Africa meets South America

Por Lisa Agutu.

The title of this essay probably gives out a lot about its contents; briefly, however, this is the story of the encounters of two cultures; of when two cultures amalgamate: Latin and African. My name is Lisa Akinyi Agutu and I am a Kenyan. I was born and raised in Kenya, a beautiful country in East Africa. I am from the Luo tribe, one of the more than 40 tribes in Kenya. My tribe has its origin in the Western part of Kenya by Lake Victoria. That is where my grandparents are from as well as all my other relatives and our ancestors. One could therefore say that I have two origins in Kenya: Nairobi, the capital city where I was born, where I live with my family and go to school; and the lakeside town called Kendu Bay which I call my home. It is not uncommon for one in Kenya to ask the other where one is from to which I would mostly reply Kendu Bay, my true home, the origin of my bloodline, my roots, my motherland.

In April 2016, two of my Kenyan friends and I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. To put the significance of such a trip into clear perspective, we travelled 11,000 kilometres to South America. Given my background and the distance between Kenya and Argentina, I will contrast the cultural difference from my perspective.

On the day I arrived in Buenos Aires, an Argentine who teaches part time in my university, Strathmore, was kind enough to pick me from the airport and drop me at the apartment where I and my two fellow Kenyan students would be staying for the following ten weeks. We arrived at the apartment where we met the landlord. He greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. I was dumbfounded and my professor did not seem to see anything strange about the occurrence. “Perhaps he didn´t see,” I thought to myself. This, however, was very unlikely as he was standing right next to me. I figured that the man was probably very excited to have seen an African, which seemed likely as within the first few minutes of the meeting, he demanded to know a word in Kiswahili, our national language. I taught him the word “karibu” which when translated means “welcome” in English and “bienvenido” in Spanish.

We went up to the apartment where we found the landlord´s partner, a lovely lady and alas, the famous kiss on the cheek. I figured that they were just a friendly pair. This occurrence did not prepare me enough for the series of kisses on the cheek that I would receive from the people I would meet in the days to come. Everyone gives the famous “kiss.” It is as simple as a handshake as I have come to learn. The day after I arrived was a Sunday and I went to Mass with my professor, his mother, a former student of his and my Kenyan colleagues. A common part of the Mass is the “sign of peace.” That is when I realized that my fate was sealed. At the moment when the priest called for all to give their neighbour a sign of peace, everyone leaned over to one another to give a kiss on the cheek. My hand was left suspended in the air, awaiting the handshake that I am used to during this part of the Mass. Needless to say, the handshake never came and a series of kisses with the people seated around me followed. It is now seven weeks later and I am surely accustomed to the practice. I must admit that I now initiate the kiss at times.

This makes me wonder what everyone back at home will say when I initiate a kiss on the cheek every time we meet. In Kenya, public displays of affection are not common. They are almost frowned upon. Kisses are only exchanged among family members and even in such contexts, it is not the norm. In these rare circumstances when we exchange kisses for greetings, which is very common in my family, we exchange two to three kisses, alternating between the right and left cheek.

The next point merges perfectly with the latter: public displays of affection. The first time I saw a couple exchange several kisses on the bus, I was shocked. I asked my fellow Kenyan friends to take a look. Like I mentioned above, in Kenya public displays of affection are rare, in fact they are frowned upon. Couples seldom kiss on the streets. At most and at which point one has stretched their boundaries, the couple will be holding hands. This is why we all looked at the couple in shock, mouths agape, at which point we had to make a conscious effort to stop staring as we were making the couple almost as uncomfortable as they were making us. With time, we came to discover that this was a normal occurrence and we have learnt to ignore it (or at least appear to ignore). This, however, takes a conscious effort.

The next cultural difference is under the subtitle “African timing.” I will speak about African timing in Kenya. A disclaimer for this section is that not the whole population of Kenyans falls under this category. There are very many people in Kenya who have respect for other people´s time and this is not the category of people I will write about. The category I will write about are those with such a lack of time-keeping that they deserve a title: “African timers.” I will write about this using an example. Say you agree to meet with one of these African timers at 8:00 am. You would find such a person leaving their house at the same 8:00 am that you were to meet them, which would then cause them to arrive at their destination an hour or more late depending on factors such as traffic, (a factor that one knows is never favourable in Kenya). This is not a rare occurrence among African timers. It is not uncommon in Kenya to hear a person seated next to you in public transport explaining to someone on the other end of the line that they are 5 minutes away when in fact it would not take them less than an hour to arrive at that place considering the distance and Kenyan traffic. To this category of people, 15 minutes late is considered early. Such behaviour, however common is highly frowned upon. It is disrespectful and wasteful as, after all, time is money.

Here in Argentina, the African in us begged to come out in some occasions; one of them was one of our first official meetings in town with our professor. He gave us directions to a street called Callao and asked us to leave the house half an hour earlier than the agreed time. We were tired and jet lagged and decided to leave at a time closer to the meeting time than the prescribed “30 minutes.” After all we would get there. It is needless to say that we did not make it to the meeting point, let alone on time and on top of that we had an angry professor on the other end of the phone. This was a reality check: that African timing is unheard of and that we would have to be on time every single place that we go to; “on time” being before the prescribed agreed meeting time.

My next observation is that black people are very scarce in Argentina. Further than that, the black people here are from Latin America. It is unsurprising that we experience infinite stares on the streets and in public transport. I must admit that it is a relief every time I see someone with similar skin colour. Even though we don´t speak to each other, we never fail to acknowledge each other with a common nod. The lack of presence of Africans is followed by a lot of ignorance about Africa. Every time I meet someone new, they ask where I am from, the city I live in and other common questions. The bold ones go ahead to act like they know the first thing about Kenya, a country they had probably heard of for the first time. This is how a conversation with an Argentine went about a week ago.

Argentine lady: So you say you´re from Kenya

Lisa: Yes I am. Have you been there or anywhere in Africa?

Argentine lady: No I haven´t. What language do you speak in Kenya?

Lisa: We have two national languages which everyone speaks: Kiswahili and English.

Argentine lady: Oh! I know some Swahili. I watched a movie about Nelson Mandela. Let me sing you a Swahili song.

The Argentine lady sang a song in Xhosa, a language from South Africa. This was impressive; although, I did not know a word of what she was saying. Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter in a country called South Africa. This is a country, which I have never been to, neither am I familiar with any of their many their languages. I went ahead to explain this to her and she was rather embarrassed. I did not take this to heart as such an assumption, as I have come to note, is very common. Many people are not aware that Africa is a large continent with about 54 countries, many of which speak different languages. There are about 2,000 different languages in Africa.

The scarcity of Africans here also led to another strange yet pleasant occurrence. About two weeks ago in a bus on the way to San Isidro, the bus driver requested through our professor to take a picture with us. We figured that he was just excited to see three African girls. The strange part came in when he stopped the bus for other passengers to come in, and began to show us a picture on his phone of another group of Africans he had taken pictures with. At this point all the passengers were waiting to be taken to their respective destinations. The bus driver disregarded this and went on to tell us about the circumstances of his meeting with the Africans he took photographs with. After this he asked us to get off the bus with him and take a picture in front of the bus. We felt very special indeed. This occurrence surprised me and at the same time made me very happy. We shared a great moment and now he has a fresh story to tell about a group of Africans that he met on the bus.

In Kenya, food is a part of our culture; therefore, I was pleased to see the large variety of cuisine available. The famous barbeque (asado), which Kenyans are so fond of, as well as other new food such as empanadas which one would describe as a pie with a twist and much more flavour and ingredients. In Kenya we mostly stuff our pies with chicken and meat. Here, the pies (empanadas) are softer with a lot more in it such as my favourite, ham and cheese. Within my first week of arrival in Argentina, I was introduced to a famous spread called “Dulce de leche”, which is essentially caramel. It tastes like life´s missing ingredient. It is sweet and satisfying and I came to realize that it is put on everything: from cookies, to chocolate, to cake, to bread, to sweet potatoes, to bananas; and it blends perfectly with each one of these things. Without a doubt, I will carry a load of it back to Kenya. This is one of the things I will miss terribly: the Argentine food.

The wide array of food and the nature of such food did not quite match the average size of the Argentines. I can count the number of overweight Argentines that I have seen since I have arrived and I still would not run out of fingers to count on. This was odd to me as in Kenya, we love food and food loves us back. It dawned on me a few days ago that we Kenyans are the only ones who serve food beyond a second round. That has been the greatest cultural difference for me. In Kenya during feasts or family dinners, food is left at the table for as long as there are guests as it is certain that throughout the feast, rounds and rounds of food will be eaten. In contrast here in Argentina, not much of the feast is consumed. Not to say that we have been starving as we have been fortunate enough to encounter people whose food culture is similar to the Kenyan one.

Argentina has been a wonderful experience. It has opened up my eyes to other people´s culture and way of life. I will indeed miss the country with its organized public transport and lack of traffic jams, a situation I hope to see soon in Kenya. I have shared a lot and gained a lot at the same time. It is a priceless experience that I would repeat if the opportunity arises.

Lisa Agutu (21)
Strathmore Law School