My internship experience so far has been interesting because I have not been able to start it yet. Since my internship is in Nairobi, Kenya I needed a special internship visa in order to work. I submitted the necessary documents in February, with an anticipated start date of September 16, 2019. However, my visa has just been approved, almost 8 months later with a new start date of October 7th.
While this delay did mean that I wasn’t able to start working immediately, I have learned so much about Kenya’s culture and way of life. During these past two weeks I decided to critically examine the various aspects of East African culture and compare it to life in Canada. Within the first few days I came to notice that there are similar aspects to both lifestyles but also very different. Firstly, it appeared that some aspects of the West, such as our style and music was adopted in Kenya. Many of the young adults in the city were dressed in jeans and listened to hip-hop music that had similar beats to hip-hop music in the West, sung in Swahili. The influence of the Western culture on Kenya intrigued me and I found an article that discussed these issues in more depth. It mentioned that many East African countries are “localizing the global” (Githiora, 2008) by integrating many aspects of the West into their own culture. I found this article very useful as it helped me better understand the impact that Western society has on the rest of the world.
In Kenya it appears that there is a very small middle class; you either earn enough to get by or are living a life of luxury. One interesting difference is that many people don’t have bank accounts. Instead they use something called M-pesa which is an account that is connected to your phone number. On this account, you can store and send money to any other phone number. Many people here have informal jobs where they earn small amounts of money and their income varies from day to day. In Kenya, it seems like everyone is an entrepreneur, coming up with their own ways to earn a living. The notion of saving is not as prevalent here as people are still constantly working to make sure there is enough food for the week. This was an interesting contrast from Canada as I realised that our society is set up differently; people need bank accounts if they work because they are earning more and are usually saving a portion of their earnings.
Another huge difference was the traffic. When I left Vaughan, I was so excited to leave the congestion and constant construction in the city. But little did I realize that Mombasa and Nairobi have a lot of traffic too! Although, they face different challenges than we do in Canada. While in Vaughan, traffic is caused mainly from construction and the high volume of cars during rush hour; in Kenya the roads are not constructed to deal with the large volumes of cars on the road. While driving, we usually have to stop or slow down to go over mounds of dirt/rocks on the road or swerve to avoid huge potholes. There are traffic lights in Mombasa, but they are not followed. Instead, it is whoever fights their way through the traffic can go. There are some police officers present to direct traffic, but I have mostly only seen them during rush hour. It is a common saying that if you can drive in Africa/India you can drive anywhere, and I definitely believe that. In addition to no traffic lights, road signage is minimal so one must rely on landmarks or their inner sense of direction to get by.
In Canada, poverty is prevalent, but not to the same extent as here. In Mombasa, there are usually people at most street corners sitting and begging. Even though I have only been here for two weeks, seeing poverty every day is hard especially because you can’t possibly help everyone. It appears that people here in Mombasa are accustomed to seeing these inequalities, as they don’t seem as phased as I do; but every time I see them my heart still sinks a little bit. I always think that the only difference between us is that we may have been born into different circumstances. Yes, people may have made wrong choices as well but at the core it could have been that they were dealing with different proximal and structural factors in their life. I am also aware that this is a temporary lifestyle for me, and any time that I don’t feel comfortable I can return home to Canada. Whereas for most people living on the street, that is their reality every day and they usually don’t have somewhere else to go.
I am having an ethical dilemma in deciding who to give money when they ask and if it may be better to simply give food. Before leaving for my internship, I discussed this ongoing conflict with my internship coordinator as it is a problem that is quite personal, and the answer can vary based on one’s values. This is a challenge that I am planning on working through during my months here and I hope to find a suitable answer to this situation.
These experiences have allowed me to re-assess my expectations of my internship and understand that everything operates differently here. It is not fair of me to try to impose my Canadian ideals here because things do not operate in the same way. While I have learned more about the culture and how is differs from Canada, I am excited to start working at the hospital and working through the various learning goals I have set for myself to hopefully achieve while in Nairobi.
Githiora, C. (2008). East African culture, language and society. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 1-2.