And for once I was SuperMom

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Nickeled and Dimed

I feel like living in Nairobi is like being nickel and dimed to utter frustration. My friend who was living in Sudan was denied everything, no electricity, no running water, no white people, he was living in a world apart, from camp to camp in the bush. Here I live in a city and almost anything that I want is available to me. If I am able to pay it. Twelve dollars for a bottle of contact disinfectant, six dollars for a box of American cereal. Sure you can pay three for the Kenyan produced cereal, but it tastes like a wheat field, and the wheat, the dirt. Sure, you can get cheese and sliced bread here. But the cheese tastes as if, as my good friend puts it, the cow has been eating garbage. The bread is fine if you toast it or grill it, but tastes like sawdust if you just want to eat it as in on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or the BLT’s we ate last Sunday. I sat eating said sandwich thinking, this is why I don’t eat sandwiches here. I remember in our first week a friend saying that she couldn’t stand the bread here, I remember thinking, ‘It’s not so bad.’ Yesterday I stood in front of all the bread in Nakumatt and realized we had tried all of it and it all tasted like sawdust, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any loaves. I have been nickeled and dimed out of buying bread.

I’ve never been mugged, I don’t think I’ve ever been touched, I’ve never been accosted, but yet leaving my house and doing errands and walking down the street takes immense amounts of emotional energy. I get stared at all the time. I live in a wealthy neighborhood that is crawling with white people, but still every Kenyan I pass in my car or while walking stares at me as if I am two headed beast. No second head, it’s just blonde. In the village you greet everyone you pass, but Nairobi is just like any city where you there are no steadfast rules for greeting people. So I’ve made up my own; I greet women. Sometimes they smile and wave back, others glare at me as if I moved to Africa just to steal their men. Which my swelling belly seems to attest to, never you mind I am happily married to a US citizen. The men I don’t greet, except for the guards. My logic is that I am a married woman, I wouldn’t greet men I don’t know on the street in the US, why would I do it here? I greet the guards because they are just doing their job, and you know what they are probably bored and could use a smile. Besides if anything goes down, the mugging that people keep threatening will happen, hopefully they are the ones that would help the white woman who has waved at them on her walks and runs each day. The children are the hardest. Because they are just children. But they beg and call out at you, I’ve had them follow me for a good mile or so and ask for money or sweets, or mimic and mock my running. I’ve had them yell at me and call out English greetings in mocking tones. And I hate having to walk by packs of these kids and in fact actively try to avoid them, and then I feel guilty. Lots of guilt. Because they are poor and they are kids and maybe they don’t know better, but they do, but then again they are poor and they are poor and they are poor.

I have a general rule of not giving to beggars. Because I think it just teaches people to beg. Maybe you read this and you judge me, and say but they are so poor. But there are others who are living here who are not poor. It can be done. It’s not as simple as that when you get here. When you see the blind man being led through traffic by the child with an empty cup, what do you do? What can a blind man do in a nation that starves its own people?

And in this you can see the summation of my frustration with Nairobi, I came here to help. I came here to be part of Africa. I came here to facilitate the success of people that are just like me, but born to unfortunate circumstances. But then we get abused. A family that I have come to enjoy, I taught each of their children last year and will have their eldest next year, is now considering leaving. After being here for a year and half and having work permits, delayed and then delayed and then delayed, having promises getting broken and then broken and then broken, having Kenyans get excited about a program and then never showing up and then never showing up and then never showing up, and having people promise to pay them and then never getting paid and then never getting paid and then never getting paid, they are at the end of the proverbial rope and now it’s fraying. This is added to by watching Scott talk about programs that would be so easy to implement and how everyone was so excited and now a year later this exciting and excellent program is still in the storage closet. I’m sure that some of this is due to the ‘relational yes.’ If an American is not going to do something they just say no, because that’s the truth, we’re used to that and that’s what we expect. If an African is not going to do something he says he’ll be there and then never shows up. In his mind he has kept the relationship going because he has said yes to your face, whereas to us he has just lied and broken a promise. I think for us it’s hard to know was that a relational yes or was that just a random act of ‘I’m not going to follow through.’

You can’t make people work. They have to want to and they have to see the benefit of hard work. I didn’t come over here thinking that my culture was superior and it isn’t, but we do have areas in our culture that have brought our success. Some would say it’s because the white man has colonized and pillaged, and there is truth to that. But we do work hard, there are plenty of Americans of every color that are where they are not because they used someone else, but because they showed up every day to work or class and did the work that was required of them, and then did some more. There are Kenyans with strong work ethics, and as always the truth is somewhere in the middle and with people there are hardly ever absolutes, and there are plenty of Kenyans with no work ethic at all. You have more than me, so why don’t you just give it to me?

I don’t know if it’s better to have something, tasted it and then have it taken away or if it’s better to never have it at all, daydream about it and not know what it’s really like?

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