Amanda Koster

thoughts and experiences of an international documentarian

first impressions:takaungu, kenya. 2004

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First impressions.

I am here now in Takaungu. I have been away for 24 days, seems like, of course, a few minuets and also a lifetime. It took 5 days in a cramped sitting position to make it to this steamy village of Takaungu, on the southern coast of Kenya. We are about 20 miles north of Mombasa, which IS on a map.

Apparently I am in the midst of a hotbed for Al Quaida terrorist training camps. There was an attempt to shoot down a plane at the Mombasa international airport recently; the embassy was bombed and other flights from Nairobi encountered problems from terrorism as well.

Before leaving for Kenya I was reading some issues of The Nation, Kenya’s leading newsmaker. There was an article about President George Bush wanting President Mwai Kibaki (the president of Kenya) to surrender the names of every student enrolled in Madrasa, a school for Muslim studies attended only by Muslim children. President Kibaki refused and told America that Madrasa is private and is not monitored by the government.

This week President Bush offered to pay for all of Madrasa in Kenya. Fund the whole thing. President Kibaki refused. I read in the first article that President Bush seems to think that Madrasa is a terrorist training camp. It is basically the same things as Sunday school, as far as I know. Half of my Bridges students attend Madrasa. Every Muslim child attends Madrasa in addition to regular school. Muslim students spend the majority of their conscious time gaining an education. Regular school is from about 7am to 3pm, and then Madrassa is Mon, Tue, Wed from 4-7pm, Saturday all day and Sunday 9am-12p. The classes at the Bridges site in Takaungu are based around Madrasa schedule.

My first impressions. Well, that was one. Wondering actually where al Quaida was.

This village is hot and humid. We are nearing the rainy season so the atmosphere is at its heaviest and most intense. These are the hottest days of summer on the Kenyan coast. Not one mazungu (white person, we average 5) is tan. Being a few degrees from the equator in the summer months, these rays are so intense that to expose myself to this sun beyond walking to a shady destination, or a swim in the Indian Ocean, is brave and maybe even idiotic. But I have taken walks through the village, wandered through the shamba, peeked and then invited to enter one of four mosques, swam in the Indian Ocean and in the creek (a small inlet), hung with the shopkeepers.

There are goats and chickens everywhere. Right now there is contemporary Kenyan hip-hop resonating from the kids that run their families shops. Right now I hear chopping sounds, crying babies, animal squawks, dragging feet wearing the omnipresent, universal flip-flop, there is Swahili, Giriama, Arabic, some Kisumu and Luo languages filling any other possible pauses, there are chains rattling, cows mooing, doors slamming, birds chirping, roosters in the early morning, and there is the call to prayer.

Early in the morning, before sunrise I began every day with the call to prayer. Muslims pray 5 times a day starting with right before sunrise, around 5am. The sounds is an almost haunting chant in mostly minor keys, it is the Emam (mosque care taker) chanting the words from the Koran into a megaphone. He is saying something like, “there is nothing like prayer, prayer is more important than sleep, Allah is all mighty, Allah is the almighty”, things like that. It is a stunning sound and for me, something I will miss very much in America. It is so grounding to wake up reminded of Gods power, of something other than my own worries and myself. I wake up thinking of God and prayer and I love it. I awake feeling selfless and now that I am getting used to the sound I am disappointed when I sleep through it. Sometimes I miss my jet lag.

The first Bridges class was on a Sunday, February 8. The students filed into the EAC (The East African Center is hosting Bridges in Takaungu) Community Center “Vutakaka”, where we meet. The students were quite and totally attentive. There were two large tables for the class of 13. I watched as the students arrived, I watched them all squeeze and make room for each other. They stuck together and crammed into one table. It was the first thing I noticed, the first of so many ways Kenyan students differ from American.

The class couldn’t have felt more surreal. Imagine in Seattle, being a basic Seattleite, a bright student though very typical person of Seattle, being chosen to learn about UFOs from not quite a Martian, but from somewhere between Mars, a tiny village in Siberia and the North Pole, who arrived your teacher. Your first day of class you walk into a totally familiar setting with this alien teacher and spread out on the table are fazers, UFOs, satellite phone-fax-internet-walkitalkie-xray-radioactive objects, cameras-televisions, things like that. And then, you are told you are going to learn about these things and give it a try, the slightly purple Martian with the difficult accent hands you one.

If I could put myself in my student’s selves maybe that is what they felt that day. There is no describing the expressions of these students when they touched a computer for the first time. Some touched the keyboard like it was on fire, as though they were afraid they would be burned or it would bite back, something. Then the digital camera, which was the first time some students have made a photograph much less see it on the back of the little metal box.

And then there was the sound. The students that didn’t think I was totally insane volunteered to talk into the mini-disc recorder. Some students tried it, held the mike and said a few words. Then it was time to play back the sound. Watching the students hear their voices for the very first time was something I will never ever forget. Specifically Swafiya. She seemed to nearly cry when she heard her voice talk about Bridges and how grateful she was for this chance, the chance to learn about this technology and communicate with students around the world. For the rest of my life if I never accomplish anything else as teacher I will never forget the deep deep gratitude resonating from Swafiya, her eagerness to learn and completely humble and emotional reaction to this technology and to her own voice expressing gratitude towards the opportunity to be in this class. This was another difference I noticed between Kenyan and American students. The incredible eagerness to learn and I will talk about that later.

First impressions. This is another. I noticed the unstoppable quest to learn, gratefulness and humbleness of the students. Bridges class can go for hours. Luckily (kind of) we are limited because the center does not have electricity. We are dependant on laptop batteries that last about 3 hours and a sun that descends at around 6:30. Once the center installs electricity classes will happily go on forever. It reminds me of when I was an eager photography student back in 1993 working as a darkroom monitor in exchange for free printing time. Open lab was supposed to be from 7-10pm, but I usually left around 2am, plus. I was in charge and no one complained thanks to the support of an incredible school that seemingly only cared about one thing, passion.

Living in Takaungu is never dull. Yes there is the eternal “Jambo Jambo, Mazungu! Mazungu!” Being white here is never dull. There is no escaping my whiteness. I knew that, travelling to East Africa 11 years ago and many other countries with native non-white people. I am not trying to hide it. Though, it is difficult at times because I am always pegged as a millionaire, a god, a Martian, an outsider, everything. But that could never ever get to me because the incredible welcoming nature of the Swahili and Giriama culture (2 main tribes in Takaungu) will always neutralize any of that.

The first controversial discussion (bring it on!) took place in Bridges class and it was perfect. We were working on an assignment “What is culture”. The students had to define what is culture and used topics from a Peace Corps curriculum to get started. One of the topics was ‘hospitality’. Fatima, an assistant to the class, started the conversation. She brought up how in Africa, and especially Kenya, when anyone is eating one says ‘karibu’ which means welcome in Swahili. Welcome. Welcome to my food, help yourself, and eat with me. Americans, Fatima and now Mercy the site coordinator were pointing gout, Americans just start to eat and never offer anything. They eat by themselves and keep their food to themselves, and they acted out scenarios that looked like someone was guarding their plate. She is correct. Unless it is family, MAYBE into the meal we will offer a bite as a taste, ‘do you want to try mine’? Mine. My food. Here it does not feel like ‘my food’. It feels like the food, maybe our food, but definitely, the food, that is here, to eat, karibu. Food is so positive here, a source of strength and energy and a complete necessity for everyone. Everyone must eat to be strong, alive. Eat, if you are eating you must finish, and you must eat more later and eating never is related to anything but strength and life, vitality.

First impressions, hospitality and hospitality with food and food as life. It was a big conversation and then it went further to find that the Kenya’s find this way of Americans eating as selfish. Fatima said it and was so bold to go there. She seemed to skirt the word selfish but then there was no way around it so she said it. And I was so glad. No one likes to call selfish and even worse, no one really wants to hear the truth. One must be very careful to not take these types of conversations personally or they will not reach the goal of exchange, of learning. I was ecstatic that Fatima and Mercy felt comfortable enough to speak their minds in this class. It was the first time living in Takaungu I have heard a woman critically speak her mind. They were able to criticize my culture with me, to me, with the class listing intensely, listing to an imperfection of American culture. And then to hear an American agree and not feel offended.

“I am not offended, I don’t take it personally. You are correct; it is not an American way to welcome anyone to their food.” It sounded so strange and pathetic to say that.

The homework assignment was “what do you think of America and what do you think America thinks about you?”

Writing about this takes me back to India in Varanassi, along the Ganges River. I walked to a ghat to witness the burning of a body. Hindus burn bodies after they die and I was at a specific ghat where the untouchables stoked at the fire of a burning body as the family gathered to watch. I was speechless, watching their body burn and watch a man poke at the heap with a stick. The first fat dogs I had seen in India lurked nearby, waiting for the last bone that will not completely burn, the femur, to be thrown into the Ganges with some remaining meat. Firewood is expensive and there comes a point where the family must say that is enough and the remaining body is thrown into the river where the dogs and vultures are circling.

While I was watching this someone tapped me from behind. It was the family of the burning body who had made the pilgrimage to this sacred city of Shiva, creation and destruction, the city of death, to burn their relative properly for a proper death and purification into the next life. The man tapped me on the shoulder and wanted to talk to me.

He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was curious. This seemed to be a family of a simple existence, ragged clothes and barefoot. They walked for days to reach Varanasi to burn this uncle. An old man next to him was speaking to him in some other language, he was saying a lot and looking at me.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“He is saying ‘thank you’. Thank you for coming to the funeral of his uncle. That he feels blessed that you are here to witness this, that God brought you here for a reason and he just feels so blessed.”

I looked over to the old man and told him thank you for such kind words. The old man looked at me, we were squatting along side the fire, consumed by the smell of burning flesh and bones and smoke and dogs and everything else, the old man looked at me and slowly formed the widest smile on earth. At that moment I could see nothing else. He outstretched his arm and hand and offered me something he had been carrying for awhile, something brownish that was moulded by his hands and sweat and miles.

“What is this?” I asked the other man.

“It is brown sugar, he is offering you this sweet that he carried here all the way from our village. It is what we eat at funerals, in celebration of the purification of his uncle’s body and the end of his suffering. This is all he has to offer you”.

Karibu. Karibu to my journals to come.

Written by amandakoster

September 13, 2006 at 3:17 am

Posted in kenya 04

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  1. […] first impressions: takaungu, kenya. 2004 […]


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