Saturday, July 08, 2006
So a few observations. Its been like a month or so since I’ve made a “proper post”, in which I provide a short essay combining something I saw with something I’ve read, or hell, even a post where I just say what I did. It has even been like two weeks since I’ve even posted some photos. I guess that has to do with the fact that the more the summer started to confirm with how I expected it would be (traveling around in the field, visiting communities, and meeting organizations), the less I’ve had time to write and reflect. Its an interesting paradox- when I was a bit bored with sitting in an office, I managed to scrutinize and wring every little bit of analytic value out of every single thing I did (not only mundane things such as seeing a mosquito, riding a bus, or eating a meal, but also every small trip I took). However, as I’ve gone on more substantial trips, my writing (and reflecting as a proxy) has fallen off precipitously. While the whole “the more I see, the less I understand” line is a bit trite, it is definitely true that the more data you acquire, the less time you can devote to analyzing any one piece of information.
However, even more shocking than the fact that I haven’t blogged in ages is the fact that I leave in 11 days. This has had two effects on me; one is to force me to slow down a bit and start reflecting on everything I’ve done in the last 3-4 weeks, leading me to sit down and start writing again. The other is to make me realize that there is no way I’m going to be able to do and see everything I want to do and see in the time I have left. On the surface, this would seem to militate against the whole “sitting and reflecting” impulse; however I realized that the best way to waste the time I have left would be to rush around like a maniac, and so decided to spend today doing a little bit of reflecting about what I think I do understand, what I don’t understand, and what/who I would need to see/read/talk to patch up those holes. While this may lead to some incidental blogging, what is more likely is that I’ll continue posting some Africa-inspired essays (and extra photos) after I return, and the blog segues from the straight-up travelblog it never was into the academic/music/news blog I hope it will become.
One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is language and communication. As Matt Cushman has observed on several occasions, understanding others who don’t speak your language is certainly possible by carefully observing body language and other non-verbal cues;that is, what poker players call tells. I haven’t picked up on this so strongly, and this might be for a couple of reasons. One might be that “reading people” is the part of poker that I’ve always been the worst at, and there is certainly some truth in that. However, a bigger factor that might be at play is that most of the Kenyans that I’ve encountered are simply using a slightly different “physical vocabulary” from that with which I’m familiar. So therefore, even if I do recognize tells or other gestures, they may not in fact mean what I think they mean. In some ways, I think this can actually lead to greater communication problems and misunderstandings than simple vocabulary deficiencies. Having no idea what someone is saying is annoying but generally avoidable; thinking you know what someone means, when you in fact are way off can lead you quite deeply into considerable confusion.
Similarly, I think even most language-based problems that I’ve encountered are less tied to a complete lack of comprehension, and more due to an inability of me to understand a Kenyan who is speaking English that is grammatically correct, but which uses Swahili idioms and manners of expression. Something that has been extremely in realizing this, and which has gone together nicely with my piece-meal, haphazard acquisition of Kiswahili. For a long time, I found it puzzling that most Kenyans to whom I said “Hi” replied “Fine”, until I learned that the greeting “Jambo!” idiomatically means “How are you?”, to which the response “Mzuri” means fine. However, because Jambo is usually literally translated as just “Hi”, the odd mismatch I noted above occurs frequently.
This all leads me back to dead horse that I’ve continued to beat throughout this trip… culture and context matter immensely. For instance, when I was just up in Nanyuki, a small town on the equator that overlooks Mount Kenya, I spent some time hanging out with some guys who run a small second-hand clothes kiosk. I struck up a conversation with them when I noticed that one of the guys, Steve, was wearing a shirt that said “Red Neck. Blue Collar.” When I explained to him what a “redneck” was, he was quite amused- however my efforts to persuade him to grow a mullet were in vein. Along similar lines, Steve and his buddy Peter helped me satisfy my own cultural-irony-seeking urges by helping me obtain my very own “Ngombe” hat. Ngombe means “cow” in Kiswahili (quite appropriate, given my work with cattle herders), and is also the name of a barbed wire company who made these hats and gave them out to farmers. Thus, as I walk around Nairobi, I certainly hope I’ll be able to give numerous Kenyans the enjoyment that I received from seeing a Kenyan wearing a shirt that identified him with the NASCAR watching/Bush-Voting demographic.
Oh, and also… beach happens.