I was preparing a lecture on color vision testing, looking up information on the internet, finding images, and putting it all together into PowerPoint presentation. I did a Google search on Ishihara plates. This was for a second year class on Clinical Optometric Procedures. Most of my students are from Western Kenya and in their early twenties.

The Ishihara color vision test is commonly used. These high-quality images printed on paper use circles of varying size and shades of colors to make patterns, usually numbers. When a patient has normal color vision a certain number stands out, say 8, but if you have a red-green color defect you will see a 3. The Ishihara test is popular because it can be done quickly and it is sensitive. Unfortunately, it is so sensitive that it often results in false positives, meaning that the optometrist might say a patient has a color vision defect when the patient does not really have one. About 1 in 7 males have a color deficiency, usually red-greed color confusion, much less with females, about 1 in 200.

Optometrists generally do not use the words “color blind.”  Monochromatism, or complete lack of color perception, does exist but it is very rare. We use the term “color vision deficiency” which is more accurate when describing the vast majority of patients who confuse shades of colors to varying degrees.

While preparing the presentation, I stumbled upon an image of Barack Obama that artist Tony Davis had created in the Ishihara style. Just to liven up the lecture, I downloaded it and placed it into my presentation. When the image came on the screen most students did not recognize the person in the image. This surprised me because Obama was well known and very much liked in Kenya. Obama’s father was Luo and from a region just south of Kakamega, land of the Luhya.

“The Ishihara plates test for perception of color and Barack Obama is a person of color,” I said. “What?” I heard murmuring and saw the students look at each other, then back at me. “Barack Obama is considered to be the first black president of the United States,” I said. Most students smiled and some laughed loudly. “He’s not black,” a student said. I said, “He’s a mzungu like me?” using the Swahili word for white person. “Yes,” several students said in unison. “Well, in America, Barack Obama is considered to be black, quite definitely black, although everyone knows he is of mixed race heritage,” I said. More laughter ensued. “He’s mzungu,” one student said loudly, ending the discussion.

I have been in Kenya since August, and have had many discussions about nationality and skin pigmentation. I hesitate to use the word race because there is debate, I have read, as to whether or not race even exists. Certainly there are historical, social, cultural, and physical differences among people across the globe. But what is race, especially in a world with migration, immigration, and increased mixing of people?

Kenya is complex in this regard because until December, 1963, the country was colonized and ruled by the British Empire. My guess is, if I had been here fifty years ago, I might have met some hostility based on my light skin. Not so anymore. The colonizers were kicked out and enough time has passed so that many have forgotten the pain of colonization. Some even look back fondly to the days when things were well-built, organized, bureaucratic but less corrupt.

When I walk down the street in downtown Kakamega, for example, I get a lot of attention. It is constant. I would guess that twenty or thirty times a day, people call out mzungu! to me. Children stare, and mothers lean down looking at me and then their child and say, “Mzungu,” which explains everything. The children nod and repeat, “Mzungu.” When mzungu takes the form of admiration, I feel like a rock star. At other times it feels more like I am being harassed.

When in Eldoret last Sunday I walked into the staging area where the vans and buses meet, called matatus. First one, then another, then another guy came up to me trying to get me to go in their matatu. It made no sense because many of the vans were labeled with placards to places I did not want to go. Within 30 seconds it escalated into a frenzy, with 6 or 7 guys around me trying to coax me into their van. Then one or two started to grab my arm, trying to pull me in this or that direction. I became angry and told everyone to stop and just walked away. While standing on the periphery of the area, a soft spoken guy approached and offered to help. He was looking for business too, perhaps a tip, but he went about it in a comfortable way. I told him where I wanted to go and he accompanied me to a matatu. I paid him a 50 shilling tip and got into a matatu headed for Kitale, paying the 250 shillings for the ride.

In the matatu I was sitting in the front next to a woman. She asked me to take our picture together, so I did. “Will you send it to me?” she asked. “Sure,” I replied. She gave me her mobile phone number and I sent the image.

A day later I got a phone call from an unknown number. “Do you remember me?” a woman said with a thick accent. She said more but I could not understand. I hung up. Thinking it could be work-related, I texted the number and wrote, “If you want to communicate, I recommend a text message. I sometimes do not understand the spoken word.”

The next day I got the message, “hi mr jambo. i am very happy at this particular time to say hi to you, showing you i love you so much. i’m sister rosemary from eldoret. remember the time we met going.”

I responded, “Hello Sister Rosemary. I am working in Kakamega, but will be leaving Kenya soon. Good to meet you.”

The next morning I got this message, “How can i meet you soon? I’m missing you so much. I feel having sex with you soon. pls consider me.”  I responded, “Leaving Kenya very soon. Bye.”

One cannot separate issues of skin pigmentation, or lack thereof, and economics. Most people are lucky to have 50 shillings in their pockets, maybe 100. A small bag of peanuts costs 30 shillings, a meal in an inexpensive but decent restaurant costs 200 to 400 shillings, a ride across town on the back of a motorcycle, 50 shillings. The people I associate with every day, the students for example, have almost nothing. You would not know it because they are friendly, clean, and well-dressed, but they have very little. Students skip meals all the time because they just don’t have the money to buy lunch. If they are lucky, perhaps they will buy a banana for 20 shillings. The local boys and girls in the street buy a chunk of raw sugar cane for 5 or 10 shillings and chew on that to keep the hunger away. Many will chase the fully-loaded sugar cane trucks trying to grab a stalk and pull it from the stack. Not only have some fallen under the wheels of the tractor trailers, they sometimes fail to notice the truck, automobile, or motorcycle coming in the opposite direction and get hit.

The good lady from Eldoret saw an opportunity. Maybe I would take her with me, she hoped. Maybe she would get pregnant and there would be a way to get support for her and her child. At the very least, a mzungu child might have a chance at a better life. Maybe her child would be the next President of Kenya, or even the United States.

The staff where I work, the two administrative assistants in our department, who show up to work Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, are paid very little. I think it might be about ten thousand shillings a month ($100) maybe fifteen thousand, I am not sure. The four Kenyan optometrists I work with have been without a contract, teaching and seeing patients, all without pay since January. When they ask, they are told it will be coming any day now, any week. Just one more signature is needed. They have family in the area, they love teaching and working with the students, so they hold on hoping the contract will come through. They borrow from friends and family to be able to pay rent and eat.

When a person from Kakamega, or anywhere else in the country, sees me walking down the street, they assume I have money. In comparison, they are correct. I almost always have enough shillings in my pocket to buy some groceries, or maybe have lunch at a restaurant for 400 shillings. Some ask for money directly and I usually say no. Most are trying to get my business in one way or another. I usually need to carry a day back, with a rain jacket inside and my laptop computer for teaching, which just makes me more of a target. That is why I get asked about forty times a day, “Where are you going?” by taxi drivers, motorcycle taxis, and matatu drivers. Constantly. “No, thank you, I am walking,” I reply. “But where are you going?” they say. “To the store then home. Asante, but no,” I say. “Where are you going? Where is home?” they insist. “Kakamega,” I say. I get frustrated.

When I get frustrated, I try to remember they are just doing their job. They are trying to get that 50 shilling ride across town so they can put some more gas in the tank of their motorcycle, or buy a bag of peanuts and a mango for lunch. I have not yet felt physically threatened. No one has robbed me. Well, actually, that is not entirely true. I brought a front and back light for my bike from the US. They only lasted two days before I noticed they were missing. But I have experienced worse in Tucson.

A couple weeks ago I went out to Kakamega National Forest for a beautiful sunrise walk. Stayed in the guest houses there and met Caiti from the US, Machiko from Japan, and Ana from Spain. They were here volunteering and traveling in Kenya and all were on a tight budget. We got along great and had a good time together. We came back to Kakamega and I offered to treat them to an early dinner. I chose a nearby restaurant called Sheywe that served very good Indian food. I had been there at least six or seven times, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group. I always have tipped ten percent, which is typical for foreigners and relatively generous here. Most Kenyans do not tip.

We ordered the food and drinks. I got a beer, while Caiti ordered a tequila. The server asked, “Single or double?” She said single and he brought her a glass with maybe a quarter inch of tequila in it. The food was excellent and we all had a great time. It rained but the covered outdoor patio was pleasant. As we were getting ready to leave, I offered to pay but Caiti and Machiko insisted on buying the drinks, so I agreed. When the bill came the server had charged 300 shillings for the tequila. That is a lot here. I asked why it was so expensive, and he responded, “300 for a double.” “Oh, that’s the issue,” I said, “Caiti ordered a single and you brought a single.” “It was a double,” he said. “But she ordered a single.” I said. “Sorry,” he replied. “So, you will charge 200 for a single?” I asked. “No. 300. Double,” he said. “But you made a mistake, and anyway, it looked like a single to me,” I said. “Look, I come here a lot. I like coming here and it is my favorite restaurant in town. Would you please just charge her a single?” “Double, 300,” he replied. “I understand. May I speak with your manager, please?” I asked. “It is Sunday afternoon, there is no manager,” he said. “Okay,” I said, “I am not going to leave my usual tip and I will not come back.” “Okay,” he said. I paid for the food, Caiti and Machiko paid for the drinks, and we left without giving a tip. I have not been back.

I have thought a lot about that interaction, trying to understand the server’s point of view. Why would he struggle so hard for that extra 100 shillings when it was not in his best interests? I believe I understand. Whether or not he intentionally served a double when asked for a single did not matter. Once he had written “Double tequila 300” on the bill he was committed to that course of action. It could and probably would be reviewed later by management. All he knew was that 100 shillings was at risk. If he admitted a mistake he might have to pay for it out of his own pocket. He did not know if we would leave a tip or not, or how much we might leave. He did not know if we would come back another day or not, but that was the last thing on his mind. All that mattered was that 100 shillings. Of that he was absolutely certain. If he lost the 100 shillings, it would be gone forever.

There is so much need here. Small issues get amplified into large ones. I even bought into it myself, perhaps out of pride, getting irritated and arguing over a dollar.

And yet, if you look around, there is clear evidence of abundance. The weather is mild, sunny, with almost daily rain in the afternoon and evening. The soil is extremely rich. Corn, spinach, kale, and fruits like mango and banana grow easily. People grow food on the side of the road, empty lots, and public land. Cows, goats, and sheep graze almost anywhere that is accessible. Chickens run all over the place and seem to belong to no one. I have to dodge full grown chickens and baby chicks when I ride my bike to work. I dodge cows and goats too.

In the homes here there is no need for extra heat or cooling. If you need it to be cooler, open a window. If you need it to be warmer, put on a sweater or blanket. The best home or apartment construction is made of stone with electricity and plumbing, and I live in such a dwelling. Many homes are made of timber and mud with a metal or even a grass roof, put up in just a few days to a week. If kept in good repair, they are quite comfortable in this climate. It would not take too much to make this place a paradise.

People are almost always friendly and often generous. A smile and friendly hand shake are the norm. “May I help you with this or that?” I hear. There is daily chanting or singing, from churches and mosques nearby, and even more on the weekends. The men often wear bright suits and hats with perfectly shined black leather shoes despite the red mud. The women wear many layered garments with vibrant patterns. Flowering bushes and trees are everywhere, with brilliant yellows, oranges, reds, and purples. It is a rich and sensual world here, abundant in every sense. And yet sometimes the colors can seem muted, dull, or deficient in some way. When that happens, it is time to take a deep breath and look around.

5 thoughts on “A Colorful World

    1. Dear Christine, I went through the Brien Holden Vision Institute. They have the contacts in various countries and knew where the need was. I am back in Tucson now after teaching a semester in Kenya. If you have any interest in doing something like this, please contact me directly at dtwelker@eyes.arizona.edu . – Dan


  1. Hi Dan, Gabe Respicio told me about your blog and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Thanks so much for blogging about your experiences in Africa. And, the photos are great. Tania Mantua


    1. Hi Tania, Good to hear from you. I am not sure if you know this or not, but I am back in Tucson, Arizona. I truly enjoyed my 5+ months adventure in Africa but on several levels it was not working out. No need to go into the details here. I have already been to Kino Bay, Sonora for a 3 day clinic and I am going back in 3 weeks. I would like to become more active in developing optometry in Mexico. – Dan


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