Friday, October 2, 2015

Quick Parting Thoughts on Kenya

Okay, so it's 8 pm at the moment and my 12+ hour overnight bus from Nakuru, Kenya, to Kampala, Uganda, originally scheduled to leave at 9:30 pm, is now an hour late. I'm back in the same coffee shop I've been in all afternoon killing time, so let's see if I can crank this out in the next two hours.

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Two notable things have occurred in the past week that I've been anticipating would happen at some point on this trip:

The first being that I got really sick. Food poisoning. No idea what it was from, but I'm actually surprised I hadn't gotten it sooner; the probiotics pills I brought have been working pretty well for me up until this point. This is one of those "You know you're traveling in Africa when..." instances. I crawled out of the bed for the third time at 4 am to shit some more water and to try not to barf in the dorm where everyone else was blissfully accompanying the buzzing mosquitoes with their soft snoring. As I was kneeling in the freezing cold in front of the dirty outdoor hostel toilet, (you know, the one where there's never enough toilet paper or hand soap, but by golly, they have toilet seats!) retching on an empty stomach, a cheerful thought crept its way into my head: "Hey, at least it's not malaria!" I was fine, but exhausted and weak the next morning.

The second being that I think I saw a dead body a few days ago. He was an older man, lying on his side with his head resting on the curb of the median dividing the main highway heading north out of Nairobi. His arms were at his sides and his knees were bent, almost as if he had just laid down to take a nap. He probably was crossing the highway on foot, as everyone in the area does, and had gotten hit by a car. As we were coming up toward the scene in a matatu headed to Nanyuki, we could see a few police cars surrounding a crowd that had gathered and that was growing every second. Yes, by onlookers that were themselves running across highway traffic to join the rubbernecking throng in the median. There was a good three feet between the motionless man and everyone else, including the police, which made us all think he was probably dead. It's common knowledge in Kenya that if you get in a car accident or if your house is on fire, anyone passing by will reach in and grab your purse/wallet/anything they can get their hands on before they attempt saving you. Given the rough circumstances under which many people live on this continent, I had a feeling before I landed that I'd probably be a witness to death, either its process or its culmination, at some point within the next few months. I'll always remember what that man looked like lying there, but not really with the grief that I thought would settle upon the situation. It just kind of seems like a fact of life, which it really is. Death happens to everyone, and based on the number of people we all know, simply from a statistical standpoint, it's kind of amazing that we all haven't seen more of death up close.

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As I experience my last few hours in Kenya, it's interesting to look back on the past four months and think about what I've learned and experienced, but I don't know if these observations are unique to Kenyans, East Africans, or Africans in general since I'm only on Phase One of Operation: See How Long I Can Go Without Western Conveniences.

1. Official Kenyan albino count: 15!!! (Yes, I've been keeping track since I got here.) I had wondered early on why I'd been seeing so many albinos, and then it dawned on me that they're a lot easier to spot here. Duh.

2. Kenyan bodies are fascinating to look at. The women are almost all what we would consider to be pudgy, but they. are. strong. Years of raising kids and carrying water and farming and doing laundry by hand and mixing huge vats of millet flour have made them all powerhouses, and they're all very proud of their strength. Add that to the fact that I still can't really pin down a single Kenyan standard of beauty and it makes for an interesting and beautiful spread of women.

A lot of the men are lean, and many look overworked and underfed. It's immediately obvious which ones do manual labor and which ones don't: the men that work by hauling and lifting and pulling and sweating have extremely defined veins all over their thin but muscular arms, chest, and back; the immediate sign that these muscles weren't earned in a gym. They were earned through the necessity of strain.

And everyone has the most beautiful skin. Sometimes I have to exercise active restraint not to reach over and touch someone's arm or shoulder just to run my hand over their dark flawless soft skin.

3. Everyone's generally pretty friendly here. Once you get past the awkward but inevitable "Madame, buy me a soda" or the "Sistah, give me five bob" stage and the consequential but inevitable rejection of their request, they'll turn right around and offer you a banana from the bunch they just bought and are sharing with the whole bus.

4. Power outages are no big deal. Even in the middle of a huge restaurant at night, there's a brief pause when the lights snap out and when everyone whips out their phones for light and waiters bring out candles. Then business as usual. It's essentially the same reaction they have when they talk about their corrupt government. "Yeah, it's a thing that happens, but whaddya gonna do about it?" Shrugs, slowly returns to whatever they were doing before the interruption.

5. Most Kenyans don't go on vacation. Not only that, but I've stopped mentioning the concept of camping. I totally understand their argument of, essentially, we're all trying to avoid sleeping outside because that means we're homeless. Why would sleeping outside be fun if you have a bed inside a house right here? It makes no sense to them. I don't really want to go into or think about how much we all pay for these fancy tents, sleeping bags, and extra gear we all buy to camp; the total cost of a full backpacking set could probably build a house for a family in a rural area. Yikes.

6. Public school here costs money; there's no free education. We're so lucky we don't have to fight for our schooling in the States. Even if a rural Kenyan family can scrape together the school fees to send a kid all the way through high school, it doesn't amount to anything if they definitely can't afford college. So what's the point? A lot of people I talked to dropped out around middle or high school because it just didn't make sense. They just went back into the family business: farming. It makes the education gap in this country a pretty big one.

7. It's wonderful not being around perfect people. There's no strain to look a certain way or wear certain types of clothes or have a certain type of body. Kenyans don't care, so I make my own rules and just don't worry about it.

8. Once you get used to it, it's kind of nice living among so much chaos. When at least two things per day are guaranteed to not go the way you planned, you stop planning. Then you become overjoyed when something, anything, goes right. Your day ends up being a succession of tiny triumphs, and I mean, anything is considered a triumph now. Like when your food ends up being what you ordered. "Hey, looks like this day is going pretty great so far!" It's a nice way to live, always being pleasantly surprised when things run smoothly because expectations are otherwise so low.

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Sometimes I sit back and wonder, "Wait a minute, do I even like Africa?" And I really don't know the answer to that. I've certainly learned how to navigate it, how the culture operates and lives and breathes. I enjoy the puzzle and the challenge and I feel comfortable here now. I enjoy knowing that this isn't for everyone; that this isn't for the faint of heart or the faint of mind (or the faint of stomach). But I'm also the kind of person to put on blinders when facing some challenging tasks, often leaving my physical or emotional wellbeing behind in the pursuit of facing discomfort and difficult situations. I think I'm doing okay, though. Part of what I enjoy about the pace of things here is that I have more time to think than I ever have in my whole life. What else is there to do when you're stuck on a speeding swerving bus for eight hours? But I also don't think that life is all about doing things that you necessarily like all the time. It was an uncomfortable and rough transition alone into this culture, but I'd do it all again if that's what it took to keep these memories and experiences.

I feel like I could spend another six months in Kenya, but for now, onward into Uganda. While I won't have time to spend another four months there, I'm excited to get to know another nation and to see what little part of it will stick with me for the rest of my life.


2 comments:

  1. I'm so sorry you had to feel so "poopy" this week. Heavy things my friend. Really liking how you've parsed out your thoughts here in this posts, grateful I get to experience your journey though a Hollis perspective. One that is always intriguing, funny, and poignant all at once. SMOOCH.

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  2. Wish you were here! Then we could stay up late every night giggling under the covers about all the crazy things we saw that day.

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