So just how long does it take to feel comfortable in an entirely new place?
When I landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in July, I was determined to learn, absorb, and live like a Kenyan. It turns out this wasn’t the most realistic goal given barriers like the timeframe of 90 days and the whole mzungu factor. But I tried anyway.
I threw myself into the daily routine whenever possible. I commuted in matatus, picked up some Kiswahili, bought my daily liter of maji from the “cat lady” at the neighborhood kiosk, and chatted with some real characters. Over the past four months, I’ve gained invaluable insight into multiple realms of Kenyan society. The Kiva Fellowship is truly special in that you are exposed to and a part of various populations within a society—from behind a desk in the MFI’s office, to conversing with a Kiva Borrower at her kuku coup, to chatting with expats over a few rounds of Tusker.
As a foreigner in a foreign place, I often wanted to turn to an imaginary friend and say, “hey, did you just see that?!” Eventually the details that, perhaps, once seemed strange, illogical, and sometimes frustrating became the norm and barely registered as a blip on my culture shock radar. Such instances included frequent power outages, drinking hot chai in 80 degree weather, and quickly moving aside while buying bananas from the local fruit vendor to escape a camel stampede.
For me, it took time, patience, and repetition until a newfound comfort manifested itself into instinct. Below are a few examples of common experiences that aided my cultural assimilation.
Over the past 12+ weeks I have…
Consumed 4,107 beans
Lucky for me, a vegetarian, beans are a staple food in coastal Kenya and are dressed in a few different forms: There’s bahazi for breakfast (cowpeas with coconut sauce), maharagwe (red beans) accompanied by sukuma wiki (kale) and chapatti for lunch, and then more maharagwe for dinner.
Ridden in 333 matatus
Matatu to work. Matatu to dinner. Matatu to Tanzania. I’ve logged long hours on these colorful (literally and figuratively) 14-passenger minivans that are the most popular way to get around. You know you’re becoming a local when you hop aboard and think, “Wait a minute, that disco ball and that Bob Marley poster look familiar. Must have been in this one before.”
Attended 2 weddings
Major thanks to my Kenyan rafikis and coworkers for inviting this mzungu to some great parties—singing and dancing and colors, oh my.
Completed 9 workplan items
Sorry to break it to you, the Kiva Fellowship is not an extended vacation. Each fellow is assigned a “workplan” that outlines and prioritizes his or her time in the field. On an average day, I worked from 7:45 am until 6:45 pm creating reports and conducting trainings to assess and build upon the Kiva program at Yehu.
Traveled 19,443 miles
I’ve been on the go since the end of KFP Training Week and have traveled via: boda boda, bus, matatu, car, dala dala, ferry, tuk tuk, airplane, dhow, sailboat, and my legs. While all this travel has led to some pretty exhausting moments, it’s empowering to reach a point where you are knowledgeable about and feel comfortable with traveling solo around East Africa on public transportation. These moments “on the go” have yielded invaluable cultural insight.
Met 23 Kiva borrowers
While I spent most of my fellowship in the office, I did have the opportunity to spend some time in the field conversing with Kiva borrowers. Tagging along with credit officers and visiting a client at his or her place of business added a new dimension to my understanding of microfinance through hearing clients’ stories and experiences.
Heard mzungu 3,584 times
Yup, I’m a mzungu. I learned this Kiswahili word even before “habari?” or, “how’s it going?” While this word may seem difficult to remember, someone will be sure to remind you very soon if you fit the description. Mzungu is used in a whole host of settings. Macho men shout it seeking a smile. Shopkeepers yell it to grab your attention. Coworkers employ it as a useful means of identification, like any other basic characteristic. And Watoto (children) scream it and nearly spontaneously combust with enthusiasm if the mzungu waves back.
Ridden 1 ostrich
That was fun.