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.

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