Thursday, September 29, 2005


Mungu akipenda - God Willing - runs far deeper in Kenyan culture than just a
casual tack-on to a farewell. "See you tommorrow, mungu akipenda." The way
Kenyans cling to hope and faith in God or fate can strike an impatient
American as being naive and foolish.

When I talk to Kenyan friends about how deeply corruption is entrenched int
he community, the response I get is, "God's way will prevail eventually," or
"Leave it to God to decide." I keep pushing people to act - to speak out
against corruption, to hold leaders accountable for their actions and to
question things that appear shady or that are just non-transparent - but
this is a non-confrontational culture and showing respect is often more
important than asserting yourself.

So instead my colleagues nod enthusiastically and then say, "Justina, you're
the best person to confront them. You do it." And they are both right and
wrong. Somewhat right, because as a foreigner I can get away with being
direct and conforming to social norms, and pretend that I don't know better.
But wrong, because the mzungu being the spokesperson for the Crackdown on
Corruption isn't sustainable (who will speak out when I leave?), and already
the people with things to hide are hiding harder, gathering secretly and
whispering, "Don't tell Justina because she'll ask questions." It goes
against most of my instincts at this point, but I wonder if there is a more
culturally acceptable way to approach this - meaning less direct, less
confrontational and less vocal. The corrupt take notice when I speak out,
but they don't take action. Well, only to do a better job of hiding from the
mzungu watchdog.

I feel like part of the reason various leaders continue to steal, lie, bribe
and cheat is because they know their community won't confront them. It's
that simple. So when Kenyans tell me that God will decide and that He'll
reward the righteous or whatever it is, my first reaction is to get
impatient. I want to say, in a loud, un-Kenyan voice, "Not if you don't get
off your ass and do something about it, you fool."

But there's a part of me that sees virtue in their hope and seeming blind
faith that some cosmic justice will eventually be served, that the karma pot
will evenutally dole out what each person deserves and reclaim its dues from
those who owe. Maybe the virtue is in what it reveals about how Kenyans have
survived hardship. Hope and faith in a better tommorrow, mungu akipenda, is
a coping mechanism, one that is comparatively underdeveloped in Americans,
because most of us have never had to coexist as intimately with loss,
disappointment, delayed gratification or no gratification at all as Africans
have for centuries. Hope is perhaps the only thing many Africans have, and
at least no one can tell them it doesn't exist. How can you disprove the
existence of hope? It's the only thing someone can't take away from you.

Yes, the apparent powerlessness to effect change that many Kenyans feel is
frustrating and at times baffling - why don't they just SAY something? But I
know the answer is more complex than I can understand after being here only
four months. It's ignorance, illiteracy, culture, poverty and much more, but
arranged in a psychological algorithm different from anything I'd ever
expect. At least I've learned this much so far - reality is not the equation
you were taught in school or the Africa you pictures after perusing the
guidebook. Hopefully over time I'll come to understand what it really is a
bit better. Mungu akipenda.


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