Black Americans and Africa

Disclaimer: this is a bit of a departure from what I normally write, but I wasn’t sure what other platform to use to pose this question, so here you go.

When most Kenyans find out I’m a mzungu, which typically refers to a white person but in my case means an American, a lot of whispering and pointing usually ensues. Why? Because it’s very rare for them to encounter what they call Black Americans. In fact, we’ve been places where people have never personally met a Black American before. I find it funny when I hear missionaries say that they’re going places where the people have never seen a white face before, because it’s actually even more rare that they would see a face like mine, that of a Black American.

I’ve only been in three African countries so far, but in my experience, the African people are exceedingly willing to embrace us. In Kenya, once people get over their amusement at having met a Black person they thought was Kenyan but speaks like a mzungu, they generally welcome me to Kenya, claim it is my new home, invite me into their home, and call me their sister.

Kenyans love Black culture and they know loads more about it than I do. Take any matatu (bus) in Nairobi and the last sound you’ll hear before you go deaf from the loudspeakers will be that of some Black American rap, hip hop, gospel, or R&B artist. Even the decor in the bus, if not football (soccer) themed, will include images of Tupac, Biggie, and Bob Marley (I know he’s Jamaican, but they love them some island folk too). They like to copy the language they hear in our music and movies, and they love playing with my hair (I’m a 4a and that’s not as common here as 4c).

My question is, why as a Black culture don’t we embrace our African counterparts as readily? Why don’t we know very much about their cultures? Why don’t Black people vacation here? I know that as a people we’re not known for traveling overseas with our families for vacation and whatnot, but still, I don’t see traveling to Africa on any Black Americans’ bucket lists.

Why is it when people sign up for mission trips to African countries the majority of the people are any shade of color but brown? I went to South Africa in 2006 with a large team of nearly 50, and there were only about five people of color excluding myself. That’s it. I love being able to partner with all people of every race and serve the Lord, but I’m confounded as to why my people aren’t more involved in missions.

To me, especially when it concerns missions, it would seem like we are an ideal people group to connect with Africans. The simple fact that they generally have a keen interest in our culture, we share a skin color with them and could possibly have common ancestors (a number of people I meet joke that I could possibly be from their tribe, though the consensus is that I’m pretty much a Luhya – that’s Ray’s tribe – because I have the calves and the bone structure of a Luhya 😉 ). I know that part of my family history on my dad’s side goes back to Madagascar, but there could be a number of connections anywhere! That’s incredibly exciting to me.

Now, some Kenyans and even white missionaries who have been here for many years have also asked me “Why don’t more of you guys come over here?” Some have suggested that Black people might be embarrassed to associate with Africans because of the stereotypically well advertised poverty situation that plagues the continent. They feel that Black Americans have established their lives elsewhere, so they don’t want to be reminded of where they come from. Maybe they just want to move on and forget the continent that birthed their ancestors, but they fail to see the beauty the lies in the people, landscape, food, and culture of this place. Africa is so much more than media portrays. So much more.

Personally I believe the socioeconomic status of the Black population in America has a lot to do with it and that, as I mentioned before, we’re not a traveling race because we can’t usually afford to travel. Even so, savings accounts are great when it comes to saving up for vacations and most mission trips involve fund raising opportunities, so the financial burden isn’t as great as it may seem. If you eliminate the financial factor, I believe a great number of Black Americans would be more willing to come, but there is still a large sub-population that could care less. I just want to know why.

Let me just put one more thing out there. Black Americans have a really great advantage when it comes to engaging in cultural activities and the like around here. People don’t know you’re not Kenyan unless you speak. Game reserves, hotels, and most businesses like to charge “special” prices for wazungus (the plural form of mzungu). They see the skin color, and the price can automatically be raised to double or even quadruple the actual cost. Because my husband’s Kenyan, I usually just walk alongside him, speak the little Swahili I know, and people naturally assume I’m Kenyan and charge me the Kenyan price. It’s pretty nice.

I think I could go on and on with reasons why I believe Black people should come to Africa, but maybe you can save me some time and help me out.

What do you think?

Surprise anniversary trip to Mombasa

Last Sunday (October 19th) marked our first full year of marriage, and it was better than I ever could have imagined.

The beauty of simplicity

Before I divulge the details, let me give some quick background info.

Ray and I spent this first year of marriage pursuing a life of simplicity, a lifestyle I tried to pursue in the States but not to this degree. It wasn’t until it came time to move and I had to fit my most prized belongings into a few suitcases and either sell, give away, or trash the rest that I was truly able to let go of possessions I once thought I couldn’t live without.

Starting over in Kenya was the perfect opportunity for Ray and me both to really learn what it’s like to live simply. With only two sufurias (cooking pots) and a skillet, a propane tank for cooking, just enough furniture and dinnerware to host four people, enough clothes to last us two weeks, no television, and no refrigerator, I’d say we’ve got this simplicity thing down fairly well.

It truly has shown me how much I really can do without and has encouraged me to spend less time chasing after possessions, though Lord knows I still have my moments of looking longingly at some of the dresses in the shops around town.

A pleasant, unexpected surprise

Ray and I had agreed that because we were pursuing a life of simplicity, we wouldn’t make holidays a big deal. Of course I secretly wanted him to make a big deal about our anniversary, but quality time is one of my love languages, so I was fine with something small as long as Ray and I were able to do something together. I thought we were just going to go to a fancy restaurant or something. I honestly had no idea what Ray had been saving up for or what he had planned.

A few days before our anniversary he told me that I would need to pack for a four day vacation and that *gasp* I could bring my shorts. If you’ve followed our blog for a while, you know how exhilarating of a statement that was for me.

Then the night that we were to leave he handed me the bus tickets to keep in my purse, and like an idiot I just put them away and went about my business. He had to prod me, “Look at where they say we’re going.” Once I saw Mombasa, I inhaled with elation and exhaled a bit of terror, which continued for the next ten minutes or so.

I had been begging Ray to take me to Mombasa since we arrived in Kenya, so I couldn’t believe he had actually made it happen, but several months ago the embassy placed a ban on the island for Americans because Al Shabbab had been going on killing sprees and Americans are obvious targets. It’s a good thing I’m a Black American though. I blend in. Anyway, it’s been quiet there for quite some time now, we weren’t anywhere near where the other incidents had occurred, and it’s off peak season, so there aren’t many tourists in the area at all. Ray assured me that everything would be all right, and once I calmed my nerves I let the excitement overtake me again.

Okay, so enough talk. Let me just share some highlights from the extended weekend. If you want to check out more, we’ve uploaded an album of photos to our Facebook page, From Kansas to Kenya with Love.

 

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 First, Ray had booked us into the Cowrie Shell Beach Apartments for three nights.

beach view

The beach was right in our backyard.

Our room was pretty cool too.

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I think I contained my excitement pretty well.

growing excitement

Until I realized we had use of a full sized fridge which meant I could actually have cold milk with cereal and hoard a stash of yogurt.

 happy hippo

Even though we had gotten on the bus at 10pm and got off at 9am with the typical quality of sleep one can get on such modes of transportation, we were too excited to sleep, so we went straight out to the beach to play.

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Ray's idea of fun

Ray’s idea of fun

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After a few hours we went to the supermarket, stocked the fridge, and Ray cooked dinner while I napped (he cooked every day we were there, by the way. He wouldn’t let me do anything.)

The next morning, the day of our anniversary, we swam in the ocean and then set out for go kart racing (I lost, badly).

We were forced to wear these shoes, btw.

We were forced to wear these shoes, btw.

 And then he took me to a floating, yeah I said floating, restaurant called The Moorings.

The Moorings restaurant

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Monday, we got to visit with a friend I haven’t seen since 2006. She and I had met on a Teen Mania mission trip to South Africa, and then almost ten years later we discover that we’re both living in Kenya married to African men. We had a great time with Laura and Abdi and we’re looking forward to seeing them again in the near future.

The last morning of our stay we woke up early to catch the sunrise.

sunrise Indian Ocean

This has no filter or editing, btw.

#nofilter

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It was sad to bid Mombasa goodbye, but I am so grateful for the time we were able to spend there. Ray and I never got a real honeymoon, so this surprise was above and beyond anything I could have imagined.

Guess this puts the pressure on since his birthday is in less than two weeks!

14 interesting facts about life in Kenya

Throughout the course of this blog I’ve shared numerous points of interest regarding Kenyan culture, but today I figured I’d focus on some things I’ve discovered that probably wouldn’t make it into a regular blog post. Whether you’re planning on traveling to Kenya, you have a general interest in Kenyan culture, or you’re a Kenyan checking to make sure I’ve got my facts straight, I hope you enjoy this post.

Greetings

Kelly, fellow expat and friend, recently wrote a blog post about her first year in Tanzania. One of the areas she focused on was greetings. Greetings here are similar, with just a few differences:

  • Normally you don’t smile at strangers or passerbys in Nairobi. As a woman, if you smile at a dude on the street, he may very well believe that you’re flirting with him… a little something I discovered during my first trip to Kenya.
  •  When you encounter people you intend to have a conversation with, always shake their hand or hug them first (they do it the British way – clasp hands then hug right and left) and use the following greeting:

                         Old School

                          Question: Habari? (How are you?)

                          Response: Mzuri (good)

                         New School (Sheng)

                          Question: Sasa?

                          Response: Poa

Side note: if you’re traveling to Kenya and you’ve found a book that tells you the proper greeting is “Hujambo”, it’s wrong. If you use that greeting, you’ve just stamped “noob” on your forehead. People in the coastal region use it, but you’ll definitely get some side eye if you use it in the other parts of the country.

  • If the individual you’re speaking to is with friends, you typically shake everyone’s hands or at the very least acknowledge their presence by nodding at them or speaking to them. When you enter a room of people, make your way all the way around the room shaking hands before you’re seated.

Ray had a hard time with this one in the States. It really confused him that after he met someone the first time, he wasn’t obligated to ever shake their hand again. Here you do it every time you see someone.

Petrol Stations

  • Kenyans refer to gas as petrol, so if you use the term gas, they think you’re referring to cooking gas.
  • People are not allowed to pump their own petrol. You are helped by an attendant at all times.

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Total Kenya

When Ray came to the States, I asked him to pump gas in my car, not realizing that he’d never done it before. I had to teach him, multiple times actually, because every time we stopped to get gas there was a different system.

Once he got the hang of it, he loved it.

Once he got the hang of it, he loved it.

  •  Everyone that I’ve ever ridden with only puts enough petrol in their car for what they need that day. They calculate how much they’ll need to get from point A to point B, and that’s all they put in the tank. You never know when you’ll need that money for something else.

Children

  •  Kids gain autonomy very early in life. Around the age of the three, they’re sent to baby class (the equivalent of our pre-school), where they have homework assignments and get a jump start on their education career.
  • By about the age of seven, sometimes before, they’re able to be sent on errands for the parents, even riding on the back of motor bikes by themselves or walking home from school or the bus stop with their younger siblings.

students

girls coming home

  • They can also cook with fire or even help slaughter the chicken for dinner well before they’ve reached adolescence.
  •  Unless I’m with American friends, I rarely see car seats. Kids can sit in the driver’s lap, in the passenger seat, or even crawl back and forth between seats.

kids in front seat

Money Matters

  • When driving through any town in Kenya, you’ll notice that every other shop is painted green with the words Mpesa displayed in bold lettering.

Mpesa

  • Mpesa (mobile money) is a method of transferring money via your phone. You can connect it with bank accounts, use it to buy airtime, send money to other people, and purchase goods and services. It started in Kenya and has spread to other countries, but it’s a very impressive money management system. If Ray’s at work and I tell him I need money for groceries, he just sends it to me via Mpesa, I go to the nearest station and withdraw, and it’s a done deal.
  • I’ve previously shared that there are small makeshift dukas (shops) where you can buy veggies or staple items right outside your home (the picture below is the duka directly in front of our gate)

duka

  • But I neglected to mention that they tend to operate on an honor system. Often times if we don’t have the money at the moment or can’t break a big note, we can still go down and ask for bread, eggs, milk, or whatever we need and not pay until we have the money. It’s astonishing to me that people who may need the money would allow you to get what you need at their expense until you’re able to pay. Just another great example of the importance of relationship in this culture.
  •  Secondhand clothing from the UK, US, and China come through the Mombasa port in droves. Thousands of people make a living in the secondhand clothing trade (mitumba). There’s a great post about it here.
come rain or shine

I took this photo the first time I came to Kenya while we were driving from Nairobi to Bungoma. Markets like this can be found almost everywhere.

  •  One major item Americans seem to think they should send overseas is clothing, but you’d be surprised to discover you probably already have clothes here if you’ve ever donated them to a charity (check out the article). My two cents on the matter is that there’s enough secondhand clothing here. It seems more beneficial to send money for people to buy clothes here so that you’re not only helping the beneficiary of the clothes, but you’re also helping others here who are trying to make money by selling the surplus stock of clothes they already have.
  •  Hair is a bigger market here than it is for African-American women in the States. No matter what your socioeconomic status is, if you have some money, getting braids or weave is a priority after getting food. I’m not joking either. That’s why aside from Mpesas and dukas, kinyozis (barber shops or hair salons) are probably the next most frequent shop you’ll see in any town or on any side road.

kinyozi

  • Some of you know that I’m a natural hair advocate, but I was surprised to see that the natural hair movement is still fairly new here, and it’s mainly based in the upper class. If people in the lower class are natural, it’s usually for practicality, not style, and their hair is usually shaved very short. It’s not practical or as enjoyable to do your own hair, so most women opt to visit the salon multiple times a month. I still get blank stares when people find out that I do my own hair. My sister-in-law told me that women will pay 2,500ksh ($32 dollars, which by Kenyan standards is pretty high) to have someone do to the same thing to their hair that has become a nightly routine for me. The hair culture is very different here.

I’ve got so many more notes to share, but to keep this post from getting too long, I think I’ll just break it up into a series. Feel free to shoot me questions if you want to know anything in particular. I’ll do my best to answer your question!

Photo creds: Ray Wasike

When He’s Gone

raybay

I used to love sitting alone in my bedroom for hours.

Staring at the wall, staring at the TV, staring at the laptop, or even staring at my reflection as I divulged my deepest thoughts about life to myself… if it involved staring, I was doing it. And loving it.

For some reason I was convinced that when I got married I would miss that, and at the beginning I did.

But now that Ray has been in Tanzania since Monday and won’t be back until Sunday, I’ve gone back into staring mode.

And I hate it.

Life is so boring without Ray.

The reality of how lame my social life was before he came along also sucks.

Counting down the days until he returns and I can look at his face instead of my belly button.