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!”.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Yes, It's Still Hot.

I have been very lax in my writing lately. After being here for a year and a half, everything I want to talk about just seems repetitive. In case you were wondering: yes, it’s still hot. Today, I am driven to write because it is Saturday and the stima (electricity) has been out for hours. I am running out of things to do around the house. I went to town this morning to pick some food and supplies for the week (It must be spring Down Kenya because there are green peppers the size of my fist and mangoes as big as my feet!). I forgot to pick up toilet paper. That was unfortunate; you really do not want to know what I will be using this week. I am recovering from a cold. I had a fever and stayed in bed a couple of days last week. I feel better now but had almost no voice at all over the weekend. I didn’t mind, it gave me an excuse to lie in bed all day and be antisocial. After going to town, I came home tired and attempted to take a nap. The neighbor kids, Galgallo and Abusu, who had woke me up at seven am this morning, prevented that by wanting to come in and play with all my stuff. And when those two want something, there is no point in resisting or they will scream and throw rocks at my door. At only four years old, they think that is ‘playing’. Nap plans abolished, I went and greeted the neighbors who had been gone for over two weeks. I had heard from others that the father, Abdi, had lost his sister while she was in childbirth. He and his family all got together at his mother’s house in a nearby village for the funeral. Afterwards, he left to return home, stopping in Marsabit town on the way. But that is as far as he got; while in town, he received a phone call saying his mother, very grieved with the loss of her daughter, had died. And so the family returned for a second funeral. As I spoke to him about his loss he seemed stoic, saying “But death is a part of life. We are not meant to be here for long. We go through the world, just passing through, until it is time for us to leave this life.” Now, I am sitting on my porch watching Galgallo drag his younger brother, Guyo, around in a home-made racecar. It is made by cutting a hole in the side of a 20L jerry can and pulled via a rope attached to the handle (engine noises provided by Galgallo). I’ve done enough laundry to get me through the week; I hate that activity a little more each week. And I made the most time consuming lunch I could think of (fajitas, because making the stack of tortillas takes and extra thirty minutes). My cell phone network is gone, which happens at least a few hours every day and, at least twice a week, it goes for the entire day. That means I can’t text my Down Kenya friends to entertain me. I did watch some local women rebuild the Stick-and-grass hut on the church compound. That was pretty interesting. They take long, bendable branches, and, using bark as rope, lash them together in a large arc. Then they add horizontal, straight sticks for support. Finally, they weave grass into thick mats to tie over all the gaps. They also make benches and curved armchairs for furniture to go inside. This is the second time I have seen them rebuild the meeting hut. Because the Borana are a traditional nomadic tribe, the huts are only intended to last a season or two. To make the huts more permanent, most people in my village cover the walls with mud or cow dung. The roofs get protected by old trash bags or plastic tarps. I also see a lot of cardboard box reinforcing. I had a conversation the other day with my Rendille friend, Joseph, about the tribal fighting in our area. Joseph is a Peace Worker working at the local primary school and so I asked him if he felt unsafe being a Rendille living in an exclusive Borana area. He said that no, living here was fine because our village is safe. But he is wary of traveling. When the fighting was going on a few weeks ago, Joseph, Martha (his village mate), and another friend were having an event at the primary school. The three needed some supplies from town and decided that the friend would be the one to go pick them up. Martha also gave the young man a message to pass along to her mother. The young man left Diribgombo on a piki (motorbike) but was ambushed on the way to Marsabit town by a group of Borana men. They shot and killed him and an old man who was with him. Each time someone is killed, the tribe must revenge the death by retaliating. So far, there have been three Borana deaths and four Rendille. Joseph says there will be no more attacks because his tribe knows that the fighting doesn’t solve anything. That philosophy did not help the tribes in the town to the north of us, Moyale, where the fighting killed many and drove hundreds across the border into Ethiopia for protection. And in Isiolo, the town to the south of us, hundreds have been killed over the last few months. Here in the Marsabit region, and Diribgombo (my village) in particular, every time there is fighting we feel the effects. Food shipped from Down Kenya is disrupted on the roads and the market becomes empty. The food that is there becomes more expensive. The fear of attack keeps the market mamas away. This week, one of my tasks is to speak to all the classes in my school about the increase in use of skin bleaching creams. The creams are a problem for many reasons. The first, and most important, reason is health. The creams contain mercury and the students are unaware of how that will affect their health. Unfortunately, the creams work so the students want to continue using them. I informed them of the health dangers and also told them how the creams only work temporarily. I asked why they used the creams and was told “to be beautiful.” That is an obvious answer and so I asked them to be more specific; if the creams only make you lighter by one or two shades, what was the point? They said that very dark skin was ugly and light skin was always better, even slightly lighter. The worst was when a student said “we want to look like you.” I pointed out that no matter how much cream they used, they would still be much, much darker than me. I also told them that in America, us white people go to tanning booths and use creams to make us darker. In America, the tanner the better. They laughed at the notion. I tried to paint the scariest scenario for them. I said if they used bleaching creams, besides the mercury danger, there was a possibility of irritation and acne resulting from the harsh chemicals. Already some of the girls were having those effects. I also talked about the consequences if the cream actually worked. They would be lighter skinned and more susceptible to UV related skin damage and sunburns. I mentioned freckles (showing them my many freckles) and wrinkles. I told them about skin cancer and how it can affect even young people. I dramatically made those creams sound like an express train to old age and death. Judging by the gasps from around the classroom, I think it worked. I then had to spend the next half an hour analyzing the ingredients of their other lotions, powders, and oils to make sure they all were safe for regular use. The pharmacy business in Kenya is very unregulated. Anyone can buy dangerous chemicals or prescription medications over the counter with no explanation. Just another strange Kenya practice. Three more weeks in the term. I am looking forward to four weeks relaxing in Down Kenya with my Peace Corps friends. And of course, I am waiting for the upcoming rainy season with great anticipation. I need a little rain in my life.