7 April

As I wash the dishes at my kitchen sink on Malawi Close with Sunlight detergent I hear Alice singing as she sweeps my driveway. She uses a Kenyan broom made of hand-tied twigs. She holds one hand behind her back and the rhythmic ‘whish-whish-whish’ of the bristles on the ground accompanies her tune. Her uniform is a combat baseball hat and a colorful kikoi tied at her waist, the required uniform for grounds workers on campus. Seeing Alice in regular clothes at the end of a shift, which has happened twice, is an utter surprise. She seems defined by her required sweeping and raking uniform.

As I wash the dishes I hear the manual’ ring-ring’ of a bell on a bicycle, and a security guard in uniform pulls up to my front gate in his crisp white shirt, formal hat, and navy pants. He shows a note to the security guard stationed at my gate, a young woman in full uniform despite what I feel is the oppressive heat. She too wears a white shirt and pants but she also wears a heavy navy blue regulation sweater with elbow patches as part of the uniform. They both have caps. The security guards at my home have rotated every two weeks so I never get to know them very well. During the day the guards are women and over night the guards are men. There is a guard at or near my front gate 24 hours a day. I happen to live in the one house on campus that is also a security station for the surrounding streets. They watch me and I watch them.

As I head to the front gate to leave campus I stop at the only ATM station. The machine is being serviced and I join the line. Soldiers in green uniforms with guns in their arms saunter around the ATM cubicle. Semi-automatic rifles at the ready are unsettling. When the machine is filled a security guard in uniform watches me as I finish my transaction. Her uniform says Brinks.

As I leave campus through the front security gates I watch as a small army of security guards works the entry and exit. Two large, Kenyatta blue gates are manually opened and closed every time a car enters or leaves campus. Trunks are checked and back doors are opened. I head through the metal detector and nod to the guard in her chair.

I am hyper aware of the number of people doing jobs in Kenya in uniforms, people who work with their hands, who do things, things that would be mechanized or computerized or monitored on surveillance cameras in the United States. They have eyes that you can look into and you can ask them questions.

I remember greeting the workers in the tollbooth as I left work when I finally drove a car to campus and earned my spot in the CCM garage. Now, we wave cards with bar codes at machines and wait in long lines as frustrated customers struggle with the technology and curse at the machines that they can’t make work. There are no more people. The patrons exit their cars and yell in the air and look in vain for help. Cars line up and honk at each other and there is no one to help. We must push a button on the wall for help and talk into a machine, hoping in vain that the metallic voice on the other end will send a living, breathing person to rescue us.

I am now at a nice hotel. I am alone, so all of my interactions have been with the Kenyan workers who have helped make me feel at home this weekend. I was warmly greeted by a fancy doorman, who impressed with his bright red jacket, golden epaulettes, and military bearing. I ate dinner in a nyama choma (grilled meat) restaurant where the chefs wore tall white hats and crisp white smocks. The servers all wore emerald green vests and ties.

And on the beautiful and expansive grounds of this paradise hotel I saw grounds workers in crisp uniforms doing so many jobs by hand. Entire stone walkways were hand scrubbed. I saw huge lawns raked by hand for hours by a team of three, all wearing green wellies. No leaf blowing machines were used to blow the leaves and flowers on the lawns and paths from one spot to another. They were raked into a pile, placed on a tarp, and manually carried away. I hate the lazy American arrogance of leaf blowers. I hate leaf blowers and I love rakes. There is nothing wrong with sweeping with a broom and using a dust pan, a sight I saw repeatedly today.

My favorite worker today watered plants. He had an enormously long hose that he dragged across beautifully raked lawns to manually water flowerbeds. There were no automatic sprinklers, no machines to do the job. His hose didn’t even have a nozzle; I loved remembering my own joy in placing a finger over the end of a hose to produce just the right stream of water. He did this for hours.


My favorite moment was when he watered an enormous tree for a while as he visited with a buddy. The roots for this tree were miles below his hose I would guess, but he wasn’t hurting anything.


So much of my work is accomplished in front of a computer, and so much of my work is ephemeral talk, where I watch and talk to others about doing things. That may be why I love gardening and sweeping and yard work and shoveling so much. I like seeing results, and I like the muscular feeling of accomplishment. I look forward to getting my hands dirty when I get home.

Perhaps I will wear a uniform.


This entry was published on April 7, 2014 at 5:02 am. It’s filed under Culture, Food, People, Sounds and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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