Vivid memories

My days in Kenya are over. But I’m not over Kenya.

And while I’m not ready to say good-bye just yet, while the memories from my 6m experience are still colorful and bright, I’d like to share what I’ll miss most about it, what I’ll remember most vividly…

The children of Africa

Very few people in my life have been so excited to see me. Let alone if they had no clue who I was. Abraham, my comms counterpart in Save the Children in Bungoma, once commented during a field trip: ‘As we are driving, everyone is watching us, people are waving. I’m waving back. Children are getting excited. I feel important. But I get the feeling, they are not really looking at me… Vani, do you have in Europe, in the villages, such a view – kids running and shouting with excitement at the view of a passing car, when they see a person of different color, like they shout now, when they see you, ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’?

50% of Kenyan population are children and this defines a nation.  It is a common view to see large groups of children, as young as 3-5, on their own, older siblings carrying the babies on their backs, just roaming around. They get genuinely excited to see a car passing by the dusty red road. They get hilarious to see a white woman waving at the back of the car. And kids just don’t have barriers, they show their excitement in a genuine, compelling way. They start screaming and running after the car. They gather around me with curiosity, they hang around, leaving behind all tasks and games they played. It’s show time. Mzungu’s in town.

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About African women

How do you wear your hair? Is it long or short? Curly or straight? The choice of hairstyle normally defines your image, how people remember you. Except if you are an African woman. Then hair is an accessory  you change every month. Few times I had the urge to introduce myself to the same person, realizing she simply had a new hair style. And their hairstyle is always, always immaculate!

And it’s not a cheap accessory. It’s amazing how in a society, where money is scarce, women invest fortunes in their hair. Need proof? Just go to the nearest supermarket. The artificial hair section is at least 3x larger than let’s say the coffee or chocolate section.

And it’s not an accessory easy to wear. In fact it can be very painful, especially during the first days of a new ‘haircut’. I tried it, and only 3 days later I was un-plaiting my hair hurriedly, almost in panick, as I could not stand the feeling of stretch and tightness on my head.

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A happy nation

I’m leaving a country of contrasts that both scared me and enchanted me. Many times I felt I was living in a magic realism, as if in a book by Isabelle Allende.

A country, where baboons stray and zebras feed on the fields next to the main road, along with cows and donkeys. Where lizards live in your home like pets. Where you can drive 10 minutes out from Nairobi and you already see lions and rhinos in the wild. Where temperatures are just amazingly great to live during any time of the year, and 15 degrees Celsius is considered a really cold weather and motorbike drivers wear winter coats even at 30 degrees. Where people are poor in money and  rich in time (they say in Europe you have clocks, in Africa you have time). Where everybody talks politics. Where motorbike drivers carry 2-3 passengers more often than not, no helmets, no protection clothing. Where bananas are cooked with a tomato paste and roasted goat meat is prepared in a way that makes it truly a delicacy (just try the smelly goat meat in Europe…).  Where you can see water swirl clockwise and anticlockwise on both sides of a thin equator line. Where inevitably, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, you have exactly 12 hours of daylight, and 7 pm is always deep darkness. Where people walk barefoot on the street, but they have a mobile phone in their hands, and mobile money is a predominant method of payment across the country.

And yet. A country, where female genital mutilation is still practiced  in many local communities. Where you’ll find even young women not knowing their birth date. Where thousands of babies are still born at home, far from any medical help. Where millions live in mud houses with tin or thatched roofs, no running water, no electricity. Where in rural areas there’s only 5% of electricity or paved roads coverage. Where men in many tribes are allowed and aspire to marry several women, because it’s proof of wealth and social status. Where 12 goats can buy you a wife. Where bereaved relatives bury their close family members in their backyards.  Where, looking at the children, you see how childhood can be so wild and free, with hundreds of children just playing on the streets, no phones, no computers, no sitting behind closed doors… and yet so short, when you see kids growing up so fast, probably as young as 5 already  helping their parents with their younger siblings or in the farm…Where ladies in the offices, no matter rich or poor, wear impecable clothes, while on the streets, no matter rural or urban areas, you’ll see more often than not people wearing torn clothes, and it’s ok, nobody pays attention.

And yet. A country, where you can see people expressing true genuine happiness in the smallest things they do… So it made me wonder, what defines happiness? Observing this nation, looking at the difficulties and challenges in daily life, I come to the conclusion that happiness feels like a state of mind, and something that comes from within. Living in the moment. Enjoying the little things in life. I’m by far not an expert on happiness just yet, but in my country we have a saying, a person who sings, does not carry dark thoughts in their mind, i.e. is a happy person. If this is truly the case, then Kenyans must be one of the happiest nations on earth. So many times I’ve been dancing at the chants of women spontaneously starting to sing and dance on meetings, processions, different gatherings. .. And then there’s no poverty, no pain, no difficulty, no past, no future, it’s just the present, and the song in your heart, and your body starts to move…