Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Conversations With Kenyans

What Did You Bring Me? This morning Godi came into the office to greet me. We hadn’t seen each other in awhile because either he’d been in the field with the mobile VCT unit or I’d been out of town.

“Nairobi ilikuwaje?” he asked, testing my Swahili. How was Nairobi?

“Ilikuwa nzuri,” I said. It was fine.

“Umenileta nini?” he asked. What did you bring me?

I instantly switched into English crankypants mode. “Why do you expect me to bring you something everytime I go somewhere? Even people who don’t even know my name ask me this, like they’re entitled to a gift.”

Godi just laughed. “Oh, your Swahili is so good. I didn’t expect you to understand me.” No matter how long I’m here I’ll never get used to Kenyans laughing at times that I consider completely inappropriate, mostly when I’m already annoyed. I think my greatest contribution to this country has been my prodigious ability to amuse Kenyans with my irritation over cultural misunderstandings.

“Nevermind my Swahili,” I said. “Why did you ask me what I brought you? It’s rude to ask for gifts.”

“It’s just a greeting,” he said, still grinning and patient as ever, true evidence of the superiority of the Kenyan temperament. “It’s what we say when we see people. Like when a man returns to his house at night, all the kids come running and ask, what did you bring us?”

“But it’s like begging. If you want something from Nairobi, give me the money and ask me to buy it for you while I’m there,” I said.

“We don’t actually mean it when we ask what you’ve brought. We can go into someone’s house and say, what can you cook for me, because it’s just a way to greet and talk. But if we’re actually hungry we won’t ask,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said. “That makes sense. It’s like when my parents greet their Taiwanese friends by asking, have you eaten yet? All my life I’ve always wondered, what’s this infatuation with whether people have eaten or not? And if you say you haven’t eaten, are they supposed to take you to lunch? But really, it’s not about food at all. It’s just greetings.”

“Yes, that is it,” he said.

Perhaps It Can Maybe Not Be Possible. Americans are legendary for being direct and literal communicators, for better or for worse. So it’s a constant source of frustration for me when people can’t tell me No, and will lie and say Yes, then assume I knew they meant No. But most of the time when someone is being indirect, I don’t even realize it.

“Justina, you’ve forgotten about the HIV workshop you promised to teach for the boda-bodas,” my co-worker said to me today.

I bristled. “What do you mean? We’ve been working on it all week. We just finished the proposal today and we’re mailing it tomorrow.”

And on top of that, where have YOU been this whole time? I haven’t exactly seen your face around the office all week, eager to offer ideas and help out with proposal writing. What kind of obnoxious assertion is that, that I’ve somehow dropped the ball when you’re the one who’s been MIA while everyone else around you has had their noses to the grindstone on this project?

I didn’t say any of that. I just said, “But I don’t understand what you mean when you say I’ve forgotten. Why do you think that?”

“So you are now looking for funds,” she replied, dodging my question. “That is good.”

“We talked about this in last week’s meeting,” I said, my irritation growing more thinly disguised by the minute. “I said that we were going to write a proposal this week. Remember?”

“Yes, I was at the meeting,” she replied. Then why are we having this conversation??

Instead I said, “Okay, then I still don’t understand why you thought I had forgotten about this project.”

I never got an answer. I was still irritated when I ran into Hillary later, so I recounted the story to him. I rarely see him anymore; months can go by without crossing paths with him, but when I do I’m always reminded how well he knows me.

“Justina,” he sighed. It was one of his you-impatient-Americans-need-to-be-more-understanding sighs. “All I know is that Africans use very indirect ways of communicating. They don’t say exactly what they mean. They like to beat around the bush.”

I didn’t see how this was relevant to my story, so he continued. “When she said you had forgotten, she was translating directly from the Nandi language. It’s just a way to ask how things are faring on. She wanted to know if the project was continuing on well. And she probably got shy when you started getting annoyed.”

It was starting to make a little sense, and I was starting to feel like a jerk. I still don’t know why she felt she had to be indirect about it, but I do know that with most things I don’t understand about Kenya, if I try to make sense of it, I’ll only start passing judgment, and it will drive me crazy. All I need to know is that this is how things are, whether I like it or not.

And at least now I know that she wasn’t accusing me of being a slacker.

On the other hand… Sometimes Kenyans can be so direct as to be intrusive. The minute I came back from the States in January, people were already counting down the days until I would give them my things.

“When are you returning to America?”

“In August.”

“When you leave, you will give me your laptop.”

Her audacity was too infuriating for words. I somehow managed to respond with a fake plastic smile, “No, I will not. Ni yangu.” It’s mine.

As much as I know that the true meaning of these “requests” is mostly lost in translation, that they’re probably not the presumptuous imperatives that I take them to be, and that I’ll never understand them for what they really mean, it doesn’t make it any less easier to tolerate when I’m asked over and over, “You are going home to America in August?”

“Don’t worry, it’s still a long time,” I’d say, anticipating their sadness to see me go. “I’m still around.”

“I am booking your mattress and all your furniture when you leave.”

“Um, I don’t know. It’s still far away.”

“Your shoes are very smart.”

“Thank you.”

“I am booking them. When you leave, you will give them to me.”

So much for forging meaningful friendships that last a lifetime.

It'll Behoove Ya, To Care For Your Uvula. I’ve been meeting with my Swahili tutor, Nicholas, twice a week. Some sessions are more productive than others. Last week he came over with a bad sore throat. He’s been working as a day laborer at a gas station in town, and the dust and diesel fumes finally got to him.

“I have something in my throat that I need to remove,” he said. “I want to look for someone to cut it for me.”

“Uh. What?” I said.

“It is this thing in my throat. You know it? It is giving me a bad problem.”


“No, it is hanging down in my throat and I’m choking,” he said. “It is very long. People like to remove it.”

“The uvula?” I said.

“Yes, in Swahili we call it the small tongue,” he said. “Some people cut it off when they are very young. It avoids these problems of the throat.”

I’m always skeptical but fascinated by Kenyan interpretations of common maladies and their home remedies, so I egged him on.

“But you say it’s choking you?”

“Yes, when I swallow. It chokes me at the back of my tongue.”

“Come on,” I said. “The uvula doesn’t hang down that low. I think you should take some medicine and wait a few days. Don’t cut off your uvula.”

“Do you have one?” he asked.

“Everyone has a uvula,” I said. “You want to see mine?”

I let him peer into my mouth and then realized that it felt like an encroachment on my personal space.

“Yours is very short,” he observed. “Did you cut it?”

“We don’t cut uvulas,” I sighed. “It’s not normal to do that.”

“Mine is very long,” he said again. Then he opened his mouth and pointed.

He was right. It was very long. I couldn’t see the tip of it because it hung down into his throat. But somehow I doubted that it was the source of the infection, nor did I think it was exacerbating the problem.

“So what happens when you cut it?” I asked. “Does it bleed? Do you have to swallow the part you just cut?”

“There is no blood in that part of the body,” he said. “And people used to say that if you swallow it, you’ll die, but I don’t believe it.”

“I have a pair of scissors. You could cut it yourself and see if it’s true.”

“Oh, no, I fear it so much. I want to look for someone else to cut it.”

“Well, good luck with that.”


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