Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Nairobi? Why not Paris or Rome?

I feel like people have asked me these questions quite a bit before I left. I told people I was studying in Nairobi for my semester abroad and they would ask, "Why? I get Europe, it's much more academic. What will you do in Africa?" Before pointing out that Africa is a vast and diverse continent (trust me, DRC is EXTREMELY different from Kenya, in terms of culture, former colonial powers, geography and national security), I would say that my reasons were unique to Kenya. I wanted what I could not find anywhere in Europe.

First, let's look at my passions. From my academics, resume, and conversations, poverty eradication comes up quite a bit. From a common sense perspective, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to study in Western Europe. Yes, the Western powers have their own issues (see it every day in DC), but you don't go to Europe to study poverty eradication. Nairobi, it's almost a business (sadly, there are several unscrupulous NGO's who make money off of Kenyans' misery and Westerners' checkbooks). Development comes after tourism. Whether people are employees or beneficiaries, everyone wants a piece of it. Quite simply, it makes much more sense to study these issues in a place where you face them head on, rather than study them in class at AU and go to Europe, where most of these are irrelevant (not bashing my friends who took the Europe/ID route in SIS, they have their own reasons. These are just my thoughts).

Second, after living here for nearly two months, I don't think I would have gotten as much out of Europe. Yes, European languages and cultures are different but not on the same drastic level. Americans still experience similarities. Kenyans not only have a completely different understanding of life and much different realities, it's a place where you have to prove yourself. I had to make my bones with Nairobi. If you remember posts from the beginning, I was very frustrated: at being ripped off, hit on, groped, begged for money, stared at, etc, just because I was white. I had to learn not to take it personally, but to learn from it. Since then, I've learned to put on a neutral face, made friends with Kenyans, learned more Kiswahili/Sheng/cultural idioms/Kenyan English, and developed more of a sense of humor. I don't seem as much like a clueless tourist who doesn't know what she's doing. Rather, I have more confidence in myself than I ever did in my entire life and I've started to see beauty in the culture and the people. I've also humbled quite a bit, realizing that I'm going to make mistakes, handle things wrongly, and accidentally offend people. It's up to me to learn from it, apologize when needed, laugh at myself, and move on.

Nairobi has a certain raw beauty to it. I liken it to Bruce's "Thunder Road," when he croons, "You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right!" No, his girl isn't the beauty you find in magazines or on billboards, just like Nairobi isn't Rome. At the same time, Bruce compares Mary to a vision as her dress sways. Likewise, Nairobi has a quality and charm to it you can't find in Europe. Whether it's the purple jacarandas and green palms alongside dirt roads and big buildings, people walking in their suits and high heels as matatu touts are screaming, "Mbao! Mbao! Mbao! Kariobangi!" (Mbao is Sheng for 20 shillings, comes from the British pound and Kariobangi is a slum in Nairobi, near where I work), the mix of Swahili, English and Sheng and the smell of smoke, samosas and sausages, it's got something. No, Kenya is not Italy. It's not France. I wouldn't want it to be. It's Kenya. It's different, it's beautiful, and it's special.

I hope poverty and politics improve here and that these determined people I know can find solutions to their situations. At the same time, there are some things I wouldn't have any other way. I feel like I've been through a lot. I wouldn't change a thing. People think I've gone to teach people. No. They've all taught me more than I could ever hope to learn in a lifetime. For this, I am filled with gratitude.

Asante sana, Kenya :)

1 comment:

  1. that's a great post! So descript, so insightful. Nice piece of writing!