When reflecting on the lives of Kenyans , sometimes I am amazed at how “happy” the Kenyan people seem to be. They have so much to be concerned about, have gone through so much, and continue to deal with so many things that people in the developed world do not ever have to think about. However, they persevere, uncomplaining and always with a smile on their faces. It is a bit disconcerting sometimes and makes one wonder what is going on, but ultimately, as a guest, it is certainly nice to be greeted warmly regularly and to see that smiles can carry one a long way, and perhaps they are the key to managing difficult times. Sometimes I think it must be the weather here in the Great Rift Valley region of Kenya, because it is practically perfect, from my perspective. We have had amazingly blue and sunny skies, a slight breeze, and temperatures from high 70s to low 80s for 6 months now. Of course, I think the weather is nearly flawless, but the Kenyans do complain about it, which is ironic to us because they are generally not complainers at all. They don’t complain about the things that happen in their lives which are truly lamentable. Or at least I have not heard them do so. If a complaint is mentioned, i.e. a lack of funds for school fees, a laugh and or big glowing smile is often its accompaniment.
There is a lot going on here that causes stress beyond what any of us can even imagine. The situation with education is the one that we are the most familiar with due to our work with the orphanages that we have helped support. Of course orphans want to go to school, need to go to school and should go to school, but the hardship is that PUBLIC school is expensive in Kenya. So it’s not just difficult for orphanage directors, to send kids to schools, it’s difficult for your average family to send their kids to school. I don’t know a single family that is not struggling with the issue of school fees once their kids get to High School. High School is the most expensive, and has become increasingly prohibitive, so of course a lot of kids don’t end up going. The cost of labor here is very low, and people are not paid according to the cost of living, especially if they have children, which most do. An average family needs to make about 40000 Ksh/month to survive, if it has two school aged children (BTW that is about $500). That is not a lot and certainly illustrates how low the cost of living is here, but UNBELIEVABLY most people don’t make that much. Teachers make about 16000ksh/a month, on average. So if both parents are working as teachers, they are not even making ends meet! And most families have more than two children. Although teachers’ salaries are considered to be “good” a common day laborer might make only 300 Ksh/day which is about $3.50. So….it’s very stressful both because people truly want to educate their children and they are encouraged and expected to do so.
There are also the issues of health. Although many kids are getting immunized now in Kenya there are still a lot of diseases out there threatening people’s health, that we in the north and west, don’t ever have to think about. Many people don’t have access to clean water, so water borne diseases are common, like Typhoid fever, and of course Malaria and Tuberculosis are prevalent, among other things. The AIDS pandemic, although in some control now, thanks to the work of AMPATH in western Kenya, is still a big threat and many people still don’t understand it. They’ve gotten to the point where they do talk about it, especially in cities and where health workers are prevalent (like Eldoret) and they are teaching children about it in their science and health classes at school. It has left a wide swath of destruction in families and communities. Most of the people I know have been affected by AIDS in one way or another….either they are infected themselves or they have lost many family members to the disease in the last decade. I can hardly believe how many people I know who have lost either both parents and all their siblings, spouses and children, or other members of their family. It’s quite astounding and it makes you wonder why the population isn’t walking around as depressed as can be.
There’s also a very high rate of infant mortality and women are still dying in childbirth here. Despite some modern facilities, it still happens and for the most part that is also a matter of education as many people come from very rural areas to have their babies but if they are in trouble, they often come too late.
Because water is not accessible to all, nor power, people have to spend a lot of time and money finding clean water if they understand the importance, or finding a source of fuel, if they don’t have power. Many don’t. Especially in the rural areas, and Kenya is still about 70 % rural. For the folks in town, for now, anyway, there is power most of the time, and there is water, if you aren’t in a slum. We do see people, not far from the city, washing themselves, their children, their foodstuffs, their containers for milk and water, and their clothing in what I would deem unhygienic circumstances. You also see people, mostly women and young children, carrying large loads of wood on their heads, great distances. This would seem like a good reason to complain and be disgruntled to me, but upon greeting them, these children and women usually offer up a big smile and “very well!” as a salutation. It’s a little hard to believe.
Not only are there health threats and financial difficulties, but on a weekly basis, their government is going through some sort of scandalous drama that would make anyone feel insecure and untrusting of the government. Either some big wig has stolen funds that were meant for a project, or someone in the government has caused some sort of horrifying issue in his/her home region by “inciting violence” against another group of people whom he/she feels threatened by, or monies have disappeared or a project has been delayed because of some scandal. It’s all somewhat mysterious and hard to follow from our perspective and although the Kenyans are up on the news and seem to know who is responsible for what, it doesn’t seem to faze them. Maybe they are just used to it and have become super cynical and don’t have high expectations for their leaders, which could be seen as another problem. It isn’t that different than the scandals that one hears about and sees in the States or Europe, but it just seems so much more problematic when the majority of the population is not getting their basic needs met.
When we talk about problems with Kenyans, they just shake their heads and smile. Some laugh outright and seem to find it funny that we would be concerned or even interested. I guess that’s really what I think. I think they think it’s strange that we, as visitors, are showing interest or concern in the country’s problems. We don’t hesitate to comment on the things we see if we understand them, but very infrequently do we get much traction for a serious conversation, and usually we just get a brilliant smile. Perhaps they smile in lieu of grimacing. Perhaps they don’t want to share bad news with us, as we are wageni , or guests. Perhaps they just want to carry on and stay on the bright side as long as they can.
I have even asked people, when they begin laughing after a comment I’ve made, “what’s so funny?” or “why does that make you laugh?” and there is usually no response. Just a big wide smile. I know now, after being here for so long that I sound funny when I speak Swahili, that they are not used to older white women talking to them, or men, for that matter. Many people have never met a white person so it’s a seems hysterical to have one address you. OR we are funny looking, sounding, dressing, who knows? What I do like is that people I do know, always greet me warmly and with a big smile and handshake or “air hug” as is the cultural norm. There’s a complex hand shaking ritual which I have finally gotten better at, which involves a large clap of the hands, some grasping and gripping maneuvers and then a shake, along with a big smile. I am not always prepared and sometimes flub it up, but in general it’s a feel good way of greeting someone and although it does take some getting used to, it seems like an upbeat way to deal with an everyday environment that can be seen as having a lot of challenges. And those big smiles are definitely good for warm fuzzy feelings!
There are a lot northern Europeans in Kenya who come to do work on trainings and research in the hospital (I guess East Africa is where their governments focus their international development work) and other places, and I have the opportunity to speak to many of them. Often they are sort of semi-friendly people but usually show interest in my insights when they learn how long we’ve been here. Once I mentioned to a Swedish woman doctor who was at a dinner party at our neighbors’ that we in the U.S. admire so the the lifestyles and society of Sweden, because it seems so democratic and works for everyone... She laughed. “Oh yes, it’s great, we have it all….free healthcare, free schooling, free childcare (can you imagine?)" but", she said," there are so many Swedes who just love to complain”. I was like, “Huh? complain about what?” “That’s it,” she said, “just to complain, because they are never satisfied. Really, most of them should come to Kenya and see what these people are dealing with in their daily lives.” Amen to That!The concept of people complaining when they have so much or their lives are truly quite blessed is an interesting one. Of course there are millions and millions of people in the world who struggle with the basics of life, like feeding their kids and keeping them alive. Yet, how is it that those people are often the most uncomplaining and smiling folks that you may meet, not to mention generous? It’s a grand mystery, that is for sure and definitely one worth pondering and keeping in mind