Penguins by Paul Hemminger

July 14, 2010

Imagine if a penguin just started walking down the street in the middle of your town. What are you thinking about that penguin? Where did it come from? Well it could come from anywhere really, I guess your first thought would be a zoo, then maybe someone owned it as a pet and lost it, perhaps the last thing you think of is that it came straight from Antarctica or the North Pole, or the highest parts of Canada. Either way, you stare. You wonder. What is the penguin thinking?

I am a penguin, I like it here, it’s warm and sunny, I’m a different kind of penguin, not a cold penguin, but a penguin that enjoys the heat, there are many like me, but we are located all over, and not that many people know about us, but some do. However, everyone is still staring at me, everyone wants to either help me, protect me, or captivate me and put me somewhere where I don’t bother people, or they want a picture with me, or to hug me. In the back of the penguin’s mind it remembers when it was with all the other penguins. No one really noticed him as someone different except for friends and family, social groups etc.

Here, everyone knows who I am, I’m not a penguin, I’m the penguin. Here, I feel like the penguin.Not all the time, but most of time I am stared at with wide eyes. Without speaking to the Kenyan people it’s hard to first know thoughts or motives. From what I’ve heard everyone is so kind, and so hospitable, and so warm and welcoming. All I know thus far is stares.That’s how it went for the first hour, and remnants of that time looms throughout my days. I ran this theory past my co-worker Paul today, haha we are called P2 in the office, while we were walking away from a MicroFinance Group. He said his brother went to India and felt the same way, he was Kenyan, he was black, and even all of the black Indians called him negro. It disturbed him quite a bit. Here, I swear people watch more American TV shows than they do back in the states, so what they see is what the media portrays. I guess how else could one describe normal life in the US, or Canada. So, anyways, I do not feel so much tension as before, but I do feel very penguinish, and it’s so much worse for the girls. Men & children give them such attention; they yell “mzungu, mzungu!” Many times with big smiles on their faces. And so one should just smile and nod, yes I am white…Like I said earlier, the average Kenyan has not spoken to, on average, more than 2 white people one on one.

I continue to ask more people that I now consider close friends. So with each passing day as my Swahili gains in speed and precision, I have a lighter pace to my skip, and smiles from strangers come easier. I am starting to learn more and more the responsibility of the smile. Does that sound odd? The responsibility? Imagine the streets of NYC. People busily bustling to work or elsewhere, people’s faces, many times caught in the moment, are blank stares, as if the world and life is just another… what grain of rice. Imagine now the streets of NYC where everyone was smiling. Something is wrong with this picture; did everyone just win a million dollars? Is that how we price a city full of smiles?Even so, imagine walking down the street, and while you may be swaggering amongst an ok day, perhaps you are even smiling inside, and person walks by with a smile, nothing more, their face is full of life, their cheeks perched above the creases of the upturned smile. Cute.

Instantly it was happenstance that the person walking from the other direction had a better than ordinary thought, and transferred it to an outward grin, which gave reaction to your inner child, and out came the smile you were looking for all day.I have sensed the same responsibility comes from smiles, laughter, handshakes, jokes, etc. Smiles go beyond the broken language barrier, and supersede all potential words. Two quotes come to mind right now. “People may forget what you said, people may forget what you do, but people will never forget the way you make them feel.” Thanks Betsy, and then also, “It’s better to be interested, than to be interesting.” I am starting to realize that my life is not about me. In fact, none of our lives are about “me”, it’s about “us”. And here, where this society is way more about us than me, can I see how important it is for our society, even if it’s just my group of friends, to transfer from me to we.

That’s why it’s always important to think in terms of development, because development, in any sense is the outward utilization of skills to develop areas where people have needs. Needs like that of food, water, safety, security, jobs, social activities, skills, training, etc. So to understand that each form of development is cultural, and we all have our own cultural biases, it’s even more crucial to critically analyze every decision we make that we think is, or could be, development. Where is the greatest return on investment, where do we FAIL big time when it comes to what we thought was development. Sustainable Development, as it has been said by many interns, and program coordinators. Shit’s complicated...

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