By Jessie July 4, 2013 6:30 pm
The teachers across Kenya have been on strike since we arrived. No students are going to school right now. It’s been two weeks, and everyone I have talked with is hopeful it will end this week. I’ve spoken to many worried parents, a frustrated teacher, and children who are disappointed to be staying home. Most of the children I have met love school and wish they could be there. The teacher was worried that they are missing out on a crucial time of year. She also let me know that while there are no teachers in the schools, kids are not able to access the materials needed to continue their studies (like textbooks).So I wasn’t surprised in the middle of the afternoon to hear ‘Hello? How are you?’ in short, clipped English. Not just once, but four or five times. I couldn’t see a face to match the high little voice. I walked behind the house to the hedge, and saw a face just barely able to peer over the top of it. The young girl must have been standing on something to look over the 8 foot hedge. I waved and replied to the young girl.
I asked her what her name was, and she told me it was Beatrice. I told her I was glad to meet her, then walked back a few meters to finish washing my laundry. As I worked, Beatrice kept popping over the fence to show me her greatest treasures. First a little puppy, then a small child. She raised the child, then suddenly they both disappeared and I heard a thump, then a little commotion behind the hedge. Oops.
No screams though, so I assumed they all landed safely.
Since then, every evening as I scrub my boots I hear a little voice shouting ‘Hello Jessie.’ I’ll walk over, and Beatrice and I will have our daily chat. The other day, I heard her quietly repeating over and over – ‘Please, make yourself at home and feel welcome.’ Not quite loud enough to really convince me that she wanted my attention, but that I could tell she was practicing for our next chat.
Kenyans have a different use of ‘you’re welcome’ than Canadians do. To me, it’s an acknowledgement after a thank-you – mostly an empty sentiment that is kind of devoid of any true meaning. The Kenyans will proclaim it before anything else is said – they want to make it clear that they are happy to see you and that you are actually welcome. It makes me smile a little each time – both at the discrepancy in meanings between the two cultures and at the genuine sentiment behind the delivery of the words.
We’ve joked often with people about ‘African Time.’ As Canadians, we are in a rush to get things done, complete the task, have that meeting, and move on to the next thing. The people of Kenya are more focussed on relationships. It’s important that everyone has been greeted properly (with a hearty handshake and ‘You’re welcome’), that everyone is present and that everyone can contribute.
It can easily be a source of frustration for us goal-driven Canadians. We have a limited amount of time here, we have ambitious goals for out project, we have checklists a mile long to complete. However, ‘African Time’ seems to have evolved out of a desire to center life around relationships.
I don’t think that’s a bad way to approach things.
Connection and a feeling of community is rooted in relationship, and relationship is essentially based on shared experience. If you haven’t invested in shared time to create relationships, you probably won’t leave a strong impact. I’ve always believed that people rub off on
each other – whether it be positively or negatively.
I’ve also always believed that although you may meet thousands of people in your life, the ones that you remember are people that have taken the time to show an interest in you, and genuinely care about you. You may only know them for a short time, but they remain in your heart because you created a shared experience.
The benefit of ‘African Time’ is that it lends itself to creating opportunities for relationship. A few days ago, we stumbled upon some disorganization that could be attributed to African Time. I sat outside on the stoop for over an hour with Shepelo (a Kenyan graduate student
heavily involved in the project). We laughed about some of the funny experiences in life and consoled each other over some of the more difficult ones.
I learned a lot about Kenyans in that conversation, and I’m sure Shepelo learned more than she wanted to about Canadians. Earlier in the week she was shown a pamphlet created by the government of Canada about working with Canadians. As she carefully read each page, she smirked and with a great measure of wit intoned; ‘This will teach me how to work with Jessie.’ And here I thought sarcasm was a fairly advanced and characteristically Canadian form of humor. Shepelo learns quickly.
It’s not always easy understanding each other’s cultural quirks and usually a lot of meaning can be lost in translation. But there is one thing that speaks across cultures – a big smile and a ‘You’re Welcome.’
By Geneviève July 3, 2013 5:46 pm
One of the first things you may remark when travelling in rural regions of Kenya is the presence of children. You can imagine that they remark us quiclky too, since we are wazungu*; they approach and watch us with an endearing ingenuousess. Indeed, as soon as we set foot on a farm, they gather around us, young eyes scrutinize us with curiosity and small mouths can hardly help giggling as we contort ourselves to get into a pen.Kenyans seem to hold their children (and all the neighborhood’s) in high importance. Of course, young people are a precious help for parents with a more modest educational background. It did happen that the eldest daughter of a family, the only person who could read English, assured us that she would help her mother follow the feeding instructions correctly. However, you can perceive in their eyes that Kenyans care for their youngsters more than just for help.
It’s true that this youth is lovable : lively, keen to help and equiped with intellectual curiosity. At the moment, teachers are on a national strike but, unlike what is expected at home, kids are not cheering at the idea of not going to school. All desire to increase and perfect their knowledge of the world.
Jessie is amazing with kids. She is always ready to take the time to present herself and to ask their names and age. I like them too – in fact, I am a bit disappointed when we don’t meet any children on the farms – but I have to admit that I focus on my task first. Yes, my darlings, you can play ith my hair; I won’t mind, but after I am done with the CMT** on this cow that’s trying to knock me out. Once we finish gathering the information, if we have some time left there, we are happy to speak to them even more, to teach them hand games or to let them try our stethoscopes – the joy that appears on their faces is worth the patience it takes sometimes to get them to stop hiding behind their big brothers or sisters.
We cherish those moments of happiness, like yesterday, when the children gave us lovely colored charms that they made themselves – we first had to wash our hands marked by farm labour before we could accept them decently.
More than the hills and lakes, more than the plants and wildlife worthy of a poet’s dream, the real treasure of this country is the pure open heart of the children and the loving care that adults give them.
This blog entry does end with a sentimental touch; you just have to deal with it.
*Wazungu : Plural form of muzungu; Swahili word meaning « European » or « something strange », but mostly referring to any white person.
**CMT : California Mastitis Test