“Oh my god! Welcome back! How was Kenya? Was it soooo amazing?”
What a loaded and unavoidable question. For the last month every single person has greeted me with that question and I still haven’t come up with a good answer. “It was… weird” doesn’t really cut it, does it? Especially when everyone just wants to hear some derivation of “It was magical and I am a better human now!”
But since I am pretty much incapable of sugar coating things just to satisfy people, it’s hard for me to choke out a “It was magical!” because it wasn’t. It was frustrating, disheartening, lonely, and emotionally turbulent. To be fair, it was also beautiful, inspiring, and grounding and I do indeed think I am a better human now. I have a much greater appreciation of the scientific topic I am studying, the people it impacts and the work that goes into collecting the samples I utilize. It’s just that the positives and big picture takeaways don’t erase my feelings. They do however make it “worth it” whatever that means.
Being an American scientist in Kenya was frustrating in more ways than I can begin to explain. Aside from the obvious social, economic, and health injustices that I was only pseudo prepared to encounter, the work cultures of Americans and Kenyans are just so incredibly different. And of course being a woman in science just sucks all the time- though I’ve now discovered that it sucks for different reasons across the globe (awesome). I have tried in safe spaces to talk about my feeling and experiences in order to tease them apart. It’s so hard to be critical of another culture without sounding like a god-damn racist. But what it comes down to is that science operates as it’s own community and being critical is an integral part of our cultural norms. So in Kenya I was basically dealing with an ongoing culture clash between American, Kenyan, and scientific cultural norms. I’ve tried to explain this below because I think it’s important to consider for the posterity of international collaboration but the tl;dr is: Science abroad is confusing and draining if you aren’t culturally prepared. But, and this is a big but, it is so worth it. Which means that we need to figure out how to talk about it.
I am fairly well traveled. I just need to state this for the record so that people know my level of naïveté going into this summer. I’ve been to 26 countries spanning 4ish continents. I have even worked in a non-English-speaking lab abroad before. I’m not a noob. And I genuinely like traveling! I am super interested in the customs and people of each new place I go and I try to absorb as much as possible. Usually this means shedding my American tendencies and spending more time listening than speaking. Obviously I still fuck up and say or do the wrong thing. Case in point, I didn’t realize showing your knees was such a big deal in Kisumu or I would have brought different clothes. But for the most part, I defer to locals whenever possible. The last thing I want when I travel is to be that American traipsing about reinforcing the ignorant, close-minded, patronizing archetype that has come to be so prevalent on the world stage.
As a lab guest in a country where there is already tension between Americans and locals, being sensitive and not overstepping my bounds were initially my first priorities. I was in Kenya, however, to train others in techniques that I am an “expert” on. This automatically put me in a power dynamic that directly conflicted with my general outlook as a traveler. I was constantly struggling to maintain a balance between knowledgeable teacher and gracious guest.
Situations would arise in the lab that I felt could be done “better” and each time I would have to think to myself “is correcting this necessary to protect science or can I let it slide?” That is a tough question for a young, idealistic scientist such as myself. In the core of my body I feel the need to protect the purity and sanctity of science. I am fiercely devoted to my field and I get very angsty when I feel that something may set back progress in TB research. When I saw something in Kenya that I felt could be done in a different way, every fiber in my being would tighten. I had to remind myself that just because it’s my way doesn’t mean it’s the better way. The end result may be the same. So unless something was truly scientifically wrong, I bit my tongue. I’m not going to lie. it broke my heart a little bit every time I let something slide.
Of course it wasn’t any better in the instances when science was indeed in jeopardy. First, that is a terrifying realization to make. Second, no one likes having to correct another human (Well some people do but those people are sadistic weirdos). It is uncomfortable for both parties and more often than not it ends up with hurt feelings. There is an art to correcting another person without making them feel like shit. I tutored and taught for years and I mastered that art with my students, but that’s because I had become familiar with them. I knew how they thought and how they would interpret my words and actions. Plus most sixteen year olds in America are similar enough that I could predict reactions and appropriately give guidance, even with new students. I didn’t have that same rapport with the scientists in Kenya so I couldn’t adjust myself to them. And because of cultural differences I couldn’t even begin to guess how they would react. I knew very little about Kenyan cultural norms except what I had read on the internet- which like, how reliable is that really? I felt woefully unprepared to handle such situations. I still have no idea how I was perceived by my lab mates. I may have been a total asshole the entire trip and I’d never know because they were too kind to inform me.
Trying to balance a requirement for scientific rigor and an acceptance of differing cultural norms is a gut wrenching position to be in. It was even harder for me because I was doing it on the fly with limited prior cultural awareness. I had to decide in the moment whether this was a battle to pick and how to pick it. I almost never had enough information to go on and I fucked it up more than once. There were times when I regretted speaking up because it was unnecessary and just drew lines in the sand. There were times when I wondered if I actually should have been tougher because no one listened to me. There were times when I knew I had hurt another scientist’s feelings and I wondered if it was worth it to hurt them in the name of science. Of course no one makes the right choice 100% of the time but I was wracked with guilt for weeks worrying that I had been too tough, too inconsiderate, too lax, too sensitive.
After my trip I was able to debrief with two women that I admire a great deal- my boss and a CDC director based in Kenya. I explained to them the scientific situations that had arisen and the way that I had decided to address them. I also shared my frustrations and concerns about culture clashes in the lab. They commiserated with me, encouraged the strategies that worked and gave me advice on the situations I hadn’t handled well. It was a lot of “yea that happens” and “you did the best you could” and “it’s up to them now.” It was affirming to know that I wasn’t alone in my experiences, but also a little frustrating. Like why didn’t we have this conversation before I left? I would have been so much more prepared! It’s not enough to say it’s different. You need to know how it’s different and how to deal with those differences. It would have been so much less emotionally tumultuous, and probably more productive had I known these things before hand.
I think about the fact that I’m pretty well traveled and I still sucked at this. It makes me worried because most biomedical grad students were science majors in undergrad and probably haven’t had a world cultures or world history class since high school. I guarantee that most grad students, if sent to work abroad, would be just as culturally unprepared as I was. And to be honest it scares me. It’s so detrimental to science and therefore global health! Like, what if I had just been flat out insensitive? That happens all the time when people travel! And while being an asshole on vacation is not ideal, it’s also not the end of the world. But in science being an asshole could result in a bridge burned, a collaboration lost, a cache of knowledge left untapped.
An on the flip side, what if I hadn’t been able to talk out my feelings when I returned. Would I be left with a sour taste in my mouth? What if I continued to spread that amongst the scientific community? Would people stop sending students abroad? Would scientists stop wanting to go abroad? Would the chasm between the ivory tower and the grimy real world continue to separate us?
I have no idea what the solution to this is, other than a little bit of candor. So I’m going to spend the next few weeks sharing stories and reflections from my time in Kenya. Not all of them will be pretty or uplifting. I hope people reading understand that these stories are not meant as an attack or an insult. I’m just trying to provide an authentic picture of what it means to do field work. Spoiler, I didn’t skip around fields in Kenya befriending small children and curing TB with my amazing intellect. I did however learn a lot about Kenya. I did in fact make a small dent in the scientific problem. So for all my griping, it really was an incredible and fulfilling experience and I hope to return.