Wanderings: Making (up) History

Bruce Spinney


Three months so far here in Kenya and I have had a marvelous time. I love teaching and I especially love teaching people who want to learn. As in many places around the world, the obtaining a degree ranks higher in priority than the education that the degree is supposed to be acquiring.

India was especially tainted with this attitude and most Indian students will openly admit that this is the case. In Kenya, at least at the school where I am lecturing, the students are doing their best to absorb the thoughts and ideas that are being shoveled into their brains.

I am teaching a history class and am starting to appreciate the depth of education that we Canadians own by the time we exit grade twelve. We are also exposed through media and books to continuing education as we get older. Last week I was teaching about the shift from Pre-modern to Modern and then to Post-modernity and using examples like the theory of Relativity, black holes, string theory and so on to make a point. None of the students have ever heard of such things. Trying to explain that time can be bent and that it slows and speeds up because of gravity brought a response of wide eyed disbelief.

Kenya is a culture that is only newly shifted from Pre-modern to a modern scientific understanding of the world and has yet to enter the cynical world of post-modernity where truth simply does not exist and should only be loosely held as opinion unless political correctness demands otherwise. These are complex ideas and hard to teach without a base of education to work from. But the desire to learn is here. The discussions and questions are insightful and passionate. There is a willingness to think here.

There is also an exuberance here that is lacking in the west. It would be interesting to see if this is attached somehow to the years of meaningless materialism associated with modernism or the dark cynicism of post-modernity. The children here are delightful and happily content with what little they have. I have not witnessed very much of the grinding hungry poverty that I saw in Nigeria.

It might be that Nigeria has changed in the past 18 years but the corruption that breeds the email scams that promise millions of dollars also keeps Nigeria from progressing down any economic road to wealth. Kenya is simply better. I am not suggesting that any Canadian would like to live in the homes among the hills here. They are hand-built hovels with adobe brick and cement floors. They have tin roofs that roar in the heavy rain and glassless windows that allow the mosquitoes in unchecked. But they are more content generally than the retired Canadian who has to downsize from a huge house to a condo in order to make ends meet.

It is surprising how expensive it is to live in Kenya. Imports are heavily taxed. The government is generally corrupt and has a tendency to spend money on making things look good rather than making them work well. It is also struggling with massive debt interest. The people do not generate a huge tax base and so the money comes from anything, especially tourists that come in from the outside. I have met workers who make 300 shillings for an eight hour day of hard labour. That amounts to about $2.25 a day. In the grocery store that would buy two litres of milk or two loaves of bread.

Needless to say the only ones that can afford groceries from the western style store are those who have good jobs and people like me who bring in their own wealth. The cost of living a western lifestyle here in Kenya is only marginally less than in Canada. In Nairobi the real-estate would be inaccurately comparable to Edmonton (lots of million dollar bungalows for sale). The point that I am trying to make here is that the contentment of the students who have struggled to scrape together school fees and who intend on going back to the relative poverty that they are used to is generally higher than many wealthy people I know in the west.

Their satisfaction can be seen in the worship services on Sunday. I cannot tell you how good it is to watch these grandmas find their rhythm while they sing. Anyone who has seen black choirs in the southern states has noted the swaying and clapping as they sing. As soon as the children are old enough to stand they are dancing on the pews beside their mothers and siblings. It is such a deep part of their culture. The beats and the cadence are everywhere.

Some of the churches have two services; one in English and one in Swahili or another, more local, dialect. It makes me want to learn the language just to be able to attend the second service. Western music, apart from Reggae and some Hip Hop, does not connect well here. Congregations sing western hymns and choruses almost with a sense of duty but when they sing songs more traditionally African they break out into natural harmony and rhythms that I find thrilling. Singing in close harmony comes naturally to most here. They grow up with the ability to learn a song and immediately sing their parts without being taught. Amazing to listen to.

Kenya is known for its runners. I used to think that perhaps the reason for this attribute was due to Kenyans having run down the hoofed creatures for food or their having to run from the clawed creatures to keep from being food. Whether or not that is the genesis of the attribute is not my area of expertise but I can say that running is evidently a main sporting event in this area.

I go walking in the hills and villages every day. I usually end up losing a few pounds of flab each time I come overseas (very quickly regained upon arrival back in Canada) but I am no longer the spry person that I was (the last time that would have been an accurate description of me was at the age of 11) and so I trudge up the hills rather than sprint. I cannot carry on a conversation on the steep parts and eventually my vision goes black and white and my left arm is strangely numb.

Inevitably a gaggle of joggers come running up from behind, all thin calved and chattering amiably with no sign of exertion. Before I have reached the top of the hill I will see them coming back, having traversed a few miles, with the same ease and devil may care expressions. I wheeze out a greeting and they smile and wave back. I think they might have said hello but the pounding in my ears makes it hard to hear.