A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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Cultural observations: hospitality July 3, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 6:54 pm
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Kenyans are famous for their hospitality. It seems Africans are generally considered to be hospitable, but some Africans go above and beyond to smile at strangers and offer assistance when they can.

The Kenya Airways flight attendants were welcoming and one man in particular caught my eye. His head was small and slender. His arms, also slender. His skin shined a bronze hue.  A legion of small red bumps lined his forehead. His movements were delicate. His fingers moved in small, deliberate flutters. When he talked, his lips curved out. Like butterfly wings.

Bright-eyed and soft-spoken, he approached me. “Excuse me, I am serving breakfast now. Would you like fried chicken or eggs?” I chose the eggs, but then changed my mind-hey, “pescatarianism” should be observed in moderation.  “What type of juice would you like? Pineapple? Apple? Fruit juice?” Mmmmmm…..there’s nothing like real fruit juice, from real fruits! No high fructose corn syrups. No artificial sweeteners with names akin to plant parts. No added sugars. No dyes like red 5 and blue 9. “I’ll take pineapple.”

He grinned. “Enjoy.”

I went to a grocery store today. Nakumatt lifestyle.

It’s like Wal-mart, minus the yellow happy face and spy cameras in the store. There I picked up some essentials: antibacterial cleaning spray, paper towels, salt, nuts, juice, water, buckets, dish soap, pasta. Now, I didn’t experience much of this “Kenyan friendliness” while at the store. Here’s my theory: It seems many Africans reserve their cheery charisma to visitors and strangers. Towards their own, they are much more sedated, maybe even rude, and sometimes, suspicious. Well, I can speak for many Nigerians and other west Africans who would agree whole-heartedly.

When I prepared to go to the store, I made sure to dress to blend in. None of my gold-colored (yes, gold-colored), dangling, bejeweled earrings. I covered my locks in a yellow wrap, tied tall, the way I see Jamaican women tie theirs. I covered my hair because locks attracts attention for Africans. Sometimes it’s a curious attention,  and other times it’s disgust and suspicion. Locks are associated with uncleanness, Rastas and spirituality. Many African peoples share tales of evil children or lucky children who were born with locks. Traditions dictate that shrine priests and cultists must lock their hair. So, yeah, I made sure to cover my  interwoven tresses!

                         

Basically, I tried to look African, or at least, not so American. My long paisley-print dress hardly got a glance. In the store, people spoke Swahili to me and when I said I don’t speak Swahili as sweetly as I could, they would look confused and shuffle past me. Several times, I asked for help. Where is the sea salt? Do you have almond milk? Is it only whole milk you have? What about soy?  Where can I buy a land phone? Do you really not have shower caps? Upon hearing my accent, the store associates would strain to listen to me. But what I remember most was the perplexed expression on their faces. It was like: why is this African-looking woman pretending to have a Western accent?

I saw several white Americans ask for help and associates would dash here and there to serve them. At the cashier, a white woman asked if I spoke English. She asked me about a sign near the cashier. We chatted. She’s from Florida and is also a journalist. A freelancer. She said she has loved her Kenya trip and doesn’t even want to go back home, but she has kids. Her 10 day trip was with a church group. She said the best thing was experiencing the “friendliness of the Kenyan people.”

It was nice to meet an American. But, hey, what she said is nothing new. It seems many people, especially Africans, dear God, especially Africans, enjoy meeting white people.  I will never forget how I was bribed at the Nigerian airport. The same airport security person who had relentlessly bribed me, my mom and my sister, had nearly bowed to the white man behind me. “Hello, sah! Welcome sah!” I see this all the time. Is the same happening in Kenya? I can’t answer that just yet.

Because the answer is not a simple yes or no.  I found a taxi driver to take me back to my apartment at the YWCA. Actually, I didn’t find the driver, but Pastor Frida did. She was able to take me to the store, but wasn’t able to stay.  I was so glad when she got out the car to help me find a taxi. I told her I prefer older drivers. I’m being judgmental, but they seem less harmless. I know I’m silly to think this way. But I do. So Pastor Frida looked for an older driver for me. Yes, Godfrey should be in his late 50’s or early 60’s. Frida did the introductions in Kiswahili. He agreed to take me. His was the broadest, most genuine smile I’d seen so far in Kenya. 300 shillings.  I asked if he spoke English. (Most Kenyans speak English, but sometimes older Africans don’t. I thought it may be the same with him.)

“Yes, very well.” And he did speak it well. He waited while I shopped. We chatted along the ride. I gave him 400 shillings and asked if I can give him a call when I need a ride. He was so pleased. Next time I’ll take his picture.

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