Two Weeks

bringing it all back home.

When you spend more than a few months away from home it’s going to feel unreal to return. I return to the United States two weeks from today.

When you’ve lived in a foreign country, particularly in the developing world, your home country’s customs will probably disorient you. Six months is the ideal amount of time for a junior in college to leave the States, and now I’m braced for some reverse-culture shock. It’s high time I see my friends and family.

With that said, I’m going to miss the slower pace of life here in Kenya. As a journalist I have gotten frustrated with people running on “Kenyan time” while I’m waiting for a interviewee or photographer to respond before my deadline. But, outside the professional context I enjoy the chill Kenyan demeanor. Nairobi’s culture is paradoxical in that it may take over an hour for nyama choma (“roasted meat”) at a restaurant or locals will say hakuna matata (“there is no worry”) to us muzungus (“foreigners”), and yet people are climbing over one another to exit the matatu or colliding into each other on the street. There’s been a lot to observe, clearly, but I’m going to miss the everyday things, like speaking Swahili with my host-mom.

Nyama Choma with ugali (cornmeal), cabbage, and kachumbari (East African Salad).

I’m looking forward to experiencing the sensation of touch without it having to relate to money. Whether it’s a pat on a shoulder, a tug on the pants, or even having your arm dragged to a local store, I’ve been conditioned to be wary of people calling me “friend” and tapping my arm. You can tell who’s going to ask you for money when you’re going down the street. Kenyans are less touchy-feely than us Americans with the exception that there’s more handshaking here, so anyone reaching towards you is a good indication of ulterior motives. Unfortunately, the odds say that the man eyeing you on the street and who just decided to walk your way is a refugee looking for money. Just today my group saw a mother push a child towards us at a restaurant. The child was too young to understand much English or Swahili so our attempts to tell him to return in either language were futile. Instead, the family watched as he said sasa (“now”) repeatedly, putting his hand out while I downed the last of my Pilsner. Children asking for money is sad enough, but a mother forcing a child to get money is another issue. It made me think the States will be radically different as there are no children begging or salesmen trying to sell me wallets as I gouge a roasted chicken.


a temporal family.

I’m thankful for the host-family experience. A year ago I wasn’t applying to any study abroad sites without the host-stay program. However, living with an old couple makes me feel like a 17 year old again. On the flipside, I learn a lot of history straight from primary sources, as my host-father was 16 when Kenya gained independence. He was in the Scouts, which we have in common, and he ran around his neighborhood lighting bonfires the night when Kenya’s chains were unshackled by the British.

My host family lives in a gated community near the various embassies and the UN. There are multiple locks that separate our home from the outside, which makes it difficult after sundown to catch some air. Though it has quelled my cigarette habit, it prevents me from one of my favorite pastimes: stargazing. When I return, it’s going to be great to dip out during the night with my band mates, sitting on my school’s roof, overlooking the city’s night horizon.

The greatest part of living with a host-family is the ability to practice Swahili and learning the colloquialisms. Often times while in class we would learn words that are not conversational, and the slang we’d learn wouldn’t always be current. The main drawback, however, is that I’m usually by myself, but never alone.

I’m writing my dissertation only in my underwear and a t-shirt, and the house-help is outside and directly in front of me while she wipes my windows. There was another time she came in to close the windows while I Skyped with MLive and the West Michigan News Channel about the Westgate terrorist attack—which is pretty funny in retrospect.

I know I’m going to miss everyone here, but the different customs of privacy or noise levels here have irked me during my rougher days.

Despite any qualms in my daily living, I’ve been looking at it this way: Nothing can be worse than my host-cousin coming into the television room, flipping the lights, then blasting Nickelback while I’m battling malaria. Nothing can be worse than Nickelback. Especially hearing Nickelback on malaria when you’re to feeble to move to your home. This too is funny in retrospect, but hellish as I slowly stumbled over myself.

It would be hyperbolic if I said my freedoms have been stripped, but it’s realistic to note I live under different home owners with a set of different rules, customs, preferences, and expectations. It makes sense. I have no qualms telling my host-parents when and where I’ll be going at night, or locking the doors when I get back. Although, the same host-cousin didn’t quite have my back once when I was sleeping at a girl’s house (my host-parents are actually host-grandparents, and though open-minded, they’re extremely Christian and traditional, so I didn’t want to offend them). I think most everything was lost in communication. No serious consequences.

While living with a host-family I’ve been reflecting on my college experience thus far. My first two years at college required me to live on campus in dormitories with cold, white, concrete walls. These years could be summed up like one of Hemingway’s short stories: All I wanted was a clean, well-lighted place. I roomed blind my first year and lived with an introspective philosophy and art student. As far as my fundamental living conditions go, I was very happy. Our schedules hardly conflicted, meaning I’d get my afternoon nap while he was in class, and people were always impressed by the cleanliness of our living space, not to mention our fancy loft. During my second year I roomed with my friend I knew since high school, and though he remains as one of my closest friends, he was terribly messy to a point where he took unwarranted ownership over the room.

Looking back at my past two and a half years at college I’ve had one clean roommate, one messy, and a Kenyan family that largely lives within their own bubble—and I don’t mean this pejoratively. My host-mother had been a nurse for years but is now taking Psychology courses at the University of Nairobi, so she’s always either studying or watching the news whenever she’s home.

It’s going to be wicked when I return. To be on my own, but with directions home, and something like a rolling stone. No parents, no dormitories, and no sharing bedrooms. I’ll have my own room where I can practice saxophone without worrying about my meek roommate bringing in his rather short, cantankerous girlfriend. I won’t have to push aside piles of unwashed, sweaty, yet re-worn clothes to a roommate’s half of the room. I will go outside, gaze at constellations, and think in privacy.

I’m going to miss this place, but it’s time and I’m ready.


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