Same-Same but Different
One of the favorite sayings I picked up from my travels in Asia is, "Same-same but different.”
It means that something is VERY similar but also different — emphasis being on what's the same. Often I hear it in reference to our commonalities as people, human beings, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. No matter what our cultural differences, there are so MANY things that we share. (Now, If only more of us on the planet could focus on that part.)
What humbled me most from my trip to Kenya was just that. What we have in common and the funny or heartbreaking things that are so incredibly different.
The first night I arrived I was whisked away to a restaurant that served a combination of Indian and Chinese fare. A bizarre combination to me, but what the hell. I was invited by three incredible women — all unmarried and in their 40's (an unusual bunch), all Kenyan, who had known each other since childhood. What blew me away within the first 5 minutes was how similar they were to my own girlfriends back home. They were very educated, worldly, cosmopolitan, stylish and funny as hell.
I don't know what I was thinking Kenyans would be like or why. Is it the media? Movies? Why I thought that they'd somehow be "tribal" was laughable in that moment. In fact I laughed out loud and they asked me what was funny. I said, "I'm sorry ladies. I had NO idea what it would be like to hang out with you... but... you're so... so... AMERICAN! You're like the Kenyan version of Sex & The City!" They cracked up and said, "OH, we're SO much more than that."
As the evening went on and I got to know a super-savvy Vice Chancellor of a university in Nairobi (the "Miranda"), a powerhouse of a woman who started a grassroots organization to rescue child victims of gender violence, fighting against the corrupt police system (the "Carrie"), and a very sweet-natured and practical-minded woman with innovative invention ideas (the "Charlotte"). As all modern women do, we talked over one another, we cracked up, they sent text messages and got up to take calls on their cell phone during dinner. We ordered saag paneer and lamb roganjosh with garlic nan and yummy South African wine.
Huh? Was this Africa? My insides tickled and I couldn't contain my smile. How happy I was to be wrong about how different we'd be.
And then one of the women let out a deep sigh. We looked over quizzically and she said, "I'm going to be a Fanti queen."
"HUH? WHAT?" the others exclaimed. "You're not serious!?"
"What's a Fanta queen?" I asked, thinking of Orange Crush.
"Yes" she said, "the chief died and he's been designated heir to the throne."
I guess this was the "different" part of the "same-same" equation. It seems that my new friend was engaged to a man from Ghana that, unbeknownst to her, was designated to be the next chief of his tribe. I mean, he's a lawyer that works for a Canadian NGO. "Ok, here we go," I thought "this is the African tribal part." Time to shut up and listen.
The fact the former chief just died was a shock to everyone. Now my friend had to deal with the fact that her new husband would have many responsibilities to his people. People of another country, outside of Kenya. What would that mean for her? For her life? For the children that she serves? She doesn't speak her fiancé's native language. They use English to communicate. She doesn't know their customs. She has no idea what will be expected of her. And all of this was a huge secret... nobody knew that the chief had died and the family would keep it under wraps for two weeks while they figured out what to do. We were to tell NO ONE about this.
Another "different" aspect that I saw in the Kenyan culture was the secrecy. There seemed to be things that they thought needed to be kept under wraps. Sometimes for a short time. Sometimes for forever. I never really knew if I was getting the whole story, or whose version of the story was the "right" version.
The ladies around the table leaned in and supported their friend with words of encouragement, "If you really love him, you'll work this out..."
"You're strong enough for this." I added, trying to be helpful, "If you can take on the Kenyan police, you can take on some Ghanian customs and cultural differences." I don't know if I was helpful. I had no freaking idea what it meant to be an African queen. But it was so much fun to imagine it and to be part of that table of women.
The night ended in toasts and smiles and shared stories of finding true love, raising kids, challenging careers, and all of the things that make us... same-same, but different.