There are some phenomena here that confuse me. And I’m not the only one. Conversations with other volunteers, especially those of us who work outside that oddity called Nairobi, reveal a common sense of bewilderment at “the way things are” in Kenya.

I’m developing a theory. I really don’t know if it’s close to the truth, but its giving me some amusement; when things don’t make sense to me I try and reevaluate them according to my theory and the results are supprising.

This is a kind of work in progress for me. I wanted to come up with a list of convincing examples and post them all here together with my theory.

Sounds like I’m trying to apply scientific method to my life. :rolleyes:

That’s not going to happen because I can never remember more than a couple of examples at one time. Here’s one to get us started: Kenyan road-rules.

Another is the fact that, especially in rural homes, children get given rubbish food like Ugali (maize meal and water) while their fathers get meat (when its available, which is’t often). But when good things are on the table, the chilidren can be found in aother room eating their own food which is, generally, of poor nutritional content.

And the theory…. its all about status. The reason this stuff seems odd to me is because my framework for judgement is based on utility. Things make sense to me when they work, benefits are in the form of increases utility or efficiency. In Kenya people seek benefits in the form of increased status. And not only personal status, there are well known hierarchies here, like the The Most Metal Wins, and people do things to serve or preserve those hierarchies which, when viewed in the light of utility, look daft.

Time to reevaluate.


  1. Chris Says:

    Seeking enhanced status regardless of whether it benefits you (or even the opposite) in any material or utilitarian way is pretty common wherever you live, don’t you think?

    e.g. there are plenty of people here in the UK and elsewhere forking out $$$ every month for satellite TV but then saving money by buying very poor quality supermarket food….

    If you think Nairobi is bewildering, you should try being in London at the moment. Second 4-way bomb attack in a fortnight yesterday (albeit a failed one this time), and this afternoon police shot a man dead on a tube-train.

    Have a non-scary weekend!

  2. africanbeautie Says:

    "Another is the fact that, especially in rural homes, children get given rubbish food like Ugali (maize meal and water) while their fathers get meat (when its available, which is’t often).

    This is too general and quit harsh :(!it depends with which rural homes you visited in kenya,most parts are quite different.try ours or many more:they are little heavens!!

    corrections please,Ugali is not rubbish,a good source of starch pherhaps,better still checkout on the ingredients of the "rubbish"!!! suprising eh???? 😛

    And a question please can you come up with a thery out of your own attitude?

    waiting for the answer !

  3. Lydia Says:

    Hi! What you observe is very similar to children’s status in the UK until very recently. The man of the house would get meat while the children had bread and dripping or potatoes or similar with the reasoning that the man had to go out and earn the money to support the family by manual labour and so required the different diet. In the same vein, when the National Health Service first started in the UK, an astonishing number of women appeared in medical centres for the first time – when treatment and medics had to be paid for it was the men who got it because the family income depended upon them being fit for paid work – women were deemed to be able to run the house without being fully fit or well fed. African beautie, I dont know who you are but you seem quite annoyed with Mark – please let me tell you that he is one of the most open minded and self analytical people you will come across, do not judge him by the yardstick of other white people you may have encountered. He is wonderful.

  4. will Says:

    Rural kenya, like most rural africa, is by nature tribal. Not better or worse than western or eastern societies. They are organized around the main provider of the family, ie male labour. Power structure is very clear in the community as well as at home.

    I like your approach, Dr.

  5. Mark Says:

    Ugali by itself is not good food. Its starch content gives the feeling of being satisfied but if one eats that alone, because someone else has first call to the meat, one can become malnurished without ever going hungry. Add sukuma wiki and you’re on the way to a good meal. If there is meat, so much the better.

    And a question please can you come up with a thery out of your own attitude?

    African Beautie, I’m not absolutely sure what your question is asking for but since this blog has, as I hoped it would, sparked some lively debate and participation, I intend to respond to what you have written as best I can.

    This theory *is* out of my own attitude. It is my nature to make theories in order to understand the world and my place in it. A large slice of my reason for coming here as a volunteer was so that I would have this opportunity to observe a differenct culture and its value system and learn from it. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever had to learn precisely because I look at the world from within my own own attitude. To be fair perhaps I ought to have presented this theory as one for explainin the pecularieties of Bitterjug himself: – that his value system is one based frequently on issues of utility. When encountering a society that has a different value system the result is often bewilderment. Here, with this controversial theory, I have the first glimmer of a different way of thinking which, when I consiously adopt it (for it does not come naturally* to me) things start to make sense. I have no idea whether this is what is really going on or not, but it heps me make sense of what I am experiencing.

    * In this case **nature** has a lot to do with **nurture** because I think my own value system is a produt of my own experiences, upbrinigng and education. I don’t think it is an intrinsic part of me.

    Here is another thing that has stumped me since I have been here: classroom behaviour. OK OK I don’t want to start ranting about what it’s been like for me trying to teach in classrooms over here, you can read enough of that on previous posts here. One way in which I can explain my (considerable) frustrations in the classroom is to apply the status theory. Teachers are respected. They have a venerated position and, to a certain extent, they are expected to tell students what to think. Some of the teaching battles I have fought in the past can, at least in part, be explained by considering the status hierarchy i the classroom and how what I was doing threatened to turn this on its head.

    This is not a solely Kenyan phenomenon. I was equally frustrated teaching on Diploma classes in the UK too where it seemed students actually **wanted** to be told what the answer was: what to think. But whe I obsinately refused to do that in the UK, my students demonstrated an ability to adapt. This ability has not been demonstrated in my classrooms here in Kenya.

    As Chris and Lydia have pointed out, behaviour intended to increase personal status is common in the UK too. This I’m not doubting. I’m coming to grips with my own experience of this and how it has affected me. Sure I do things to increase my own status: I studied for a PhD after all, what’s that about? But, as far as I am aware (and Im interested in any stories that contradict this) for the most part I have rejected this as the basis of my personal value system. Given that the objective of a classroom is for students to learn and for the teacher to facilitate this, it seems that the students should be empowered to speak and share their own ideas and opinions be they smart or foolish, wrong or right. In the name of nutrtition, when there is good food to be consumed, the course of most utility, according to me, is to share it equally and to make sure that those whose bodies are growing recieve an adequate share rather than giving them starch and reserving the lions share of protien for those who have already matured. In the name of road safety, it makes more sense if the more fragile vehicles (and pedestrians) are given a right of way and those better protected and more maneuverable vehicles be made to give way to them.

    I’m certainly not trying to claim that every family in rural Kenya give a diet of pure cornstarch to their children. One of the potentially bewildering things I have had to deal with here is my friend Benard telling me that he had decided to give the same food to his trainees as to his guests at the prize giving ceremony he invited me to speak at. I didn’t undersrtand what he was saying, what else would he do? He told me (and of course Im taking his word for this) that it is common to give meat to guiest speakers at such events while the students themselves get githeri.

    And before anyone gets on my case, githeri is good food being a mixture of beans and maize, but it is less expensive to prepare and also (consequently?) liss prestigious than meat stew.

    Lydia, thank you for your support. African Beautie, please explain what you meant by your question about the question being from my attitude.

  6. africanbeautie Says:

    Hi lydia,
    i have no problem with Mark!Dont jugde me yet.Remember this is a discussion right?Letmi be open here,i do not want us to be personal,i was just trying to give illustrations of the writer’s attitude,pls check out on the areas i have refferenced above!

    Ldia i have no reason to be annoyed with mark,so far i have not had any encounter with whites as you stated,make sure you understand the basis of my allegations.

    The issue is,even though you are coming up with a theory(in my opinion) do not expose a negative attitude towards a people-to be specific kenyans.When i saw that information,the first idea i got is that this person has had his own experiences in Kenya,thus built a negative attitude and thus goes ahead to come up with a theory out of the axperiences.

    Am i right?

  7. Mark Says:

    You’re right (if "this person" refers to me). I have had some experiences of my own in Kenya and, as must be the case, I have reacted to them. Sometimes my reactions were bad. You can bet I’ve sworn about "kenyans" and thereby, in one breath, generalized about a people and exhibited negative attitude. Now, this week, Im processing some of what I’ve experienced. Look at the next post.

    Once again I claim my right to express my own opinions on this site (What I interpret from your "expose negative attitude"). I’m not proud of some of them but if I hide them, nothing will change. I disagree with will’s comment on the next post: I think it is prejudice. What I hope to be able to do through this medium is introduce a bit of post-judice and, if and where necessary (according to my own value system, of course!) make adjustments to my attitude based on better understanding.

  8. Mark Says:

    That winking 😉 smilie in my previous comment was not supposed to be there, I must have typed the semicolon before the close bracket by mistake. IT looks cheeky and I did not intend it to be so, it represents the end of my parenthesis, not a cheeky wink, damn this technology! :confused:

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