28 July 2009


Sr. Phyllis was kind enough to stop by at the SJC this morning.  She was on her way back from visiting the orphanage in Kakamega where Katie works and one of the postulants volunteers.  What was intended as a drive-by visit turned into a day long discussion.  Sue and I chatted about nearly everything with Sr. Phyllis as we all shared our thoughts concerning what it is like to live in Malava.  The majority of the time was focused on ways that we have worked to become a part of the greater-Malava community.  By the end, I was left thinking of the things that I have found to be successful in incorporating myself into Malava.

I have said before that my ability to assimilate will always be impossible to achieve in a full sense, but I can do many things to get as close as I can.  So, I will let a list do the work, with explanations and evaluations.  This reflects the efforts I have made thus far and I hope to act as a tool for future volunteers.

Before I begin, I have to do a bit of explaining.  The most important thing I have learned when it comes to this is that an outsider must work relentlessly to gain acceptance.  It comes easier for men than it does for women, but people are not going to go out of their way to accommodate anyone.  To make friends, you have to seek them out.  For people to recognize you and know your name, you have to make sure that they know who you are.  Because there is so much involved, it is hard to ever entirely explain.  I will do my best with the list that follows:

  1. Learn Swahili – Michael and I have been taking lessons since February.  It makes a huge difference when you simply greet adults in Swahili.  Children love hearing English, but adults are happy when Swahili is used.  This is the case because it shows that an effort is put forth to learn about the people and the town within.  This has included learning some of the Kabras slang and greetings.  Greetings are fine, but starting to know sentences and say them in Swahili has been transformative.  I still have a long way to go with my understanding, but it has made my life easier.  My name is less Mzungu in town and more known to be Tom ever since I began my lessons.  A good example would be that the other day a man was pushing his bike with canisters up a hill.  He asked a person passing for help to push it up and she ignored his request.  Understanding what he was saying, I helped push the bike up the hill.  He was thankful, but more importantly, the next day he saw me and knew that he could approach me having some knowledge of his language.  Using a language that is not your own can be intimidating.  To force people to use English can make them uncomfortable, using Swahili has acted as a way to relax such tension.
  2. Attend Soccer Matches – There are a good number of men who know me as the Chelsea fan.  Before, they never said a word to me.  Now, they ask me about my team, my thoughts on a match, and why I do not support their beloved Man U.  When I watch the matches, they give me a hard time for being a fan of the opposition.  The first time, I was just stared at.  Now, I am a part of the many soccer conversations that take place during the match.
  3. Take the time to talk to someone who stops you – often we will be stopped as we walk by anyone from a beggar to a drunk.  Some want something from us and others will want to talk about America.  We are sometimes thanked for being here.  The point is, that it is hard to tell what conversation will take place.  Like anyone, it is appreciated when someone takes the time to speak with you.  By taking the time to listen to a drunk ramble about Kibaki, you display the truest form of compassion.  It is easy to blow someone off and sometimes it has to be done.  However, since I have taken the time to listen, more people have approached me and have wanted nothing outside of a chance to talk.  It becomes easy to slip into a mentality that everyone wants money or food, but that is the minority.  The majority, by a large share, are just interested in learning from us.  It has been such occasions where I have learned the most in return.
  4. Frequent the same shops – I now have a set of places where I know I can get whatever I want.  There are other places in town that sell soda, but I go to the Baraka Store.  Because of that, I have begun to know the store owner, Moses, and his wife Elizabeth.  We chat about various things whenever I go.  Doing this has not only helped us save money, but it has given us resources within town that can help us when we are in need.  Most of all, it is another chance to have time to speak with another person and learn about him or her.
  5. Greet the Children – Most of all, they love it.  They light up when we say hello and shake their hands.  It also, gives us a way to build relationships with their parents.  I have run into numerous parents who have stopped to talk with me because his or her son or daughter was over the weekend before to watch a movie.  As we have made friends with kids, we have learned about the places where their parents work.  We learned of where to get good mandazi through the children of the owner.  The added benefit is that because we are nice to their children, they are far more welcoming to us.
  6. Buddy up with the Matatu Men – There are men, mostly drunks, who help people onto matatus.  They are important when you want to get onto a matatu and get a fair fare and good seat.  Also, they are the ones who are able to answer any question.  They have strange wisdom and also can just be plain fun to be around.  Most of all, they can act in your behalf when being harassed by matatu conductors or anyone else.  In fact, Michael and I are all set to go to eat dinner with one of them on Saturday.
  7. Take Chai – It is a national obsession.  There is tea time every day before lunch.  For me, it is my lunch.  However, it is vital to take tea.  As a guest, be prepared to eat and drink something.  Kenyans love their tea and the sweeter the better.  It is also the time when you can have an opportunity to talk with whomever you are sitting with.  When it is tea time, work stops.  There is not a better time to converse than tea time.
  8. Eat with your Hands – It is how most do it and what, as Joy says, “makes the food taste better.”  There can be a disconnect when bucking such practices.  It does not mean that people will stare if you eat with a fork, but it is better to leave it on the table.  It is a minor thing to worry about, but one part that can help.

That’s all I have for now.  Maybe I will add some later as they make their way into my head.  Goodnight.