After my mother and I had returned home from the shop around 6pm, I either work on reports that are due to the FSD site team, or help with some household chore. Since I can’t cut the cabbage small enough, or slice the tomatoes as daftly as my host sister without the use of a cutting board, and don’t yet know how to milk the cow or work the cooking fire, I prefer pumping and carrying water from the bow hole in the yard. While I did that my sister would be cooking vegetables or rice in the top house on the gas cylinder, my mother would be in the house below assisting grandma at the fireplace to prepare lentils or fish whilst responding to cell phone repair needs and other business opportunities on her smart phone, and my mothers’ nieces would be helping cook or clean in the house below. My younger host sister would be enthusiastically screaming the poems and songs she learned from school to anyone or no one who would listen. If I am seated in one stationary place for any extended period of time she tries to braid my hair or rather twist it around itself. Once my host father returned home he will be cutting the grass or attending to some other part of the yard and then catching up with the latest news on the TV while simultaneously reading the newspaper with a flashlight as the fluorescent, uncovered lightbulbs on the ceiling didn’t lend themselves well to fine print. The sun sets by 7pm and everyone must be in by then.
Myself, I much preferred the light of the kerosene lanterns. In fact, my favorite evenings were when there were blackouts. This is probably a very insensitive thing to say seeing as electricity is generally a thing people want to have more of, especially in developing places. Also insensitively I like to beg my mother if I can walk barefoot in the mud on our way home from the shop, because my sandals are usually being pulled off and into the sticky slippery silt anyway. She reprimands me that that is something only children do. “But don’t you see, I am only a child?” Or when I refuse to wear a sweater to school in the mornings like the others always do. I just don’t find it cold.
Codes of decorum are loyally upheld when held up to question is the decorum of codes. As a “third world country”, there is a keenly felt desire to be “better,” to grow, to try new and different and more endeavors, to question and improve the codes of governance and living, to develop. But development is an undertaking which requires much risk and audacity to confront the lack of a certainly identifiable best path forward. The certainty that is lacking in the realm of development is often compensated for in the realm of social expectations, no matter how limiting. When my mother saw a woman on the TV wearing a “mini skirt” (a skirt hanging just above the knees) she would chide “Aiii look how she is putting on! Here in Kenya that just can’t work.” And that was the end of that. When Obama was preparing to arrive in Kenya for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and the media coverage primarily comprised his position on gay rights and the strife that that was causing many socially conservative Kenyans, she wanted to bring that conversation to an even shorter end.
I still have yet to decide if when travelling in completely foreign places I should try to “fit in” out of respect for the surrounding culture, or be completely my own out of recognition of my own heritage. Both have their perks. Trying to dress in the style of a traditional African woman is fun and authentically demonstrates some sort of appreciation for their customs, especially to the older generations. At the same time it can look very awkward on a white girl. It even has the ability to attract some fantastic glares from girls closer your own age on the streets who are wearing the kind of western clothes you were told to leave at home. But dressing like I would in the states is a bit more comfortable and familiar, and makes me feel like I have better command of myself. This is especially important in a place when your every action is being carefully watched and seemingly scrutinized, and confidence is key. Also, as much as it is a learning experience for me to be living amongst a different culture, it is likely a learning experience for them to have me living with them, purely because of the difference that I embody. So then, why shouldn’t I appear as I would in the states so they can experience as authentic a foreigner as I desire to experience an authentic Kenyan? Trivial as dressing may seem, it consumed enough of my thoughts to receive a paragraph of recognition.