Mary, they sing, play and I get jealous cause Harriet can instantly get Gwen fall asleep on her back. All the Kenyan mommas have this ability, but I am still learning. My favorite part about having Harriet is watching her and Gwen together. As a mother you become pretty perceptive. You know when your child has a connection with someone, or when someone genuinely loves your child. Gwen has that with Harriet. Originally I feared this connection because Gwen will eventually have to say good-bye, however, I think it's been good for Gwen's sociability and Harriet enjoys her job. Harriet thanks me every week for her job, yet I feel bad cause I don't use her full-time. It is nice to have a relationship where we both need each other, all the while Gwen gets extra attention. Spoiled geel!

Staring contest
My opinions of househelp have changed. Yes, my research unveiled injustices similar to the movie, but I don't need to talk about other people. I want to remember and share my experience. The most important thing househelp provides, jobs! Jobs are more than just a way of providing for oneself or family, they are a means of dignity and freedom. I hope it doesn't come off boasting that I am helping someone, I feel like our relationship is mutually beneficial, but I like knowing as a stay at home mom I can help in some small way. Plus, our Kenyan friends who have all types of help don't treat them poorly. Like any job an employer chooses to treat their people well.

There is one more aspect the Fairbournes and we've enjoyed, our help have become our friends. And with friendship comes joking around. Natalie Fairbourne and I have blown some Kenyan women's minds by cooking for our husbands. Mzungu women cannot cook. One time I had caramelized onions on the counter and convinced Harriet they were roasted cockroaches, an American delicacy. Telling everyone Gwen can swim on her own and pretending to throw her in the pool. Busting out the breastpump, explaining Americans sell their milk for adults consumption, then offering some for a snack have all ensued hilarious reactions, well mostly disgusted looks. Don't worry, no one has ever tried Gwen's milk. It is also helpful to have a local in-house for directions, bargaining, Kenyan cooking tips, and most of all good company.

We are MOVING to the Shire

Today is (kind of) the day that will dictate the next two years. I have been waiting for March 10th since November and refreshing Ben’s inbox is unnerving. Ben is planning to get his MBA this fall and it is down to two schools. I’ve been treating this decision like its my own and spend my days researching housing, scholarships, moving companies, the closest Costco and anything else to bide the time. Here’s been my thought process since Ben’s been admitted to various schools… Between the five he has gotten into it's an obvious choice between two.  Now it’s just an East Coast vs West Coast thing. At first I was all about the West Coast. We’re from the west, I miss and love it, I want to be close to family, the ocean, burritos, etc. Since living in Kenya, I crave familiarity and I was starting to feel like it is this school or NOTHING. As I sit here waiting for the email, I hope its an email and not a Skype call at 3:00am, I am surprisingly warming up to the idea of living on the East coast. What if we end up loving it, too? Before we moved to Kenya we were in a similar position, trying to decide between Boston and Kenya,  and I remember thinking I would feel more comfortable in Kenya. The East Coast is completely foreign to me, reading about WASP culture I was both intrigued and intimidated. Now that we are in this position again, with even more East Coast options, I think about the adventure that comes with the unknown. Winters don’t sound terrible (I write this as I am sweating in my apt) exploring a new part of the country will be fun, Jade is only 10 hours away, my family is in ATL, the school is amazing, and I’m doing everything to convince myself this could also be the place for us. Basically my heart is on the West Coast but the East Coast school and experience has piqued my interest. - written on March 10th in between refreshing Ben's email every 10 minutes.

It took longer than expected to finally decide on the school. We told family and friends a few weeks back that we are officially moving to Hanover, NH in August. Ben is going to attend the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. This has been a long journey for us. I remember when we first got the opportunity to move to Kenya my number one goal was to prepare Ben for graduate school. As we spent more time in Kenya we started to extend our stay, telling family and friends we will be here for 3-5 years, and considered moving to a few different countries. Our first year in Kenya taught me to not limit ourselves with plans work hard, and TRUST BEN. Looking back on the journey I realized Bamba Water was the best opportunity that has happened for us. The experience has been priceless. I’ve been more of a bystander as I watched Ben help build Bamba into a company of two employees to 70, 4,000+ retailers, and now it is expanding to Nairobi. Ben's hard work at Bamba has helped him get into his school of choice. We’re moving and looking forward to a new chapter in our life, it is just going to be so hard to close our Kenyan chapter for a little while.

*We like to call Darmouth the Shire. We're unaware of New HampSHIRE or Dartmouth's official nicknames, but guess we'll find out soon in a few months.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Things I Didn't Expect to Experience in Kenya Losing Friends

When Gwen and I were in Atlanta, I knew I had some great friends in Kenya because I couldn't wait to get back. I couldn't wait to introduce Gwen to the Fairbournes, Mary, and Soloman. The Fairbournes will always be in my life, even if it is only through social media, but the other two will not.


Mary was the maid in our apartment complex. When I was pregnant, she would visit me almost every day to see how was I doing. If anything was wrong she was quick to help and offer advice. Mary is a single mom to three boys so she knows a thing or two about being a mother. In January, when we moved back into our apartment I embarrassingly ran to Mary to show her Gwen. Her reaction was the sweetest "I saw the baby grow in your belly and now I can see her grow in this world!" Every day she’d come to our place to sing and play with Gwen for 30 min to an hour, allowing me to get a few things done. Then a few weeks ago Mary was gone. Staff said she’d be back, but I knew something was up. Every day felt like an eternity without her 30 min drop-ins. Saturday arrived and Mary showed up with good news, she was going back to school. Hooray!!! Not. I took her leaving pretty hard. At first I thought Mary was good at making Gwen happy, but I realized she made me happy. I loved talking about our families, differences in Kenya vs USA, making her laugh, cleaning, sharing recipes, and her company. Mary dropped in one last time to say goodbye and pick up a letter of recommendation. She was beaming and I couldn't help but share her excitement. I am so proud of her decision to do what is best for her family because it takes a lot of courage to leave a paying job. I am truly happy for Mary and hope she gets the education and job she wants. 

Solomon was my tennis coach. No one knows I took lessons because it’s embarrassing to admit I tried something for months and still play as well as a 10 year old. I dreamed of becoming decent, rallying with Ben, but this dream is so looong gone. It’s upsetting for a few reasons. Solomon was from Uganda and one of the best tennis players in Africa. He received a scholarship to play in the USA, got his education, received his coaching license, and made a living coaching some of Mombasa's best players. He was spectacular person and coach. Solomon didn’t mind my poor footwork, being a woman (yes, it's old school here, woman can't do things as well as men), and was patient during my fits of frustration. He never pushed me too hard while pregnant because he was petrified I would fall and hurt the baby. I would remind him that I wasn't clumsy, but oh well. He cared about his students wellbeing and I felt like he really cared for Ben, my future babe, and me. Before I left, Ben suggested taking a picture together and I protested, “NO! When I come back and can finally play well, that's when I want my picture."

Last November, Ben and I were talking on the phone and he mentioned Solomon was sick, looking feeble, and coaching from the bench. This surprised me because I rarely saw Solomon sit down, not even in-between lessons. Solomon told Ben and Jason he was on medication for TB and pneumonia so we all anticipated a relatively quick recovery. A few weeks later, Ben was a few hours out from visiting Solomon in the hospital when he received the news that Solomon had passed. Ben called me and I did not know how to take it. Ben was upset he missed saying goodbye by a couple hours and I felt really far from everyone. It is still hard for me to grasp his death because when we said our see you in a few months goodbyes he was his happy, healthy self. Sometimes it is still hard for to me comprehend his passing. I've never been close to someone so "healthy" and young when they passed. I think of Solomon every time I go to Fairbourne's and see the tennis courts. When I see his protégé Paul walking to his next lesson. I won't be able to play tennis without thinking of Solomon's pointers "it's all in the toss" and encouraging words. But what breaks my heart and one of my biggest regrets is not taking that goodbye picture. I was waiting for who knows when to make a memory with Solomon. I wish I had taken that picture because he had an amazing smile. One that represented his cheerful demeanor and we both would have been gleaming  from our sweat and finishing an intense set of his favorite game.

*The song above is sung from a child's perspective and the child is saying to the mom "my hands are too small to help but when I get bigger I will help"

Monday, April 13, 2015

Things I Didn't Expect to Experience in Kenya DISEASES

The title is a total bait and switch. This post is directed to those interested and worried about traveling to Kenya. I have written this email over 6x to people who have questions, maybe by posting this I can help someone who doesn't want to send a personal email. This is my healthcare experience in Mombasa, let's be clear, I am not referring to Nairobi which has even better care, climate and less mosquitoes...

Mosquito net Gwen
I expected to get malaria because the CDC, travel doctors, public health information, and non-profits have some pretty scary content floating around the internet. Malaria is a serious problem and I can testify mosquitoes are the worst insect ever. The thing is, no one mentions the disease is curable. Our malaria reality is very different from rural Africa. I understand the symptoms, know how to treat it, and I assume most people who read this also have the means to purchase the medication. My main message is malaria (and other diseases) should not scare people away from Kenya. Bamba water's accountant explains malaria like this, "You have malaria? Ok, good, you won't die." So matter of fact and it's a good way to sum up the disease. If you have any signs or symptoms of malaria, you can go to a local clinic, get an inexpensive blood test that takes 15 minutes, and the illness is treatable within 48 hours. It is deadly because people go too long without treatment. I don't know all the reasons why people do not get antimalarials, but experience tells me it has to do with lack of education and cost (approx. $10). So next time you say you're visiting Kenya and you get the YOU HAVE TO TAKE ANTI MALARIA PILLS lecture, I am happy to share my "expert" opinion and ask a few questions, Have you ever read the side effects of antimalarials? Where can you get the most effective and inexpensive malaria medication? In the place it is most prevalent -- AFRICA, not American or Europe.  All of our American interns, fellows, visitors, and Kenyan employees are not on antimalarials. No one, let me repeat, no one has gotten the disease since we've lived here... yet. Knock on wood! Like all tropical climates, mosquitoes are pervasive, and malaria may strike us. If it does it will be similar to a terrible flu and we'll treat it accordingly.

Breaking the scale before immunizations
Travel Doctors
Sometimes I like to compare first-world travel doctors to third-world witch doctors, giving you antidotes for no apparent reason. I can't tell you how many of our friends and visitors come to Kenya with about $200-$700 worth of medications just in case. Or how many of our friends have cancelled trips because of travel doctors. I complained about this to our friend in medical school and he brought up a good point, "People who study medicine spend an exorbitant amount time studying Africa because it is where a lot of diseases started and are still prevalent." After talking to him I get where the experts are coming from, I'm just sensitive because of the cancelled trips and wasted money. Living in Kenya you realize most diseases are preventable with vaccines costing less than $5 or medications for less than $10. If you come to Kenya, get vaccinated, sleep under a net, and don't sleep around with prostitutes and you'll avoid most of the preventable disease in Kenya, and the rest of the world for that matter.

I don’t know much about the US Healthcare
system, and I will never complain about the care I've received back home, but the system of care we've received in Kenya has been wonderful. Ben's gotten the malaria/dengue test 3x, all negative. It is the routine thing to-do if you show signs of a fever. Ben's body has paid the price of eating street food and drinking dirty water, but most of his sicknesses were preventable. I haven't gotten sick, besides the runs and pregnancy, and I really enjoyed my prenatal care. I saw my doctor one-on-one at every appointment, never dealt with paperwork, nurses, and paid flat fee of $24. Gwen’s immunizations were $15. Whereas in the States her first round of shots were $300 and the next round $121. Back home, it seems like there is a lot of red tape between the patient and doctor. Then all the waiting rooms, labs costing hundreds of dollars (all telling me what I knew, no problemos) and waiting weeks to get the bill. In Kenya, all of our treatment, care, ultrasounds, labs have all been onsite and took very little time. Oh and I also got a 3D ultrasound for $43. The only tough thing is the language barrier. Like the time the nurse accidentally said the gender, when we told her not to! I thought she said boy, Ben thought she said girl, we left appointment angry and confused. Doesn't matter, Gwen is still the best surprise ever. Treatment in rural areas is different. Superstitions and weird practices are common, but Kenya doesn't lack good medical care. The best way to avoid getting sick is follow the three steps above and do NOT look at an itemized hospital bill back in the States. 

And the diseases our friends and interns have experienced start with a wicked case of pink eye, colds, migraines, diarrhea (prettiest word ever!), dehydration, we think measles (not sure, it cleared up in a few days), lice, and jet lag. Ok, lice and jet lag are not diseases, but they both stink. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I DID Expect to Have a Baby in Kenya

One of my favorite pictures, crowd around Gwen, hand on mzungu hair
Gwen has reach celebrity status here in Mombasa. I joke that we need to move back to the States because she receives too much attention. I guess the most obvious difference between having my baby in Kenya compared to the States is what Gwen assumes is normal, I find peculiar. She is rolling with the punches and loving it! 

I’m pretty sure in most cultures there is a certain level of machismo, but in Kenya babies make males melt. I love when men approach Gwen and act like fools. A few days ago, pulling out of our parking spot a Persian guy from our apartment asked if he could greet Gwen; we assented, and he hopped in our car gave her two kisses and continued to play with her. If that happened in the States it probably would have made me uneasy, but Kenya has made me soft.

I don’t think there are social norms when it comes to babies, besides people expecting you to allow them to do whatever they want with your baby. Friends at church explain that I am being selfish when I don’t share Gwen. People at my apartment, the beach, restaurants, will reach out expecting me to hand them Gwen. Sometimes I get the polite person who asks, “Can I carry your baby?” It took me a while to realize they want to hold Gwen, not carry her away. At first, I was skittish sharing Gwen with strangers, now when I recognize the glimmer in their eye I just give her up. Last Friday, I caught a women, with only her eyes peering through her niqab and abaya, staring at us. I approached her and handed her the Gooz. I thought the lady was going hug me out of gratitude as she started sharing details about her older children living far away. (This was also a good lesson on not being egocentric and assuming she was staring at my "immodest" swimwear and naked babe, all she wanted was to hold the baby). I hope this handing off is helping Gwen's sociability. 

One adjustment is people are very forthcoming with their advice and opinions. Steer clear of strangers in Mombasa if you are sensitive cause candid remarks about what is “wrong” is common. For Gwen and me, it is her birth mark, I don’t dress her properly, babies must wear socks, she needs to eat porridge, front facing baby carriers are bad for her legs, don’t let the baby cry, formula is dangerous, all mzungus look like boys, etc. I appreciate most of the advice from mothers because they are constantly reminding that Kenyans know to survive. I agree, and wonder how did babies ever survive without swings, hand sanitizer, white noise machines, etc? I should work on my patience with men as they share their two cents, in my head I am thinking Bwana you probably have a few children but I know your wife probably breastfed for 2 years, carried the babe on her back until it could walk, and you’ve never helped in the kitchen so please spare me YOUR advice.

I do love Sammy, because he loves Gwen and he made her a Maasai necklace.
I have had one breakdown since living here. One of the hardest days was when I “gave up” on mothers milk, I say gave up because according to the Internet, 90 year old women can magically get their milk back. When Gwen was 5 months I went from producing about 10oz of milk to 3-4oz, it was feast then famine for Gwen. She struggled with the transition. I researched and blew my friend’s minds pumping every two hours only to produce two bottles a day. I don’t know if it was the climate, traveling, moving, change of diet, but the only thing I felt during that transitional period was guilt. Totally over it now cause Gwenji is thriving, but it is those hard days, long sleepless nights, that make the distance between friends and family the hardest. I have also had to train myself by not yearning for the finer baby things Target and Amazon has to offer. American expectations, or maybe just mine, are unreasonable luxuries here. Kenya's physical environment, harsh climate, and people help make motherhood a humbling experience. I think raising a child is difficult anywhere, from fancy nurseries to dirt floors, it is hard work. At the end of the day I am grateful for a healthy baby and supportive husband. A family is all I have ever wanted and the love for children I've witnessed in Kenya is a constant reminder of the joy that comes from family.