Timing matters, we tell our journalism students. Tie your stories to news events. Give them currency. Always advance the larger story.
Those admonitions may be why what I am writing here will seem naïve, and possibly even tasteless. I am aware that I am setting myself up as the wide-eyed white woman who falls in love with “exotic” Africa.
As Kenya and the world reel from the terrorist siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, I nevertheless wish to comment on what I encountered on our Pamoja Together expedition: a deep and authentic sense of civility. This fundamental politeness was only heightened by a concomitant kindness that meant that almost any human interchange began with dignity, and on a level of mutual respect. This remarkable trait is something I will take with me, even as I grieve for the victims cut down in the carnage of what were meant to be ordinary shopping expeditions.
I have traveled widely. In many distant countries I have met friendly people, diffident people, hostile people. I have been invited into private homes for meals and I have paid for goods or services knowing full well that the price had been inflated when the provider took one look at a hapless blonde American. I have left at least one country hoping never to return because the crowds or the brusque behavior or the harshness of the people so conflicted with my own standards of demeanor.
Here is what happened when we got to Kenya: After 14,000 miles of air travel—back-to-back red-eyes, flying from Boston to Amsterdam to Nairobi–we found ourselves facing a long airport layover. The heap of luggage, camera and video equipment, backpacks and random jackets, hoodies, handbags that we deposited in a corner of the coffee shop looked like a miniature version of Mt. Kenya. Scruffy, tired, unshowered and decidedly unkempt, we resembled a motley troop of 10 weary vagabonds.
We sprawled out across two, or maybe it was three, tables. No one in the restaurant blinked when we rattled off a series of confusing breakfast orders. No one said a word when we continued to occupy our outpost hours after the breakfast dishes had been cleared. Already impressed that no one was thumping a toe next to us, loudly clearing throats or otherwise making it evident that they wanted us out of there, I slipped away to the ladies room. On the wall was a “Polite Notice” that “kindly” asked women to refrain from pumping certain items down the plumbing.
Polite Notice? A kind request? In the U.S., that would have been a civil ordinance, a threat carrying a hefty fine or an appeal to environmental guilt.
As we left the restaurant, the staff filed out to wish us well. That happens at coffee shops at most international airports in the U.S., right? Wrong.
That was Nairobi. Seven hours by bus to the west—or, as we chose, a one-hour flight followed by an hour in a bus—we decamped in the tow of Bondo. I will not speak for the entire group, but I will say that my days were filled with random acts of civility. Small children scampered out of small cottages with billowing curtains instead of front doors as I made the daily one-mile walk from our hotel to the university campus in Bondo. The girls wore hair ribbons. The boys wore fresh shirts. They offered their hands for a formal handshake made less so by their broad smiles and their direct eye contact.
“Hel-lo, how are you?” they said, carefully enunciating each syllable.
My own smile of gratitude must have emboldened one little girl to venture a step farther.
“You are so white!” she exclaimed. I laughed.
We laughed together. She was so right.
Our purpose in traveling to Nyanza Province, high on the banks of Lake Victoria, was to observe and report on the impact of foreign assistance on the daily lives of Kenyans. We learned a great deal about how aid does and doesn’t work in dealing with disease, economics, agriculture, the environment, gender concerns and many other critical areas. But we also were reminded every day about the importance of kindness, hospitality and interest in one another’s lives. Aid, it turns out, is not just about shoveling money or overly educated experts onto a population. It is a two-way street, and it is about operating within a framework of civility.
Even the horror at Westgate Mall could not destroy this quality among the Kenyans we met and worked with. The same students who had reached out to us following the Boston Marathon bombings now filled their Facebook pages with expressions of compassion and concern for the victims and their families–even as they themselves had been touched by the violence.
My trip to Kenya came to an abrupt and sorrowful end just 48 hours after arriving when a family tragedy forced me to return to the U.S. I left our hotel just before 5 in the morning. The hotel staff member who ferried me to the airport in Kisumu, a dark and bumpy hour away, refused to accept compensation. He knew I was carrying a heavy burden on my soul.
“Please,” I told him. Again he demurred.
I hope he found the wad of Kenyan shillings I stuffed into the van’s cup holder.