Interviewer: Please, elaborate on your cultural background, different from the American culture.
Answer: The Kenyan culture is distinct from the American in some ways from the greetings to dressing to etiquette to interactions, and even language. Greetings among most Kenyans and especially among the Luo enquires into one's well-being, their family, and even about the weather conditions. This is mostly by a handshake and in some communities, bowing before an elder. Hugging is considered too much display of affection and indecent in some cases. In the US it's all about how one is doing and hugging, and pecks are all part of general greetings. The first time I met Njeri, another Kenyan who had lived in the US for a while now, she came up to me with a hug while I extended my hand for a handshake, and it was awkward. Kenyans are known to dress in a very conservative way even in hot weather. Other communities like the Maasai have a unique way of dressing including a shuka (a piece of cloth) around their shoulders and sandals. Because of the different tribes in Kenya, in most cities with an array of people from all over the country, they mostly use Swahili to communicate.
Interviewer: What is the most significant challenge that you face culturally in the US and has the US adequately accommodated your cultural perspectives?
Answer: Being only two months old in the US I have learned a lot. I have experienced a lot of culture shock, but it is something that I can live with. The US has been home to people from very many cultures. They have all been integrated and become part of the American society hence we have all been accommodated as best as possible. The only problem is the challenge of generalization where people tend to think that Africa is a country and everyone knows everyone. On the contrary, it is a continent, and I barely know a lot of people in my hometown Kisumu.
Interviewer: Thank you very much Akinyi and I hope that you enjoy your stay in the states for the period of your studies.
Akinyi speaks of the broad cultural differences between the United States and Kenya to which she still finds hard to live by effortlessly (Dorsett, 2017). She speaks of the Kenyan culture, though comprised of different tribes, as being very conservative and conformist in line with the daily interactions with people, ways of life, dress code, language and even simple gestures like greetings. Akinyi states that from her historical recollection her cultural background is derived from the movement of the river lake Nilotic people that migrated from Bahr al Ghazal in Sudan. They mostly occupy the Western region of Kenya around Lake Victoria.
The Kenyan people are very cultural and believe in so many attributes of life. One such trait among the Kikuyu is the initiation into manhood for the boy child. This practice happens when they attain puberty and when a family does not comply with this attracts shame and ridicule from the whole community. It marks an immense step in one's life and hence an enormous family celebration after a boy undergoes circumcision. The Luo have incorporated western dressing and general outlook, but other Kenyan tribes like the Maasai are easy to identify by their distinctive Maasai shukas (a piece of clothing) hang around their shoulders and sandals on their feet. Kenyans are renowned for their strictness when it comes to upholding morals.
Among all the Kenyan communities, there is a general portrayal of respect for older members of the community such that in some societies children are not allowed to sit in the same place with older people, cannot talk back and when they reach a certain age cannot sleep in the same house with their parents. Among the Kikuyu, there is one tree, the sycamore, which the people greatly revere to the extent that it can never be cut down and when it falls then elders have to slaughter and eat goat meat in its presence. They believe that it is the dwelling place of their God, Ngai. The peoples of Kenya all play a vital role in the building of the nation although politics encompasses a dividing line into two main groups comprising of the majority Luo in one group and Kikuyu in another side. One group believes that one group has held power for too long and should, therefore, let the other group hold power also, a discussion that has led to a lot of uncertain outcomes.
One of the most significant aspects of each Kenyan tribe is the conservation and preservation of their cultures through the teachings and passing down to the younger generation. As a result, up until a few years ago, and although still persistent in the rural areas, children, in their early years of schooling would be taught using their native languages (Musamali & Martin, 2016). In every culture, class and belonging to one is crucial. Among the Kikuyu, this is divided into age groups and age sets, such that those circumcised around the same time belong to the same age group. In the traditional setting, there were strict rules against the intermixing of men and women as they had very different gender roles. With time, they have grown out of this, but there still exists classes created by different educational qualifications and even wealth. The wealthy are in most cases also the most educated for whom the less affluent commonly work.
The unique food among the Kenyans is ugali made from ground corn and cooked by mixing in hot water until it becomes firm and dough-like. Kenya has very many forms of unique artistic expressions evident in their peoples, music like the 'ohangla' for the Luo, 'mugithi' for the Kikuyu and taarab in the Kenyan coast. Another form of art is in their artifacts such as the sisal hand woven 'kiondos' and soapstone in Kisii (another tribe in Kenya). The cultural practices are also very ingrained with moral values such that a young person is required to greet an older person first. In the Maasai culture, the young person bows and the elder touches their head, a sign of blessing. There is no hugging especially among daughters and fathers or mothers and sons especially past puberty where the community view it as disrespectful and immoral. One of the principal factors among all these is that eye contact is imperative as it signifies trust and honest and voiding eye contact makes one perceive the other as lying or hiding something.
The structure of most Kenyan societies includes the family as the basic unit, and it is extended to include aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The village elders follow this structure, and most people approach them in case of conflicts. The police are only involved in grave criminal acts such as murder. Most rural areas in Kenya structure work according to gender such that among the Maasai, women care for children, while men work. However, this culture has been categorically changed with the introduction of Western education and women empowerment so much so that both genders can take part in any economic activity.
The US system is very different from the African in very many aspects. Unlike the Kenyan system where greetings are handshakes and long conversations and inquiries into one's family, in the US it is an inquiry into general well-being and hugs among close people. The etiquette is also dissimilar in that the aspect of the food and how the people eat, that is using cutlery. In most African communities, cutlery is a luxury. In addition to this, unlike the conservative Kenyans, Americans can show affection in public through the holding of hands and even give of pecks, these are highly inappropriate in a Kenyan setting. Finally, some states in the US allows for relationships between same-sex persons, in Kenya, suspicion into the same has led to ridicule and on the end arrest or even mob justice on the persons.
The United States is a free country and comprises of diverse people from all walks of life. It has accommodated all of them and also allows them the freedom to practice their cultures as long as it is not demeaning to the person's human rights or affecting the surrounding people or the environment.
Dorsett, J. (2017). High Hopes: International Student Expectations for Studying in the United States. New Directions for Student Services, 2017(158), 9-21.
Musamali, K., & Martin, B. N. (2016). Comparing higher education practices and cultural competences in Kenya and the United States. Higher Education Studies, 6(3), 127.
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