An All American Day

July 14th, 2008

Yesterday I spent more money in one day than I have my entire time here and I am still feeling guilty about it. Tess, a fellow intern, and I took the matatu to Kisumu to go shopping. A matatu is kind of like a bus. I say “kind of like” because it’s a van that is so full people literally sit on top of each other, drives a biljillion miles and hour over horribly bumpy roads, plays really loud music and usually has something ironically religious written on the back, like “God’s Speed.” (Don’t worry Mom and Dad, it’s safe, I promise, I mean, at least God is involved right?)

We were told that there are two places to shop in Kisumu; Kibuya Market and the Masai Market. After a lovely hour and ½ matatu ride, we arrived. I actually had a lot of fun on the trip, I made friends with the conductor which is the guy who collects money on the matatu. He offered to teach me Kiswahili (as do most guys here) so I pulled out the flash cards I had made and told him to quiz me. I think he was a little taken aback but he ended up quizzing me and even acting out a few of the verbs. Tess, however, who was stuck in the back of the matatu with two large women on either side, didn’t have such a great trip.

We got off at Kibuya Market, the largest open air market in East Africa. It felt a little like a mixture between Goodwill and Costco. By Goodwill, I mean that if you’ve ever wondered where the clothing that you give away goes after Goodwill is done with it, all you have to do is come to Kenya. Here you will find piles upon piles of used clothes heaped on top of blue tarps with anxious vendors nervously watching the people digging their way through the clothing. I’ve finally figured out why so many people here wear American shirts, most of the cheap clothing available comes from America; I even saw one shirt sporting the logo of a Whitman fraternity!

As much as I love thrift store shopping, the idea of digging through the piles was slightly unappealing so Tess and I waded our way through the crowd to the “Costco” part of the market. By Costco, I mean that there was more food there than I’ve ever seen in my life. But unlike Costco, all the food came straight from the farm that morning and all of the prices were to be negotiated with the farmers themselves. Tess and I found ourselves without any strong cravings for raw potatoes and I was still recovering from the last time I ate too much fruit so we decided to leave the Kibuya Market altogether for the Masai market.

The Masai are the “National Geographic” Kenyans. They are the only Kenyan tribe to still wear their traditional clothes and to still retain much of their pastoral lifestyle. A lot of them live in the national parks and are just as much of a tourist attraction as the animals. The Masai Market, however, was strangely without Masai.

Tess and I still aren’t sure if we ended up at the right place. We told the boda drivers to take us to the Masai Market and we ended up in a dirt area next to a posh neighborhood where there were around 10 vendors with huge stores full of goods. We were the only customers.

There haven’t been many tourists in Kenya since the post-election violence, a fact that made us hot commodities at the market. The wares were beautiful, there were bags, masks, jewelry and beautiful soft stone bowls. Most of the items had a story to them as well. One stall was full of amazing crafts built using recycled materials and made by a youth group of orphans. Another was an HIV positive women’s group that made jewelry to generate income. The fact that all of my money was going to a good cause meant that I spent all of it. Literally. I brought ksh 4,000 ($60) with me and I left the market without a single shilling but with lots of good presents. Considering that my whole time in Kenya I’ve spent around ksh 2,600 ($40), it was a pretty ridiculous shopping spree.

Thankfully, Tess agreed to spot me for lunch and for the matatu ride back home. For lunch we went to The Green Garden, a restaurant that had SALAD! Okay so the salad was ridiculously overpriced but after eating meat and ugali (a tasteless flour and water mixture) for 6 weeks, it was totally worth it. I used to be a vegetarian so I have a bit of a lettuce fetish. I say “used to be” because the word “vegetarian” does not translate, I eat so much meat here its ridiculous.

My guilt for my expensive lunch and shopping spree started in when I got home. My family asked to see what I had bought, so I pulled out item after item, cringing a little bit when my host dad asked me one of the prices.

Granted, my host family is well-off. Both of my parents work for the government, doing Adult Rural Education. Government jobs are by far the best paid jobs in Kenya, which might be part of the reason why the politics is so corrupt. But still, even though my family is relatively wealthy, they don’t exactly have money to throw around.

But today was when I really felt the effects of my shopping spree. Jackie, my host sister asked me to give her money. I switched the topic of conversation, telling her I was tired and asking her if she could leave me alone. Then I started crying.

It seems ridiculous, this is the second post I’ve written where someone asking me for money has made me cry. I don’t really understand it myself but here’s a couple reasons why I think it bothers me so much

  1. It’s not fair that I have way more money and opportunity than most Kenyans will ever have simply by virtue of being born in the United States. People die here everyday because they literally don’t have enough money to live; whether it’s because they can’t afford proper medications or because of outright starvation. People asking me for money reminds me of how ridiculously lucky I am but how very little I’ve done to deserve my wealth. I feel guilty that I just spent more money in one day than a lot of Kenyans make in 60 days. (53.5 % of adults in my region live in absolute poverty, meaning they make less than $1 per day).
  2. People use me for money. The people I work with ask me to buy them food and soda all the time, it’s really hard to say no and go eat lunch when I know that they literally won’t eat unless I buy food for them. People also befriend me because they want me to give them money. This has happened so many times here, people that I’ve become friends with have straight up asked me to give them money. It’s not so much the request itself but more the idea that people only like me because they want money. Being white is this weird sense of power here that I really, really dislike. When Jackie, the person I love most here, asked me for money it almost somehow invalidated our friendship for a second, as if she only hung out with me with the expectation that I would eventually give her money. This isn’t true of course, but it didn’t stop me from freaking out.

3. I don’t like the idea of hand-outs. While I could probably afford to give money to everyone who asked me, that won’t help anything in the long-run. Maybe this is just me trying to justify being cheap but I think that giving everyone money who asks me for it will increase a reliance on white people for hand-outs and is totally unsustainable. Take Simene, a woman who lives on my street and told me to give her ksh 500. I could give it to her, but it wouldn’t last forever and then she would be coming back to ask for more. I would rather try to help her find a job or some other way that she could have a continuous income. Just as importantly as the continuous income is the sense of empowerment, getting money by begging for it is extremely degrading.

I’m not really sure if these are all the reasons or if these reasons even make sense but I know that the only aspect of my life here that I don’t love is that I am constantly being asked for money.