Feminism in Kenya?

During my 7-weeks, I began asking Kenyan women this question: “What does it mean to be a woman?”

Women replied boldly: “Women are the soul of the family.”

“Women hold things together when everything is breaking.”

“Women are a pillar, men don’t do anything.”

One man even said, “Women are everything.”

With these bold statements, however, they also described the innumerable responsibilities they had in their homes. As traditional roles of homemakers, Kenyan women were responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, raising children, managing shops/small businesses, harvesting food, shopping, church activities, etc. Implications for these responsibilities? Some younger, unmarried women told me they are taught to believe that if there’s a problem in the home, it’s the wives’ fault, never the husbands’. If the kids have bad values, it reflects poorly on the mother. If the kids are spoiled, it’s the woman to blame. When I asked what the man’s role was in the home, one Kenyan said, “to live on the women.”

The Kenyan women I met have immense pressure placed on them by these gender roles, but something that struck me was that they would describe their responsibilities, never their rights. They never complained, but assumed their gender roles with dignity. They unashamedly make bold feminist claims like “Women are strong! Women can do anything!” because they can back up those claims as married/single/divorced women who play major and vital roles in their homes and communities and churches. The Kenyan women I spoke to found their identity primarily in their families, as many in collectivist societies tend to do. Many people in Western culture find their identity in their jobs or careers. I think it’s easy for Americans to do that because ideally your career celebrates you as an individual–your interest, your passion, your skill set–and therefore, a fulfilling career is an extension of yourself. 

I personally find such rigid gender roles distasteful, but I respect the Kenyan women I met who performed those roles faithfully. They were strong, amazing women. They did everything, and they knew it. Even the single moms didn’t blame the men who failed them; they were still faithful to their families, put their kids first, and lived sacrificially. They demonstrated that to be a woman, from a Kenyan perspective, means to be sacrificial, community-minded, responsible, and serving.


Imago Dei in the Slums of Mathare

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

Genesis 1:27 says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

It’s a powerful idea. One interpretation that I appreciate is that to be made in the image of God means to be creative; essentially, we reflect his image by being creative. We make things. We think of new uses and new ways. We redefine and reinterpret.

My team went to Mathare Valley today, one of the oldest and biggest slums in Nairobi. We are told that 70% of Nairobi’s population lives on 5% of it’s land area. There, we saw people picking through trash, looking for things to sell or things to eat. It’s not that they can’t create, or are not creative people, but they have no means to create. They are focused on merely surviving. Four-year-old children are sent from their little metal homes to search for a meal for the day–they were made in the image of God, yet scavenge around in trash for food. Some mothers give their children beer, because it makes them feel full and sleepy, and it stops them from crying for food. The crime of the slums, as one staff put it, is that in the fight for survival, people in the slum cannot create, make or dream. They were made in the image of God, yet they scavenge around in piles of trash. Even 4-year olds are sent to the street to find something to eat for the day. Some children sleep on a chair. Some children believe that it’s okay to hit girls. Some 13-, 14-, 15-year old boys will be dead in the next month because of gang run-ins with the police.

Our director said, “Children grow up believing that the world looks this way, that the world smells this way (garbage), that the world feels this way (abuse, beating). They cannot climb the ladder because they cannot even get on the ladder.” As victims of violence, abuse, neglect, or abandonment, they cannot even touch the ladder.

In Meru Country, the place I spent 3 weeks with a host family, many people pick tea leaves everyday. It’s hard work, but it puts food on the table. Most people in Weru (the town I was in) don’t have running water or electricity, but they have a mosquito nets and their gardens and some have a cow for fresh milk. They’re working, they have some means. Many people would say that they are in poverty, but it’s enough.There is a drastic difference between Weru folk who have work, and those in the slum picking through trash. My standards of poverty have definitely shifted.

(I’m actually back from my experience in Kenya, but I kept a daily journal and I also posted email updates for my friends, family and donors. I wasn’t able to access this media website in Kenya, so here are my blog posts.)

Local Farming Unveiled

Until this summer, I had never truly thought about where all of my food comes from. Although, I had thought about where meat comes from and how terrible the commercial industry is for those animals that are raised for our consumption. I have never realized how ultimately disconnected I–as well as many other people are–was from my food sources. What I didn’t realize before was that the commercial produce industry is about as bad to the land as the commercial meat industry is to both the land and animals. The majority of the commercial produce industry supports mono-cultures of food and therefore supports the use of herbicides and pesticides, which in turn ruins the soil and pollutes rivers and streams. People are so disconnected from this reality because the majority of people just buy their food from the grocery store and don’t pay attention to where it is coming from and how it is produced.

Working this summer at the ten acre organic PEAS Farm up the Rattlesnake, I learned just how large of a disconnect there is between people and their food in the modern world. Because of my time working at the farm, I now try to make more responsible choices with where I purchase my food from. I have realized that I want a life filled with good, real food, that is produced from local growers who work hard to produce this beautiful and delicious food. After meeting many of these local growers around the state of Montana, I recognized their integrity and their love of the land. These people work so hard to produce real food for people all around Montana, all the while making sure that their practices uplift the land rather than tearing it down. These are the farmers and ranchers who, at the farmers markets, will talk to you, tell you how they grow everything, and get about anything you need from what they produce. Fortunately, in Missoula there is a large amount of people who really do care, and this is evidenced by the crowds of people under the bridge and by the X’s in downtown Missoula on Saturday mornings during the summer. I am so fortunate to live in a place where the integrity of the land is protected, and where purchasing real local produce is a livelihood.


Maternity Ward

After the first few days of getting a feel for the hospital operations, I decided to spend most of my time in maternity because of the high number of births that happen every day. One of the nurses estimated that the hospital saw between 3 and 7 births every day–and that, of course, does not count the births that happen at home with Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs). With so many pregnant women and new mothers, the maternity ward was overflowing.

My main duties were giving treatment to new moms. They all got antibiotics for seven days after they gave birth and many also needed malaria medication to reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy, delivery, and breast feeding. I helped mix the medicine, drew it up into syringes, and administered it through cannula ports that were inserted by the trained nurses. (I am definitely not qualified to put in an IV.) I also helped clean wounds after women had to get C-sections, weigh and clean babies after they were born, and bring the newborns and their mothers back to their beds in the ward. I loved seeing the little newborn babies–they looked like aliens, but really adorable aliens.

Birth in Uganda is very different than birth in the US. There are no epidurals and doctors very rarely, if ever, assist in births. That task is left up to the nurses and nursing students. The mothers have to provide their own waterproof sheet to lay on during the delivery as well as all of the bedding for her hospital bed, all of the towels to clean the baby and all of the blankets to swaddle it. Additionally, mothers have to bring sterile gloves and a sterile razor blade for the nurses to use during the delivery. The nurses use the bottom of the gloves to tie the umbilical cord and then use the razor blade to “cut” the cord (its more of a sawing motion rather than a cutting motion).

The mothers are rarely accompanied by anyone and certainly not a husband. There were never any men (besides the male nurses and doctors) anywhere near the labor suites. The women were mostly quiet, occasionally moaning with the contractions, but there were never any screeches or screams that Americans would usually associate with childbirth. The women in the ward ranged from teenagers having their first child to women in their late thirties or even older having their fifth, sixth, or seventh child. In Uganda, the total fertility rate is 6.7 meaning that, in her lifetime, an average woman will have about seven children.

The women I met in the maternity ward were so hardy and strong and inspiring. They cook all of the food for their family, they fetch the water, they clean the house, and they give birth with little help from friends, family, or modern medicine. Like the rest of the hospital, the maternity ward has not changed since the 60s and could really use a face-lift.

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These are the rooms that the women give birth in.

First Impressions

After spending quite a lot of time getting ready to travel across the world to Uganda, it was surreal to actually be in the Entebbe airport waiting to be picked up by Bazil, our in-country coordinator. Like we were warned, Bazil ran on “Uganda time” meaning that he was about an hour and a half late to the airport but I didn’t care because I was about to start the greatest adventure of my life.

We drove several hours to Gombe, the place where I would be volunteering and living for the next four weeks, on bright red dirt roads through beautiful green jungle. I was very excited to start volunteering in the hospital because it truly seemed like an area where I could actually make a difference.

It took a while before we all got settled in, the creaky metal beds and pit latrines were a far cry from what many of us were accustomed to in the US, but eventually we got used to life without amenities. It was actually very calming to not have to worry about texting people back or talking to them on the phone–to be totally disconnected form technology was the best vacation I could have asked for.

Every morning we all would walk the 3+ kilometers into town to the hospital. It was built in 1969 and nothing about it has changed since then except for some of the technology in the lab and the 20 year old solar panels on the roof. The walls, both inside and out, were stained with red dirt and the eaves were full of birds’ nests–it was definitely not one of the pristine and sterile hospitals that we would be used to in the States. But that fact did not mean that the hospital was not providing vital services to all of the people in and around the village. Yes it was not state of the art, but that hospital was incredibly important to the community and provided women with a safe place to give birth and gave men, women, and children somewhere to recover from severe injuries and diseases. And I was chomping at the bit in order to be apart of it–to learn, observe, and assist in the daily goings-on of the Gombe Hospital.

I wanted to be as much help as possible so I decided to assist in an area that I actually know about–HIV testing and counseling. In Missoula I volunteer for the Open Aid Alliance which provides HIV and Hep C testing and counseling to at risk individuals, so I felt confident that I would be able to successfully perform HIV tests in Gombe. At first I was a little nervous because of the high prevalence of HIV (7.3% of the population), but in all of the testing I did, I did not see a single reactive case. I was very pleased to not have a positive individual not because I was concerned about my safety (I was wearing gloves and correctly disposed of all sharps) but because I hope that the increased testing and counseling will help bring the epidemic under control. I felt very fulfilled to be able to test in Gombe Hospital because I could tell that I was actually making a difference. And, in fact, the testing methods between Uganda and the US are almost exactly the same which made it very easy to transition. I know that the work I am doing will not greatly affect Uganda in the long run, but I would hope that by testing and educating individuals I can make a small difference in Gombe.

I am excited to see what the next few weeks will bring!


Adventuring in South Africa

I have been living, working, loving, and traveling around the tip of South Africa in Cape Town for the last five weeks. Yesterday marked my “midway point” to my trip and it was quite a shock. I have already done so much here, yet want to get so much more out of my trip.

I have been working in a township of Cape Town, Khayelitsha, at the Treatment Action Campaign. This is an HIV/AIDS foundation in the heart of the townships. They work nationally to better the quality of life through means of education, policy, and awareness. Their mission,  is, “To ensure that every person living with HIV has access to quality comprehensive prevention and treatment services to live a healthy life” (About the Treatment, n.d.). There are three core sectors that are run under the Treatment Action Campaign: Prevention and Treatment Literacy, Community Health Advocacy, and Policy, Communications and Research. The Prevention and Treatment Literacy sector and Community Health Advocacy sector both fight to reduce stigma towards HIV positive individuals, decrease gender based violence, and increase the knowledge about HIV and its associated illnesses within the respective communities. While the Policy, Communications and Research sector aims to protect the rights given to the people by the South African Constitution that are not being upheld. This sector fights in the courthouses, at the government, and with the local police.

Currently, I have been doing a variety of things at the organization. I have helped to organize files for branches and freed up time for others to do their work while I focus on the administrative side. While this is not my focus, I realize that working in a grassroots organization is not always going to be hands on, but rather fulfilling all of the little details in order to get anything done.

I have also been able to observe adherence councilors for ARV treatment which has been a very interesting process. The healthcare system is very different here and being able to observe these sessions has allowed me to see more into the lives of nurses, councilors, and HIV positive patients. I am only beginning to understand the struggles of HIV in this country and what the lives are like for the people living in poverty in the townships.

While I spend thirty hours a week at this organization, the rest of my time has been spent exploring Cape Town.

I have climbed Lion’s Head to see the sunrise and sunset over Cape Town, I have hiked along the base of Table Mountain and has seen the entirety of the city from above, I have also seen the city from the sea on a sail boat. I have visited the District Six museum to better understand how the displacement of peoples happened in this city, and have walked around the old and new districts to see the changes made.

I have also traveled along the eastern coast of South Africa along the Garden Route and bungy jumped, saw elephants, walked along a gorgeous beach, and stayed at the coolest hostel I have ever slept at. There is always so much to do in Cape Town like moonlight bike rides, exploring the quirky restaraunts and shops, and always finding something new.

There is so much to see here, I am sure that my next five weeks will be just as eventful, if not more.