The Boss at Work and the First Meeting, by Arjun Khanna

MAY 27th

Arjun 1.jpgRECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up really early because I fell asleep at 9:30 yesterday night, had a fight in the dark with my mosquito net (I’m still not sure how it got tangled the way it did), got up, got ready, off to work, met Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bomji, discussed ideas, sat in with him seeing patients, Peter stopped by to check in, a lot of medical procedures that I won’t go into for the sake of your stomach, learned a ton about medical diagnoses of tropical diseases, Dr. Bomji gave me a CD of requirements by the Ministry of Health for Iguhu, he drove me home, started working, spent thirty minutes trying to figure out why the background on my blog wasn’t changing, Shide is amazed at computer, I offer to teach him how to use one, dinner while typing, more work, work, work, sleep.

REFLECTION: I spoke to Dr. Bomji this morning. His name is spelled correctly for the first time in my notes, incidentally, because discerning the difference between spoken “m’s” and “n’s” or “j’s” and “ch’s” are near-impossible here; I rotated among calling him Dr. Bomchi, Dr. Bonchi, Dr. Bomji, and Dr. Bonji in the hopes that the average might be recognizable to his colleagues, and no one seemed to mind. I assumed the right to do so because the variety of pronunciations of my own name here is astounding – you would think, wouldn’t you, that among the multitude of Indians in Kenya at least one of them is named Arjun and has taken it upon himself to correct pronunciation of his admittedly difficult name? In any case, I thought it fitting to return the favor to Dr. Bomji, though in the spirit of professionalism I read the correct name off of his badge this morning and will refer to him appropriately: Dr. K. K. Bomji. Case closed.

Regardless, I spoke to him this morning and, as Mama Joyce had vehemently indicated previously – the phrase “vehemently indicated” is redundant in her case, as she is a very spirited and excited woman who says virtually everything vehemently – Dr. Bomji is a very motivated, caring, selfless, intelligent, and optimistic man. With an immortal smile that I did not see falter the entire day, he discussed his visions for the health center-turned-district hospital, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of his visions coincided with my own. Beautification, landscaping, and large, published charters for the hospital and each of its departments were on the top of his list.

I sat in his office the entire day. Aside from learning a lot about diagnostic sciences – especially in the absence of a lot of technology – he kept feeding me things that he would like to see changed in or added to the hospital. A customer care desk, he mentioned, would be valuable in directing patients around the hospital and informing them of available services and corresponding prices. He often discussed the shortage of staff at the hospital, which became increasingly glaring as the line of the line outside his office lengthened; at one point, upon inquiry, if discovered that a woman who required no more than five minutes of attention had showed up almost two hours previously. Even more frustrating was the fact that she was then directed to get a blood test done and then (if positive) would be directed to collect quinine treatment for her child’s malaria. A five minute examination, twenty minute blood test, and a five minute visit to the pharmacy would take her the entire day.

Peter came by to ask how I was doing; we spoke about potential projects, sustainable ideas, and the meeting on Saturday. He also explained that our batch of interns would not be allowed to apply for additional grand funding because the duration of our stay was too short, though we would be allowed to fundraise on our own if we found that we needed additional funding. I am sure that I will.

MAY 30th

Arjun 2.jpgRECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up early, blasted music while getting ready, flagged down a matatu to go to Kakamega (paid 50 bob), got there, bought a mango from Mama Rosa, started eating it the Indian way, walked to Kamadep hospital, met with everyone, talked about the past week, saw Emily (the fainting one), she has poison ivy on her face, her lips are swollen, she looks generally hilarious, she’s being a really good sport about me and Guillaume making constant fun of her (which is the only reason why I’m posting this), we meet with Angie, we talk about grant proposals, it turns out we will be allowed to write grants, we review three example grants, talk, Angie cooks us lunch, Nate makes a plan for all of us to go the Kakamega forest tomorrow and Monday (Monday is a holiday), we go to withdraw money for the trip, we have Angie’s Mac and Cheese, she randomly added mustard to the sauce, we were all starving, we dispersed, I got a matatu home, I handed him 50 bob, he said it was 70, I said that I had come here for only 50, he said that coming and going were different prices, everyone in the matatu started laughing, I said no, and he was silenced, arrived home, Mama Joyce’s sister and nephews/nieces were there, Mama Patropa (a special-ed teacher), kid named Patience (daughter), husband returned from Nairobi, I try to help wash my own clothes for the week, everyone laughs and starts doing it for me, I start boiling water for the excursion we are about to go on tomorrow, I clean my room, dinner, work, sleep.


Meeting everyone today was fun and interesting in that I learned about the (often wild) variety of experiences that others are enjoying (or, in some cases, barely enduring). Urban life and rural life are, evidently, very different. While I enjoy beautiful scenery, clean air, and spaciousness, urbanites are treated to cramped spaces, lots of annoying children, and overbearing parents. At the same time, while seeing another muzungu face causes me unbelievable nostalgia, urbanites bump into each other all the time and have the luxury of nearby shopping marts, stores, and the undying hum of city life. (It is interesting, is it not, for me to have so quickly transformed my definition of what a “city” is? Only two weeks earlier, Kakamega was a “town” at best.)

I also noted that, reaffirmed by Guillaume after the meeting, some people are taking the idea of “cultural sensitivity” far too seriously. Some are so afraid of violating unwritten cultural rules that they have seemingly suspended the assertiveness for which they were selected to come to Kakamega. It hinders the work that we do, for example, if interns are so hesitant to discuss their ideas and visions of their projects with their supervisors that they must depend on the site team to do it for them. It is almost as if they come to our meetings prepared with pad and pen only to script out their conversations with host families and organizations as to ensure purity of communication.

I say two things to future interns. First, whatever impression you might get from the site team as to how to go about communicating with locals, ponder sincerely what the term “cultural sensitivity” actually means. It absolutely does not mean that you are to be perfectly versed in cultural nuances before interacting with the local community. Part of the cultural experience is learning the local culture by way of trial-and-error, and often times, the “error” parts are far more important and noteworthy. You should be ready to laugh off your mistakes, as should your host family and organization. You can either attempt to be culturally perfect and make things very awkward for locals around you, who might be led to expect you to truly know cultural nuances and be that much more upset when you violate them, or you can be more outgoing and admit freely that you are trying to learn (which you should be). You are not trying to impress anyone here; you are immersing yourself in a unique culture and trying to appreciate and live it.

Second, when you do end up upsetting someone (notice that I choose “when,” not “if”), remember that it is in no way your fault that the other person is upset. In fact, I would argue that it is their fault. It will be blatantly obvious to all those around you that you are not a local; if not from the color of your skin, then from your accent and mannerisms, people will know. Put yourself in their shoes – if a foreign exchange student accidentally offended you by violating a “cultural rule,” would you get upset at the person or would you laughingly correct their mistake? You cannot be expected to fit perfectly in. Anyone around you who expects so is unrealistic and is not worth you losing sleep over.

That is not to say, however, that you should make no effort whatsoever. If you know how to say a greeting in Kiswahili, you by all means should! The locals will no doubt get a kick out of it. When they spring into a line of Kiswahili in return, widen your eyes and shake your head. They will understand. After you admit to someone that you do not know their culture, you should be quick to add that you want to learn about it.

We are going into the Kakamega Rainforest tomorrow and Monday for hiking and hanging out because Monday is a holiday! I will no doubt return with fabulous pictures and comical stories.