An American in Kenya


(A local official tries to calm a group of Kikuyu refugees during the distribution of clothing in Nakuru, Kenya on Monday . Local volunteers and charities are helping thousands of Kikuyu refugees who have sought shelter here after fleeing their homes in the Rift Valley. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Last week I wrote about what it’s like to be a Kenyan in Minnesota, while violence was gripping the East African country. Today, let’s look at it from the other direction. What’s it like to be a former Minnesota resident living in Kenya?

Katie Springer, originally from Waukesha, Wisc., graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2003, and now works in Nairobi for the Joint Voluntary Agency, which interviews people who want to be resettled in the United States.

I talked her today (it’s a nine-hour time difference) after she returned from work, her first full day back since the violence erupted.

(Interview below the fold)

Q: What’s it like today being an American in Kenya?

Well it (the violence) was sort of unexpected because we… the reason we’re based in Kenya is because it’s traditionally a peaceful country and it’s where people come to seek refuse so it was very unexpected what happened. I think for most Americans, we live in this bubble and I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing because there’s definitely distinct neighborhoods, especially in Nairobi, that is pretty much exclusively the ex-pat population.

I think during this time a lot of us were in that bubble and we were actually just watching a lot of it on TV and sort of removed from it. My boyfriend lives across town and I was actually in Nairobi on Thursday when it was … the big riot day, and you could definitely hear gunshots in the distance. There was a gunshot right outside our window.

Q: And how far away was the rally from where you are?

From where I live, it’s probably like two miles. It’s right in the center… have you been here? (no). It’s right in the center of town; you pretty much have to pass through it to get anywhere. So, it was really an obstruction. We had to close down our office… pretty much everything was closed down because nobody could get anywhere; it was just too dangerous.

Q: Did (the violence) surprise you?

Yeah definitely. Like I said, the reason our agency is based in Kenya, is because there’s an entire population of refugees from the entire eastern, central, and southern part of the continent in this country because it’s so traditionally peaceful and democratic; probably, you could say, the most Westernized country, most developed country in this part of Africa. So, yeah, it was definitely a surprise.

Q: When it (the violence) started, did you think, ” I picked the wrong country.”?

When they first announced the election results, there was a media blackout, so we weren’t aware of anything that was happening. The only way we knew that people were being killed was people outside of Kenya were contacting me or some of my friends and saying, ‘did you know this was happening?’.

Q: Do you have relatives back here and if so, what do they think of their family member’s choice of a country in which to work?

My parents are in Wisconsin. They’ve never been to Africa. The only thing they’ve seen about Africa is the movies like The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, which doesn’t paint a very good picture of it, so to send their only born daughter to Africa is a pretty scary thing, I think, for them. And when they’re seeing those images, it was scary.

What I was going to get at before was, yes we didn’t really know what was happening so the way we felt most impacted was we would go to the grocery store and there’d be no food on the shelves so it just felt like the apocalypse when you go to the grocery store. It was like empty streets, completely vacant. And then you’d go to the few stores that were open and there’d be thousands of people in line to buy hot dogs.

But then when I did go to work on Wednesday, we spent the whole time talking about evacuation plans and how we’re going to get out of Kenya if we need to, and what the embassy can do to help us and what our agency can do to help us and things like that. That’s when most of us really started to panic. And while it caused us to panic, I think it gave comfort to our relatives back home that if things got bad, we had a way out; we had a way home.

Q: Had you talked to the embassy about those plans?

The ambassador was fairly involved in the election and became more so after the (unintelligible), so he was very visible. However there’s a hugely significant ex-pat population here in Nairobi and it’s unique because it’s probably unlike any other African city. There’s so much U.N. presence here, so basically our agency told us because there’s so many of us here, our embassy can’t do anything for us. And, in fact, the embassy was calling our agency to ask for advice and assistance, because our agency is unique in the sense that we’re half American and half Kenyan, so I think they were able to get a better idea of how this was affecting both Americans and Kenyans. So the embassy was basically sending us text messages: “stay at home,” “keep in contact with your phones,” but they weren’t able to offer us any assistance.

Q: Are you feeling more comfortable about staying there?

Well, like I said, Thursday was really the peak of it. I’m feeling much better now. If you look at the demographics of where this is happening, who is perpetuating the violence, it’s in the slums, it’s the dayworkers, it’s the poor people who are just fed up.

But at the end of the day, they’re dayworkers. They don’t have any savings, they don’t have any way to support themselves other than working, so they have to go back to work. They have to at some point say, “I fought as much as I could but I have to support my family.”

So, for example, there’s a construction site right outside my window, my bedroom window. And they were working every day, long hours, even on holidays, and after the election, because most of the men working there live in the slums, they weren’t there all last week. But this morning, they were there. So I think that indicates they’re just like… there’s just nothing out there they can do.

Q: Your job requires you to screen refugees who want to be resettled in the United States. After something like this, will you have more people trying to do that?

They’re stating that there is… I don’t know what the exact figure is now… but something like 100,000 internally displaced Kenyans within Kenya, and a good amount of those have tried to flee to Uganda, because most of these … the violence is happening in the western part of the country so they’re mostly going to Uganda. So the way that our program works is you have to be a refugee outside of your own country, so in order to qualify, the Kenyans would have to be in Tanzania, or Ethiopia, or another country outside of Kenya. So right now that wouldn’t be a solution to the problem.

Q: Your job sounds really interesting. You must get a lot out of that?

I really feel like what happened here is a fluke thing and I think Kenya is proud of its success and I think most Kenyans think they do set an example for the rest of East Africa and they know that they have a lot to lose. So all of the Kenyans I talked to, they have no interest in this going on, they realize that maybe the elections are rigged, but it’s not worth losing everything that they’ve gained at all. I don’t think any Kenyan would argue with that.

So I think that while this (opposition leader Raila) Odinga has his cutthroat supporters, I think in the long run this is just a fluke thing. For Kenyans, it just be worth it in the end to lose all that they’ve gained. So I feel safe here. Right when you called, I just drove through town, I just drove through Uhuru Park, through town, and it’s fine. It seems to be back to normal.

There’s supposed to be a rally tomorrow, but it just doesn’t seem to be the same intensity that it was before.

Told that it was 38 and slushy back on the old sod, she said “it’s 85 with blue skies here today. I kind of would trade. I kind of miss it. The snow you guys have been having; it sounds so nice.”

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