Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Poos and Cons

Greetings from Kakamega, the capital of Kenya's Western province and my new home. On the Kisumu road, south of the prison, the Salvation Army, then the cell tower, go west on the dirt road. Take the third right, then the first left, and my house is the first one on the left. 

In the moments when I haven't been cleaning and analyzing pilot data to determine who gets a chlorine dispenser, trying to improve the quality of the fence to keep the dogs inside, reading old New Yorkers, struggling to get anything out of Don DeLillo's Underworld, or vegging out to Seasons 1-4 of Breaking Bad, I've been thinking: "Do I like it here in Kenya?"

Yes and no.

I've been thinking about this because I just got back here after a month in the US and Switzerland--shoot, I never told you about the trip to Switzerland--because interesting and complicated work and career possibilities appeared (and disappeared?), and because I've got a buddy who lives in Uganda who complains a lot about life in Uganda. This buddy who lives in Uganda and complains a lot shall remain nameless, but he's doing pretty similar stuff to what I do, and we both got here last summer, planned on staying two years, but it's likely that we'll now both go home sometime this fall. He hates being like a zoo animal because he's white, he hates breathing the fumes of trash-burning all day, he misses friends back home, and he hasn't made new ones to replace them.

I agree with almost every one of those sentiments. Yet I don't enjoy hearing them from my buddy. Maybe this is hypocritical of me, but I think maybe it's just a big downer to complain about your situation to people in the exact same situation, or maybe if you're going to complain, you should at least try and be funny about it. So here's what I think, for all my readers who aren't my housemates.

I hate being so damn fascinating and/or scary to children and I don't like it when adults want to start up a conversation just because I'm white, and thus people assume I'm made of money (which, lets be honest, in relative terms, I sort of am.) When I go running, or wear shorts, or take not one but two dogs out on a leash (or a combination of all three of these things), the words I hear the most are "Mzungu! How are you? Give me one dog." I hate this.

Now, I use the word "hate" more than most people, but it's usually hyperbole done for comedic effect (although I freely admit comedy usually has some element of truth to it). This time it's sincere. I hate being such a fascination. The only way it's worse is when children use an intentionally hyper-nasal voice to say the annoying phrase--apparently white people sound nasally to them, and they think it's funny to imitate. Admittedly, I am not the best person to disabuse them of the notion of nasally white folks.  So I always bring my iPod and blast the Terry Gross to drown it out, and take an "ignore it and it'll go away" approach.

I would honestly say this is the reaction I get from a sizable percentage of strangers, but it's certainly not the reaction I get from coworkers, or thankfully, my new neighbors who rent a house in the same compound, or even their small children. So once we have some reason for repeated interactions, the fascination dies down, and most but not all of the time, so do requests for money. Anyway, the point is, I totally sympathize with my buddy about being a zoo animal. And if I ever in my dumber younger moments asked a black or Jewish friend if I could feel their hair, or gawked at somebody in traditional dress, or something equally dumb, I'm really, really sorry.

I also don't like inhaling the fumes of burning trash. I think engines should be four-stroke, not two-stroke. I prefer it when houses have water faucets, and when you turn the knob water comes out, and when the water coming out doesn't have e. coli in it. I prefer it when marathons or other races stop traffic on the course for the duration of the run. I prefer it when food has flavor. I prefer not to have to haggle over prices. Thermo-regulated buildings are nice. Higher speed Internet is better, and black-outs are also kind of lame. Paved roads are nicer without potholes. Most of the time, if I want to buy something or take a taxi, I prefer it when I go to them, instead of me getting swarmed whether I'm looking to buy or not.

But all that stuff should be taken with a grain of salt. It's kind of impressive how thick the dust is on the road outside my house now that it's the dry season. It's kind of fun to light candles and wear headlamps for dinner. I waste enough time on the Internet as it is, so slower access means more time with my 6-month supply of print copies of the New Yorker.  On occasion, when you meet a nice vendor who isn't super aggressive, whose English is very good, and you spend a few minutes with them, it's kind of fun to bargain over touristy presents for friends back home. The taxis though, taxis should just leave me alone and form a line. I'm sticking to that one.

I'm also a firm believer in the idea that whatever doesn't kill me gives me better stories to tell at dinner parties later in life. On my first go-round in Kenya, I didn't have running water, I took cold bucket showers, and I climbed Kilimanjaro in 27 hours. This time, I never have more than about a minute after waking up before I need to drop an urgent liquid deuce, but I'm a vegan runner, so really I've only gone from beyond regular to way beyond regular. Riding in a cramped minivan with 20 other people and no seat-belts in it on crappy roads is horrible in the present, and a cool story as soon as it's over. Type-II fun, baby.

So it's not necessarily the conditions I mind. What I do sometimes mind is third-world conditions combined with first-world work expectations. It can be quite frustrating to try and teach oneself new PhD-level statistics, learn to do constrained optimization in Matlab, or read and understand journal articles when you're the only PhD-holder for miles, and the power goes out, and the Internet is down, and it's 85 degrees in your office.

When I don't have work expectations to deal with (read: weekends), the conditions actually make life more fun. What would be considered mere errands in the US become "cool projects" in Kenya. In the US I find errands tolerable if done on bicycle, and extremely frustrating if done in the car. Here, I bike, sit on the back of a bicycle taxi, walk, ride my motorcycle (frustrating in traffic), or send somebody to do the crappy part for me.  Then I plant a garden, build a fence, compost, milk a goat (coming soon, I hope!), commission some handmade furniture, explore town, make new recipes, spray highly toxic pesticides (Pyrinex 48EC) on my chest of drawers to kill the wood weevils, rescue and try and train a dog, or learn to ride a motorcycle. With the exception of gardening and composting, I haven't had the time, space, or money to do these things stateside.

Like my buddy in Uganda, I also clearly miss my stateside friends as well. Some part of me thinks that I'm ready to move on from the East Bay, since many of my friends have graduated, and so have I. But that's still where my girlfriend (!) is, and where my four other friends are, so that's home.  Also like my friend, I don't think I've made any close Kenyan friends to replace them. I enjoy my coworkers, and they think the way I call spades spades in meetings is funny, but we're not close enough, nor do we have enough in common that we'd really choose to hang out in our free time. I'm a sarcastic secular educated liberal, and the conversations I enjoy the most are with the same. I'd like to think the being western has little to do with it, but the previous adjectives are probably correlated with the present one, so maybe I'm being too generous about my character.

I have, however, made quite good western friends through work, where pretty much everybody can be described with most of the terms above. My buddy and I work for the same organization, but I have the luxury of working in the org's largest office in the world, meaning the most westerners, the most people who get my sense of humor, and the most people who have what I think are interesting insights about movies, books, vegetarianism, and atheism.

So that's life in Kenya. Other things worth mentioning are that on weekends when I don't try and do cool projects, I can travel and see some amazing waterfalls or animals, and on very rare occasions, mountains. On a regular basis, however, the running here is a lot less fun because I live quite far from any serious hills. I'll spare you (and myself) from lengthy pros and cons about work, but let me just say that it is sometimes fascinating, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing good, but I sometimes feel like I'd be having more fun doing the same amount of good if it involved getting students to laugh at my sarcastic jokes.

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