Surprising Things I’ve Learned as a Kenyan Living in Australia
When I arrived at Melbourne airport two years ago to start a new chapter of my life with my White husband, I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t my first time setting foot in the land down under; I’d been here on work trips. But those had been 24-hour layovers.
This was different. I’d have to build a new life from scratch. I’d need to fit into or create a social tribe. I’d have to assimilate into a culture completely different from mine and that of U.A.E, where I’d lived for so long.
A Poppy Seed in a Bowl of Rice.
Before moving here, I’d heard of Aboriginal history, so I was a bit uncertain how people would accept me as a Black person. And as fate would have it, I ended up in a predominantly White neighborhood. Other than me, there’s only one other Black man whom I spot occasionally.
Initially, during my morning runs, I felt anxious because I was foreign. A poppy seed in a bowl of rice. Perhaps because of what was going on in my head, I read too much into instances when one or two people looked at me a bit longer than a usual glance. Or when drivers didn’t slow down as they often would if my husband and I were running together.
I’ve had to work up the confidence to own my presence here. I’ve had to adapt to being the only Black person at the local supermarket, restaurant, and even at the local sports field where I train. I’ve seen little kids stare at me, probably because they’ve never seen a Black person up-close.
“Gidday” and One or Two Words About the Weather, Is Enough.
Being Kenyan, it was surprising to see the almost nonexistent interaction between neighbors here. Usually, a “gidday” and one or two words about the weather, and that’s it. Two years in, I still don’t know my neighbors’ full names or what they do for a living.
Which is a far cry from how I grew up in Kenya! Neighbors are essentially an extension of the family. Not only are they invited to most family events, they also actively participate in the feast preparation. A misfortune in a family is a misfortune for the entire village. Everybody feels the pain. Everybody shows up to console the grieving parties.
So you can imagine my shock when my partner’s friend lost his mom last year. The funeral and the wake were over in hours, and people soon returned to their normal lives. I was scratching my head because that was entirely different from what happens back home. Kenyan-style is far more dramatic! For starters, the deceased is eulogized for an entire week. Sometimes longer.
Friends, neighbors, and relatives set up camp in the village to make funeral plans. Each night, they hold a ceremony to celebrate the deceased’s life. In most cases, the dead is buried within the compound and not in a cemetery (as is the case in Oz).
You hear dirges from afar. Mourners roll about the floor as they yell, moan and cry in their grief. If this were your first time witnessing it, you’d probably be next in line to be buried! Believe it or not, fashion comes to play during funerals as people dress in similar outfits as a sign of unity. A motorcade leads to the burial home, with each vehicle decorated with a red ribbon.
Did I say that drinks and food flow freely? Drinks and food flow freely!
For some reason, the mourners’ appetites remain unsated. The day-long event ends long after the sun sets, as crickets emerge into the darkness of the night and can often run through to dawn. I can still see the fire-flies zig-zagging through the dark when we laid my grandma to rest many years ago. But wait…close relatives don’t return home just yet. They linger. For an extra week!
Now that’s what we Kenyans consider a proper send-off. The drama is necessary. It adds zing. Do you now see why yours truly was so shocked at how quickly a burial and the wake takes place here? For me, it’s over before it starts.
The Village Does Not Raise a Child.
As you can see, in Kenya, the family unit isn’t just parents and siblings. It extends to the entire village. That thing about the village raising kids? It’s true. Speaking of which, my Australian husband has often mentioned that one wouldn’t reprimand another person’s child here. Not in Kenya.
When a child misbehaves, the neighbors’ reprimand them before reporting them to their mother. What goes down after this isn’t normally pretty. Eight times out of ten, the kid is spanked or punished in some way. So yeah, the village really raises a child. Try that in Oz, and the boys in blue will be knocking on your door in short order! Again, it won’t be pretty.
My Ancestors Would Turn in Their Graves for This.
But do you know what’s not pretty? When kids occupy the couch and chairs while adults squeeze in a tiny corner and the children don’t see a problem with that. I see this sort of entitled, selfish behavior all the time here — something my ancestors would turn in their graves for!
As kids, we wouldn’t just make space on the couch. We’d literally leave the room every time adults walked in — no one needed to utter a word. You just knew. Just like you knew you had to relinquish your seat to folks who were older when traveling on a matatu (public transport vehicle).
The Tale of Goats.
One cold day here in Melbourne (there are more cold days than warm ones which drives me nuts), a herd of goats paid us a visit. By the time we noticed, the family of five had stripped our lemon trees of their leaves. In case you’re wondering why a lemon tree, well, every Tom, Dick, and Harry in Australia has one. Hubby says it’s something to do with convicts, ships, and scurvy but let’s leave that story for another day!
Anyway, after thoroughly enjoying the (failed) spectacle of my husband’s attempts to chase them out of our property (that ram wasn’t ready to surrender by any means), he called the Council rangers, who rocked up in their Ford Rangers to help mitigate the goat issue. My jaw dropped. It turns out that Council rangers are actually a thing! Not where I’m from!
However, by then, they’d filled their bellies and left without as much as a goodbye! What was shocking wasn’t the goats trespassing. It was the Council rangers turning up because of goats! My friends back home still find this incredibly amusing.
An Official Envelope With a Planned Power Outage.
Just like it amuses me when the electricity company sends mail with a detailed a planned power outage. Time, day, date, duration … the lot. All packaged in an official envelope. Imagine! Back home, power-outages happen frequently, and all without prior notice.
It’s basically a part of life, just like it’s a part of life for Kenyan drivers to push their driving prowess a bit too far, often a case of overconfidence! To drive in the capital Nairobi, you’ve got to wear your bravery suit each time you step behind the wheel because matatu drivers are ruthless. They need to learn a thing or two from the disciplined Aussie drivers. Or is it other way around? Hmmm.
A Dog That Lies on a Lovely Queen Size Bed in the Master’s Bedroom!
My late grandmother had two super feisty giant dogs. I was terrified of them, as was everyone who went to visit. But never once did I see them set foot inside the house. They knew their place — the kennel. They knew their job — keep thugs out.
Enter Melbourne, where almost everyone owns a dog. A dog that wants to lick your face. A dog that sits in the armchairs. A dog that lies on that lovely queen size bed in the Master’s bedroom! Yes! So when my brother-in-law’s dog, whose kennel is the house, wants to lick my face, it becomes a moment of awkwardness. To be clear, Riffy is the warmest Ridgeback. We’re just not at the face-licking stage yet. Did I mention he has winter clothes? Yup.
There’s a Kenyan proverb that says, “Whoever doesn’t travel thinks their mother’s cooking is the best.” That’s been true in my experience living in the land down under. It’s opened my eyes, I look at the world differently now. I love the systematic way of doing things here, like the planned power outages and the fact that home addresses actually mean something.
I love that one can set up an egg selling station in front of their gate. And with no-one manning it, people would actually deposit the cash and take exactly what they paid for. Not where I’m from! The eggs and the cash would be gone within the hour.
And yet, being here has also heightened my pride as a Kenyan. Not only because Aussies are proud to be mates but also because of how I was raised. I deeply appreciate my upbringing and the values instilled in me growing up in a small, lush town on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.
Everything mama said, albeit harshly as she pinched my chubby cheeks, now makes incredible sense! Like respect for the elderly no matter what, decent clothing — mainly the dignity of a woman’s body — and how not to look down on the less fortunate because, they too have a story.
But the crest of her teachings is to never forget who I am, my faith, and where I’m from. I hope to instill the same in my children. With the world becoming so tight-knit, looking more like a global market, we must embrace our roots and uphold our values. We must own our presence in unfamiliar territories and never lose our uniqueness or allow our traditions to fizzle out.
I live by these words of Moonzajer:
“My culture is my identity and personality. It gives me spiritual, intellectual and emotional distinction from others, and I am proud of it,” M.F. Moonzajer
Who you are is special and unique, no matter what part of the globe you find yourself in, never allow the essence of who you are to fade. Walk tall, chin up and own your presence every day, every where.