For the first time in ten years, I marked one whole year (and counting) living in the same country thanks to Covid, and while I’ve enjoyed liberties in Kenya (open restaurants, only one major lockdown and few restrictions, few cases until recently) that many around the world are still waiting to get back, I find myself longing to escape to Europe.
Of course, the Europe in my mind is completely untouched by Covid, there are no restrictions, all art spaces are active, you can drink a beer by the river, it’s springtime and sunny, and you can travel as you please, because that’s how I last saw it :)
Trigger warning: Privileged person whining about the hardships of others
The relentlessness of Kenyan inequality can be hard to bear at times - I’ve been trying to explore the streets of Kisumu by bike, venturing into neighbourhoods and streets I don’t usually take. Cycling by the lake wearing my $30 helmet and seeing parts of people’s houses flooded after heavy rains, and kids collecting water from filthy ditches or the lake in distinct yellow jerry cans while someone else washes their motorbike a few metres away makes me want to give up.
You’d think India would’ve inured me to the injustices of poverty and poor infrastructure, but I’ve realised India is quite good at ghettoising its poor, politely tucking them away in long-forgotten parts of towns and cities that are avoided by anyone who can afford to do so, certainly politicians. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the wealthy have managed to outspend, gentrify and shut out the poor from “their” neighbourhoods. The segregation seems less stark to me here in Kenya.
A few days after I moved into my apartment, someone rang the doorbell - It was a shy young woman, probably in her late teens. She seemed very uncomfortable and struggled to say, “I would be grateful to you if I could have any work to do in your house - cleaning the floor, and doing your dishes and laundry?”.
What was I to say? It looks like it’s common to have housekeepers in Kenya, but it makes me very uncomfortable, not just because of the risks of catching Covid and the dubious ethics of paying someone to clean up after me, but also I get nervous at the very thought of strangers coming into my private space and having nowhere to hide while they’re around, possibly for hours (The joys of living with anxiety!). With a lot of guilt and fully aware that I might be cutting off an opportunity for her to make a few hundred Kenyan shillings a week, I declined.
Such moral conundrums are an everyday occurrence - Last month, I stepped out to get some bananas from a nearby supermarket, and as I walked past an empty plot, I saw a woman sitting at a small folding table with no shade, selling eggs, fried meat and bananas. A child played in the dirt nearby. The sun was setting after a hot day, and the bananas were well on their way to brown. I felt torn - I had stepped out just to get bananas, and I could support the woman and her child by buying bananas from her knowing that the bananas would go bad within a day, or go to the supermarket and buy less ripe ones. I kept walking (with only a tiny bit of hyperventilating), but it was a tough choice. Everyday, very real tests of Kant’s categorial imperative take their toll. All the bananas I’ve bought since then have been from her though (and the nearly brown bananas must have just been due to a bad day - the bananas have been great since then)! :)
Is it possible to respect your own values and preferences and still find a way to help others that doesn’t involve paying for things or services you don’t need, or simply handing people a wad of cash?
I know it’s pure escapism, but I’m craving a respite from guilt for a bit. It would be a dream to be in a place where there might still be plenty of inequality but not the kind that leads to extreme starvation or deprives people of basic infrastructure or access to healthcare. Where the crunch of a snail on a bike path getting crushed under my bike wheels despite my best efforts to avoid it is the only source of guilt pangs. Where I’m not constantly aware of my privilege.
I never thought I’d think fondly of places where, among many xenophobic incidents, someone called me a terrorist, pointed at my blinking red bike light and made the gesture of a bomb blast :D