Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Soap Dispenser: My First Report from Kenya

Two weeks. For two weeks every day, I was mocked silently by the soap dispenser in the work bathroom.

It is one of those pumps that dispense soapy foam on your palm when you press on it. Day one. I pressed on the soap dispenser and nothing came out. Okay, odd, but no worries, I am sure it would work the next day. A second day, a second try: I pressed and nothing came out. More days, some more presses and some more disappointment. Soon I became convinced that the soap dispenser was simply empty and left empty.

Or so I thought.

The soap dispenser mocks me every day.
After all, it was not the first time since I arrived in Kenya that I have experienced the uniqueness of Kenyan work protocol - I learnt quickly that you cannot just expect your request would be responded after initial request. You have to follow up. In fact, over and over, and then some more. And if you are lucky you may get the right person after what seems to be never-ending phone calls and office visits over the smallest things.

In the case of the soap dispenser, I made up my mind to have a friendly chat with the cleaning lady. Even if the rest of Kenya has varying degree of clean/untidy public bathrooms, c'mon people, this is an UN office, and we've gotta uphold some standards, y'all! You can probably imagine my sense of righteousness when I ran into the cleaning lady in the bathroom, Finally. "Uhm, excuse me. The soap dispenser is empty."

Upon my gesture, the cleaning lady reached over the dispenser and opened it up - it was half full. "There is", she said. I looked at the dispenser and then at her as if I just saw a Las Vegas magic show, "But look, I press on it and nothing comes out." I showed her my empty palm.

"Ah," the lady reached over to demonstrate for me, "You have to use a lot of energy." A few hearty power-presses later, a small pile of soapy foam appeared on her palm.

As the cleaning lady casually rinsed off the soap and carried on her way, I was left dumbfounded in the bathroom and then I burst out laughing. "You have to use a lot of energy." The sentence encapsulated the essence of my experience in Kenya so far. From negotiating prices for a mango or pineapple with fruit vendors, to practically staging a protest in the IT office before getting a work login ID, to trying to track down a handyman to schedule a visit, to waiting for the taxi rides that are always late, to trying to open a bank account and not getting any responses, to subsequently cancelling the account opening process after weeks of not getting anywhere. Just about everything in Kenya demands so much more energy. "You have to use a lot of energy", as the cleaning lady taught me. I guess this is the culture shock that I had expected.
Lining up for a matatu (mini-bus) ride.
Don't worry though - I am actually doing really well under the circumstances and in a way, loving the challenges. But as you can imagine, it is all quite exhausting, and it is no wonder I get so tired at the end of the day. After all, I will need all the sleep I can get to wake up with "a lot of energy" - to keep pressing those soap dispensers here in Kenya. :)

The walking path is between an electrical fence and bushes and fenced walls. It is beautiful if I let myself relax enough.
p.s. To all our friends and family for your lovely and encouraging emails from my last post, sorry that I haven't been able to response to them, but I promise I will do so soon. Your support means the world to me. Really. Thank you! :)

1 comment:

Jenny Iao said...

A delightful read! Thanks for sharing and reminding me of the less-energy taking things that I have taken for granted here in Sweden and in the global north in general. Enjoy the rest of your assignment in Kenya!