Friday, February 17, 2006

Just there. Where? There. There Where? Over there...

I was walking back from a chief’s baraza (village meeting) yesterday evening, stumbling along a dirt road trying to make out the rainwashed contours by the fleeing twilight, listening to some of my friends chatter in Kinandi and trying to convince myself that I understood a few words, when suddenly I thought, “I love being here.” There was no real reason for having this epiphany at that particular moment, really.

At the baraza, I had just given another speech about how to apply for funding for a gravity water project and people had regarded me suspiciously after I told them there were no guarantees that their proposal would be funded. This was after I had sat through a three hour lecture in Kinandi, presented by some representatives from a local NGO that gives out microloans, and felt frustrated about something the speaker had written on the board:

Structures that sustain poverty: time wasted, lack of exposure, selfishness, lack of togetherness, lack of respect

Structures that alleviate poverty: love, knowledge, understanding, environment (nation/tribe, neighbors, self)

It was the same frustration I feel whenever I work with a Kenyan to write letters or prepare presentations, where I feel like their communication style is very non-specific and indirect. I always think about the idea of high-context and low-context cultures when I come across this type of communication (and it happens about 30 times a day), about how American culture is very low-context, meaning we assume that the person we are speaking to may not carry all the same cultural assumptions we do, so we are very specific about what we mean. By contrast Kenyan culture is high-context, meaning people can say very little and understand each other perfectly well. From my cultural perspective this kind of communication can come across as cowardly, passive-aggressive, or just an indication that the speaker doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about. Kenyans always say things like:

You remember the other time? (Which other time?)
Just there. (Where?)
You know the other person. (Which other person?)
Later. (What time?)
Tommorrow. (What time?)
That one. (That one what?)
Mm. (Yes? No? What are you talking about??)

And they understand each other. I must sound like a three-year-old to most Kenyans because I followup everything they say with a question. Why? What do you mean? Which one? What time?

Anyway, the guy’s presentation bothered me because I was thinking, why is he using these really general and innocuous terms instead of saying outright what the real problems and solutions are? My list would have been:

Structures that sustain poverty: corruption, cultural taboos against confrontation and speaking out, oppression of women (gender violence, unequal division of labor, exclusion from opportunities such as education based on lower social status, i.e. women are property and need to be treated like children), sense of disempowerment due to: low education levels, lack of access to information, community apathy

Structures that alleviate poverty: holding leaders accountable for their actions especially with regard to financial management (asking WHY?), community solidarity, education, access to information, self-empowerment, especially of women, attitudes, i.e. my community is full of valuable resources and I don’t need to rely on outsiders to raise myself out of poverty, STOP BEATING AND RAPING YOUR WIVES, SISTERS, NEIGHBORS, ETC AND GET OFF YOUR ARSE AND HELP HER WITH THE HOUSEWORK!!

At one point the presenter said, as an example of how to show love to alleviate poverty, “When you come home and dinner isn’t ready because your wife is still out collecting firewood or washing the clothes or fetching water, go into the kitchen and start cooking some vegetables.” The entire room erupted into gut-busting laughter, including the women.

In the end, Kenyans understand each other through what I consider a vague communication style that drives me crazy, but I think the presenter had effectively communicated his main messages, and people came away feeling like it was within their control to change their lives for the better.

Anyway, so I was walking home from this baraza and realized that for some reason despite feeling frustrated about things I never imagined could happen to me, like having an incomprehensible conversation in English with another English-speaker, or having an entire schoolyard full of primary school kids giggling and chanting “China! China! China!”, I really love being here. My work, and even my free-time, forces me to look for solutions to whatever problem I run into, usually solutions that require improvising with the limited resources available to me, and because everyday is full of problems, it’s like the wheels are always turning in my brain. Which is new.

I’m beginning to understand why people say employers value the resourcefulness and creativity and can-do attitude of Peace Corps volunteers. It’s not just recruitment propaganda. If I didn’t have a can-do attitude I’d probably have to throw myself into Lake Victoria. It’s easy to come here, scan your surroundings, and decide that everything’s hopeless. A lot of people in my village have done just that, and one of the most difficult things about development work is convincing communities, as well as myself, that there is hope for change, and that we each hold it in our own hands.

Still haven’t found a solution to the absence of sushi in my village though.


Blogger jenly said...

WOWOWOWOW GREAT POST AS WELL! i love your blog, i think i'll just turn my blog into a review of your blog hahahha jk

no seriously though dude... they have spumoni in bomet. insanity. anad deliciousness. delicious insanity.

so pretty much what you're saying is, "i'm a peace corps volunteer. i'm awesome!" right? :) i lurve it.

1:18 PM  
Blogger jke said...

Sushi? Ati, get yours in NBO :-)

Seriously, I feel you on that communication matter. Have you ever thought about using proverbs as a way to address these issues like the ones on your list? Issues that can not be directly addressed, especially in conservative rural areas and require a different approach. A proverb then sometimes helps to convey the message, I think.

Tokoro kawareba, shina kawaru ^^

1:58 AM  
Anonymous Irena said...

Well I 'm in the USA and as a Kenyan I have a problem with the eye contact thing. To me I don't understand why I have to "stare" someone on the face while speaking to them so that they can "read " my facial expression and pass a judgement if I "seem" to be honest,confident etc.

Every society/culture has a way of communicating and I do not mean to be critical but Kenyans have always spoken like that, they understand each other that way and so, it is upon the outsider to adjust . I too have to adjust to "stare" at people's faces as I speak to them in America.

12:39 AM  
Anonymous Irena said...

P.S I don't think the word "vague" is the right word to use about our communication .Just because you do not understand it does not mean it is vague. I have a problem with your essay because it seems you are not embracing the culture but you are picking this and that and telling on what is wrong with it.You have to be open minded and understand the culture you are in because certainly it is not the American culture you are used to and people over there do things very differently, think differently and they are okay with it.
Maybe they are okay with their vague way of speaking, the vague way of looking at their problems, their vague way of solving it etc.
Do not be in a society and try to do a total overhaul and try to make it what it should be in your eyes. Make it what it sould be through their eyes.

12:50 AM  
Blogger jenly said...

i just want to say thanks so much to irena for the very valid comment. i feel always that i need to be reminded of my shortcomings, and after a slew of hateful comments by people who didn't like what they read on this blog, i really appreciate your ability to be critical without being mean. i think it's a balance that requires maturity and wisdom that a lot of bloggers simply do not have. but anyway yes! thanks so much again. i think justina does often analyze herself as the outsider who is sometimes unable to adjust, and is in that sense very honest, but i think once in a while she still falls short of adjusting (as do i! even more so!) but i really like what you said at the end, "Do not be in a society and try to do a total overhaul and try to make it what it should be in your eyes. Make it what it sould be through their eyes." thanks again for your great comments. after all the hurtful/hateful comments, reading your comments is like a breath of fresh air!

2:52 PM  
Blogger jenly said...

i take back my 'slew of a hateful comments' because it's an exaggeration. 'a few hateful comments' is more accurate.

also, sometimes just because we don't change to become culturally identical to our hosts, it doesn't mean we aren't embracing the culture. (though admittedly i think we are still learning to accept some of the things that clash with our culture.)

also "vague" is not used as a derogatory term. i think it's accurate in the sense that the same word can be used to describe several things, whereas in english we are more specific, with a lot of ways to describe taste, for example. it doesn't mean that english is better or anything like that. in fact i think justina's point was exactly that people understand each other just fine without the specificities that we so rely on in english.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Justina said...

Thanks Irena and Jenly for the comments. When I post about my frustrations it's not to say I expect the culture to change to be more like my own or that I refuse to adjust; that kind of attitude would be arrogant and naive. My frustrations are my frustrations alone, and I understand that sometimes it comes across as if there is a subtext of "why can't people change to be like me" but that is never what I'm saying. Also I think that if I weren't constantly trying, successfully or unsuccessfully, to embrace and adjust to the culture I'm living in I wouldn't still be here after almost a year. A YEAR, JENLY!! Can you believe it?? :)

1:11 PM  
Blogger Justina said...

Hey Jke! We went to a sushi restaurant in Nairobi a few weeks ago and it was DIVINE! I forget the name but you must know it - behind Sarit Center. Jenly and I shared the sushi boat and we ate EVERYTHING, including the lettuce and shredded carrot decoration. Hey, you can't get those things in my village.

1:14 PM  

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