…have honestly been more challenging than I expected them to be. Every time I’ve been to another country and been warned about culture shock, I’ve been very underwhelmed. Sure the food is different, the clothing is different, and the language is different, but I always find that discussion of how “it’s a totally different way of life” is a little overblown. However, my first three days in Kenya might be challenging my belief that I’m culture shock-proof. Not sure if it’s full blown culture shock, so much as discovering I have a lot to learn about being in Kenya.
My experience driving from Nairobi to Nanyuki I think illustrates how very different some aspects are. Nanyuki is 120 miles north of Nairobi, but the drive took my roommate/co-worker/new friend, and I a little over five hours, for a couple reasons.
In an effort to improve vehicle safety, the Kenyan government has placed devices in the matatus (buses) that people ride in to get around. Basically these devices prevent the matatus from exceeding 80 km (48 miles an hour). Which honestly, in certain parts of the trip, seemed like a pretty good idea. However, being limited to 80 kilometers an hour was probably the least of our concerns.
About 30 minutes into our journey, there was a police checkpoint, or so I thought. The police were alongside the road, and signaled to each and every car immediately in front of us and behind us to pull over. A policewoman came over to our car and asked for our license and registration, though after it became apparent that the driver spoke better Swahili than English, the two began to speak in Swahili (meaning I had no idea what was happening). The policewoman and driver chatted for a bit, the policewomen laughed and got into the car. “How amusing I thought, we’re giving the police a ride somewhere”. While that was true in a sense, an illegal u-turn into traffic later (and the police’s instruction), we found ourselves at a police station. Our driver, John, handed his car keys to the police and left. Sarah’s question of “is there a fine you have to pay?” received the response “wait here” from our driver.
As 15 minutes became a half hour became 45 minutes, it became clear that we were not the only ones waiting—remember, nearly every car in front of us and behind us was pulled over at the same time. In total, there were about 15 cars at the station; all of its drivers, ours included, were milling about the police station. Ultimately, we learned that everyone had been pulled over for speeding (the limit was 50 km per hour apparently, so 30 mph on a major highway. Womp womp). After two hours, our driver received his ticket, and we were on our merry way.
While the rest of the ride was uneventful, I can’t say it was uninteresting. There’s something about being on a pothole-filled part of the road while up ahead in your lane there’s someone driving the opposite way, trying to execute a last-minute pass that makes you fully appreciate the fact that cars are in fact several-ton objects hurtling along roads at very high speeds. In spite there not really being any “close calls”, it’s still quite unnerving.
I guess my biggest challenge thus far has been how I feel like I don’t really know anything, and don’t really understand what’s happening. Whether it’s trying to figure out how to get internet to work, or not knowing to include punctuation in my text messages, not being able to communicate in Swahili, beyond asking people how they are and saying “there are no worries”, I’m feeling especially incapable. None of it in and of itself is particularly debilitating, but collectively it does make for a challenge.
An important epiphany that I had though is that one of the reasons I chose to come to Kenya was because I thought it was a challenge, so I shouldn’t be frustrated when it meets my expectations in that regard. I think that by being confronted with things that are new and difficult for me on a very regular basis, I will almost certainly grow. If I want to legitimately get better at working in development, and just in general, the only real way to do it is by pushing myself, and testing what I’m capable of.
While there have been some parts of my time have been challenging, there has also been a lot that has been really enjoyable, and I am confident it’ll be only a short while before I’m completely enamored with the place. Some things that have been great so far:
My co-workers and roommates have both been great so far! They’re both really helpful and friendly, and have a laid back, find-the-humor-in-life sort of attitude, all of which has been really appreciated on my part. They’ve definitely helped a lot with the transition process for me.
One of the really amusing dynamics of Nanyuki (and maybe Kenya as a whole, not really sure) is how prolific random sports apparel is. For instance, on my way to the cell phone store today and to work, I saw a Florida Marlins hat, an Arizona Cardinals hat, a Detroit Tigers hat, an AC Milan jersey, a Chelsea jersey, and then hats for the New York Mets, San Antonio Spurs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not to mention my favorite thus far, an AND1 basketball jersey. All pretty fantastic.
The work I’m gonna be doing seems really cool. Our NGO offers training programs to its entrepreneurs in various topics, such as saving, keeping a budget, lending, and other basic financial management concepts. I’m working now on designing a series of trainings that we’re going to be giving to the micro-entrepreneurs. The skills I’m applying are a somewhat unexpected combo—it reminds me a lot of when I designed programs for the Learning Center at the Boys and Girls Club when I worked there. Only instead of planning to put Mentos in Diet Coke, the topics involve consumption smoothing, dealing with risk, and gauging credit-worthiness. Same thing really.