Through the eyes of an African in Maine

"What's happenin'?" my spouse asks Kimani, our Kenyan exchange student. "What?" Kim asks.

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.

As Kim claims pizza as his favorite food and joins his first baseball team, I forget that he's from a dusty village where people farm corn, hope for rain, and still give the elders goats for their brides. Elephants and leopards roam the land that's being overtaken by people.

Kim doesn't eat to eat; he eats if he's hungry, a concept my family hasn't known since the generation of the Great Depression. Once, draining vegetables, I noticed Kim watching the liquid run down the drain. I knew he was watching me throw away food his family would eat, food I have no use for because I have so much.

"What do you like best?" I ask often.


"What's most surprising?"

"I am not harassed. In my place, a new student is harassed." He thought, too, being black, the whites would harass him.

I feel I need to explain that the customs here aren't the same as a Kenyan village where a newcomer from a great distance can't keep up with the invitations to homes and the questions of interest.

I ask him if he's heard of slavery; when he says no, I tell him about it.

I watch him puzzle over the cheerleaders. Kim comes from a village where all women wear dresses that modestly cover their knees. Yet, a Kenyan bathing outside doesn't hurriedly cover up if surprised by a visitor, as we would. Rural Kenyans disapprove of sexually displaying one's body but feel comfortable with natural nakedness, the opposite of us. I wonder what Kim thinks of girls here with their bellies exposed and I wonder what he thinks of couples in the high school hallways kissing. Kissing and touching between the sexes, married or single, is not public in Kenya, and is often an indication of prostitution. In some tribes, no one kisses at all.

Most high schools in Kenya are boarding schools for either boys or girls. Boys parade about with their male friends, holding hands, arms draped across each other's shoulders in easy camaraderie, and girls with girls, but never the two sexes together. On Sunday after church, a boy and a girl will perhaps talk and walk together.

What Kim says he misses are his friends and a new language the young people in Kenya are creating, a hip rendition of combined tribal languages.

"Take pictures to show your friends back home," I say.

"I know what they would like very much to see," he says. "School buses."

Kim is most of all observant, and although possessing an openheartedness most Americans lose after Grade 3, he's definitely 17 - definitely wanting, however low key he is about it - to fit in with his peers. After one basketball game, he realized kids don't sit with their parents and moved from my side to the fringes of the other students.

No one would know he's from an African village. Even I forget as he comes home, listens to pop music, and wants to watch videos even though it's sunny outside.

But as he stays with us, I feel I'm the one learning. At unpredictable times, I briefly but searingly witness my lifestyle more clearly, from the extravagance of Christmas to a canister of glitter. As I watch Kim experience how we live, work, treat strangers and property, talk and listen, I glimpse American culture and people, as if I, too, have never it before. Having Kim live with us, I catch sharper views - some positive, some disconcerting - of my community and society. I'm the one who's learning, from watching Kim - with his gentle and ready smile, his customs and culture - making his way in this foreign land.

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