Gratitude is a Matter of Choice and Perspective: Life in Kenya vs Life in America

There are lots of ways to support causes today, but the best cause is where you can touch and talk to the people you are helping.  I've come to know Amy and Edwin Ahiga who with Amy's sister and  lots of help) created "Grain of Rice Project" so support people living in Kenya near where Edwin grew up.  As I spoke with Amy recently after they returned from a another trip to Kenya, she as sad and missing Kenya.  She found it hard to adjust to the hugee cultural differences and I asked her if she would share her thoughts in a guest post here.  And she did! In reading her words I'm sure you will agree that gratitude is a matter of choice and perspective.

Top 10 Ways that Life in the U.S. and Kenya are Different

People often ask me what life is like in Kenya, and the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s really different than you think.  It’s rare to see that image of the African mud hut with the thatched roof.  In fact, I once had the audacity to tell a teaching colleague that I thought she should remove her stereotypical pictures of Africa that were hanging all over her classroom!  You see, Kenya is really a welcoming place with a diverse landscape.  Here are the top things that come to mind when comparing Kenya to the U.S.:

1) Kenya is all about hospitality and a sense of community.  In the U.S., we often hit the garage door opener, pull in with our car, and disappear for the night, without more than a simple wave to the neighbor.  In Kenya, people regularly stop by the house to say hello, to borrow a cooking pot, to eat dinner.  You don’t have to be invited for a visit, and even if you show up unannounced, you’re likely to at least be given a cup of milky chai tea.  Even families that can barely feed their kids will scrounge up something to give you, whether it’s bread, a soda, or something from their farms.  If you’re a foreigner, you’ll be treated with even higher regards.  I once had an experience where they kept piling my plate with more meat than they were even feeding the eldest man in the family.  And out of a sign of respect, you eat what you’re given, with a smile on your face, even if the small fish eyes are staring back at you and even if you have a gluten intolerance like me.
     2)  The pace of life is different.  While other countries in Africa have a reputation of being even more laid back than Kenya, the saying “pole pole,” meaning slowly, slowly in Swahili, is there for a reason.  Things just take longer.  Meetings, church, and events, all start at least 30-60 minutes late.  In Western culture, being on time shows a sense of respect.  But in Kenya, it’s more about relationships.  So it would be better to stop and check on your neighbor than to worry about being on time.

     3) The gap between the rich and poor is much bigger than the U.S.  Kibera, East Africa’s biggest slum, where people live in shanty dwellings with no indoor plumbing, is literally right next to huge shopping malls, the vice president’s mansion, and other posh homes.  While around half of Nairobi is living in slums, the members of parliament are some of the highest paid in the world.  Unfortunately, corruption runs deep, from the top levels of government, to the average person.  Bribes are so common that they are expected.  Despite the poverty and hardship, there is laughter, smiles, and a vibrancy about the slums.

      4) It's more common to travel on foot or by public transportation than in a car.  While it’s necessary in the U.S. to have a car, in Kenya it’s not.  It’s becoming increasingly common for the emerging middle class to own cars, but many people in the slums are still living on less than a few dollars a day.  Public transport is cheap and widely available.  15 or more people are stuffed into minivan size taxis called matatus, for a daring, thrilling ride that often involves driving onto sidewalks and through backroad short cuts as well as paying daily bribes to the police.

      5)  Small shops and kiosks are on every street and corner.  They are an easy, convenient place that customers can walk to and purchase all the basic groceries and more.  When my husband first moved to the U.S. from Kenya, he wanted to know if we could open one in our front yard for our neighbors.

    6) The education system is all about memorization.  As a former teacher, I know we have challenges with over testing our kids in the U.S.  But in Kenya, it’s a whole other level.  The students in eighth grade cram for months on end for one test that determines not only where they go to high school, but in their minds, it also defines their entire future success.  The rest of the years of school are also spent memorizing and testing, with homework grades not counting towards final grades, and many kids receive little individual instruction to help them improve academically.  While caning kids is technically illegal, it’s still happening in many schools across Kenya.

     7) There is less emphasis on material possessions.  While it’s true that many Kenyans dream of having a nice house and a car, they spend far less time accumulating so many things the way we do in the U.S.  Many houses in the slums have too few beds for everyone to sleep and little furniture.  And even people who are well off do not have garages stock piled full of things the way we do in the U.S., where we often falsely believe that more things will make us happy, but in Kenya they do not.

     8) The healthcare system is all about pre-paying.  You must pre-pay before every doctor visit, before every blood draw, before every test.  If you can’t pay, you won’t be treated.  Most people do not have insurance, but yet it’s common for them to run to the nearest hospital or chemist shop every time they have something even as small as a bad headache or cough.  People constantly think they have malaria even though they don’t.  Being misdiagnosed is common…they told me I had malaria 3 times, when in fact I did not. 

     9) People have a deep sense of faith.  Many people in the rural areas and in the slums do not know where their next meal will come from.  They literally must rely on God.  Church services last for hours, and it’s often by choice that people are there so long worshipping. 

     10)  There is amazing wildlife in Kenya.  While the giraffes and elephants are not exactly walking around your backyard, there are huge game parks stretching around the country with all kinds of animals.  Many people visit Kenya each year to witness the great wildebeest migration, take a balloon safari, and experience the wildlife and people in Masai Mara.  Even Nairobi boasts the world’s only national park right within city limits where all of the animals can be found.  And even when you’re not in the parks, occasionally in Nairobi there are baboons and monkeys greeting you on your roof.

      I  pray you found this fascinating and it helps all of us appreciate our small place in the world.     Find out more about Grain of Rice Project, shop for yourself or friends and family, or consider supporting the ministry with a donation.

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