Monday, May 25, 2009

Adapting to a different culture

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” ~ Jawaharlal Nehru quotes

So as I was reflecting on emails I've received from friends and family back home I came to the realization that I have not had a blog post about the differences between the US and Kenya.

The culture:
In Kenya, people typically greet me based on my profession "teacher" hence they will great me either "habari mwalimu" which litterally translated means "news teacher?" ["Habari" is a typical greeting in Kiswahili (the Ki- before Swahili is cultural indicating a language; in comparison, the prefix Wa- would mean Swahili people). The typical responses include nzuri (good/well), salama (peaceful), or si mbaya (not bad).]
Another thing of interest regarding greetings is the hand shakes involved in greetings. In a given day, I see the askari (guard) of the compound about four times a day. Each time we meet we exchange greetings including a hand shake. In the mornings, also, as I walk to school I shake hands with the primary school students as part of the greetings. Even my students and I we exchange greetings and hand shakes as they arrive.
Some of the stereotypes that I've heard from Kenyans about Americans include: Americans eat snakes and snails; Americans are rich; there is no poverty in America; going to America means one will never be poor again.

The house:
In Kenya, a single room can be considered a house. In fact, my current housing is just that. One single room. In fact, there are several housing facilities where there are a set of six or eight single rooms within a gate. Each one being an appartment - a housing unit. In such housing set ups, there is usually a shared latrine and a shared shower room. Cooking is usually done by using a charcoal jiko (stove), a gas stove, and/or fire wood.Cutting the grass is done by hand using a long blade which has an angled top so that when the blade is swung just above the ground the blades will cut the grass and weeds.

The concept of time in Kenya is very different than time in the US. In the US, I would be too concerned about time and getting to work on time and thus would not take the time to slow my pace and walk with the primary school children as their school is on my way. In fact, the mamas in the area have gotten used to my walking with their children. This morning as I was walking to work, and though technically I was late (by US time standards), I slowed down my pace so that the young ones would not have to walk quickly/run to walk beside me. As I slowed down, there was a mama not too far back walking with her daughter and she said to her daughter "uende haraka kutembea na mzungu" English translation: "go quickly to walk with the foreigner."
That reminds me, the children think its hilarious that I have so much hair. Most men will have very little, if any hair, on their heads as the most men will have very little, if any, hair on their heads.
On a different occasion, I had time to watch a family of small birds building their nest. It was a slow afternoon while my students and I were waiting for the electricity to return. I stepped outside with a few of them to practice my Swahili. In the midst of our conversation, I saw a family of birds gathering twigs from the ground as they were building their nest in a nearby tree. It was truly amazing to see these little friends at work.On yet a different occasion, I had the pleasure of observing a few very young frogs as they were hoping around the area near the rice fields. I followed them a little bit to see what they were up to. In doing so, I found some birds nests in the shrubs along the edge of a shamba (farm). I also found some butterflies flying around in the area and had a chance to examine them closely. One of them struck me as particularly interesting. This butterfly's wings were almost entirely black save for two blue circles. As the butterfly was flapping its wings, I could see the purpose of the eyes. The butterfly was closing and opening its wings and as it did so, the blue spots on its back seemed almost like they were eyes opening from the black of the surrounding wings. The white and yellow colored butterflies flew away before I had a chance to look at them more closely.There are pretty neat things to be found if you only take the time to look around.

Adapting to a new culture

"All human wisdom is summed up in two words - wait and
hope." ~
Alexandre Dumas Père

Imagine if you can the following scenario:

You are moving. You are going to a country in sub-saharan Africa - as time draws nearer you find out its Kenya. What do you to prepare yourself for the changes you'll encounter? Would you research information about the country's history? The policital situation? Economic situation? Langauge(s) spoken? Food? (Etc.?)It seems to me that no amount of information you can find online, in books, or even by talking to people currently in country can trully prepare you for what is to come. Certainly, the more information you gather about the place you are going, the better informed you will be about the situation. But information alone is cannot prepare you for the challenges you'd face.

At the staging event before flying to Kenya, we were advised to get on the plane with pockets full of patience and a sprinkle of humility. Patience, flexibility, and an open mind have proven to be by far the most helpful tools I brought to Kenya with me.

Back in the states I was used to having a very fast paced lifestyle. After all, "time is money," right? However, stepping off the plane in a forgein country, the first thing to do, if you haven't done so already, is to adjust the time on your watch/cell phone/other electrnoic devices. But aside from just moving the hands on the dial to change the hour, you also need to change your perception of time. In my community, even though I may arrange to have a meeting with some one or a group of people at a certain hour - lets say 10 am - it's unlikely that either myself or the other parties involved will be on time. Usually I will be about 10-15minutes late from talking with people on my way to the meeting location. Even then, I'm early.

Being flexible makes you a more valuable asset no matter which job you hold. This holds true even for volunteers. flexibility gives me the opportunity to help the community in more than one way. Instead of just teaching computers and providing technical assistance, being flexible means looking for other opportunities to get involved with the community: providing advice on income-generating activities, helping organize a community clean up, teaching English, providing business & record keeping advice/training, the possibilities are endless. However, the possibilities are only there as long as my flexibility is maintained.

Open mind:
Having an open mind to new things and new possibilities is likely the best thing to do when a change is coming. Whether that change be moving to a new country for a few years, or a new job, keeping an open mind has helped me to be perceptive of the challenges and also the opportunities for personal growth.Keeping an open mind can be a challenging task on some days when I wake up and just think to myself "I want to go back to sleep." Even still, I try to keep an open mind and see what happens during the day. Each new day brings new people to meet, new animals to look at in wonder, new insects to inspect, and unknown new challenges.
As long as I keep these tools ready, I know I will be able to overcome any challenge that comes my way.

P.S. Friends and family are welcome to visit and see for yourselves how things are like. If you'd like to visit just let me know in advance :-)
Also, comments on blog posts are greatly apprecaited and encouraged ;-)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Young Elder.

I know The Elders will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair. ~Nelson Mandela
Quick note: Since I have not been online in many days, today is a two-fer. Don't forget to read both!

A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine. He was kind enough to walk with me through town to show me a hoteli (restaurant) that I had heard about but could not seem to locate based on a verbal description of how to get there. So after walking for a bit, we found the hoteli and had lunch. Following lunch, I walked around the soko (market) to find the shop that sells CDs and VCDs to see if I could find some new music CDs. From there, I began my trek back home to read and relax a bit. Then I ran into a friend of mine who wanted to introduce me to two strangers who turned out to be reverends.

It seems to me as though in just about every introduction I get asked the question “Are you saved?” Usually I think to myself, “I did not realize I needed saving. What does ‘being saved’ really mean?” Basically the question is “are you a born-again Christian?”
My typical response used to be “No, I’m not” but this time I responded “I no longer classify my religion.” When I replied I had no idea what kind of response I would get as this was the first time I was going to use this response – after long consideration of a new response to the question. One of the reverends looked at me with surprise – not the kind of surprise that I’m used to when I would say “No, I’m not ‘saved’” but a rather different surprise as though my response was one which was never expected. The reverend’s reply was a simply, yet inquisitive, “Why?”
And so our conversation continued and after some time had passed I was invited to attend their church service and I was also asked to take a look at the church computer equipment. Simple requests I agreed to.

After the two reverends left, my friend said to me “I believe if we were to have a gathering of our community heroes, you would be among them. You might even be made an elder; you have shosho qualities.” Shosho (sp?), it was explained to me, means elder and is often used to refer to a grandparent.

The words spoken during this encounter have penetrated deep into my mind and I am truly humbled by them.

To Serve the Community

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile. ~ Albert Einstein

Quick note: Since I have not been online in many days, today is a two-fer. Don't forget to read both!

During most of the month of April, I was in training. The first training was In-Service Training (IST) in Nairobi, followed by a Permaculture training near Mt. Kenya. IST was the first time our entire training group was together again since we went to our respective sites. It was truly awesome to see everyone back together and to hear about what everyone is doing with their communities.
On top of getting to see everyone once again, we attended some training sessions as a large group and other sessions that were divided by sector: Small Enterprise Development, Math & Science Education, Deaf Education, and Information Communication Technology (ICT). As for our ICT training, our APCD was able to get a professor at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology to work with us. He was very helpful with all of our training needs. We visited many places of particular importance – such as Universities and places in Nairobi where we could find great bargains on all kinds of tech things.
Since training was over a week long, on the weekend I got a chance to travel to the “Bomas of Kenya”. It was a very neat facility: there are replicas of the traditional houses from various tribes native to Kenya. Also at Bomas, there was a dance exhibition in which 10 different dances were performed. The dances were almost all traditional dances of the tribes of Kenya – there was even an acrobatic display. The most amazing thing during the acrobatic display was a fellow doing the limbo as low as two 300mL bottles of coke while the limbo bar was on fire. I did not get a great picture of this feat, though I have a picture of the set up of the bar.

Training was indeed a wonder time and I learned a lot that I hope to bring to the community so that we can continue in the never ending quest of improvement.

Picture time:
At the equator in Nanyuki;

Limbo being set up on two 300mL bottles of coke

Me at the "Unmarried Son's Hut" (at Bomas of Kenya)

Me wearing an African-style shirt and kikoi ("man skirt")