Studying Global Development Studies, I have many friends who travel abroad for development projects or leisure. Therefore, I had heard of culture shock, which is known as the looming feeling of anxiety one gets after arriving in a completely unfamiliar environment filled with new food, people, values, climate, language, and more (Global Perspectives, 2016). Culture Shock has been known to have a negative connotation, understood as an unpleasurable experience that is filled with fear, loneliness, and misunderstanding. Knowing this, as I planned for my three-month trip to Kenya, I feared that this well known “Culture Shock” experience could cause me to become an “Expat Hermit,” defined by me as someone who enters a foreign country and refuses to engage with all that the new country has to offer due to fear or ignorance. My fear was deeply rooted in not blending in and not having cultural sensitivity or intelligence. But deep inside of me, I was excited about this feeling of uncertainty, as I hoped it was something that could help me grow and challenge my perceptions.
When my plane landed in Nairobi, Kenya at 7:00 PM on September 19, 2018, to say that I was overwhelmed is an understatement. All the planning finally felt real- I was in Nairobi, and I was going to be an intern for the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)! This was followed by a feeling of guilt, as I knew I was coming in with my Western perceptions. I felt shame knowing that I was privileged to be here, working with one of the most well-known aid organizations worldwide, and feared that it was my wealthy, Western privilege that allowed me to have this opportunity. I also recognized that aid work (specifically the inception of development from the West) cannot be defined without the deeply entrenched history of colonialism. My feelings are well described by Dr. Olivia Rutazibwa, senior lecturer in International Development and European Studies at the University of Portsmouth, when she stated, “The aid work industry perpetuates a mindset of superiority [of the West] and inferiority [of the rest], whereby the betterment of peoples elsewhere cannot be thought of outside of a Western presence,” (Otzelberger, 2018). I decided that I would remember that the origin of development work is tangled in with colonialism and that my “good intentions” may be filled with bias and Eurocentrism. This is something I vowed to actively work on while professionally learning from UNOPS.
During my first day in Nairobi, Edith, a QES Scholar who is local to Nairobi, met me at a popular coffee shop called Java House. Edith came as a QES intern and student to British Columbia, Canada this Summer, and I immediately felt connected to her and two other interns from Nairobi named Phanice and Sherlyne. Edith connected me to all the things I needed: my phone, Mpesa (a popular money transfer system through a phone), a grocery store, a pillow (which she searched for in three different supermarkets), and ultimately comfort. Through her encouragement and excitement for me and the beautiful city, I began to find myself feeling much more ecstatic about this opportunity. This moment with Edith made me recognize the broad scope of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship and the global community that I am a part of. I am thankful for Edith, and I am so thankful for QES. Without this scholarship, I would not be in Nairobi, and I would not have known Edith. Another wonderful comfort came from my internship supervisor, Cherie Enns, joining me for my first meeting with UNOPS. Knowing that I have a support network through QES has provided me with so much gratitude.
Edith and I at Java House during my first day in Nairobi.
As I reflect on my first two weeks, I do believe that I have experienced culture shock, but not in the way that I had expected. I have experienced a sensory overload in Nairobi: walking on unstable dirt roads through City Park Market which hosts an array of brightly coloured fruits, the smell of exhaust fumes during rush hour, the sound of buses called Matatus blaring Nairobi radio stations as they zoom unpredictably through traffic, hearing vendors at Toi Market referring to me as “Sister”, and the diverse tastes of Kenyan meal staples such as ugali, nyama choma, chapati, and mukimo (to name a few of my favourites).
My First Matatu Ride and a Fruit Stand at City Park Market
These new experiences are coupled with my internship at the United Nations Office for Project Services, which is the operational arm of the United Nations. The office I work in specializes in Partnership Development, requiring them to interface with powerful stakeholders and donors worldwide to implement, procure and financially manage a variety of development projects. Every day feels like a new, and important experience filled with networking, meetings, proposal writing or editing.
But these new adventures were far from terrifying, instead, they were exhilarating and fantastic. The shock and uncertainty of being here have been remedied by the kindness of every person I meet. Whether I am trying to learn Swahili from my coworkers at UNOPS during lunch, navigating the city for the fastest route to work with an Uber driver, ordering at a local restaurant, attending an afro hip hop dance class, or bargaining at the City Park Market for passion fruit, I feel as though the people around me do not mind that I am learning. The term, “Pole, Pole,” translated as, “Slowly, Slowly,” from Swahili has stuck with me as I adjust. I should not feel rushed to figure it all out, I should be humbled in the feeling of truly not knowing anything about Kenya. As I grow and learn from the new culture and environment around me, I will not deny or fear it, instead, I will embrace it. As I recognize my perceptions, bias and try to remedy the flaws in my worldview, I can believe that:
“There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice and fosters humour.”
As culture shock sets in, I find humility in knowing that I am ignorant and unable to fully understand the depths and lengths of this beautiful country. I hope I can grow in this feeling academically and emotionally, as I continue to deny the symptoms of the “Expat Hermit,” and build relationships with those who can help me appreciate all the new things I am experiencing.
Global Perspectives. (2016). The 4 Stages of Culture Shock. Retrieved from https://medium.com/global-perspectives/the-4-stages-of-culture-shock-a79957726164.
Otzelberger, A. (2018). 5 Hard Questions to Ask if You Want to “Do Good”. Bright. Retrieved from https://brightthemag.com/5-hard-questions-to-ask-if-you-want-to-do-good-46494ded4be4.
Santayana, G. (1964). The Philosophy of Travel. Letters from the Porch. Retrieved from https://lettersfromtheporch.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/the-philosophy-of-travel/.