When you pop popcorn in Kenya
9/8/2008 9:30 pm
When you pop popcorn in Kenya, if you time it right, you don’t get leftover kernels at the bottom of your bag. Because there isn’t a microwave, and there isn’t a microwave popcorn bag. There are corn kernels and oil and salt, your pot and your lid. And if your pot is like my British flatmate’s pot – and you don’t time it right – you still don’t get leftover kernels, but you do get some pretty burned popcorn at the very bottom – if you happen to leave it on the stove just long enough to – oops!- let it burn.
The metal is thin – and the burned popcorn is hard to get off. I rub at it with the rough green part of my sponge – and I rub at it and I rub at it but you can’t tell I’m putting in all the elbow grease I can to get the burned stuff off.
But it gives me time to reflect on my day. It’s the first day of classes, and I’ve been in Kenyafor a week and a half. Different parts of my day come to mind – my annoyance with my professor – and my slightly rude question when he’s continued 10 minutes past the end of class time as to whether he knows it’s 1 pm and should we get going? – and all this after all my anticipation. I was looking forward to this so much! So there’s that voice…and there’s my incredibly critical inner voice going non-stop basically all the time even though, try as I might, I don’t want to be the rude, critical, Western American whose selfishness and insensitivity is appalling when I sit down long enough to see it. All I want is to want to be culturally sensitive again. I used to want that! Now I’m just too tired to care half the time.
All of this washes over me – not going away – like the burned popcorn marks on the bottom of my British flatmate’s pot. I keep scrubbing. And then I decide to go down to the end of the hallway and borrow my Kenyan flatmate’s steel wool. I’m somewhat familiar with steel wool – are you? Some of you guys might remember it – but most of us have non-stick pots and pans now and we don’t need this sort of thing anymore.
She’s chipper and gracious and eager to lend me some steel wool. She pulls a soft metallic handful of it from her stash under her bed and tells me to leave it on the counter when I’m done so I can use it later.
I go back and scrub away – when inKenya, do as the Kenyans do – and it’s definitely more effective – although it still takes a long time to get the stuff off. And when I give up and am done – it’s not fully gone – there’s still a bit left.
But it’s just about enough time to make me process the most distressing part of the day – although if you had seen me, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. Because it’s all internal, and half the time I don’t even realize I’m distressed til all the people have cleared the room and I’m by myself for half a minute.
Josephine’s worked three hours and my British flatmate gives her 150 Kenyan shillings for her work. She’s done a load of laundry between the two of us, cleaned the kitchen, and cleaned my flatmate’s room. I’m still not used to paying someone to do what I am fully capable of doing – and I know I just need to get used to that – no one here recommends doing your own wash, cleaning, and cooking AND being a full-time student. But I’m just used to not depending on anyone – and definitely not used to paying someone to do what I can do myself. But it’s the Kenyan way – or perhaps to be more specific – it’s the NEGST way here – everyone here at seminary hires househelp. The Kenyans pay a dirt-cheap price for their househelp – which is live-in – about 3000 shillings a month. Divided by thirty days, that’s 100 shillings a day. They get room and board – and 100 shillings a day. For at least 8 hours’ work a day – if not more – washing, cleaning, cooking, childcare, and shopping – that’s about 12 shillings an hour.
Now here’s where it gets fun. And terribly uncomfortable. And where I just had to pause for a second and mark that God put me here to show me my own sin-filled two-faced heart. Kenyans pay other Kenyans $.20/hour. We pay our Kenyan househelp $.83/hour. Four times as much – but we don’t give them room and board. AND – I resent that I have to pay her anything. Not because I don’t want to pay her but because I have to pay anyone. Yes, I’m that stingy. And also because I’ve finally gotten used to not converting everything to dollars – because it’s unhelpful and I just pay too much for everything and am too generous – and because I don’t like how I just pay for stuff left and right and there’s no money coming in. There’s no money coming in – because it’s already in and there’s plenty in the bank at home. But in my weird little mind, it just doesn’t feel good. I don’t like the idea of paying anybody money every week for something I used to do just fine on my own. Never mind that I had a dishwasher, a Laundromat or laundry facilities close by, and easy access to easy-to-cook food. I know I’m a walking contradiction, and walking contradictions get awful tired of being the way they are.
So I live in this distressing dichotomy that runs on and on in my head – “some people in the world live on a dollar a day” I used to inform others with a shake of my head…and now I begrudge the person I pay about a dollar a day that dollar!! It’s too much to take in most of the time, and so I don’t because I can’t. But it catches up with me without fail – and I wonder how the walking contradiction is going to resolve herself. How is she going to land? How the heck is she ever going to return home and not be even more muddled? How is she going to figure things out here in the time being? How will things ever cohere? I don’t know…but I write everything down, and put it all to the side so I can focus on the schoolwork I’ve just neglected for the past hour. And wait to figure it all out the next time I pop popcorn in Kenya.
– a few weeks later –
We hear others pay 3000/month for their househelp to cook 2 meals/day, 5 days/week, and clean their place. Josephine names her own price at 1800/month for 2 meals/day, 4 days/week, and just cleaning of public areas. That’s less than $1/day. I ask if we shouldn’t offer her more. The others say not to, she’s named her own pay.