Monday, March 9, 2009

Converstations with Kenyan students

“There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.” ~James Nathan Miller

Notes prior to reading this post: please note that I posted two posts in the same day last time I posted. So if you did not read both, I would encourage you to do so. Also, my mailing address has changed so if you want to send letters/packages please use the new address listed near the bottom of the page!

During the days in which we have not had electricity at our facility, my students have asked me questions about myself and also about life in America. This blog post is intended to provide with some of the curiosity of my Kenyan students (who are high school graduates). Aside from the basic questions such as "where did you live? where did you go to college?" etc. I find the following questions to be more thought provoking.

Why did you come to Kenya?
I don't think I can fully answer that question as other people might be able. I suppose the cop-out answer would be that I applied to the Peace Corps and they decided to send me here. But that brings up the underlying question, "why did you join the peace corps?" That question is one that I find I ask myself frequently. On the most basic level, I joined to provide assistance to other people as best as I am able. Going further, joining gives me an experience that I will never forget. It is in fact, as the saying goes, "the toughest job you will ever love". I sometimes wonder if I am 100% ready for this challenge and on occasion it feels that though I am providing help, I cannot but be haunted by the feeling that I am alone. I am the only Mzungu (foreigner) in this town. Trusting others can also be a challenge sometimes as I will often wonder if the person will want something from me. In fact, there are many people who continually ask me if I will take them to the U.S. for a visit; others ask me to marry them; others simply call me "Johnny" or "Boss" and want me to give them a handout. As much as I would like to help everyone, I am unable to help everyone in the way that they would like.
Sometimes I wonder if I came to Kenya to escape what I saw was an unmeaningful life I was living in the States. Although I do think that I have come to Kenya for a reason. Perhaps it is so that I can learn not only about the culture here, but to learn about myself also and figure out who I am.

English is the only language in America, isn't it?
"Not exactly. English is the only national language of the U.S. but there are many languages spoken. For instance, my mother tongue is Spanish." It is sometimes challenging to explain that there are tribes of natives that still reside in America, each with their own language, and to add to that trying to explain that immigrants from other countries also speak different languages.
Although, I must mention that my students enjoyed my singing in Spanish. (I sang some Enrique Iglesias songs as my Spanish collection is somewhat limited here in Kenya).

Are there are any roads like this one in America (referring to an "all-weather" road that is composed of dirt/stones)?
"Not in the town where I lived, but there may be in other places." Most of the Kenyans I have met believe that every road is paved in the U.S.
An immediate follow up question is:
How do people travel in America?
"Well many families have cars that they use to get around town but not all families have cars. Other people may use a piki-piki [motorcycle]. In large cities there are sometimes even trains or subways - a subway is an underground train."

Are there any poor people in America?
"Well... that's not a simple question to answer, but yes there are poor people in America. You see, poverty in America is judged differently than that of Kenya..." I try to explain about the poverty level and the higher costs of basic things in America. At one point, I tried to explain someone making less than 32,000$ per year would not be considered "rich" in America. This attempt at an explanation lead to the math which came out to be roughly 210,000 Kenyan Shillings per month. In Kenya, this would be a fairly well-off person. After this attempt failed, I turned to an alternate explanation of poverty between Kenya and the U.S. "In the U.S., everything is more expensive. For example a small soda would cost roughly 150 shillings. The difference is that in the U.S. money is easier to get and everything costs more. Whereas in Kenya, money is not as easy to get and things cost less, comparatively." This explanation, however, typically requires a further explanation of the current financial situation in the U.S.

When students asked me this question, I began wondering about what poverty really is. Poverty is usually expressed in monetary terms, one's monthly income, annual income or daily living allowance. While the amount of money someone has is an indicator of the quality of life they are able to lead, something about defining poverty as a financial matter doesn't sit well in my mind. Because of all the factors that go into the value of one currency in relation to another, I don't think that trying to capture life in a country like Kenya in dollars and cents paints a clear picture. As I watched a TV show called "Trippin" (an MTV show from the States), I was very intrigued by the way in which the country's wealth is determined in the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. It is not by the amount of money, or the value of the currency. Instead, their wealth is determined in natural riches.
So depending on the means by which you define poverty, Kenya may or may not be as 'poor' as it is thought of by both locals and by foreigners.

Based on my definition, I feel that Kenya is not poor.

1 comment:

  1. If you own a wildebeest, you are wealthy...I don't own one, cause nobody will send me one.