Wednesday, 10 February 2010

How To Stop Being So Canadian In Kenya



"Me and the rest of this city of 4 million play a dangerous game of Frogger, with traffic who WILL NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON other than they've already hit you."


I've now been in Kenya for two weeks. On my first sleep deprived day here, I was thrown into the chaos of Nairobi traffic, I was shown what life consists of in the impoverished communities (slums), and I was introduced to a new take on what passes for clean. Needless to say, I've had to adjust my privileged North American standards very rapidly.
Aiding in this effort has been my colleague Nathaniel, a fellow Canadian in Up With Hope, who, having been here many times before, has demonstrated what it takes to get down with the people.

1. I've had to adjust my internal thermometer. Kenyans are warm and polite. No more can I do what people do in Vancouver, where we run into our friends on the street and feel it okay to utter a mere "what's up?" with our hands still firmly in our pockets. When introduced to strangers like myself, Kenyans take my hand, introduce themselves and welcome me warmly. The other day I was lost. A young lady was kind enough to walk out of her way with me to the area I needed to go to. And she stayed there until my friends showed up. Apparently this is the norm here.

2. Back in Canada I sometimes feel claustrophobic if more than four people stand closer than three feet to me for more than two minutes. I consider this an affront to my individuality and personal freedom. That's why I drive everywhere. Here I ride in buses, known as Mutatus, that seat 10 but somehow squeeze in 20, that blast hip-hop out of crackling, over-taxed speakers, and at times reek of vomit, and always of body odour and diesel smoke. I rarely take a taxi. If I need a break I stay home or I choose to walk, some times for miles.

3. If I did drive here I wouldn't wait patiently for a red light to turn green at 2am when it's obvious there are no vehicles or pedestrians around like everyone does back home. In Nairobi there are a handful of street lights that are rarely obeyed in the first place. Me and the rest of this city of 4 million play a dangerous game of Frogger, with traffic that WILL NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON other than they've already hit you. At times one can be fooled into thinking there's a flow to this game, mostly though, negotiating traffic means you are one step closer to death. The way they drive is one of the few gripes I have with Kenyans.


4. I ask myself. What is ice hockey? Because I watch soccer now.

5. I've had one beer a week so far. You want Budweiser or Molson? Too bad. Sure there's Heineken but I'll stick with the Kenyan pisswater known as Tusker.

6. Back home I deliberate over whether I should spend $150 on a pair of Levis or $300 on organic cotton Loomstate jeans. In Kenya, the average annual income is less than $500.

7. I fall into option paralysis in a Canadian supermarket, and that's just in the cheese aisle. In Nairobi I settle for, and enjoy the one kind of cheese most abundant here–marginally flavourful cheddar.

8. Not that I ate fast food back home, but if I did I would probably go through withdrawl here. Kenya has no American fast food chains whatsoever. Chapatis, beans and rice bitches!

9. I fret when it rains too much in Vancouver, while lack of abundant water means weekly shortages, yellow lawns and death to thousands of Kenyans.

10. I have a hot shower once a day even when I haven't broken a sweat back in Canada. In Nairobi I choose to bath with lukewarm water scooped by a juice jug from a basin every other day.

11. I wouldn't buy Haagen-Dazs ice cream or double douchie lattes even if they were available. I don't have wine with my dinner, nor do I head out to spend $40 on a meal because I'm feeling too lazy to cook. If I've spent $5 on a meal out for myself and a much less fortunate Kenyan friend, I've splurged. Usually I eat one main meal a day.

12. If I'm in a garbage-strewn and poop-smelling slum and someone offers me a bite of their food, I take it.

13. No one, including myself, wears gloves here when performing our recycling jobs in which we wade through mountains of trash. As a result I've stopped chewing my nails.

The list goes on and on and sometimes when I think of what I've complained about back in Vancouver, I feel ashamed.

But. The one thing I have not yet compromised is the consumption of water. I still buy it in bottles. However, I have been brushing my teeth with tap water.
No runny bum as of yet. Wish me luck.

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