Friday, June 17, 2011

A List

Although I wouldn't consider myself a strictly "Type A" personality (which is probably good, since, according to a college psych professor, Type A's have a high rate of heart disease), I am someone who loves to make lists. I like to organize my thoughts with bullets, and in the case of to-do lists, few things feel more satisfying than crossing items off. So, below is a list that I've been mentally compiling over the past eight months. It's a list of things that most Kenyans can do MUCH better than I can. It's not meant to be self-deprecating, as I remain confident in the abilities I possess. But I also get a lot of comments from people at home about how I'm "doing great things." I want to show another side of reality, where I'm learning FAR more than I'm teaching, and I'm assisted more than I could ever hope to help. And maybe the list will make you laugh.

Things That (Most) Kenyans Can Do Better Than Jenny

1. Walk Through Kilometers of Mud in Heels, and Arrive at Their Destination Completely Clean

When I started my job at school, I has some nice, professional-looking black flats that I would wear every day. That was the dry season, and I was able to maintain their luster with a simple daily rinse to remove the dust. It was the rough roads that eventually did them in (the soles were split completely in half within a month). So I got another pair of black flats, that met a similar fate. Pair number three were purchased right before the advent of the rainy season, which nicely softened the roads... into mud. After the rains came, I would leave my house with clean shoes, and arrive to school with my black shoes changed to red, covered in wet clay. But upon greeting the other female teachers at the beginning of the day, (who walk a similar distance to school as I), I found myself trying to hide my dirty shoes in shame. The other women were wearing strappy shoes with a good inch of heel, and they were immaculate. No mud anywhere. I assumed they'd changed into their work shoes after trudging to school in hiking boots or that they'd cleaned their heels before I was able to see. But in reality, the women at my workplace and ALL the women I have come across, are able to deftly maneuver the soggy roads without getting a speck of dirt on their footwear. I've seen them in action. And I still don't know the magic technique, so I still go everywhere with muddy shoes.

2. Get a Stain Out of a Shirt Using a Bucket, Water and a Bar of Soap

Even at home in the states, I have trouble getting stains out of my clothes. Even though the supermarkets are stocked with stain-removing detergents, sprays, soaks, sticks, rinses and more, it's a battle to get wine, dirt or other spot-causing substances out of fabric. At home, I even have the advantage of mechanized washing that continually cleans clothes for nearly an hour. When you're armed only with a bucket, water, glycerine soap and your own elbow grease to do the washing, removing a stain seems like an impossibility.

At the end of my first week in Kenya, I first faced the task of washing my clothes. And after traveling in dusty matatus, they were anything but clean. I even had a shirt with an ink stain that had persisted through dozens of machine washings back at home. Since I was such a novice to the whole hand-washing process, my host mama helped me wash. (Or, if you want to get technical, she did it all herself as I looked on awkwardly). When we got the stained shirt, I said "oh, don't worry about that stain. It's permanent." She looked at me, raised her eyebrows, smiled, and wordlessly returned her focus to my shirt. I was taken aback, but continued to watch as she applied bar soap liberally to the stain and used some magic wrist-work, wringing and scrubbing the cloth. After all the twisting, rubbing and a thorough rinse, the stain was gone. I was stunned. I don't know how much spray-and-wash I'd wasted on that stain, to no avail. And she got rid of it in minutes. Yet more proof that Kenyan women are magic.

3. Bend

All cleaning activities (washing dishes, clothes, sweeping, etc.) are performed while bending over the work, with a straight back and legs. Brooms and mops (towels, really) in Kenya don't have handles, and wash basins for clothes or dishes are placed on the ground. The first time I washed my clothes on my own, I squatted down next to the basin and began scrubbing. I didn't think about my position, I just found it natural and comfortable. My host mama came out and started laughing, saying "you wash like a little boy!" I was immediately self-conscious, and she instructed me to bend over my work like a lady. I obliged, and in a matter of minutes, my legs and back were completely stiff, and starting to wobble. She came outside again to see my progress, and noticed I was in pain, so she silently brought me a stool to set my washing on so I wouldn't have to bend. I was ashamed of my prop, but I knew I couldn't finish without it. As the weeks progressed, I attempted to rely on the stool less and less. I had to work on my flexibility just to complete chores successfully. That's something they don't tell you about in the Peace Corps brochures. But now, thanks to persistence, I can wash clothes, dishes, floors, or whatever needs washing while bending. Albeit, not with as much stamina or grace as Kenyan ladies. Seriously, these women are superhuman.

Side note: I realize that so far, these are largely gender specific. That could be because Kenyan women can do everything better than anyone, or because I don't have much experience here with traditional "men's" work. Such work includes anything to do with pangas (machetes), shovels, rakes, motors or wires. So honestly, they're probably better than me at all that too.

3. Sleep on a Matatu

I don't think I've fully described matatus yet. I know I've referenced them in multiple posts and you, dear reader, can probably grasp that they're no Lexus, but I think it's important to have a deeper understanding. If a minivan and one of those airport shuttle buses shacked up and had a little baby motorcar, it would grow up to be a matatu. But in the growing-up process, it would go through stages of rebellion that would include stripping itself of seatbelts, mirrors, radio knob and patches of upholstery. But, to its credit, it would never lose its spare wheel.

However, it's not the shell of the matatu that is so remarkable. It is the living, breathing interior. Matatus are designed to hold fourteen people, with two passengers in the front, and three in the next four rows. However, the most people I've seen in a matatu is more than twice that. Close to 30 PEOPLE. Well, technically everyone wasn't IN the matatu, but the matatu was carrying everyone. Standing on the running boards counts, in my opinion. And the passenger count isn't always limited to humans. Sometimes there are chickens, sometimes goats, and sometimes both. I'm just waiting for the day when my seatmate is a cow. Also, It's not uncommon to have people on your lap while traveling. Grown people.

Due to the "close quarters" (to use an extreme euphemism), it's tough to regulate the temperature in a matatu. It's not the sweetest-smelling atmosphere, either. So how someone can get comfortable enough to SLEEP on a matatu is beyond me. But it's possible. Just ask the lady who napped comfortably on my shoulder from Nyahururu to Sipili last weekend.

4. Predict Rain

This one is a doozy. I've always considered the predictions of a meteorologist to be about as dependable as those of a water diviner or a president of Family Radio (a rapture joke - too soon?). But since moving to Sipili, I've met people who are totally accurate when it comes to predicting rain. And to them, it seems to be less of a prediction, and more of a "well, can't you see the sky? It's obviously going to rain/not rain." Sometimes I get cocky and think that the cloudless sky won't betray my prediction, and I'll proudly announce to a nearby Kenyan "well, it looks like it's not going to rain today!" The last time I said that, we had a flash hail storm in the afternoon, followed by a downpour that nearly washed away the calf at our school. And when I say "maybe it will rain today!" because I heard thunder and see dark clouds, the usual response is a puzzled look and a polite "maybe." And sure enough, we stay dry as a bone. I remain completely baffled at this supernatural Kenyan prediction skill.

5. Dance

Let me clarify right up front: This skill is not limited to hearing Kenyans. My Deaf students can all dance better than I can, and they don't listen to music. It's pretty much guaranteed that any Kenyan I meet who can walk can also dance. And dance WELL. When PCVs go out dancing in Nairobi, we usually stick to foreigner hangouts, because otherwise we'd look like 80-year olds in terms of our range of motion and sense of rhythm compared to the locals.

6. Speak Languages

While I consider it a good day when I can successfully buy tomatoes at the market using my basic Kiswahili/Gikuyu skills (aided by excessive gesturing), most people in Kenya speak at least three languages fluently. They grow up speaking their "mother tounge" or tribal language, and then learn Kiswahili and English at school. Their parents may speak Kiswahili and/or English at home with them too, so it's not uncommon to meet trilingual toddlers. Considering the fact that some Kenyans learn tribal languages other than their own, and may study French or German in university, they're all leagues ahead of my repertoire of English, rudimentary KSL and Spanglish.

There are probably many other arenas where Kenyans have me beat, but these are the ones I experience most frequently. I can only hope that my two years here will help me gain some of the insights and abilities that are integral to Kenyan culture. Self-improvement may be a less noble goal next to, say, teaching my students to read, but I find myself just as eager to be changed by Kenya as I am to create change here.

1 comment:

  1. Kenyan men are DEFINITELY better at things than Americans as well - Ravi and I tried to help around the homestead by hacking down some invasive plants, as well as a tree for our host's new house, with a panga, much to his amusement. And I can't imagine how poorly my piki piki driving would stack up against pretty much any Kenyan.