The people of Kenya, seem to be inherently tough. After spending 4 months in the US where everything is automated or mechanized, it’s easy to be impressed by physical labor, which is very commonly done here. The contrast to how things are done at home is remarkable. Physical strength doesn't
|digging drainage ditches by hand|
|a bicycle taxi with his load|
|the dolly station|
|working on the railroad|
|yep, those are chickens!|
|children with grain sacks|
|child with grain|
|roadbed near our house|
|on a construction site|
Considering that children start carrying things, like jugs, buckets, loads of wood, and each other, from an early age, it makes sense that they grow into strong adults. They definitely don’t have to go to the gym to get fit! I find that the strength of people’s arms, legs, ankles, shoulders, necks and backs is quite incredible and admirable. Because I walk a lot, it makes me feel old and frail, as I pick my way slowly around the debris that is found on the sides of some of the roads. There is plenty to be conscious of, like broken metal sticking out of the ground, uneven ground, concrete pieces, stones, and large ruts in the side of the road. Not to mention trash and standing water sometimes, which it seems wise to avoid.
So, as I walk, head down, picking my way along, I am usually being passed by old women, older men, young children and young men and women, all dressed in their fancy clothes all with the most beautiful posture, everyone walking upright. I am most amazed by the young women, because believe you me, they do not allow an uneven road bed or garbage strewn route to deter them from dressing up and wearing what I consider to be not very sensible shoes. I am always stunned at some of the shoes women are wearing…I know for sure I’d break an ankle even on smooth roadsides, or good sidewalks, not to mention these roadbeds. I have to attribute it to the fact that many of these people grew up in the country side not wearing shoes and were trained at a young age to carry many kinds of objects along all sorts of pathways. Their ankles just seem to be incredibly strong. I have actually watched women in high heels maneuver down a steep incline strewn with broken stones, with nothing to hold onto, carrying stuff in their hands, and descending safely, without missing a beat, much less falling.
It’s not just their ability to walk, talk, carry things on their backs and heads all at the same time , that is astounding….it’s also all the loads that are being carried otherwise, to or from a work place. There are certain people that carry certain things in a certain way, determined by custom and/or gender roles, and I am not 100% sure that I understand it completely. On our travels, we have seen any number of seemingly crazy loads on people and bicycles . The bearers of these burdens typically are maneuvering through packed roads with many people and other vehicles in the way! Sometimes even in the dark!
Wood and charcoal are the two most commonly seen items, as they are both either cut and/or made for sale as everyone, who doesn’t use gas, must have fuel for cooking and heating water. So, there is an abundance of fuel being toted from the countryside into towns to markets or specific places for sale. Of course, the more you can carry in one load, the better off you are because if you can carry several loads in one day and sell them, then you are making some relatively good money! Then there is the grass that the cows are fed when they don’t have enough pasture. Grass might not seem like such a heavy load, but when we see it on the back of a small motorbike or bicycle it seems quite an impressive balancing act! It’s awkward too, as it is not baled, per se, but rather stuffed into big plastic grain bags. People also carry food stuff on their heads, vehicles, backs and bikes. Bananas, corn, potatoes, onions, and any number of other heavy and awkward items can be seen on the backs or heads of women.
There are other ways to cart things around as well, and they are all physically exhausting, even from a spectator’s viewpoint! Many young men are employed pushing large dollies of whatever needs to be pushed. Men also seem to be who push carts loaded with all sorts of large and small items, including tires, grain sacks and other goods.
Although I think of myself as a relatively strong person for my age, carrying heavy things is one of my least favorite things to do. I prefer to wear a backpack with a load than carry things in my arms, but I am fortunate not to have to carry heavy items for my work. I do sometimes carry children in my arms and can see how carrying them on one’s back is less straining but also frees your arms up. For more carrying, of course.
In any case, I would never ever challenge a Kenyan women to a carrying contest or a leg wrestling match! Or a posture competition, for that matter. I have seen 5 gallon jugs carried on a head while the carrier is walking and holding the hands of children. One often sees a LARGE amount of sticks being carried on a back with the strap of the carrying bag wrapped around the head in order to stabilize it, or the ubiquitous children on the back and foodstuff on the head. You also see children who cannot be more than 9, carrying large loads of sticks and corn in bags in the countryside. Early training is the key to super human strength as an adult, right?
Another part of the physical labor that always amazes, is the way that the women clean house. There is the ongoing task of laundry, which is mostly done by hand, scrubbing it and hanging it to dry. That is done standing, bent over a large bowl. The other constant task of cleaning floors, is done by sweeping them clean, with a very short broom, or by “mopping” with a cloth, not a true mop. This means, if you are sweeping with a short broom, or mopping with a cloth, that you are completely bent at a 90% angle, from the waist, doing it by hand, again. It’s pretty amazing to watch. During the rainy season in particular, “mopping” of floors is a necessary and endless tasks. In most public facilities as well as homes with concrete floors, people going in and out of these buildings drag dirt or mud through them all the time so the floors are incessantly cleaned. They don’t tend to have mats at the entrances for people to wipe their feet on although mud is omnipresent. Children are trained at a young age to help out and do their own laundry, as well as sweep and “mop” with a rag. If they live in a hut that does not have a concrete floor, which many people still do, there is the task of sweeping the dirt floor so that it is tidy as well.
So, it’s impressive and really a wonder. I think about how tired I am at the end of the day in Indiana after I’ve worked in the garden for several hours. I multiply that by 10 for the amount of physical work an average Kenyan does on any day and it makes me want to go straight to bed! Mostly, though, it makes me feel embarrassed by my inability to get around without being completely obsessed about breaking an ankle or otherwise hurting myself. I don’t know a single Kenyan woman who complains about her burdens during the day or how she might get hurt walking around in town, or that she might not have the exact right shoes for the job! I don’t think I’m at a point in my life when I can start taking on more loads but I do admire these people for their ability to do such incredible physical labor.