Saturday, October 17, 2009


Last night was my first southern California earthquake, a magnitude of 3.2 with an epicenter in our zip code that had me a little freaked out in a room of unperturbed Californians. It started a conversation about the various disaster drills that punctuated our days growing up. We practiced two such catastrophe-readiness procedures at my school in Nairobi. One siren sounded to send everyone to the soccer fields in the event of a fire, and another prompted the intruder (aka terrorist – and this was even pre-9/11) drill, where the teachers would lock the doors and we would all be quiet and stay away from the windows. While my US friends got snow days off, we had riot days when violent student protests shut down the center of town and prevented us from getting to school.

As excited as I am that I’ll be back in Nairobi in less than two months, I also feel the rise of the familiar and unwelcome sense of fear. I remember the morning I woke up to be told that I had slept through hearing the guard in the compound next door screaming as he was tortured by thieves who returned three times over four nights (my brother heard the whole thing). I remember my heart racing at the gate of our compound every time we’d arrive home after dark, knowing that carjackers preferred to strike at that vulnerable moment. I remember on my last visit feeling helpless sitting in a matatu next to a man who was trying to steal my phone, knowing that if I called “mwizi” (Swahili for thief) he might be lynched in front of me. And I remember knowing that something had shifted in me when I cried myself to sleep that night for both my own fear and the poverty that drove the man next to me to attempt the robbery.

Growing up in Nairobi gave me a somewhat warped sense of personal safety. If I woke in the night to the sound of sirens or gunshots I would run my mind over each layer of security measures between my family and the outside world, from the hedge around our compound, the guard at the gate, the motioned-sensor lights, the bars on the windows, the multiple locks and bolts on the doors to the metal cage we built to separate the second story of our maisonette, and the panic button installed by my parents’ bed, ready to summon a truckload of private security guards. On trips back to the US I would struggle to fall asleep at my grandmother’s house in rural Pennsylvania knowing that only a single, simple lock separated me from the outside.

I still like to keep my car doors locked. I still watch the cameras and jewelry of my friends when we’re in a crowd and worry about carrying a bag that isn’t closed with a zipper. And I hate the thought of having to live that way, and knowing that I was one of Nairobi’s residents who could afford to be most insulated from the insecurity. This week I read an article on the recent rise in kidnappings in the city, with the targets being wealthy westerners but also middle-class Kenyans. It makes me ache.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

unharvested time

I spent today banished from the Farm, exiled by my housemates on account of an inflated sense of my own importance and a bit of an outburst yesterday (which probably had as much to do with sliding around in the mud in my tennis shoes on the ten acres as it did with feeling overwhelmed by work). I’d taken on a lot of the administrative responsibility for the CSA and was starting to feel like the veggies wouldn’t be harvested, boxed and delivered without me. So, since today was our biggest CSA day (with 18 boxes to get out the door), they sent me away for a day off the farm.

In this unplanned free time I came across two lines from Robert Frost's poem "Unharvested" that I had written in my journal:
May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan...

I'm getting used to letting some of our crops go unharvested. There are partial rows of radishes and arugula that are approaching jungle thickness and a row of green leaf lettuce that has long since outgrown the size of anything I've ever seen in a store. But I'm finding it difficult to welcome unharvested time, to tell the internal voice that urges me towards productivity and efficiency to pipe down every now and then. I've all but convinced myself that rest and contemplation are only possible when I feel in control of everything that's going on in my life. So I'm thankful for days like today. I read for a few hours, spent some time on the beach (and even more time finding a beach where parking wasn't too expensive and there weren't aggressive squirrels), and left my computer at home. The world continued to turn, my chickens survived six hours of my absence, and 18 boxes of produce found their way home.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Some days I wish I had been blogging a year ago while I was in Cambodia, telling the stories that so often come to mind now when they were fresh (though, considering I only managed a handful of email updates in six months, this is probably wishful thinking).

Yesterday was the anniversary of one of my favorite of these stories. My "job" in Cambodia was to assist different organizations working to help poor communities threatened with forced eviction. The endangered community I spent the most time in was Dey Krahorm, a poor neighborhood on a bit of highly-valued real estate in downtown Phnom Penh who had resisted illegal attempts by the government and powerful business interests to bulldoze their community for several years.

In early October of last year, men hired by the company claiming (falsely) to own the land started hanging around outside Dey Krahorm's small community center, where many of the children took art classes, threatening to tear it down. So Dey Krahorm invited their neighbors and friends to a Musical Resistance Concert to be held the next day on the foundation of the community center, whether the building was standing or not.

And what a concert it was, featuring the traditional Cambodian music Dey Krahorm is famous for (it started as an artists’ colony), singing by members of a group of garment factory workers, and (by the far the most popular act), a performance by one of Cambodia's best breakdancing groups

The community center stayed standing, but Dey Krahorm's story does not have a happy ending. On January 24, 2009, the community was forcibly evicted to make way for a shopping center. Still, I can't help returning to the story.What a powerful example of resistance. In the face of violence and injustice, they threw a party.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

chickens little

In honor of the feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals today, two vignettes from my first venture into poultry raising (which began on Wednesday).

#1: The Sky is Falling

Steven Kellogg chose the right farm animal to have running around yelling that the sky is falling in his book Chicken Little. My nine chicks have seen fit on a number of occasions in their five day lives to act as though the world were ending. Usually this is brought on by nothing more serious than an adjustment to the cardboard and duct tape walls of their brooder or an attempt to move them temporarily in order to change their bedding. There was also the time during their first evening at the house when, with all nine sleeping comfortably in the appropriate donut shape around the heat lamp, I decided that maybe they wouldn't be warm enough after all and tried to replace the regular light bulb with a much higher voltage heat bulb. Not only did I take away their source of light temporarily (they began "crying" almost immediately), the heat bulb turned out to be too much for the lamp and both melted the plug partially into the extension cord and sent a couple of sparks into the brooder. So maybe the chicks have every right to be worried...

#2: Predator and Prey

The book Chickens in Your Backyard by Rick and Gail Luttmann advises the following with regard to chick diets: "You could feed them a few worms or bugs from the garden. They'll love it; in fact, they'll act like they're about to die of ecstasy." Sounds like fun. So yesterday I presented them with a dead fly I found while dusting a windowsill. They were unimpressed and returned to the business of pecking at the cardboard walls of the brooder and enthusiastically kicking shavings into their waterer. Today, Kat and I captured a moth, thinking live prey might inspire the appropriate ecstatic behavior. They showed mild interest as the moth crawled across the pine shavings, but when it started to fly around inside the heat lamp and run into them, they freaked out and ran to the other side of the brooder. So much for the chick-vs.-bug gladiator-style entertainment I was hoping for...

And finally, the blessing from tonight's ATFP liturgy:
Almighty and everlasting God, Creator of all things and giver of all life, let your blessing be upon all these animals. May our relationships with them mirror your love, and our care for them be an example of your bountiful mercy. Grant the animals health and peace. Strengthen us to love and care for them...