On Fitting In

Taking part in tradition: circumcision celebration

I have always had a very special place in my heart for Kenya. Actually, I could say that about nearly every place I have visited. Often, I mention people before I mention sights when describing a place, because I have made so many friends around the world. I think I can connect with many people beyond the surface because I am just so curious. And I have found people equally as curious and overly friendly when I travel. But what does the word ‘friend’ actually mean? Is it someone I gush my personal life to or is it someone that makes me laugh? Is it someone that makes me feel good about myself or someone who intrigues me? I never thought I would be sitting here examining the definition of a friend on my blog, and somehow, here I am.

Living in Kenya for five months gave me a feeling of being so loved and yet, at times, so lonely. I mentioned in a recent post that I “didn’t really fit in with the Westerners I was among, but culturally could not always relate to the people I felt most connected to.” It took me years to figure this out, to put my finger on it. During my summer working in South Africa, my mentor and now close friend, said “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know,” when speaking about Shangaan culture in our village. She also said, “No matter how long we stay here, we will always be outsiders.” And these two phrases really struck a chord with me; I often refer back to them when discussing how I relate to Kenya and its people.

While many friends have been curious to know about Amsha and about the struggles of starting a business in Kenya, some have asked about social life. In some ways, it was similar to home- I was a bit of a homebody, I preferred an evening among close friends over a crowded gathering of acquaintances, and long talks in coffee shops were a comfort. But I also found myself longing for friendships from back home.  Of course my friends back home are closer to me than my new friends in Kenya, but it’s also about a cultural thing at the end of the day. And I struggled to admit that culture can play such a large role in relationships.

Transportation like the locals (check out our mattresses on the back motorbike)

On local friends…

Nearly all of my friends were locals. I was actually really fortunate to be living in Nairobi at the same time as two of my former South Africa colleagues (and became roommates with one of them!) but other than that I was working seven days a week which meant it was one mzungu among a slew of locals. Naturally, my closest friend was my local business manager. We spent a lot of time together. He was also my confidante, as he saw my life in virtually every aspect- from personal troubles to work frustrations to small successes. My other friends consisted of housekeepers, security guards, and villagers I knew from previous trips.

But then again, I don’t know if you could consider these ‘friendships’. Or can you? These are people that I trust, that I would ask their opinion, that I would have lunch with, even if it is difficult to cross socioeconomic lines at times. As for the security guard, I have never come across a security guard I didn’t like and one that wasn’t overly friendly. But this guy stands out. He was the guard at a posh (and large) apartment complex. From the imposing gate to the lush gardens and beautiful pool, it was beautiful. After my first apartment was broken into, I hired an agent who took me to this posh place. I had a quick chat with the guard who was of course very nice. I took Fred (my business manager) by in the afternoon, as I needed to move asap. After a much longer chat with this guard, and explaining my security needs, he convinced me this was the place to be. Unfortunately, he told me the price was much lower than it was, and after I had signed the lease paperwork that evening, I found out that the apartment had already been rented and the apartment manager was an idiot. I was crushed. I had to start over back at square one and I really felt safe here. Luckily I ended up in a better situation in the end. But I liked this security guard and he was not on duty when I found out I didn’t get the place.

Because it is a small world, it turns out that a month later, one of my former colleagues in South Africa emailed me to say she would be coming to Nairobi for work and gave me her apartment info because she knew nothing about Nairobi. And would you know that it was the exact same apartments. After she moved in, I went to visit her. Security is really tight there (I had to hand over ID when I visited the first time because they document every person that comes and goes and which apartment they visit) and so I stepped out of my taxi to approach the guardhouse. The guard stepped out and said, “Laura!” I was. so. taken. aback. I couldn’t even remember his name at the time. I met this guy on two brief visits a month earlier, and he sees a million white people come in and out of this building. And he knew me instantly. He told me that he had my apartment for me and that he could even give it at a lower rate right now. I think he tried to convince me to come live there every time I saw him. In a later visit I told him what a (bleep) his manager was and how sorry I was that he had to work for her. She had tried to run me over in her car that morning. He could lose his job for responding to that one, but rather than ignoring it, he found a tactful way to say, ‘I know what you mean.’ I have his personal phone number and fully intend to call when I go back. Even if it’s just to say Hi.

I could tell stories like this one all day. About a housekeeper who lives in the slum who was one of the funniest women I met, and I visited her several times at her home (unfortunately she has to stay with her boss’ family six days/week so she is only at home on Sundays). Her sister and her son were equally as wonderful and I really wish I had had more time for them. She and I met at an Indian food cooking class and after showing me which bus I needed to catch to get home, invited me to visit her the following Sunday. I was really sad to say goodbye to her.

In the underbelly of Nairobi there are truly magnificent and wonderful people, hardworking and smart. Dedicated to their families (my friend described above makes less than $200/month and still pays for private school for her son and French lessons. That’s right- they live in a slum and her son is taking French. How’s that for being a role model to her child?).  As much as I write about difficulties in Kenya… and usually get blasted through email by a Kenyan who thinks I am completely wrong, I think I’ve made it very clear on this blog how much I love Kenya. How beautiful it is and how inviting people are. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to someone’s home without being offered tea… regardless of their living situation. The people are what continue to draw me back and it’s upstanding people like the ones I’ve met that encourage me to keep on.

All of that said, all of those wonderful people I just mentioned, there will still be a cultural barrier. There will still be things that they will tell me and I will try to wipe the shock off my face, and vice versa. It makes for a one-sided conversation at times. With different living situations and backgrounds, sometimes it’s difficult to go beyond the surface. When I spend more on a plane ticket than a friend makes in a year, it can be awkward at times.

Sunday brunch & work at a Western cafe

On expat friends & a Western lifestyle…

In Nairobi, there are loads of foreigners working, primarily, in the aid or development sector. But I wouldn’t say I had many Western friends. With the exception of my roommates, I didn’t make a connection with many others. The largest reason is because I spent the majority of my time in the slum. I didn’t socialize much because I didn’t have the time or cash flow. And I would say that is a huge part of the problem.

Another small part is the fact that while many Westerners might work in development, few actually have local friends or know much about the local culture. Someone who I might befriend back home in the US, had very little in common with me in Kenya. I couldn’t relate to their work, and they couldn’t relate to mine. I lived in a nice compound my last two months in Kenya (thanks to a special rate), and one of our neighbors was a woman that couldn’t have been older than me, living by herself in a five-bedroom house off of a salary from the UN. I lived off of no salary and virtually always had on muddy shoes from walking and taking local transport to the slum. Neither one of us is better or worse than the other. We are just different. And this was often the story. I would meet someone with a huge cushy salary trying to help the really poor but had very little personal relationships with the people they were trying to help. And then there were the select few that judged me for my relationships with locals, and that clearly didn’t go over well with me at all.

I understand the cushy salaries: NGOs pay for quality employees and have to pay based on lifestyle and security situation. It’s just not the lifestyle I’ve had in Kenya, and not a way I feel comfortable living in the face of such abject poverty. And in Nairobi, it’s really difficult to find balance. I tried to live like a local completely in the beginning, but after my move(s) and by the end of my time in Nairobi I was straddling two worlds that didn’t relate very well. It created unnecessary stress. I felt like a hypocrite. I had to move for security reasons but I felt guilty about my upgraded living standards. We had too much househelp in my new place and I didn’t like working from home because it was awkward to sit at a computer while someone was trying to clean around me.

I got a little off topic in this post, as I know I jumped around. What I do know is that when I lived in a village among locals in a more similar living situation, but found shared ideals and culture with foreigners, I had more balance in my life and felt more connected to my work and to people. I will be curious to see if I can find that balance in Nairobi at some point.

Despite all of these feelings of thinking “Do I fit in? Is this friendship real?” and the confusion that comes with trying to fit in, in a foreign country, there is always a flip side. On my first trip to Rwanda, my manager Fred came with me. We weren’t sure at the time if he would be managing our artisans there as well, so it was a way for us to check things out together. On our 24-hour bus ride, I pulled out my glasses and went to remove my contact lenses. I turn to see Fred with his head cocked sideways and his face scrunched up. He was VERY confused. He had never seen contact lenses before, and knowing about them versus actually seeing someone stick their finger in their eyeball are two very different things. Sometimes the divide, however big it may be, keeps life interesting. And refreshing. And makes for a good laugh.

5 thoughts on “On Fitting In

  • Really good post, Laura. Your friend’s words about always being an outsider and your mention of the cultural barrier brought some lyrics to mind from a group I followed closely for a couple of years after college:

    One Prairie Outpost, you are how I feel…
    Alone in a flatland ‘tween the dream and the real

    So the lyrics aren’t a perfect fit, but they came to mind because it sounds like you were in this “in between” place where you weren’t a local but you couldn’t identify with other Westerners either. Deep connections can be there, but they’ll still never make you a local, and though you are a Westerner, you find you don’t fit with the group there either. Though I’ve never been in a situation like this before, I tend to find myself caught in between subcultures, never feeling like I quite fit.

    By the way, that Amsha necklace looks so good on you!

    • Yes you’re exactly right. It’s about not exactly fitting it while also trying to manage expectations vs. reality. And thanks for the necklace compliment :) I love that one.

  • This is awesome. It is shocking how differently people live their lives around the world. It really is hard to appreciate what takes place in some areas without having ever been there/experienced the culture. It looks like you are really enjoying it!

  • I could see how that sort of situation would be so difficult..especially since even if you chose to live completely like a local, you would still know that you have the means to NOT live that way and the freedom to go back to your western life whenever you wanted, whereas they do not. It’s crazy how different the world can be for two people just depending on where they are born!

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