So we’ve been in Kenya almost a month, we’ve navigated renting an apartment, starting new jobs, riding matatus, and driving a stick shift on the other side of the road with the other hand. All basically successful, leaving no permanent damage to either of us or our marriage.
Our first ten days was spent staying with Marcy and Muhia, Scott’s colleague and his lovely wife, closer to the town center of Nairobi. They took us to church, answered our endless questions, put up with my taking Swahili notes at the dinner table, and clued us in to the politics of Kenya. Not to mention fun conversation and handing it to us in Scrabble. Marcy and Mo have lived in the US so they are used Americans and know where we are coming from; they have already helped us navigate Nairobi in a sensitive manner.
My prior experience in East Africa had been in the nation of Tanzania which is less developed than Kenya. (When people ask me if I’ve been to Kenya before I say, ‘no, but I’ve been to Tanzania.’ Which is a bit like saying you’ve not been to the U.S. but you’ve been to Canada. Close but not quite.) So I had met several people that were adults but could not read or write, seen mostly people in abject poverty, and had experienced a continental divide in cultural differences. While I was in Tanzania I had seen the beginnings of Westernization. I remember looking out the window of one of our vehicles at beautiful African child with short hair (as they wear it) and in a western-style dress and I remember thinking it’s like watching a square peg willingly shave off it’s corner’s to fit in a round hole. Here in Nairobi they have shaved off even more. The women are so stylishly dressed that I feel self-conscious walking on the streets. Their cell phones are amazing, large beautifully done billboards hover over the clogged streets, and sellers on the streets are not so desperate; several have let me walk away from a sale when they refused to come down to my price. Most of this is because Kenya is more affluent than Tanzania and has access to more investors and more international media. I have found that I have yet to fully sacrifice any modern convenience (although hot showers, electricity and internet services are often flighty). I can get an amazing latte in almost shopping center. The malls put American malls to shame, complete with koi ponds and fountains. We’ve already lots of fun conversations with quick, sharp and highly educated Kenyans who are thinking through the issues of their nation; churches that are on the front lines combating poverty and organizations that are bringing real deep sociological answers to the cuts in the fabric of this country. I have been filled with hope at seeing the development and the people that are rising up through the roots to grow a new Kenya. (All of this keeping in mind that ten percent of the population of Kenya holds the majority of the wealth.)
But things are still different than they are back home. I am definitely not in Kansas. I had asked many questions of Americans before I left home and had been able to talk to Muhia before we left American soil. One of my main concerns was whether or not I’d be able to run. The Americans that I had talked to told me that nobody does that and it’s not safe, if the smog didn’t kill me to start. Muhia said yes, bring your running shoes. So on the first day in the country Muhia, Muhia’s nephew, Scott, me, and Muhia’s dog all went on a run through the tilted and crazy streets of Nairobi. We cut quite the path through the people and cars, to be sure. I was all geared up to have people gawk and stare at us, but much to my entertainment it was not us that attracted the most attention from onlookers, it was the small Rottweiler that ran, happily and leashed, beside Muhia. Kenyans, for the most part, do not like dogs. Dogs are largely used for guarding houses and not as pets that we lavish attention on and form emotional bonds with as members of our family. Since then I have seen a few Kenyan men running, two Kenyan women (one in spandex), two white women, and several white men running. All in tennis shoes and varying forms of athletic gear and a few with mp3 players, leading me to conclude that, yes, people run in Kenya (keeping in mind that Kenyans are famous for running in the Olympics).
So today I suited up and went running all by myself, and I got stared at, a lot. The men said hello or just stared and the women looked at me like I had done and gone lost my mind (never you mind that there are several Kenyan women running in the Olympics at this very moment, in outfits that I would not be caught dead in, much less internationally photographed in). All these observations of running have led me to think through what it means to be culturally offensive. There is a difference between doing something that is culturally offensive and doing something that may just be construed as strange. I’ve seen this in my own context back home in Colorado. One day I was driving up the last paved road to our home in BV, and as I drove up I saw a man running up the road in slightly shorter than normal shorts and slightly longer than normal hair, but this was not the oddest thing about this man. He was running with a donkey, on a leash. Yes, he was jogging up a hill, with seemingly, his pet donkey. I waved to the man with the pet donkey, he waved back and I thought to myself, ‘you don’t see that everyday,’ downshifted and continued on my way home. This man with the donkey was not being offensive, his presence did not rankle me or disrupt my existence, it was just odd. Therefore there are going to be times when Scott and I do something that is just odd, that does not offend anyone just makes them turn their heads and wonder what that was about. I think that prior to this my experience with cross-cultural situations was that everything I do that is not Kenyan is going to be rude and offensive, so that I interacted with people fearing that I was always basically being offensive. It’s nice to know that’s not true and that sometimes my actions will just be, ‘a donkey on a leash.’