Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Picking Noses, Shaking Hands: Social Norms in Kenya

Even after a year and a half of living in Kenya, I am still everyday amazed at the difference in cultural norms. The minute you step into this country you realize how different everything is. My favorite cultural difference is the extended greetings. It makes the world seem so friendly when every person you meet greets you with a smile and a loud “Habari Yako!!” And then you must stop to shake their hand, greet them in return, and have a short conversation about their family or yours. If they are strangers, this can get a little tedious; walking through town can take five times as long if you stop to talk to every person you meet. Even the language barrier does not stop the friendliness from overwhelming you. If I pass an old mzee on the road, he will stop and take my hand in his wrinkled grip, and say hello in the local mother tongue. I smile and greet him back and, when he goes off on a long rant in kiborana, I tell him I only know a little Kiborana (“Afan anin kiborana”). Undaunted, he will continue to chat amicably, not at all concerned that I am not answering. Eventually, he will wave, say his one English word, “Goodbye!”, smile, showing off his yellowed, chipped or missing teeth, and continue on his way. And this encounter will be repeated by every person you meet. If you are in a hurry, you can get away with a wave and just call the greetings over your shoulder until you are over the next hill. My least favorite social norm is the acceptance of picking your nose. I find it disgusting to see grown men, sitting across from you at a staff meeting, “digging for gold”. It is normal and no one cares. I will never get used to seeing someone approach, finger firmly up their nostril as they come over, pulling the finger out in time to inspect it and wipe it on their shirt and then hold their hand out for me to shake. One thing that I am bothered by, but accidentally acquired as part of my “Peace Corps Quirks” is the tendency to stare. Everywhere I go, I feel like a movie star. I do not know what is so interesting about me that requires near constant eye contact. I will wear the same clothes every day, walk the same path, see the same people, and after eighteen months, the sight of me requires everyone walking in front of me to slow their pace and everyone behind to run to catch up. Once the person is next to me, in nine out of ten cases, they do not want to talk. They just want to look at me. Walking side by side, neck craned to never lose eye contact, just in case I break into dance or change color or have a fit. I rarely do. I have seen many a person trip over stones, fall off a bicycle, and ride into a bush on their pikis, while attempting to get a good look at me. Once, while being followed by a group of primary school kids who refused to make conversation, in any of the three languages I know, I decided to do something crazy just to see what would happen. I started singing along to my iPod, and without hesitation, the kids just started singing along. I was belting out some Glee hit and they sang a traditional Borana song. It was weird and strange and less entertaining than I thought it would be. When you walk into a room filled with ten Americans, it is polite to say a “Good Afternoon” to the room in general. And if there is something going on, an important meeting for example, it is polite to not say anything, either wait outside until they are finished or come in and sit down without interrupting. In Kenya, the proper etiquette is to come in and greet the room, then go around to each person and shake their hand and greet them individually. The important meeting will come to a halt while you make your rounds, and then you may go outside to wait. If two groups approach each other, you line up like opposing Little League teams and go down the line shaking hands. Another custom that I dislike is the custom of mentioning flaws. If you have acne, a bad hair day, have gained a little weight, or just look scruffier than usual, you can be guaranteed that people all day will ask you about it. And they are blunt. “You look fat today.” I have never been called fat in my entire life and yet somehow I am pressured to go on a diet because of all the “you gained some much weight!” comments I have received. Sometimes, they comments are just in inquiry. “Why do you have spots on your face?” They worst are the ones where the person implies that you have been looking terrible for awhile. “Yeah, I’ve noticed you hair has been looking strange lately. What happened?” The flip side of this custom of bluntness is that everyone is also generous with the compliments. If you look slightly nicer than yesterday you get a whole slew of “you look so smart!” Yesterday, I wore a short skirt (it was one of the few clean things I had) and a pair of black tights to hide my white legs, and I had one student say I looked like a movie star, and another say I looked like an angel. Pretty high compliments for a Wal-Mart skirt and old tights. And so, as hard as it is to hear blunt, sometimes negative, honesty, I will never complain because I love the habitual self- esteem boosters. Another social convention that was difficult to get used to, but I am afraid I might have begun to emulate, is the Kenyan concept of keeping time. For Kenyans, the phrase “on time” is never heeded. If you have a meeting scheduled for 9am, people, including the organizers, will not start to show up until 11am. And with all the greetings and introductory chatting, you will not get started until 1pm. This can be extremely frustrating for Americans who are very time conscious (early bird gets the worm and all that) and hate to be kept waiting. In Kenya, the unofficial motto is “Haraka Haraka Hyena Baraka” or “Hurry Hurry brings no blessings.” Even in the cities, time moves at its own pace. A movie showing at a popular theatre will start at least fifteen minutes late. If you call for a taxi to take you home at night, you will be waiting for over an hour every time. Even on a large scale, or for events of great importance, end up being very, very late. When reporting to public school, it is guaranteed that not one of the two hundred students will show up on the first day. Most will not even come the first week. That is usually fine because none of the teachers will have reported back from vacation either. Most will come a week late, and then sit around complaining that they can’t begin teaching because the classes are empty. It is baffling to me. Recently, my school acquired a number of computers from the government. We hired a local man to come install them for us and after three WEEKS of waiting for this guy to show up, I am still the only one incensed at this appallingly unprofessional behavior. It is frustrating and difficult, but on the other side of the coin, people never question you when you are late. You are pretty much free to show up to important events whenever the mood strikes you. I only worry about my friends and colleagues; if they ever go to America for jobs (as they all endeavor to do); they are going to have a lot of trouble adjusting to the “Haraka Haraka” nature of life over there. Living in Kenya has been a very different experience from living in America. It is an adventure everyday just trying to navigate the social waters with no life vest on. I am sure that I fail, committing faux pas nearly constantly, and am only saved by the overwhelming kindness of Kenyans. Now that I am closing the distance to the end of my time here, I am starting to worry about going back to America and behaving like a crazy Kenyan. I only hope I don’t walk into my first American job interview an hour and a half late with my finger up my nose and say to the interviewer “wow, you are kinda fat!”.

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