Sunday, January 16, 2011

Culture Shock

The past week has been a bit less crazy then our first week here; we've basically just been settling in and getting into a bit of a routine. Won't bore you all again with descriptions of USIU : )

Friday we had our last orientation activity, a scavenger hunt throughout the city that involved running all around town (literally) to find different buildings, landmarks, and that sort of thing. It actually worked out well, because it forced us to navigate our way around without anyone who actually knew where they were going. We ended up at the National Museum (actually not that far from the AU Abroad center), which was pretty cool to walk around. They also have a snake park where you can, technically for free (read: for a bribe), hold a non-poisonous snake. That was one activity in which I did not partake.

Today my friend Megan and I trekked to the Giraffe Centre in Karen; it took us about 2 hours, via various buses and matatus, to get there. It was totally worth it, though - we got to KISS giraffes! (You put a piece of food in between your lips, and some of the giraffes will eat it right from your mouth). We got there at a really good time, right before it started to get busy, so we had the giraffes almost entirely to ourselves. The people who worked there really seemed to love them too, which was pretty cool. I had never been that up close to a giraffe before, but they honestly seemed a lot like really tall, spotted horses. Apparently, their tongues have a sunscreen and are about a foot and a half long - crazy! Their saliva also apparently contains an antiseptic ... who knew?

It was interesting to see, though, how people got there. About 95 percent of the visitors to the center were white, and I'd say Megan and I were the only two who actually took matatus to get there; everyone else either had their own private cars or buses from the safari companies they were with. It kind of relates back to the wealth disparity I was talking about with USIU and Kibera; life in Nairobi can be really cheap, or it can be really expensive. It's interesting to see just how different those lifestyles can be.

It was also really nice to get out of Nairobi for the day. Karen was so gorgeous and, though it was pretty wealthy, also had a really great small-town feel, a lot like Naivasha. Nairobi is great, but it was so nice to get away from the bustle and traffic. The dirt roads and mamas selling veggies and crafts were exactly what you probably envision when you think of Africa. All in all, a great day trip!

On a totally different note, culture shock has definitely started to set in. The exhilaration of being in Africa (which, admittedly, was definitely re-kindled today) has faded a bit, and right now I'm just yearning for something familiar. It's really hard, and also sort of mentally exhausting, to be constantly surrounded by things that are all so different. It's also difficult to always be the one who stands out - no matter what we wear or how we act, we'll always be "wazungu" (white people), and people will always stare. It gets a bit tiring, and it really makes you long for something comfortable and familiar. Oh well - just another step along the path!

I've also gotten a few questions about what I'm eating over here, so I thought I'd answer some of them. For the most part, Kenyan food isn't bad. Almost all of the meat is goat, which is ok - sort of gamey like venison, but really fatty. I don't prefer it, but when it's all that's offered, I'll eat it. They also eat ugali, a mixture of maize and water which tastes like nothing and has a thick, gluey texture; it's sole purpose is to fill up your stomach. One food I actually do like is chapati, which is a lot like a thin pita bread. They serve it with a lot of dishes here (usually you get a choice of rice, ugali, or chapati), and it's good to dip in sauces or juices from meat. It's also taking some work to get used to the warm drink thing; Kenyans believe that ice cubes can make you sick, so they drink almost everyone at room temperature, if not hotter. When you go to a restaurant, if you want cold water you explicitly have to ask for it (since tap water isn't always safe, you almost always end up paying for bottled water).

Believe me when I tell you, the idea of "Africa time" is also very real, and sort of frustrating. Everyone just sort of moves slower here - walking, talking, shopping, etc. While part of me really wishes I could cultivate that sort of laid-back attitude, the undeniably Western part of me just wishes people would hurry up sometimes! Life is definitely slower here, even in Nairobi, which is taking some getting used to, as is so much about my life here. But every day is an adventure, and I'm learning so much, which is all I can really ask for. : )


  1. Hi Emily,
    I really enjoy reading your posts - they are not rambling or disjointed at all!!! They are extremely well written (but I am not surprised)! :):) I'm wondering, what are the occupations of all of those rich families with the BMWs? Are they US dignitaries and thus the anti-American sentiments of your professor?
    Aunt Patty

  2. Hey Aunt Patty,

    Oh, who knows. I sort of feel the same way about DC. You drive past all these massive houses, and I just wonder, what do these people DO to make all this money? Nairobi's a pretty big telecomm center (the hub for East Africa), so maybe that's how people make their money. It could be ex-pats, too, but hopefully at least a few Kenyans are wealthy. Will let you know if I find out more!

  3. Emily,

    I am enjoying your writings and keep them coming. I could just see you letting that giraffe eat from your mouth!!! NOT!!! What is a matatus? I also can see you not wanting to touch the snakes; me neither. From your comments, I know you are homesick, but this is probably a once in a lifetime experience so enjoy it. It will be over before you know it and you will be back home to the same old things! We all miss you! Love, Mama Loeliger

  4. Hey Mama L,

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. A matatu is a 14-seater minivan that's the most common form of public transportation in Nairobi. A couple years ago the matatu industry was crazy - not regulated at all, so drivers would paint their vans crazy colors and blare rap music. The industry's becoming a bit more regulated by the government (they're actually trying to get rid of them altogether and institute a public bus system), but they can still be pretty out there sometimes with the music and lighting inside the vans.

    Probably more than you ever wanted to know, but there you have it. : )

  5. Dear Emily,

    I'm a student at MIT, and I'm working with my professor, Mark Jarzombek ( on a book on global architecture. I'm interested in your photograph of the "Stone hand axes at Olorgesailie" to use in our book. The photo will be used in a survey history of art and architecture, and you would receive full attribution. I'm not sure yet how many copies will be printed, maybe a run of 8,000 or something like that - and global distribution. If you are interested, please email me at