Tag Archives: Africa

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.


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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Travel

On Not Being Gay

This blog is going up late because for the past week and a half I’ve been traveling around the more rural parts of South Africa, seeing parts of this country that are more exotic to my western eye: sugar cane fields ripe for harvest, cows and goats wandering the streets, zebras and giraffes in their natural habitat, economies based on frantic informal buying and selling everything on the side of the road, black children in school uniforms flooding the dirt paths through villages together with their livestock, women cutting marsh reeds for making wicker items, mothers of all ages with babies strapped to their backs and large parcels balanced on their heads…

I never did see any elephants crossing the road though.

It would be too easy under these circumstances to associate the international headlines coming out of rural South Africa at the beginning of this month with this same sense of things here being radically exotic and non-western: Over the May Day holiday weekend among the younger high school boys of this province there was a particularly nasty gang rape of a retarded girl, that one boy shot a cell phone video of that started getting passed around on line; and then on the eve of May Day, in the same sugar cane fields I drove past a few days later, a teenage boy brutally raped a girl just more than half his age, attempting to strangle her and gouge her eyes out in the process. In the latter case the girl survived –– barely –– blindly crawling out of the sugar cane fields in what remained of her school uniform, so badly mutilated that her family didn’t recognize her. The prognosis is that she will eventually regain sight in one eye, but beyond that hope for a normal life for her is fairly limited.

It feels natural to try and distance ourselves from such atrocities. We can’t be talking about normal teenage boys here! There must be something profoundly messed up in the culture which leads to these sorts of inhuman actions among those who are still effectively children.

From enough of a distance it may seem that this is part of childhood being stolen from African children by guerilla fighters and underground armies and the like. People like Kony are making children into monsters that do horrible things to each other. But in these cases civil tensions really have nothing to do with the situation. South Africans regularly march in protest about their poor and risky lives, but there is no risk of civil war here. So far the most radical left wing politicians here have just been big mouthed clowns who talk about state takeover of larger businesses; but their campaigns remain purely democratic at this point, and their conspicuous incompetence is seriously limiting their potential impact in that arena even. (For further perspective on this see my Julius and Rick blog from a couple months ago.) Children in South Africa are not being trained to commit atrocities, especially against other children.

How then can we explain the messed up motivations behind these particularly heinous and obscene crimes, committed by those who aren’t even men yet? One journalistic analysis of the eye gouging rapist has brought out two factors that might explain matters somewhat: The boy was being raised by his grandmother, with little by way of masculine role models in his life; and he was being bullied at school in the typical way that other boys jokingly accused him of being gay. This makes the problem a distinctly African one in some senses, but not so exotic or different from Western culture any more.

A lack of positive male influence in life is a tragic problem in many parts of the world. Men have been isolated from families by the economic demands of industrialized working life, and where they have not been able to find work outside of the home their value as men has been severely marginalized. Thus to prove that they are “real men” many fathers resort to drinking, violence and other testosterone boosting activities that destroy what little chance they might have of building a relationship with their children. This leads to a matriarchal network of young mothers and intense grandmothers doing the child rearing, and boys having little idea about how their masculinity is supposed to (or allowed to) work. If all forms of masculinity –– other than “providing for the family” and other than that staying out of the way –– are just as thoroughly disrespected within a boy’s childhood home, it is little wonder if he starts to express his own masculinity in highly anti-social ways.

This problem is particularly acute in Africa, but it is a well known dynamic in all industrialized nations really. Across the world school boy cultures are increasingly polarized between the “tough guys” who make no apologies for their anti-social masculinity, and “wimps” and “faggots” who do what women tell them to and are thus accused of acting like women themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with women, per se; it’s just that no self-respecting young man wants to be one. If someone finds a functional solution for this problem they should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for the century.

Bullying is something we all know about from personal experience of being bullied, or taking part in bullying others before we knew any better, or from watching it happen and not really daring to do anything about it. It’s a near universal form of competition for dominance within a group, particularly among more immature individuals: bullies trying to win social acceptance by proving to others that they would be more valuable allies than the “oddballs” they have singled out for torture. This can be particularly brutal at times, and sadly many of the other evils we find in society trace back to the emotional scars left by school bullying, sometimes generations ago even. This can be the first link in a chain of violence that escalates and becomes cyclical, leading to all sorts of other evils.

Kids get teased for any number of reasons at school: for being fat, for being foreign, for having weak hand-eye coordination, for being physically or intellectually under developed or over developed for their age group, for having speech impediments, for having unusual coloring… or for having the wrong sort of emerging sexuality. This last one is particularly nasty because it is so indefinite, especially in the years immediately following puberty. You can pretty easily tell when a kid is unusually tall, or clumsy, or of conspicuously different ancestry from the rest of the group; you really can’t tell when a kid will turn out to be more sexually attracted to his or her own gender than to those using the bathroom on the other end of the hall. If suspicion of this is grounds for social rejection, isolation, public humiliation and physical abuse –– if neither the tormentors nor the tormented can be entirely sure about whether the assumed grounds for this nastiness is real or not –– that makes the seditious evil of the bullying all the more destructive.

If a kid is bullied for being of the wrong “race” he can usually figure out what it is about him that the idiots tormenting him have used as a basis for singling him out for torture, that it’s not something he can change, that it’s not something he did anything to deserve and that it’s actually a not a flaw. From there the emotional adjustment process is a lot easier. Such kids still have to deal with the brutality of the attacks they are subjected to but they know they are on higher moral ground than their attackers, and with the sense of confidence this gives them they can fight back or ignore the abuse far more effectively. But when a kid is bullied for “acting gay”, it’s actually not always clear where such an idea comes from, whether or not he’s voluntarily doing anything socially unacceptable, whether it’s a matter of simply learning to act more “normal”, whether he actually is more sexually attracted to members of his own sex and whether that would be something horrible if he is. A young victim of homophobic bullying cannot be sure whether he should lash out against his tormentors or against himself, or against someone else entirely.

Other grounds for teasing are things kids outgrow in one way or another. Size differences even out considerably when young people are finally full grown. Those who are less coordinated either develop the necessary coordination as they get older or they learn to compensate for it in other ways. Those who are too bright for their peer group either dumb themselves down or find new circles of friends that can relate to them better. Immigrant kids learn the new language and culture and find ways to fit in, and others come to see the variety that outsiders bring as a cool thing. Kids with who have been marginalized because of doubts about their sexuality have it much worse. If they are in fact homosexual by inclination in most parts of the world they will suffer lasting social stigma and moral condemnation for who they are. If they are in fact heterosexual by inclination, having suffered such abuse can seriously damage their chances of finding a desirable partner, and of building a stable relationship –– sexuality is always a matter of proving something, not of enjoying the depth of personal inter-connection it can bring.

If I relate this all to my own personal experience, I was teased in school for being different, but not for any serious suspicion that I was gay. I’ve had friends among fellow bullying victims who were gay, some of whom may have had a crush on me even, but it never occurred to me to have any sort of romantic interest in another guy. In retrospect I wish I could have been a better and more supportive friend to some of them, but of course there were things I just didn’t understand back then. At first I saw gay men as just clowns, in a tradition running from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Gomer Pyle. They were nothing more to me than a silly joke. When I came to know a few gay fellows of my own age at first I was almost always the last one to believe that it really was the case; labeling someone as gay was something that left a very bad taste in my mouth. When it became clear that someone really was gay my immediate reaction was a mix of nervousness and pity.

It took quite a while before I could start to relate to openly gay acquaintances as friends without really worrying about their sexuality. For me a lot of it had to do with my time in the restaurant business: in all types of food service establishments I encountered a continuous stream of both fellow workers and customers of that persuasion, and learning to relate to them in a friendly, cooperative and unreserved manner was a functional necessity. Sometimes their ways of expressing their identities still came out as a bad joke but more and more it became clear that they were just people like all others: trying to do good to others in hopes of receiving good in return, defensive regarding things over which they’ve been attacked in the past, looking for acceptance wherever they can find it, hoping to find love of many different sorts as life goes on.

I’ve come to realize quite thoroughly that a fear of homosexuality is a far more dangerous thing than homosexuality itself. Sexuality of any sort has its own beauties and dangers to it, and we all have to find a balance between enjoying our drives and restricting our urges. This applies quite equally to both women and men, both gay and straight. The fact that we tend to more easily accuse those who are different from ourselves does not give any of us the higher moral ground in these matters. Yes, the majority of the human race will continue to be heterosexual and sexuality will continue to be a source of strife within the human race for as long as we succeed in avoiding extinction. That doesn’t mean that any of us are justified in issuing blanket condemnations towards others’ sexuality. The most important thing is to stop kids from bullying each other on such a basis, and to keep them from doing horrible things to themselves and each other to prove something about their sexuality.



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Filed under Education, Ethics, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity