People ask me what’s so difficult about living in Kenya. It’s hard to put a finger on the pulse of my frustration. We can get almost anything we want, as long as we are willing to pay for it (often we aren’t) or willing to drive for it. (Except English muffins, and I’d like to think that my mental health isn’t predicated on the availability of certain breakfast breads.) Often I think we hardly notice what we can’t buy. But what makes living here so wearing on my mental state?
I like to run. In fact I like to run a lot. When we got here I asked around to determine if I could continue my cardio addiction. I watched what Kenyan women were wearing to see what would be appropriate; I noticed that tightness of pants doesn’t really matter, but it seemed best to cover your thighs and shoulders. Erring on the side of modesty seemed a keen idea. On our second day here our friend took us running so I saw that it could be done. The locals were actually more distressed by the dog that we were running with than by me and my running capris.
So throughout the last two years I have kept up with my compulsion to pound my soles against the pavement, but at some risk to my mental health. It seems that no matter what level of modesty I uphold I am seen as a sexual object. Think of our media; any time an American actress bares herself to the camera that gets exported the world over. In all the Kenyan publications that I have seen any photograph of a scantily clad woman is white. So as I jog with thighs and shoulders covered, in the direct hot African heat, I get stared at, a lot. To the Kenyan men’s benefit I have never been grabbed. I have had a few ‘polite’ comments, but no wolf whistles. Just staring.
I also get stared at by the women and children. The children will often yell, ‘Mzungu.’ (Which is Swahili for white person.) This would be the equivalent of an African-American going for a jog and all the children she passes yelling, ‘Darky.’ It’s racist and it’s exhausting. This is also often followed by a mocking, ‘How are you?!” and then, ‘Give me money!’ Sometimes angry teenagers will hiss ‘mzungu’ at me, sometimes they’ll imitate me. Which I do respond to, it’s not pretty, but my response is appropriate.
Everyone stares at me; man, woman, and child. I don’t wave at the men, because I don’t need to make friends with strange men. I do wave at the women, and sometimes they smile and wave back, other times they just glare at me. I wave at the women wearing the hijab and wonder how they view me; loose and wanton or free and healthy. Mostly I just give up because it doesn’t matter what I do, I seem to be treated with ill regard.
I also walk a lot, and often with Emma. There are a group of women workers that keep the streets swept and the landscaping cared for, they have watched me walk and run for a year, they watched my belly grow and then shrink. If I walk with her in the mornings to help her nap they greet me and her, and they all know her name. This is sweet and touching and part of Kenya that I love, but one that I experience so rarely. Mostly I seem to get treated like a walking wallet, or with what I perceive as scorn.
On weekends our neighborhood streets are glutted with small children walking to a local church to receive their sponsorship money. Adults also gather; walking on their days off in between the two slums that are tucked back away from main roads. I can’t count the number of Saturdays I have gazed out our window and thought, ‘oh, I could go on a walk right now.’ And the very next thought is, ‘but I’ll get yelled at.’ I have given up running and walking on weekends. I no longer have the emotional energy, I just sigh and hope my cardiovascular health will maintain itself until I can get home and run in peace.