Oyawore!

16 07 2011

By Reese Sim

The literal translation of this Dholuo greeting is, “The sky has opened.” I know, very poetic compared to our drab good mornings. It’s probably the most frequently used phrase by most of the DukeEngagers here. My name is Reese and I am a rising Sophomore on fire for all things global health. This is my first blog entry from my current location in Muhuru Bay, Kenya. Sorry it’s taken so long for me to say hello, but we’ve been up to a lot here with WISER and so without further ado, let me go into a little about what I’ve been up to with the Sanitary Pads research project.

My primary focus, along with two other Duke undergraduate students, is working with Amy Stopford, a graduate student at Duke University, on her research regarding the influence of sanitary pads on health, educational outcomes, and self-esteem of many female adolescents in Kenya, specifically here in Muhuru Bay. Amy has been here since May and has been able to do much of the preliminary research planning, but we’ve leaped lightyears in terms of the work that needs to be done and planned just this past week. It was clear from discussion groups and the background information that was gathered during our time here that the use (or lack thereof) of sanitary pads when young girls are menstruating has a negative impact on their health and education. Building on this foundation, Amy has worked alongside the local women who have been dubbed her research assistants, the three Duke musketeers assisting her, and the local schools and teachers in order to arrange a survey in Dholuo for a random sample of girls to take. The girls must meet a certain age criteria and be menstruating, so this week Tara, Nupur, and I collected rosters from the 14 primary schools in the area, worked some magic with Excel, and generated a list of 380 girls to survey starting this coming week. Simultaneously this past week, Amy and the three of us have been holding research training for the nine women that will be surveying the girls. It’s a review of their responsibilities, ethics pertaining to research, and actually practicing giving the survey with one another. Albeit a little tedious, it’s been rewarding to see the women step up and do something positive for their community, even if nothing much can be done immediately. While it is true that many of them flocked for the job because of the financial incentive, in the end, the research is being done thanks to their efforts, and hopefully it will be a catalyst for positive change in Muhuru Bay in the not to distant future. The surveys will start this coming week, so keep your fingers crossed for the best!

And as you probably know, I’ve been up to much more than just assisting the Sanitary Pads research. Rather than tell you what we’ve been up to every moment of our stay here, I’ll share some thoughts that have been frolicking through my mind recently.

One, the strong sense of community that I’ve come to love in the two short weeks I spent in Malawi a few summers ago, I rediscovered again here in Kenya. Maybe it has to do with the African sun and a fever for the love of neighbors and friends, but the people here are so darn friendly and I find myself reaching out and taking initiative to interact on my own more and more. Everyone is their own sun, exuding a sense of genuine and outright love for each other and it makes me jealous that I don’t get to experience this and share this experience with others every day of my own life back home.

Two, there is an incredible amount of staring going on, much more than any of us are used to. For a lot of the people here in Muhuru Bay, “mzungus” or persons of foreign descent are rare, and the children follow us around shouting “how are you?” (something that they have simply memorized), and the older men and women often just stare and sometimes send a smile and wave our direction. It’s inevitable as we must look so strange with our western clothes and long colorful hair, but it’s definitely taking some time to get used to. It’s like having been placed in the spotlight for simply being who we’ve been our entire lives.

Three, children grow up so much faster here than in the United States, or any industrialized country for that matter. I see children who can’t be any more than six carrying infants in slings on their backs. I see children who should be anxious without a caregiver herding animals on the side of the road. Little boys and girls who are forced into the reality of the situation that they are faced with, having been through and going through so much more hardship than any of us are used to. Some people never grow up back in the States. Here, everyone is forced to grow up.

Four, I absolutely love conversing with the WISER girls here, sharing a little about myself and the background that makes me who I am today, learning so much about the girls in return, and learning the mother-tongue (Dholuo) so that I can interact with the locals a little better to show them that I care. I’d have to say that learning the new language is my new favorite challenge. The accents are strange and new on my tongue but hearing the peals of laughter and shy grins of both the girls when I pronounce something well, and the delighted locals when I call out to them is beyond just satisfaction. It’s fostering and nurturing a new love for the people here.

Lastly, coming to Kenya, I didn’t board the plane with expectations or preconceived notions about what I would find here. I’ve been in Muhuru Bay for about three weeks now, and it feels as if I have been here forever at times, and at others I feel as if I’m just starting to understand just how different it is here compared to the place I call home. For me, it’s not as much of a culture shock as it is not wanting to get used to what I experience or see day to day here. I don’t want to have to get used to why some students rip a page out from their notebook to have something to eat for lunch. I don’t want to have to understand why so many of these students, especially girls, will never go on to secondary school, or even finish primary school. I don’t want to have to get used to the reality that so many girls are lured into providing sexual services for food or school fees or sanitary pads. I don’t want to ever feel like I’ve accepted that this is how it is, and that there is nothing that can be done about it.

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