Seattle, you have had your share!

A merchant prepares chapati in the Manyatta slum in western Kenya. (Photo by Jason Koenig  )A former slum-resident from Kenya thinks his hometown can teach Seattle a thing or two about consumption and green-living. 

After living in Seattle for three years, I’ve been impressed again and again by my new city’s love for green living.

I have watched Seattleites biking and carpooling, buying local organic produce, and working to be energy efficient. I consider myself lucky to have crossed paths with organizations like Feet First, which strives to create a world that cares about exercise and community, companies like McKinstry, which builds buildings that are good to both people and the environment, and schools like Cascadia Community College that value pluralism, cultural richness, and environmental sustainability.

But is all this­­ enough to fulfill the dream of an eco-friendly city?

I grew up in a slum called Manyatta in Kenya and moved to Seattle in 2010, so I am still adjusting to the weather, transportation system, and work life here.

But other things took adjustment as well. When I would go shopping, I had to overcome the temptation of buying everything with an On Sale sign, just to get the deal. I noticed that I was buying too much and frequently throwing away decaying extras. I did not realize how the sudden availability of so many new things to try was drowning me.

Many of us adhere to sustainability because it’s trendy, but we are not aware of how our consumptive lifestyle counteracts our efforts to be green.

When I was 14 years old, my mother started an orphanage home. As the eldest son, I had to work hard to support the family and was expected to care for others before myself. My mother also had a grocery business that became the milk and bread supplier to shops in the slums. My involvement taught me about consumption and habits in Manyatta.

Bicycle traffic in a Manyatta evening. (Photo by Simon Okelo)
Bicycle traffic in a Manyatta evening. (Photo by Simon Okelo)

But it did not prepare me for the overwhelming excessiveness of the outside world.

The bright neon headlamps of Seattle’s cyclists on the night streets remind me of when I was a delivery boy at 8 years old. I woke up at 2 am each morning, loaded large crates of milk and bread on the front and back wheels of my bicycle, dropped off my deliveries, and rushed to school. I often walked through Kaloleni, another slum in Kisumu, and visited Mama Saumu’s roadside kiosk for lunch.

Mama Saumu was gorgeous; she draped herself in beautiful garments and decorated her hands with henna. She made the best pilau in town, seasoned with spices from Zanzibar, and cooked on her three-stone-firewood-stove.

She was famous in our town for her cooking, but also for ensuring that everyone had enough to eat. Every day lines of hungry youth waited to be served, and she ensured that every person ate. I always wondered how she made this possible with only the four cooking pots that she owned.

One day my craving for her pilau led me to go to her place earlier than usual. I ordered a plate, gluttonously downed it, and asked for more.

“No,” she replied, “the rest is for others, you have had your share.”

I was shocked. These days, when I go shopping in Seattle, I try to remember the lessons I learned from my mother and Mama Saumu.

The author (right) with his aunt Penina (center) and another relative during a visit back to Kenya. (Photo by Jason Koenig)
The author (right) with his aunt Penina (center) and another relative during a visit back to Kenya. (Photo by Jason Koenig)

A sense of community drove consumption habits back home. A two-kilogram packet of wheat flour made chapattis for a family of twelve, while still leaving enough to share with neighbors.

There was guilt when you ate too much without checking if your neighbors had anything to eat.

In Seattle stores and restaurants, people take pleasure in biting off more than they can chew. No business owner tells consumers that they have had enough. In fact, they mourn when customers don’t buy in excess, and rejoice when people buy too much.

Visiting big stores like Costco overwhelms me. Their options and packaging sizes are fit for a village, but purchased for a family. Sometime when I go to these stores I get overwhelmed and leave without anything.

On the occasions that I find something, I get home only to find it was not the right item. There is white, brown, or even black rice. There is whole, low fat, and fat free milk. For any one item that you might want to purchase, there is an array of options.

For instance, last week I went grocery shopping. I paid attention to my list and was proud to come home with everything I needed. Little did I know that enchilada sauce comes in multiple colors and spices, and I, of course, had bought the wrong one.

These unlimited options encourage an unhealthy sense of entitlement to stuff. I am afraid to see Seattle become like any other city in America, beholden to our “stuff addiction.”

Our rate of consumption threatens the core of our uniqueness. As we aim at a just, sustainable, and ecologically healthy world, we must embrace how much we also have to learn. Consuming less, disciplining ourselves, and valuing deeper communal culture of togetherness, and not self-centeredness, will make Seattle that much better of a place to live.

Click here for more stories from Slum Rising, our ongoing series exploring the economically complex and culturally rich life in the world’s urban slums.
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1 Comment

  1. Excellent article.
    Somehow we were persuaded that if we want our economy to “move”, we need to buy more. But it’s not about buying more, its about everyone getting their rightful share. However, I dont believe that everybody should receive the same share, because none of us are the same. It’s mainly about changing our “consumer” state of mind.

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