Wanderings: Standing out in a crowd

Bruce Spinney


The one thing about traveling around to various countries around the world is that the exposure gives added perspective to life that you would otherwise not have and you start to realize how the “normal” that you grew up with is not normal at all. It simply is normal for you. It has struck me how incredibly multi-ethnic Canada is.

I have been writing these travelogues from countries that are not now and have never been multi-ethnic. Canada is a country that, for good or ill, has been settled by people whose ethnicity did not originate in North America. It is not that Canada does not have its original occupants. It is that the original occupants have had to accommodate cultures from around the globe. Canada is largely a culture of immigrants and this is not the norm in India nor in Kenya, where I now am.

It is not that these places are homogeneous. Tribalism runs as deep as you can imagine and causes unbelievable tension that we cannot relate to. My culture is western Canadian. I make jokes about how the main attribute of a Canadian is that we have no attributes unless you consider politeness an attribute.

That means that we do not fully understand cultural pride and national fervour. My parents came from Massachusetts before I was born. My father was determined transfer all his national pride to Canada. But it made it impossible for him to truly be a Canadian because most Canadians do not care deeply about patriotism. It is the one thing that we are patriotic about. We are proud to be openly unpatriotic about our country because it is the most obvious thing that separates us from the United States who are embarrassingly emotional about their flag and their constitution and their American heritage. We are proud that we are not proud.

I bring this up because I live for part of the year in countries where I am often the only westerner in the area. I am working in a university with a few other North American families but off campus, I am an oddity. Maybe the main difference between being a minority in Africa or India is that my ethnicity affords me some respect rather than the derision that the newly arrived immigrants receive in Canada.

(I would personally like to apologize to all the recent immigrants to Canada on behalf of all the not so recent immigrants to Canada. The arrogance of the ignorant runs deep.)

So now for Kenya. One can only describe a new culture in relation to something familiar. I spent some time teaching in Nigeria 17 years ago. I will not write about that other than to say that when I left I had no desire to return to Nigeria nor to Africa again. It was dangerous, uncomfortable and stressful. It was my first cross-cultural experience and I did not like it much.

The people that I taught with in Nigeria are here in Kenya and they will not go back there because the area we were teaching in is still an unsafe environment unless you are protected by armed guards. Kenya on the other hand has been a relative delight and I have not been accosted or threatened (yet). This may not last because of my obnoxious personality. I bring these things on myself.

The contrast with India is startling. If you have been following my articles, then you will note that I have commented often and with great emotion on the noise, traffic, pollution and general mayhem of India. I find it thrilling and exotic most of the time.

Kenya traffic would still cause ulcers in most Canadians outside of Quebec (Quebecers have maintained somehow the ecstatic attitude toward driving that produced the likes of Villeneuve) but compared to India, it seems downright boring. Hardly any horn honking or gestures and generally a hand wave to the rules of the road, albeit without the fear of death that we are so obsessive about in Canada (Haul truck drivers excluded).

One contrast is that at night one can look up and see stars here in Kenya. Pollution has not taken over the skyscape here. That may be because the prevailing winds are coming from the Sahara. Whatever the reason, the air is cleaner here than India. In fact, it is cleaner here in general. One might suggest that this is simply because people here do not have the same ability to buy plastics or packaging here in the volume that is in India. One might also suggest that the population of India results in the inevitable mess. One thing is for sure. We Canadians like to think we are environmentally responsible but we create more waste per capita that maybe anywhere on earth. We just have the money to spend on hiding it.

The natural beauty here in Kenya is breathtaking and Kenya is making the most of it in their tourist trade. I am teaching near the town of Machakos. The elevation here is quite high which makes the climate very tolerable, considering it is only a few hundred miles south of the equator. The town is set amid high hills and is lush with farms and flowering trees.

The soil has the same reddish hue of PEI but is sandy with rocks of granite and quartz. This means that the rain is not retained in the soil and farming is dependent on regular rains. The climate change has caused some big problems with the agriculture because, although the rainfall is just as great, the regularity of them is being effective. Farmers are never certain when to plant their corn and so this year much of the crop just dried up because the usual rains did not come in time.

Lastly I want to mention the people. The first thing that stands out for me is their sense of style. In Canada there is a tendency during the last couple of decades to dress down. People who have millions are indistinguishable on first glance from those who have very little. Abercrombie and Fitch sell jeans for hundreds of dollars that purposefully look like they have been dragged behind a bus.

That is the style of the day. I have been dressing in that manner for years, although my jeans have been dragged behind the bus with me still in them. The Kenyans all look like they are heading off to a job interview at the Royal Bank. Walking down some dusty path in the hills you are inevitably going to come across some women carrying firewood, dressed for a fashion shoot. Shabby Chic has no place in this country. I therefore stand out in a crowd with nowhere to hide.