Saturday, November 15, 2008


There's a woman who lives with my host family, a cousin of Lucy's, who's staying with them while she sorts some things out (I stepped into a regular soap opera here, let me tell you). Her name is Ruth and she does some cooking and cleaning for her room and board. She loves tea and thinks everyone else should, too.

Of course, being Mormon, I don't drink tea. I didn't see the need to go into details the first time Ruth offered me tea, so I just declined and told her I don't drink tea. But she kept offering it to me, so on the second day, I explained to her that I don't drink tea for religious purposes.

I think I'm pretty lucky that Ruth is a religious woman and respected my reason. Earlier this week, Cynthia, the other volunteer here, was feeling really tired and went to bed early, right after dinner. Of course, dinner wasn't until 9 PM. After dinner, Ruth always brews a pot of tea (except they keep it in thermoses here- not very aesthetically pleasing, but very practical. It keeps the tea hot for ages). It takes quite a while to make it, and Cynthia didn't want to wait up for it. So she told Ruth so and got ready for bed and got in bed. I was in our room reading. About half an hour later, when Cynthia was out cold, someone knocked on our door. When I opened it, Ruth pushed her way in with a mug full of tea. Before I could open my mouth to protest, she had started shaking Cynthia, who groggily sat up. Ruth pushed the mug into her hands and firmly said, "Drink. You will feel better."

Cynthia stared at her in unbelief, but she knew Ruth would persist until she drank it. So, she downed the mug of steaming hot tea and went back to sleep. I tried not to laugh out loud. You see what I would have been up against if "I don't drink tea because of my religion" had not been acceptable to Ruth?

Also, Kenyans eat massive, massive amounts of food. And it's all starch. We'll have bread and rice and potatoes all for one meal, with some greens on the side. We've made some headway here, but when I first arrived, they would dish us huge piles of food and expect us to eat it all, turning a deaf ear to our protests that our stomachs couldn't handle that much. Cynthia once tried to tell Ruth that she was Canadian and couldn't eat that much, to which Ruth replied, "here you are Kenyan. You eat like a Kenyan. When you go home, you can eat like a Canadian."

However, between the two of us (and with Kate's help, when she was here), we've slowly been able to convince them that we really just can't handle that much food. My personal nemesis is a very thick maize porridge that is one of the main staples in Kenya, called Ugali. It's super thick and pretty flavorless. It's also very cheap, so the orphans eat it almost every day and we eat it at the orphanage, too. If I eat too much, my throat starts constricting and I get a stomachache. In small quantities it's just fine, but the problem is convincing the Kenyans that a small quantity is big enough. Lucy overheard me once talking to Kate about how unpleasant it was to eat a lot of ugali and I guess my description of what it does made her concerned enough that she actually let me serve my own amount of ugali next time, although she looked at the amount on my plate with narrowed eyes after.

A final note- Obama continues to be a huge, huge deal here. In the internet cafe where I'm currently sitting, there's a calendar on the wall, the tearaway kind, that says "The Obama Year" and has huge picture of the president elect. Whenever people find out I'm American, they want to discuss Obama for the next ten minutes, which is starting to get really annoying, especially since I'm definitely not an unqualified fan. So the other day, when Cynthia and I went in to town to go to the market, I temporarily adopted Canada as my home country so people wouldn't preach to me about Obama's virtues on top of trying to sell me trinkets I didn't want at an exorbitant rate. Never fear though, I'm definitely not becoming an expat. I love America and the more I travel, the more I appreciate it.

I lied. I have one more note to add. Except for certain touristy areas, Kenya is very homogenously black in population. Even in downtown Nairobi, I can walk for a few blocks before seeing another white person, or mzungu. In fact, I saw one white guy this morning who was staring at me funny- I assume because I was white.

Anyway, political correctness has yet to be really born here. The kids especially have a tendency to treat white people like a novelty to be stared at and petted. I think their parents have a lot of work to do in teaching them that regardless of the color of people's skin, they're still people. And it's given me an appreciation I've never had before for how frustrating it can be to be classified by the color of your skin and not who you are inside. I still think that lots of people go overboard and tend to be extra sensitive and silly in America, but after being referred to as "the mzungu" enough times, it gets really old and I want to remind people that I have a name and a personality. Of course, almost all of the people that I have personal interaction with are great. My host family, the staff at the orphanage, and the workers at Fahihili Helpers in Nairobi all treat me quite personably. But I will definitely take a new appreciation home with me.

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