Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Traveling eastward from Congo to Kenya, there is a steady progression towards westernized civilization. As the bus approached Nairobi, my eyes widened at the sight of city lights and traffic jams. My journey from Beni to Nairobi lasted just three days, yet somehow I’d been timewarped 100 years into the future.
During my final month in Congo, I began anticipating the reverse culture shock and re-entry issues I might experience upon returning to America.
Who would’ve guessed that I could experience reverse culture shock while still in East Africa?
My first few days in Nairobi have been spent with a most-gracious, newly-married expat couple, Phil and Mel. They live in a high-rise building similar to the condo towers of downtown Milwaukee. Their home is spartan by American standards, but equipped with many luxuries I’ve lived without for the past 9 months in Congo…electricity, hot water, television, gas stove, refrigerator, oven, washing machine. They have re-introduced my tastebuds to omelets, pancakes, deli sandwiches, korean barbecue, indian curries, and chocolate ice cream.
Despite the presence of modern conveniences and the abundance of good food, I find myself feeling uncomfortable and disillusioned. Each passing hour during the first few days seems to come with another realization about the differences between these cultures. The first day I awake to the sounds of Nairobi: honking cars and construction work. I’m not convinced those are any worse than the sounds of Beni: tropical birds chirping incessantly, roosters crowing, guards singing, and bleating goats (which I often confused for crying children). Driving through the city that day, I notice that very few people travel by foot. Fewer still are those riding bicycles or motorcycles.
Throughout the city there are other anomalies…
Babies aren’t strapped to their mothers’ backs but rather perched on hips or riding in strollers. Women don’t use their heads to carry items, opting for plastic shopping bags or hand totes instead. Dirt roads are the exception rather than the rule…most everything here is paved. Other things non-existent in Beni: credit cards and ATMs, skyscrapers, racial diversity, shopping malls, rush-hour traffic, fast-food restaurants.
The intangible contrast
The material differences between the two cultures is easy to identify and describe, but the larger differences exist in the abstract concept of culture. Community, as I’ve seen thus far, exists not with the locals, but with other expats. Overstimulation is at its prime. A steady stream of background noise is provided by the television or radio, which are always on—whether or not anyone is actively watching or listening. Purchasing and preparing food lacks the social and interactive aspect of bartering at the market. The grocery store and take-out restaurants require little-to-no human interaction.
The things which I will miss the most about Congolese culture seem to transcend the material things…
I long for quiet afternoon naps, hours spent reading good books, playing card games with my housemates on the porch. I miss the random, unannounced visits to drink tea together and chat about life. I miss greeting and being greeted by all who pass me by as I’m walking through town. I miss the smell of Mama Furaha’s home-cooked meals…even if it’s boiled plantains for the third day in a row. I miss the deep and stimulating conversations with my roommates in which we debated the spiritual, strategized about bringing change, analyzed the value of foreign aid, discussed lessons found in classic literature or laughed about the perplexities and misunderstandings of language learning.
We’ve only just begun...
Something tells me this is just the beginning and a transient stage of culture shock. My training in Kenya lasts just 10 days and soon I will depart for Burundi (in a less-developed city). I anticipate a more intensive adjustment and lengthy period upon returning to the States in October.
So can you offer any advice? Have you been to Africa? Another third world country? Did you study abroad and experience any re-entry issues? I’d love to hear words of wisdom or nuggets of advice…