October 22, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Married Couples: Watertown Daily Times: Peace Corps stint brings changes to Wilson and Jessica Gathirimu

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Peace Corps stint brings changes to Wilson and Jessica Gathirimu

Peace Corps stint brings changes to Wilson and Jessica Gathirimu

Jessica said weddings are quite different in Kenya and one of the biggest differences she struggled with was the bride and groom have little to say about the ceremony. “The family kind of organizes and plans everything,” Jessica said. “They tell you who you are inviting, where it is going to be, what you will be eating and sometimes even what you are wearing.”

Peace Corps stint brings changes to Wilson and Jessica Gathirimu

Peace Corps stint brings changes to many lives
By Adam Tobias of the Daily Times staff

Wilson and Jessica Gathirimu got married in February 2005 in Kenya while Jessica was serving as a public heath volunteer for the Peace Corps. Wilson, a native of Kenya, got his first taste of American life when the couple decided to move to Jessica’s hometown of Watertown this past September. (John Hart/Daily Times)

When Watertown resident Jessica Gathirimu flew to Africa in July 2003 as a Peace Corps volunteer, she knew she was going make a difference in the lives of many people. What she didn't know was one particular person would make such an impact on her life that she would later go on to call him her husband.

About a month after she arrived in Baricho, Kenya, Jessica decided it would be best to attend church so she could integrate into the community and get to know the people around her better.

Wilson Gathirimu, a resident of Baricho, never really went to church much but for reasons he could not explain decided to go a particular day. It was then that a mutual friend had introduced the two, and the rest is history.

Wilson had agreed to be her language tutor, and the two spent a lot of time together getting to know each other. It was then decided they would wed in Kenya in February of 2005.

Jessica said weddings are quite different in Kenya and one of the biggest differences she struggled with was the bride and groom have little to say about the ceremony.

“The family kind of organizes and plans everything,” Jessica said. “They tell you who you are inviting, where it is going to be, what you will be eating and sometimes even what you are wearing.”

Because Jessica is not a Kenyan citizen, the couple could not be married in a church and had to go to the capital Nairobi to be wed in a courthouse. The reception was held at a restaurant owned by Wilson's parents the next day because Nairobi is so far from his home.

“We kept the reception small and private which is unusual in Kenya because most weddings are enormous community affairs with more than 500 people on the guest list,” she said. “But then anyone who happens to be walking by on that day can stop in, eat, dance and give a speech.”

As part of her duties as a Peace Corps volunteer, Jessica taught public health to Baricho community members with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS education. She spent most of her time teaching in schools and hospital waiting rooms, as well as being a guest speaker at various community group meetings.

Jessica primarily worked with two organizations, a women's group and with a community hospital. While working with the women's group, Jessica trained the members to become good communicators of HIV/AIDS, thus eliminating her need to be there.

When she helped out with the hospital, Jessica would assist community organizations that received funding from the hospital by training them about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to use those funds properly.

With about six months left on her mission, and only three weeks before her wedding, Jessica found out the woman's group she was working with was having financial difficulties.

She added as part of the Peace Corps a person must be assigned to a group in the community level, and with her group being eliminated, her supervisor told her there was a chance she would be relocated.

“There are no secrets in Kenya,” Jessica explained. “Small communities are everywhere and they have amazing verbal communication chains.”

By the end of that day word had gotten around that Jessica could possibly be moved to a different area and residents started protesting because they felt her presence was necessary. Soon the mayor of Baricho and the head of the local hospital heard the news and decided she could start working at the hospital.

“Though I never heard people give that much appreciation the first year and a half I was there all of a sudden it became more than obvious how much everybody appreciated having me there,” she said.

The hardest thing for Jessica to deal with when she arrived in Kenya was the fact she stood out so much. “It was a huge shock,” she said. “It is a lot easier to find the differences than it is to find the similarities between the United States and Kenya.”

Because the majority of the residents of rural Kenya have black skin color, Jessica said she was the only person with white skin color for hundreds of miles.

“It is kind of a unique challenge to have so much attention focused on you,” said Jessica. “Everyone in Peace Corps calls this the fishbowl effect. We are there and everyone is watching us.”

She also noted it was difficult dealing with a country that is so far behind when it comes to being developed. “It is hard not having the answers or knowing what to say when they ask you what the reason is for their inability to catch up to other countries,” she said.

When she first arrived in Kenya, Jessica said she did not mesh well right away with the people of the country and they kept her on somewhat of a pedestal.

“They assumed I had millions of dollars at my fingertips or that I had all these connections,” Jessica said. “I really tried to play that down and show them I was a normal person. I had to tell them I can't give you $100 because I don't have it.”

One of the things Jessica said she could have never imagined was how cold the weather could get at times.

Even though most residents of Wisconsin are used to cold winters, Jessica said she could not believe how cold 40 degree weather felt in Kenya. “It may not sound that cold, but you do not have insulated houses, solid, well shutting windows and you are walking everywhere and it is very damp,” Jessica said.

“I joke that Kenya has two seasons,” she added. “Rain and no rain. You and your shoes are constantly wet and mud is everywhere because they do not have sidewalks or paved roads in the villages.”

Jessica said the two-year experience gave her an amazing sense of independence and perseverance because the people of Kenya do not schedule what their day will entail.

“Planning in Kenya, you can try but the country itself is going to decide how your day is going to go,” she said. “It's impossible to plan there and they know that so they don't even try. They usually have a vague idea of what they are going to do for the day which is the exact opposite of a typical American who has the daily planner with every hour mapped out how things are going to go.”

Even though most Kenyans do not have daily planners, almost every one of them has a cell phone, Jessica noted. Wilson said while everyone might have a cell phone, most do not use them because air time is too expensive. “They are mostly for show,” he added.

“What you think of Kenya is not how it really is,” Wilson said, adding most people think the country is exactly like it is depicted on the Discovery Channel. “That is only a tiny part of Kenya,” he said.

“One thing that surprised me when I first got to my assignment was the land was very green, excessively hilly and there were bodies of water and streams everywhere,” Jessica said.

She added there are also huge plantations of bananas, mangos and corn. “Just about any vegetable or fruit you can think of can grow in the area we were in,” Jessica said.

Although before they met, Jessica and Wilson were on opposite sides of the globe, she said it was not hard for her to communicate with her future husband because most Kenyans are taught to speak English at a young age.

“It did though make me lazy at times learning Swahili,” she said with a smile.

Jessica noted most residents start learning English before they start going to school and added parents speak to infants using their tribal language, national language and English.

“Most of the time I could have comfortable English conversations with 9-year-olds,” Jessica said. “I did not have to change the way I spoke, I only had to slow down what I said a little.”

Although Jessica could interact fairly easily with the younger generation, she said it was harder to communicate with older people or those who were too poor to have a decent education.

Schooling is free in Kenya until a student reaches what would be the equivalent of eighth grade in the United States, Jessica said.

As soon as a student reaches high school, they have to pay for their own education. “If they don't have money they cannot afford high school which sometimes causes their language skills to fade out,” she said.

When her time to serve with the Peace Corps expired in September, Jessica and Wilson felt because of their age and financial standing, they need to come to a place with more opportunities.

The couple is currently living with Jessica's parents, Jim and Jan Tobalske, on the city's west side.

When Wilson arrived in the United States it was the first time he had ever stepped foot on American soil and it was also the first time he met Jessica's parents.

“When I first got here it felt like I was in a dream,” Wilson said. “The way things are here is not how they are in Kenya. We are much further behind. The first thing I noticed the first day we arrived was a road.”

He added it was hard for him to leave his home because families in Kenya are greatly attached.

Jessica, 25, said she is ready to start her career because she went into the Peace Corps right after she graduated from college. She added she is looking for a job at a non-profit organization and probably will have to move to Madison or Milwaukee to do so.

Wilson, 22, is also looking for work, but added there is a possibility he might attend college in the near future.

When this story was posted in November 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Watertown Daily Times

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