I began to love Kenya when I moved to Nyandarua District, a largely rural area, in 1971, but my first few months in the country, when I had temporary quarters in Nairobi, the capital city, were disheartening. Everywhere I went, I encountered racial self-segregation so strict one might almost think the era of British colonial rule was not yet over.
Africans kept to themselves as did Europeans (which is what people like me were called) and Asians (primarily people whose ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent). As a graduate student anxious to improve my rudimentary Swahili, and to gain insight into African life, spending my time with Europeans, some of whom addressed African workers as “boy”, was not what I had bargained for.
There were other reasons why it was not always pleasant being restricted to the company of others like me. A lot of Europeans were unhappy in Kenya, and quick to find fault with it. A favourite topic was the position of Kenyan women. It was not unusual to see an African woman carrying a 50-pound bag of potatoes, walking behind her husband, who was unencumbered. I was not trying to find fault with Kenya, but I had to admit that such scenes did not cast the country in a favourable light.
Later, when I was doing my research in Nyandarua, my research assistant, an African student whose home was in the area, explained the male-female division of labour by saying, “A man should walk proudly.” That was obviously not a satisfactory explanation. From my reading of anthropology and history, and from discussions with Africans, I gathered a better explanation: In traditional African society, women were responsible for child-rearing, housework, and farm labour, while men defended home and village against enemies and did the hardest job of all, clearing bush. That mollified me, but didn’t justify current practises.
At the same time, I learned other, more edifying things about African society. For example, if a young adult prospered, thanks to an education paid for by family and relatives, it was taken for granted that the first major acquisition made possible by a middle-class salary would be a piece of land and a house for aging parents.
As I was doing my research, and reflecting on these matters, I also established good personal relations with various Africans. It happened a couple of times that, when I got to know someone well enough that he felt comfortable raising potentially controversial questions, he would turn to me and — in a manner that signalled his expectation of an answer in the negative — ask: “Is it true that, in your country, they put old people away in homes?”
To them, it was an unthinkable barbarity for a successful young person to commit aging parents to the care of strangers instead of taking personal responsibility for their well-being. For me, it was embarrassing to have to answer that question truthfully.
Half a lifetime later, I am reasonably confident that, with the passage of time, there will be less and less Kenyan women carrying 50-pound sacks of potatoes, while their men walk proudly, though I don’t expect that men will yield their traditional privileges easily. Nor will Canadians stop putting old people in homes. There is no perfect society, and neither Africa nor Canada are exceptions.