Amass a store of gold and jade
And no one can protect it.
Tao Te Ching
My sister’s reminded me that it’s almost the end of April, and my monthly blog entry is due, once-a-month being the only regularity I seem to be able to manage. So today, Holy Saturday, while the rest of Kenya is enjoying a 4-day Easter weekend with family, I’ll sit at home—the “lonely expatriate,” as one of my colleagues dubbed me (in jest) last week—and try to gather and articulate my thoughts and reflections on this first quarter of a year in Kenya.
The events I recounted in my first few entries remain special in my memory and I’m very grateful to have started my time here with such color, warmth and festivities. But of course, life has settled gradually into a much more ordinary routine. I lived for two months in a temporary apartment near my place of work. It was adequate and convenient. My ten-minute walk to work took me past the alarmingly hyper-protected Israeli embassy every morning and evening. Nothing like starting your day with the furtive flirtations of heavily armed Kenyan soldiers and the hostile, suspicious glances of their plain-clothed Israeli counterparts. During that period, there was a news spasm about a search for several Somalis suspected of terrorist activities and the fear and suspicion on the narrow lane seemed to intensify. Such security is regrettable, but apparently necessary. Nairobi, like New York, has a park in its city center commemorating the sudden and terrifying death and destruction caused by a massive explosion (at the US Embassy in 1998).
Nevertheless, my “commute” was better than what some of my colleagues face every morning in what is simply, if wearily, referred to as “the jam.” Some of them regularly commute more than 2 hours a day, not because they live so far, but because the roads are so bad, the vehicles so many, and the traffic-clogging moving violations so redundant. The convenience of walking to work kept me on the fence for quite some time about looking for another place to live, but eventually, I decided the things I disliked about my temporary housing outweighed this one single advantage.
For one thing:
Add to the “lovely” interior and exterior decorating, the fact that the staff was grumpy and disgruntled, there was no back-up generator and the power went out at least twice a week (usually in the evenings making dinner preparations on an electric stove impossible) and, other than work, it was not within walking distance to ANYthing. So finally, I made the effort to branch out and find a better place.
Apartment searches are never fun, but eventually I got connected to a place that was hard to resist, though of course, more than I wanted to pay. (Surprisingly, Nairobi is not a cheap city to live in and because I was looking for a furnished place, the cost was considerably higher.) What I found was a very spacious one bedroom on the bottom floor of a guest house behind a very large main house on a private compound. I fretted and fretted because it was too nice, too big, too far from work, too expensive, but in the end, the lovely garden and pool won me over.
By chance, it turns out to be very near a public sports compound where I can exercise for free without the fear of being run over or nabbed. Usually, I finish my exercise routine with a nippy swim, so avoiding the extra cost of joining a gym/pool makes it well worth the rent and will hopefully spare me health-related expenses in my old age!
The apartment also has an extra double bed and two sofas that convert to very comfortable single beds, so there’s plenty of room for family when they come to visit (hint, hint!).
Alas, my new commute is much more complicated… A few days after I moved, there were two unrelated protests near the city center on the same day. One was just outside my office building and I learned the phrase, “HAKI YETU!” (Our Rights!), by listening to their chants that day. The consequence was a massive city-wide JAM that evening. While it took me ONLY two hours to get home that night, the radio was reporting complaints from other commuters who had spent 3-4 hours in traffic.
My commute is further complicated by the fact that I don’t yet have a car. I do intend to get a car and will inevitably have to face the somewhat terrifying prospect of learning to drive on the left, but in the meantime, I’ve been paying a cab driver to take me back and forth. Lucky me that I can afford this luxury, instead of walking and/or hopping on a matatu like the majority of Nairobians do every morning.
But it seems that every luxury brings its own complexity here. You don’t spend hours in a car with a person without learning that he has a wife and three-year-old child, for instance, and that he’s a Teso (one of the smaller tribes in Kenya) who comes from “up country” and dropped out of college because he couldn’t afford the tuition. That he has an unemployed brother who just graduated from high school, another still in school whose school fees he pays, aging parents and relatives of all kinds back in his home village who are counting on him to support the whole clan…
This serious and reticent driver is named Wilfred and he’s only very reluctantly shared this information with me. In fact, the reason I chose Wilfred out of the many other cabbies I’ve hired over the past few months is that he doesn’t talk much. I listed him in my phone contacts as “Wilfred, driver, quiet” and compared to the other guys who regularly quiz me about my salary, my marital status, my preferences, hobbies, activities, and any number of other personal subjects, Wilfred’s quietness is a most welcome attribute!
Nevertheless, Wilfred and I have gradually gotten to know things about each other. I’ve learned for instance, that the car he’s been driving me in is rented for 30,000 ksh a month from his landlord. At an exchange rate of roughly 80:1, that comes to $375 USD per month, or $4500/year. I expect Wilfred pays less than, or about that for rent on his apartment every month too. And after guessing at how much he might make in a day, a week, or a month, I realized this was a no-win situation for Wilfred. When I asked him about it, he was discouraged. He’d tried to get a loan to buy his own car, he told me, but had been denied. For Wilfred, a regular client like me is prized and he was crestfallen whenever I discussed getting my own car.
This distressed me. Here is a devout, hard-working, responsible man struggling to get ahead and provide a better life for his family. He’s not a loafer or hooligan drinking up his spare change on the weekends and irresponsibly bringing more children into the world than he can support. (We had a very interesting conversation one day about family planning and global population issues sparked by a radio story on India hitting the 1 billion mark.) I thought about saying ‘so long and good luck’ to him once I’d bought my car and it made me feel bad.
By the same token, the more pressing and dire situation of the hired help that has come, part and parcel, with this lovely apartment causes me a similar distress. The landlady lives in the main house with her son, and in the guest house, there’s me and another expat who lives upstairs. For the four of us, there are at least six servants: two guards, two maids, and two gardeners—one of whom keeps the pool immaculate and pristine for me, the only person who swims in it. I think to myself, “Is this not ridiculous!??”
On one hand, some may think how lucky I am that someone does my laundry and cleans my bathroom and washes my dishes… But consider that for these privileges, I have to let strangers into my house twice a week who may or may not poor scalding water over my dishes to kill the water-borne bacteria as I’ve asked; who throw my black jeans in the wash with my white shirts turning everything a shade of grey; and who may or may not be responsible for the 3 twenty dollar bills I can’t find… Of course, as their employer (sort of), it is my responsibility to MANAGE these issues, nevermind that I don’t want my home to become a place of work as well as a place of vigilance and suspicion.
But more disconcerting than these minor inconveniences is the stress of becoming all too aware of their needs and circumstances. Abdi is the evening guard whom I like better than the others. Sometimes, when the landlady is away, he comes to my patio in the dark and calls out, “hello?” It sets my hair on end less now than it did at first because I know I’ll go out and he’ll shyly hold out a dirty plastic cup with a polite request for hot water. While the water boils, he’ll linger at a distance and answer my conversational questions. From this, I’ve learned that he makes 7000 ksh a month (about $87), 2000 of which he gives to his grandmother with whom he lives in one of the nearby “informal settlements” (i.e. slums.) He has worked for my landlady, doing 12-hour shifts a day, for a year and a half during which time he’s not had one day off. Over this holiday weekend, while she was gone, the two guards arranged to do 24-hour shifts to give each other something of a break. But when the landlady is gone, her house is locked and the maids don’t come, so whatever access the guards have to her kitchen is denied. Consequently, I discovered they were both going without food or drink for the 24-hour period except for the tea, oatmeal and boiled eggs I provided them.
The argument I hear around the world is “at least they have a job” and it’s true, Abdi is grateful for his 7000 a month. I read the other day that Kibera, the most famous (and biggest) slum in East Africa, has an employment rate of only one in four. But like Wilfred, Abdi and Assan and the others on this property, are employed in a no-win situation that allows them nothing but the most hand-to-mouth existence. Their lives are agonizingly precarious. What will Wilfred do if his child gets sick? What will happen to Abdi when his grandmother dies? What happened to his parents? (Dead by HIV/AIDS? The prevalence rate for HIV/AIDS in Kibera, I read in the same article, is 20%! That’s 2 out of every 10 people!) So the thought has occurred to me: “How is this kind of employment—that doesn’t allow you to change your life or improve your circumstances in any way—any better than slavery?”
To make my afternoon exercising pass more quickly, I’ve been downloading and listening to podcasts from NPR recently. Last week, I listened to one from On Point with Tom Ashbrook called The Spirit Level: How Inequality Hurts Society. The subject of discussion was a book by two British epidemiologists whose research showed statistically that people, both rich AND poor, were healthier, both mentally AND physically, in more egalitarian societies than in societies where there were great contrasts between rich and poor. The researchers were not saying that one form of government was better than another—capitalism in Japan yielded the same results as in the more socialist Sweden. They merely demonstrated that all of the health indicators—longevity, low rates of obesity, heart disease, chronic illness, teenage pregnancy, etc…—all of these indicators, in both the rich and the poor, were better in countries where economic disparity was lowest. This was especially true, they said, in health indicators for children of all economic groups. Their explanation was that economic inequality is scary and stressful to the extent that it affects the general health of nations.
A very middle-class colleague of mine put it this way when we were discussing the volatile political situation in Kenya over lunch one day: When things get bad, she said, the poor come after us. The rich people, they all leave the country, but we can’t get away and they come and burn our houses and bash our cars and hold us responsible for their poverty. She also told me, though I’m not sure how accurate her figures were, that people living in poverty in Kenya were about 45% of the total population.If this is true, how can social unrest be avoided?
Another colleague, the only other American I work with, has lived in Africa for years, and when I told her I thought Kenya, with its endlessly flowering trees and unbelievably gorgeous weather, would be a paradise if it weren’t for all the poverty, she said, “What’s sad is that Kenya is one of the better African countries.” She also predicted (a bit cynically) that these concerns I’m grappling with will fade the longer I live here, adding, “I hate to say it, but you’ll get used to it.”
For the time being, however, it makes it a little easier for me to sit on my patio and swim in my pool if I know the guards at the gate are not restless with hunger. A bowl of oatmeal is not much, but it’s what I can do. As for Wilfred, with considerable thought and not without trepidation, I’ve suggested a somewhat unusual barter arrangement: I will buy a car, pay for insurance and repairs, and let him use it as a cab on weekdays. In exchange, he’ll drive me to and from work Monday to Friday during which time, he’ll teach me Swahili. He’ll also give me some driving lessons and help me out as needed to find things and get around Nairobi. In addition, he’s agreed to help me purchase a car—one that he will eventually want to own—and show me a deposit slip for 30,000 ksh every month that he’s put in his own bank account toward the purchase of the car in roughly 18 months.
My American colleague has warned me not to be disappointed if it doesn’t all work out. I haven’t discussed the arrangement with my Kenyan colleagues who I’m sure will think I’m completely crazy. I expect I AM a bit crazy and I also expect it won’t work out, at least not as simply and cleanly as I’ve so optimistically laid it all out. But notice that on my oh-so-official business plan photographed below, the list of what Wilfred provides in this arrangement is longer than mine, and while my items may be a bit costlier in monetary terms, his column contains the priceless item in parentheses: “peace of mind for Kate.”
In considering this decision, I don’t feel that God is asking me to save the world, or fix the slums of Nairobi, or end terrorism in East Africa. I simply feel like I’m being asked to respond to the needs of one person in a way that will benefit me, a “lonely expatriate” living in a strange land, as well. Should I really close my eyes and ears and lock myself away in my guarded compound? Will that really make my life “richer” in the spiritual sense of the word? And how hard can this “sacrifice” really be even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned?
So that’s my Easter reflection for this weekend. I hope all of you in the northern hemisphere are enjoying the blessings of budding flowers and spring sunshine. Though the weather has been sunny and 75˚ almost every day since I got here, I’ve missed the brilliant yellow of the daffodils against the barren winter grass. The symbolism of resurrection, rebirth and new life is somehow lost in an environment in perpetual full bloom. Apparently some of us can’t be satisfied even in paradise.