Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reflections of an emigrant...

I am Irish but I live outside of Ireland. I am one of approximately 1 million Irish-born people who can make this statement today. (Although there are up to 70 million diaspora worldwide if you count second- and third-generation Irish).

When I get the time I do read about other Irish people living abroad. A lot of what is written about Irish emigration is inherently depressing in character. The Irish media for a number of months, especially in 2010 and 2011 was obsessed with those leaving the country and there were countless newspaper articles, radio reports and TV documentaries in this vein. Initiatives like the Irish Times' Generation Emigration section have gone someway to redress the balance of coverage. The micro-site publishes stories of Irish emigration from all over the world, it has spaces for people to tell their own stories of life in the U.S., Australia, South Korea or wherever they find themselves. The articles tend to present a mix of experiences, ranging from those who were happy to leave Ireland and live and explore other countries, to those who feel their departure was  involuntary, forced by economic or other circumstances. Emigration is always a hotly debated topic, and always generates strong opinions when brought up.

The Irish Times comprehensive survey published a couple of month backs up what I had already suspected about a lot of recent Irish emigration. Firstly 72% of those questioned were working before they emigrated showing that it's not just those that are unemployed. In reality, it's probably harder for those who are unemployed to emigrate in many cases, as setting up in a new country is not cheap. Related to that, 75% of those interviewed said that their current job was better than the one they had previously held in Ireland compared to 14% who said it was about the same and only 10% who said it was worse. People aren't going abroad simply for jobs, they are going abroad for better jobs, better opportunities. Older emigrants were far more likely to have a job lined up before moving, 57% of over 35s had work lined up compared to 29% of under 25s. This makes sense, as they are more likely to be moving with partners or families in tow.

These statistics reflected my own, and many of my friends' experiences of emigration. For me, I moved abroad first for study, and then for this volunteer/work experience. I probably could have found work at home, but it would not have been in the area I was interested in. I saw moving away as a chance to gain valuable experience that would have been difficult to get in Ireland.

Some of the statistics I found most interesting referred not to people's new jobs but to their new lifestyles. 70% said their new lifestyle was better, with only 10% saying it was worse. 55% stated that their diet was better than back home, and 54% were exercising more. Drinking habits were fairly unchanged, with 42% drinking about the same, 35% drinking less and 22% drinking more. Overall, those who stated they were happier made up 56% of the sample, 22% were less happy and 22% were about the same.

I myself am definitely living healthier in Kenya than I did in Ireland; in many ways my lifestyle is better than it would have been at home. I eat far more fresh fruit and veg, and far less meat and processed foods. I cook proper meals, far more often than I would if I lived in Ireland. I am also drinking less than I would be in Ireland. All of this has been a great by-product of having to get by on a volunteer's allowance and I hope to continue whenever I do go home.

I also dedicate a lot more time to friends and family relationships here than I probably would do at home. I don't physically see most of them but we email, Skype, Facebook, tweet, send Whatsapp and Viber messages. I actually ring my granny more often here than I did when I lived in London. Being away from Ireland has highlighted the importance of nurturing these key relationships in my life, which can be no bad thing.

I fully intend to go to Ireland some day. But I am just not sure what day that will be, nor quite what it will take to fully lure me back. I miss Ireland. And I miss my friends and family dreadfully. But not quite enough to get me to move back without knowing that certain job, career and lifestyle prospects would be waiting for me.

My good friend Órla reminded me of a beautiful Irish blessing recently 'Sláinte, saol fada agus bás in Eirinn'. For the non-Irish speakers amongst you this translates as wishing for 'Health, long life and may you die in Ireland'. That's what I wish for all of my Irish friends, and a few of my non-Irish ones too.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi

Out of Africa always comes something new. 

I came across this phrase in a book, The Zanzibar Chest, that I read for a book club I've recently joined. The utterance, which is often attributed to Pliny the Elder but in reality it has its origins in a far older Greek phrase, struck a chord with me. Despite having been said hundreds of years ago it is as true now as it was then.

I think of the technological innovations that have come out of Africa in recent times. I have spoken about them in an earlier blogpost but innovations such as M-Pesa and Ushahidi are ingenious solutions to African problems which have since found use across the globe.

There are other innovations beyond the technological. At the TED talk I attended back in May speakers spoke of new ways to tackle environmental concerns, agricultural difficulties, wildlife . Entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Africa, there is no question of that.

Pliny's phrase also connected in my head to the advertising campaign that Coca Cola have started here in recent months - 'A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa'. All across the city Coca Cola have erected billboard proclaiming this phrase with pictures of good-looking Africans playing sports, performing, pushing cars up dusty roads...

An ad on the radio, which I can almost recite verbatim thanks to the frequency of its broadcast, tells us: 'There are a billion reasons to believe in Africa. While the world shakes and stumbles, Africa dances to a different beat .1 in 5 players in European clubs can trace their roots to Africa. The world's most admired man is African. While the world worries about the future, 1 billion Africans are sharing a Coke.' (There's also a TV ad version here.)

Both Pliny the Elder and Coca-Cola are espousing the same message, in my opinion, albeit for very different reasons. They talk of the vibrancy of Africa, the innovation, the creativity, the spirit, the dynamism, the hope. I can only really speak of Kenya but the place is constantly in motion. You can accuse Kenya, and Africa, of being many things, but being boring certainly isn't one of them. There are countless opportunities for change here, whether the change is for the better or worse is another matter entirely.

I think that's why, 8 months into my time here, Kenya and Nairobi still excite me. And why I feel like I don't want to leave any time soon. The next year holds many new possibilities for Kenya. Elections in March will be the first test of the new constitution and the opportunity to prove that the unrest of 2007/8 need not be repeated after every election here. The ICC trials of prominent accused organisers of that violence which will seek to find answers and justice in the backdrop of the elections. I don't know what Kenya will look like this time next year, but I really hope I'm here to find out.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Things I've Learned in Kenya - Part 4

Matatu Stages are displays of Market Economics at its most pure

I know very little about economics. And it's something I always lament. I am often heard to say 'I wish I knew more about economics'. It would probably help me decide whether or not to head back to Europe in a few months.

Thanks to Professor P.J. Drudy and 'Introduction to Economic Policy' way back in my Junior Freshman year of Trinity I do know the (very) basics . Like supply and demand and how that interaction determines prices in a pure market economy. And last Tuesday waiting at the matatu stage I saw Professor Drudy's lectures come to life.

The matatu stage at the bottom of UN avenue (yes, it's really called that) was packed and there wasn't a matatu to be seen. Which is very unusual. On most occasions when I get to that stage there are a couple of matatus waiting and I have a chance to pick the one that is offering me the best seat. But that day there were about 40 people waiting and no sign of any transport coming. We waited, and when one eventually came it was chaos. Everyone ran towards it until the conductor shouted the price. 60 bob into town. 60 bob! It's normally 30 bob. At that point more than half the people slunk away, including myself, unwilling to pay that price. But the conductor found 13 people more than happy to pay it and off he went. Another matatu pulled up and the same thing happened. So the crowd had thinned. A third matatu pulled up trying to charge 50 and  the people that we left were having none of it. A few got on but most people stood where they were. After a minute or two the conductor shouted 'town, town, 40 bob' and the matatu filled up in seconds. This third conductor wasn't facing the high level of demand that the first two had and so had to adjust his prices accordingly.

Actually these displays happen everyday. When I pick up a bus or matatu at Westlands for the last leg of my journey home it often takes me a few minutes to get on one. Not that there's not many matatus going in my direction, it's just that they're charging me more than I want to pay. So I shop around, ask a few different conductors until finally I find one that's charging 40 shillings as opposed to 60 shillings. It's a 20 bob difference but it's all part of everyday life here in Kenya.

My fervour for sports and dressing up only increases the further from Ireland I go

This isn't something I've learned about Kenya, but it's something I've learned *in* Kenya about myself, so it still counts. Sort of.

I love a good sporting occasion. Preferably one where country or county pride is involved. When I'm in Ireland I try to go to as many Meath matches as I can. I have been known to wear bright green tights to these matches, as well as a skirt and my jersey. On one occasion I wore two pairs of tights, one yellow, one green, with a leg in each. I am *exactly* that cool. I was once asked by a steward in Croke Park, an elderly gentleman shall we say, whether my stockings (the green tights) went 'all the way up'. Shudder. When my brother's school was in the Leinster final in Gaelic football I wore amber coloured tights with black patterned tights over them so I would be the right combination of black and amber.

Since I can't watch GAA here in Kenya I was excited about the prospect of getting into some good sporting spirit during the Euros in support of Ireland. So off in search of an Irish jersey I went. I mentioned in an earlier blogpost that donated clothes from Ireland make their way over to Kenya and other African countries and end up getting sold in second-hand clothes markets. I'd seen Kenyans wearing Irish soccer jerseys before and didn't think I'd have any problems picking some up. My friend Kristen who accompanied me to the market on the Sunday morning in question was sceptical that I would find what she imagined would be a rather rare commodity. Within 20 minutes I had found 4 retro Irish soccer jerseys and so I had my pick of the best two for Amy and I. The price I paid for them? 450 shillings, about €4.30.

My haul from the second hand market.
One for me, and one for Amy.
Jerseys bought  it was time for the rest of the outfits to be put together. Luckily I had some of the temporary tattoos left over from St Patrick's Day and some of the flags I had acquired (nicked) from the tables at the Irish Ball so we left for the pub delighted with ourselves.

Dressed and ready for some 'COYBIG' cheering

Hardcore supporters.

When we arrived at the pub we were the only people wearing jerseys. The only people. A little embarrassed by our enthusiasm we took seats at the bar near one of the smaller screens to watch the Spain Italy match. Almost everyone that passed us did a little double take to see the two girls up at the bar completely decked out in green, white and gold. Most smiled at us. Some looked a little embarrassed for us. Once the Ireland game started and some of our friends arrived I like to think that we didn't look quite as odd but I'm sure we did.

Now I didn't lick this enthusiasm off the stones. I place the blame for this fervour on my mother.

Exhibit A) Our family at a match supporting my little brother when he was playing football for his school. Notice Mammy Wickham's yellow jumper and black trouser combo. What you can't see is the yellow and black socks she is sporting, I kid you not.

The Wickham family - never ones to shy
away from an occasion to dress up.

Mum loves dressing up. She wears a uniform at work but even still she manages to dress up. If Meath get to a certain advanced stage of the All Irelnad Championship she will paint her nails green and yellow. At Christmas she wears Christmassy earrings, mistletoe, flashing Christmas trees etc. At Hallowe'en she'll sport pumpkin earrings. My mother is a little bit cracked and I absolutely love her for it. And I love that I seem to have inherited it.

Men in Kenya and the Carly Rae Jepsen method of picking up women

Many of you may not know who Caryl Rae Jepsen is. And if you are over 15 that is understandable (if not wholly forgiveable). For those of you who are older than the average Belieber Carly Rae Jepsen is a Canadian singer who released a song called ‘Call Me Maybe’ late last year. The song received some airplay and a few hits on YouTube. However when Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale and lots of their Disney Clubber mates made this video the song went viral. Fast. To be fair it is a rather catchy poppy tune but it once again shows the awesome power of tweenagers and the internet.

Anyways, the reason I bring it up is to do with the song’s lyrics. Jepsen sings

‘Hey, I just met you.
And this is crazy.
But here’s my number.
So call me maybe.’

This appears to be how many of my interactions with random Kenyan men go. Except instead of giving me their number they insist they would like to have my number because they think I am interesting/beautiful/insert insincere platitude here despite having met me only seconds earlier. In the past couple of weeks small talk conversations on buses, matatus, at a work conference for religious leaders (!), queueing for takeaway coffee have all led to requests for my number. This is not new. It has happened since I arrived in Kenya but I am getting increasingly confident about saying 'I'd rather not'. Though I will admit I have given a wrong number out on a few occasions too. Or my latest trick is to make up an imaginary partner and laugh out the request with a casual ‘oh well now, I’m not sure how happy my partner would be about me giving my number to other men.’ That usually (but not always) does the trick. 

As annoying as this gets will I miss it when I'm back home? The attention? The flattery, exaggerated as it is? It's going to be very strange going back to a place where I no longer stick out all the time, where I blend in, where I look like everyone else.

Also in this series: