Monday, October 26, 2009

In which I attempt to cover a lot of bases and wrap them up into a coherent blog post

My first two weeks back in Nairobi have been much like the rest of my time here - a mess of contradictions, struggles to balance needs versus wants versus the needs and wants of others, and finally the reminder of what a funny role I play here. I feel like I'm repeating myself, but I'm not sure I've ever adequately conveyed how much I struggle not fitting into any of the social boxes that that I think we're all used to in some form or another. They might be slightly different here, but who doesn't (however much they may hate to admit it) appreciate identifying with some sort of group/class/culture etc.? I can't really fit myself into one of those yet - though I am constantly confronted by others who assume I fall into the role that many who look like me or come from where I come from do (like the ex-pat friend who heard I was looking for a car, and sent me a notice for a great toyota at what he must have assumed was the reasonable price of $28,000).*

The thing is, I don't think it's that big of a deal to feel like an outsider to a group you're either used to being in or expected to be a part of, provided you've identified a new group on which to hang your hat. But I'm not even your typical starving student here - I have far "more" resources than many classmates or others on my campus - not to mention some of my young professional friends who can't seem to make the leap to the next salary range - which might be only $500/month (great by Kenyan standards when compared to the masses but a far cry from the earnings of many from the elite, well-educated class). I'm both a have, and to a far lesser extent (but often obvious), a have-not - and I'm living and making life decisions daily in a place where the color of my skin, my background, or my home country will constantly decry this fact. It's a simple reality, but it means I spend far more time than I should explaining why I can't afford a car that is considered a deal even by local standards, or why I want to live in a certain area, or how to balance the poverty that I see daily with planning a fabulous trip for my best friends when they come to visit. I sit and I stew because in the midst of living my life here and figuring all these things out, I can pass a little boy on the street begging, learn his name, see how vastly different our struggles are - watch my internal dialogue come to a screeching halt when I stop to consider what his must be: "There's a rich mzungu. She looks nice, I bet she's got some money to spare, now I just have to figure out what words to say to get her to veer off her path and take me to buy some bread and milk...yep, she's wavering, I can tell I've got her now!" This reality, both of the world around me, and how it perceives me, is never far from my mind - and it creates the craziest duality of resenting the label I'm given, the lack of a clear cut label to apply instead, and the guilt of worrying about such things in the first place, given the more profound reality of a small child in worn out shoes forced to walk from a far-off slum to try and find food for the day.

I guess all this goes to say that I'm learning that much of feeling grounded is being able to identify within some sort of a community (duh, right?) - be it socially, economically or philosophically. Part of being abroad for me this time has been removing myself from pretty much all of the identifying groups I'm used to, and at the same time trying to process the realities of my new home and how I relate to them. I have been introduced to so many fascinating microcosms of these things - pockets of people and groups that I am fortunate to be exposed to, but can never quite fit myself completely into.

I wonder how my perspective on this might change over the course of the next year. In the meantime it's somehow therapeutic to write about it, to at least try and explain why my sensitivity level is so heightened here.

*For many foreigners who work for embassies, the UN or high profiled Development agencies or businesses, that is a steal - they've got most of their basic needs covered through work (housing, moving costs, security etc.) so they just buy the biggest car considered safe and convenient for Nairobi driving.


Shannon said...

Megan,I wasn't quite in your position but during my five months in South Africa and in Angola--struggled with similar feelings. Thanks for sharing all that you do with the pictures, blog, and connections to help.

Megan said...

Shannon - thanks so much for following and all your support. It's great to know that you can recognize a similar experience from your own time abroad! Hope you are well my friend!

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