You Know You’re From Kakamega Kenya When…

July 5, 2008

The other day Felix walked into the office where I was typing and started laughing. “What??” I fake glared at him.

“It’s just funny to see you eating that, you’re turning Kenyan!” he replied.

I was eating maziwa, a sort of sweet root that is supposedly a digestive aid/appetite stimulant/caffeine. I just like how it tastes but Felix’s words made me think, maybe I really am turning Kenyan! So I started thinking of reasons why I am turning Kenyan, here’s the top six

You know you’re a Kenyan when…

1. You drink at least three cups of tea a day and you always put in plenty of sugar

Back in the states I used to think that I drank a lot of tea. I don’t drink coffee so I used to drink tea in the mornings and sometimes at night. Kenyans drink A LOT of tea, which they refer to as “chai”.

Yesterday, I was given the honor of making our morning chai. Well, technically it was by default as my host mom slept in and the house girl was late. My mom wakes up at 5:00 to send Allan to school, stays up till 6:00 to send Jackie off to school and then sleeps for an hour until I wake up at 7:00. Usually by the time I come out of my room she has made me breakfast and put a bucket of warm water in the bathroom for me to bathe with. Then she usually goes back to sleep for a little bit until she goes to work at 9:00. She often stays up until 11 or 12 helping Allan with his homework. Basically she works really really hard and I was not about to wake her up, even though she reprimanded me when she did wake up.

It also entertains me that I used to consider tea to be healthy. Chai here is made out of whole milk (from our neighbor’s cow), water and black tea leaves. Then you add three spoonfuls of sugar to it. No joke. I thought it was excessive when I first got here but now I find myself often adding 3 and ½. Hella Kenyan right?

2. You’re a twenty year old girl and yet you have to be home at 5:30

This happened today so I’m still a little pissed about it. Last night I went out dancing with some of the other interns to celebrate the 4th and we were a little late getting home. I felt bad, I had to call my host mom to let me in and keep the dog from eating me. No joke, most of the dogs like me but one of them seriously tries to attack me. Anyway, then this morning my mom told me that she wanted me to come home before 5:30 because she was going to be late and someone had to watch Jackie. I agreed, I wasn’t planning to go out late anyway. But then I was invited to another Fourth of July BBQ by this muzungu who lives near me. It was really fun, there were tons of PeaceCorps volunteers there, the first African to ever travel in space and a bunch of other Kenyans who work at cool non-profits and tons of free beer. Everyone was older than me and when I told everyone I had to go home at around 5:00, they were all like “wait how old are you?” Which was a little embarrassing. But then the part that made me a bit annoyed was that Jackie wasn’t even home, she’d gone to a friend’s house. I can’t really complain, I just had a small taste of what Kenyan girls are expected to do all the time. My host sister Charntel is always cooking, cleaning or babysitting and my mom does a lot as well. Women definitely have certain roles here. For example, I spend most of my time in the kitchen, chatting with my mom/sisters or helping or organizing impromptu dance parties. My friend Walker, a guy intern, is not allowed to go to the kitchen to help cook or even to put his dishes back, according to his host dad “that’s women’s work.”

3. You’re allergic to the cold

Every time it gets cold (which it does almost everyday around 4:00 when it rains), my host mom freaks out and puts on this huge jacket that looks like it would be more fitting on a continent like Antarctica, not one known for it’s “hot African sun.” More recently she’s become convinced that I too am allergic to the cold and I’ve been sneezing a lot at night and in the mornings. She doesn’t seem to listen to my repeated protest of “I live in a place where it snows, remember?”

My host mom might be an extreme example but from my experience in Kakamega a lot of Kenyans seem stop everything when the rains come. Part of this is legitimate, the dirty roads often turn into impassable muddy rivers, but I think another part of it is just a good excuse to stop work and drink some chai.

4. You LOVE shoes.

This is on my list of the top things I love about Kenya (which will probably be another blog post, just you wait.) I consider myself to be less materialistic than some people (cough, my sisters, cough) as I don’t really like shopping and I don’t really care about looking stylish. However, I LOVE shoes. Thankfully, so do Kenyans.

On all of the sidewalks in Kakamega there are two main things that you will see being sold: fruit and SHOES! I’ve bought two pairs and believe me I would have bought more if I didn’t feel a slight twinge of guilt every time my number of shoes increases. (A poorer woman recently asked me how many shoes I have…).

Everyone shoes are remarkably clean, an anomaly I didn’t understand until I started noticing my host brother meticulously polishing his shoes every night before he goes to bed. My host mom has decided that along with socks, cleaning shoes is another thing I cannot be trusted with and has taken to giving my shoes to the house girl to clean.

5. You speak better Sheng than you do Swahili

As the saying goes, “Swahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya and died in Uganda.” Basically everyone here speaks a mixture of English and Swahili. Even in church the preacher will randomly say something like “mountain” and I’ll be jolted out of my closed eyed “praying” position. Sometimes I’ll ask my family what a word is in Swahili and they’ll just stare at me, saying that they always use the English word.

“Sheng” is the slang that all of the younger people here speak. I am seriously really, really good at it. There are even certain people in town that now know me for my ability to say “what’s up” 50 different ways and always speak sheng to me, laughing at the white girl who thinks she is oh so cool.

6. You’re obsessed with politics and constantly complain about your political leaders

On my way home from work the other day I ran into a drunk guy who was mumbling to himself. As I walked by I could discern a few words “Mugabe…grunt grunt…stupid AU…” Only in Kenya would you find a drunk man talking politics to himself while walking barefoot down a dirt road.

I’m inclined to agree with his drunken rambles…For those of you that don’t know, in the recent election after Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lost, he killed many of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, supporters and family, drove Tsvangirai out the country and then declared himself the President of Zimbabwe for the 28th year in a row in an obviously unfair run-off election. Zimbabwe is now undergoing what can only be described as absolute chaos; super inflation has made Zimbabwean currency literally worthless and everyone who can is leaving the country (many of whom are going to South Africa and facing massive discrimination there).

Everyone hoped that African leaders would step up and do something but at last weeks African Union leaders summit Mugabe got a mere slap on the wrist and was told to “negotiate a power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai, like Kenya’s Grand Coalition.” This is stupid for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that Mugabe is not about to share power and secondly because Tsvangirai knows this and has rejected talks with Mugabe.

So why didn’t any of the leaders reprimand Mugabe? Well according to Mugabe himself, they can’t because “their hands are just as dirty as mine.” Let’s review for a second: Kenya’s last election resulted in wide-spread violence, Nigeria’s April election of Umaru Yar’Adua was described as a sham, Libya’s President Muammar Gaddafi said that “elections in Africa are a waste of time,” Ethopia’s Meles Zenawi shot his opposition and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has changed the constitution to allow himself a third term.

That being said, I think that Mugabe’s justification implies that African leaders are in a race to the bottom, with absolute dictatorships as the final result. Personally I think that many current African leaders have been too much influenced by the colonial legacy of absolute control and that once Africa can get these stubborn old men out of office, a new generation of young, energetic leaders will emerge. For the time being I think that the West should stop blaming their lack of aid to African governments’ aid on account of corruption and actually use aid to promote better governance. On small scale this could entail buying computers for official record keeping, on a larger scale it could mean tying aid to a set of agreed upon targets and monitoring the results as a condition for more financial assistance.

So if that wasn’t a political rant then I don’t know what is. When I come back and I drink way to much tea, actually respect my curfew, wear heavy jackets in “hot” weather, have even more pair of shoes, speak a weird unofficial language and constantly talk about African politics, you can blame Kenya!