The Worker’s Voice

Wycleff, that’s really his name. The last few days I’ve been spending my lunch hours with the construction workers and day laborers who work at the center, and Wycleff is one of them. At 1pm, we meet at the cafeteria in the back, where Mama serves us up some Ugali and Sukuma. Ugali, is that maize-flour startchy moldable food product, which is the staple of Kenya, and sukuma is a fibrous leafy green that is up with bran as far as roughage properties are concerned. It’s often confused with Kale

The first time I ate with these guys, I got a lot of crap. “Can it be? The white man is eating ugali with us? Do you even know how to eat ugali?” Apparently a non-Kenyan, some time ago, made it known that lighter-skinned people are too good for ugali and sukuma and ruined it for the rest of us.

“So my family is from Nakuru”, Sami said, when Wycleff and Jamaica (who’s now employed by the hospital), “You liar! Your family is not from Nakuru” “They are so!” Wycleff says “Your family has just bought land from Nakuru.” Why couldn’t this man be from Nakuru? He didn’t look particularly like someone who wouldn’t be from Nakuru… right?

“What’s you guys’ problem? Why can’t he be from Nakuru?”

“Because, Paul, this man is a Luo. That is his tribe, and everyone knows that the Kikuyu are the tribe of Nakuru.” Well I sure as hell should have thought of that before, right? Apparently tribalism does exist, but in a place like Nairobi, coexistence is a must. And I sat among two Luhyas and a Luo and ate ugali and sukuma. After a few days of eating with the guys, I started being welcome into the circles, into conversations, and I learned a lot about the Kenyan of the working class.

“What did you think of Kenyans before you got to know them?”, Maurice asked me.

“Well, I used to think that Kenyans were simple people with a very direct and simple approach to life, but that is far from the truth. I find Kenyans to be rather complex. But you should tell me what do you think of Americans?”

“Well, even me, I think that Americans are all rich and have a very easy life. Except for Katrina. Are there slums in America? like the slums you see here?”

In about an hours time I learned a lot about the average Kenyan day laborer….

  • The Kenyan day laborer has kids and parents to support on a very small salary
  • The Kenyan day laborer is often exploited
  • The Kenyan day laborer pays taxes that end up funding a high government official’s Friday night shinannigans
  • The Kenyan day laborer knows how to smile
  • The Kenyan day laborer is dedicated and strong
  • The Kenyan day laborer doesn’t see anything changing but to prevent civil war, will keep quiet, to preserve the peace
  • The Kenyan day laborer doesn’t like when tour groups of Americans walk around their neighborhoods taking pictures of their ‘impoverished lifestyle’

I was shocked to know that the opinions these guys had of Americans isn’t JUST from the media, but from Americans themselves. Supposedly, many people from the West will arrive and want to just see the slums, so they arrive with guards, and for years whenever the local people would try to approach an American to talk to them, to get to know them, they often hide behind guards and have the guards chase the local people away. It was shocking and disturbing to hear this. No wonder he was shocked that I was eating ugali.

I’m now welcome with these men, 1pm, Monday to Friday. One thing that does bother them, is the fact that I root for Argentina over Brazil in football.

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