Cultural differences… sometimes it’s as simple as wondering whether or not I should take off my shoes at the door. Other times it is taking continual shots of rice spirits at a Laotian wedding because you’re not sure if it’s rude to refuse. And then there is the time when a white girl’s sunburn highlights a cultural difference in a rather interesting way.
When I was in Kenya this past December, you might recall that I took a vacation with the boys to the coast. The boys had never seen the ocean, and we couldn’t wait to go! We spent a quiet and relaxing week at Diani beach (south of Mombasa) that consisted of swimming, snorkeling, making friends with the beach boys, playing at the pool, eating with the locals, and taking the guesthouse dogs with us wherever we went. The boys even made a big to-do about tasting the saltwater because they insisted that it must be used for cooking since it was free salt! Even though just being at the ocean was a big enough event, I thought we should make an educational day trip to Mombasa to visit Fort Jesus. It was the dead of summer and unbelievably hot. Before we had even boarded the ferry to get to Mombasa (after the multiple matatu rides to get to the ferry), we were drenched in sweat, and I thought to myself how much this was a terrible idea and that I’d rather be cooling off in the ocean right then.
Determined, we continued on in search of Fort Jesus. We finally made it, and though it wasn’t all that exciting, the boys could at least say they had gone. It was fun to climb up on some parts of the fort and the cannons and peek out of the little watchtowers.
After we left the fort, we meandered through the Old Town.
As a lover of architecture, the Old Town is like a little slice of heaven for me. Typical of coastal towns in East Africa, it is mostly a Muslim community with Arabic influences, and the African/European/Arabic architecture, reminded me of my time wandering through Stone Town in Zanzibar. As much as we tried to follow a map, we got lost in the tiny cobblestone alleyways almost immediately. We came across intimate moments of children playing ball, and an old cobbler making sandals. There were women cooking bread items in front of their homes, and young men carting items from the market to their shops. We had nearly made our way out of the labyrinth of the Old Town and to a main street when a gentleman approached me. He was pointing at my legs and speaking rapid Swahili to me. I was utterly confused. I know basic greetings and some random words but had no idea what he was saying. And for a moment, I was a little afraid that I had offended him. You see, even though it was blazing hot outside, I tried to dress in cool clothing while still being modest. I had on a short-sleeved top and shorts that came nearly to the knee. Perhaps long pants would have been better but it was a million degrees out, and I couldn’t imagine putting any more clothing on my body. And I justified the shorts, which I rarely wear in Kenya, because of the hot weather. Like I said, they nearly came to my knees.
Onesmus and John were slightly ahead of me because I had stopped to take a photo so I yelled for them to come back. Onesmus jumped in and asked the man what he said. After repeating himself again in Swahili and pointing at my legs, Onesmus shook his head and replied. I stopped them because I wanted to know what the heck was going on! “What’d he say?!” Onesmus got a big grin on his face, let out a boyish laugh and said, “He is telling you he’s sorry that your husband beats you!” I looked down and realized the confusion. While I had worn sunscreen all week, I had missed the spot behind my knees (or maybe just sweated it off) and the back of my knees were red. And this man thought I had taken a beating across the back of my legs. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea, and told the man “Hapana,” (meaning ‘No’). He rested his hands on my shoulders and said, “Pole. Pole,” and sauntered off. Clearly, he didn’t believe me because he was saying he was sorry. And not sorry for the mixup, but rather sad eyes sorry as if he felt sorry for me.
It was a funny misunderstanding because he’s probably not used to the idea of a white girl getting sunburned. And the fact that I was only sunburned on the back of my legs was a mystery to him. But on the same token, it was kind of a sad moment that his first assumption was that I was a victim of spousal abuse. It is not uncommon in Kenya. While the UN and USAID have made progress with campaigns against spousal and child abuse, the fact of the matter is that it’s still all too common. In more rural areas, traditional gender roles and harsher treatment towards women is still culturally accepted. As an American, if I saw someone in the same situation with reddened legs, that would probably be the last thing that would come to mind. Yet this man was just convinced that I was a sad victim of abuse. In the end, I came to the conclusion that since he was addressing me in public about my legs and feeling sorry for me, he was probably a man against spousal abuse. That made me feel a little better and slightly less embarrassed about this rather odd encounter.
Have you ever had a weird mixup abroad that left you at a loss for words?