We’ve been in Kenya for two months, and I don’t have any Kenyan friends. Sometimes I feel sad or guilty about it (I mean, I live here, how do I have no local friends!). But when I think more deeply, I can understand why none of my friends in Kenya are Kenyan. Here’s why:
1. I know I’m not going to be here long, so it’s hard to invest in new friendships. Making new friends takes time. I know it sounds bad, but I’m reluctant to invest the time and energy into making friends with locals because I know I won’t be in Kenya very long and we’ll probably never see each other again after I leave.
It’s easier to become superficial friends with Americans because we have so much common ground. I don’t have to explain why I don’t have kids yet, or why I don’t feel like eating goat for dinner. It takes a lot more time to develop a friendship with someone whose life experiences and cultural values are different than my own.
2. I’m usually friends with people who are similar to me. Even in Atlanta, none of my friends are locals. They are all recent transplants, just like me. Most of them have travelled a lot, are liberal, city dwellers and hold an advanced degree. It’s not like I shun people who don’t fit this mold, I just happen to meet lots of people who do fit the mold.
It was the same in Rhode Island; most of my friends were transplants who had come to Rhode Island to go to graduate school, just like me.
Just by virtue of growing up in a different country, in a different education system, in a different part of the world, most Kenyans are very different than me. I’d like to have friends who are very different than me, but the reality is that I just don’t.
3. I interact with Kenyans daily, but our interactions always have an economic angle, which isn’t conducive to friendship. My taxi driver is Kenyan, my maid is Kenyan, my Kiswahili teacher is Kenyan. But I am paying all of them for a service. Starting a friendship with one of these people would immediately be tainted by a power dynamic rooted in our economic exchanges.
If I went out to dinner with Peter, the taxi driver, would I pay him to drive me home afterwards?
4. I often make friends through work, but now I work alone. In the past, I spent so much time at work that many of my close friends were coworkers. I work from home now, so I don’t meet anyone through work. My husband works with Kenyans, but because he is specifically in Kenya to do Human Resources projects, it isn’t prudent for us to become good friends with any of his coworkers.
Work is a natural place to meet people, and one of my biggest adjustments to the trailing spouse life has been the transition to working at home. In some ways, it frees up my social life, but that’s only helpful if I already have a group of friends to spend time with.
I think about friends and friendship a lot because it’s something I can’t take for granted. For those of you who are more rooted, I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you tend to befriend people who are similar to you, too? For those of you who are abroad, how do you cultivate friendships with locals?