Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kenya & Salone, Two Very Different Countries on the Same Continent

I’ve been in Kenya for about seven weeks now and I still seem to be thinking about Sierra Leone. It’s hard to shake the two years of memories, especially in a place that reminds me so much of my second home. But there are definitely differences – whether it be the difference between East Africa and West, or the two countries themselves, the longer I spend here the more differences I seem to recognize. 

When I first moved to Sierra Leone, I remember thinking “or yea, it was the same in Tanzania.” As I continued my time there, I started to understand the differences on a deeper level. The same thing is happening here, which is fascinating. Is it human nature to first recognize the similarities between countries, people, and culture and then the differences? Is this something that carries into every changing aspect of our lives? Or is this a learned behavior? Something to ponder on…
Anyways, I started to make a list of the differences between Kenya and Sierra Leone, because I’m addicted to making lists. (As my dear padis, Krim and Rat, know well, when they pulled a prank on me and hid my list book… devils.) Here’s what I got thus far:

How Kenya is Different than Salone:

Economic Development. Kenya is in many ways more developed than Sierra Leone. The unemployment is lower, the items manufactured locally is higher, general access to running water, electricity, and internet are higher, and the education system seems to be of higher quality. In fact, Kenya sends the most students abroad for higher education than any other African country. (Although I’m unsure how many Kenyans come back to work in their home.) At least the government is investing in education in some way and, in my humble opinion, the best way for a government to spend their bucks. This does not mean Kenya is not short of its own problems, but viewing the country from a macroscopic scale, they seem to be doing some things right.

Tribes. There are more tribes here. Although the number changes slightly depending on who you talk to, there are about 42 tribes throughout Kenya. (There’s about 15 in Salone.) That’s a heck of a lot of languages! Through conversations with Kenyans, I’m starting to pick up some differences between the tribes, but to fully understand them I would need A LOT more time here. 

Religion. About 78% of the Kenya population is Christian, with about 10% Muslim and 10% traditional beliefs. Religion here compared to Sierra Leone is quite interesting. I haven’t once been asked, “Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” or actually, anything about my religious beliefs. (Although one guy asked me what church I like to attend.) There have been few opening prayers – a couple of people have prayed before chai, but I haven’t had any before a meeting or other events. I asked our project coordinator the other day if people use toilet paper or water to go to the bathroom and he said that only the Muslims use water. In Sierra Leone, it didn’t matter if you practiced Islam or not, everyone used water to do their business (if you know what I mean). I wonder where the balance is between culture and religion. How much do religious beliefs affect cultural practices, and vice versa? Either way, I’ve been missing my regular call-to-prayer wake up calls. 

No secret societies. As far as I’ve heard, there are no secret societies here. In Salone, there were groups that were distinguished between tribes and between sexes. People’s initiation and participation in these societies were anonymous and group activities and traditions were not talked about in public or with people outside of their society. 

Diet. There is much more diversity in the diet here. Although the traditional food is ugali (pounded corn mass) and sikumawiki (colored greens cooked in tomatoes, oil, and spices), there is plenty of chipati (similar to Indian naan), sautéed cabbage, rice, millet, fish, eggs, and bread. Although Sierra Leoneans had most of this in their diet as well, there doesn’t seem to be the practice of eating rice for every meal, every day. Two of the main staples in Kenya are corn and tea. OMG the chai is awesome – I’ve been averaging 4 cups a day. :-)

Traditional Clothing. People mostly wear Western clothing sold second-hand from the local markets. I’ve encountered few people wearing the traditional clothing as many did in Sierra Leone. In fact, I observed more women than men wearing the Africana clothes in both countries. I wonder what this means in terms of globalization and dependence on high-income country imports.

M-Pesa. Kenya has this fantastic program, where people can use their cell phones like debit cards. There are little stands everywhere where they can buy M-Pesa credit and then pay for groceries, bar tabs, rent, bills, etc all through their phones. They are also trying to implement this system on public transport. People pay for their transport on the matatus (the crowded buses and most common form of transportation) with shillings, but if they pay with M-Pesa, it will result in a reduction of corrupt overpricing and better enforced tax laws.

Tuk-tuks. Something that Sierra Leone was lacking was tuk-tuks, which was difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers (because we could not ride motorcycles). In Kisumu, you can hitch a ride with a matatu, tuk-tuk, piki piki (motorcycle) or a bota bota. The last is my personal favorite – it’s a bicycle with a little seat attached to the back. Yes, the drivers physically bicycle their passengers around town. I haven’t ridden one yet, but I’ll have to hop on one before I leave. 

Speed bumps. There are more speed bumps here in the city and on the highways. I’ve been driving a decent amount here. How am I supposed to cruise, pass, and merge like Nintendo Mario Kart when they got these speed bumps messing up my groove? 

SO, those are a few of my observations. People, if you are Sierra Leonean, Kenyan, or have been to either of those countries, please do not correct me. These are differences from my perspective and I know they are not 100% complete or accurate across the entire countries. In fact, here are some differences between my time spent in each place: (I <3 LISTS!)

1. I was living in a rural, small town in Sierra Leone. In Kenya, I’m staying in the third largest city in, what I believe to be, one of the nicest apartments in the city.
2. In Kenya, I’m working as a researcher, mostly speaking English with people, and living more of the ex-pat life (shopping in grocery stores, taking private transport, hanging with the other whities in town). In Salone, pretty much everything was the opposite of that.
3. TIME! As I mentioned in my last post, time is the weirdest thing ever. I’m going to spend a whooping two months in Kenya, which is about the same length as my training for Peace Corps in Salone. I developed much deeper relationships in Salone and have gotten to know the culture and lifestyle on a less superficial level. 

The last statement has made me think a lot about my future career. I’ve developed so many critical skills in Sierra Leone – many that can be transferred to other parts of the world, but also many that are only applicable in that country (i.e. language, relationships/connections, cultural understanding, etc). There’s much of the world to see, but maybe I should consider solely working in Sierra Leone (and the US – don’t freak out Mother). If I chose to use my skills in this way, I could possibly be more effective there than any other “international health” arena, thus making my time/work more fulfilling.

OK, I’ll sleep on that. Asante sana for stopping by. 

Keep it real peeps.


Political Correctness - “It’s a very well-crafted tool to distract us. A very self-centered activity. Clean up your own vocabulary so you can show everybody you have the social capital of having been in circles where these things are talked about on a regular basis.” - Jim Kim, Mountains Beyond Mountains

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