Smiling my way across Kenya

I have the opposite of a resting bitch face. My default expression, through no effort of my own, is a smile. When stressed, I often smile more without knowing it. There are plenty of times this is a problem, like every incident of corporate layoffs in which I was ever involved. Trust me, there is no role during such an event in which a smile is appropriate.
It has been an advantage at times, though, yielding me more tips as a waitress, better treatment at airline counters, and dozens of compliments on my good attitude even when my attitude sucked. But no where does this quirk affect me more than when I travel. The further from home I go, the more I smile. Sometimes the expression is genuine, because I love being on the road. Sometimes, I don’t even know I am doing it.
I’ve just returned from one of my furthest journeys ever, a trip to Kenya which got me thinking. What do people do here in the US when you smile at them?
1. They smile back
2. They say hi and maybe try to talk to you.
3. They try to sell you some thing or some idea. Depending on circumstances, that might include the idea of hooking up with them.
4. They take it as an invitation to do harm, attempting to scam or rob you.
I think we can all agree that the first is rather nice. The Kenyans smile back, too, and I carried home the images of hundreds of their smiles. It seemed to me that (with some exceptions) their culture encourages smiling, and it was a delight to have women and men, young and old exchange this simple greeting with me.
I’m less comfortable with having strangers talk to me, but luckily one of my travel companions was not. We made a great team. I did the smiling and then she engaged in the ensuing conversions, much to her own delight.
Sales is another matter. My travel group preferred to buy our trinkets in little shops with established prices. I’ve never understood the charm of haggling, and I respond poorly to pushy sales techniques. I found myself forcing a determined pucker when our van slowed to a stop in traffic and the inevitable crowd selling bracelets and fruit approached us.
Then I thought about similar places in the US. Selling anything to stopped cars is illegal back home, but instead we find beggars with signs detailing their woes and girls’ softball teams asking for donations to attend tournaments. Wasn’t this enterprising foot-based sales force far more admirable? I think so.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single beggar in all of Kenya. Or a single homeless person. Granted, there were huge swaths of Nairobi which I never entered, but in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%, the major highways are lined with people trying to make a living, not folks asking for a handout. It seems to me that the people of Kenya embody the virtue of self-sufficiency to an admirable extent. You would think that the American Tea Party would love this place, and ought to be praising the people of Kenya as an example to lazy Americans. Why do I get the distinct feeling that few of them have ever traveled this far, or would be impressed if they did?
For all that hundreds of people tried to sell me things, not one tried to sell me their ideas. The Kenyans I met were proud of their indirect association with Barack Obama, but otherwise left their politics and mine out of the conversation, along with religion and philosophy. There was a feeling of acceptance, of you’re-entitled-to-be-you and I’m-entitled-to-be-me that also reminded me of what Americans aspire to, and often fall short of these days.
The most unfortunate result of a resting smile face is that one can inadvertently invite scams and thieves. It was worth noting that in spite of all the warnings I received before I left, I and my party encountered no theft, no unwanted attention, and no attempt to cheat us. While I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen here, a combination of caution and planning seemed sufficient to avoid problems under normal circumstances and most of the Kenyans with whom I interacted made me feel as safe or safer than I feel at home.
This is not to say that poverty is not obvious, even from the road. The average monthly wage in Kenya is under a hundred US dollars, and even though the cost of living is much lower, this little bit doesn’t go far enough. I’m sure there was hunger and disease, hidden from my view.
What was in my view, however, was people who had very little but were not, in general, miserable. There is a difference between poverty and misery, and that is something I think we tend to forget in the US.
What did I see in Kenya? I saw smiles and I saw hard work and I saw people willing to help each other and even a stranger. I saw curiosity and I saw tolerance and I saw people who appeared to be enjoying their lives.
When I arrived in Nairobi, after 36 hours of travel, my face was in its resting smile mode, with me exhausted and grumpy inside. When I left eight days later, the grin on my face was genuine, warmed by the charm of so many people who had smiled back at me.

“I Need A Dollar”

Every so often an artist captures a complex problem in a simple way. I’m in awe of the photo or sketch that conveys nuances in a glance, and of the poem, song or piece of flash fiction that evokes layers of meaning in its few words. The best of popular music manages this, I think. I put the song “I Need A Dollar” by Aloe Blacc in this small group.

Working hard, can’t get a break, can’t get ahead. Why is it all around me? Substance abuse for comfort? Substance abuse as part of the problem? Which came first? Is this life’s plan for me? Do I get some kind of reward after death for my perseverance? Or perhaps not. Maybe I should just give up now? Too tired to think it through. Another drink? Another day. It has to get better. Doesn’t it?

unlevelI hear a lot of questions in this song, and a lot of anguish, and the odd hope that the teller’s tale might be worth a few dollars in the end. Yes, it is a song to think about when you contemplate building a level playing field in this world.

Which brings me to the fact that I recently began volunteering at a shelter, and yesterday one of the employees discovered that I was from Houston. She felt compelled to share with me that Houston is the home of her favorite minister, someone I had never heard of named Joel Osteen.LAKEWOOD-CHURCH I’m not big on evangelical ministers or mega churches, but she went on about how great this guy was, so I looked him up. Yup, he has about 43,000 people in his church, is worth about 56 million, and lives in a ten million dollar home. What a great man. And, as the shelter worker pointed out to me, his wife is gorgeous, too.

Okay. Given what I know of evangelical churches, I suspect that most of this man’s money has come from people who desperately “need a dollar” and have been persuaded by him to tithe the tiny bits of what they do have to one who promises to bring them better fortune in this life or the next. Clearly, the person who is getting better fortune out of this is Mr. Osteen.

bottleYes, people can do anything they want with their limited income, and yes, most probably get some sort of comfort from this guy. At least I hope that they do. None-the-less I found his very existence to be even more discouraging than the verse about the singer’s good friends whiskey and wine. There are so many shitty ways to take money from the tired and discouraged who barely have it. And we keep coming up with more.

So many ways to lose. Maybe not a single way to win. Is this the way HAS to be?

So I listened to the song again, hoping that maybe Aloe Blacc had hidden an answer of some sort in with all his questions.

No, not really. But I continue to admire a singer/songwriter who at least asks the questions well.

(Note: I refer to the song “I Need A Dollar” in my book y2. Enjoy this excerpt and the link to my favorite video of the song which follows.)

Afi, meanwhile, had used most of his remaining cash to buy a used bicycle at a thrift store that he found near their rent-by-the-week apartment. Joy was annoyed at the frivolity of the purchase and said so, until Afi pointed out with a trace of irritation that he was trying to find a way to contribute. If he could get around, he might be allowed to perform for tips at one of the tourist places, bringing in at least a little cash under the table while she sought out the more dependable teaching work for which she was qualified.

She apologized with a simple “I’m sorry” but that evening as she watched him head off to towards the nice hotels on his beat up bike with his fire knife dancing supplies on his back, the Aloe Blacc song “I Need a Dollar” played in her head. As she sang along to the lyrics of a man desperate to make ends meet, she thought that perhaps she had sold Afi short by not recognizing his talents or his ingenuity. She owed it to him not to make that mistake again.

Late that night they shared a mattress and the comfort of worrying together.

This video of Aloe Blacc performing “I Need a Dollar” with The Grand Scheme at Southpaw in Brooklyn, New York, lets you see the artist close up and feel the fun he has performing this serious song. But the best part is the last two minutes, when he mentions his Jamaican roots and then adds on a short version of the song, reggae style. His compassion comes through along with his smile.