I’m waiting for my third term of teaching in Kenya to begin. Technically, it was supposed to begin last Monday, the 3rd, but due to a pretty intense teachers strike classes have yet to resume and kids aren’t in school. It’s pretty unfortunate for the kids, actually, because this term is only 9 weeks long and exams will take place at the end of the term, regardless of the duration of teaching (not that it seems to matter too much when scores are calculated after final exams). Anyways, it’s been a bit traumatic, and as many of you already know, Siaya was not hesitant to make their sentiments known to the government of Kenya.
So, here’s what happened. Last Monday kids and teachers were supposed to report to school for the third term of teaching this year. Because of the strike, that didn’t happen. This strike was announced before the close of last term, so it’s really not like, “OMG what’s happening?!?!?!” The government of Kenya (GOK) promised an increase in pay for all teachers in 1997, after the last teachers strike took place. I guess during that strike the teachers also petitioned for medical and other benefits as well. Some of which were issued, but the increase in pay still remains a mystery. Hence, the teachers strike of 2012. Teachers are now demanding a 300% increase in pay, which sounds ludicrous but in reality is not an astronomical figure. While there are many poverty stricken areas throughout Kenya, the president of Kenya earns more than the President of the US. Members of Parliament earn more than US Senators – which explains why it is a mystery. There is definitely money in Kenya; it just apparently isn’t in the teachers’ pockets.
Anyways, there’s a little background for you, and if interested you can absolutely read more about it through google. I recommend reading articles from “The Daily Nation,” a reliable newspaper here in Kenya. So, the strike began on Monday and I was planning on observing the protests from Ambalo’s shop in Siaya town around 11am Monday morning. My digestive tract vetoed that idea, and therefore I spent the day in my choo begging for forgiveness for my recent indulgences while on vacation. I decided it was probably for the best, especially with the talk of elections and an expected increase in unrest… In fact, it’s kind of unfortunate how forgiving my body was… if it had been just a tad bit more stubborn I might have missed out on this entire fiasco that took place on Tuesday.
I desperately needed to go to town to pick my mail and resupply my house, having been gone for over 3 weeks during break. I was beginning to feel better – well, better enough to depart from the choo without feeling too extremely distressed. My usual driver was out of commission, so I was a bit thrown off by having to modify my normal routine for going into town. I asked around until another teacher assisted me with finding an alternative means for getting into town, which took almost 3 hours. By 11:30 I was in Siaya town. This was my first time being in Siaya town in almost a month, and I was a little overwhelmed not only by the new construction and different paint colors on several of the shops, but the incredible mass of people as well. After worming through the crowd to the posta, waiting in line for nearly an hour and retrieving a few parcels (Thanks Aunt Renee!), I returned to Ambalo’s shop to get the scoop on what was going on outside.
I wish I could draw a map for you right here, to help you visualize these events. I’ll start by saying there is one paved road (the tarmac) that skirts the perimeter of Siaya town. The tarmac is a single lane road primarily used by piki’s, pedestrians, cows and bicycles, but cars also benefit from it, though less often. It strongly resembles Camp Barbe Road in Elizabeth, for my fellow hillbillies. The tarmac lies behind Ambalo’s shop, which is one of 4 businesses sharing a concrete building divided into segments. His is on the corner, facing the posta, which is on the other side of the tarmac. Beside of the posta, directly behind Ambalo’s shop across the road is the Teachers Chamber – a large, governmental multi-story building. This is where the nucleus of the crowd protested. There were two buses in the front hard of the Teachers Chamber amongst hundreds of people. These were all teachers, from the entirety of Siaya County. The overflow from the yard of the Teachers Chamber congregated along the tarmac, right outside of Ambalo’s shop. People were lined along the tarmac in both directions, eager to be involved with events that might make the local newspaper the following day.
OK I hope that kind of helps you get a better idea of what it looked like as I came into town. I was aware that the strike was still ongoing, but I was of the impression that the protest was on Monday, not Tuesday. I visited with Maggie and Ken in Ambalo’s shop, where they updated me on events that took place yesterday (boooooooriiiiing – guess I didn’t miss much, no fights, nothing) and I decided to move along to the supermarket. Like I said, town was much more congested than usual, but I must admit it felt GOOD to be home! I felt like I was right where I belonged – I looked at the people looking at me, and it just felt fine. I was at peace. It was a zen moment, and I truly thought “wow, I needed that break. Now I’m back, I’m really here.” Despite the huge crowds, I didn’t feel anxious or hurried. I chatted with a few people along the way and eventually made my way to the supermarket without any harassment or insulting comments. It was refreshing, and I can’t help but recall thinking “Siaya is not nearly as intimidating as I thought it was.”
After gathering things from the supermarket, feeling rather confident and ambitious, I decided to check out a new bakery, buy a newspaper and enjoy the afternoon from the Siaya Center, which has a dining area overlooking the entire town. Once I got to the top floor, I was extremely surprised to see that both dining rooms were entirely full. Stuffed. Maximum capacity, as in matatu maximum capacity – people were standing and crowding, all seats taken. In fact, the excess furniture had been moved out of the room into MY spot, out on the balcony – in order to accommodate the crowd. With my newfound confidence, I squeezed in the crowd and decided to carry on regardless. I found a stack of several plastic chairs, just like a throne for a queen, had a seat and whipped out my newspaper.
I do believe that my survival skills have been highly enhanced since coming to Kenya – eavesdropping now comes extremely naturally to me, and I must say, I’m getting pretty dang good at it. While convincingly staring at my newspaper, I was able to catch enough from a conversation amongst men near me to give me a heads up to leave the restaurant. Something about being stuck in Siaya, safety, the strike, no traffic…. I was gone.
Back at Ambalo’s shop. The crowd was pulsing across the road. I found Maggie, where she invited me to watch what my fellow Kenyans are doing. We joined the mass of people pressing the tarmac to get a better view of the events taking place on the other side. The road was left open, though no traffic was moving through.
However, small clusters of men were taking advantage of the open channel through the crowd for the transport of head teachers (principals, such as Ambalo) from town to the nucleus of the protest. Two packs of these men were scouring the town in search of headteachers. Each pack had a leader with a whistle, and when the whereabouts of a headteacher became known, they would sound the whistle and hit the tarmac with a tail of supporters trailing behind in search of the HT. Within 30 minutes, the pack would come into view on the tarmac above the posta, gaining momentum and energy as they approached the Teachers Chamber. Once they were past the posta, a smartly dressed man was normally sulking along in the center of the mass. Bystanders along the road would join the rush, chanting and shouting as the parade continued to the Chamber. In front of Ambalo’s shop, while still marching down the tarmac, the first blows were dealt and within minutes, clothes were stripped and he disappeared in the crowd, which was pulsing with energy. Eventually the clot reached the Chamber, where he disappeared with several others and the pack resumed their search for the next HT.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to accurately describe this situation. I have mentioned before how hard it is to accurately convey events that take place here, mainly because without a thorough cultural understanding (which I have not even mastered quite yet), the events are taken out of context and I can easily see how they could be considered… let’s say…. ridiculous. But the truth is, while it definitely not stellar behavior, and violence is never the answer, I can understand their frustration and reasoning for these events. Not the violence, but the strike in general. I honestly feel defensive when I hear the backlash from home about how things SHOULD be done here in Kenya. The last thing I want to do is make Kenya look bad, because Kenya is my home and I love these people and this place. Explaining these events in detail would be rather shocking to people immersed in the American culture, but here it is not nearly as terrifying or horrific as you may think, and at no point was I in direct danger or felt threatened. I really want to stress that, the fact that while it was alarming and erratic, this spot of conflict was in no way directed towards me or involving me, and I was not in any way the target of this event.
After witnessing these events, I called my PC boss – Enos. He was very supportive and understanding. I was unable to immediately return to my site because of transportation issues, which would have alleviated this entire situation for me. If I had been able to get home immediately, then things would have been fine. But under these circumstances, there wasn’t an immediate mode of transportation for me to get home, and being that the only place I could really go for safety was Ambalo’s house, my HT, it didn’t seem to be a good idea to go there either. Shortly after speaking with Enos and waiting for the crowd to settle, I went directly to the matatu stage, bought a pair of sandals (never underestimate the power of retail therapy in times of distress) and headed straight to my second home – Claire’s.
So, that’s what’s up. That’s what went down in Siaya town. Strike is still going as of right now, but I have heard mixed thoughts on how long it will last. Maybe Wednesday, maybe two more weeks, but the truth is you just never know here in Kenya. Unfortunately, it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture for the upcoming elections, but we will cross that bridge when we get to it. I can tell you that this experience, as difficult as it was, was also very helpful and almost comforting. While I was standing outside with the crowd, I really did feel safe. People really were looking out for me, and when things escalated people wanted to make sure I was OK and out of the way. People I didn’t even know were trying to help me, and it was refreshing to feel like I had people looking out for me. There are so many beautiful souls here in Kenya – it only takes one drop of black paint to taint and entire bucket of white.
I know when elections come around, if they do happen to unexpectedly go the way we expect them to go, I will be fine. People here are looking out for me and there is no need for anyone back home to worry. Baba Kelsey’s got my back! 🙂