I’m back in the States! Leaving Nairobi’s 80 degree (27 C) weather, I came back to a shocking 0 degrees (-18 C) and snow. It is good to be back though 🙂
After leaving Kenya for several months and now having gone back, I feel like I have some perspective on the place. Most things haven’t changed at all. Same bumpy roads, same grimy traffic and questionable driving choices, same friendly people taking their sweet time doing everything from drinking chai to selling cell phones. Kenya is the same; only in many ways my attitude towards it changed. The challenges don’t seem so daunting anymore and I see genuinely great things happening. While getting a breath of fresh air was necessary, returning reminds me that just like everywhere else I’ve lived, for better or for worse part of me irrevocably belongs to it.
An observation I made during my time in Kenya was that aesthetically, so many things are different from the States. Our tendency is to visit poor countries and experience culture shock at these physical differences. Shoddy construction, open sewage next to unpaved muddy roads, trash littered everywhere smoldering in foul-smelling heaps and unsupervised kids roaming the streets are all vivid reminders that we are definitely not in Kansas any more.
While these physical differences are a real part of poverty, they only scratch the surface. There are much deeper cultural implications and reasons why things are this way. Trash is littered everywhere because most people don’t know littering is bad. Roads might be unpaved because some government official pocketed the money instead of building a road. Buildings are unfinished because you only pay taxes on completed structures.
I’m not saying that poverty is not real in African countries like Kenya. What I am saying is that it’s important to get to know a place before you make assumptions about it. Cliché touristy statements like “Those people have so little but they have so much joy” are hogwash because we have no idea what possessions or joy people have until we get to know them. And from my experience, getting to know people reveals that they are a lot more similar to myself than I thought.
This is my message as I return to America. There are so many assumptions, accusations, pleas and pity parties over this continent. In reality, it’s a vast, complex, intriguing, wealthy, beautiful, diverse and interesting place. I encourage you to take some time to learn about it so you’re educated on the issues. An excellent book on the history of Africa from independence to modern times is The Fate of Africa. It encouraged me to think about issues in different ways and gain a context for why things are the way they are. Another good read specifically about Kenya is It’s Our Turn To Eat, the story of a Kenyan whistle-blower.
Thanks for reading