Thursday, January 6, 2011

Straddling two Africas

As you may have gathered, our existence in Busia is pretty basic.  We don’t have consistent electricity and a hot shower can be a gamble.  Cooking is a challenge in a kitchen the size of a small closet, with our perishables shoved in a fridge fit for a dorm room and baking confined to a toaster oven.  We don’t have a car, but then again, there’s nowhere in Busia you can’t get to on a matatu or bike.  The notion of ordering pizza is something of a family punch line and the nearest movie theater is 2 hours away. 
But it’s hard to forget that compared to our neighbors, many of whom have no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, we’re living in luxury; and there’s not many modern conveniences I truly miss. 
Well, at least that’s what I thought until we went on our first trip away from Busia. 
Meeting our friends for lunch at a rather upscale bistro in a rather upscale part of Nairobi, Colin and I felt like country bumpkins in lip smacking awe of the gorgonzola cheese on the menu, the whimsical luxury of stimulating art on the wall and the general air of cultivated civility.  The glassware alone induced a bit of culture shock.  When our friends asked what kind of restaurants we have in Busia, Colin and I just looked at each other and laughed. 
After lunch, we went back to a new friend’s Nairobi house in the lush and hilly Milimani neighborhood, and this is where my little culture jolt turned into full-fledged, wide-eyed and unabashed envy. 
Katie lives in a spacious house surrounded by the kind of gardens you'd find at a zen meditation retreat center.  The house was filled with comfortable furniture and tasteful art and had an inviting and totally useable kitchen.  The talk turned to her frequent dinner parties, tennis lessons and weekend ultimate frisbee games.  As if this charmed existed extended its power to the outdoors, the weather was a perfect 75 degrees, sunny with a refreshing breeze.
The simple (and yes, at times, self righteous) appeal of our humble existence in Busia was losing its allure with every minute we stayed at her house.   After all, this is what we could have were we to move to Nairobi and get jobs with big NGOs or the US government, and it looks pretty darn tempting. 
But after spending way too much time in shiny luxury malls, this envy morphed into a familiar and creeping soul-sickness brought on by the unbridled and in-your-face consumerism of the wealthy world.  Don’t get me wrong, the trip was wonderful.  We basked in the company and love of family and friends and did our share of indulging in the creature comforts I was poo poo-ing just a second ago. 
But visiting the wealthiest parts of the wealthiest cities in Kenya and South Africa is a disorienting contrast with our existence in Busia.  The sheer choice of clothes, shoes, jewelry, art, cookware, gadgets, restaurants, and toys, all cleverly and enticingly displayed to convince you that no matter how much you have, it's never enough, was literally dizzying. Stimulating and exciting at first but then kind of depressing. Kind of like the feeling you get from eating too many jelly beans.    
At times we even started to crave our modest Busia life, in which no one cares about where you got your clothes, but they routinely ask about health of your family.  Where there are no restaurants in which to eat food infused with hints of other food, with a dash of something else sprinkled on top, but there are no high end malls to give you existential angst either. 
Again, don’t get me wrong, I can easily get used to and even enjoy all the luxuries of the modern world, and I certainly have in the past.  But spending time in Busia makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t. 


  1. You nailed this one, Kim! I know exactly what you mean. And besides, now that I know that you went sofa-shopping in Busia last weekend, I'm thinking, "How limited can it be there." ;)

    I think the best of both worlds is being able to keep one foot in the real world (where most of its population lives), and the other (or at least the occasional dipped toe) in the worthwhile aspects of the more developed cities/countries. That seems to be where you've landed. Maybe the balance will shift down the road, but I hope that you always stay in touch with the best of both.

    Anyway, I'm glad that I've finally found the right blog for you. This is great - keep it up!


  2. Ah... sofa shopping. There's one place that sells them. We learned this after walking all day through town to learn that the place is right down the road from IPA. Anyway, they have 4 sofa sets and they are all spectacularly awful. Overstuffed monstrosities that would easily dominate the largest of livingrooms. It's actually quite baffling given the size of most people's homes. Needless to say, we put off purchasing. ; )

  3. I actually wondered about that, Kim. That's what I'm seen all across Africa - overstuffed and ugly by the roadside. Maybe a shop in Kisumu?

  4. My new plan is just embellishing our wood framed couches with pillows and getting a decent coffee table to put our feet on. We'll invest in something we like more when we move to Kisumu. That's the plan for now anyway...