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Through the eyes of an African in Maine

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I've known Kim since he was a baby when my spouse and I returned to our Peace Corps villages with our firstborn. Later we and our four children lived in Kenya for half a year, staying with Kim's family. We'd sit on small stools and eat sautéed cabbage and the ubiquitous ugali (stiff cornmeal porridge) out of tin dishes.

Kimani (his full name) is so quiet that he slips right into our daily life. But I'm reminded of where he is from when he curiously flicks the coffee machine on and off just to see how it works. He rings the wind chimes and listens, and stands observing the rainbowmaker. I find him examining a canister of glitter, blowing at the flecks, and realize he's never seen glitter before. He gravitates toward remote controls, snapping tape deck/CD players repeatedly on and off.

"How's school?" I ask.

"Nice," he always says, and means it.

I worry about Kim missing his Kenyan friends; one's peers are extremely important in Africa. It's only with my younger sons that he talks freely and laughs. Otherwise he's so quiet, I could completely ignore him. Which most people do after "hello."

"What's 'idiot' "? he asks, never, I notice, having to ask about swear words. I explain what it means and what "bummed," "bummer," "grouchy," "picky," and "a day off" mean, only a few of the hundreds of English expressions not taught in Kenyan schools.

At first, I felt I should tell him that even though it's an acceptable public habit in Kenya, you really can't pick your nose here, and gave him tissues. I explained our money, the tricks of faucets in our house, what a dryer does, and toilet-seat etiquette. Explaining how one must bathe daily in America and what deodorant is, I found myself wondering why Americans are so adverse to natural odors and so keen on chemical ones. I remembered in Kenya bathing once a week, a complicated chore of hauling precious water, building a fire to heat it, and pouring it while standing in the grass in the sun.

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