Tuesday, December 27, 2005

There's Only One Mosquito Net for Three Beds and Matatus Suck

Nanyuki, near Mt. Kenya.

Kumiko and A are already crashed out even though we all spent the same amount of time bob-napping on the matatus today. It has been refreshing to meet Kumiko's neighbor, Brown, who oddly enough is more black than brown, and find the long-sought-after reminder that not all Kenyans are the passive, disempowered, resentful village farmers I usually encounter. He was educated in England and has traveled in Scotland and France. Not only did he not need an explanation of "why I look like a China," but he says what he thinks and asks for what he wants.

"What are we waiting for, bwana?" he asked the matatu driver as we were idling at a junction for no apparent reason.

"That was really rude by Kenyan standards," he whispered to me. " You're not supposed to yell out questions like that."

Which would explain why everyone was giving me disapproving stares, and a lady behind me was tsk-tsking, when I once asked a matatu driver to turn off the radio because the cheap speakers were busted and the only sound coming out of them was a high-pitched hissing that made my ears ring. How dare a person say what's on her mind, especially a woman?

I was on yet another matatu a few days ago on a winding dirt road. There was a matatu next to us, and before long the drivers were racing to be the first to pick up passengers waiting along the road. I asked the driver to slow down so that we wouldn't pitch over the edge into a valley, and everyone on the matatu laughed. He slowed down for a few seconds, but soon the matatus were leap-frogging each other competing for customers and kicking up thick clouds of dust. We were going way too fast and there was no visibility except for orange dust. We reached a stretch where the road became narrow and uneven because there were piles of dirt and gravel and construction trucks working.

What would you, as a responsible matatu driver, do in this situation? Our driver floored the gas, and the other driver floored the gass, and I looked out the front windshield and saw a giant dump truck barreling towards us on this narrow road obscured by dust.

"SLOW DOWN!!" I screamed in a panic, thumping the driver on the arm. "ENDESHA POLE POLE!!!" He and everyone on the matatu just laughed, but he also slowed down (and the other matatu got the next passengers). What's wrong with people? Do they not value their lives, or am I just neurotic and obsessed with safety? I have to revise my previous complaint that I don't know how to make Kenyans laugh. I do - just scream, panic, show anger, impatience or frustration, or speak Kiswahili or their local dialect. I wonder if laughter has a different meaning in this culture. In some cultures, a person will laugh if you have embarrassed them. I don't know what it means here, but maybe it's not always a form of mockery, but an expression of social discomfort. Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better because I'm tired of being laughed at everytime I think I've just put a harrassing tout or vendor or street kid in his place with some clever retort.

The conditioning to create a docile masses begins early - kids are not encouraged to ask questions or to question authority, they are ridiculed if they say something the teacher doesn't like or agree with, fostering a sense that there is only one correct answer and it's better to wait and be told what it is, than to risk being shamed for attempting to figure out an answer themselves. Students in secondary schools are not encouraged to discuss different sides of an issue, just to accept whatever doctrine their teachers or the funding institution (usually a church) wants to disseminate. People aren't encouraged to develop critical thinking or decision-making skills, because that could lead to dissent from the grassroots and then where would the powerful people be with all the little people arguing with them and questioning their decisions all the time? When I've taught about HIV in high schools here, the students are completely silent and won't ask questions or engage in discussions. They fear making their voices heard, especially the girls. It was only when Hillary took over and used the typical teaching style of inflecting his sentences to elicit obedient responses that they would respond. "HIV makes your body vulnerable to opportunistic infections," he would say. Then he'd repeat, "HIV makes your body vulnerable to opportunistic...?" and the students knew that was their cue to say "infections."


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