Friday, 28 December 2012

What a Year! 2012

Hi everyone,
It has been several months since I wrote in this blog. Even though I haven't written anything here for a while my mind has been turning over with thoughts while my journey continues here in Kenya. About a month ago while on my way to see my agent for a meeting I found my knuckles turning white while clenching the backseat of a motorbike that was travelling way too fast while cutting off buses and trucks on the way to town. In Kiswahili a motorbike is called a boda. As we weaved in and out of traffic and even onto the sidewalk people jumped out of the way and someone shouted to the driver, "Hey, drive safely with that pretty girl!" While my life flashed before my eyes I thought about how life is sometimes like a boda. We climb on with a destination in mind but sometimes we are unprepared for the speed at which life takes us.

Did I mention an agent? Yes that's correct. Back in August of 2011 when we first stepped off the plane into Nairobi I vowed that if things did not work out well for us, in a year we would move back to Bermuda. When August 2012 came around, I was about to become a Kenyan celebrity as well as a teacher at Woodland Star School. So on weekends I am a judge for the biggest East African dance competition on television called Sakata and on weekdays I am the Social Studies and Poetry teacher at a niche school in Kenya that infuses the creative arts into every inch of the curriculum.

Being a dance judge has been a growing experience for me. I am naturally a critical person when viewing the visual and performing arts and am happy to offer constructive criticism on any given day. The unfortunate thing is that in a competition of this nature someone has to go home. I think back to the first show that we did. There were lights, makeup, people calling my name and people wanting to take my picture. As we ascended onto the stage and the cameras began to roll I looked to the side and remembered the teenager who wanted a life of adventure and freedom. In my way, dance became both for me. That was how I began dancing. As the lights continued flashing I thought to myself, "God, is this where it was all leading?"

 As the first show continued and finally came to an end there were smiles for some dance crews and tears for others. The responsibility of choosing who would go to the next round weighed heavy on me but there was no time to wallow as the next show would begin soon and there would be more makeup, lights and screaming people. The reactions to me being a judge were also a mix of emotions. Some people would say that I am mean or unfair while others have said that they appreciate the feedback and have grown from my criticism. As an amature celebrity I have learnt not to read the comments about me posted on the Internet (good or bad) and to stay focused at every minute.

Science-Art Crossover

My Universe

People who Inspire Us

On weekdays I am not Judge Joanne but Ms. Ball-Burgess. There is no time for makeup, no lights and no screaming fans or anti-fans:). There are screaming children however who are creative in nature, very opinionated and used to the free-spirited education process at Woodland Star School. In some ways these children are far more scary than the most passionate fan whose dance crew has just been sent home. These kids are hungry for education and look to me as the one who will give them meaningful experiences in Poetry, Social Studies and Music. Naturally I infuse dance, visual arts and song into all of my classes but when I am tired there is no one to say, "Judge Joanne needs water!" or "Judge Joanne needs a fresh coat of lip gloss!" These varied experiences keep me balanced and full of creative energy. They also allow me to see the world at different angles and remind me of my past and present simultaneously.

In one year of being in Kenya life has changed dramatically and in many ways and life has also remained the same. It has been a year of realising and embracing my passions, learning that my life is not my own and coming to terms with my own insecurities that come to the surface once the television cameras are turned off. Overall, life is good, family is precious and Kenya is an amazing place. Thank you for embracing me.

Oh, I forgot to mention, that you can watch Sakata on Citizen Television at 8:05pm every Sunday Kenyan time. For those of you outside of East Africa or without a television here is the live stream

Monday, 14 May 2012

Dancing for my son's birthday (Update)

Hi everyone and Happy Mother's Day yesterday!
Remember several months ago I promised that I'd keep you updated on my progress with learning traditional dances here in Kenya? Well I thought I'd post a link for you all to enjoy. As you know from the content of the blog posts that I write, dance is a huge part of my life. It is important for me to learn the culture of a place and what better way to understand culture than through folklore?

On May 5th my youngest son celebrated his birthday.  I decided that I'd dance for the occasion. Five years prior it was a 12 hour labour of love. A circle of celebration that culminated into a new person that I held in my arms. Somehow it seemed like he had been here before.  A loud, strong and determined little boy with big cheeks and black curls on his head made his way into our lives in a big way. We named him Zahari Nidhan which means Illuminated  Treasure.

Sometimes the dance of life is painful and sometimes it is full of joy. Sometimes the joy and pain are synchronised in the dance.

Before I get too carried away with poetry enjoy the video!

I'm interested to hear what you think:)

Sunday, 29 April 2012

When I'm Not Blogging...

It's been a while since I posted on this blog.  The proverbial blank page is not synonymous with a lack of exciting topics to write  about however. Every day my experiences here are multi-layered and dynamic...sometimes they contradict each other and other times I need to decide which storyline I wish to follow. Should I write about my children's experiences "in Africa"? I'd like to be able to say that they are here receiving an "African" education but sadly they've been thrown back into a 1972 leftover colonial education although the faces are black and the accents are Kenyan. Should I write about my "saving the world" ventures? That's always fun but rarely do these happenings come in the dramatic form that they are usually expressed in. Rather, the simple, unplanned gestures that should be a part of normal human living are ways that I try to save the world-one act of kindness at a time. Or perhaps I'll write about the hippy farmer's wife that gardens nude beside her husband and practices yoga poses with her feet firmly planted in the Kenyan soil. Or maybe I could write about the ordinary girl from Warwick who moved to "Africa" and became a goddess. "Please place my fruit offering over there" I say as I point with my very cultural- looking scepter. I hear drumming faintly in the background.

But sometimes the experiences and stories never filter onto the blank screen as shapes and symbols that make verbal sense but rather remain as happenings and metaphors in my mind. Sometimes I wonder, "How will I explain this? Or at the moment where I begin to write a new post, the now familiar but nonetheless annoying random electricity outage occurres. As I sit in a dark room surrounded by candles, dynamic life does not lie still. Even in the darkness this place is teaching me something so that when the light returns, another lesson has been learned and the mind filtering process begins again. The old blog post idea now seems futile.

Two weeks ago I posted on my facebook page that, "I feel a blog post brewing". This week a friend of mind responded by saying, "It must be potent now". Indeed the posts are potent and usually roam around in my head for several weeks to several months before making it into written form. But as I am sitting in my living room watching a gecko run by, looking at the coconut on my table that wasn't eaten, the piles of books beside me, the 8lb bottle of Shea butter beside the books, teaching notes, random toys, fish food and painted Easter eggs I think about all of the various streams of my life and see an interweaving of my life's story through all these items.

When I look at the coconut I recall the smiling face of the vendor who sold me 3 this week. I still see his smile, several teeth are missing and the others are pretty decayed but he smiled from the heart and it felt genuine. I think about the many times we tell others to "smile" in the West when on the inside there is a frown. Have we lost the art of accepting one's heart reflection? I look at the books and see not only books that I am reading, but books that my sons, ages 4 and 6 are reading. I remember teaching them to read and smile. I look at the 8lb bottle of Shea butter and hope that a new business venture is looming on tomorrow's horizon.

At the moment I am not the goddess, the super mom or the hippy wife. My scepter has disappeared. Out of frustration I told my husband today that I don’t want to hear about his new agricultural happenings or how he plans to solve world hunger. It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the garden and my children are behaving like brats. I blame it on the rainy season and the full moon. Perhaps the full moon is a season. Life has not halted its footsteps for me. I am running a race to catch up but as I look up breathless my sweat stained eyes can barely make out the writing. I see that the results have been predetermined.  Although the electricity is still on, a darkened room with flickering candles appears and welcomes me into its embrace. I walk into it as if called upon to partake in a holy Séance. I return illuminated and full. The animation stills. I reach out and touch the allegory. In a single moment where life remains at rest for just one second, I rush over to the computer and begin typing…

Monday, 19 March 2012

Digital Postcard from Nairobi

A letter from one culture to another 

Dear Bermuda,
It has been seven months since I've been in Kenya. I haven't seen a lion yet and my children are not starving. Please consult with Kenyan mobile technicians on the latest phone application technology.

I must also tell you about a most amusing sight that I have witnessed in this marvellous land. Every afternoon on my way home I see two rather inebriated looking men who are supposedly fixing the road. They fill up the potholes with sand and rocks and stand in the middle of the road requesting money from passersby with the most pitiful gaze that I have seen in all of Africa. At the end of the day they quickly remove the rocks and the sand and the next morning begin their ritual of "fixing" the road again. After several weeks they disappear from our street and I breathe a sigh that this agitating sight of unsustainable business ingenious has ceased for a while. After several weeks they are back again with the same business plan. The other day Quincy gave them a shilling just for having the gull to pull it off.  After witnessing this charade I have determined to never again speak badly about Works & Engineering. Even if there are six workers fixing a hole and 5 of them are standing there to make sure that the one guy is doing the job correctly.

And you know, I don't know why "they" say that Bermudians cannot make time. To be a half an hour late for an event is simply breathing time. When people are constantly 2-3 hours late for meetings however this is not breathing time. Note to Kenyans; you are not on time as long as the sun is in the sky.

By the way, please do not delay your visit to Kenya for too long. The tribal dances are engaging invigorating and provide the participant with a great workout. If you took a couple months to learn some of the Luo, Luhya or Kiganda dances you'd be the hottest thing on the dance floor during the Socca Show.  When you come however please mind the traffic. Flashing lights do not mean that the police are nearby. Here, it simply means, "Slow down! I'm coming through and I'm not gonna stop!"

If we cannot smile at the surprises that life brings us then life becomes dull and motionless. Please send my love to the family and take care.

Best Regards,
Bermy Girl living in the Motherland

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Lavender Lullabies

It’s evening time. Just sitting here at my computer…again.

Husband is reading and the kids are dreaming about magic keys that glow and hot flowing lava that sparkles blue and pink. I tell them these stories every night. Nowadays they help me to tell their stories and create their own lullaby of gorgeous midnight wonder.  I’ve written stories for the ears of many children but it’s probably safe to say that only two sets of ears will ever hear these stories and maybe, just maybe they’ll remember one of them. I hope so. People say that what we do here in Kenya is magical-planting greenhouses for schools and learning local trades. They say, “When you come home you can teach us how to live without lifes fineries”. Although I’m not sure what this means. I feel more wealthy than ever right now.

 If one can live in their home country amongst everyone who they know and love while feeling the wide wind between their toes and the tall sun on their head then this must be that finery that they speak of. But if the wind ever becomes thick and the sun is covered by an unnamed cloud then...

I’ve just put my children to bed again. Tonight we read about Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and…Sleepyhead. I’ve told them that one day they can change the world. I hope that one day I can do the same.

Shai's Masai Project

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Dancing to the Beat of Your Own (African) Drum

"As a person dances so the drums are beaten for them"
- An Igbo Proverb

Happy 31st Birthday to Me! Photo taken by my 4 year old son

A friend of mine once told me, "Joanne, you're a different bird. You're the type who wears mismatched socks."  I smiled and scrunched up my toes underneath the kitchen table on the cold tile floor.  Little did he realise that on my right foot was a pink tie-dye sock and on my other right foot was a blue sock.  Wearing mismatched socks for me has always brought a smile to my face reminding me how futile our efforts as adults are to make sure that we "have everything together."  Life is a dance.  Why not make it a colourful one?

Back in 2007, when my family and I had just returned to Bermuda from Jerusalem I had this to say about dancing:
Learning to dance with tired feet
Treasured words rarely spoken
Hopeful dreams gently felt
Learning again my heart to open
- Joanne Ball-Burgess April 2007

"Right now I am ready for a change of pace whether that may be to obtain my Master's degree, get a teaching job or to start  thinking about child number three (Don't worry guys, I'm not pregnant!) During this past month I've felt that my feet are just about to leave
the diving board..."

- My journal entry from April 2008

Without looking back my feet soared from life's diving board into the waters named 'Unknown'. As I emerged splashes that sounded like the daydreams of a little girl echoed in my head. The thousands of microscopic water droplets flew up into the air as  shapeless liquid and landed on earth as tangible forms: published books, composed songs, smiling school children and new hopes for a new generation of writers.

Two years later my feet were no longer tired but someone had put the song on repeat for way too long...

"The dance is monotones but my feet are still moving…existing I smile as I secretly stumble onto the stage (I hope that no one saw me trip)"
- Joanne Ball-Burgess October 3, 2010

It was time to leave Bermuda... my ears were now tired from hearing the same song; "Change, change it will never come.  Life on the Rock is how it's always been done"- The Lizard & the RockSo once again my feet began to jig and I did the gombey dance all the way to Nairobi.

Nowadays my feet are still moving and so is the ground beneath it.  Life feels dynamic and once again I am standing on the edge of the metaphoric diving board.  So one Friday I was shocked to open The Standard Newspaper to see this:

The Pulse is featured in the Standard Newspaper. It has has information on Nairobi fashion (think Saved by the Bell in 2012)  and has tabloid tendencies
WTH? I guess that's the price for dancing to your own drum beat

Can someone please explain the jokes in these captions?  I don't get it.  I know that my friends and I had a great time at the Drum Jam Festival.  When we arrived we were surprised to see everyone sitting and clapping like Brits at an opera while passionate drummers gave all they had on stage.  I figured that the drums were playing just for me and so I did what came natural and didn't pay attention to the lurking photographers.  In the background my children were playing and watching their mother act like a teenager.

Speaking of dance, I'm learning some of the traditional tribal dances this year.  I guess it is possible to dance to the beat of your own drum while simultaneously learning a new dance:)  I'll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime;

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

- Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers

R.I.P. Whitney Houston.  Dance on in another place.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Billboards & the Girl Next Door

Advertisements, commercialism, images of beautiful people and things that we don't have. It's all around us. I have a fascination with advertisements and their power to influence consumers and ultimately challenge our beliefs  about happiness. I usually find myself analysing the ads that I see on a given day trying to reinterpret what the images are saying to me, or more often screaming at me. Check out one of my favourite documentaries on this subject at Media Education Foundation.

Fast Internet Advertisement
When we arrived in Nairobi after what seemed like an eternity on the airplane we were picked up by gracious friends and drove 20 minutes to our new home. My sons were still talking about how much they missed Bermuda and how much they would not enjoy being in Kenya until suddenly, only a few minutes from our house they saw this billboard below:

Drogba in a Samsung Ad
The reaction was immediate; " Oh look there's Drogba! Mommy we love this place...We like Kenya better than Bermuda because in Bermuda they don't have posters of Drogba." Normally I would challenge them to consider why their feelings had changed so quickly but in a haze of jet lag I just relaxed. Thankful for this poster we headed closer to our new neighbourhood.


Insurance ad
"For Every life changing moment"

In the coming days and weeks I would come across many more posters. Every time I saw a billboard the reaction was the same: I felt empowered.
Dettol Add. Boys playing football.
 Both football and Dettol are equally popular in Kenya
Then it finally occurred to me that for the first time in my life I was looking at billboards that looked like me 99% of the time. Even in our tiny island of Bermuda the default advertisement image is a young, white woman with blond hair and blue eyes who has the same waist size as a 12 year old. These billboards showed images of beautifully ordinary looking black people; women with full figures and grandparents with missing teeth and wrinkly smiles. Even the "young and beautiful" models with long weave comforted me as "the girl next door" rather than a taunting airbrushed beauty contest that I had already lost.

"You're Beautiful When You Smile"
 Speaking of "the girl next door" here is a Dentyne ad.This picture gloriously magnifies everyone's sister and mother for their own natural beauty. On the other hand it can also perpetuate the age old belief that women (especially black women) should always be smiling-even when they are doing housework. Otherwise they probably have an attitude. What do you think? Am I still beautiful when I don't feel like smiling?
Extraordinary Banking for Extraordinary People

If this ad to the right represents an extraordinary person then who is the ordinary guy in the chair?  Perhaps the novelty is in his extraordinary posture or maybe he is about to come up with the solution for world peace...we're waiting...
Open Happiness

This Coca Cola ad reminds me of my friend Tamika every time I see it. As much as this ad looks like "the girl next door" for Bermudians, most Kenyans do not look like her. Lighter toned skin, loose flowing curls that she grew rather than bought...perhaps this picture does for Kenyans what looking at a Cosmopolitan Magazine does for me. Overall this fun billboard image gets the black muzungu vote. Two thumbs up!!

Brookside Yogurt ad

OK so what do the readers think about this image above ? Look at the postures of the teen girl and the teen boy. He is looking down at her endearingly while she seems oblivious to his gaze. What about the woman to the left? She looks like she's about to go for a jog but simultaneously looks indulgent (hey that's how I look when I'm eating chocolate). And what about the man? Is he trying to show off his flabs? I mean abs?

Even Coca Cola tried hard to be culturally sensitive by displaying a black Santa for Christmas:)

In the midst of all of the celebration of the ordinary and billboards that actually resemble the people in your neighbourhood was this advertisement. A sad reminder that we still have not gotten over the effects of colonialism, oppression and its impact on our image of beauty. Keep in mind that these pictures were being taken while driving so a part of this image has been mistakenly cut off. Here is a billboard advertising for a skin lightening cream to take care of blemishes.

 I have no problem with the Asian beauty that they selected for this picture. What bothers me, however is that there are 4 pictures of this woman on this billboard, The first is the same girl with a darker complexion and obvious blemishes. Her head is tilted downward. As the pictures of the woman increase in size and the blemishes become less visible, her complexion also lightens and her gaze becomes more confident. The moral of the story? Lighter is better. Darker is less attractive and needs to be fixed. Artist, Ebony Patterson explores the causes and effects of skin bleaching in her artwork. Sadly, this practise has made it's way back to the African continent as well. Check out more artwork from Ebony here.

Images, commercials and advertisements are everywhere screaming for our attention and calling us to become unsatisfied with the way we look or what we own. But as I told my 4 year old when he asked me what a commercial is I told him, "Commercials tell people what to buy but people always have the choice whether to buy something or not." Let's take a moment to buy into the unique beauty that we see in people every day.

Thanks for traveling with me on my journey through Nairobi today. Catch you next time!