A gorgeous view of green rolling hills, a tree swing within a perfectly manicured garden, tea and horseback rides… sounds more like we are in the English countryside than in Kenya, doesn’t it? This past weekend we joined 15 other expats, mostly IPA employees, for a stay at a beautiful colonial home situated just next to a farm owned by British settlers. We ate some delicious meals, lounged on the porch looking out over the spectacular view, and enjoyed the company and familiarity of other Americans.
While it would be silly to limit your experience of a new country to people who are from the same place as you, I will be the first to admit that it can be really wonderful to relax with people who know where you come from. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to be different. In Kenya, that circle of “people who are like me and relate to my background and new experiences here” extends beyond Americans to any English speaking person from a developed country. We have British and French and Australian friends who all understand the experience of just how different Kenya can be from home. You are not, however, going to become instant friends with any American – and although I am always curious about the story behind any mzungu I see in town, I think it’s wise not to fall into the “you’re white, and I’m white, so we’re destined to be friends!” trap. I suppose it’s really about finding the shared experience of being an “outsider” since it’s certainly possible to pick out black Americans in a crowd, but would you approach a stranger on the street to talk about how you are the same race at home? We’re lucky we’ve been able to make connections through IPA to find people to share this experience with, instead of resorting to racial profiling on passerby.
In addition to all of our relaxation, we were able to head over to the main farm and spend some time with the animals. We went horseback riding, which was a really ideal way to see the countryside. Unfortunately my horse was a little crazy – I could tell it was emotionally unstable from the moment I saw it – and refused to listen to my commands the whole time. That in addition to the bizarre (to me) English style of riding saw me falling off of the horse towards the end of the ride when the horse refused to slow from a canter. Fortunately I was able to get right back on, and after begging a little we had the opportunity to play with adorable little lambs and milk a cow!
The weekend was absolutely idyllic, but it left me with a lot of unsettled thoughts. Disparities are thrown into sharp contrast here, and it is confusing to see black Kenyans living in deep poverty just outside the perfectly kept gardens of a British estate. Even within myself I see a struggle – sometimes I miss everything we left back home and I just want to fly to Nairobi to see a movie and eat twizzlers, while other times I feel incredibly guilty about buying a bottle of (cheap, not very good) wine at the grocery store because everyone around me is buying only flour and cooking oil. Being part of “the 1%” is a new experience for me, especially since we’re also part of “the 47%” that don’t make enough to pay US income taxes. Many people would even criticize the fun and frivolous weekend we had away from our weekday work with the poor on the basis that international aid workers are supposed to be more altruistic and indulge in their privilege less than those back home. But what about the wealthy (or even middle class) Americans who pass the homeless on their street every day without a second glance and spend their career in pursuit of money? Ultimately I am hoping that all of us can find a way to recognize and appreciate our privilege and live generously – and as we return to the grind at work, I am very thankful for our opportunity to have a fun and relaxing weekend in beautiful Kenya.