This is not culture shock.
I could have sworn that I flew into Nairobi. I did have a plane ticket to Kenya—didn’t I? At first, I wasn’t too sure. The city in which I arrived looked like no city I had ever visited before; the people acted and spoke like no one I had ever encountered.
I expected Nairobi, Kenya, to be drastically different from any place that I had ever visited. I expected the filth. The poverty. The run-down buildings. The trash covering the streets, bushes, and trees. I knew that I would meet people who spoke different languages, and I knew that I would eat new foods and drive on the left side of the road. What I didn’t expect, I guess, or perhaps what I never realized, was that I would be living in filth and poverty. That I would be walking through trash and dust. That I would, essentially, be living my life in a world that I have heretofore only read about. What I am experiencing is not culture shock. This something entirely different, indescribable to all but those who have experienced it first-hand.
But I’ll try to explain it.
Instead of simply reading through this article, try to imagine seeing these things with your own eyes. Don’t just glance over what I have to say; imagine experiencing these things in the United States (or wherever you happen to be). Imagine, really try to imagine, that the way that people in Kenya live and the things that they experience were your own. What if these things were to happen right in front of you, or to you? Hopefully you’ll feel that daily life here is not meant to understood in terms of a comparison to your own life, that daily life here is not just the reflection of a different culture.
Trash does not simply line the streets here. It covers it. Discarded plastic bags, food containers, rusted pocket knives, SIM cards, and pieces of paper cover the surface of the dirt roads. In your mind, replace each crack in the sidewalk with a small mound of trash. Kick the piles around a little bit, and you have an idea of what the streets looks like. And the garbage doesn’t just stay in the roads—it blows into food stands in the markets, into bushes and trees, into homes, into open sewage pits.
Sometimes the slums here don’t smell at all, but sometimes the smell is overwhelming. Very few homes, schools, and businesses here have running water, so holes dug into the ground pass as toilets. The nauseating stench of everyone’s everything leftover from that day and probably months before radiates from these holes and fills the narrow, dusty lanes of the neighborhoods. Shallow ditches run the lengths of the streets, filled with still, green sewage, human waste, flies, and garbage. The children living in the slums play near these ditches, and even push one another in as a joke. They play around in everyone’s waste, and because they’re kids, everything ends up in their mouths. And as for cleaning up after their play? Not likely. Water is too scarce here; people do not get to bathe every day.
This is not culture shock.
The clinic where I work is tragically understaffed, ill-supplied, and run-down. The toilets in the hospital don’t flush, and there is no toilet paper. Small trash cans overflow with hazardous waste because biohazard bins are too expensive. Nurses and clinical officers do not have enough gloves, stethoscopes, flashlights, paper towels, face masks, or hand soap, and often times go without these seemingly staple hospital items. Imagine walking into a doctor’s office and being examined by a doctor who has not washed his or her hands after giving an injection—without gloves—to another patient.
Ultrasound technology and ultrasound exams are too expensive here, so nurses palpate expectant mothers to determine how far along the mother is, the probable due date, and whether the baby is a healthy weight. It is especially difficult to detect multiple births using this method, which was the case with a young mother who unexpectedly delivered triplets on Thursday.
The babies were dangerously small and needed immediate care that the clinic could not provide. They sent the mother and her babies to a hospital in Nairobi, but not by air lift or ambulance. The babies were each wrapped in blankets, and the mother and a nurse took the babies to Kenyatta Hospital in a filthy 14-passenger taxi.
This is not culture shock.
Can you imagine giving birth to, or witnessing someone give birth to, triplets that were not only unexpected but dangerously small and sick? In the States, these premature babies would have been immediately whisked away to an ICU and treated around the clock by doctors utilizing the very best technology available. If the hospital in which the babies were born did not have the ability to care for the triplets, they and their parent(s) would be airlifted or driven to another facility. You think incubators. You think tubes and monitors and thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
You don’t for a second imagine being handed your premature triplets, who are incredibly susceptible to all kinds of germs and diseases, and being told by the nurses, “we’re going to call a cab for you. Just hold these babies on your lap while the cab takes you to another hospital that may be able to care for them.” Can you really even imagine how you would feel if you experienced that?
This is not culture shock. This is life lived on the rawest terms of existence. People here don’t live in luxury or excess, and some people are barely able to do what is necessary to make it to tomorrow.
Joining health clubs, buying organic food, opting for a DVD player in your SUV, getting coffee with a friend, traveling, going to college—these are all impossibilities here that are so common place in the wealthier countries of this world. We have the pleasure of choosing not only when we eat, but making sure that what we eat is healthy. Going to college is either affordable for families, or possible for others by securing loans. Families are able to take regular vacations together.
I was telling a nurse about my volunteer trip, and explaining to her that I would be traveling for the next year.
“You are so incredibly blessed!” she said. “I long to travel. But here, you can work and work, and save and save, and you still wouldn’t have enough for a plane ticket.”
This is not culture shock.
Imagine living in poverty, and knowing that you can never leave. Actually, just imagine your life as it is now. But imagine not being able to travel to a different country. A different state. The next town. You’re stuck. For good.
Despite the head-in-a-bucket-of-ice-water feeling that I’ve experienced since I got here, I am happy. Strange, right? Not really. I am taking time for people now. There’s no TV to watch, and internet is not very accessible. I actually have to sit and talk to my friends! I actually have to share meals with the other volunteers and with my house mom!
I help clean, I help prepare meals, and I do my best to help out at the clinic. I have to admit, life in Kenya works for me. It’s basic and humble, and even though I was originally frightened, I’m slowly relaxing into the pace of life here. Kenyans take time for the people in their lives; they are never rushing on to what is next, what is better.
I enjoy waking up to the sound of my house mom, Lucy, cooking and singing in Kikuyu. I love walking through the lanes of the slum where I live and saying hi to the kids who run out to greet me. I love the food. I love the bucket showers (even though I may feel differently after my 300th bucket shower…).
Sometimes, however, I struggle with the notion that I may be so happy here because I know that I’m leaving. Even in the juiciest throes of my do-gooder mentality, I have, at best, one foot in the door and one foot out. Whether this realization makes my time here less significant still stands to be determined. For now, I plan on enjoying my remaining time here, and not just observing, but really soaking up, everything this country and its people have to teach me.
That’s a tall order for my short two months here. Two years, maybe even two lifetimes, would not be enough time. But when in Nairobi, I’ll just do as the Kenyans do: if you feel alright, just let life continue.