I couldn’t think of a single follow up question. Or didn’t want to.
I was doing a quick interview with a woman on the street outside the school. Her kids often had to miss class because she didn’t have the money, she said. And suddenly, I was too tired of hearing it again. It was always the same, tedious story. Nothing changed. I couldn’t fix it, and I had no idea who could or would. What was the point?
Later, Okwany asked me for advice: his mother had lost both legs, his father was very old. They lived far away and didn’t have enough to eat. Later, when he hinted at the allowance we might pay them to cover their travel costs, I pretended not to notice, till the subject was changed. I wanted Okwiri to deal with that – even if we split the cost – I hated them thinking I was money.
But I wasn’t the only one.
‘They’ll all be saying, now you have money’, Teacher Alice told me, as we waited for the others to come back from filming. ‘They’ll be saying, we’ve seen that mzungu, how much did she give you?’ And if you say, nothing?, I asked. ‘It doesn’t matter’, replied Alice, ‘they won’t believe it. Even the parents will send their kids to school without paying for school lunch because they’ll think we have money now… Well, we’ll manage somehow…’
I’d never realised the extent to which my mere presence was tarring them all with the same white man brush, making them just as susceptible to the assumptions of wealth (and subsequent resentment) that irritate me every single day in Africa. Later that evening, as we talked about the school and his role there, Okwiri echoed the same problem: having foreign friends around makes people assume he’s getting something from them. And they see him arriving in a (borrowed) car, with his ‘big stomach’ (his words, not mine…), and they assume he’s not sharing with them.
He’s still cheerful though. Kenyans – I’ve decided, based on two weeks with them – are fun; they are jokers and teasers and messers in the best possible way. So – as long as you ask the right questions – hearing their stories doesn’t have to be boring.