Thursday, April 9, 2009

Throwing Rocks off the Soccer Field

It's been a long time since my last post, and I can't say that's for lack of material. Happily, I think it is more a result of being a little to engaged in this place to be thinking like a blogger, but as I near the end of my stay in Kakamega, I'm starting to look back on and evaluate the time I've spent here. It's not yet time for the final post which neatly sums up the experience in a little package of wit and wisdom, just time for a few thoughts.

One of things I have done with the children at the Care Centre is to take them to local soccer fields on the weekends and scrimmage other orphanages. I have generally joined them either as a player or a referee and have trotted gingerly after the ball with my soft, pink feet shoeless on the stony ground. Every few yards I stoop to pick up the most threatening rocks and toss them off the field, but after hours of play and hundreds of rocks, the pitch is somehow just as hazardous as when I began. The fact that I have continued to wage this battle is a sign of a quixotic stubbornness that has gotten in my way at times, as well as the lamentable state of my environment.

I, of course, have generalized the metaphor at this point to my entire experience here. Some of the "rocks" are fairly harmless--different ideas of punctuality, personal space etc.--which, while aggravating, pose little more danger than a stubbed toe. Others--sexism and gender-based violence, child abuse, mob violence--are much more serious.

A young, female friend of mine here (let's call her M) has a boyfriend in Nairobi who she sees occasionally. She mentioned him now and then, but I never heard very much about him until we happened upon M's sister having an affair with her married neighbor. It came out that he was abusive as well as unfaithful, and as we talked about gender roles in Kenya, she began to tell me about her boyfriend. She told me how he cheats on her, how he beats her, threatens her, and threatens her family. When I asked her why she doesn't break up with him, she told me that she was scared he would come to Kakamega and beat her or worse. When I asked about the police, she said he would just pay them off, and from my experience with the police here, it's probably true. When I pressed her, she confessed that she also was afraid of being alone, because it's so hard to find a boyfriend here, and without a man, there's almost no way for women to support themselves.

It's not a new story, but sitting and trying to talk through the options with her, it gained new meaning for me. She truly is trapped. All the power lies with the men. In my attempt to clear a few stones, I refuse to associate with the cheating neighbor, and continually argue with a promiscuous friend who sees no harm in having five girlfriends simultaneously, and lying to each about the others. I can't say that I've convinced him, and the neighbor doesn't so much, but I can't swallow my indignation.

As a teacher and a donor, I have a little more power to do something about child abuse at the school where I teach. When I first heard a 10-year old girl screaming and sobbing for mercy from the deputy headteacher's office as she was beaten with an inch-thick stick, I was horrified. I asked the headteacher to speak to the deputy and put a stop to the practice, which he promised to do. When, a week later, I came across the headteacher himself laying savagely into the buttocks of twenty whimpering children grovelling on the floor below him, I couldn't contain my outrage. I demanded that he stop immediately, which he refused and then we had a heated argument afterward in which he belittled my anger and I picked up the books that had been donated for the library and started to walk out. The deputy chased after me and after a calmer discussion agreed to put a stop to all corporal punishment, a promise she has with only one exception kept.

What will happen after I leave, is hard to tell. Despite the satisfaction of this seeming success, I still wonder if I did the right thing. The library project was seriously endangered by what the headteacher saw as my insubordination, and I don't know if that was worth risking. It's always the children who stand to lose the most.

I can't help but think, however, that there is more to this issue than the pain and psychological trauma the children experienced. A few weeks ago, I went to town, as I often do, to run some errands and get a snack. Just before five o'clock, I hurried down the quiet main street and took a bicycle out of town in order to make it in time to practice for the church choir I sing in. What I didn't know until much later, was that just five minutes after I left, a group of car thieves were apprehended by an angry mob of pedestrians, who managed to tie up the criminals, pour gasoline over them, and set them on fire before a single police officer arrived. Does it not seem likely that children raised to obey the man (or teacher) with the biggest stick are more likely to engage in this kind of violence later? One of the men who works at the Care Centre was present for this atrocity, and did nothing to stop it. For once, I left the stone where it was and did not ask why not.

I believe that all of these issues are too important to be left alone. As long as women are powerless to stand up to abuse, children are taught to fear their mentors, and murderers roam the streets simply because the people they killed were unwanted in society, it is wrong to stay silent. The perennial question is, where do you draw the line? How do you stand up to injustice and aspects of a society which are simply broken, without spending all of your time fighting? Too often, I have fought the small battles and found myself frustrated or alienated, but I'm learning. I have made friends, and made partners, and at the end of my time here, I'll have some things to be proud of. Symbolically, I recently placed an order for soccer uniforms for the girls at the Care Centre and the library is nearly finished. I've found some time to play the game, and to help clear the rocks from one small part of the field.