“Do People in Kenya Wear Shoes?”

My lessons learned from Ignorance

One afternoon, during my tenure in America, I sat amongst some white Americans at my school cafeteria.

It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it happened to be the first time I was sitting with this particular group of people. We introduced ourselves to one another and, as usual, they immediately became quite interested in my background. I told them I was from Kenya, “a country in East Africa… have you heard of it?” I asked.

They replied “yes”.

And as if prompted by my what I had said, one of the ladies who was sitting directly opposite me began to tell me a story. She started by stating that “Kenyans are the ones that win all the marathons…”

I smiled to concede my subtle sense of pride — though it was a statement I’d heard way too many times before.

She then went on to tell me a story about one particular Kenyan athlete who ran a marathon barefooted and won. (She was actually referring to Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon).

I didn’t correct her though. I just smiled again.

Until then I felt our conversation had gone quite well. It felt good to have someone take a genuine interest in my country. But it was the next question she asked that completely bewildered me beyond words.

After her eloquent speech on Kenyan runners, she asked; “so, do people in Kenya have shoes?”

That insightful documentary about a barefooted Ethiopian runner had somehow led her to deduce that Kenyan’s don’t wear shoes. It was a hasty conclusion to say the least. I wanted to laugh. But the sincerity and pity in her voice removed any hint of sarcasm.

It was an honest question.

After living abroad for several years, I’m not a stranger to ignorance. I’ve been asked all different kinds of questions; “do you live in trees?”, “Do you have computers?”, “Can you speak to lions…?” (that last one was real too).

And often in these circumstances, I would somehow justify the ignorance. My school happened to be in a rural town, “The middle of nowhere”, a “college town” and perhaps that was why these questions seemed so common. I’d think to myself that maybe the ignorance people demonstrated there was not entirely their fault. How would they know anything about Kenya when they’ve probably gone their entire lives without meeting an African? I pitied them.

And that being so, I would often tell myself that it was ok. After all, “if I took an American to my rural home in Kenya, wouldn’t Kenyans act the same? Wouldn’t they want to touch the ‘Whiteman’s’ hair the same way the American’s asked to touch mine? Wouldn’t they ask ‘crazy’ questions? Wouldn’t they appear just as, or even more, ignorant as the Americans?

Of course, they would. What would they know aside from what they hear and see about American culture?

Rural Kenyans would be just as ignorant as rural Americans. That would make sense right?

Well… No. There’s a distinct difference.

The difference between a rural Kenyan and a rural American is almost as distinct as the power they hold in their hands. Whilst rural Americans wield a smartphone or a tablet in their hands, a rural Kenyan is more likely to hold a stick of sugar cane or a cob of maize. In America, ignorance came from college level educated students and in Kenya, it would come from men and women who probably never finished school…

And therein lies the root of real ignorance.

Whilst many Americans have access to infinite amounts of information and knowledge that could rid them of their ignorance, many Kenyans do not. For the ladies that sat with me for lunch that afternoon in school, knowing whether Kenyan’s wore shoes, was as easy as pulling out their phones and asking ‘Google’. And yet somehow, despite that, they were still choosing to be ignorant. To me, that is the distinct difference between ignorant Kenyans and their American counterparts; Americans have a choice… many Kenyans do not.

Ignorance is a Choice

Through my experiences, I’ve come to believe that ignorance is a ‘choice’. There is no-one in this world who can fully soak yourself in all the information available. It’s impossible to know everything about everything. So instead we are forced to choose what really matters to us and remain consciously ignorant to the rest. And it is this choice that really interests me; it is what people choose to stay ignorant about, that I am fascinated with.

Let me use today’s pop culture to explain.

Picture artists like Kanye West, or Jay-z — probably two of Hip-Hop’s biggest stars. Both having come up in a victimized and pillaged black America, their music was largely a reflection of that. But having lifted themselves to fame and stardom, you would think the underlying subject and value of their music would drastically change. You would expect that their music — once representative of lust, vanity, greed, pride, etc. — would now defame those vices. That Jay-z would tell us how ‘money isn’t everything’, or that ‘power is vanity’. Or maybe Kanye would become humble and tell us that “fame is not worth chasing”. Because isn’t that what most successful people say;

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” -Jim Carey

Yet somehow, the likes of Kanye and Jay-z have missed all that. They have all the resources, all the fame, and all the money they could want, yet somehow they lack the enlightenment that they could so easily find. For me, this makes them just as ignorant as the ladies I sat across from at lunch that afternoon. They too have a choice. And even so, they choose, not only to remain in their ignorance but continuously preach that ignorance to us; rapping about promiscuity, pride, and vanity as if they’re bound to them. As if it’s all they know, and all they can know.

It’s like Kanye and Jay-z have always had the power to discover that Kenyan’s do in fact wear shoes, yet they continually tell the world that we don’t. This is my definition of real ignorance. To have the power and resources available to gain wisdom, and yet choose inherently not to. It proves to me something about the human condition.

That just like Kanye, and Jay-z, and ladies at that lunch table that day, it feels much better to live in the dark — in one’s own ignorance — than to find a light that threatens all that we know, and who we believe ourselves to be.

“Ignorance is bliss.”

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