This piece is left over from training in Kitui and I have only just completed it.
The WWF is not popular with Peace Corps Kenya Volunteers. It's appearance every night on the black and white TV's of our home stay families is embarrassing. It's improper. The uniquely American intersection of commercialized violence, distorted body image and overblown gender roles is just too much for us to bear. It's exactly the kind of stereotyping we should be working against. (Or so I've been told)
At my house, the car battery responsible for all electrical activities emerges from Baba's room at 9p for the news. That is except on Tuesday's nights, when it emerges an hour earlier. Michael, the youngest, staggers out under its weight, rushing to push it on the cabinet before his strength fails. We turn down the gas lanterns and over the next 10 minutes the room silently and anonymously fills with neighboring boys and girls. They sit in uncharacteristic focus and silence.
It's been said that high culture digests and dissects, low culture manipulates. Wrestling is ‘low’ culture because its derivative. It pushes preprogrammed buttons; using cultural objects and social roles in the simplest way, by exaggerating them. But for the dozen odd Kenyan kids I'm sitting with in the dark, there's no self-righteous heterosexual masculinity at work. And there's not enough variation in skin color for racial typing to even be a comprehensible concept.
The crass commercialism and consequence free violence are all too American. And watching their enthusiastic reception its easy to forget that these kids live totally separate from the waste and objectification of a consumer culture or the cold and clean inhumanity of a remote control war. What can be viewed as pumped up, loud, machismo is - for this room of barefoot, wide eyed kids - remarkably earnest entertainment. For them too, wrestling is manifestly American.
It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand English. Heroes, villians and clowns are all apparent prior to their words and the drama they unfold is so manifestly physical that the combatant's grunts and groans speak volumes. The room is silent except for the hiss of a sudden breath as a flying kick off the ropes connects or the quiet background muttering of rotely memorized catch phrases.
Wrestling is larger than life; it's full of pageantry and drama. It's a struggle under bright lights on an epic scale. It's rich and big and exciting. In short, its very much the way these kids see America.
You can say it’s fake. It’s steroids and choreagraphed action. But it doesn't matter that the picture's incomplete - that America is infinitely more complex than they can know - because their excitement is genuine. Wrestling has a physicality that catches their breath. It has heroes and villians that live for them.
America is bigger and brighter in their minds than any other place and the image they possess is tidy, simplistic and miraculous. But sitting with them, soaking in their open mouthed wonder, I'm reminded how many things I take for granted. 400 channels, endless hot water, the pharmacy just down the street; small assumptions of daily life that pass unnoticed.
So, yes, the picture's incomplete and, no, the glitz and glamour aren't always real, but that doesn't mean there's something wrong with them enjoying the show. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't do well to cultivate a little wonder of my own.