Saturday, April 17

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Not white

I've griped about being white in Indonesia. I've griped about being white in Kenya. I've never considered here on Spice of Life, or in the rest of my life really, what life is like for the rest of the races here. Today that changes. For now I will accept that it is truly impossible to understand life through another's eyes, especially when I have had no long discussions with the locals about race in Kenya. Beside, I figure it would be nigh impossible to capture the magnitude of the vision of all those here in the five-hundred-odd words this post will take, but I would like to share some observations I have made.

First, the Indians. I use it as a catch-all for the various Middle Eastern and Indian sub-continent types that make Kenya there home. I hear that the Emirates is one of Kenya's larger trading partners. That accounts for the Middle Easterners here. For those from the Indian sub-continent, most have been here for generations, the first wave being brought in by the English to work on the railroad to Uganda.

I have personally known one and a half Jews in my life. Though I was born in New York, it was upstate and we moved before I remember anything. I've never visited the City or spent much time in any other city with a long-standing Jewish community. All this withstanding, I feel comfortable saying, because I've read a fair number of books by American Jews about American Jews and am aware of the stereotypes, that Indians are the Jews of Kenya. They own a lot of the stores and mostly take care of management. In turn, they have a lot of the money. It's a surprise when I see Indians walking on the street and it's not from a store to their car, in my nine months I have seen just one ever on a matatu, and you never see them in Githima. In turn, black Kenyans don't much like them. Waiting in line at the bank, I caught a report that said Middle-Eastern and Indian Kenyans are being targeted for kidnappings and carjackings. Doesn't surprise me if you want the best odds the family will be able to pay the ransom. When I was trying to get out of buying a jacket after bargaining the owner down to 1,500 shillings, I told him I didn't carry that much money with me because I was afraid of being robbed. He immediately told me about the two times it happened to him. They got him just before he walked through the gate to his house. A few months later I did get pickpocketed and stopped carrying that much money with me ever.

In turn, the Indians don't much care for the black Kenyans. They're not smashing windows and holding up black Kenyan stores, but they are avoiding them as much as possible. I met an Indian who lived here most of her life and didn't know enough Kiswahili to speak with the kids. Another told me he went to university in Canada instead of Kenya, his homeland. I've gotten by with only a few words of Kiswahili in Kenya and I'm sure that the least Canadian universities are competitive with the University of Nairobi, but those seem like extreme measures to just "occur."

I kind of feel sorry for Indian Kenyans, but I feel sorry for the black Kenyans, too. They are the absolute majority in Kenya, and they still have an inferiority complex about their skin color. I guess that's what happens after freedom from more than a half century of British rule and the continuing dominance of American and British media. Even in the blackest continent in the world, a local still has to sing that black is beautiful. I kind of assumed it would be the standard, but I guess not. Fair & Lovely, a skin lightening lotion, is popular enough here to afford prominent advertising. I saw that ad the same week I saw pictures of Sammy Sosa's zombie-bleached skin. More than a little frightening.

When I heard reports back in the States that the new fall line-up of shows on the major TV networks had one or two or zero new lead roles for blacks, I never paid attention, but that's changed. I hope that it doesn't matter and doesn't cause one race to think less of another because it has fewer starring roles, but it has to mean something when you only ever see people who look like you in supporting roles. That's why I let the kids watch Blade when they're asking for Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan. Wesley Snipes is not my idea of a role model, but at least he's the undisputed star.

Funny thing. Early on, maybe two or three weeks after arriving, Demetra and I were trying to describe one of the kids to our Tanzanian director because we didn't know his name. We got it narrowed down to two, and she finally asked, "The brown one or the black one?" She has since married an American and is only waiting for her paperwork to be processed before receiving her American passport and moving back to join him in New York City. I have advised her to avoid making that distinction in the States.

But, hey, I could be misreading all of this. Without a doubt, I am missing the vastness of inter-racial relations in a foreign nation and all its particular intricacies and idiosyncracies. Like I wrote, it's not like I talk to the locals that much.

1 comment:

MaxTheITpro said...

I kind of feel sorry for Indian Kenyans, but I feel sorry for the black Kenyans, too. They are the absolute majority in Kenya, and they still have an inferiority complex about their skin color.

What do you expect in a society where they blindly follow Christianity -- more so than hypocritical US "Conservatives" --, are poor, and worship a "god" with a blonde hair/blue eyed "son"??
When Africans gained their freedom/independence, they should've tossed the religion of the colonialists in the garbage bin.

My 2 cents.