Among my first visions of Kenya: darkness, potholes, and eerie stick structures illuminated by the bouncing headlights. I really wasn’t sure what they could be. The tarp draped over them glared back through the night.
I arrived in Muguga, where I was spending the summer as an intern. For the first few days in the guesthouse, I was alone. It got dark around 6pm, so after work I sat in my room and quietly gnawed on protein bars that I had brought along for the long plane rides. I refused to pay the relatively expensive $10 equivalent charged by the guesthouse for dinner, given my tight student budget. I was by myself, in rural Kenya, and the only apparent buildings around belonged to the various governmental research institutions where I was working. Exploring solo after dark didn’t seem smart. So, you see, I didn’t know how to find food.
Early on my first Saturday morning there, I was joined by my fellow student, now co-worker, B. The day would be long if we didn’t have any meals after the guesthouse breakfast. We resolved to venture out together in search of the village we were told was nearby, and off we went. We asked a man we encountered on the road where to go, and he pointed the wrong way. Our quick American accents probably didn’t help our case.
After tramping along, passing soccer matches complete with vuvuzelas, surrounded by shouts of “mzungu!,” we realized this couldn’t be the right way. I’m not sure how we oriented ourselves, but the detour was worth it. After a short trek, we were mostly alone, on a red dirt road, by a field full of hopping widow birds, under the wide expanse of sky. I couldn’t help but look up and circle slowly around. I was, most certainly, in East Africa, far from home. Even the sky felt different.
We found our way through the golden field, in and out of a forest, bamboo towering high, and back on the road to Nderi, the village B and I had been aiming for all along. Walking along the potholey road I realized the ominous stick structures I had glimpsed on my night drive in were in fact benign fruit stands, vegetable stands, other stands. Food. But, still a little shy, B and I headed into a small, dimly lit store, a place seeming vaguely more familiar. We bought peanut butter, jelly, bread, mangoes, oranges, bottled water, juice. Simple, no stove necessary.
We soon tired of mangoes, but after a short time we moved to a dormitory in the complex where we were working and gained access to a tank of gas topped by a burner. We progressed from PB&J to stir fries, omelets, and other more complex meals after learning what to buy where. We adjusted quickly enough.
Abroad, you can be like a child, ignorant of the simplest processes. You need to learn anew how to glide through society, or at least stumble your way. So many things work differently; at first in Kenya we knew so little. Food, transportation, using cell phones — all had to be explained to us.
The more you travel, the more you learn. But the more you shrink beneath the expanse of the earth, for you realize the knowledge you gain pales in comparison to everything in this world and beyond. You know more exists than you could ever possibly touch. You may venture into more spaces and adapt, but in some instances, you are helpless. This fact comes down, like a hammer on the head.
We are all small and ignorant. Recognizing this, though, demonstrates a wisdom. As our horizons broaden, we diminish in comparison, but the view is wider.