Personal Reflections on Charlottesville

This post was written for Small Stones. -E

Resist! Protesting the Ku Klux Klan. Credit: Ézé Amos

In another part of my life, I run a newsletter of social justice events. There’s a joint Jewish-Muslim event coming up, and yesterday I received an email that began,

“The Palo Alto Police Department recommends not putting it on social media, so we are refraining from that.”

My first reaction was, “Let’s advertise it! Bring on the white supremacists! Let them show their faces.” I’m not going to do that, but part of me wants to.

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Election 2016 and My Grandmother

 Eva Kaye-Zwiebel is a co-founder of Small Stones. In June she attended a Voice of Witness oral history workshop, where she talked about the 2016 presidential election against the background of her grandmother’s life. She told this story in an interview, which we’ve edited to create a first person narrative. This post originally appeared on Small Stones on July 14, 2017.

Eva on Nov. 8, 2016 after casting her vote.

My brother was at my house on Election Day, November 8, 2016, when a giant box arrived from my cousin Nancy. I looked at it and thought, “What the heck is this?” As we were opening it, I remembered Nancy had told me she had the steamer trunk Manna used to move from Germany to the United States. I’d said Nancy could send it to me.

Manna was my grandmother. Her name was Marianne, German for Mary Ann. When she was little she called herself ‘Manna’ because she couldn’t pronounce her own name, and that became the family variation on grandma.

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Waltzing Mathilda

I leave tomorrow for a two-week vacation. I’ll visit my brother and sister-in-law in London, then meet up with cousins at Heathrow for a trip to Australia. I’m going along  as a “mother’s helper” because they have four little girls: aged 10, 7, and three-year-old twins. 

Eva and Hazel, 2008

The eldest of the girls was my “first baby”: she and her family live in Cambridge and I was a regular visitor when my now-husband was doing a postdoc there. Now, her baby sisters are older than she was at the time!

In “Oz”, we’re headed near Brisbane, where the girls’ father is an invitee at the Woodford Planting Festival. Then we’re off to the Sunshine Coast outside of Noosa.

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Remembering Elinor Ostrom

A political scientist named Elinor Ostrom died this morning. She was also a Nobel Prize winner in economics. Her work was the basis of my dissertation and one of the courses I taught this semester. She was also a very nice person. When she came to a conference at Princeton once, I met her at Newark airport and rode with her back to campus (at her suggestion) so that we could have thirty minutes to talk about my research plans. This was before the Nobel. Professor Ostrom’s NYTimes obituary does a nice job of explaining what was innovative about her work, as well as the challenges of doing interdisciplinary research.

New job

I am so very happy to report that I’m enjoying my new job! My colleagues and the students are nice, the commute is 18 minutes door to door, and I have a pleasant work space. It’s still the first week, but all the signs are very promising!

Dissertation Boot Camp

Well, here we are heading into the third round of snow in 17 days. This one is supposed to be small. I saw my brother this weekend in Connecticut, where we stayed with his girlfriend’s family (she came, too!).

This morning started week 2 of “dissertation boot camp”, where the Graduate School helps put you on a committed work schedule for writing. It runs from 9am to 1pm daily for two weeks. I had to put down a deposit at the beginning that I’ll get back if I attend every day.
It really does help me structure my time, knowing that there are 15 other people who are going to be there, too. One of them called it ‘being alone together’ in reference to how isolated you can feel when you’re immersed in the work. In other words, even though we sit there in silence (and angst), we know we aren’t alone. And at 1pm every day we debrief with 4 other people, let by a mediator: what worked, what didn’t, and what we’re going to try tomorrow. It’s part constructive, part therapeutic.

Women’s Group and Circumcision Ceremony

The two biggest happenings around here (besides a marvelous potluck Thanksgiving dinner with traditional foods) are with the women’s group I plan to sponsor, and a scheduled circumcision.

The women’s group is exciting. Last week they invited me to a meeting to discuss their plans. Their name is Naretisho Women’s Group and they seem very organized. They took me to see their aloes, and they’ve collected and are raising 370 of them. They’ve got a fence built around them for protection. About 16 of their 25 or so members came to meet with me, which is really pretty good given all the constraints to getting there (kids and animals to watch, looking for food, walking a long distance). They also pulled together 5,000 Kenyan shillings as their contribution to the project. That’s about $65, which is large given that these people are collecting famine relief and live on a couple dollars a day.

We also talked about their expectations for how much money they will make and they were very pragmatic. They said of course they’d like to make a lot of money, but they know this is a first attempt and they’ll be happy even if it only yields a little pocket money.

Now the hitch is that the consultant they know about only wants to come train them if I hire him for 3 days of training (they only need one day) and if I buy $300 worth of supplies from him. Total cost would be $650 dollars. That’s not really in my ballpark, and more to the point, it’s not quite what the women need. So I’ve got another person to get in touch with at a local NGO, and if that fails I’ll try to negotiate with Mr.Six-fity.

If you are interested in making a small loan or donation to the women’s group, please let me know.


Regarding the circumcision, the ceremony will be for 3 boys and a girl in the same family, all of them in early adolescence. The female circumcision — or genital mutilation depending on how you feel about it — is illegal in Kenya. I was originally asked to help hold down the girl during the procedure, which is considered an honor. I declined partly because I don’t want the moral responsibility to the girl. If I helped hold her, I would be considered her godmother. Also, it would be a sort of approval of the procedure. I was also afraid I might faint, or that I could be held legally responsible if something were to go wrong with the procedure.

One of the boys in the family is mentally impaired, and his parents have elected to have his procedure done at the local clinic rather than at home as is usual. I think this is very smart of them, since the procedure as done at home is partly a test of fortitude and this boy can’t be expected to show the same amount as his siblings. It seems to me a reasonable compromise: he will be initiated the same days as his brothers, and in the same celebration, but his surgery will be done more quickly and professionally, and hopefully with less pain.

I had originally planned to spend tonight near the home where the ceremony will be performed early tomorrow morning. However, after discussion with some others here, they felt I ought not to. There is a lot of drinking involved in the celebrations, and possibly other substances, and there are strong undercurrents of sexuality and conquest in the rite of passage. In brief, there was some concern that I could be raped in my tent during the night. Needless to say, I decided not to take the risk.

And on that rather scary note, I am headed back to my river camp for a few days. The everyday and the surreal are so mixed together here.

Nanyuki Story

I thought to write about some nicer things in my time here, since I have been feeling pretty negative about this trip.

First, some happy pictures.

Here are some high school finishers at Koija (a big accomplishment there) who helped me improve my survey questionnaire. That’s my car (my baby!) in the background. Did I mention she has beautiful, uber-expensive brand new tires now?

Next, a picture of the Ewaso Ngiro river basin — the Ewaso flows through Koija — taken from near Kirimon in Samburu district.

Finally, my translator N. with her youngest sister on her back.

And a story from a Sunday in mid-November when I went to Nanyuki for a break. Sundays are very quiet here; everything is shut. I was walking to an internet cafe and a little boy came up beside me and said, “I’m hungry.” This happens pretty often in Nanyuki, but the street was deserted (i.e. I wasn’t being haggled) and the boy seemed nice. I told him if he could wait 30 minutes for me to finish with emails, I would buy him lunch.

When I came out of the internet cafe he was waiting, and we talked as we walked towards the market. Since he spoke a little English, I asked if he went to school (at Koija, you only learn English if you go to school). He said no, and when I asked why, he kept repeating a Swahili word I didn’t know. So when we got to the market, I asked the crowd of tchotchke sellers if one of them would translate for me.

It turns out the little boy, named John, was telling me he didn’t go to school for lack of a uniform (not an uncommon reason here; though Kibaki’s first big move when elected President was to make primary school free).

So I said to the man translating, “Ask John if he’d go to school if he had a uniform.” John said yes, I asked if he promised, and he said yes. So we adopted the translator for the next hour, went to buy John some lunch, and then off to the market to bargain for a uniform ($6 because John already owned the sweater he needed).

Then we went to the mzungu supermarket to buy milk, flour, soap, and peanut butter for John to take home because by this time I’d seen where his body was hiding under his baggy clothes and how skinny he was. He told us he had no parents or siblings and was living with his grandfather, which is a pretty uncommon and tough situation to be in.

So I took a risk on the boy and I will probably never know if he went to school. But I figure it was a risk worth taking – a hell of a return on six bucks if John actually does get himself to school. As B. said, shouldn’t there be an NGO that does something like this? Maybe there is.

I have the feeling a lot here, what would I do if I were born into such tough circumstances? I helped John totally arbitrarily, because he found me in a good mood and because he seemed nice. It felt nice to help him because it is luxurious (perversely powerful?) to be able to say to someone, “I will take a chance on you.” But the fact is that it’s a crappy world when you have to find some white girl in a good mood in order to have a chance at school.

Tues, 30 Oct 2007

Today I visited the home of my friend S. S. has a daughter my age, V, who is away doing a tourism/hospitality program, and S. is taking care of V’s 20-month-old daughter. S. does the best beadwork of any of the women I know here. N. and I drove to her house, which is not too far away, which is the first time I’ve driven here without an experienced driver sitting next to me (it went fine).

All the neighborhood kids gathered when they heard the car – there were 9 of them total, I think – and so N. and I had tea with S. with lots of little kids watching us. One of the neighbor girls looks to me like she has Downs Syndrome. N. told me (without me asking) that the little girl “wasn’t right”. I asked, “Do you mean she thinks slowly?” and N. said yes.

I told her I thought I knew what was wrong with the girl, and was able to get N. to confirm with S. that in addition to being slow, the girl is also very gentle, has difficulty talking, and that there is something wrong with her heart or breathing. If I recall correctly, those are all symptoms of Downs Syndrome (maybe I’m wrong about the heart part?).

There was also a very bright-eyed little girl named Benié, age 2, who S. told me she cares for she’s an orphan. My first thought was that it might be AIDS that killed her parents, but I didn’t want to ask directly, and Sabina might not know anyway. I did ask if Benié is sick, and S. said no, so I hope she is all right. I would like to keep an eye on her.

N. has a little sister who is six years old and one side of her is paralyzed because she had polio. Another of her little sisters, 7 months, was taken to town to see a doctor yesterday because of a fever, and it was diagnosed as malaria (which may or may not be a correct diagnosis considering malaria is rare in this area and not all the “doctors” people see in Nanyuki are real doctors).

C., the nurse’s daughter who I wrote about previously, is also sick and will be taken to a doctor in town tomorrow. Her mother says her whole mouth and throat are infected and she is unable to eat. Going to the doctor in town is a multi-day event because no one here has a car.