NOTE: From July 31 to August 15, I traveled with seven other folks to Kenya as part of a project sponsored by Eastern University Urban Studies Program and BuildaBridge International in cooperation with the Center for Transforming Mission based in Nairobi, Kenya. While on this trip I kept a journal of observations and reflections. Over the next several days I will be posting those reflections of this trip. All pictures are taken by Nathan Corbitt, Gene Ann Behrens and/or Drick Boyd.
You may notice, as you look at pictures of me on this Kenya trip, in almost every picture I have a hat on. The reason for that is somewhere on the plane between Dubai and our arrival in Nairobi I lost my comb, was not able to comb my hair, and looked like a continual “bad hair day” So I just decided to cover up with my hat. However, on about the fourth day I went to the mall with our group, and decided to try and buy a comb. A simple task right? Not exactly.
Mark, our driver, suggested we go to a department store called Game. Please note that Mark has a shaved head, so had no need of a comb, and if he did it would have been an Afro pick, not a straight hair comb. Game appeared very much like to be a Kenyan version of a Kmart or Target. When we entered the store, I asked one of the clerks where I could find a comb. She looked at us quizzically and then sent us to the hardware section; the guy in hardware sent us to health and beauty; the person in health and beauty sent us to the personals department. In none of those places could we find a comb, and it began to dawn on me: I am in Kenya where the vast majority of people are black with black folks’ hair. Why would they need to sell a white guy’s comb?
After no success at the department store, Mark thought we might be able to find it at the grocery store. So we went to the hair products section of the store where we found all sorts of hair products: shampoo, conditioner, gels, sprays and other hair products, even hair extensions, but again no combs. Finally, we stumbled upon a section with women’s hair brushes and Afro picks, and surprise (!), a few brightly colored combs. So I picked out the yellow one, got some snacks for Mark and myself, and we were on our way.
As we walked to find the rest of our group, it occurred to me that I had just experienced a reversal of roles; I had experienced what immigrants and visitors of other countries experience when they come to the U.S. I had experienced what people of color experience in parts of the US that are predominantly white. How hard it must be for people from other countries and even folks within the country sometimes to find products whether hair care, food, clothing, music and other items that are reflective of their culture and personal preferences. While in the last decade, companies have begun to develop and market products for different racial and ethnic groups, white product preferences still dominate the market. I was reminded that I need to be more sensitive to the fact that my needs and norms are not always the same as the needs and norms of others who do not look, think, or experience the world like me. I was reminded that I need to listen, pay attention and be open to new possibilities and perspectives, and thereby broaden my perspective of what is “normal.”