“Do you like Kenya?” I ask this question to almost every new mzungu volunteer I run across in this country. And every time I get and answers and they are all slightly different, and I am not going to elaborate on any of the responses because I fear crossing a line into the land of generalizations, so I guess I am only going to write about how I would respond as of today.
What part of Kenya? At first I was almost afraid of digging into this response. I was getting an impression, real or imaginary, that if I didn’t answer yes, I was a bad development worker. How could you not like Kenya? Why are you here if you don’t like Kenya? These Kenyans are the greatest people on the planet, they’ve just been through shitty periods of colonialism which has put them in bad sorts and if you cannot appreciate that get out! This is the greatest country on the planet. Not to mention the time frame angle: you’ve only been here for X months, what do you know?!
Well, all those responses above be damned, I am giving an answer, and that answer is “What part?” It’s the same answer I would give about America, and I am pretty sure it’s the same answer I will always give about any place I visit. So let’s start with the bad. Because there is bad. And all of this bad is very publicly acknowledged, so any hypocritical BS I may get from any sort of authority about degrading Kenya is further proof of the bad.
Kenya’s government is, well to put it nicely, less than functional in many core areas, mostly those areas that deal with caring about the people they serve. Oh wait, that’s because the government of kenya does not serve its people, it serves itself. I am a firm believer now that Peace Corps partly sends volutneers abroad to see first hand that the US government actually isn’t that bad and in many great respects is still a functioning representative democracy. Any doubters, haul your ass over here and try living under the Kenyan government. You don’t even have to work for them or try to deal with them, just try living in this country. You’ll go running back to the US.
The shortlist of its failings include: inability to avert famine after the government bought all of the maize during bumper crop years and then sold the stockpiles to wholesalers for ridiculously cheap prices who hoarded it until famine struck and then sold it for ridiculous prices (at leas that’s my understanding of the situation, please correct the intricacies if you know better); the largest parliament on the continent with the highest paid members of all of Africa, but guess what, the government is about ready to declare bankruptcy; an inability to police itself, as demonstrated by last years political violence and the lack of resolution, and corruption.
Corruption is not just government alone, and thus gets it’s own point in the “Bad parts of Kenya.” Corruption pervades everyday life here like you would not believe: from the matatu and motorcycle drivers paying off the cops, to shop owners paying off cops, to overbudgeting, to over-indulgence of government meal allowances (when there’s famine of course), and the list continues. If there is any type of transaction of any sort, I am sure there’s a corrupt way to go about it in this country. And people know that. Even the NGO’s are forced to act in corrupt fashion, fudging budgets just so their workers can get paid.
Of course, all of this bad stems from a greatly uneven distribution of wealth (again, complainers in America, come here and see how good we have it!). Can you really blame someone for their petty corruption if it means they get to eat ONE meal that day? Because that’s about how many meals many, many, many people get in this country. Don’t get me started on the nutritional value of that meal, it’s most likely non-existant anyway. But go to Nairobi, and everyone there thinks the world is fine. Well, except the students who are demonstrating and reminding the government that not everything is fine. It’s a good thing that government has gotten very good at not listening, or else they might have to act to save their country that they are supposed to serve!
Aright, that just turned into a rant, and not nearly as object as I was hoping. I am sorry.
What do I like about Kenya then? I like the geography, which seems to be a very common mzungu response. The land is as varied as the US (almost), but is only the size of Nevada. The diversity of ecosystems is about as diverse as the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s thoroughly impressive. Not to mention beautiful. The landscapes are just beautiful.
And of course the wildlife. It’s great. Sure I see the monkeys every day, but they never get boring! And just the thought that there is potentially a very large leopard living outside my house that could maul me to death is very exciting (if not actually confirmed to be true). Just waking up every day and realizing that nature still has the balls to fight back is awesome. America has subdued its ecosystems and though they do fight back, it’s not on a daily basis as much as it is in Kenya.
The carefree nature that stems from the uncertain living conditions is also a breath of fresh air. As stated above, many people here are lucky if they are able to eat at all in a day and I would venture to say that almost everyone here has been in that stage at some point. This has resulted in a cultural atitude that Kenyans worry about three things: what are they going to eat today, do they have clothes to wear today and where will they sleep tonight. Once those three questions are answered, live life, because you don’t know if you can answer them tomorrow.
This sort of in-the-moment living is great, in the moment, but the flipside of the coin is that there is less of a seriousness taken towards other aspects of life because all seriousness must first be placed in finding food and shelter. Understanable except for those that do have the certainty in attaining the basic necessities but then choose not to help their fellow Kenyan.
As always, my post has become too long. I don’t even know if I answered the question, but at least I started. It’s an evolving answer anyway. Hope you have enjoyed it.