By Molly Hamilton
Although I’ve only been in Kenya for two months, working for the Kenya-Canada Remote Legal Aid Clinic, it feels like a lifetime. When I try to capture the experience in words, I feel overwhelmed by all the multiple and conflicting emotions that have swept over me in my time here. I have been able to take advantage of my free time to explore so much of the country. In eight weeks, I feel like I’ve experienced more than I would in a year back at home. I also feel that I have been able to learn more – not just about Kenya and the law but also about myself – than one can imagine sitting in a classroom. For the most part, it’s been an incredibly positive experience, however, not without some culture shock and the challenges that come along with being in a new country.
As my departure date quickly approached, people in Canada asked me how I was feeling, if I was nervous, and if I felt scared. I didn’t know what to answer because I actually wasn’t sure how I was feeling. I knew I was a bit nervous about the adjustments that would have to be made. After almost three years stuck in Canada during a pandemic, I had become quite used to the comforts my life in Montreal provided me and I was worried how I would adjust to being taken out of my comfort zone. I appreciate my long showers and creature comforts. I knew that where I was going, enjoying such things would be a bit more challenging.
Nonetheless, I figured that my previous travel experiences had prepared me well for this next adventure. So much so that I only half paid attention to a presentation we were given on the different stages of culture shock and what to expect. I thought, obviously incorrectly, that I wouldn’t experience such challenges.
Within my first 24 hours in Nairobi and its outskirts, I was quickly humbled. I realized I seriously underestimated the uniqueness of this experience. Nairobi is not Durban, South Africa (where I had lived for six months in 2019), and Nairobi on your own is very different from travelling with your family in Rwanda and Tanzania (which offers a certain level of comfort and security).
Alone in Nairobi for the first time, I began to doubt what the heck I had signed up for.
With the help and guidance of a fellow Kenyan law student, I began to find my footing and as the weeks went on, I gained more confidence and learned some important lessons. I’d like to share three of these lessons because I think they best capture the nuances of this experience.
Please bear with me as detangling the thoughts and making sense of the different layers of all the experiences has not been easy and I’m still trying to find the right words to speak about such lessons.
Lesson 1: Ask questions (a lot of them) but be open to the unknown
I’m not one to be confrontational and I will do anything to avoid conflict. I am also someone who when I need to repeat a question for a third time, I will pretend to have heard the answer to avoid feeling uncomfortable. The last eight weeks have taught me that there are times when confrontation, conflict and asking a lot of questions is important for not only one’s own security but also to avoid miscommunications and ensuring your boundaries are respected.
In a lot of ways though, I think these qualities have served me well while being in Kenya and have led to some really awesome experiences over the last two months. For example, during my first weekend in Kianyaga, my host organization organized what I thought was going to be a boda boda (motorcycle) tour around the area. However, after making a pit stop at the hydro dam created for the project, we reached the gates of Castle Forest. The ranger asked if I was ready for a journey and when I asked how long of a journey, the answer wasn’t very clear.
As we started walking with a ranger, AK-47 in hand, I started to think that maybe this was indeed going to be quite the journey. It ended up being a 30-kilometre hike through the southern slopes of Mount Kenya. I was totally unprepared for this as I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning and had only had a small water bottle with me. By the end of the hike, my legs were trembling and my stomach was rumbling but I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded us the whole time. If I had known and realized I wasn’t prepared, I may have missed some of the most beautiful and remote waterfalls.
Yet, in probably what has been my most expensive lesson in all my life, I have come to learn that sometimes, asking questions and being pushy is in my best interest. In an effort to meet people in Kenya, I made a few Facebook posts on different travel groups. Someone quickly reached out to me inviting me to tag along on a safari she was organizing with a group of people to the Maasai Mara. After doing some research on prices, I decided this offer was my best bet because it would also give me the chance to meet other people. A few weeks later, after my phone was stolen (a story for another lesson), and I was trying to make contact with her, she was no longer available on Facebook Messenger, and I had the slap-in-the-face realization that I had just been scammed out of $700.
Looking back now, I should have asked more about the person who approached me. I should have asked what the tour company was. I should have clarified how it could be a three-day itinerary but planned for June 1 to June 4. I should never have paid the money up front. Instead, I just trusted that these were good people, and this would be an awesome time.
But just as I was losing faith in humankind, the Kenyan kindness and generosity came to the rescue. A Kenyan friend of our family suggested I visit her nephew and his family in Nanyuki. Without too many questions and an hour later, I was on my way. It turned out to be one of my favourite weekends in Kenya. I even got to feed a rhino!
Lesson 2: There doesn’t need to be a reason or explanation for everything
Over the last six weeks, I found myself wondering about a lot of the different ways things work here. Often, I find myself thinking, “this just doesn’t make sense” or “how does this work.” For example:
- Why are plastic bags banned, but so much of the daily utensils and tools are all made from plastic. From the drying rack to the garbage bins, to the tubs used to wash and even the cups and plates, plastic is still found everywhere. As you drive through the country, it’s hard not to notice the abundance of stalls overflowing with plastic home goods.
- The number of signs in parks telling you to pick up your trash but there’s no trash bin in sight.
- The rules of the road are more like suggestions. When traffic gets too bad, people will turn around and drive in the opposite direction. Round-abouts are absolute chaos. Traffic lights are just decoration. Donkeys, cows, goats, dogs, boda bodas, matatus, trucks, passenger vehicles all share two lane highways. Speed bumps are used all along highways and roads to slow people down when in actuality people will just zoom and then step on the breaks as they approach the speed bumps.
- Everyone warns you about the theft in Nairobi and to hold on to your belongings tightly, but will jump on a boda boda with no helmet or take a matatu that doesn’t listen to any rules of the road.
To elaborate on the last point about the security, during my first week or two, I was thinking maybe the security issues or worries about theft were exaggerated because all I had really experienced at that point was the matatus and the boda bodas. I had walked the streets of Nairobi at night with my host with no issues while I had witnessed a boda boda accident on my third day.
However, my naivety was quickly shaken when my phone was stolen right out of my hands. My friend and I were driving in his car on the way home from dinner when someone opened the car door of the moving vehicle and snatched the phone out of my hand before I even had time to realize what was happening.
When I asked my Kenyan friends for explanations as to why these are the ways things are, no one really knew but it had just been accepted that that’s just how things work. But I’ve realized that a lot of the aspects of life in Kenya that I don’t understand, are just matters of survival for most. Especially when it comes to transportation. When all you can afford is a matatu or a boda boda, then you can’t really question its safety. So I’ve learned to just take note of the things that don’t make sense to me and maybe laugh a little or just accept the experience for what it is.
Lesson 3: The Muzungu experience is complicated, and will leave you with all sorts of feelings
This last lesson is one that I’ve really struggled to capture. There is no doubt that life as a muzungu (the swahili term used by locals to refer to foreigners) in Kenya comes with enormous privilege and ease. Here are some ways life has been easier for me due to the colour of my skin:
- Visiting the police station, whether for work or to follow up on my scam case, is always easy. I’m welcomed in, given people’s phone numbers, provided with information that most are not, and I am often served ahead of others.
- Whenever I’m at the matatu stop, I’m welcomed by a friendly man who takes care of whatever I may need and will even let me sit in his office as I wait for the boda boda to arrive.
- Accessing documents for work is a lot easier when I do it compared to when my Kenyan colleagues try.
- People automatically assume I am trustworthy and therefore, welcomed into peoples homes and workspaces with ease.
However, the muzungu experience can also be a bit of a challenge, especially in smaller, more remote areas, such as Kianyaga. I am the only muzungu in the town and in the surrounding towns. Whenever I go out, people will yell “muzungu, muzungu.” Which for the most part I don’t mind, especially when it comes from the children or women as it’s more of an expression of curiosity.
However, the attention my skin colour draws from the men can be quite uncomfortable. The catcalling can be quite aggressive and rarely does saying “no” to a marriage proposal or telling men you’re not interested, make them leave you alone. I’ve had a number of marriage proposals, despite lying and telling them I’m already married. Men feel like they can touch me and I’ve been grabbed countless times. I even received a call from a prosecutor asking me out even though I’ve never met him and have no idea how he got my phone number. It can feel uncomfortable because I don’t want to be rude and I try to say hi to everyone that speaks to me but sometimes that invites more attention and uncomfortable meetings.
Despite the bumps in the road, the confusion and the moments of discomfort, I feel grateful to have been able to have had all the experiences these past two months. They have forced me to grow and to question the world around me.