Some days, I’m enchanted with Africa. Usually, it’s the days when my stomach isn’t feeling so bad. Today we walked home through the Olympic neighborhood, which borders Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Like always, we made a scene – five wazungu, wearing our backpacks and our slight anxiety. Olympic is a bustling place, with small painted kiosks and tin-walled shops lining the dirt roads. It’s often hard to keep track of your surroundings when you’re more concerned with keeping track of the sizable rocks and potholes in the seldom-paved roads.
As we were walking, children with round bellies, round faces and those big round eyes called out to us, “How are you?” In their Kenyan accents, it sounds like “Ow ah yu?” There were toddlers waving at us with bemused smiles, saying, “Sasa” as we passed – a greeting in Kenyan slang. I always smile and wave at these kids – you can’t help it. They’re wearing dirty, mismatched clothes, probably shipped halfway around the world from your friendly neighborhood Goodwill. A little girl was wearing a shirt that said “Skater Boy” on it, and one was wearing rainbow-striped leggings. In Olympic, the children were playing with pieces of trash. It makes sense – there’s trash everywhere, on every sidewalk, in every street, in all the sewers, in huge piles on the road. Where you find trash, you find goats as well. Smart goats, it seems, because they always manage to get out of the road when a bus comes roaring by. There’s an easy way to get rid of a noisy animal, though. My friend was woken up every morning last week by a crowing rooster. When she asked her mama about it, mama replied, “Don’t worry – we’re having that rooster for dinner tonight.”
|Kids in the Mathare slum|
In America, if you walk through the center of a large city, you can feel the thrum of productivity – or perhaps just an excess of ineffective activity – around you. In Olympic, it’s a different kind of life. More intimate, with sharp smells of sweat, burning trash, fried samosas, and tonight’s chicken dinner squawking in its cage. Everyone knows each other, everyone seems comfortable in their environment. People aren’t moving or working very quickly; the pace is slower, but the simple quantity of buyers and sellers is astounding. As Americans, we pass almost every Kenyan walking on the sidewalk. We walk fast, we talk fast. We make plans and expect them to be kept. We turn on a faucet and expect it to work. We flip a lightswitch and expect electricity. Our lives are predictable and planned; in Kenya, anything can happen. Making plans for today is difficult, and making plans for tomorrow is near impossible. You can make plans, I guess, but certainly don’t expect to keep them. Sometimes running water only comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. The electricity goes out at least once a week, so don’t expect to eat dinner without your gas lamp. You might sell four chickens today, but only one tomorrow. In some ways, it’s a thrilling idea – what if our processes and plans were thrown away? What would Americans do? For me, it’s been an interesting transition from constancy to uncertainty.