Monday, October 26, 2009

The Grass is Greener

It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

There is a common saying that goes "the grass is greener on the other side." But what exactly does it mean? The grass is greener on the other side of the fence? OK, what if I live in a semi-arid or arid environment and we don't really have grass on the other side of the fence? Oh, yes, now I get it! The grass is greener on the other side of the country(?) or at least on the other side of the river, right?
If nothing else, the grass is most definitely greener on the other continent - i.e. America or Europe.
This is the perception from many many Kenyans I have spoken to. Often times the Kenyans whom I consider friends, as well as many people whom I've made acquaintances with, will make a joking statement about me taking them back to the U.S. or elsewhere outside of the country.
Perhaps they think the grass is greener in the U.S. or wherever it is that I may end up traveling.

The Greener Pastures
The greener pastures of the U.S. and Europe contain no poverty, plenty of electricity and clean water, and best of all job opportunities for everyone!

Such at least, is the perception of the greener pastures. The real pastures may not have as much grass these days. After the fire/drought of the global economic crunch the pastures have changed..

And yet the perception of the green pastures continues with pictures of Obama in the newspapers and the films and tv shows depicting the U.S. as a wonderful place to be.

The Greener Pastures
On the other side of the fence, we have the greener pastures in Kenya. Even as a peace corps volunteer, I find many enticing things on this greener pastures...
Laid back lifestyle - Time is not the same in Kenya as it is in the U.S. It's not that time is not important here, but people are more important than time itself. People are people and not just numbers and figures of time.
[Note: The concept of time as we know it may also be entirely wrong.]
Fresh food - A lot of the food I eat is fresh from the farm, the milk is fresh from the cow or camel, the meat is also fresh having been a living creature within hours before consumption (note: I don't cook meat myself and I've almost become a vegetarian). And how could I forget, every time is "Chai time". Chai is served at 10am and at 4pm (+/- some minutes) at the school.
Peacefulness - when is the last time you sat on your porch (with a mosquito coil burning to prevent getting mosquito bites) just enjoying the peacefulness and beauty of the stars, the moon, and the night life (bats flying around)?

Of course the greener grass in Kenya also has some weeds - let's face it from afar we may think we see grass and in reality we are seeing weeds that are growing that look like grass.

Yet every place will have its ups and downs.

So we should just go with the flow. Live with what we have and learn from every experience. If, at one point in our lives we get the opportunity to get out there and experience the 'greener' side then we might as well give it a shot see what it's like and learn from our experiences. You never know when experiences from the past might come in handy in the future.

Make the most of the grass you have on your side of the (metaphorical) fence. Instead of looking at what you don't have and the grass on the other side of the fence, appreciate what you do have and make the most of it.


What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are. ~C. S. Lewis.
What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.~ Lao-Tzu

Isn't it interesting how people vary in the way they perceive things? Two people can look at the exact same photograph, movie, person, object, scenery, and have two completely opposite perceptions of what is being seen.
The typical example is the optimist and the pessimist: Is the glass of water half empty or half full?
Well what if its both half empty and half full but neither person is willing to even try to understand the other person's point of view or perception?

Perhaps because of my recent experiences I've come to see the importance of, at the very least, trying to understand the culture with which I live with. Such, however, is not typically the case of other Kenyans who live in this community of Somalis. Instead, I've heard many comments from both sides that North Eastern Province is "not a part of Kenya" or that the Somalis "are not welcome."

Then there is also the stereotypical perception of all Somalis being Muslim, which is not true. Along the same lines, there is then a perception that Muslims and Christians can't live together in peace. So I began to wonder why that might be. Why is it that there are many people who believe Muslims and Christians cannot live together in the same geographical area and live in peace? I believe all people, regardless of any and all characteristics of their being, can live together in peace.
Perhaps my perception is wrong.

The perception of various people I've met is that Garissa is where Kenyans are sent when they are 'exiled.' Strange to think of coming to Garissa as being exiled while when I heard I was coming to Garissa I was more than excited for the wonderful opportunity to live with and learn about Somali culture.
Perception matters.

Being asked why I would want to learn af Soomaali (Somali language) a coworker of mine made a comment which I found a tad disturbing. She said, "First you start greeting with 'Salam Alaykum' and next thing you know you are praying 'Allahu Akbar five times a day." From my coworker's perception, this is the reality. At least for her.
From my perspective, I think that many people hide behind stereotypes and fears of the unknown and choose not to learn about the unknown and instead continue living in fear.
Is it a possibility that if I were to start greeting my Somali (or Muslim) colleagues 'Salam Alaykum' I will end up becoming a Muslim? It is a possibility, perhaps, if I were drawn to the religion through further studies. But is language and religion one and the same? Does one lead to the other? Does speaking English lead to Kenyans being Christians?

My willingness to learn has been perceived as a wonderful thing by Kenyans and Somalis. Interestingly enough, my willingness to learn has not yet inspired other Kenyans (of non Somali descent) to learn about the Somali culture/language as I have chosen to do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Material things

Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. ~St. Thomas Aquinas

One rainy night, with the rain so loud, I found my self thinking, hoping, and wondering.
I was thinking about the amount of rain that was coming down. So much rain that I thought for sure there would be flooding. In the morning as I left my house I saw that there were still three large puddles of water I had to walk through to get to the main road.

I found myself hoping that the rain would not last too long so that the animals that have become weak from the lack of water and food would be able to withstand the heavy rains. I found myself hoping that the animals would be able to stay on or get to high enough grounds so that they would not be terribly affected by the streets flooding.

I found myself wondering what would happen if the rains would not cease. How much damage would there be? Will the roads become impassable? Would all the roads flood to the point where I would not be able to leave my house to go to work? Would I be able even to get to a local store for basic supplies - i.e. food, candles, matches.

As I found myself wondering, I began to wonder what I would do if my house was flooded. I really don't have too many material items - which means if my house did get flooded a lot of the things I have would be safe.
This thought process lead to another thought: 'I am doing quite well right now and I don't really have a lot of material things. I can actually see myself living the rest of my days in this manner - just the basics and very few luxuries.'

Maybe I'm just being too idealistic, but I really don't feel like I need a lot of material things to live a comfortable life.
I look forward to the days when I was my laundry by hand; I look forward to eating my super on the floor watching a movie or reading the news; I really enjoy the peacefulness that comes with having such few material things.

When I return to the states hopefully I will be able to continue this lifestyle of simplicity.

Home Science

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. ~Maya Angelou

In the recent past, I've become very familiar with a term called Home Science. My friend and counterpart Timothy introduced me to this term and idea. So what is home science you may ask yourself. Well what does it sound like? Let's break it down:
The word science comes from the Latin "scientia," meaning knowledge.

How do we define science? According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of science is "knowledge attained through study or practice," or "knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world."

For simplicity's sake, lets say Home refers to the place where you live at a given time. For me, let's say this refers to the house I reside in.

So home science refers to a science of the things relating to the home. But that doesn't just mean home science is specifically and only for things in a home. home science can apply to the workplace also. In fact, while we were networking the school, we had to implement some home science techniques to get the set up just right.

Home science is the concept of doing things yourself in your own home (within reason). Say for instance, a power strip is not working and you notice there are some wires no longer attached to the end that connects to the wall socket. So you take a screwdriver and open it up to see what's going on. You fix the problem - home science.

Another example, let's say you want to hang up a mosquito net over your bed but you don't have nails yet to tie the rope to. What do you do? If you are at my house you'd tie the rope to the bars on the windows on two sides and tie the third to the door of a closet. Home science at work.

Sure home science is called something different in the U.S. and heck many people do their own home science projects frequently. But the best thing about home science is that you feel good for having accomplished something when you are done - after all the home science techniques you apply only make the dwelling you reside in feel more and more like your real home.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Walking Bank

Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

I think I have mentioned before that many Kenyans have a stereotype of all foreigners. The stereotype is that all foreigners are rich. Since we are all rich, many Kenyans will be surprised to see me walking all the time. I might even be asked a question as to why I don't hire a taxi to go from the market to my house or why I don't take a matatu. [Matatu = 14 passenger van; most common mean of public transportation]. Of course taking a matatu is far from being as expensive as a taxi and yet I still choose to walk. Why does the presumably 'rich' foreigner walk everywhere? Why indeed.

Since I am thought to be rich, I am often asked for money. Occasionally it is a small amount - a person begging will often say they are hungry or would like me to buy them a cup of chai. Occasionally, however, I have heard more complex stories to try and get money from me. One case I've heard a few times is "my mother/sister/wife is sick... I need money for transport/medicine/nutrition". Then the person will try to make the amount sound meager by saying something like "it's only small change, I just need 500/2,000/5,000 (Ksh)".
In reality, it is possible and even likely that people will make up stories to get money from the 'rich' foreigner.
So which stories can I believe and which can't I? There in lies the problem. Of course I can't afford to, and even if I could I don't know that I would, give out money to everyone who asks for it.

Following the same lines of the 'richness' I am thought of as having a fancy home. In fact, several of my coworkers make comments of my purchasing a car. On a smaller scale, I've also been asked about purchasing a refrigerator for my house. When i respond " *laugh* I can't afford that even if i wanted to" I've received some awkward looks. Now, first let me back up real quick, to mention that as a volunteer I am not allowed to drive a car. With that in mind, even if I was allowed to drive the answer is still the same "I can't afford that even if I wanted to". This typically starts a conversation with my coworkers into their inquiring what I mean I can't afford the car/fridge/etc. Then I will typically explain that my coworkers make more money per month than I receive from the Peace Corps. Often times they don't know what to make of this. I will be asked several questions about the stereotypes that people are rich in the U.S. and that there is no poverty in the U.S.

One rainy day I got to thinking as to the stereotypes that exist. So if in the U.S. there is no poverty and everyone is rich (or makes good money), what's not to like? Should I mention that the U.S. is not the perfect world thought to be? Should I mention that discrimination still exists? Should I mention that although people make more money than in Kenya, the cost of living is higher? Should I mention the crime rates in the big cities? Should I mention the cost of transport to even travel to the U.S.? By mentioning my experiences of the U.S., will I end up unintentionally shattering someone's dream of going to the land of opportunity? I think the best course of action for me is to explain what I know in a manner that does not make the stereotype sound stereotypical.
After all, it is one of the goals of Peace Corps to share American culture with the culture we live with. More importantly, I would not want to have my dreams shattered if I were in their situation.