Comparing Cultures: Sharing is Caring

One of the biggest differences I notice when traveling to Kenya is the socioeconomic status that I automatically have. White people are assumed to have money (which is generally true since they have money to fly to Africa). Nonetheless, the stereotype bothers me.

When I lived here, I was once told on a public bus that my fare was double because “my skin is the color of money”. People laughed and I refused to pay more than anyone else, but I realized that the attitude was indicative of people’s attitudes towards Westerners in general. “Buy me lunch” and “What did you bring me” are phrases you will hear often.

This has bothered me because it’s so different from what I am used to. A Japanese person would probably starve to death before asking you for a handout. Americans usually split things 50/50 and don’t ask for much either. Besides the fact that people generally have more money in Japan and America, I come from cultures where what you earn is yours to keep.

African culture is different. It’s tribal and family-oriented. Everything the head of a family earns is dispersed among the members of the family, at times even distant relatives. This is a way of creating social capital so that in times of trouble, you have someone else to rely on. Since white people have money, it is a natural extension of this culture to ask us for it in times of need.

We have also perpetuated the idea that we bring free money by doing projects, building businesses and giving aid with no accountability, often to the detriment of African countries. If you want to read a lot more about this, see my Other Writings section where I talk about how aid played a part in destabilizing The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When it comes to money, I’m not saying that African culture is worse than Western or Japanese culture. I’m just saying it’s challenging for me because I’m a white person in Africa and it’s different from what I’m used to. In fact, in the face of a rapidly disappearing government social safety net in America, I think we might learn something from Africa’s caring and sharing mentality. They can’t rely on the government for anything here so they have to support each other to survive. We might be there sooner than we think in America.

What did you think about this post? If you like this blog, please subscribe to get e-mail updates. To find out more about what I’m doing in Kenya, see The Food Source website!

Ok maybe they're not totally wrong...

Ok maybe they’re not totally wrong…

 

If you want to read more about why the culture is this way, I’ve heard African Friends and Money Matters is a great resource.

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Thoughts & Aesthetics

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.

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The road outside the nice house where I stayed in Nairobi

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

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