Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Kenya

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcome among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Kenya, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.

Outside of Kenya’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Kenya are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. We will ask you to be supportive of one another.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Kenya, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps/Kenya staff and the Peace Corps/Kenya Diversity and Peer Support group will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Kenya

The Peace Corps staff in Kenya recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, ages, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting one other and demonstrating the richness of American culture. Our approach to diversity is to:

  • Prepare our staff for working with a diverse population of trainees and Volunteers;
  • Prepare trainees and Volunteers for adjusting to issues related to diversity; and
  • Prepare communities for working and living with Americans from diverse populations.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Peace Corps Volunteers in Kenya work mostly in rural areas. Traditional gender roles are very distinct in Kenya, especially among the Muslim community. Generally, women are expected to show deference to men and do most of the housework. Sexual harassment (e.g., men making unwanted comments) is common. As a Volunteer, it is important to stand up for your rights and beliefs as a person while still being culturally sensitive. Female Volunteers should expect curiosity from host country friends regarding their marital status and whether they have children, and if not, why.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

The average rural Kenyan assumes that all Americans are Caucasian. With this assumption, Volunteers of color might expect people to react to them differently. White Volunteers may receive special attention, both positive and negative, including being harassed for money, especially in public areas. Volunteers of color, on the other hand, may not receive the special attention.

If you are of color and travel with a White Peace Corps volunteer, it may be assumed that you are a prostitute, and you may get looks from people. This is becoming less common in Nairobi( though still prevalent in some areas of the city) then in rural areas, where there are seeing a white person is rare.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

The Kenyan culture has great respect for age. The Kiswahili language even has special expressions for addressing seniors. As a senior Volunteer, people may offer to do things for you as a sign of respect. Since the mandatory retirement age is 55, Kenyans may not fully comprehend why a “retiree” would still be working.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and is punishable by imprisonment or deportation. Many Kenyans have beliefs about homosexuality similar to those of many Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. It is important for gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers to know about these conservative attitudes to be able to live and work productively in Kenyan communities. Past Volunteers in Kenya have reported that they could not publicly acknowledge their sexuality for fear of negative repercussions. We suggest that anyone wishing to discuss this subject do so in confidence with a Peace Corps staff member. The medical office can provide confidential counseling and help connect you with the gay and lesbian support group for returned Volunteers.

See also: Articles about Kenya on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Kenya is a highly religious society, mostly Christian. Prayers at public gatherings are common. Generally, you will not observe the separation of church and state in your community activities. People will ask you what denomination you are and might try to convert you to theirs. The most common denominations are Anglican, Catholic, East African Revival, and various Pentecostal denominations. Be aware that even the mainline services tend to have a Pentecostal feel to them. Church services tend to be long and sometimes disorganized. It will be expected that you join your host family. Even if you are not religious, this is where most of your community members gather, so it can be a great asset to your work to get to know clergy and church-goers.

Coastal areas have a mix of religions due to the influences of other cultures, and you will find most of Kenya's Muslim population resides on the coast, along with Hindu's, Seikhs, Bahai's and a very small population of Israeli Jews.

Kenyans also tend to not understand mental health issues, what may be a bout of depression may be seen as demonic oppression, and so you can expect to be prayed for/over. If you are not a Christian, simply let this happen, as doing otherwise may be off-putting to your host family. If you have strong feelings about this, talk to your family in confidence, thanking them for their concern but noting that you feel better handling it yourself. Superstitions are slowly changing in Kenya, but be prepared for many things to be attributed to God or The Devil accordingly. In pastoralist and rural areas, animal sacrifices and the belief in witchcraft are common themes. It is not uncommon for albino's or people with disabilities to be accused of witchcraft in rural areas, due to a lack of knowledge about these medical conditions.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

Kenyans who are physically challenged are generally not accorded the same human dignity as other Kenyans.

Regardless of the nature of the physical challenge, social services are generally lacking for these Kenyans. Volunteers teaching in deaf education schools are often disturbed by attitudes of their colleagues and community toward deaf children. Peace Corps/Kenya complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act to ensure productive Peace Corps service by physically challenged Volunteers. That being said, Accommodations may be lacking in many areas outside of Nairobi. It is important to be honest about your limitations so you can be placed where you can get around easily without aid.