Ok, picture the last movie you watched that was set in the U.S. Got one? Keep thinking…make sure it’s a good one! The last movie I watched is Taken.

Yes, I know most of the movie is set in Europe but the first part of the movie occurs in an extremely rich part of California. Take this image – exotic cars, mansions, expensive jewelry, and designer clothes – and pretend that is the only thing you know about America. You now have the same image of America as Emily, my host family’s temporary house help.

Emily is a teenage girl from Kibera Slum. Her English is decent by American and Kenyan standards but it is exceptional if you factor in that she only finished the 4th grade at a school in the slum!

After working a nine hour day at the Tanari Trust office, I usually come back to my host home, change out of my work clothes, and play with my host family’s five year old daughter and one year old son (funny side note: the son is very young and doesn’t have much experience with white people. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a ghost or something by the way he screams when I try to pick him up).

During these times, amidst a screaming baby and a little girl vying for our attention, Emily and I have had a few conversations that have changed both of our world views.

At first, our conversations were surface level topics such as “Do you like Kenyan food?” or “What’s your family like?” After a couple conversations with Emily, however, we got to the point where we were talking about poverty, corruption, travel, and our thoughts on each other’s countries.

Emily, our house-help.

Emily, our house-help.

One evening, Emily was asking about “the States” (which is what everyone else in the world calls our country) and mentioned how everyone in America is rich and there is no poverty. I wanted to launch into a massive tirade about how “America has poor people too!” but decided to ask her about what she based these opinions on.

She told me she had “seen American wealth in the movies and on television shows”. I was taken aback at how easily she interprets some movie as the facts about my country!

I wrote about Emily’s comments in my journal but didn’t think anything of it until later on when she asked if there were poor people in America. I told her stories from the past two years about my interactions with homeless people in D.C., where I go to university, and her eyes kept getting bigger and bigger. She kept asking more and more questions.

Emily’s questions started to get frantic as she discovered the plight of the homeless in D.C.. She couldn’t fathom that everyone in America didn’t have a personal chef to cater to their diets. She had no concept of the thousands living on the streets of America’s capital city and surviving only because of the good graces of soup kitchens and churches!

Emily’s view of the States changed radically after those conversations and I felt pretty good about myself for being “the provider of information”. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had formed my views on other countries in the exact same way.

Looking back at a few of my journal entries from 2005, when I went to Kenya with the Grace Community Church High School Ministry, I realized how much my view of Kenya had been influenced by movies and such. One entry states,

My old perspective on Kenya.  A land of poverty, decay and definitely NOT of wealth!

My old perspective on Kenya. A land of poverty, decay and definitely NOT of wealth!

I can’t believe I’m actually in Africa…yet, I don’t feel like I’m in Kenya. I’m sitting on my queen-sized bed in a room that’s bigger than my room at home! I have my own bathroom with a shower that instantly shoots out hot water! Where are the mud huts and toilets? I thought I’d have to be more worried about a lion jumping out and eating me than having my wallet stolen by slum children! Where is the desert and the jungle and the adventure like in the movies!?!

I’ve come a long way since that journal entry but I find that I still have some preconceived notions about Kenya…

When we first arrived in Kenya this time, we drove past a beautiful, pristine golf course. I was so bewildered at seeing a golf course in Kenya, that I wrote in my journal that evening, “How can there be golf courses here! That is such a western luxury for a country that is drowning in poverty and corruption!” We found out later that there are over eight different golf courses in the city of Nairobi alone! Eight!

Some upscale apartments near my host home.  Like the bank in the main article picture above, it seems oddly out of place.

Some upscale apartments near my host home. Like the bank in the main article picture above, it seems oddly out of place.

Another experience occurred when my host family took me to an Italian restaurant that could have rivaled most restaurants in Italy! Even the head chef was Italian! How could there be such a great Italian place in Africa?

As I see more and more things that shake my view of Kenya, I feel myself understanding how easily it was for Emily to make so many preconceived notions about the States. Humans are naturally wired to develop a perception on every little thing in order to understand the world around them and even more so to help them deal with the unknowns in the world.

On my walk home from work today, I walked past a Shell Gas Station, a man with no arms and no legs, a luxury apartment complex (boasting five bedrooms), and a rickety cart selling roasted maize. Yes, there is poverty and decay in Kenya, but there is also a lot of wealth.

I thought about my past notions of Africa and my conversations with Emily about her views on America. I thought about all the movies and books I had taken as pure fact and, just like Emily, unconsciously turned them into my naïve worldview.

It makes me think. With Emily so unaware of the realities of life in “the States,” how little do I understand the world?

I mean, now that I know there are golf courses in Nairobi, I wonder… what else has Hollywood forgotten to tell me?

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About the Author: Scott Quigley was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2009. He is a Junior at American University majoring in Anthropology. Scott loves studying international cultures and has a mortal fear of vending machines.

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Comments

  1. eness said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 9:43 am  

    Doesn’t it just make the world seem smaller because it’s so much the same no matter where you are? Driving by golf courses and luxury homes while people struggle to survive in Kibera is just as ironic as homeless people trying to survive blocks from the White House. Thanks Scott…gives me a lot to think about.

  2. Amy Osgood said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 10:40 am  

    What a gift Scott! We ask God to give us eyes to see what He sees. Obviously this whole world is filled w/ wealth and poverty mixed. Thank you for your willingness to be humble in what we all need to learn about the world. The more things we can find in common with others, the more connected we are. Sounds like you and Emily are quickly becoming like brother and sister!

  3. Brad Ruggles said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 10:51 am  

    Great post Scott. It’s so easy to let our opinions be subconsciously shaped by Hollywood. I have heard that one of the amazing things about parts of Africa is that wealth and poverty exist side by side.

    I think of the time I took our youth group to LA on an inner city missions trip. One afternoon we drove through Beverly Hills (..that’s where I wanna be…sorry, can’t help but think of the Weezer song every time) and I showed the kids the beautiful homes, stores and cars. Then we drove through skid row and saw the thousands of individuals living on the streets not very far at all from such wealth and excess.

    Quite a contrast.

  4. Penny said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 11:56 am  

    I love that we keep finding out how others around the world form their perceptions of Americans based on the TV they get….Baywatch, America’s Next Top Model, and televangelists. How embarassing! But so true that we have many false perceptions of their cultures as well. Good article, Scott!!

  5. Bobby Trivett said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 12:14 pm  

    Great article, Scott! This is so true that we all accept things at face value because we see it on TV or in the movies. I will not even go into discussion about Hollywood here. Good perspective bud, keep it up.

  6. Bill Shewan said... 

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    June 25th, 2009 at 2:05 pm  

    Scott – good to hear from you and see Kenya through your eyes. I am as amazed by your report as you are. What’s even more amazing is that poverty and wealth exist right next to each other. I am really enjoying this format of eye witness reporting. Thanks.

  7. Dave Quigley said... 

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    June 26th, 2009 at 12:45 am  

    Great piece of journalism that really piggybacks on your last time in Kenya where the homestay family had a very nice home as well. Thanks for seeing the injustice that comes to peoples and countries by Hollywood.

  8. Dave Rod said... 

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    June 26th, 2009 at 2:05 pm  

    Thankfully we have you, Scott,and the WND team to help set the record straight about reality. Keep telling us what you are seeing and hearing so we can get rid of the naiveté and embrace our role in this big complex world.

    Thanks for being our eyes on the ground!

  9. Erica Tomasik said... 

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    June 26th, 2009 at 4:24 pm  

    I love the last line Scotty…I think we’ve missed a lot. Americans (who travel abroad and have conversations like you did with Emily) often get so angry at Hollywood for the way the way they are portraying our culture. However, I haven’t heard many Americans, after watching a movie involving other countries and cultures, questioning the way Hollywood portrays other cultures. We just take it for granted and create stereotypes and judgments based on these portrayals…How sad when the majority of the world’s information about other cultures is through the eyes of Hollywood…
    I loved the picture of the Nike shoe on top of the rusted metal roof (I assume). That picture could speak volumes.

  10. Carolyn C. said... 

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    June 27th, 2009 at 12:39 pm  

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Scott. It’s an interesting and painfully honest idea– how much the movies, inaccurate though we know they may be– shape our perceptions of reality. Looking forward to reading more.

  11. Bharat Krishnan said... 

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    June 27th, 2009 at 10:50 pm  

    Keep it up, dude!
    My dad used to stay in Nairobi all the time when we lived in Africa. I heard they have one of the best 5 star hotels in the world.

  12. Rob Yonan said... 

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    June 30th, 2009 at 10:35 pm  

    One wonders what will happen as the world gets smaller and misperceptions give way to reality. It is forums like this that are so vital for the inbreaking of a God’s-eye view of the world.

  13. Gaciru said... 

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    July 1st, 2009 at 8:11 am  

    poverty…..what is it? When we look hard enough you would be amazed at how much joy and a wealth of peace and love the poor have compared to the “rich”. I sometimes admire the simplicity of the “poor”….how roasted maze is a delicacy….aaaahh what life…?

  14. Florence Lumsden said... 

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    July 18th, 2009 at 1:37 pm  

    I like this article a lot.. it really does make you wonder what Hollywood or TV or wherever else we get out understandings/pictures of the world from, is leaving out. It’s so true that it is a human characteristic to group things together and label them, to help us separate one person or place from another. My dad has always said, stereotypes exist for a reason, but as soon as you apply them to one specific person or situation, it will fail you. The world is endlessly complicated, it’s what makes traveling so difficult but also so exciting! This is a great website/project- its really nice to read about the experiences you guys are having.. makes me want to go back! Best of luck to you all!

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