Stream I: Keys and Insecurity
No, these are not the iron keys or indentured servants expected to be found in old British castles, the video game Skyrim, or 50 Shades of Grey. Instead, the ubiquitous house-helps and the series of locks separate Kenyan and American culture.
The Kenyan family I live with just fumbled a key ring to get inside our humble abode, but only after driving past the series of gates that lie outside our compound and then waiting a few minutes for our watchman to open the gate. These iron keys look like they were forged nearly a century ago, and you’ll find at least 5 of them on a given ring. It makes the experience of opening doors more exciting at first, however, it becomes excruciating after drinking beers.
Given the miles of electric fences, enough barbed wire to keep out an English advance during World War I, and even broken glass bottles that are glued onto the fence tops, one starts to think: Here in Nairobi, the bourgeois live in safety but insecurity. Kenya is red-listed under the United States’ embassy not for intercontinental terrorism, but for domestic crime. Taxis are required to go anywhere and everywhere after sun down, and when you have to pay at least $10 to even get out of your suburb and back, you become locked in—literally.
Muggings are common, thieves may follow you, and pick pocketing is a guarantee in the most crowded venues. There was yesterday’s news with a grenade attack at a bus stop. Luckily I’ve lost nothing except the occasional patience during these 4 months in Nairobi, but my more absent-minded friend cannot say the same.
This friend’s neighbor is a Serbian expatriate who had served in the military before moving to Kenya. One night on his way home multiple young men with AK-47s pointed their rifles at his car. He reached for the handgun hidden in his car, and, like a scene from a action movie, he started shooting through the windshield while driving. His car drove off the street, flipped, and landed. When he got on his feet, this Serb booked it to a nearby gate.
I had my own chase scene the other day when my matatu conductor ran off with my 1000 shillings (about $10). I tracked him down and cussed him out three times until he gave me the correct change. He looked like a weasel, and he certainly acted like one too.
Stream II: Volume
Kenyans speak louder on the phone in Swahili, but as much in English.
I speculate this is because Swahili is heavier on vowels and lighter on consonants. Depending on a Kenyan’s tribal dialect, this can make a “da” sound like a “ta” or “ba” if spoken quickly. In order to distinguish the consonant sounds, they compensate by speaking louder. If my host mother is speaking in Swahili on the second floor, I can hear on the opposite end of the first floor.
Not that I’m complaining, because hearing the language has helped me learn it.
Stream III: The Screen
In America nearly all families regardless of class will own at least one television. In Kenya, there is a larger wealth disparity. Illiteracy is a structural issue, particularly in the slum neighborhoods that make up at least 25% of Nairobi. However, those with televisions will watch the screen from sunrise to sunset.
My host-sister is a sophomore in high school, and when she’s home she will wake up and watch the TV. By dinner time she’s still in her pajamas. A 21 year old cousin who is currently living here will do the same, and either one or both of them will watch 15 hours in a day. From 7:30 am to 10:30 pm. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
Outside the home and on the city streets it’s common to see 20+ year olds sporting Hannah Montana shirts, or university graduates who ask if you like Linkin Park. According to the sociologist Theodor Adorno, the increasing supply of gaining television viewership reduces its quality to meet the lowest common denominator. Therefore, only the highest selling products of culture are exported over seas. Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Hannah Montana, and Pink. No one knows what Led Zeppelin is. After writing a preview on Nairobi’s “Rockfest” for my magazine, all of the groups were this sort of post-grunge alternative rock, like Linkin Park, or they were metal bands from Botswana and South Africa. If ain’t got the blues, or that propelling beat, it ain’t rock and roll.
The culmination of these experiences made me think that the existence of alternative stream to popular culture is a first world luxury. How can a strong, influential, and unequivocally “cool” counterculture exist and sustain itself if the majority of a country’s population is rural, and most in cities are living under a dollar a day? Anyone below the middle class won’t own a TV, and they may not even be literate. If they’re consuming foreign culture, it’s going to be Hannah Montana and Justin Bieber.
Still, while I am empathetic to these class and cultural differences, it’s going to be refreshing when I escape ’80s soft rock, derivative reggae, and Kenyan Christian music. There are some very talented Kenyan groups, like Just a Band that gained some coverage on the New York Times, but the majority of what is heard on the radio here has been repetitive or unimaginative.
I’m looking forward to jamming out to Tame Impala when I return to the States. Or driving on a Saturday morning listening to National Public Radio. All of this got me thinking that I have it real easy back home. Hell, if you even own an iPod, you’ve probably have it pretty easy in the eyes of the world.