Since I arrived, I have been fielding questions about the United States. “In America, do they have corn fields?” “In America, do they eat ugali?” “In America, what is the staple food?” “In America, do they have towns like this?” “In America, is everyone wealthy?” “In America…”
I cannot blame them. Kenya is predominately a mono-cultural society, with influences from the rest of the world filtered through the media. By and large, Kenyans experience the United States through Hollywood movies, Netflix series, and international news reports. From the perspectives of the Kenyan students and teachers here, the entirety of the United States looks like New York City, LA, Miami, and Chicago. They suspect the opulence and glamor of Time Square spread over every square inch of America. This is the manufactured and produced American story that we sell the world.
“In America,” another teacher asks, “do you all experience this many power outages?” No, we generally have reliable power every day.
“In America,” a brother asks, “is it common for students to use computers?” Yes, and they don’t have to draw pictures of calculators on paper to learn how they work.
Through no fault of their own, they have bought the American story. They see the American excess and wealth and miss the hoods and the hollers of American poverty and inequality. The Kenyans not only see the excess wealth through social media and entertainment, but they also experience it at the market.
Clothes that Americans toss aside and donate, often with their original tags still hanging upon them indicating their high American prices, line the roads of shanty shops and fill entire market squares. An entire industry is built upon America’s capitalistic leftovers. A thrifters paradise, perhaps? Or a parasitic byproduct of industrial greed, overconsumption, and an inability to accept that what we have is enough?
Branded on the bodies of countless Kenyans are tossed aside high school sports shirts, years old shirts celebrating a fraternity darty, obscure sitcom references, and countless more designs which Americans no longer find useful find a new use in Kenya. As an American walking around Kenya, it is jarring to read the strange diversity of clothing. One second you see a high school shirt from Wisconsin. The next, you see a fraternity shirt from Florida. Then, around the corner, a shirt with the word “vote” over the outline of North Carolina. A geographic tour of the United States is discovered on the typographical fashions. When you ask the wearer about their shirt, they rarely have a clue about what the shirt references, just simply that it is an American shirt.
There is a great tension here. I am glad the clothing got a second life, finding use and value, here rather than filling a trash pile. Yet, I question its first life and origin. Did we really need that alpha-beta-gamma, “Kegs and Eggs! The only good reason to wake up before 8 am!” North Face pullover? Did we really need to commemorate the 2009 track meet knowing full well that the 2008 design was the same?
“In America,” a student asks, “are there any buildings and schools like this?” The response to that question is difficult to answer. Sure there are schools in America with dilapidated walls, struggling resources, and in need of work. But few, if any, experience daily power outages, run out of access to water, and have such limited resources.
In recent days, I have been struggling to comprehend the stark difference in prices here in Kenya. One US dollar is trading somewhere around 113 Kenyan shillings. Beyond that, the cost of living is staggering. One student recently went to the hospital for the day, and after receiving treatment, he was charged roughly $15 USD. At first, I thought this was a great deal, but he and the school were terrified that it would be an insurmountable burden. As I began asking around, I started to paint a sobering picture of the cost of living.
Tuition per student is about $500 USD for the year. After including book fees, uniforms, and other expenses, students only need about $300 more to cover everything for the entire academic year. Total monthly food expenses fluctuate somewhere around $1200 USD a month. Teachers here at the school are paid roughly $150 USD a month. And these expenses, by American Standards, seem measly. Still, most students cannot afford even $10-20 USD a year towards tuition, the school scraps by with the most rudimentary meals, and the teachers work daily from 6:30 AM to 7 PM, including most weekends. St. X Bungoma, while new, is considered a good school with good-paying jobs. Yet, teachers are getting paid here about the same as a monthly internet and cable bill in the United States. The annual tuition is less than the cost of a PlayStation. And just before I left Notre Dame, I spent the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of food expenses on apparel for my resident hall that will likely find its way here in a few years. The economic disparity is staggering.
“In America,” one teacher asks, “how much does something like this,” pointing at my Apple MacBook, “cost?” I’m ashamed to answer that it is worth more than she’ll make in an entire year.
The American Dream is undoubtedly infectious, it’s a story that’s sold around the world, but I fear that it is spreading a nightmarish disease. A what cost can we continue to sell a narrative of disparities and inequality?