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Through the eyes of an African in Maine

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"What's happenin'?" my spouse asks Kimani, our Kenyan exchange student. "What?" Kim asks.

English being his third language, our slang is unfamiliar. Then he catches on. "Not so much," he says, when really, much is happening every day for Kim. Our culture is the opposite of his quiet earth-dependent village in Africa.

In Kim's village on the equator, his mother uses fire to cook; the firewood she hauls on her back. They fetch water from a well and local reservoirs that cows also use. His village has no electricity. No malls, no grocery stores, no libraries within hundreds of miles. No computers. An occasional battery-operated TV. No snow. Ever.

Kim is Kikuyu, the largest and most progressive of the 35 or so tribes in Kenya, each with its own language and customs. The country's first president was Kikuyu after Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963. That's about the time the bridge from Jonesport, Maine, to Beals Island (where we live now) was built. Not that long ago.

Kim arrived at our home on Christmas and sat quietly as we unwrapped dozens of gifts and ate dozens of treats. I felt very aware of our indulgence, very aware that his family doesn't have money or food to use just for fun.

The last child of six, Kim is very quiet, which is typical of Kenyan children who never speak above a soft voice to any adult and only if spoken to. Students are still caned in school for misdemeanors. Kim is an observer, catching on quickly to how we do things, beating everyone at Nintendo the first time he played. He noticed how my high school daughters dressed for snow, picking their way through drifts in their sandals, and soon he was going out the door wearing only a sweatshirt.


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