Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
As my classmates, (Rotary Peace Fellows, Class 15) walked out of the campus, I could see them looking at me wondering what was wrong with me. I could feel the arrows of pity, care and concern for me. What they didn’t know is that at that very time, I also pitied them – especially the men! I sympathized with men, who to me looked so vulnerable! “Dear God, please give peace to these male classmates of mine and change them to act like Kenyan men,” I prayed for them silently.
As the rest of my classmates boarded the van towards some Vietnamese restaurant, I walked towards the university canteen for my supper; far better than one I eat back home.
The following day they were all around me trying to ask me why I don’t want to go for dinner. They were worried that maybe I am homesick. They sought for an explanation. I looked at them and internally I was also asking all of them the very same questions they were asking me.
I wasn’t odd; I was only being village-like; they weren’t strange; they were only being Western-like. No conflict there.
But how do I put my explanation, I thought to myself. Some words are better not spoken. Maybe the words are better put in writing – as cultural conflict analysis.
My Western friends (or have I partitioned them to the west?) talk of foods and mixtures of fruits with rather funny names. In the midst of all these, I wonder: are there not only the two types of fruits I know of? Mangoes and oranges? My classmates talk of salad; I only know of Salad to be a name of Somalis from northern Kenya! I have been to some of these fancy restaurants in Bangkok, such as Cabbages & Condoms, thanks to my fellow Peace Fellows. But I walked in hungry and came out hungrier. The food was only a few ounces! At first I thought that they are bringing something more. Only to be told, that was the dinner. To a village man? Surprisingly, the Western Peace Fellows were all praising the food. As we walked out, I pitied these men who to me were mysterious.
Village men don’t go for quality but rather quantity of food. We eat to survive and not to enjoy. Village men cherish pot-bellies. The kind of food served won’t give me the necessary pot-belly, I thought. A pot-belly, to an African, it is status symbol, a public opinion. Again I knew that these Peace Fellows won’t understand; because they have never lived in my village. A looming conflict!
These are the words; from the Kenyan village man, spoken with the heart and not the tongue.
Kenyan men don’t talk variety of foods, cuisines, marmalades, cheeses, pastries, etc. (not that as typical village man I know what all those names represent); the Kenyan men talk of number of beer bottles. The greatness of an evening is measured by the number of beer bottles emptied. To an average Kenyan, a man drinking is both a right and a rite. Unlike the light-skinned men who talk of restaurants, the Kenyan men talk of beer dens, makuti, choma base, karumanindos, etc.
Average Kenyan men don’t go to dinners; they go to drink. They don’t follow foods; they follow drinks-lager, which in turn attract foods. They don’t talk of variety of foods; they talk of only one type of food: goat meat and ugali.
It is unimaginable for an average Kenyan man to start talking of this food or that food in public. It is frowned at. Food-talks are for women and children; men don’t eat, they drink. The only drink seeming to appease the Westerners is coffee. Again this is alien and odd to an average Kenyan man. We talk of tea.
When in beer dens, Kenyan men listen to music, rhumba lyrics, with ancient (1950s-1970/80s beats); because at some point their chairs can no longer hold them down. Average Kenyan men drink in third rate dens. Such places are not in Bangkok. I will take home big time stories; foreign men eating with tools and implements. Rural men use their fingers for eating.
Every time I hear that as a class we are going for dinner, I twitch. Then for sure I know that there is conflict.
Kenyan men, (most especially the village folks, where I belong) do not talk about gifts and greetings sent to them by their daughters, instead they talk of number of cows that their daughters are going to fetch them in bride price. I have even heard men in class 15 talk about their children’s birthdays back at home. Besides not knowing the exact date I was born, I don’t remember exactly when it is the last time I celebrated (or commemorated) my children’s birthdays. This is such a typical man from the village. It looks odd, but it would be odder if I dwelt on birthdays. More conflict.
As of now one of those village men has found himself between hard rock and a wall. The journey of a 1,000 miles has brought the village man more than 8,000 km from his village. This is where the junior village elder meets men who are different from men; at least from the understanding of the word “men” as in the village.
In the village, we don’t call women by name; we only to make a slight cough and any woman within a radius of 21 meters dashes to your call. With a bow! I have made numerous coughs here, like a village elder, and no woman even turns to look at me. What is wrong with these women, I wonder. Or I’m the one who is wrong? In my village women serve men; but here it is the men who serve the women. The gods must be crazy!
Yet again, another cause of conflict. You can take a man from the village, but you can’t the village out of the man. Can you?
The man from Romasanda village has conflict within himself; he neither behaves like an average Kenyan nor an average village man. I bear a perfect blend of the of two breeds; for I neither drink nor eat but just watch the trees, magnificent buildings and superhighways, the sky-trains and the roadside food stalls. I am having the best of life in Bangkok.
Every single day is fresh and new; full of excitements. My ears have grown taller; with desire to listen stories from far away. My tongue has run dry in the quest to ask more and more questions. I learn with consternation from Steven Brimley that there are tribes in USA. I learn that Pakistan is a safe country; India has different categories of Indians, and that all Indians aren’t Hindu. I also learn that until recently Hong Kong was a British colony and her inhabitants speak English unlike their counterparts in Shianghai. I learn so many things; and the single story about peoples and countries is no more.
I am mesmerized by the insight and grasp of issues by my classmates; intellectuals of high caliber. At first it is difficult to pick out words from accents hitherto unaccustomed. But three weeks down the line, we all speak the same tribal language with the same accent. Akis has even taught me what the fridge is best used for. We have bonded so much with each other that it will be difficult to detach when the time to part comes. The conflict is resolved!
George Chacha, Kenya
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session