Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Guest Post - On the Threshold of Africa

One of the reasons I decided to set up this guest post slot for other expats is because I am genuinely fascinated at other expats stories, how they came to be in whatever far flung country they reside in, whether their experience is a good one or bad one?  Whether they feel they could never return to their birth country or if they would jump at the chance to 'go home'.

When I came across On the Threshold of Africa I sat down with a cup of tea and read and read and read.  I love Africa, and I've been to Kenya myself.... but live there?  Well this lady does, so please read her fascinating post and then add her blog to your google reader! 


Being an Expat

We’ve now lived in Kenya for nearly three years. I’m two years on from the daily tears over the cornflakes stage.  We have work permits, work, good friends, favourite places.  Our digestions have calmed down.  It’s not startling or new anymore. But what are the impressions of this stage?

Kenya is a beautiful country in so many ways.  I grew up in soggy South Wales. I still marvel daily at clear blue skies in February.  At the amazement of camping trips out of Nairobi, where you wake at dawn to the sight of hippos emerging from the lake you’re pitched by, or to the shrieks of the nine year old son, on whom monkeys in the overhanging trees have peed in annoyance that he’s woken them up too early. At families of elephants fording rivers, or prides of lions stalking their prey.  At loving, inspirational individuals, youth workers and head teachers, doing their utmost to be caring and reliable in a system with need, gaping chasms and pitfalls all around.

I’ve been an expat before, but it was easier in Europe.  Here, pre-planned days slip way out of control. It’s like the early days with a newborn – THIS was my long to do list, this small task is what I can tick off.  When it rains we have powercuts. Sometimes most days for months. When it’s the dry season we, on a hill, don’t have mains water.  Shopping for a simple dinner party for mates can involve trips to four sets of shops and two changed menus to source all the ingredients.  Last week I stood under a tree at the bottom of the garden – the place from which we get best skype reception, - and tried to explain to a school in UK why it would help if they could give us prior warning of upcoming phone interviews for our daughter.
‘We don’t have a landline. Her school’s landlines have been out of order for six months. For her to do a phone interview we’ve arranged for her to squat in the home office of the husband of the head of year eight.  It would really help to know in advance.’

We earn enough to cover our costs in a country where many people are literally without means. And that has implications and forces uneasy choices.  Whom do you help and how? Do you take on staff, creating much-needed employment in a land without social security, but exploding your previously liberal persona? (Yes). Do you give to the orphan living on the street, who is collecting for school uniform so he can return to school? (Yes). Or to the adult, probably equally in need, who calls you to your gate to ask for a hand-out? (No.) And having tried to help the adult daughter of your former housekeeper, by giving a start up hand-out to her business, by recommending her to friends, do you slam shut the door when she next asks you to give her a laptop?  Some days are as jangly as a tight-stretched violin string, picking a path between what I feel I want to do, and the expectations and dreams of others. Trying to help others, far less fortunate, to see that we aren’t made of money either. That while we try to help where we can, giving a laptop is a luxury, way beyond this relationship.

I grew up in a country where I was told, if lost, to ask a policeman. That’s not how it is here. My student, 18 years old, told of hearing the cries of her sister being raped by their father. A friend described catching her daughter, aged twelve, being raped by a family member. How the police wouldn’t intervene. How the family had to move areas to escape him.  Being an expat here means difficult choices and enforcement. What do you do about the night guard who is knocking on the bedroom door of the housekeeper at 3am, asking for her to ‘give him some comfort’?  During the post-election violence of 2007, friends of ours had a sea of tents in the garden, hosting the families of their staff in safety – up to 20 additional mouths – until the deadly violence was over.  How far do you stand up for what you believe matters? And what do you say to yourself, knowing that, if you don’t intervene, most likely no one else will either?

Being an expat in Kenya is never boring.  It’s full of surprises.  The car pelting along the wrong side of the dual carriageway towards you.  Our car, taken for a routine service at the Toyota dealer, stranded there for three weeks, engine dismantled to tiny pieces, waiting for the competent mechanic to return from his leave. 

Life here reminds me to be thankful for the most basic things. For my free schooling in a UK comprehensive.  For the stunning ambition, still, of the UK National Health Service, free at the point of use.  For a UK health system, which, when you need a blood transfusion has one on tap, without you needing to round up your friends and relations, the book club and the school mums, to trudge along to offer their ring-fenced red pints in your name.  Life in Kenya helps me see how small actions make a difference. How passing a class’s outgrown school shoes to the local school fifty paces away, means that bright-faced orphans have shoes to wear as they pick their way through mud and raw sewage. How setting up a ‘library’ of ten books for our guards, means spying a formerly stern-faced guard in tears at 830 am as he races through To Kill a MockingBird.  What we do, matters. Who we choose to be, makes a difference. Sometimes.