Through the eyes of an African in Maine
"What's happenin'?" my spouse asks Kimani, our Kenyan exchange student. "What?" Kim asks.Skip to next paragraph
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English being his third language, our slang is unfamiliar. Then he catches on. "Not so much," he says, when really, much is happening every day for Kim. Our culture is the opposite of his quiet earth-dependent village in Africa.
In Kim's village on the equator, his mother uses fire to cook; the firewood she hauls on her back. They fetch water from a well and local reservoirs that cows also use. His village has no electricity. No malls, no grocery stores, no libraries within hundreds of miles. No computers. An occasional battery-operated TV. No snow. Ever.
Kim is Kikuyu, the largest and most progressive of the 35 or so tribes in Kenya, each with its own language and customs. The country's first president was Kikuyu after Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963. That's about the time the bridge from Jonesport, Maine, to Beals Island (where we live now) was built. Not that long ago.
Kim arrived at our home on Christmas and sat quietly as we unwrapped dozens of gifts and ate dozens of treats. I felt very aware of our indulgence, very aware that his family doesn't have money or food to use just for fun.
The last child of six, Kim is very quiet, which is typical of Kenyan children who never speak above a soft voice to any adult and only if spoken to. Students are still caned in school for misdemeanors. Kim is an observer, catching on quickly to how we do things, beating everyone at Nintendo the first time he played. He noticed how my high school daughters dressed for snow, picking their way through drifts in their sandals, and soon he was going out the door wearing only a sweatshirt.
I've known Kim since he was a baby when my spouse and I returned to our Peace Corps villages with our firstborn. Later we and our four children lived in Kenya for half a year, staying with Kim's family. We'd sit on small stools and eat sautéed cabbage and the ubiquitous ugali (stiff cornmeal porridge) out of tin dishes.
Kimani (his full name) is so quiet that he slips right into our daily life. But I'm reminded of where he is from when he curiously flicks the coffee machine on and off just to see how it works. He rings the wind chimes and listens, and stands observing the rainbowmaker. I find him examining a canister of glitter, blowing at the flecks, and realize he's never seen glitter before. He gravitates toward remote controls, snapping tape deck/CD players repeatedly on and off.
"How's school?" I ask.
"Nice," he always says, and means it.
I worry about Kim missing his Kenyan friends; one's peers are extremely important in Africa. It's only with my younger sons that he talks freely and laughs. Otherwise he's so quiet, I could completely ignore him. Which most people do after "hello."
"What's 'idiot' "? he asks, never, I notice, having to ask about swear words. I explain what it means and what "bummed," "bummer," "grouchy," "picky," and "a day off" mean, only a few of the hundreds of English expressions not taught in Kenyan schools.
At first, I felt I should tell him that even though it's an acceptable public habit in Kenya, you really can't pick your nose here, and gave him tissues. I explained our money, the tricks of faucets in our house, what a dryer does, and toilet-seat etiquette. Explaining how one must bathe daily in America and what deodorant is, I found myself wondering why Americans are so adverse to natural odors and so keen on chemical ones. I remembered in Kenya bathing once a week, a complicated chore of hauling precious water, building a fire to heat it, and pouring it while standing in the grass in the sun.