Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nairobi is a balancing act

So my time in Nairobi is going by. I am cruising through my second week. For me, the first week is always the hardest because everything is new and everything takes adjustment. And adjustment takes energy. I have found myself in several instances over the last two weeks contemplating the delicate balance that is life as a visitor to Nairobi and Kibera.

Bored vs. Concerned: The most important accessory to have while walking the streets in Nairobi and in Kibera is a poker face. I have been perfecting mine. It is a tricky balance between looking bored (“I have walked this street so many times I couldn’t possibly be new here. Oh here comes another boy with knee high Uggs and a tight purple t-shirt that reads “Frankie Says Chill” on it. Yawn) and still looking like you are interested in the place around you. It is important to look confident as if you routinely navigate through the area to not further draw attention as an outsider. This balance between bored and concerned is especially complicated in Kibera. It is inappropriate to have a shocked look at every turn, although the number of shocking sights and smells is innumerable. On the flip side it is inappropriate to look like the surroundings are mundane, because there is very little mundane about it. It is important to show concern without looking condescending. This requires more finesse than it may seem.  My perfect poker face, which elicited a “are you bored madam” from a random passer-by today, is still in the works.

No personal space vs. keeping your distance: For those who have traveled in areas like this, it is not a surprise that the definition of personal space is very different here from in the US. I bump into countless people each day and squeeze myself between men and cars frequently. People talk to you closely and are more touchy-feely than perhaps is acceptable in the States. While walking, it is important to keep with the flow of traffic by allowing yourself to come very close to those who you are passing. This decision is often simply made for you because of the small walking space on the sides of the road. Allowing yourself to be pushed along shows you are not the paranoid American who knows nothing of Kenya. I don’t mind the closeness of a Kenyan conversation (with a friend) at all. On the other hand, however, it is important to remain the paranoid American and give the selected wide berth to people who may be trouble. When walking, I try to keep my distance from anybody who is stumbling or staring too long, or with too wide a grin. Or someone shouting “Hey Princess, come back to my house and marry me today”. Marriage proposals get an especially wide berth, and a slight chuckle.

Meeting new people vs. ignoring constant pleas for attention: Although the kids are more polite here than in Tanzania, as they should “Howareyoufine” instead of “mzungu mzungu”, their calls and attention are still constant. Today four of us were rushed by a herd of school kids wanting to touch our hair, and lept in the air to do so, their maroon school uniform skirts sailing behind them. Young men also call out to us. The phrases we hear are mostly polite, although one guy yelled at us a couple days ago with a stern “You MUST greet me!” My favorite greeting has to do with Obama. Since my arrival I have met approximately 50 of Obama’s cousins and 15 of his school desk mates. I have had people pass by with “Tell Obama hello” and “How is Obama” and “Obama is my president”. Yesterday I told one person I did not know who Obama was and he replied in a shocked tone “He is the most important Kenyan in the world”. I will let Trump know. There is a balance in replying to these comments and ignoring them all together. Yesterday, leaving the compound of another American, a man approached us while we stood with our backs to the wall, blocking off our path forward. Immediately on our defense, I was ready to get out of there if needed. The man simply wanted to state his name for us and tell us he was on his way to work. Thanks for the update William from Woodley. While it is important to get to know the local people, to engage them in conversations, some people are better left ignored and at the end of the day it is impossible to satiate every kids’ desire for a fist bump with a mzungu. That said, I have had some really interesting and personal conversations with people I have met.

Another balancing act.

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