Monday, September 5, 2011

Americans in Kenya

Whew. We just finished orientation in Kenya!
Before I start chatting: the end of Istanbul was great. Highlight was an 'eating party' in Beyoglu in this district called Nevizade where the restaurants are mostly outside and there are musicians that walk from table to table. We got free fruit, wine, and tea. Definitely recommend to anyone going to Istanbul.

Anyway, we arrived in Nairobi around 2am on Monday, slept all day and headed to Naivasha the next morning! There we began learning Swahili, went over program rules and stuff, played some games by Lake Naivasha (and heard hippos!-even though we couldn't see them) and visited a fair trade certified rose farm.  Naivasha is the number one producer of flowers that get exported throughout the world. As Americans in Kenya we saw the town where our flowers come from. It is a uncomfortable thought that so much land, water, energy, and fuel is used to send unessential goods to the US and Europe when so many people are starving here in Africa but the particular farm we visited was doing some pretty fantastic things with its profits.  We visited its shelter for the orphans and runaways of Naivasha and I was thoroughly impressed. Once all the boys (the girls shelter was next door) had run up and shaken our hands we saw their dorms, classrooms, gardens, wood carving room, and kitchen- all of which made this shelter seem like a great place for these boys to grow up. My only question was if a co-ed education system could be used to promote gender equality in places like this. Obviously, the first priority is to feed, educate, and get the kids off the street, but I couldn't help but wonder if Kenya's gender inequities could be improved if from a young age, children learned to play and learn together.  On the other hand, another project site we visited was the beginnings of a women's health hospital.  Right now the medical center in Naivasha is always overcrowded with sometimes 3 new mothers sharing one bed.  The new wing will be devoted to maternity, other women's health issues as well as an HIV treatment and counseling center.

In Naivasha we also rode our first matatu (which was fortunate because Naivasha is not nearly as hectic as Nairobi). A matatu is a 14-person van that functions as a bus and to ride you have to figure out where it's going, stopping, and how much it costs based on a mix of hand signals, Swahili words, Shang words (swahili slang), and English (but apparently you are more likely to be overcharged if you use English because it's more obvious that you don't know what you are doing). They are pretty scary at first but since our first experience in Naivasha we've gotten used to them a little and today successfully rode them without our orientation guides! I have never felt so proud of myself than when i walked up to matatu and declared "u na enda jianjee gardens?" ("are you going to jianjee gardens?"-the place we get the United States International University shuttle). Matatus are interesting because although the seats tend to be falling apart, some of them have tvs attached to the seats on which they play music videos- mostly American and Kenyan. I've been loving the new Kenyan music I've been exposed to ( but while sitting two inches from Biggie and his scantily clad women, I got a real life explanation of why I had just been told throughout orientation that as a white, American woman, certain things would be assumed of me. The media we produce, our dispersed images of "ideal women" show us as sex symbols and really little else. If this is the limited exposure Kenyans get to Americans, it is hard not to blame ourselves.
Of course, this stigma of over- sexualized women is not the only assumption that comes with being a "Mzungu" (white foreigner in East Africa). We are also assumed to be extremely wealthy and have the ability to take people back to the US to improve their lives. This one is almost harder to deal with because of the truth that lies in it. Even though I am comfortably middle class in the US, in Kenya that translates to extreme wealth. For example, recently I bought a tea for the equivalent of 25 cents, a bottle of nice rose wine for $6, a full meal for $1.20. Meanwhile, the number of people with nothing here is overwhelming. It's a confusing situation because although I could afford to give all the children on the street money, we've been told that children are often forced to beg by controlling adults who share none of the money and of course it is unreasonable to give out money to everyone.  At the Maasai Market on Saturday, people would ask where I was from and because I responded "America" they would say things like "but you are American, you can afford more" when I would participate in customary bargaining and try to get good deals to save the money that I still have to budget.

I'm facing the fact that I am a rich American, but still haven't figured out how to respond to this status.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post Margy. I really get a sense of the culture shock you must be dealing with. I hope you get many experiences like your shelter visit. It would be wonderful to connect with people you meet. Thanks for the language snips and the links to videos. The world is always wider than we know.