Letter from Kenya (eight)

In the small mud-floored kitchen, around the kitchen fire bordered by 3 large stones (to put the pots on), the middle son is home with his 8 year-old for a visit. The three adults discuss life, the city, work – or lack-thereof. The 2 grandsons that live on the homestead are seated there as well, with their cousin, quietly listening to the adult conversation. One of the boys sings, but it is barely heard; the others dig their feet into the ground and fidget. But I can only imagine this based on the conversation in a language that I don’t understand that comes billowing out of the barely open door and the small square window. The conversation is accompanied by the suffocating smoke from the kitchen fire, fighting for a place to escape from the confines of the small space.

I steal understandings of bits of words and, of course, proper names like the capital city where the son now lives, with his wife and son in the second largest urban slum on the continent, barely making ends-meet. I stand just a few meters from the wood building, looking up through the rainclouds of the Long Rains season through the pitch-black to a few constellations, barely visible. I look back at the square-shaped room with an orange burning light shining through not only the cracked door and window, but also the open slats that let the rain in this morning while we watched the water heating for our baths.

The conversation is familiar, one that I have had with my own parents in their kitchen during one of my countless visits home. There is a relay back and forth of question-answer, then intermittently the son explains further or the mother continues on a monologue asking and comparing, hoping to glean a bit more about her son’s life that is not so unfamiliar to her, she is from a city near by, not the capital, but she is no stranger to the hustle and bustle, but perhaps she has forgotten all of that. Perhaps the forty-some years that she has spent in the high rolling hills tending to their farm and dairy cows, perhaps this less-busy life has allowed her to forget the hand-to-mouth that she, presumably, once lived.

The oldest of the grandsons pops out and I quickly change my gaze back to the sky again, attempting to make myself invisible. Though the night is so dark with no moonlight and no artificial light for miles, at least to the closest town, being invisible isn’t so difficult. Then I remember the conversation I had with the shopkeeper today when we made the hike to town for supplies that cannot be reaped from their land, power had been out in the town for the last 2 days – no mobile charging, no television, only the police station, with their noisy generator, could be seen with their lights on at night. The grandson dumps some water and with a clang grabs something from under the chicken coop and glides back into the warm kitchen shutting the door just a few centimeters more behind him.

Nicole Rademacher was in Kenya from February until May of 2012 doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).


Letter from Kenya (seven)









‘So he is your husband?’ I ask. She nods yes.

‘How many years have you been married?’ I carefully choose my words; her English is quite limited (please note that my Swahili still only consists of pleasantries and my Kikuyu only happens by accident), and if I have learned nothing else from teaching English and living abroad for so long, I have definitely learned how to grade my language and construct sentences so that communication happens and less ???s occur.

’10 years’, she responds.

*Anne is a slight woman, and, to be honest, when I met her the day prior I thought she was an older grandson in the family. I had failed to notice that she was wearing a long skirt below her billowing boy-sweater. Given the short hair, and the fact that in this small village at a very high altitude everyone wears winter caps, a skirt can often be the only way of telling the sex of children … and very slight women.

Ten years seemed like a lot to me. I’ve realized that Kenyans can be very deceiving with their age (I mentioned this in my first post from Kenya). She also told me that she is 28, her oldest of two children is 9, and that she is from a small town very far away so she never sees her family. Ten years still seems like a long time to me.

The milk is at a rolling boil, and she adds the tea and stirs.

‘Yes, 10 years,’ she repeats and laughs. She seems to be a generally happy person, and around me almost everything that I do or say deserves a laugh. Sometimes even her own response deserves a laugh.

She pulls the pot off the fire using only bits of cardboard as oven mitts to protect her not-so-delicate fingers. She sets the pot on the mud floor and places a new pot on the fire and fills it with fresh water that she had fetched from the well in the morning. The family is lucky to have the well on their homestead. I’ve seen many women and girls carrying large 10 gallon jugs (at least I think it is 10 gallons) of water using a strap that is placed around their forehead, thus carrying the jug on their backs. Despite what, in my Western eyes, may be considered poor conditions, the family seems to do quite well for themselves.

She grabs a teapot and strainer from the free-standing cupboard with mismatched doors and pours the chai, in a not-so-careful manner, from the pot through the strainer into the teapot. As she calls telling the others to come because the afternoon chai is ready, she tosses the dirty silverware and some small dishes from lunch into the soon-to-be dishwater warming on the fire.

*Name changed for privacy

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

Letter from Kenya (two)

*Wanjiru doesn’t like to cook, but she has been cooking her whole life, she tells me bluntly as she picks through the red mung bean (a bean that I will become very accustomed to during my time here as it appears at many meals). I am surprised that she doesn’t like cooking, only because cooking to me is a joy; it’s a hobby of mine. I ask about her hobbies. She doesn’t have any. After finishing sorting the usable from the not-usable, she proceeds to the kitchen to wash and strain them.

While her English is perfect, the dialect here takes some getting used to for me. When asked her favorite meat, Wanjiru promptly responds “leaver“. I give her a confused look and wonder if she told me in Swahili, certain food is commonly known in its Swahili name rather than in English.

She proceeds to spell it, L-I-V-

– Ahhhh, I say before she can finish, Liver! I repeat, as if correcting her. Am I correcting her?

I’m immediately ashamed for having said it in that fashion, but try to disguise it by asking her, Beef or pork?

With a scornful look she says, Beef! Not pork, and she gives me a disdainful grimace while shaking her head.

After washing and straining she lets the beans soak overnight, but says that she will have to get up at 6 am in order to cook them – she doesn’t normally cook on Sundays, it’s sabbath. Curiously I ask her about her plan for Sunday.

Usually, I go to church from 10:30 am to 1pm, she explains.

It’s not that Wanjiru isn’t forthcoming with information, but she simply doesn’t tell me much unless I explicitly ask her. So, I pry further: Do you come home after church?

No, she tells me that afterwards she either goes and visits with her mother or visits a friend, who owns a salon in Kibera.

That’s enough, she says almost already exhausted, That’s enough.

*Name changed for privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

Letter from Kenya (one)

From the house where I am staying *George, my guide for the day and now-coworker, and I took the #40 bus to the center and then took a Matatu. I’m a bit leery to take the Matatu, mainly because I don’t know if I will feel ready to take one on my own next time. A Matatu is a van (seats about 15) that is a mode of public transportation. All public transportation in Nairobi has fluctuating prices but the day before Morrison, my other guide/co-worker, told me that because I am white they may decide to charge me more. Maybe when I can defend myself in Swahili I will feel more confident with the idea of taking a Matatu by myself.

We take the #46 to Mathare Valley. Once we get our feet on the ground George announces it, “Mathare Valley Slum”. We walk a bit further down the road to a building. He wants to show me a view of the entire slum. I find it unsettling that he continually uses that word. Perhaps it is because I am used to it being used in a derogatory manner, when really it is simply used to described sub-standard living, to describe the place. We walk behind the building and on the steps there are three children. The older sister is putting cornrows in the younger girl’s hair. The little boy looks up at me, Hello, he says in English. Hi, I respond. Fine thank you, he replies. I’m a bit confused why he said that. Later I find out that what I have been taught as “hi/hello” in Swahili (habari) functions as a greeting and also asks “how are you?”. George thinks that behind the building will be a good spot for a comprehensive view of Mathare Valley, but then quickly realizes that where we were before was much better. We climb back up the steps and the little boy runs after us. I vaguely hear him say something, but I can’t make it out. George points and says, This is all Mathare Valley. Over there too? I ask – even though I know the answer, but it is obvious that George is proud of his home and that it is immense. Kenyans all seem to deceive their age, but it is clear that George is quite young, perhaps the same age as the other youth in the program. He is proud and happy to share his home with me. I feel very welcomed, and want to demonstrate my appreciation of his time and openess.

We return to one of the entrances to the slum, close to where we de-boarded the Matatu. George opens and goes through a wooden doorway; I follow. It opens up to an open grassy area. About ten feet after the door is a shack made with scrap metal corrugated sheeting. Inside are about seven young people – well, at this point they are all young men -two in a pair, a group of three talking quitely in Swahili, and two are sitting on their own texting. I go around to greet them. I am a bit unsure about my barely existent Swahili. I say “hi” to the first young gentleman, in English. Then tells me his name, and we shake hands. In my self-conscious state I forget to return the greeting not telling him my name but simply moving on to the next person. Though I correct my mistake with the second young man and say, I’m Nicole. By the third student, I’ve gathered my confidence and greet him with “Habari” and follow up with “I’m Nicole”.

Some of the handshakes are long, I just smile and continue shaking until they let go. George steps out for a moment and the students become more animated. Several ask my name again and where I am from – which is confusing to explain. Because I mention that I live in Chile last – after stating that I am American – they stick with Chile, maybe this is because there aren’t usually volunteers from Latin America. One young man knows Chile well – a big soccer fan – in fact he knows about Chile because he loves the Argentinean team. Later on, in confidence, he tells me that he really doesn’t like Messi, the Argentinean soccer player, but in spite of that he’s a big fan. They ask about the weather in Chile; “It’s in the south. Is it summer there?” one young man asks. I tell them that when I left it was 35 degrees Celsius – they all nod their heads, agreeing that yes indeed it is summer in Chile.

More students start trickling in, and each one greets me first, since I am strategically placed right next to the door – total accident, but it served me well. They then make their way around to all of their peers. Some receive more exciting and/or complex handshakes than others. After they have greeted everyone, they take their seats and chat with their friends in Swahili. I try to make out words, but on day 2, this is difficult. One girl sits alone, not because she doesn’t have friends, but because she is waiting for someone, a boy in particular. I realize this later – once the session is over – when everyone leaves the meeting room to socialize outside. I really want to talk to her because during the debate (more on that in a moment), she tried to participate several times, but the boys tended to drown her out. After the session, when I saw her intensely engaged in conversation with said boy, coyly digging her shoe into the ground, it became clear why she had been waiting on that bench before we started. There will be time to get to know her. I didn’t interrupt that conversation, only observed quietly from nearby.

The debate, activity for the day’s session, was lively. George asked them to think of a topic. A few sex-war topics were thrown out, then a girl said “traditional lifestyle is better than modern”. The students count off 1-2-1-2 to make the teams of pro v. con.

I was well impressed with the young adults – their knowledge of current affairs, history, the environment … There was no preparation – they separated into groups and then started with points and counter points. They discussed pollution, transportation, life expectancy, medical advances, politics … obviously there was no fact checker, but that made it that much more impressive. Additionally it was all in English – I know that Swahili is more comfortable for them: there was one lapse into Swahili.

After the session quite a few of the students came up and introduced themselves to me. So bright and expressive. I have recently been told that they have a lot of footage – documentary of the program – that they want to edit into finished videos, but no one knows how to edit.

Let’s see if I can help change that.

Currently, I am Artist-in-Residence at Maji Mazuri and also volunteering in their Youth Media Program in Mathare Valley, the second largest slum in East Africa. The goal of the program is to help the youth improve the quality of their lives by working with each other, and with counselors, to acquire skills. The program is also designed to provide a conducive environment within which youths can grow and develop into responsible adults. Within this program a “media” program is in current development, where the students (aged 16 – 27) can gain soft and hard skills related to media (i.e. blogging, website design, video production…). February 6, 2012 – my second day in Kenya – was my first visit to a program that I will be closely working with for the next few months.

Maji Mazuri was founded by Dr. Wanjuki Kironyo in1984. She still currently serves as its director. I met her on Monday, after this first visit, and shared these thoughts with her. She said, Thank you. And it was at that moment that it truly became clear to me that it is because of her and her work – additionally, everyone here on the ground, donors, past and future volunteers …, but it was her vision that started this – that I can say this about these young men and women. I feel very honored to be a part of this. I can only hope that I will be able to contribute at least as much as I will gain from this experience.

*I’ve changed all names except my own for their privacy.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

In My Language

In Lyall Bay this afternoon, over cups of tea and dominoes, a bunch of  got talking about art and communication. Which lead to discussion about language and how much is communicated by the way things are said rather than what is said. I think we were talking about acting exercises where you repeat the same phrase with the stress on different parts of the phrase, thereby changing it’s entire meaning each time. Anyway… autism came up. And we remembered this video made by an autistic woman to try and explain her experience of the world.

When I watch it I can’t help but think that her direct communion with the physicality of life is something I look for when making theatre. Only it takes hours and hours of exercises and experimentation in order to “let go” enough to be able to do what she can so naturally. And then put that communication into a context that will make sense to an audience. There is something to effortlessly truthful about responding physically to your surroundings without the filter of language to change and reframe experience. I love the way dance can do that.

Should to Shall

pal·in·drome (p?l?n-dr?m) n.

  1. A word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward. For example: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!
  2. A segment of double-stranded DNA in which the nucleotide sequence of one strand reads in reverse order to that of the complementary strand.

The dictionary definition aligning  language with DNA makes for a convenient metaphor. Words are after all much like the building blocks of our whole whatchamacallit matrix.

In the video below, the words make the opposite of a palindrome. Instead of reading the same  both forwards and backwards, the message is the exact opposite when read in reverse, reclaiming the pessimistic view that there’s just no hope in our generation. It’s likely to warm the cockles of your heart.

The video has been youtube’s version of an Avatar blockbuster. It was made for a competition with AARP – American Association of Retired Persons – that strange “NGO”/insurance provider for people over 50. Even stranger, it was inspired by this political advertisement from Argentina.

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