Who is your neighbor?
Hope in the heartland amid
tears for her homeland
By David Myers
Southwest Kansas Register
At about three-fourths the size of Texas, Kenya boasts more than 42 spoken languages, the most common of which is Swahili -- followed closely by English.
Which is why Shirley Kithuka (Kee-thoo-ka), 20, a student from the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya and now living in Great Bend, speaks fluent English with only a lilting accent marking her African birth.
“Swahili is the national language,” Kithuka said. “Everybody speaks it. That’s what brings us together. There are 42 tribes in Kenya; that’s 42 different languages. If we didn’t have Swahili, we wouldn’t know what we were talking about because there are too many people.” Kithuka came to Great Bend six months ago to begin pre-law studies at Barton County Community College. There she resides with her brother, who has been a resident of Great Bend for 10 years, and his wife, a native Kansan.
With an intelligence and maturity beyond her 20 years, she spoke to the Register from the inside of St. Rose of Lima Church in Great Bend, where she shared some of her impressions of the United States and Kansas, and talked about her homeland.
“I arrived in Washington and flew from there to Kansas City,” she said. “Then my brother drove me down here. It’s very different in so many ways. I have never seen snow in my life. I’ve never experienced this kind of frigid weather.
“Also, there are a lot of fast food chains in America. That’s what I noticed most: McDonalds, McDonalds, McDonalds, Wendy’s. It’s hard for me to adjust to the food. We cook with a lot of spices. People here tend not to like spices.”
Even though her home town of Mombasa is second only in size to the capitol city of Nairobi, she said Mombasa is much more “laid back” than the capitol city.
“It’s a five minute walk from my house to the beach,” she said. “I miss the ocean a lot. We like to cook in the house and eat outside. Here it’s unfathomable,” at least in the wintertime.
In describing Nairobi, she could well be describing any large, metropolitan area in the United States: “Moving, moving, moving. Everyone is busy. Nobody has time for you.” But her description is quick to dispel one of many misconceptions Americans have of Kenya and other African nations.
“Number one, Africans do not live on trees,” she said with a chuckle and a shake of her head. “We’re pretty advanced. There’s not much difference. They think Africa is backward.
“Africa is diverse in the number of languages. Many people think if you’re from Africa you speak the same language. Someone asked me if I speak ‘African.’”
The most striking differences between the Kenyan and American cultures she has noticed have to do with the youth of the two countries – bittersweet differences that shed both a positive and negative light on each nation.
“In Kenya, decisions are made by your parents,” she explained. “You listen to your parents. It’s pretty serious. When you are 18 you can start to make some strong decisions. But as long as you’re in your parent’s household you’re supposed to be respectful enough to just pretty much listen to your parents. I find that here, kids have the freedom to argue with their parents and decide for themselves if they want to move out when they’re 16 or 18.
“It’s has its pros and cons, because sometimes parents know better. Sometimes you should listen to your parents, and when you’re that age you don’t necessarily think about it that way. That’s the risk.”
School in Kenya is much more difficult because students must compete for the best high schools.
“It’s rigorous,” she said. “The stuff I’m doing in college now is just a review of what I did in high school. In Kenya it’s like a competition. You know the way Harvard is supposed to be the best? Well, they have schools like that for high schools. People in the eighth grade are working so hard to get the best grade to go into the best school.
“You don’t get to choose to drop out of high school. In Kenya, if you drop out, you’re friends would be like, ‘What are you doing?!’”
When asked what Kenyans could learn from Americans, she acknowledged that the schools could “loosen up a bit. It’s really a high stress level. When you’re that age, why should you have that high of stress? We could learn to loosen up.
“Also, our leaders could learn to stop being so ridiculous. They are greedy; they don’t know how to make decisions in the best interest of people. You entrust them with these positions of power and give them a chance to give you certain services, and they just get greedy all of the sudden and forget about why they’re there. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Not far beneath her intelligent and ambitious demeanor is a girl who is deeply homesick. There are more than 8,700 miles between Mombasa, Kenya, and Great Bend, Kansas, and Kithuka has wept for each one of them.
When she would become sad while at home in Mombasa, she would go to her Catholic church, sometimes sitting quietly, sometimes weeping softly until the blues lifted.
She’s had all too many such moments in Great Bend, sitting in St. Rose Church, thinking of her mother, father and brother she left behind, and of her beloved homeland. At St. Rose she may see the ghosts of the Swahili dancers in colorful dress bringing the gifts to the altar during Mass, something she misses dearly.
Kithuka isn’t sure when she’ll get to travel back home for a visit, but she knows it will be no sooner than the summer of 2011 – a lifetime -- because of the financial cost. Her tuition alone is three times that of local students.
“It’s hard,” she said with a slight smile. “I’m 20; I’m still young and still pretty emotional.”
She urged people to “be empathetic with foreign students because a lot of what we experience is very difficult. You’re leaving your whole family at home, you leave everything you know, your lifestyle and your friends, and you begin to live this life. People should be empathetic and try and offer a shoulder. Be open to other cultures.”
Despite the hardships, she has been moved by one factor that has been commonly expressed by those from foreign countries visiting southwest Kansas: “People here are so nice. They take time to say hello.”