Intercultural Pregnancy: The First Trimester

This blog post has been a long time coming, especially considering the fact that I’m working towards my sixth month of pregnancy, but after months of writing bits and pieces here and there, I’ve finally found the time to get it done. As it turns out, taking my time with this blog post was actually necessary. When I first started writing, it was just a three-page long rant. Now that my hormones have chilled a bit and Ray and I have had many discussions about intercultural pregnancy and I’ve allowed the conviction of the Holy Spirit to do its proper work in my heart, I’m approaching this blog differently. Trust me. You’ll be happy that I did.

Relationship vs. Research

One thing I have learned about Kenyan culture, my husband’s culture, is that it is very relationship oriented. Generally speaking, young people learn by sitting under the guidance and wisdom of older family members. The older women take the younger women under their wings and show them the ropes. In fact, according to tradition, an older woman (grandmother, mother, or aunt) will typically move into the home with new parents for a few weeks to help with the household chores and to teach the woman about how to take care of the baby. I’ve been told that this process can start even a month before the baby is born.

The way of my culture is mostly to Google everything. If you want to know anything, get a book, scour YouTube, or find an article or forum. We also have pregnancy classes you can attend on a weekly basis. (What I wouldn’t give for a pregnancy class right now.) Yes, some mothers stay with their daughters after the baby is born, but it’s not a tradition per se, and most women I know end up frustrated with their mothers in the end. I think American women going through their first pregnancy prefer a more do-it-yourself attitude, though they are grateful for the help and support of friends and family. Just as long as people know when to give the couple space.

This difference between our cultures has made accepting help with this pregnancy difficult for me in some respects. I don’t like being told what to do, and because I have been raised in a culture that encourages research, I feel like most of what I read contradicts some of the things certain Kenyans tell me about pregnancy or baby rearing. If I had more humility, I would just listen to what people have to suggest and move on. Sometimes I am capable of that, and then sometimes I find myself arguing with people.

And it’s not just me. Expats from first-world countries that live in third-world countries typically struggle with valuing the input of locals on many fronts. We have a friend from the UK who broke his arm here. He went to see a Kenyan doctor and the doctor set his arm in a cast. Our friend felt like the cast had been completely set wrong, so after two days he removed it and set his arm himself. That’s typical of expats. I’ve done the same thing many times with medicines doctors have prescribed for me or advice they’ve given me.

Ray actually gets annoyed with me when we go see doctors here, because he says I try to tell them how to do their job. I don’t. I just suggest alternative options… I know that sounds terrible, but when I had health problems two years ago, I had three very wrong diagnoses that required me to be put on antibiotics for two months. I ended up much sicker than when I first started seeking help! That has happened to many expats here, so I believe such instances make us very skeptical of believing what we’re told.

Kenyan Healthcare

I don’t mean to paint a bad picture of Kenyan healthcare, but the public healthcare system is terrible. I’m talking two to three pregnant women to one bed. Not one room, one bed. All three women in various stages of labor. But private healthcare here is pretty good. There aren’t any good options here in Kitale where we live, so Ray and I rent a car once a month and travel an hour and a half to a bigger town called Eldoret to see my OB/GYN. She’s delivered babies for some of our Kenyan and American friends, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about her, so I’m thinking she’s the best choice.

One thing I did have to get used to though is the fact that because my doctor is in high demand in this area, she doesn’t have a lot of time. Her office hours start around noon, but she usually shows up an hour or two later (she’s always busy with surgeries and deliveries), and then you have to wait in a room with about 30 other women. Once you finally get in to see her, she quickly goes through what needs to be covered, sends you to do lab work and whatnot, and then you have to come back to the waiting room and wait all over again to get back in to go over the results for her. You have to block out an entire day for about 15 minutes with the doctor. I’ve definitely learned a lot of patience in that regard. And by patience, I mean I usually sleep in the waiting room until I’m called.

On the plus side, healthcare is much cheaper here. A lot of people ask us if we’re going to come back to the States to have the baby. As ideal as that may seem, when you go through the logistics of what that entails, the idea quickly loses its appeal. We’d have to spend $3,000 just to fly to the States, and because I wouldn’t be allowed to fly overseas after I reach 7 months, we would need to find a place to stay stateside for at least five months, not to mention the hospital expenses. To have the baby via natural delivery in the hospital here is just $350. If we require a C-section, it jumps to $1,400, but that’s still a lot less than anything we would pay if we were to travel to the States. So, yeah. The decision was pretty easy for us from that standpoint. I’m just having to adjust to not getting an hour to talk to my doctor about every little question I have, and I’m learning how to make the most of the little time I have with her.

Making More Adjustments

Another area where Ray and I had to change during the first trimester was in regards to sharing responsibilities. When I say “sharing”, I mean Ray did everything. My morning sickness would last all day, confining me mostly to the bed, so Ray had to take care of everything. He cooked, cleaned, and watched me vomit from a distance but with just enough sympathy in the worry lines of his face to make me feel nice.

Culturally, it’s not common for Kenyan men to take on household duties (especially not for three months), but that’s the culture we’ve established in our home. We don’t currently use a house help, though we’re considering employing one after the baby arrives, so we do everything ourselves. Everything but the laundry. I thought I could be Super Wife when I first moved here, and I used to hand wash all of our laundry, then I got overwhelmed. So now we have someone do our laundry every other week. That will be increased to 2-3 times per week once the baby arrives, and we’ll probably have her help clean the house sometimes too, but it just depends on my energy level.

Dealing with Cravings

One of the hardest things about the first trimester for me was cravings. My biggest craving was meat. If I had been in the States, I’m sure I would have visited numerous drive-throughs on a daily basis. That was my point of reference, after all, for all the meaty dishes I craved. There is no fast food here, at least not like what we have in the States. In Nairobi (the capital city) you can find maybe 5 American fast food restaurants, but only one (KFC) has a drive-through. What I know as fast food back home typically operates more like a fancy restaurant here. But that’s 8 hours away from here.

In Kitale my options are limited, so we bought a lot of bacon, sausage, roasted goat, and beef-filled samosas. Here’s what fast food looks like for us. Because we don’t have a car, we rely on guys that drive motorcycles (pikis) to run small errands for us. Ray will call them whenever we need to order something, they use their own money to buy whatever we asked for, and then they bring it to our apartment so we can reimburse them and pay them for their service. It usually takes about 30-45 minutes to get whatever we ordered. When Ray was in Pokot (about 8 hours away) on a video shoot, I called him and whined about my insatiable desire for a bacon cheeseburger. The next morning I woke up to our piki guy knocking on our door. Ray had ordered me a bacon cheeseburger from a restaurant in town and had the guy drop it off. I’ve never had a cheeseburger here that compares even slightly to the ones back in the States, but that was literally the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten in my life. He done good that day.

Getting Around

Because I was still small back then, Ray and I mostly got around by piki the first trimester; three to a piki. It’s the cheapest way to get around and there are literally hundreds of pikis around town. All you have to do is go to the main road, and they will pick you up and take you to where you need to go for less than a dollar. We have a couple of piki guys that we primarily take that we know to be safe drivers, but when they’re not available we just take tuk tuks or taxis. They’re more expensive, but they’re safer.

Now that I’m in my second trimester, Ray doesn’t let me ride pikis anymore. Sometimes if I’m late for a meeting or if I need to rush to town, I hop on a piki, but only if I don’t mind having “the talk” with the hubsters about my safety when I get home. Kenyan pregnant women ride pikis all the time and even carry their babies on them. I don’t think I could go that far, but maybe that’s an adjustment we’ll have to make in the future.

Baby Gear

When we announced our pregnancy, some friends of mine announced their pregnancies in the States at the same time. Within weeks, my friends were sharing some of the items they had already purchased for their baby or things they had made for the baby room. I, on the other hand, had not even thought about that stuff yet. I actually had no desire to get anything for the baby. It wasn’t until recently, when someone offered to bring things over from the States for us that I started thinking about what kind of things we might need.

I didn’t need to get a car seat because we don’t have a car (even if people have cars, most of them don’t use car seats anyway). I didn’t need to get a stroller because everyone carries their babies on their backs, and where we live the roads are not nice enough for a stroller to pass. I didn’t need to prepare a special room for the baby, because the baby will be sleeping in the room with us. It’s uncommon for babies to get a whole room to themselves in most Kenyan households. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that all the baby really needs are clothes and hygiene items. This is one aspect of raising a child in a third-world country that I’m excited about. It’s going to force me as a mother to learn how to raise this child with minimal product support.

And this brings me back to why even though I’m going to continue to Google, YouTube, and get advice from friends back home, I need to learn to accept the advice of Kenyans around me. They are the only people who can truly advise me on issues like dealing with hygiene properly for babies when there’s no washing machine, or how to protect the baby from Typhoid and malaria, or how to get along without electricity and so on. They’ve been doing it for years and raising healthy children, and though their methods are very different than my own, I know that I still have much to learn.

If you guys have any specific questions you’d like to ask about how this pregnancy has been going, feel free to leave a comment. I tried to be as thorough as possible with this post (sorry it’s so long), and I’ll do another post for each trimester here on.

Much love!

Reverse culture shock: identifying home

Back when I used to blog more regularly, I would write a lot about identity. Although I haven’t written about it much lately, the inner conflict is still there. Being in the States these past two months have served to remind me that I’ve still got a long way to go to figure out this whole AmeriKenyan, wife, Christian thing.

There’s no place like home

One of the most repeated comments I heard from friends and family was, “I bet being back here is a real culture shock for you.”

My response was generally, “Yeah, after nearly two years in Kenya, I’ve found a new normal. Life in the States no longer feels normal to me.”

Which country to call home was the first of my conundrums. I wanted to call Salina home because it’s my hometown. It’s where I’ve lived the majority of my life, yet my current home is in Kitale with my husband. A friend of mine called some friends over for a small gathering while I was in town, and I even caught myself saying, “We say it like this, but you guys say it like that.”

My friend was like, “Oh, so now we’re you guys?”

I didn’t even realize I had spoken that way until she pointed it out. It was so natural for me to speak as though my identity were more Kenyan than American. When did that happen?

No matter how proud I am of my American identity, life in the States has become quite foreign to me, and I really surprised myself with the number of times I experienced culture shock throughout the past few months. I know some of you have been interested in hearing this list, so here goes.

Disclaimer: Please note that my culture shock is mostly in relation to where I currently live in Western Kenya. Life in Nairobi offers a lot more amenities than where we stay, so not all of my observations apply to the whole of Kenya.

Strange things are happening to me…

Water

  • We normally drink beverages without ice here. The first time I drank a cold glass of soda in the States, my teeth hurt so bad! I don’t know how I used to manage that before.
  • We use bottled or boiled water for everything in our home, so it was odd to brush my teeth in the sink without having to get water from a jug first.
  • The first time I cooked chapati for my brother’s family, I put the water for the dough in the microwave to get it warm. Totally standard routine, except I totally forgot that in America sinks spit out cold and hot water so you can adjust it to whatever temperature you need. Most sinks around here only issue cold water, so we’re forced to either boil water and let it cool or nuke it if we want it warm.

Food

  • I was blessed to be able to attend two weddings and a birthday party while I was in the States, so I ate my fair share of cake. In America you get whole slices of cake. I’ve been to a large number of weddings, birthdays, and various events here in Kenya, and they always chop the cake up into bite size pieces for someone to bring around on a tray. I’ve seen some people scoop a handful off the tray, but you typically get one mouthful and call it good.
  • Now Kenyans generally speaking aren’t fans of sweets. They use a ton of sugar in their tea, but in their pastries and baked goods, not so much. When I first arrived in the States, I really didn’t have cravings for sweets or fatty, greasy foods like I thought I would. In fact, I was very turned off by them. But the good old advertisements on TV did their job and enticed me to try a little bit of this and that (my sister-in-law was no help either), and it didn’t take long before I was back into eating junk food. Even so, Ray was surprised to see that I came back with only one small bag of candy. He expected me to have a suitcase designated just for sweets. When I first moved here, that probably would have been the case, but not so much anymore.
  • One thing I really did miss was the fact that in America you eat yogurt with a spoon because it’s oh so thick. You drink yogurt here. I still take it all the same, but I had missed using a spoon.

Transportation

  • A friend of mine lent me her car the entire two months I was in town, and it was so nice to drive again. We don’t have a vehicle here so we ride on the back of motorbikes and in matatus, which I don’t mind at all, but it really limits what you can do and where you can go. Having a car gave me the opportunity to go where I pleased, when I pleased, and I had really missed that.
  • Some of you already saw my Facebook post from day one about my confusion on which side was the right side of the road for my brother to be driving on. Thankfully there were only two or three other moments while I was driving that I found myself confused about how and where to turn, but no one was endangered or injured by my confusion, so we’ll just leave it at that.
  • In Kitale everything is pretty much closed up by 10pm. Everything. It’s also not really safe to go out after dark (Ray literally walked out of a duka one night as some thugs walked in and killed a security guard). It was so nice to just decide with my sister-in-law to go for a walk at night or to go to Walmart at 1am just because we could.

Technology

  • The first week I really had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t need to worry about the electricity going off unexpectedly. I kept telling myself, “Oh, you better plug in your phone in case the electricity goes off.” Nope. It never did. Even one night when there was a thunderstorm, I rushed to plug in my laptop because I just knew that rain means hakuna stima (no electricity). Didn’t happen then either.
  • WiFi is everywhere. It’s very difficult for us to get WiFi outside of our home here, but whether I went to McDonald’s or a restaurant or even church, there was WiFi.
  • A friend of mine invited my sister-in-law, her daughters, and myself over for a girls night. I asked her for directions and she was like, “I can just send you the address and you can use GPS.” I had totally forgotten about GPS! It doesn’t really work here unless you want to spend an extra couple hours taking the historic route to learn where there used to be roads.

Just for Fun

Okay, this last one isn’t a culture shock as much as it is a point of amusement for me. Coming to America this time, I discovered that there are some trends emerging among women with children that are in reality expensive knock offs of what women in third world countries do.

Baby wearing? Most women here, especially outside of Nairobi, use lessos (large scarves) and tie their babies on their back and go everywhere with them. They even work in their shambas (gardens) with their babies strapped to them.

Cloth diapers? Yep, they do that too. Pampers (the general term for diapers here) are too expensive for most people in villages, so they use napkins (cloth diapers) with plastic cover-ups.

I don’t understand how people can spend hundreds of dollars on a glorified lesso or napkin, but I’m going to chalk it up to culture.

Finally, she digresses

Yeah, so now I’m back and trying to relearn normal. I’m really happy to be home again and to continue with life instead of feeling like it’s on pause, it was crazy being without Ray for so long, but I’m still extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time with friends and family and to get the health care that I needed. It’s still a balancing act, trying to juggle life in both places, but I’m getting there, pole pole (slowly by slowly).