Culture Discomfort and Delight

Before coming to Kenya, our church and our mission agency both had us read a lot of books about living cross-culturally. It was so interesting to see how the nations of the world can be put on a spectrum based on certain attributes such as community, values, sense of time versus relationship, etc. In terms of this spectrum, the US is on one side and Kenya is on the other. Both places have great strengths which we have come to appreciate and enjoy. Still, living cross-culturally can be challenging at times. We have lived in Kenya for nearly five years now, and we feel like we have waded in up to our ankles. There are still so many areas of life that we do not fully understand, and often we respond to situations with a complete western mindset despite having the knowledge that we are to put that aside.

One of the delights in living in Kenya is the time factor. We do try to be on time, but if we aren’t, it is ok. There is an understanding that if you come half an hour or more late to church or a social event, it is not a big deal. I used to chafe at this a bit, especially if we were expecting company and had made the food already, but now I know why every Kenyan woman I know keeps her food in an insulated hot pot. I prepare the meal and then put it aside for future use rather than wring my hands because it is getting cold and the guests are two or three hours late than I expected. There has to be grace given in a society where public transport is the way most people travel, and on top of that there are remarkable traffic jams with nothing to do but wait it out. More than that though, there is a mindset that the relationship is paramount. If you are visiting with someone and have another appointment coming up, you will extend your stay with the person who needs you rather than be on time to the next thing. This is because everyone will understand that the relationship is more important that being on time. We have learned to just relax and enjoy the moment.

One of my discomforts is that of sticking out (Jamie does not struggle with this the way I do, so I think a lot of it is personality-based). When I go to town, I often feel tense the whole time, conscious of every gaze shifted my way, every child or young man who yells out “mzungu!” and every move being duly noted. I am very aware of what I buy, how much I spend, how full my cart is. I have been known to purposely go to two different shopping centers in order to be able to check out with a smaller cart at each one and still get what I need.  Another discomfort would be that of not knowing how to solve a problem. Once, while exiting the underground parking at the local supermarket, the gate guard pointed out to me that I had a flat. He motioned me to the side of the busy road, and I wondered what to do next. There was a feeling of “Oh no! How do I handle this?” Before I could ponder/panic, a crowd of young men gathered around to see if they could help. They soon had the tire off and the axel fitted with a spare. I was so grateful. I gave them a little cash to get some lunch, and I think that made their day as well. There may be people who will take advantage of you in any culture, but we have experienced great kindness from strangers while in Kenya. Sometimes while out and about, I have to force myself to put one foot in front of the other, ignoring the feelings of embarrassment or awkwardness. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “What is the worst-case scenario here? How bad will it be? Maybe I’ll get laughed at, but I’m not likely to undergo physical harm.”  In cases where physicial harm is an issue, I have found bursting into tears and praying for a way out is a great strategy.  A few weeks ago, I knew we needed groceries, but I just didn’t want to go to town. I didn’t want to go. I put it off, scoured the pantry, used up bits of this and that, and finally, when I was out of milk, flour, eggs, bread, and pretty much everything else, I made the trip to town. On the way home, there are dukas (little huts) that sell fruit that is fresher and cheaper than at the supermarket. I don’t like to pull over in our big vehicle, and it’s something I force myself to do. I often mentally say, “You can do it, Kim. Just turn the wheel. Go off the road. Commit.” I’ll buy the fruit, chat with the lady selling it, get back in the car and breath a sigh of relief. I am happy to shop the way so many others do, walking on foot, carrying a small bag out of the store. But because of needing to get enough for the family and also having a short time to do shopping while I leave my crew at home, I drive our big ol’ car, and that is wear my discomfort comes in–feeling like a rich person. I wonder sometimes what it would feel like to be able to really fit in. I found it interesting awhile back when I was in line the supermarket, feeling the usual tense, cringing feel that always comes over me while I am in line. Where do I look? Do I make small talk? That lady behind me is staring at the objects on the belt. Do I smile and say hi or mind my own business. Do I have enough change to give a tip to the man who will no doubt kindly offer to help me carry the groceries to the car down in the parking garage below? The feelings are strong, and I just breathe as I wait for the total to be given. Suddenly the power goes off. It will only be for a minute until the generator kicks in, but in the minute of pitch-black dark I feel something strange come over me. Anonymity. I can feel my heart rate go down, and I suddenly relax and breath normally. It is only a minute, but it makes me realize just how affected I am by being “different.”

Even in the midst of these strong feelings, I delight in interacting with people. I enjoy chatting with the guy who bags the groceries or sells phone credit. I like going to the huge produce market and bargaining a bit or just asking in Swahili. Learning Swahili is just plain old FUN when it so changes the way I interact with people. I still stumble about for words, but everyone I talk to encourages me by laughing with me at my mistakes and telling me I speak fluently (flattery is welcome). If I can get a few words of Kikamba in (the local language), I get even more of a reaction of delight–highly addictive for an attention-seeking person such as myself.

We have learned a lot about hospitality while being here. Here are some simple rules that have made us better hosts: 1. Always invite people in…don’t chat at the door. 2. Assure people that they can leave their shoes on. 3. Always serve chai or a drink of some kind. Don’t ask if they want anything, just serve it. To ask is to put them in the embarrassing position of needing to ask for it. Offer to let them wash their hands if they like. 4. Even if you only have one guest, fill the sugar bowl to the top as if to say, “All I have is yours! Take as much as you like!” 5. Along those lines, fill any glass or mug to the very top. Make it spill a little when they try to stir it or pick it up. If you don’t, you will be considered selfish (I am so chagrined that I didn’t GET this rule until just a few weeks ago when a dear lady pulled me aside and let me know that I hadn’t filled the water glasses full enough–I wonder how many times my filling of glasses has been super stingy!). 6. Always ask about family and friends and give a warm greeting upon meeting someone. Don’t just say “hi” and walk by. If the person is a generation older than you or just someone of great repute, put your left hand on your right elbow as you shake hands to show respect. 7. Don’t be on time. You can make your hosts uncomfortable if they are not prepared. Be respectful and be a few minutes late at least. I especially like abiding by this one. 🙂 8. Share what you have. If someone has a need, the community is their first resource. You don’t have to give an exorbitant amount, but as the Lord leads, do share. When little kids come to ask us to sponser them in a walk-a-thon or something for school, we always give something, as all the other neighbors do. If someone asks for help, we try to give something, even if it is small. That is how the community works together. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the needs, and sometimes it can feel like we are targeted by those who see us mostly as their big opportunity, but more often we are just invited into the community of sharing. (This is a huge topic which we wrestle with a lot on  a day-to-day basis, and we don’t have the answers. There are some resources I’d recommend for anyone seeking more on this: When Helping Hurts and African Freinds and Money Matters plus a lot of prayer and asking for the leading of the Holy Spirit.) 9. Allow others to be hospitable to you and enjoy their kindness to you. Eagerly follow up invitations to come for tea or to visit someone’s homeplace or village. You will experience tremendous hospitality when visiting someone’s home. Always bring a gift, usually of food like flour or other staples and fruit. Bring it in a plastic bag and don’t expect the host to open it in front of you. 10. Borrow eggs or flour from your neighbors whenever possible. Giving back the exact things (two eggs or whatever) may make them feel you think they are stingy, so it is better to give back in the form of a special baked item or something or just make sure they know they can borrow from you too. I feel so happy inside when a neighbor feels free to ask for some last-minute cooking items.

One more random delight/discomfort would be about the perception of body image and weight here in Kenya.  It has been a slow and steady revelation to me that since weaning the twins, I no longer can eat for three. How sad! Since coming back to Kenya in January, my sweet friends and aquaintances  (men and women feel free to comment) are continually telling me I have added weight. They will hold out their arms to indicate how wide I have gotten, and they will say things like, “You enjoyed the snacks in the US!” Now, in this culture, gaining weight is considered a good and honorable thing. Jamie is to be congratulated that he is caring for and feeding his wife well. When I received the first few comments, I was dismayed and embarrassed, but after the comments kept coming and were given with such beaming smiles over my good health (haha!), I actually find it is nice that the ideal slim look we so prize in the US is simply not the way body image is valued here. I now refer to myself as a women of “traditional build” (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books–so funny and so good!), while working slowly at changing my habits and lifestyle in hopes of being able to wear my old clothes again someday. 🙂

Overall, we have come to really love the culture into which we have been transplanted. There are so many more customs and community interactions that I could write about, and maybe I will someday, but I’ll sign off for now. Kwaheri! (Good bye 🙂


2 thoughts on “Culture Discomfort and Delight

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  2. What a fun glimpse into the differences you are experiencing in Kenya! Thank you so much for sharing. I can only imagine that feeling of not fitting in being super uncomfortable. I have experienced only a tiny fraction of that here in WI a few times because the community is so small and I am “new” and it often feels like I’m the only one in a place (even a public place like the family restaurant) that doesn’t know anybody and that nobody knows me.

    How funny about filling the glasses to the very brim being a sign of hospitality! I am going to have to use that in a book at some point. Love reading about your adventures. Praying for you and your family, that the Lord would use you mightily for His kingdom.

    Love you guys!

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