Friday, September 22, 2006

Nairobi Is Another Planet (Unlike Pluto)

Most recent case of mistaken identity:

Person I’ve just met: “Justina, that’s a Mexican name.”

Me: “Well, um, I don’t know. Probably not.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“No, but I studied French.”

“Your accent is American but it’s like you’re a Mexican.”


But my favorite is, “You’re American? You must be a Red Indian.” I can’t help it; I just say, “Yes, you’re right. I’m a Red Indian.” If Kenyans ever asked if I was Native American it would be no fun to say, “Yes, I’m Native American.” I just think it’s great that Kenyans have a name to describe people who are neither red nor Indian.

Most recent re-realization of an obvious fact: There is a whole other world in Kenya called Nairobi. I was talking to one of the researchers who is collecting data from our district for a study on antiviral gels that might protect women from getting HIV. She and all of her colleagues are from Nairobi – born and raised. I asked her that question that Kenyans always ask me that drives me crazy: “So how do you find this place?”

“It’s so boring,” she said. “On weekends I have to go to Kisumu or Nairobi or Eldoret, otherwise I’ll feel so bored.”

Coming from a year in the village, I think my new town is an impressive oasis of developed civilization, but I think if I were coming from Nairobi it would be different. What am I talking about? Everytime I come back from Nairobi I go through a readjustment period. It’s not as severe as culture shock, but it’s realigning my expectations back to village life – people staring open-mouthed everywhere I go, people screaming racist things everywhere I go, mamas selling vegetables at the market who think I don’t understand them complaining to each other in Kiswahili that I’m so rude because I didn’t buy anything from them, peoples’ hands suddenly springing out horizontally towards me, palms up, as soon as they see my pale skin. “You give me fifty bob. You give me bread. You buy me soda.” NO NO NO NO NO NO.

*SIGH* I feel her on Nairobi. Java House is just a comfort zone. A refuge where I can drown my cross-cultural sorrows in an espresso sundae and an actual green salad with actual Romaine lettuce. I never even liked Romaine lettuce before Kenya. Now it’s just so crispy and fresh and raw, a combination not found outside the capital city, in food or elsewhere.

The researcher was telling me about some of the other communities she’s been posted to for other projects. She was in a village near the Ugandan border one time, and it was market day. Her co-worker said, “Don’t look to your right. Just look left and you’ll be okay.” So of course she looked to her right. There were crowds of naked men bathing in the river. So she looked left. There were crowds of naked women bathing in a different section of the river. And thousands of people milling about at the nearby market, paying no attention.

“I’m a Kenyan and I realized there are places in Kenya that I just don’t know about,” she said.

Another time she was sent to do research in a remote village on the coast. She was told not to wear trousers because women who wore trousers in that area were assumed to be prostitutes. When she got there, wearing a skirt, she realized that the women in the village wore traditional skirts made from lesos (large pieces of colorful fabric) tied together so that they puff out really big around their hips…and nothing above the waist.

“I don’t know why wearing trousers makes me a prostitute when all the women in the village are going around showing their breasts and they’re not prostitutes,” she said.

She also told me about an area just inland from the coast, where she was doing research for an iron-supplement project. “It’s an area that gets a lot of relief food,” she explained.

“Oh, is it a drought area?”

“It’s dry but they do get short rains throughout the year,” she said. “They could grow food but they’re just lazy.”


“It’s easier to rely on relief food,” she said.

“How do you know the problem is laziness?” I asked.

“Everyone knows those people are lazy,” she said, authoritatively.

I won’t completely agree. But I won’t completely disagree either. When you live where you see what really goes on in these poor rural areas, you see beyond the clear-cut, academic explanations. As much as compassionate observers like to (rightly) point to all sorts of other contributing factors – a corrupt, irresponsible government, poverty, lack of access to education, a sense of disempowerment – it’s naïve to insist that there’s not a tiny bit of laziness as a result. Laziness – and every other development-crippling vice – isn’t innate, of course. There are extremely valid reasons for it. But it has been hard for me to get past the guilt of judgment and moral superiority and just be able to draw a Problem Tree (for a problem such as “No Income”) with one root called “Laziness.” To ignore that it exists is to paint an incomplete picture, and ultimately to leave one problem unaddressed.


Anonymous wendy said...

its interesting to see that even a kenyan doesn't understand some of the stuff that goes on there. but then again a nairobian isn't kenyan. i see u've realized that nairobi is like its own country. i never could understand fully how a place within another is suppose to be like the rest of it. its not just nairobi. even on the coast. u ask n e swahili about n e where beyond the coast and they only know it as "up country" anything more specific and they're totally in the dark.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Justina said...

WENDY, WHAT'S UP SISTAAA???? Well I'm just guessing you're THE Wendy. It's the tone of your voice, man. I can hear it even on a blog. How's America and post-PC life, baby?? You miss it here yet? I hear Eric does.

Oh yeah I asked a Nairobi Kenyan a few weeks ago if he liked mursik (sour milk aged in a gourd, you know it).

He's all, "What? What's that?"

So I explained it, and he goes, "Ew, no, I've never had it, that sounds gross."

Whole nuther world, baby.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous wendy said...

yep its me. ive been told that my emails/sms sound just the way i talk. not sure if thats good or bad. post pc is alright. not quite how i expected. of course eric misses it. i'm sure he's plannin a trip back...hehe

i think nairobians prefer mala. its like maziwa lala except its from the factory and has taste added. they told me its just like yogurt but its not. i still think its gross: mala, maziwa lala whatever kind.

10:46 PM  

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