Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alone in the Crowd

On my walk home from work today, I noticed a strange site on the opposite side of the street.  There was a man laying face down on the sidewalk.  This is on a busy sidewalk flanked by a highway and a local street where thousands of people walk daily to get on buses and matatus (minibuses) to get all over the city.  He was already on the ground when I first spotted him, so there must have been at least a hundred people that walked around him on this small sidewalk before someone started staring at him from a distance.  I walked across the street, crouched down and asked “are you ok?”  He responded in Swahili, and I quickly realized I was not going to be very helpful to him. 

It seemed as if he was having a seizure and was convulsing on the ground while staring at a small brown paper bag.  The man staring at a distance crouched down next to me and took some pills out of the bag to show to our patient.  More mumbled talking commenced before the man took two pills and delicately placed them in his mouth.  Then, he and another man in the growing crowd around us picked the fallen man up and sat him down on a small burm next to the sidewalk.  Seeing as my usefulness in the situation as a flag-raiser was over, I left the crowd of thirty people and a taxi that had stopped to ask about our patient.  He seemed to be ok now that he was not prostrate.

Sometimes I feel like I need someone to ask “are you ok?” even if it is in the wrong language.  This morning, the first thing my coworker, Michael, said to me when I came into the office was, “You look tired.”  He didn’t exactly ask if I was ok, but it was assumed that I would explain my new look.  I didn’t even realize I felt tired, let alone looked it.  I told him I had been up late reading a book and would wake up soon.  As the day drug on though, I realized I was tired.  I was also distracted from every task I tried to accomplish.  I started working on all five articles I am writing about various programs at Church World Service for the East Africa Review that I am publishing in January.  I kept floating from one subject to the next to feel busy, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I looked up and another of my coworkers who had arrived late asked why I looked so tired.  Do I really look that bad?

After a little more squirming through information on my computer, I decided these warning signs couldn’t be ignored.  I needed to do something about this tiredness!  I bolted out of the office in search of a future running path on our compound.  I have been looking for some regular source of exercise since arriving in Kenya, but nothing has really stuck with me.  You can’t really run on the streets during the day and there are no parks or affordable gyms near my apartment.  I walked past a flock of kindergartener sized, ugly-headed, long beaked birds that were milling in the trash pile at the back of the office compound.  Some flew away when I walked by which was a bit startling because their huge wings made a really loud flapping noise as they ascended into a neighboring tree.  Figuring out that there was no good place to run at my office was just the first in a string of events that I undertook today to establish more concrete “self care” strategies for my year here. 

My fellow YAV, Michael and I discussed how after going to the same church for two months, it still feels like we are visitors.  We are still getting to know the friends we have met there, we are still getting used to making the journey to the church early Sunday morning, and we are still trying to pay attention to the 45 minute sermons that accompany the wonderful half hour of praise music we are trying to learn.  What is hard to realize is that we really are still visitors in this country.  We are still new immigrants to a place that demands to be treated differently than the places we came from.  There are many things that I still haven’t done successfully on a regular basis: buying affordable groceries at the market in the nearby slum, exercising, washing clothes to name a few.  I still don’t have a regular routine. 

I am glad I am not alone here.  I have friends from work and church, my group of young adult volunteers, and other people all over the country and the world to talk to each day.  I don’t even have to speak the right language, and I can find someone to help me take care of me.  But I do have to do something to catch someone’s attention.  Luckily, this morning I didn’t have to wait until I was wriggling face down on the floor for someone to notice I looked different than “normal.”  Now I have the next 8 months to ask for help to identify what I need to do to function properly.

For most people, immigrating to Nairobi is not as easy as it has been for me.  The typical immigrant is a poor villager moving to the city to find a job to support his/her family.  Finding shelter, securing food, meeting new people, and beginning to look for a job is much harder when no one is helping you and very few people understand the language you are speaking.  The slums we marched through with Henry’s church last month are filled with millions of people who are living alone on the edge of starvation and may never feel at home there.   They live without electricity, running water, toilets, trash collection, secure housing, and opportunities for education.  To them, globalization has nothing to do with lightning fast internet, bananas from Peru, cars from Japan, and scissors from China.  Globalization is fishing them out of their secure village life and forcing them to look for a new way of life in a place much more foreign to them than it is to me.

Even with millions of people with the same human issues walking past you every day, you just need that one person to recognize when something is amiss.  I am glad I could at least ask the first question that led to my prostrate patient’s recovery.  I am grateful that I have people checking up on me in Kenya to figure out what is going on inside me.  I pray that everyone has someone that will stop to ask “are you ok?”


  1. Ben this is so perceptive and well-written. I always look forward to reading your blog. :-)

  2. Ben you are an inspiration.
    Thanks for your openness.

  3. love this post, because so so often i feel exactly the same way! so hard to find a good routine and ´normalness´ in a new setting. Stick with it, ben! I´ll be praying for you :)

  4. I've been going to my chruch for years now..and I still fell like I'm a visitor.

  5. its great you showed concern to that guy on the street and you went and helped him out. most people would have ignored. to get more exercise get a skipping rope. this way you dont have to run around and its almost the same as running