I don’t think it’s an unusual experience to be perceived as a “rich American” and find that people want something from you. Comparatively, I am “rich” compared to the average person in West Pokot (and in many other places). Although my personal bank account doesn’t have much in it and I’m saturated with student debt, I have a strong safety net because of my family. If all my funds disappeared overnight I have not doubt I would be just fine. The people here aren’t afforded that type of security. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes eloquently about this topic for African American families in the US: “Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.”
Last week, I was connected with a Kenyan National Team running coach who wanted $500 USD every two weeks to train me like a Kenyan. He also wanted to be introduced to universities in the U.S. that maybe needed a coach. At our last meeting, I explained that although I once dreamed about a career as a professional runner and poured everything into my athletic career in college, I wasn’t in Kenya to run. I was here to conduct a research project that I believed deeply in and was fully committed to. Sometimes a dream dies, and in it’s place is the realization that all the activities you were doing along with running can fulfill you to the same extent even without it. I’ve had a harder time coming to that realization than some of my teammates at Grinnell, I think. But physically, serious running isn’t in the cards for me. I’m still trying to learn how to do it as a hobby, not a calling.
He was disappointed to say the least and said something to the effect of, “I hope you give back to the community in some way while you’re here.” A more cynical side of myself translated that to, “you should be helping me while you’re here,” but I took his comment seriously. I don’t mean to sound naive or paint myself as the great white hope, but PPR presents a serious economic burden to pastoralists, not only in Kenya, but all over the world. It’s found in 70 countries located in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and is estimated to cause $1.475 billion USD in economic losses globally. The consequences are severe, even at the local level. For example, an outbreak in Turkana County in 2010 resulted in estimated $19.1 million USD in losses among pastoralists, a number which doesn’t accurately represent the devastation of losing your herd, your entire livelihood, to an infectious disease. Integrated vaccination isn’t going to solve the problem of PPR, but it does have the possibility of contributing to combating the disease. Ultimately, I hope that my project has a large impact by promoting One Health at the county level – maybe other services can be integrated as well. That being said, the entire interaction left me with a feeling of shame that I haven’t completely shaken.
And that brings me to Peker, who initially assisted me when I arrived in Kapenguria and wants to be my friend. I’ve been trying to figure out Peker’s motives, not because I think they’re nefarious, but because he might have expectations that I’m unaware of. Does he expect reimbursement for his help? Last night, Peker and I went to a bar about 5 minutes walk from The Kalya. Circular, bright red tables were spread between the concrete walls, surrounded by tall, faux leather chairs, also red. Squares and circles were cut into the ceiling, emitting blue and pink fluorescent light, which bathed the room in an ambiance normally reserved for a rave. Loud 70s and 80s music was blasting: Whitney Houston and Donna Summer. It was a fun place and Peker seemed to know everyone in it. He introduced me many times as his “American friend, Evan” although after a few beers it became “Evans.” He told me that his friends were impressed that he was friends with an American; i.e., it gave him a certain level of status.
I have to admit to being a little confused about this. Is it simply because I’m different, a novelty? Peker told me he knows of one other white person in West Pokot and Turkana, someone who works in Lodwar. I know there are a few more, but there’s no doubt I stand out here. Also, being American holds a special sort of appeal in Kenya as well. Obama arrived on Monday in Kogelo for the opening of his half-sister’s sports and vocation training center. There was non-stop, 24 hour coverage of his arrival and the speech he gave. Kenyan’s have a special place in their hearts for Obama, his father was Kenyan, and that translates somewhat to Americans as a whole. Thanks Obama. Of course, in the current political climate, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about you-know-who. Someone interjected into a conversation, “Donald Trump is a racist,” and then proceeded to shake my hand and sincerely welcome me to Kenya. It does appear that people can hold two thoughts in their head at the same time: I don’t like the American president; not all Americans are bad. That subtlety seems to be lost in the divisive politics that now face our country, although I’m not sure that the fake news, trolling attitude of our president and his followers leaves much room for civil discourse. One thing, among many, that confuses me is that upsetting “liberal snowflakes” is to be commended, but civil discourse is of the utmost importance when it comes to protesting elected officials… but I digress.
The bar was fun. I danced a lot to songs from my youth, not only disco music and R&B, but also Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias, Jason Derulo, Shakira (Waka Waka: This Time for Africa, of course), etc. There was a lot of great Kenyan music too, which I wish I knew the name of. Peker was impressed that I was interacting. He said, “it’s like you don’t realize you’re alone here.” I knew exactly what he meant, I looked different from everyone in that bar. But then I looked back at him and said, “Peker, I’m not alone.” He laughed and gave me a fist bump, and we went back to dancing and having fun. At this point, as far as I can tell, Peker wants to be friends and yes, get some free food and free beer. That seems like a perfectly acceptable situation to me.