Diary of a Kenyan girl in India

Home Spender

Indian men live to make money. Their wives spend their lives figuring ways of how to spend it. What an outrageous statement to make! But hear me out.

Over the weekend I was visiting my friend Archana. She is a homemaker (In  India this is the term used to refer to housewives…and I love it!). We spent the afternoon discussing where to buy certain types of bags, lentils and toys for our kids. Literally, there was nothing else we talked about beyond those key things- for three hours.  I was basically guiding Archana,who is new in town, on where to go and spend the money her husband makes (for them).

This is a scene that plays out all the time while with Indian women. They LOVE to shop. They shop till they drop. I am well aware that I am mostly acquainted with upper middle class Indian women. But I know that even the ones who are not high society spend a huge amount of what they earn shopping –mostly for fabrics, clothes and jewellery. And they talk about where to shop for this or that with the seriousness and focus of a surgeon about to cut open the chest of a patient. No jokes.

I used to be shocked by the materialistic nature of India. Now, I do not bat an eyelid. My mother-in-law gets giddy with excitement when planning to go out and shop. My sister-in-law too. They unfortunately do not know how indifferent I am to the process and the act.

My husband is one lucky man (in this sense at least). I HATE shopping. My sisters say I shop like a dude. I only buy what is needed. In and out of the shops before you can say pronto. I remember one Christmas it was decided I would be the one to shop for the food items. Everyone went silent and due to their crestfallen faces the decision was immediately vetoed and it was agreed that my mom and sister would be the ones to shop. They spent a whole afternoon at the mall. I could have done a maximum of 30 minutes. Of course they came with more goodies than were on the shopping list. But this is what Christmas is about right? So, yes. I acknowledge that many women around the world do love to shop.

All Indian women in my family work. In fact my mother-in-law is a doctor. But I am yet to see her pay for a meal whenever we go out. Same goes for my sister-in-law. Very brilliant and smart women. But they both have said in more ways than one- husband, you know my work is to spend your money right? And my father-in-law and my brother-in-law smile and say of course, do I have a choice? 🙂 Which begs the question, what do working Indian women do with their money?

Now, I am a Kikuyu woman. My grandmother worked in her farm till she dropped dead at 91. My mother is retired but you would never know as she is out and about delivering food supplies to institutions and sitting on boards all over town and making her money. We just do not know how to relax and prepare meals, shop and take care of our families all day.

I do not know a single Kikuyu homemaker. None. I personally run my own business and thankfully because of the Indian influence, I not only work from home but can now state with joy that I am home 70% of the time. I go to client offices and sites but am a work from home mom.

When close Indian friends learn about my culture, or where I come from and how women work, they shudder. I used to wonder too, why our women are out there working and earning. Then I watched this great TED Talk by Dr Helen Fisher.  A small portion of the video explains. It turns out African women have been equal to men-socially, economically and even sexually for millions of years. African women have produced 80% of food consumed in their homes for years. Working is not new to us. In fact, for the rest of the world, women are just now getting back to work.

Back to Indian ways.During our wedding ceremony, we had a priest who I must say was brilliant- translating each and every ritual he did or chant he made (which was not only to my benefit as most Indian family members and friends later admitted that they had no clue on their wedding day why some things were said or done ..hehehe). In one part of the ceremony he had to advise my husband on the lines of to always take care of your wife. He went on to state `In today’s world this means give her your ATM cards’. To which everyone laughed and clapped. Oh, Indian women, even the priest has mandated you to spend your man’s money with abandon 🙂

 

 

 

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Otherness

India makes you lose your innocence. Doesn’t matter where you come from. You will find yourself becoming aware of things that you simply never saw before. Things that existed before your very own eyes but you never gave much thought to, or even thought important. Situations are no longer just situations. You begin to question what you know. Who you are.

I once wrote a piece on how India has changed me. Well, in retrospect, that list was very shallow, an outlook from very fresh eyes. The inner transformation is the main business that happens in India.

I was recently sharing with a friend of mine- also a foreigner- just how in India one gets to experience every single emotion known to man in very many doses, consistently. If you do immerse yourself with the people, the culture, you often get overwhelming emotions of anger, elation, despair, hope, shame, freedom, pain, joy, pride, desperation, LOVE. An awakening.

My friend who has now moved back home gushed that she could live in India forever. Forever- a term you can only make when you have had some life altering experience(s). India makes one say stuff like that. It challenges your assumptions, it solidifies your personality and values, the things you believe in.  You become open. You think a lot, then some. Some overthinking.

Just when you think you have the people, place figured out, you discover that you really do not know what rhythm, what beat you are supposed to follow.

India is where I officially grew up. Where there’s a clear distinction between who I was and who I am becoming. I often wonder what I can share here on my blog with my wonderful readers and followers while maintaining balance and at the same time revealing my own truths.

I have stayed away from writing about the sexual repression I have seen in this society. The desperation of Indian girls to have their own identity, the constant reminders every day that there are the haves and the have nots. The morbid obsession with looks, skin complexion. The lack of community and heartfelt warmth of people as is in Kenya. Where we really enjoy spending time with each other, doing nothing but talk. Laughing like fools, not caring about what grade who got, or what promotion one is about to get at work. Or what your background is. No thoughts or talk about the ladders to climb and achievements to prove.

My sister on a trip to Cairo, Egypt happened to chat with a university professor. And she asked the professor what in her view is the distinction between the people, what defines the people and separates them from each other. The professor told my sister without batting an eyelid- the rich and the poor. At the University where she teaches, the students are the rich, and they know that the others, away from campus- are the poor.

I got an education on class in India. That there are different classes of people and each group is somewhat aware that it BELONGS THERE. You see the rich Indian kids and upper middle class folks and the way they talk to the waiters, the drivers, the security guards. In a tone that sounds like barking orders or scolding a little child. In the offices you see how the cleaning lady and the guys who serve lunch keep going `Yes Sir’ `No Sir’ `Yes, Madam’. You see your colleagues doing this with the boss. You see this at the cinema when they keep saying yes sir to your husband. You try your best to understand. To learn about what the caste system did to the psyche of a people. How even today saying your surname demands a certain type of treatment. Maybe a respect. Maybe a disrespect.

This is going to sound very naïve, I know, I apologise. I come from a country where there exists the rich and the poor but the lines are a little blurred. You do not have your entire family being the haves or have nots. There will be the very rich uncle or auntie and there will also be that relative who is a driver, who is a shop keeper. Things are changing quite fast actually and we are heading the India way but rich kids and middle class kids have been friends for as long as I can recall. Going to the same schools, dating and marrying across those lines.

I have been dismissed in India by people who THINK they know me because of where I come from. It used to be unsettling till you realise that in India, where you come from is everything. The Jains, the Sikhs, the Tatas, the Ambanis, and the list goes on…What is your background?

How I lost my innocence? Well, because I cannot unsee what I got exposed to. Because I am now part of that system that does it too. I can differentiate between who is travelled and open minded enough to engage in a meaningful conversation with me. And I now know who expects me to be a stereotype, a caricature of being black. Who wants me to just talk about our runners, our wildlife, our apparently terrible economies. Those who think I must come from the set of Gods must be Crazy. I can now tell which saree is more exquisite and more expensive than the next. I can tell what is gold and gold coated. I know how to laugh appropriately for which audience.

I now see how some people try to compose themselves when they learn am married to one of their own. Like, how on earth could that have possibly happened?

I try not to judge. But am an empath. I get very involved with those I surround myself with. Whether they know it or not, whether I like it or not. I am a little weary of engaging people too openly about my beleifs, my opinions because there are so many angles to my statements that I will never truly understand how they are heard.

Would I go back to not seeing the things I now see? I don’t think so. I got schooled. And you do not choose your teachers. They come for a reason and when you are ready.

To my first little love

My darling S,

Mamushka8You are only a few months older than a year today. I decided to write you a note in my blog as you are a continuation of my Kenya India experience. I want you to know that you have expanded my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined. You came into this world so quickly! One moment I was watching a Youtube video with bappa and in the next 4 hours you were here!

I have grown so much since I met you. I am more patient, I care even more deeply about the things and issues affecting our planet, and I have grown massively both emotionally and mentally. You have made me a much nicer person (and they will tell you, I was still super nice before you came along! 🙂 ). Interestingly I am also more fierce, less scared of taking risks. I am now more than ever super aware of what is important for me in this life. You didn’t do this to me darling, you brought it OUT 🙂

You kept me up most nights last year and for that, I can now say am less attached to my sleep hours like I was before 🙂 I also got to see other bits and pieces of your dad that I did not know about. For instance who knew he had so many unsung songs in him that took you to come out!

We are obviously overdoing things as you are our first little love. No one should own more than five balls, which you do. Oh, and how we must capture your every new stage. Forgive us, for we just couldn’t help ourselves.

I sometimes wonder about what you will call your identity. Will it be Kenyan, Indian or both? I hope this does not cause any anguish or stress. I like to think you will be both, or neither. Just a citizen of the world. What you hold in your heart and the kind of person you are is what matters ultimately.

Your Kikuyu name will be mispronounced in India and your Indian name will be mispronounced in Kenya- as is happening already. I hope you will be able to laugh about this and in fact, it may be a really good conversation starter, when people will ask about your names.

People in Kenya think you look like your dad. People in India think you look like mummy. I think you look like a fairer skinned, straighter haired version of mummy.  I know for sure it will be easier growing up in Kenya than it will be in India. Less complicated about race and complexion matters. Besides, there are so many others like you in Kenya. I personally know 5 grown up Kenyan Indians. Incidentally they are all African mum and Indian dad. Don’t know why vice versa is rarer.

There is also less pressure in Kenya to BECOME something like it is in India. Specifically to become a doctor or engineer. I have seen the sad effects of this conditioning on many adults.

With regard to your religion, mummy is currently battling with Kenyan grandma because we have very different ideas on this subject and I am resisting your getting baptised. Somewhere along the way I lost my religion and found spirituality. I have found great teachers in India and the world over and I hope you will find your way as well whatever it may be. I will avail to you the works of Ramana Maharishi, Osho, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Yogananda and so many others who teach a message that resonates with me. I will also make sure you read bible stories and also the teachings of Jesus. In Kenya what you will find, is a lot of religious fanaticism and if anyone asks you, say you are Hindu. I have found Hinduism to be more open and diverse than the Christianity I was brought up with. Besides, your mummy had to sign `reconversion’ documents to get married to daddy. Yes, reconversion to Hinduism (the assumption being that we are all born Hindu- in a different lifetime or such).It is a complicated world when two people brought up in two different religions decide to get married.

You are currently speaking bits of Swahili and English and haven’t picked your dads Konkani yet or my Kikuyu. Mummy and daddy talk so much in English and so I guess that will be your mother-tongue. We really could not be here without those Brits now would we ?(Brexit joke? No? Ok 🙂 ).

I want to say so much more. But, I know we will create more India Kenya tales together. And tell them to those who will want to hear. Or like mummy, you’ll just tell them anyway 🙂

Love,

Ma

 

It’s all in the stars!

In 2011, my wedding date was set by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law over a conversation that lasted well over an hour and no, they were not discussing how the weather might be to decide on the date. They were zeroing in on the most ‘auspicious’ day- one where my star and my hubby’s stars would be aligned, where there would be least likelihood of winds blowing with ill will and not forgetting, a day which would mean we would never divorce!

Luckily for them, I am very relaxed when it comes to these things- I think every day is `auspicious’ and I do believe our stars are aligned (how does a Kenyan girl travel to conservative South India and in few months meet  the love of her life? Those are the stars!) All I needed was for it to be a date that felt `right’, and thankfully it did.

Indians are a very superstitious lot. They consult astrologers when making big (or small) decisions and I dare say, everyone here has at some point consulted or had their parent consult the stars to decide on/ predict  fate. The most popular amongst all decisions is that the stars seal the fate of whom you will marry. No way will you marry someone whose star and yours are not compatible. Relationships have ended after astrologers were consulted by families. I know several such stories.

The stars also predict how successful (or unsuccessful) you will be, when to postpone a decision, meeting etc- basically the future is SET and we are all just pawns in the big game of life.

Walking on marina beach you will meet astrologers who will want to read your future for as little as Rs 50. I give them a wide berth, maybe am superstitious about superstition 🙂

In Kenya, some communities are known to be superstitious and to believe in (and manufacture) voodoo. My community is not one such and we are somewhat regarded as people who lost their traditions. I don’t know. My grandmother has informed me of traditional medicines and my grandfather has told me of spiritual practices but not of stars and foretelling of the future.

The voodoo concoctions made in Kenya by different communities are somewhat a way to counter what the stars have in store for you. Most are potions-the kind to make a man/ woman love you, earn more money, ward off evil spirits from your home etc; Some people consider this as a way of life and no matter how educated, they will still consult and purchase this potions- of course they are not free. Just like in India.

Incidentally during the beginning of my stay in India I shared a flat with Russians and discovered that superstition is a BIG THING! One guy could only be repaid his money in the evenings, money placed on the floor and he would pick it up without looking at it with his left hand.Yep. And if he somehow forgot something in the house and had to return to pick it up, he would have to look in the mirror and make a face before leaving (!). Another Russian housemate had a routine that had to be observed before taking a drink- EVERY TIME. I took it all in stride, I mean how can I judge that which I do not understand?

I have recently been blessed with a baby girl and am sure someone has already figured out her star sign and what it means. I am glad they have not  informed me. I will leave it all to the universe.

One night in Delhi

It’s a Friday night, maybe a little past 10pm. I am exhausted and inside a cab on my way to Delhi after a week-long conference in Gurgaon. My husband and I have decided to travel around North India for a couple of days before going back to Chennai. As luck would have it, my phone battery is out but luckily I have the name of the hotel my husband has reserved and is waiting for me after just arriving from Chennai the same day.

After being lost for about thirty minutes, we arrive at the hotel. It’s a relief to walk into the air conditioned lobby and I quickly make my way to the reception. My mobile is off, I quickly inform the handsome receptionist, but my husband is here already. I proceed to give them my husband’s name. Receptionist looks through the computer, finds the name but asks me to sit down on one of those sofas and wait a few minutes.

Soon enough, a Manager (I presume) joins us and asks me to come closer to the reception desk-which I do-and to please provide them with my passport. I gladly give them my passport and immediately the receptionist starts making copies of ALL (!) pages. The manager then asks me what I am doing in India. Before I can answer,my hubby -who may have sensed that I had arrived-storms into the lobby from the adjacent lifts and I kid you not, in one swift sweep, he has grabbed my passport, my hand, my suitcase and is uttering expletives in Hindi to the two gentlemen. All very dramatic indeed.

We proceed to the lifts, with hubby fuming and as red as a tomato and me quietly assessing the events of this evening. Hubby hasn’t even said hi to me-I have been away for a week! But of course, I know better. He had given his wife’s names to the hotel, he only forgot to mention one teeny tiny detail- that she was black. And what would a black girl be doing in a Delhi hotel at night?

We both have different ways of dealing with racism in India-my husband boils with anger and shame at a society he understands all too well and had we existed in a comic strip, he would be punching the living daylights out of the people who disrupt my otherwise blissful existence.

Well, my way is slightly different. Call it survival skills but I try not to take things too personally. For instance, 90% (could be higher) of Indians I have come to know, I am the first black person they have ever interacted with or ever known in person. That’s a BIG DEAL.

My friend Shweta told me of an instance when her mother was studying in the UK during the early eighties. One late night as her mother was heading to her apartment, she had the (misfortune) of entering a lift and the doors closing while it was just her and a black man inside. Shweta’s mother, shaking like a leaf and experiencing breathing difficulties could not understand why lifts take so long to get to their destination. Anyway, thankfully, they reached her floor soon enough and as she stumbled out, the black man smiled at her and told her `You are home now, you no longer have to be scared. I live in this building too with my family.’

Can you imagine?! Can you really imagine that situation? Because I cannot. It breaks my heart! The indignity of being black in the UK is not something an African from Africa can honestly fathom. The absurdity of explaining why you should be where you  are is a confusing and as disturbing as it can get. Sure, we are inspired by Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks, are shocked and appalled by what is happening in the USA-the case of Trayvon Martin, the Furguson riots to name a few cases that have woken us up to the realisation that racism is alive and kicking and in fact, we may not even be aware of half of it.

But when you have grown up in an environment that has its leaders, its celebrities, its heroes looking like you do ie black, you assume the rest of the world is fair game. You walk confidently, with your head high, assured of your place on this planet until you step out, you put one toe out and realise you may have been a little naive.

I choose to smile when people tell me that my English is great, when they are impressed with my contributions. One lady after spending a delightful evening with me told me I should become the President of Kenya! Imagine that. But what can I say? I am the only experience they have had with Africa, a continent that is larger than the combined land masses of the United States (including Alaska), Europe, and China.  I often fight the urge to point out just how far apart Nigeria or even South Africa are from my home Kenya.

I cannot blame people for not knowing better. I refuse to be angry and offended by peoples ignorance and prejudice. Too bad if some people look at me and think am less than they are, thank goodness I cannot read minds! I will observe, and learn and teach where I can and as I said in an earlier post, most people are cool and awesome- at least those in my life.

Meanwhile, I need to calm down my superman as am starving and need room service and only he can order my favourite dishes in Hindi-wait, will they serve us this late?

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In Rajasthan 2009

I commented on a Kenyan blog post titled `Indians are racist…there I said it’  because as you can imagine,I am very interested in the subject matter. I proceeded to share a link to one of my posts to the readers and what followed was great interest from Kenyan readers keen to know more about my personal experiences (that they presume are not mentioned in this blog) . I will try and quench your curiosity to the best of my ability 🙂

Many readers wanted to know what it was like to date an Indian and what it took to convince our families that we were not crazy.

To be honest and to sound rather naive, I have never consciously considered my husband as Indian. This is a fact that is always pointed out by others. From the very first day I met him, he has always been this guy who I have the hots for :).  Of course in the beginning, I thought I would return back to Kenya and this romance would be a wild youthful adventurous past. Then I returned to Kenya  after being in India for a year and in the words of my mother-I do not recall the conversation-on day one I informed her that I had met the love of my life. And my mother who was the last person to know I had been dating a Muhindi (thank goodness she was not privy to facebook!) quickly reassured me that sometimes we can get carried away by love, and she knows the feeling-to which I apparently replied  `You do not understand this kind of love!’

I think from that conversation you can tell just how dramatically this muhindi affected me. LOL. I was soon on a flight back to India.

My husband and I met at a dinner party organised by one of our mutual friends. However, we had both heard of each other (there is a bit of a long story there which may be written one day).

Dating in India is same as dating in Nairobi or in most of the places in the world. You go out for meals, movies and the usual hanging out with friends and since Chennai is by the ocean, lots of swimming and beach hangouts. To those asking me whether we were chaperoned, no we were not.

I must however say that based on many people’s questions, I have had some time to reflect and now realise our case could be the only one of its kind. I once did a piece on arranged marriages in India and this largely IS the prescribed way of finding a spouse till date. However, my husband’s parents who are in their sixties met and fell in love and chose to get married to each other. I guess they are pioneers of a kind because I do not know couples of that age who did not have an arranged marriage. This can probably answer and explain the questions of why it was easy for my husband to choose his own path in life.

While at university (USIU), I had a friend date an Indian guy but it was pretty clear from the onset that he was going through his rebellious phase and there was no way he would ever even introduce her to his family. Of course they broke up, but it was clear- you do not date Indians-at least in Nairobi, unless of course you were Indian.Fast forward to just a year after graduating and I was living in India and had met my husband.

The question of how our families reacted has been asked more times than I could ever count. Its still asked years later.

Our families were mostly afraid of the unknown- what will happen, how is the family of this person, are they serious?? My mother’s main concern was based on what she had read and watched on TV about Indian families and mother-in-laws who not only reject their daughter-in-law but run the lives of their sons. Being Indian, my parents-in-law largely wondered what kind of a family I came from (this is HUGE IN India). It was not enough that they liked me, no-my family was of great importance as well.

And so when they met there were sighs of relief (from them not us-we HAD DECIDED), as they realised they are pretty similar and in fact what they cared for the most is their children being happy.

And no, I did not pay dowry. Yes, I know in India it is the women who pay the dowry which is the exact opposite of what happens in my culture back home. I have always detested this financial and transactional business that happens before weddings. I personally feel this habit has no place in today’s world and thankfully so does my family. I however know that this system is very important to certain individuals and cultures, and with that I say to each their own.

I have also now come to know several stories of people who cannot even marry someone from another tribe, forget race. In India, people also cannot marry those who are from another caste or community (what we call tribes).

We did face some drama from potential landlords who could not believe the audacity of my husband and in fact, since we lived together before getting married, I can say finding a house was one of the biggest challenges- not family. If you think nosy landlords are ridiculous, I must also add that none of my workmates knew I lived with my boyfriend. Cohabiting is non existent in India and despite knowing I was dating an Indian, living together would have been preposterous to my workmates-this is a very judgemental society.  Which makes me realise just how lucky I am with the family I found in India.

To those who have written telling me their painful stories and how they wish they had my guts, I say it’s not too late . In life we have two choices-fear or love. Make the choice that you will live with and do not blame anyone for choosing fear instead of love. And that’s my two cents for this piece.

My mother-in-law and mom. Worlds can come together.

My mother-in-law and mom. Worlds can come together.

India is DIVERSE-full of races, faces, places, dishes, languages and more traditions than I could ever count. Each Indian state has a different local language, dietary norms and all one needs to experience a new culture is visit the next city and eat their local food and meet the local people.

I became a traveller in India. I honestly did not have taste for adventurous travel till I landed in the sub continent. The pristine beaches of Kerala have taken my breath away , I have marvelled at the beauty of palaces in Mysore and Hyderabad and I have a deep connection with Jaipur in Rajasthan, the pink city where my husband proposed to me.

It’s incredible that the local food in Tamilnadu-rasam, curd rice,tamarind rice and pongal are not what is local food in Kerala which is the next state.

The languages and written script of the different parts of India are completely different and I am amazed that I once thought people of India all speak only Hindi.

The diversity is manifest in the people. I have come to believe there is no Indian or Asian race. Ya know, like how am black. Pardon my ignorance but prior to travel, I had a mental image of how Indians as a people look and during my early days in Tamilnadu I often used to mistake some people (mostly clean shaven men) with being African like myself. I of course got over it due to the high number of people who can pass for black people in the South. It’s a bit astonishing for an African like myself to meet black (or is it dark skinned) Indians, especially since the Indians in Nairobi are mostly Gujarati who are quite fair skinned. I guess more so because meeting Africans in India is rare (except in universities and at hospitals).

There is nothing like diversity to spice up life. I am however no longer naive enough to not realise that I marvel more at the diversity because of my previous pre conceived ideas of India and the fact that am a foreigner. Many Indians are proud of where they come from and even if they do converge in the big cities, you will find them with their own. You will find that Bengalis know each other and have found their perfect fish market that sells their favourite hilsa. The Telugu know where to find their pucca gongura puchadi and mixing and interacting with `others’  is done with a bit of caution.

Like our Kenyan tribes, the different Indian communities have their own set of stereotypes .The Tamil people are considered hard working and a tad bit conservative, the Punjabis are considered flamboyant and people from delhi are snobs. I have also discovered that  stereotyping is a habit of the entire word 🙂

Here are some pictures of diverse and incredible India…

INDIAN FACES

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The guy below is a waiter in Mahabalipuram. His Afro made me think he is from Africa but NO!

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A wedding in Siliguri (North East Indian women)

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PLACES

Camping in the wild of Andra-Pradesh

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Isn’t Kerala breath taking?

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In Jaipur-the pink city and why I love India part 3,4,5,6…….. 🙂

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