Thursday, April 8, 2010

Facebook Flashback

A Kenyan friend found me on Facebook last week. His name is Paul and he was my tour guide when I went on safari in the Masai Mara in 2006. A Finnish travel writer friend had introduced us before I arrived in Kenya, and at the time I thought Paul was the last Kenyan tour guide on earth. So I promised that I would hire him as a guide during my stay in Kenya.

Anyway, I accepted Paul's Facebook friend request last week, and posted a message on his wall a few days ago. I wrote it in Swahili because I still like to be an annoying showoff sometimes.

"How are you, Bwana? It has been a long time. Greetings from New York. Have you been getting lots of work? I'm sure you will, God willing. Greet your family for me."

A few days later I got a reply from him. It was written in English.

"Am expecting you to give me some businees.I dont have much work to do.Recomend me to your friends.Am doing well though .What of you?"

Normally I'd be happy to hear that a friend from the past is doing well. But all I could think was, he's expecting me to give him business? And not just any business, but "businees." I have not been in contact with this person in over 3 years and the first thing he says to me is, "You owe me something, and I'm entitled to it."

Everything irritating about being a foreigner in Kenya came rushing back to me, especially those 2 seconds after hearing something like, "You give me your laptop when you leave Kenya," or "What did you bring me from Nairobi?," or "Mzungu, why can't you give us something?"

I started banging out a pissy reply to Paul. "The reason you don't have business is because you expect other people to give it to you instead of getting it for yourself. Your business is in Kenya, not in the US, so go out and find it."

I read it over about 15 times. Then I canceled it. Was it really worth getting the last word and putting him in his place? Not to mention sounding like a complete colonialist pig. I wasn't going to singlehandedly reverse decades of a culture of donor mentality that is still being reinforced daily.

Who knows, maybe in Kenyan English, the phrase "Am expecting you to..." has a less entitled and bossy tone than in American English. What point was I trying to make, anyway? That I'm not like every other foreigner who is too nice or too soft-hearted to say no, or too rich to care? That he needs to learn about the naive Protestant myth that hard work, honesty and determination always leads to success, because Kenya is actually a meritocracy?

I've made it all the way to the three-year memory-softening mark in my post-Kenya life, but the crazy-making brain spinning has managed to start all over again. This stuff never leaves you. I have made peace with much of the anger and sadness that Kenya painted on my heart, and have embraced the densely imperfect beauty of the country, the culture and the people. I love that part of me that is Kenya and all the experiences and malaria meds that made me the slightly dizzy person with spotty short term memory that I am today.

But this. Damn you, Paul.

After the Masai Mara trip, I met Paul in a cafe in Nairobi to sort out some residual business. We ran into some other Peace Corps volunteers at the cafe, and they joined us at our table. They were two women, whom I will call Jay and May.

Paul tried to make small talk but they weren't interested in having a Kenyan conversation. "Where do you come from? What crops do you grow in your country? Have you eaten our ugali? Jambo. This means hello in our language."

Jay and May rolled their eyes and barely acknowledged Paul's elementary tutorial that seemed so inane and patronizing to us after 18 months in Kenya. I understood where they were coming from, but I was annoyed that they were being rude and short with him.

"Have you climbed Mt. Kenya?" Paul asked. "It's very difficult. You will lose a lot of weight."

He turned to May and said, "At least 2 kilos."

Then he turned to overweight Jay, looked her up and down, and said with a kindly smile, "And you -- you will lose at least 4 kilos."

I had to laugh. Jay's head bloated with anger like a balloon, but didn't explode. We all knew that being told that you were fat by a Kenyan was a compliment, but it didn't matter to her that day. Jay had all the information she needed to hate him.

A few months later I got an email from Paul. He said that he had noticed that my friends were angry with him that day at the cafe, and asked if it was rude in American culture to tell a woman that she's fat. And, more importantly, he wanted to learn more about our strange cultural norms surrounding body weight so that he wouldn't offend other foreigners.

It was one of the most culturally insightful observations that any Kenyan friend had ever made to me. I wasn't particularly impressed with Paul as a tour guide. One night during our safari, he disappeared without explanation for an entire evening, and we suspected he had been drinking at another safari lodge -- one that we couldn't afford on our travel budget. Nothing inherently wrong with unwinding after a long day, but why weren't we told his whereabouts and how to reach him if we needed something? You can't leave delicious foreigners unattended on the carnivorous African savannah.

And I'm still irritated that Paul's most recent Facebook message couldn't do better than play into my negative stereotypes of Kenyans.

It was only when I sat down to write this post today that I remembered Paul's email asking about American ideas on obesity. It's a good reminder that while I may be repeatedly disappointed when my own stereotypes about people reside in truth, no stereotype is the full picture.

Obvious, and yet still humbling.
"I've always wanted to have a dog and name it Bear. Because then I'd make it watch the Discovery Channel and see if it had an identity crisis from hearing stuff like, 'The bear eats mainly berries and other fruits of the forest. It does not eat meat, but will become aggressive towards humans if threatened.' " - Cindy with an S


steph said...

i can completely relate to that foreigner frustration and resentment that creeps up, as well as the inner turmoil it causes when we try to rationalize it into terms that lessen our anger. because at the end of the day, you feel what you feel. i think it helps to always remember that it's true that there are always 2 sides to every story. sadly we just can't always see the other side, or if we see it, we'll never fully understand it or live it...

Molly Jr said...

"I wrote it in Swahili because I still like to be an annoying showoff sometimes."

C Money said...

I've never been to Kenya and know next to nothing about the culture there or the ways of the people there. That said, it doesn't sound strange to me that a person with a struggling business would ask a friend of his to send some customers his way, especially if that friend were perceived to be in a position to help. I think Americans do that too. Anyway, I know nothing about Kenya and there could be a ton of stuff in the context that makes the words mean something different in this case, but on the face it just sounds like a guy trying to do some networking...

Justina said...

@Cory - Yeah you're missing the cultural context. You should have visited me in Kenya while you had the chance. Now it's just dog poo and rolling suitcases.