Layout Image

Quaker Simplicity and the 1%

By David Zarembka

I suspect that we my Kenyan wife Gladys Kamonya and I are Quakers who are members of the 1%. At least we are in my home town of Lumakanda in western Kenya. Here we are a multi-millionaires — in shillings, that is, since there are 85 shillings to a US dollar. $11,764 makes one a millionaire. As far as I know, I am the only mzungu (stranger, white person) living in Lugari District, which has a population of about 200,000 people. But if you would come and visit us, you could “enjoy” life as one of the 1%. Yet you would consider our living conditions as quite austere.

As I walk around town every morning for my exercise and to get the morning newspaper — we can afford to buy the newspaper every day which perhaps ten people end up reading — I am greeted by the little children, “Mzungu. How are you?” I respond, “I am fine. How are you?” Some come up excitedly to shake my hand. Gladys sometimes gets annoyed that they ignore her and don’t greet her. Since my hair has now become white, older people are now calling me “mzee” which means “old man.” It took me a while to get over the negative connotations of this and accepted that here in Kenya that is a name of respect.

As an obvious member of the 1%, Kenyans, unlike Americans, are not at all reluctant to ask me for money — for school fees, for a sick relative, as a hand-out, and many other purposes. My response is to say that Gladys, since she is a member of the local community, is the one who deals with these requests. Half the time the person asking me for money doesn’t even approach her. But then there are difficult cases as Gladys has quite a number of other relatives who are, in Kenyan terms, closely related. I can’t count the number of relatives we have helped on their road to a more productive life, usually through education and training. Also since we are member of a community that believes in helping with life’s needs, we are always donating to marriages, funerals, medical expenses, and other basic needs.

We are one of only three out of two hundred members of Lumakanda Friends Church who have a vehicle. Normally at the offering on Sunday, Gladys and I contribute 20% to 25% of the total amount collected — our offering is about $3. We have to balance doing our fair share — tell me, as one of the 1%, how much this is? And, how do we not flaunt our wealth in front of the other 99% attending our church?

I’ve been doing this balancing act for years so I am used to it — to walk with the rich and not lose the common touch. We lived here in Lumakanda during the 2008 post-election violence. I could have signed up to be evacuated by the US Government if needed and they would have taken Gladys with me. But that would mean we would leave all her rela­ tives behind. Is that fair? Moreover with my connections to the wider world, including email and cell phone coverage, I might have been able to help and protect other members of our family or our neighbors and church members. So I didn’t sign up to be evacuated.

Back in the United States which we visit once or twice per year, we lose our status of the 1%. In fact, we are in that lower 47% that “sponges” off the government because we don’t owe any federal income taxes. No one asks me for money. The chil­dren don’t greet me as some unusual creature. Our donation to our meeting hardly dents its annual budget. Our vehicle is ten years old and our house is in a poverty neighborhood outside Washington, DC.

When I first began going back and forth from Africa and the US in the 1960’s I had a good deal of culture shock as I returned to the US. After being in Africa for four years, I reacted to my cousin who had smashed a plastic gallon milk carton and threw it away. With indignation I thought to myself, “People in Kenya could use that plastic bottle to draw water!”

Yet, all these differences are superficial. Ironically, Gladys and I live more or less the same life-style in the US and Kenya. In the US our lifestyle is “Quaker simplicity” while in western Kenya we are the super-rich. This illustrates the structural inequality in the world.

David Zarembka and his wife, Glayds Kamonya, live in Kenya. He is the coordinator for the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Team.

  • Brenda

    Thank you for sharing this–it’s an excellent, thought-provoking, and prayer-provoking article.