One of the patterns I have noticed in this vibrant city is her love for juxtapositions. Dusty, broken and trash littered sidewalks are walked upon by sharply dressed business people. Tall, modern buildings are neighbors with dilapidated and crowded markets; while gated, secure communities provide little protection against the incessant mosquitoes and boisterous traffic.
One of the most glaring polarities that I have observed is between the expat and the locals. There are certainly places where these demographics blend, such as the dance class that we attend bi-weekly or the local grocery store, Nivas. Yet, without conscience effort, an expatriate could certainly maintain the familiar comforts, lifestyle and perspective as their home country. Yes, security threats exist, the risk of unintentionally being culturally inappropriate remains and there is the potential for miscommunication. Nonetheless, cowering in the expat bubble is a disservice to oneself.
My internship with the United Nations does little to remedy this gap. While there are local employees at the UN, Gigiri (the neighborhood where the UN Complex is located) is filled with international employees and the familiarity of a Western world. It is our morning Uber driver, Toni, who provides insight into the local culture of Nairobi. During the half hour drive from our apartment in Westlands (also an expat hub) to Gigiri, he teaches me and my car mates about Swahili, cultural nuisances and ongoing the political climate.
As I’ve been reflecting on the experience of being a visible minority, I have been frustrated by my inability to blend in. I believe that one of the most human desires is to fit in and be accepted wherever we may find ourselves. Expat communities fulfill this desire but they also hinder personal growth. Certainly, personal growth begins with the ability to be self-compassionate, to remain teachable, to be willing to release our preconceived notions and to fully enter into an experience.
One of my tendencies is to want to immediately understand, master and become proficient in new ventures. When I can’t immediately master a subject, I become irritable and frustrated. However, as I leave the expat world and I grant myself the grace to learn slowly, I am able to accept what another bloggers describes as:
Existing in a fragile and blessedly time-limited crucible of conscious ignorance, where I know there are a million things I don’t know, and that I won’t know what they are until I know them 1
I have been practicing accepting my conscious ignorance with the willingness to immerse myself in Nairobi’s culture. This honest step towards personal growth is one of the many lessons that Nairobi is teaching me.
When I step out of my expat zone, I am greeted with compassionate, warm and joyful people. It is in this space, outside the confines of my comfortable bubble, that I am reminded that I am in Kenya to learn. To learn about the local food, language, lifestyle, and values that comprise this diverse city. While I am also learning new skills such as proposal writing for the UN and bargaining techniques in the markets, I am mostly learning from local people who remind me, through their love of laughter, that I need to not take myself to seriously. The slower pace of life is teaching me about patience, priorities and so much more.
Yes, I am a mzungu. I am entering into this culture with my Canadian viewpoints and Western preferences but the point is that I’m making an intentional effort to immerse myself in something new. Perhaps it’s through eating at a local restaurant or exploring a new street; whatever it may be, I am determined to learn the vibrant and challenging lessons that Nairobi is eager to teach me.