July 9th, 2008 at 9:14 pm (Kenya)
The most profound lessons Africa has taught me are how resilient a body and soul can potentially be, and that family loyalty can differentiate poverty from hopelessness. It is common to see a village woman carrying a giant sack of potatoes on her head, which is so heavy that it requires two people to hoist it up for balancing. Meanwhile, she is toting her toddler on her back and a hand-crafted hoe in her hands. A common village man can push a bike without gears up hill with firewood stacked as high as the rider. Of course both of these tasks are performed after digging up potatoes for hours or chopping and de-leafing bushes, respectively.
My grandmother used to resent the fact that getting older entailed outliving most of those who are closest to you. I can’t imagine going through the same emotional hardships with less life experience, whereas it happens all too often here. I’ve met many women who have outlived half of their children, not to mention their husbands. Sometimes it is due to war, and other times it’s just due to lack of access. Many of my Kenyan peers at work have lost friends and family members from “natural” causes, which is a reality I have never known. It is typical for an African woman to be physically or sexually abused, along with being female-circumcised. It baffles me how this is all too common, rarely spoken about, and often not considered wrong; yet these same women are the glue that holds together families. How do spirits that have endured so much maintain their strength?
Devotion to family is value that is so engrained in the culture. My upper-middle class African colleagues are expected to support their nieces and nephews, younger siblings, and cousins. Even my house-lady, who likely makes less than $175 per month, supports her nuclear family along with her relatives that live ‘up country.’ (My American household pays her nearly quadruple what all of our neighbors pay their house-ladies.) What most amazes me the most is that it is quite common after war for neighbors to raise the orphan children from next-door. In contrast, in America it is possible that we don’t even know the names of all of the people in the household next-door. My Eritrean friend affectionately nicknamed his sister ‘Muzungu’ (white person/ foreigner) because she has achieved upper-class in the social strata, but does not share her wealth with their family. The name seems fitting since I don’t know of any of my American friends (that are not first or second-generation immigrants) who share their paychecks with their families.
Nevertheless, at times the numerous quantities of T.I.A. moments overwhelm my spirit. T.I.A. stands for This Is Africa, meaning the scenarios that tend to occur in Africa more than other places most often due to the lack of development. For example, when trying to overcome a bout of homesickness and calling home it is not uncommon for the phone-line to disconnect for no apparent reason. It’s as though Africa itself interrupts my get-away.
I’m losing the quality that I’ve always defined myself by, which was to assume that people are inherently good. This has played out in so many ways. I automatically assume that I am going to be scammed, so I cop an attitude whenever buying anything from a tout. Black-American women especially, have a notorious reputation for having a negative attitude. While it was a consistent disposition that I have long questioned, especially since I come from the ‘Chocolate City’ (Washington, DC), I now not only understand it but have adopted it. The bad part is that I too argue that I am justified because in nearly every business transaction, the seller is trying to give me a rate three times the price a Kenyan pays due to my skin color. I’m sure that Black-American women claim to be justified because there is undeniably still racism throughout America. When I pride myself in bargaining to half of the price the tout originally suggested, I often discover that I still paid thrice the amount my colleague paid.
I’m imprisoned at night by my fears because I live in the city that has rightfully earned its nick-name, ‘Night-robbery’ in stead of Nairobi. It still baffles me that I have to take a taxi two blocks away. It is exhausting always having to be on guard. Unfortunately the stories of muggings, car-jacking, jumps, and rapes, perpetuate my fears by embodying them. And then my whole career purpose is to give refugees a second chance to reassemble their lives, yet I’ve discovered that the fraud rate ranges from 50-85% on two of the three types of refugees. It makes me question if my energy is wisely invested. I suppose I could think that all of these situations as survival techniques for the desperate. Nonetheless, the inequity, corruption, and lies still rile me up no matter how mentally and emotionally prepared I ought to be by now.
When I first arrived to Africa, I stayed with a Peruvian woman who has lived in Kenya for more than two decades. She was the first I asked, and has since given the best answer to the question: Why do you love living in Africa? She said, “I don’t like life being so perfect and easy. I like a challenge.” I’ve never liked fabrics to match perfectly, I feel guilty and undeserving if I have the nicest things, and while others enjoy challenging themselves physically and mentally. I thrive off of challenging myself socially. I have a sense of pride after I find an alternative way to get things done over the obvious way. I enjoy trying to get to know people who are so different from me by testing the social norms of what questions I can get away with asking.
Reconciling the fact that this spectrum of emotions derives from the same place is complicated. My roommate says that he lives in Africa because, “It is where I feel the most alive.” His happiness, anger, and sadness are so much more poignant on this continent than anywhere else. It is true to some extent for me as well; I am never numb here.
I suppose one of the biggest lessons I’ve personally learned from this experience is that I can create a life for myself anywhere. I can open myself up enough to be able to quickly establish a support group of friends, which is imperative; I can test my stomach enough to try a wide variety of foods in order to discover my favorite eating spots. I can be brave enough to explore sites of the likes I’ve never seen. If it weren’t for my lofty ambitions, I honestly believe that I could be happy living anywhere.