Hakuna Matata

timon_and_pumbaaIt means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s a problem freeeeeee philosophyyyy. Hakuna Matata! Hakuna Matata. Hakuna. Matata. (Don’t pretend you didn’t just sing along while reading that)

I knew hakuna matata was a real Swahili phrase, but like, it’s also an actual thing. It’s not just a Disney thing or a tourist thing. People in Kenya actually say it. And more than say it, the people in Kenya actually live it.

I understand why a “no worries” attitude would be beneficial. Compared to my life, for example, people in Kenya have been dealt kind of a crap hand. If they got upset at every injustice, every setback, every inequality, they would drown in anger. Or at least I would, and that’s no way to live. You have to have a bit of optimism to get through all the bullshit they have to deal with. It’s actually something that I admire about the Kenyan people- their ability to find some reservoir of inner joy during an unfair shit storm and to ride that joy through the work.

During my first week, there was a cholera outbreak at a scientific conference in Nairobi that many people from KEMRI were attending. When speaking about it later, everyone was like “Oh it’s not a big deal, everyone was totally fine.” Literally the only thing anyone was upset about was that attendance at some of the poster sessions was low so they didn’t get as much feedback as they wanted. Let’s keep in mind that attendance was low BECAUSE PEOPLE WERE FUCKING HOSPITALIZED FOR CHOLERA but everyone just let that little fact glance off of them. Meanwhile I got like 5 travel alerts from Emory, a few emails from American coworkers and many many texts from my parents freaking out about me getting Cholera even though I was 5 hours away from the outbreak. So American.

On the surface a world where everyone is optimistic, carefree and doesn’t take life too seriously sounds quite appealing! And in the beginning, I was super about the attitude. I am a big proponent of the power of optimism, especially in a field as terribly disheartening as science. But as time went on I realized the difference between being optimistic and being carefree. Being optimistic is being able to find the good in a situation while acknowledging that the situation sucks. Being carefree is not caring, and sometimes not even acknowledging, that a situation sucks in the first place. I feel like the attitude in Kenya more closely resembles the latter. They let nothing bother them and they do not speak about negative things. It’s no fucking worries, all the fucking time.

And again, I get it! When things are out of your control what is the point in getting upset? But not everything is out of your control and in such instances not caring leads to complacency. You don’t have to accept every shitty thing that happens to you. Sometimes it is worth getting upset. Sometimes it is worth saying “this is unfair, unacceptable, and I will not stand for it.”

There was a little interpersonal issue that came up between one of the scientists I was training- Jeremiah- and another scientist who was basically being a schoolyard bully. I would get upset every time the other scientist was being unfair, but Jeremiah would remain calm and even a little DGAF about it. For two weeks we would have dead end conversation after dead end conversation with this guy. It seriously prevented us from moving forward in our work. My insistence and aggressiveness moved us little baby steps forward, but I could only do and say so much without coming off as the obnoxious American.

So happy to finally science!

I was so flustered and Jeremiah just kept saying things like “It will all work out.” At first it was soothing but eventually I just snapped at Jeremiah and was like “Why do you think that? Why do you think it will work out? Because you want it to? For whatever reason that guy is being prohibitive to our work and you saying ‘it’s all good’ is not going to change that. I’m leaving. Soon you will be the only person here to stand up for your work.”

I think it sort of jarred Jeremiah to see me so angry and honestly, I still feel guilty about causing him distress. At the same time, I think it was necessary. Eventually he was willing to confront the other scientist about the situation, albeit in his own passive aggressive polite way. Small victories. I consider it a win and just hope he will continue to defend himself and his project against nonsense.

There will always be setbacks in science. A huge part of your development as a scientist (and a human really) is knowing when to face a problem head on and when to find an alternate solution. But if you can’t even acknowledge that a problem exists, how can you progress?

We talk so much about capacity building abroad, but we really only talk about it in terms of equipment, technical skills, and scientific knowledge. No one talks about capacity building in terms of soft skills, like conflict management. I wonder if that is because it comes off as trying to “correct” cultural norms that differ from your own. That’s probably just a little too messy for most scientists to navigate. I definitely felt that way and I internalized a lot out of fear of being insensitive.

As I said in a previous post though, science has it’s own culture. Perhaps in these scenarios, I should have been putting the science culture first? I have no idea if that would have been better or worse. All I know is that in the two months since I left, Jeremiah has done 1 follow up experiment on the stuff we were working on together. I know he has had other super important experiments to oversee and do in that time so it’s not like he’s doing nothing BUT in terms of our experiments, he hasn’t made a whole lot of progress. Being on the other side of the world it’s a little hard for me to figure out what exactly is blocking him. Is he out of reagents? Is he just busy? Or is the dude with the machine still being prohibitive? I texted Jeremiah on WhatsApp a couple of weeks ago to see if he needed anything and how things were going and he said everything was fine! So I still don’t really know what the block is! And I’m pretty sure he’ll never tell me because Hakuna Matata man. Hakuna Matata. Everything is fine. No worries.

P.S. I highly recommend this video as a pick me up to this post. Time 0:40



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