What comes to your mind when you first think of East Africa? Let me guess—
After returning from spending four months there, in Kenya, mainland Tanzania, and Zanzibar, these are the two underlying topics of conversation back in the US. People want to know how I “helped” conserve wildlife or alleviate poverty, without asking how I was helped by East Africans. It’s time to tell another story. One of my favorite TED talks goes into the danger of a single story. Single stories are even more dangerous when they do not look at the positive aspects of culture and compare those to our own. Rarely did anyone ask what I learned from East Africans, how they helped me, and how that has changed my perspective. What I found in East Africa was that they did not need my “help” as much as I needed them to help me reevaluate my society’s work ethic, society, culture, and environment.
So, here’s the other side to East Africa, and ways that I, as a distinctly white American, have learned valuable lessons:
In rural East Africa, community plays an invaluable importance in society. While the United States largely values the pursuit of happiness for the individual, Kenya and Tanzania see well-being as a collective endeavor. My favorite African proverb highlights this idea well: If you want to go fast, go by yourself. But if you want to go far, go with others. This intrinsic value of communities, at least in the Maasai and Iraqw tribes, derives from their pastoral, shared ownership and resources, history.
The different value systems are even shown through ownership. In the United States, land and resources have always been owned privately, whereas in Kenya there is shared ownership through group ranches. As a result of the importance of community, there is more friendliness, trust, and respect in East Africa. Communities are not households separated, but particularly in Kimana, Kenya, bomas (a cluster of houses) are created that house usually two families who share resources. In a similar way, the idea of family extends to all of those around you. You refer to older women as “mama,” even if you just met them, and you call your peers “dada” or “kaka” (brother or sister). At weddings in the villages of Kambi ya Faru, Kansay, and Buger, Tanzania, the family and friends are not the only people invited; all the surrounding villagers are. It’s a community party! (with a lot of goats…)
Imagine if people in the USA cared about communities the same way East Africans do. We would be intimately supported not just by close friends and family, but everyone around us. It could rid loneliness and selfishness, creating communities that care for the well-being of everyone else.
Along the same of community importance in East Africa comes an inherent trust of people. In the United States, children would not be allowed to walk to school by themselves. Parents are paranoid about what could happen, and attention in the news is always focused on crime. This creates an environment of cynicism and a belief that strangers are bad, human nature is deceiving, and the like.
However, in East Africa, even as strangers in rural communities, my friends and I were welcomed into homes with open arms. Farmers with loads of work would drop everything just to answer our interview questions. Children walked by themselves around town, to and from school, and even dragged two strange white “mzungu” runners back to their families for show and tell. There was no fear, no paranoia, no inherent distrust.
Imagine if Americans believed in the inherent good of people instead of the terrible things that could happen. What if we learned to trust people—our friends, our neighbors, even strangers?
Children as young as three are expected to be a productive member of the family. Girls help cook every meal, clean, wash clothes, and take care of younger children. Young boys are given the responsibility of taking livestock to the nearest water source and cutting down branches to feed them. Livestock is one of the most important aspects to East African culture. It’s kind of like currency in many ways. It’s basically the American equivalent of giving a five year old $100 to budget and invest. Crazy, right?
Not really. At an early age, children learn their place in a family and community. The expectation that they contribute in every aspect of life teaches them hard work and discipline. They meet every expectation. In the United States, our expectation of children is low and they are taken care of instead of participating in the well-being in the entire community, leading to entitlement and adults who act like children.
4. Environmental Sustainability
The comparison in this aspect is almost laughable, if it was not entirely embarrassing for the United States. Houses are made out of mud and wood. A day in the life of an average, rural East African includes collecting firewood to use as an energy source, cooking food from your garden or the market from your neighbor’s garden, killing the goat in your backyard for meat, and accessing water from a local water source or pump. All resources are local and minimal, using only what they need, with minimal waste, which they burn outside their houses. They are aware of the slightest change in the weather and climate, as they rely on local resources for their basic needs. In my research, over 95% of villagers noticed the impacts of climate change, usually stating the increase in temperature and decrease in rainfall as completely obvious.
Americans, on the other hand, rely on energy from a nonrenewable resource, get food from processed large scale farms all over the world, and tap into water systems that deplete resources without allowing them to renew. We have landfills the size of Texas, and still ship off waste to other countries. Plastic and Styrofoam, non-degradable materials, are abundantly overflowing. And even though the United States claims that we are educated, we have congressional leaders who refuse to believe in the scientific, obvious fact of climate change and impending environmental degradation.
The clear difference in environmental sustainability is particularly important considering that our unsustainable lifestyle drastically affects access to basic needs in places like East Africa.
5. Hamna Shida
Contrary to popular notion in The Lion King, this phrase is the common Swahili way of saying “no worries.” East African culture is based on a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. Whenever classes, projects, or even soccer games became too intense, the repeating phrase was “hamna shida, dada” or “no worries, sister.” The laid back spirit of East Africa has a relaxing effect that causes you to forget about that mistake you made yesterday or the uncertainty of the future. It just allows you to be—in the present, maybe without a specific task or purpose, but fully alive. Similar to hamna shida was the phrase “pole pole,” which literally translates into slowly. There’s no rush, and everything will work out. Slowly, little by little, we’ll all figure this crazy life together.
In the USA, we’re paranoid about making mistakes, constantly stressing over the distant future, and we strive to be as efficient and productive as possible. However, I realized that it doesn’t come without a cost. While we may be gaining a Western perspective of “success,” we’re losing out on peace of mind and fully appreciating every moment.
7. Siesta after lunch