Money and Fishermen


During orientation, they told us that being white in Kenya is like walking around naked with $100 bills taped all over your body. Everyone knows they are there, they just need to figure out how to get them off without you making too much of a fuss. Today, I made a fuss.

Everywhere I go, people talk to me. It’s gotten to the point where I start to wonder if something is wrong when I pass someone on the road and they don’t say hello. I think that part of this overabundance of greetings is Kenyan culture and the other part is because I’m a muzungu (white person).

Normally I get one of two greetings: “Muzungu how are you?” which is the most common one or “Give me ten bob” which is slightly less common.

Today my $100 bills must have really been showing because I got almost as many demands for money as I did inquiries after my health. Of course the street children asked me, there’s a gang of them that hang out on the road I take. To their demands I’ve started replying “Kwa nini nipa way way pesa? Kwa glue?” (Why I give you money? For glue?). I don’t think any white person has ever talked back to them like that because they usually just stare at me wide-eyed and don’t bother me again.

But then today a few of boda drivers decided that if I wasn’t going to take a boda, I should give them money. One of them told me he was hungry. I told him “Ni mapena mno kwa chakula” (It’s too early for food.) Then one guys from the group that is always huddled in a circle playing some game decided that since I said hello in Swahili I would understand his request for 20 bob in Swahili. I told him “Kwa nini? Utafanya nini kwa mimi?” (Why? What are you going to do for me?). The whole group laughed at this reply and the guy stopped bugging me.

Basically I don’t really mind the requests for money from strangers on the street because it just means I get to talk a lot of trash in Kiswahili. But then the request happened at work and suddenly it wasn’t so funny.

I finished the grant today. I probably spent more hours writing that thing than I ever spend on any of the essays I write in college. I finished it at lunch time and proudly announced to the office that I was finally done (Ninamaliza!).

Felix told me that I should take them all out to lunch to celebrate. This annoyed me, Felix has been asking me to buy a lot of things recently and even asked if he could borrow a bunch of money to pay off the electricity bill. I was annoyed and combined with the fact that I was tired from staying up too late writing the grant and hungry meant that I went off on him a little bit harder than I should have.

“Felix, this whole white person= money thing really is getting old. I’m really trying to be on a budget while I’m here, I don’t have a ton of money to burn. You need to stop asking me for things” I told him.

“What? When was the last time you bought me lunch?” He asked.

Admittedly I hadn’t bought him lunch, I’d bought him beers, transport and sodas but not lunch.

“Well I guess I haven’t bought it for you but I’ve definitely bought it for Alfred. It’s just really getting on my nerves okay?” I went back to looking at my computer. Felix left and he didn’t seem offended which made me think the issue was pretty much over. It was far from it.

When Alfred came into the room he didn’t look at me and just mumbled something when I asked what’s up. I asked him what was wrong and he didn’t reply for a while. Finally, with an outburst he asked me “What is this about you always buying me lunch? You’ve bought me lunch, what 1, 2 times? I can’t believe you would ever say that.”

I tried to explain that I hadn’t said that at all and that I don’t think I always buy him lunch but he wouldn’t listen to me. Basically he made me feel like total and complete shit. I walked out of the office and started crying. I really like Alfred, we pretty much spend every waking hour together working on the biodigester project. For him to be angry with me/ hurt by something I said was horrible.

Plus on top of that I had this heavy sense of guilt. I could have easy bought all four of them lunch, it probably would have amounted to something like six dollars. They don’t have very much money and sometimes they actually don’t have enough money for lunch. I felt like the greediest, most horrible person alive.

I called Angie. I needed to talk to someone and she is pretty much my best friend here. She’s the program coordinator for FSD, my program, which made me almost not want to call her but I couldn’t think of anyone else I could call. Besides Felix and Alfred and my family, I don’t really have any other friends here. The other interns are great but most of them live pretty far away and I couldn’t ever picture myself calling any of them with a problem.

Angie reassured me that I wasn’t a horrible person, telling me that the problem I was facing was basically how a lot of development goes wrong.

“Think about it. Before you came they somehow had lunch or just waited until they got home to eat dinner. Even if you bought them lunch for the entire 2 months that you are here, it wouldn’t solve anything in the long run because what will happen when you leave? The best thing you can do for them is what you’re doing, trying to start a project that will generate income for them. That whole give a man a fish and he’ll only for a day but teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever, that’s really true.”