belly laughs at twenty to nine

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, The Current had a discussion about online dating this morning. The host, Anna Maria Tremonti, interviewed a couple who met in an Internet chat room in 1996. He lived in the U.K. and I didn’t catch where she lived, but I think it was in Canada. After a week of chatting, he bought her a ticket to visit him in England. An excerpt of the interview, paraphrased:

Anna Maria: Weren’t you afraid he was an axe murder?
Her: That’s what my friends were worried about, but I figured that an axe murderer doesn’t buy someone a plane ticket.
Him: Plus I’ve never hurt an axe in my life!

I laughed most of the way to work.

Speaking of axe murdering… well, murdering, anyway… here’s a cheerful (but sort of fascinating) read.

sleepwalk with me

Mike Birbiglia’s story in the “Fear of Sleep” episode of This American Life remains one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever heard on the show. Now, it’s a feature film. I’ve only seen one scene from Sleepwalk With Me, so I can’t vouch for the film beyond saying a) now I want to see the rest of it, and b) it is premièring at Sundance today.

The set-up: in his early twenties, Birbiglia had a series of increasingly spectacular sleepwalking episodes, stemming from the quintessential anxiety surrounding realizing you’re now an “adult” (whatever that is). True story.

Ira Glass wrote a blog post about the film, here.

dangerous women

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

~ Thucydides

Back in October I spent an energizing and inspiring day with 33 women committed to a single goal: reducing rape, assault and gender-based violence in their neighbourhoods of Nairobi. They were learning not only how to kick some serious ass, but also how to teach other women to do the same.

at the training hall in Korogocho, women defend themselves against attacks from behind

My article on the course was published in the features section this weekend, but here it is in a nutshell: US-based No Means No Worldwide is a train-the-trainer initiative started by Lee Sinclair, a microloan-officer-turned-self-defence-teacher. Instead of  flying trainers to Nairobi from Boston or San Francisco to teach women in slums how to defend themselves, NMNW trains Kenyan women to become self-defence teachers themselves. These newly-minted trainers go back to their communities and spread the gospel.

The women featured here are the first graduating class of NMNW. They rock. There is no other word for it. They are confident, funny, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful, energetic, passionate about women’s rights. And if you cross them, they can kill you.

Sheila and Liz, mid-battle

Despite the fact that these women are now equipped to violently destroy an attacker — or multiple attackers — in a variety of situations, what I found to be most interesting about this course is that Lee tries to focus on the verbal elements of self-defence. She said courses in North America are very focused on physical fighting, because that’s what the students seem to want — but she told me that 85 percent of assaults can be stopped with voice alone. Verbal defence skills are a major part of the NMNW curriculum.

What exactly is verbal defence? Reasoning and negotiating, yes. But also screaming, yelling, raging, shouting, and basically scaring off a would-be rapist by acting like one crazy bitch.

Paps and Liz practice fighting from the ground

Witnessing one of their training sessions was inspiring. The class welcomed me into their tight-knit group, and they were eager to talk. I was surprised by how openly they shared with me their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The rape statistics in Nairobi vary, from the government’s official rape rate of 2 percent of the population, to some NGOs’ estimates of 40 percent. It’s impossible to know, but the NMNW graduates would definitely tell you that it falls closer to the higher end of the spectrum, at least in their communities.

One woman in her early 20s told me about being raped by her boyfriend. Another told me her cousin sexually abused her when she was 11, and it has taken her until her early 20s to be able to trust men. A third woman shared the story of a police officer who tried to rape her by luring her into his home with promises of a gift in remembrance of her father, who had just passed away.

There is no question that the women I met have experienced trauma and horror, but the most remarkable thing is how positively and passionately they have emerged from those challenges. There were no whining/excuses/wallowing in self-pity in that stark concrete training hall in Korogocho — only a fierce determination to prevent any more women from having to tell stories like theirs.

As one graduate put it, “We don’t want to take a woman to the hospital because she has been raped. We want to take an assailant to the hospital because he has been beaten by a woman when he was trying to rape her.”

graduation luncheon, downtown Nairobi

So far, so good. During the final week of class, two of the students were attacked not once, but twice, in a single evening. The first attack was two men, the second was 11 men. These men couldn’t have picked smaller women to attack — Paps and Liz probably each weigh 90 pounds soaking wet — but they stood their ground, used their voices, and got away without a scratch.

I don’t really know how to sum up the experience of spending time with these inspiring women. Maybe another inspiring woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said it best: A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.

(PS: Speaking of kickass women, I really enjoyed this Vanity Fair article.)

it’s the end of the world as we know it

I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.

As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.

I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”

Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)

gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.

a taste of home

Canadians gathered last weekend with one goal in mind: eat to the point of physical discomfort. Being thousands of miles from home doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to overindulge, so a little group of Canucks gathered in Nairobi last Sunday. Mission: accomplished.

oh my.

We started with pumpkin soup, then came turkey, stuffing, potatoes mashed and roasted, garlic green beans, roasted carrots, gravy, cran, and a steady flow of red wine. Then two pumpkin pies, a red wine chocolate cake, ice cream and banana bread. We had a lot to be thankful for.

these pies have equally fantastic back-stories: one was made from an actual pumpkin, and the other from a can of pumpkin pie filling transported all the way from Canada in a suitcase.

Meredith documented the saga of preparing the glorious feast, so head over there for more photos, commentary and general merriment.

la piece de resistance: an 11-kg turkey named Jalal. (thanks Meredith for this photo.)

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all my Canadian friends. I hope your celebrations were as memorable as mine.