Saturday, January 23, 2010

More Impressions....

OK. Perhaps I have been giving a little too much emphasis to the wildlife, and since I’m about to embark on yet another safari (not a long one – just a few days) I’ll go back to an earlier theme: how interesting it is to me to be living in a society that is so different from what I’m accustomed to in New York.

I’ve already written about how welcoming everyone seems to be but I can add a little to that.

One thing I’m noticing is that the locals are richly rewarding to meet (and they are generally referred to as “nationals” – I suppose from the strong U.N. presence in Nairobi – and I’ve noticed that the word “natives” isn’t used very much here).

Part of that reward comes from the beauty of the learning experience here. Everyone seems to want to know more about the world beyond Kenya. One’s driver, barber, house staff, business associates (not so much the professional classes but definitely among the support staff), the bank tellers, the lady making your sandwich in the client café, they all want to learn about the world. Of course they want to know where you are from (and many times, even before I’ve told them I’m from New York, they bring New York into the conversation, and many of the young people speak of New York as their “dream city”). And the Kenyans really want to know what experiences you have had in other parts of the world, and they are very anxious to tell you about Kenya, and compare Kenya to other places.

They are very locally focused. For the Kenyans, things like their tribe (no matter where they live now or how educated they are or professional their work is), their part of the country, and – to a lesser extent – their religious connection are very important to them (I had a bank teller tell me ask me the other day about my surname, and after I told her a little of what I had grown up with about the family name, she commented that I was particularly blessed because with a name like “St. Clair” I am bound to be “much closer to the Lord.”

And that kind of thing creeps into the conversation on a fairly regular basis. People talk about how blessed we are when we have good health, they speak about how God is looking after them, and they are truly pained about the earthquake in Haiti, with several people having mentioned to me that they could not understand how the Lord had let that happen but that the earthquake would draw people closer to Jesus. I don’t argue or even discuss, because somehow there is something particularly touching about this, and particularly when such soft, very gentle (never pushy as with the religious fundamentalists in America) comments slide into a conversation.

Family is hugely important to the Kenyans, and everyone I meet – without exception – wants to know about my children, my grandchildren, how often I’m with them, are my “aunties” and all my uncles worried that I’m spending so much time away from them. At first I didn’t understand – we Americans don’t bring family into the conversation at quite this level – but the more I was with native Kenyans the more I realized that this is very, very important to them, to establish a connection of commonality through sharing experiences about our families.

And probably one of the best places to experience the welcoming and the friendliness of the nationals is in the shops (well, except perhaps for the large supermarkets where on rare occasions one might run into an occasional disgruntled checkout clerk). All in all, though, the shops are very pleasant for browsing and a nice afternoon can be spent wandering through the shops of a big collection of businesses like Village Market, despite the fact that the name is something of a misnomer.

The name implies – at least to me – a sort of neighborhood market with mom-and-pop stands, but Village Market is not that at all. It’s a large shopping center, although the design and lay-out are not anything like the huge shopping malls in America. It’s designed around a large central court with tables and chairs and several restaurants surrounding the court, similar to the restaurants surrounding the piazzas in Europe cities and towns. The wait staff bring the food out to their customers, and all the tables and such are mingled into the large court (there are several other restaurants as well, each enclosed and with its out outdoor seating area).

The only thing I have a little difficulty with – as a “get-on-with-it” American shopper –is the lack of pricetags. Except in the supermarkets and one or two larger stores, you have to ask what the price of an item is, and it is always much more than I think it should be. Still, as compared to American or European prices, most consumer goods are generally much cheaper, as my Western colleagues are fond of reminding me. But without a pricetag you have to work your way to the price, and sometimes you can’t help but suspect if you’re not being quoted the muzungu price (“the white man’s price”). So I wander around a lot when I’m at the shops. I don’t buy much (don’t really need much) but what’s on offer is lovely to look at.

The Maasai Markets are another story altogether. These are made up of conglomerations of many (and I mean MANY) small vendors, some of whom have little stalls or even tiny shops. Most of them, though, simply spread a cloth on the floor or pavement (or the ground, depending on where the market is located) and put their goods out on that. It’s all very crowded and sort of loud and the negotiation for the sale begins at a very high level. I’m not very good at this, so I don’t spend much time in these markets. They’re a good place to buy souvenirs to bring back home but for the most part, I do that from vendors – same set-up but just not called “Maasai Markets” – when I’m on safari or on the roadside as I’m being driven back and forth.

As to why the markets are called “Maasai Markets” I’m not sure. I gather it has something to do with the Maasai tribe having started them, or some distinctive Maasai characteristic, but I’ve not figured it out yet. And there are plenty of merchants in these places who are not Maasai at all.

So who knows?

Other impressions: A visiting, very open, and perhaps somewhat playful Westerner has to be careful about how he speaks. The Kenyans are – despite being so welcoming and with a lot of singing and laughter amongst themselves – a fairly straight-forward people, and they listen very carefully and respond to exactly what is being said. So sometimes an attempt at verbal humor or silliness can backfire, for the Kenyan listening is probably going to be taking what one says at face value. Having the personality I have, there have been some awkward moments when I’ve actually had to back up and say something like, “I’m only joking,” or “it’s a joke.” When I asked a Kenyan friend about this, she pointed out that Kenya is still a very new country, and despite the great differences in income, the vast majority of the people are dealing with basic, subsistence issues and there hasn’t been much time to grab on to the subtleties of verbal humor with language. My friend used a very stark example: when a woman has to spend four hours of her day getting water to use for cooking and washing, all the time with a child (or two) flung around her neck or riding on her hip, and then has to find food to prepare for the family meal and do the wash, there isn’t much time for learning how to sneak a little humor into the conversation. The example seems extreme, but from my observations as I visit Kenyan friends, it has the ring of truth in it.

A final comment: we seem – finally – to be past the very cold and very rainy weather, and Nairobi’s annual and expected January/February hot weather seems to be here. It’s not unpleasant yet, and the lovely walk to work every morning – about a mile and a half – continues to be very, very pleasant, although the walk back in the afternoon is usually aborted if my driver happens to be in the neighborhood. I make it a point of pride not to call him – I’ve lost a number of pounds and I’m determined to keep the weight off, hence the determination to keep walking.

But on a hot Kenyan summer afternoon – probably upper 80s with a very pristine blue sky – well, if Charles happens to drive by, I’m going to get in the car!


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