by David Zarembka
I suspect that we, my Kenyan wife, Gladys Kamonya and I, are Quakers who are members of the 1%. At least we are in my home town of Lumakanda in western Kenya. Here we are multi-millionaires in shillings, since there are 85 shillings to a US dollar so $11,764 makes one a millionaire. As far as I know, I am the only mzungu (stranger, white person) living in Lugari District, which has a population of about 200,000 people. But if you would come and visit us, you could “enjoy” life as one of the 1%, which you would be if you could afford the airfare to get here. Yet you would consider our living conditions as quite austere.
As I walk around town every morning for my exercise and to get the morning newspaper – we can afford to buy the newspaper every day which perhaps ten people end up reading – I am greeted by the little children, “Mzungu, How are you?” I respond, “I am fine. How are you?” Some come up excitedly to shake my hand. My wife Gladys sometimes gets annoyed that they ignore her and don’t greet her. Since my hair has now become white, older people are now calling me “mzee” which means “old man.” It took me a while to get over the negative connotations of this and accepted that here in Kenya that is a name of respect.
As an obvious member of the 1%, Kenyans, unlike Americans, are not at all reluctant to ask me for money – for school fees, for a sick relative, as a hand-out, and many other purposes. My response is to say that Gladys, since she is a member of the local community, is the one who deals with these requests and half the time the person asking me for money doesn’t even approach her. But then there are difficult cases as Gladys has 5 sisters, 2 children and 2 grandchildren, 23 nephews and nieces, and 86 first cousins, plus hundreds of other relatives who are, in Kenyan terms, closely related. I have difficulty keeping all of these people straight and sometimes Gladys has difficulty explaining to me how someone is related to her. I can’t count the number of relatives we have helped on their road to a more productive life, usually through education and training. Also since we are member of a community that believes in helping with life’s needs, we are always donating to marriages, funerals, medical expenses, and other basic needs. Gladys is the one who decides the appropriate amount to give in these situations.
We are one of only three out of two hundred members of Lumakanda Friends Church who have a vehicle. Normally at the offering on Sunday, Gladys and I contribute 20% to 25% of the total amount collected – our offering is about $3. We have to balance doing our fair share – tell me, as one of the 1%, how much this is? – and not flaunting our wealth in front of the other 99% attending our church.
I’ve been doing this balancing act for years so I am used to it – to walk with the rich and not lose the common touch. We lived here in Lumakanda during the 2008 post-election violence. I could have signed up to be evacuated by the US government if needed and they would have taken Gladys with me. But that would mean we would leave all her relatives behind. Is that fair? Moreover with my connections to the wider world including email and cell phone coverage, I might have been able to help and protect other members of our family or our neighbours and church members. So I didn’t sign up to be evacuated.
Back in the United States, which we visit once or twice per year, we lose our status of the 1%. In fact, we are in that lower 47% that “sponges” off the government because we don’t owe any federal income taxes. No one asks me for money. The children don’t greet me as some unusual creature. And our donation to our meeting hardly dents its annual budget. Our vehicle is ten years old and our house is in a poverty neighborhood because that is all we can afford in affluent Montgomery County outside Washington, DC.
When I first began going back and forth from Africa and the US in the 1960s, I had a good deal of culture shock when I returned to the US. When I came back from Africa then after four years, I remember reacting when my cousin smashed a plastic gallon milk carton, “People in Kenya could use that to draw water!”
Yet all these differences are superficial. Ironically, Gladys and I live more or less the same life-style in the US and Kenya. In the US our lifestyle is “Quaker simplicity” while in western Kenya we are the super-rich. This illustrates the structural inequality in the world.
David is the coordinator of the Africa Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes region. To donate to AGLI’s programmes go to www.friendspeaceteams.org.
This article was originally published by Quaker Life.