Growing up in Kibera – considered the largest and most impoverished slum in Africa – one of the main sources of entertainment and relaxation during weekends was watching movies and music videos in the many of its video shops. These video shops brought the western world, especially America closer to us. Therefore, even though I rarely traveled outside Kibera, I felt as informed and exposed to the world as any other privileged child. Most of the movies on show were American and Asian. My favourite Hollywood actors were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren. I also liked Chinese martial arts movies and would imagine myself being able to fight off hundreds of people singularly just like Jacky Chan did in his movies.
One of the constant images in some of the American movies was the Statue of Liberty. The music videos espoused a good and easy life reminiscent of the biblical Canaan – flowing with milk and honey. American society and lifestyle seemed to me as the epitome of the ideal life – a melting pot of different cultures and races where everyone was treated humanely and given a fare chance at achieving their dreams and aspirations. After high school, through my involvement in youth community work and thanks to the United Nations, I got the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world to attend various conferences. However, I still had the yearning to travel to America and experience in person her culture and lifestyle just like I had been watching in movies and music videos.
In September last year, KI gave me an opportunity to travel to New York to attend our annual KI golf outing. I was excited and could not wait. Finally I was going to the USA and particularly a state where I would be able to visit Liberty Island and see the Statue of Liberty in person. My first shock came when applying for a visa. The process made me feel like was applying to go to heaven. More shock awaited me when I went for my visa interview at the US embassy in Nairobi. From where I was sitting as I waited for my turn to be called to one of the counters to be interviewed, I could hear one of the officials on the other side of the counter. A youthful Kenyan man was pleading with a visa officer who had just told him that she wasn’t convinced that the young man would come back to Kenya after the visit. The officer sounded quite haughty. The young man left crying. A lady sited next to me whispered to me that she was hoping that she wouldn’t be interviewed by the haughty lady. I just nodded and smiled as another visa applicant left another counter crying. Fortunately, my application was approved and I packed my bags.
One of the things I enjoyed was being able to move around New York alone with the aid of a map. Every night or early morning I would be given the directions to the venue of my next meeting and the time that I needed to be there by my boss, KI Founder Tim Challen. He was born in Switzerland and I am sure he was born with a watch on his wrist – he hates being late. If I was to link up with Tim in the course of the day for onward engagements together, we would meet at the information center at Central Station at an agreed time. One day I got lost in the subway. I wasn’t able to do a connection to my destination. Since I was running late I would have instantly asked for directions but for an experience the previous day. I had been walking in midtown Manhattan when I saw Trump tower at fifth avenue between East 56th street and East 57th street. I had to take a photo of the building, in fact I had to take a photo of me with the building in the background – the building was synonymous with the TV series ‘The Apprentice’ which I had diligently followed during its first seasons. I tried taking several ‘selfies’ but wasn’t able to properly capture the name ‘Trump tower’ in the background. So I decided to ask a passerby to help me. The first three passersby vigorously shook their heads and scurried away even before I uttered a word to them. Maybe they thought I was asking for some change. Thankfully, the fourth agreed but from then on, I became reluctant about asking for help – perceived more as nuisance than a person needing assistance. In the subway, I was finally able to find my way to the right platform thanks to superb signage.
The most memorable time for me was when Tim and I volunteered to help out in a soup kitchen in the city, organized by our friend Brion, who is the President of KI USA. He has been volunteering there for a number of years and was familiar with some of the regulars. Most of those who had volunteered to help out were white. We were oriented on how we were to go about helping serve food and given aprons. We were told to be gentle and wear a smile while serving. When we stepped into the dining hall we were met by tens of eyes looking at us sparkling with desire – homeless people or persons living in difficult conditions. I could sense in them a supreme temptation to tell us to hurry up. I instantly became self conscious and uncomfortable. Almost all of them were black and a few Hispanics. They were seated around tables chatting and waiting to be served. Some were just quiet and blankly stared at us.For a moment I thought of telling Tim that I wasn’t comfortable but I pushed the thought out of my mind, swallowed hard and went on with it. My role would be to move around with a jug of hot coffee replenishing for those who wanted more or hadn’t gotten any. I was supposed to go to every table asking “Anyone wants more coffee please?”
I did several rounds serving coffee. Some of them would feel irritated that I kept going to their table. Some of them would simply look at me with a glare, their cheeks flushing. I would make a mental note not to go back to those tables. I noticed that some of the homeless persons preferred to be served by white volunteers and would beckon at them constantly. The uncomfortable feeling kept gnawing me and I decided to go help out washing dishes in the kitchen. I haven’t been able to come to terms as to why the soup kitchen visit stood out for me. Maybe it was because there were no Schwarzerneggers and Stallones– the US superheroes I was used to seeing on TV.
Overall, the visit to New York was informative, enjoyable and eye opening. I learnt that not everything is what it seems, and that the heroes are more likely to be in a soup kitchen than in Hollywood. The USA is full of contrasts, the land of extreme ambitions but also despair and divisions – not that much different from Kenya, just a completely different context. I made many friends, and kept some fantastic memories.
And by the way, I did go back to Kenya – my home.