A Tale of Two (very awakward) Meals

6/27/08

Yesterday I had lunch with one of the poorest people I’ve ever met and dinner with one of the richest. It was interesting, to say the least …

I ate lunch with a woman who lives next to where I work. CARD’s office is located in one of the poorer parts of Kakamega. To get there, I walk off the pothole ridden paved road and onto a dirt road where there is a row of vendors selling produce, meat, shoes and SafariCom scratch cards (cell phone credit). In front of the butcheries are guys grilling what I used to think was meat and yellow bananas but have now figured out is meat and some yellowish animal part. Most of the people in this street call me Muzungu but they greet me in Swahili, knowing me well enough to know that I can reply.

From there I turn down a smaller dirt path and walk along a street of buildings that house multiple occupants. I wouldn’t call them apartments, I think most of them used to be one family houses that have since been converted to house different families in each room. All along this street are children, probably more children than I’ve ever seen in one street in America. It’s taken me a month but I have finally taught them my name. Now, instead of chanting Muzungu every time I walk by, they chant “Lisa.” I have to admit, I love it, I laugh every time they do it. Most of the adults know my name as well, I think I only formally introduced myself to a couple of them but my name has since become neighborhood gossip.

There is one woman in particular who I often talk to. The conversation started as I was walking by with grilled corn I’d bought off the street and a muffin from the bakery. I’m a little bit ashamed to admit it but I haven’t brought myself to go out to lunch by myself yet. If Felix and Alfred aren’t in and I don’t have lunch plans with Angie, I usually just grab a snack off the street or sometimes if I’m hungry I walk the 30 minutes back to my house just to have someone to eat with. I’ve only done that twice, I’m not often hungry here thanks to a host mother whose self-professed goal is to make me gain weight.

The woman seemed surprised at my corn, asking me what it was for. When I told her it was my lunch, along with the muffin, surprise turned to admonition for my weak appetite. She told me that I should at least buy a soda to go with it, as if that somehow made my meal healthier. She introduced herself as Simamu and told me that I should come to her house for lunch sometime.

The next week, the invitation was again extended and I told her I would come the next day. I fretted about whether I should bring anything and finally decided that some fruit would be appropriate. I walked over to the building at around 12:30 and sort of stood awkwardly calling her name in the doorframe leading to a long hallway with rooms on either side.

She parted a curtain covering a room to my right and told me to come inside. Inside turned out to be a room smaller than my freshman dorm room. Pushed against the wall was a mattress with one sheet and a mosquito net neatly tied in a knot hanging from the ceiling above the bed. Pushed against the bed were four chairs, two on either side of a small table. On the same wall as the door was a jiko (charcoal burning stove), a little silverware and a few cups.

She told me to sit, asking me if I liked soda. When I responded yes she abruptly got up and told me to stay put while she went to the store. Before I could protest she had left me alone in the tiny room. I looked at the three decorative items that were in the room: a calendar, a picture of a woman holding a baby that had been cut out of a magazine and large poster advertising for Playtex pads.

She came back with a sprite and a small bag of rice and a few potatoes. Looking slightly nervous, she asked me if I liked the foods she had brought. I smiled and tried to look as encouraging as possible, a little surprised that we were to make the food now, I had somewhat stupidly assumed that she would have already prepared the food.

Over the next hour we peeled potatoes, cut tomatoes, chopped onions and made somewhat awkward conversation in English and Swahili. Most of the conversation went like this:

“Do you have this in America?” She would point to something like a wooden spoon or even a knife.

“Yea we do.” I would smile as she laughed, she seemed to find the idea of anyone cooking in America hilarious.

“What do you call it in Kiswahili?” I would ask, eager to learn the names.

At one point I went to the store to get more tomatoes. I didn’t want her to spend more money on me and at the same time I really wanted to get out of the room. She had light the jiko and the room was hot and smoky, a combination that was making my head spin but one that I couldn’t bring myself to mention, knowing that she dealt with that type of indoor air pollution everyday.

Finally after about an hour and a half of preparing and waiting for the food to cook, we ate. As we were eating she started asking me more questions about my life. Perhaps the most awkward question came when she asked me how many shoes I have. I lied and told her three, not wanting to tell her that at home I have more shoes than I can count. She told me that her room had been robbed recently and that she no longer had any shoes. Then she asked me if she could have my shoes.

I laughed feeling really, really awkward. I told her I needed them for work (which is true) and changed the subject. Finally, at around 2:30 I went back to work. She was reluctant for me to leave, asking me what time I got off work. She said she wanted to walk with me from work to my home, half an hour away. I told her I was going to the cyber cafe after work but maybe some other time.

As I left work that day I saw her standing outside her door speaking to a man selling cloths. She told me to come over and buy her one, to which I smiled and told her I was in a hurry, walking away quickly.

Dinner was what I would call an involuntary date…

Guys in Kenya like white girls. For me, this translates into guys constantly asking for my number, guys following me down the street, guys trying to hug me or shake my hand and lots and lots of catcalls in Kiswahili, some of which I am now (somewhat unfortunately) able to understand. I don’t take it as a compliment, I find it rather frustrating that white girls are so highly prized when there are so many beautiful African women. It leads to comment’s like my host sister Charntel’s the other day, “I wish I had your hair, white girls have such beautiful hair.” I told her that I think that her hair is beautiful and that I wish I was able to braid my hair in such cool ways.

White women here are prized as sex objects, Felix told me that every Kenyan guys dream is to sleep with a white woman. The part that he didn’t mention but that was stressed during our orientation is that sometimes that dream is fulfilled by whatever means necessary…This is not at all to say that Kenyan men are all rapists, but the point that was made during orientation is that Kenya is still a male-dominated society and often women’s wishes aren’t very respected, i.e. “saying no” doesn’t always work.

So basically I try to be a little more cautious around guys that I meet and I never, ever give out my number.

I didn’t think much of it when I gave my number to a guy named Raj. I met Raj with Alfred and Felix. Raj had mentioned to Felix that he wanted a biodigester. Raj is an Indian guy who runs a wholesale store in Kakamega and does very, very well for himself.

At first, Raj started calling me a lot to talk about biodigesters. Then he started calling me at 8:00 at night to talk about biodigesters. Then he started asking me to go to dinner, or to go to Nairobi, or even to go to Masai Mara (the famous game park). Each time I told him no, I couldn’t, I was writing the grant. He asked more about the grant and told me to give him a copy, that’d he’d see what he could do. I went by his store on Thursday and he told me to look over a menu, he wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate me finishing my grant.

I am really bad at turning guys down face to face so I agreed. The next day I tried my hardest to convince Walker (one of the other interns) to come with me. He wasn’t so hooked on the idea, so I ended up going on the date.

Raj picked me up in a ridiculously large car. When I got in, I asked him if he used this car to carry a lot of stuff. He seemed confused and told me, “No, not at all, I just like it.” Great.

We went to probably the only place that serves Indian food in town. There are a fair amount of Indians in Kakamega, they run a lot of the businesses but in general tend to keep to themselves.

Raj’s family is probably the wealthiest Indian family in Kakamega, hence probably the richest family in Kakamega, hence I was going on a date with one of the richest people in Kakamega. How did I get myself into that??

Dinner ended up being the longest period of time I have ever heard anyone talk about themselves for. I’m not kidding. And the things that he said, oh god…For example:

“I went to London for boarding school for high school. When I got there I had absolutely no idea how to do laundry so for the first two months I just bought new clothes instead of washing anything.”

Or, after I made a comment about many Kenyans being exceptionally smart and well-educated and it being sad that there were so few jobs he said:

“I don’t know about that, I’ve been looking for smart Kenyans to work in my shops for a while, so far I think I’ve only found one. He’s great though.”

At the end of the night he had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to go back to his house. I bite my lip to keep from telling him that he is exceedingly arrogant and annoying, instead saying rather sharply, “No I want to go to my home. NOW.”

Thus was my experience with the both the very poor and the very rich of Kakamega. I think I now better understand what the textbooks mean when they say Africa has a large income disparity.