Resettling in Kenya has been anything but a smooth journey. I have had opportunities to chronicle the idiosyncrasies which I experience in my life here. However, at the end of one year back home, I still feel a little lost and aggravated by some of the societal issues/behaviours.
I had a not-so-difficult time settling in the US, my sister was around to guide me and to point out differences in culture, perception and understanding when I needed the lessons. Some things I had to learn on my own but my sister made everything easier to understand. After 8 years of living in the US I began to understand that even though I was slowly becoming American in manner and understanding, I wasn’t American. There are things that I would never fully understand like the fact that dogs, cats and other household pets were introduced as part of the family, and were tended to like a fellow human being. However, this did not prevent me from appreciating the American culture. When I returned to Kenya, I slowly began to realize that there are things in this society that I would never get used to.
On arrival in Kenya one of the things I found irritating was that no one seemed to understand the concept of queuing for services. As recently as last Thursday, I was at the butcher and there was a long queue. I waited patiently while everyone had their turn to order, then just before it was my turn, some guy, apparently the butcher’s friend walked in and threw his money on the counter and ordered. The undercurrents in me were being stirred, luckily, the butcher informed him that he would have to wait in line…this was not always the case. Sometimes people who disregard queues get serviced first to my chagrin, which loses the whole concept of queuing.
On a flight to Johannesburg, I have watched colleagues unashamedly skip the line at immigration and not even bat and eyelid when we gave disapproving looks. I have learnt that my voice works better and I tend to be the one who tells the other customer “I was here first…” as I politely request them to join the queue. Most people seem to think that skipping queues is unfair but people hardly ever speak about it. When it comes to queuing for buses, I have given up; it is still the primitive fight for your life… the strongest or the wittiest wins. This behaviour still baffles me to date.
Corruption in Kenya has infiltrated people’s attitude to the extent that even the common man on the street has an attitude of ‘get mine now think of others later’. All manner of deals are brokered in all types of places. I have heard of money changing hands so that a corporate would favour an NGO when it came to selecting partnerships for community projects. A friend mentioned to me that he would be able to win a Kes 1.2 Million (USD 13,700) tender from a major university in Nairobi only if he fronted Kes 20,000 (USD 230) for the officials of the tender office.
Last month a policeman stopped my friend while I was riding in his car. He threatened to write a ticket of Kes 50,000 (USD 574) for an offence which was non-existent but later on said he would settle for Kes 2,000 (USD 23). My friend paid half of the money (about USD 10) and drove away. Once while driving in town, one of the watchmen agreed to let me park in an office lot for Kes 50, despite the fact that this was illegal. He seemed offended when I declined and he muttered how I was ‘denying him wages’. Disgruntled workers find it acceptable to fleece the companies they work for in any way possible and young ones learn from us how to best live in world where corruption is rife.
Don’t get me wrong, this problem is not unique to Kenya however I have found it to be much more pronounced here than in the United States where I previously lived. Owing to my beliefs in this issue, some people have branded me hard-nosed, unfair and rigid, and it may be true that I am, but does it change the fact that people are condoning bad and surely illegal behaviour? I believe that unless each person takes responsibility for corruption in the country then it is almost futile to expect that the country will change. However, some still think of corruption as officials stealing from the government and not in terms of participating in bribery or other illegal behaviour outside the space of government leadership.
Lastly is the general lack of etiquette among people. Growing up here in Kenya, there are things that my mother taught me not to do, one was not to talk with food in my mouth and another is never to spit on the dust or street. The latter is mostly related to health and disease propagation. I have noticed that certain unspoken rules of etiquette seem to mean absolutely nothing in this society. Some people clear their throats noisily and disgustingly in the presence of others. Spitting seems acceptable in public places and men urinate anywhere they may please (I am not attacking the men; they just seem to be the ones who do this the most). People do not find it necessary to wash their hands after using the toilet and make a vigorous attempt to shake your hand every chance they get. Personal space is unheard of and while banking or queuing, I have often had to step aside as the person behind me is so close, he/she is breathing down my neck and probably copying my personal details of even my PIN at an ATM.
Those who are late for meetings or rendezvous never apologize and never face any consequences for the same. At an interview, one of the candidates who was 30 minutes late turned out to score well on the test and everyone instantly forgot that he was late to the interview. People still find it acceptable to throw trash through the car window despite the city’s effort at providing trash bins all over the city.
Others still expect one to contribute to various causes (real or imagined) which they never account for – this unfortunately includes individuals and corporations. One that I never get over is when people invite themselves or others to private functions –to illustrate- just yesterday, my colleagues and I went to visit another colleague who had recently had a baby. One of my colleagues showed up with his brother and son oblivious to what complications this may cause to the host. People are constantly crashing invite-only events, never taking into consideration what repercussion this may have to the host. I could go on and on about this so I will end by saying that indeed I find these behaviours uncouth in society.
So by now if you are still reading you know that my resettlement in Kenya has been a challenge, I have grappled with my perceptions and the perceptions of the people around me. I understand now that even though I was born and raised in Kenya, my short stint away from the country has been long enough to change my understanding of right and wrong and my values in life.
As I try to navigate the delicate path of cultural practices and western influence I find myself in a dilemma. Many times when I have had this conversation with friends and colleagues, they seem to think that I am too westernized and that if I thought about these issues in the context of Kenyan culture then I would not be offended.
However, I find this as an excuse for condoning bad behaviour. I have found that in Kenya, people seem shy about calling out people who err especially when it comes to cultural norms. The result of which is that the errant behaviour continues unabated. I am happy to be back in Kenya however with time I am beginning to wonder if I will ever fit in and whether I will get over these quirks that I see around me.