When Culture meets Culture

By Eelis Nguyen

I had always wanted to visit Africa. For us, the Finnish, it seems to be the undiscovered continent. After talking with some of my friends, it turned out that I had a chance to take care of two flies on one stroke: I could visit Africa and at the same time work as a volunteer. And so I got in touch with Andrew Olea of Educational Initiatives Trust (EIT). He invited me to come to Nairobi and work with the local youth.

When someone comes from a country like Finland to Kenya, he cannot but be amazed about the different kinds of lives people lead here. This is what happened to me. Compared to all the places I had travelled to before, Kenya, and Nairobi more specifically, seemed to have a very different culture. So I knew that many cultures were going to clash or, preferably, intermingle, what with having a Finnish person with Vietnamese heritage come to a multicultural city like Nairobi

Sunshine, ugali, the mwenjeji and matatus

Nairobi weather was one of the many things I had to adapt to. But this was not a negative sort of adaptation. I welcomed the sunshine and was happy to have fled away from Finland’s cold and dark winter. The weather reminded me a lot of our summer, a good Finnish summer that is.

The second thing I had to adapt to was the food. But since I’ve always been a lover of different kinds of foods, I never doubted that I would like Kenyan dishes. Of course, in Nairobi you have a wide variety to choose from, but it’s the traditional foods that I fell in love with. I can have a burger in Finland, but I can’t have ugali and chapos. There’s just something about the authentic experience of eating the food with your bare hands. My favourite combinations became chapo-matumbo, and ugali with nyama choma and kachumbari. I even brought one kilo of unga ya ugali and one of chapati flour with me back home.

The third thing to adapt to: the matatus. At the beginning I was a bit nervous about travelling alone, but after using the matatus for 2-3 weeks, I became totally comfortable. Sometimes the conductors would try to take advantage of my being a mzungu, overcharging, not returning my change, misleading (saying that it goes to the desired place, when it actually is taking another route) etc. But when things like this happened, I tried to keep my cool. In the end, that is the Kenyan way – to “be cool”. I learned good lessons on how to keep my temper and many times it paid off, since it turned out on a couple of occasions that I was the one on the wrong.

Apart from all that I have mentioned above, obviously I also had to get accustomed to the people as well. Kenyans came across as very friendly, happy and social. Of course walking down the streets and getting stared at made me feel quite the opposite from time to time, but the people that I actually got to know better, they were just great. So my experience with the people was definitely positive, and it was precisely the people who made the trip worthwhile.

Working in the “East”

My work for EIT was to coach football. The aim was to keep the youngsters of Eastland’s active and out of harm’s way. Anyway, I met most of my teams during the very first week. Practically I had two different teams: 1) the seniors (guys who finished secondary school) and 2) the class 8 leavers.

Time really flew past. I must admit that this time was just too short to bare fruit in the football sense. Six training sessions are not enough if one wants to see improvement on the pitch.  But I’m also happy to admit that I witnessed improvement in the more important aspect of the “game”, that is, improvement off the pitch. The boys learned some valuable lessons about life, virtues and manners. I learned a lot as well. I guess that two weeks can’t make anyone the next Ronaldinho, but it is enough for people from two different cultures to interact, learn and exchange ideas, values and emotions.

“Coach, we’re undefeated!”

Our first match was on Saturday 13th of February 2010. The legendary Luke Ombati had tried to gather his best players (some of them were so African that they did not manage to show up) and they were happy to face us in our maiden match. After small difficulties, we ended up winning the match 4-3.

The second match was against Strathmore University. The game was a very tough one for us. Apart from poor refereeing,  my players were also struggling against an opponent twice their size; not only physical size, but I guess many of those guys had more experience than our team. It all came down to who wanted it more. We did and after playing nearly 100 minutes, the final score was 2-1 for us.

On week 9, we played a team from Buru Buru called Sports Connection. This team played in the Super League and on Friday the 5th of March, we beat them 3-1. Again we played much better football than our opponents and we deserved the win.

Sunday the 14th of March was the last day of football for me and the senior team of EC. We were blessed by a chance to play one more match against Luke’s team. This time Luke was able to summon all of his best players but we still beat them 4-2. It was a shame that we conceded even two goals, for we were quite clearly the stronger side.

My whole time in Kenya was a wonderful gift from God. So I thank Him above all for this beautiful experience. I learnt so many things and I’m sure that I was able to teach something as well. I pray that one day I’ll return to roast some meat, make some ugali and play some football with these young players from the Eastlands.

Eelis is a 4th year BA (Political Science) student at Helsinki University, Finland.

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