For the past year or so I have been helping in various capacities, from friend to advisor to consultant to on-call technician in order to implement a technology solution to enable Kenyans living in rural areas (little access to electricity being our main definition of rural) to access information technology and the World Wide Web. This is a very broad role (and a very broad project) because I started with it when it was just in incubation (in it’s second form at least; the first form being disrupted by Kenya’s post-election violence), and work with the project today in its current form, which is the Rural Internet Kiosk down in Ukunda.
Monthly Archives: June 2010
America doesn’t export much. We all know that. The trade deficit is huge, and though there are arguments about whether or not this is healthy for the economy, in general it makes people uneasy. But don’t worry, this isn’t a post about global scale economics and trade; it’s a far more normal post. One thing America does still export however, is its culture. And by culture, I mean the, “pizza and polka,” side of culture (as a Aussie sociology professor puts it). In particular, America is very good at exporting its movies, its music and its television, as well as all of the celebrity culture and gossip that comes along with it. Heck, we even take in other peoples’ celebrities and rebrand them as American. Did you know that Van Damme is Belgian?
Coming to Kenya, I was shocked at how little American culture is apparent here. For all you hear about international corporations and whatnot, the only branding that I recognized was Coca Cola. There is not a McDonalds or Wal-Mart in sight. And of course, being a former British colony, Kenya has followed European-originated sports, leaving the only American-sports branding to be found on the clothing at the market where it has lost all meaning. Where is American culture?
Turns out, a few errant, seemingly unrelated, strains of American culture have made their way into the fledgling, post-colonial, DNA of Kenya. But boy, sometimes I wonder how they got here. So here they are, as I have witnessed:
- Dolly Parton – People here love her!
- WWE Wrestling – I have been told I look like one of the wrestlers by all the deaf school children at Paul’s school; how’s that for cultural integration!
- Campy, 80’s, Action Movies: AH-Nohld, Van Damme, Stalone and the like.
- Gangsta Rap and Hip Hop, though Eminem is a personal choice.
It’s a bit of an odd list, and always makes for good discussion when PCVs get together. One of the stories that I never get tired of hearing about is when a trainee shares his or her first experience of their host-family sitting down to a nice dinner… in front of Jon Cena kneeing his opponent in the crotch on the latest WWE match.
Living in Kenya, there is far less a concept of personal space or personal time as there is in the West. When I am at work, obviously these concepts have no hold, as I am expected, and offer myself, to help with computer problems for anyone in the lab. But even at home it can be a bit difficult to truly get personal time, especially when newly settling in (a year or so ago for me), as there are higher expectations for social interaction with neighbors here than in the West. Finally, even in the city where one might assume the anonymity a crowd provides would allow one to go about unmolested, my white skin makes me a target for the drunks, the street children, the beggars, the safari touts and sometimes even just random people who, for some reason, feel entitled that I give them my email or mobile phone number. Personal space? Personal time? There are few bubbles in Kenya.
When I got my first job at the age of 14 working at a local hardware store it was my first time I knew my father was preparing me well for the aworld beyonnd his house. It was at this job that my manager taught me his first rule of management: “Never tell an employee to do something you have never done.” Well, duh I thought. This made perfect sense. Lead by example. That was how I had always been raised. Whenever my siblings and I were told to do chores or yard-work, it wasn’t while my father (or mother for that matter) was lounging around in the sun, or watching TV; it was because he was there doing work right along with us. My father easily wins the award of one of the hardest working people I know. I learned very quickly that through hard work you can achieve your dreams, but you have to do the hard work first. Never make someone else do your hard work because then you never really learn what work is.
Though I did learn that one needs to work to live, my father also showed me that one should not live to work. Life is not simply the pursuit of money or pleasure, it’s the pursuit of understanding. Through fostering my need to build and learn how components work together by supporting my Lego addiction; through teaching me that patience brings fantastic results by helping me build model rockets and shoot them off; through constantly introducing me to new science fiction and fantasy classics from his impressive library in order to expand the realm of my dreams, Dad has always pushed me to further question and explain and understand the world around me; to look at it with a critical eye and to never just accept something because I am told to. I am sure some days he wished he had raised a more obedient child 😉
Though he has always promoted less traditional means of education, my dad is also a supporter of receiving a formal education, but he understands that the education process is not easy for everyone and that some people take time to find their own stride in school. This has always been critical, as myself and my siblings have very different approaches to formal education, and all the while my dad (and mom) have adapted to our individual attitudes instead of pigeon-holing us into one approach towards education. There is not one correct way to learn, as long as you learn
On top of all this, my dad has always, and continues to be, “there.” Whenever we kids had band concerts, Dad would go. Whenever we needed to be driven somewhere on the weekends, Dad would drive us. At night, after coming home from work, Dad would relax, but with doors open, always ready to engage with his kids.
Most importantly, whenever I needed to be told to shut up, Dad would tell me. Whenever I overstepped a boundary, Dad would let me know. As a child this happened more, and as I grew older, Dad appropriately backed off, sharing his opinions or feeling on the matter, but realizing he would not always be able to dictate my interactions and eventually I would have to start learning lessons the hard way: by feeling the repercussions of my actions, not always able to hide behind a loving father. Whenever my ego received a metaphorical bruising, Dad was there with the ice pack, making sure I was OK, but making sure I understood the lesson I just learned.
Parenting is one of those things that crosses cultures in my opinion. Children need good parents, no matter what country they live in. There is something about the parent-child bond that reinforces life’s lessons more so than in any other fashion. I am lucky to have had the parenting that I have had, and when I look around at life here in Kenya, or back in the USA, I wonder where all the good parents have gone. Many of the problems that we face could easily be extinguished if parents just did their job: love their child and teach him to treat others with respect and dignity, no matter their walk of life or train of thought. If anyone is confused by this, or if there are any fathers out there who aren’t sure if they are doing a good job, just let me know. I would be more than happy to introduce you to my dad, because if more dads were like him, we wouldn’t be facing half the problems we face as humanity today.
I watched the Celtics vs. Lakers game. Well, if you want to call it “watched.” I loaded up ABC.com in Firefox and had two chats going with some friends back home. ABC.com has a nice text-based play-by-play feature, but it all runs in this hideous Flash instance. The reason I call it hideous is not because I have anything against Adobe or Flash as a company or plugin, but because being a Linux user, I am inherently biased against Flash due to shallow support for my operating system. All was going well.
There are a lot of ex-patriots living in Kenya. They come from far away, from the USA, from the UK, from continental Europe, from Australia and New Zealand and even from other African nations. Living in arguably one of the most beautiful parts of Kenya, it is not surprising that I run into ex-pats a lot, though there is also a heavy concentration in Nairobi. Striking up a conversation, people quickly realize I come from the USA or they ask and I willingly tell them (unless they seem hostile, at which point I come from Canada). I have traveled and lived abroad before, so I know the usual rants against America: the unjust war in Iraq, the foolish handling of the war in Afghanistan, the foolhardy support of Israel, etc, covering the full gamut of US foreign policy.
Recently, it has all gotten a bit more confusing to me. With the election of Obama, our overall image did get a small boost, but as Obama’s policies have come off as more of the same, that boost is slowly fading. What is replacing it is a newfound interest in US domestic policy. These past few months, I received my education on the new national health plan from people who aren’t even residents of the USA. Arizona immigration law riles up the English just as much as the Mexican and Latino citizens of the state of Arizona! Why is everyone interested?
I think there exists some perverse American dream in the minds of the ex-pats and world travelers; that our country is no longer just for Americans, it is for all the world’s citizens to mock and criticize, but to also pin their hopes to. If it happens in America, it can happen elsewhere, or if you prefer the trickle down theory, if Americans do it, eventually it will benefit us. I always felt the mocking and criticism were just side affects of the US being at the top, but the amount of effort ex-pats put into understanding my country’s domestic policy shows a whole new level of interest beyond simple scorn.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe ex-pats should stop showing interest in my homeland and focus on their own. Just as they chide me (not me personally, but me the American) for institutionalized racism and shoddy economic practices, their own homes ban the construction of minarets, forbid people from respecting their own religion, set up surveillance states to rival anything out of George Orwell’s imagination, and implement ridiculous immigration law.
What frustrates me is that with everyone focusing on the USA, waiting for us to do things, criticizing us for being wrong in so many ways, they are ignoring what is going on back home, and before they know it, they may be powerless before their own governments to live the lives they so chided the USA for living. Just frustrating.
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When I began the process of upgrading my base Linux installation to Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, I made an active decision to try something new in my own personal computing environment: I would switch over to a KDE-based distribution. I have been using GNU/Linux-based operating systems for about 10 years now, having experimented with them throughout high school, then making permanent switches on some of my machines in university, and now working completey in the ecosystem while serving in Peace Corps, as well as actively converting others to its use as well. But in all my time with Linux, never did I use KDE. From a principles standpoint, there was that messiness regarding licensing in the nineties and early aughts; from a visuals standpoint, GNOME just always looked better (I prefer simple and elegant), and from a user-base standpoint, I just never felt, “power user,” enough to use it.