Youth Perspective

This month, Bertha Onduso, a medical student at University of Nairobi explores the concept of being cross-cultural. If you know a teen who would be willing to share their thoughts by writing a blog or being interviewed for a future, please contact us.

Cross Cultural. What does that word mean to you? What image does it conjure up in your mind? Well, if you’re like me, which I know many of you are (wink, wink), up until a few weeks ago, the word meant very little to me. In fact, I had never quite heard of the term before I was asked to write this piece. Cross cultural is defined as the action of ascribing to and interacting with more than one culture. So, what does this word mean to me now? And does it hold any significance in my life? The answer to both questions is an emphatic and resounding yes.

Currently, the word cross-cultural elicits images of different cuisines drawn out from the 42 tribes that make up Kenya. From raw blood and mursik (a form of fermented milk that’s popular among nomadic tribes like the Kalenjin who are famed for bringing home the gold medals in long-distance races ) to ugali (a form of local maize-meal),

to aliya (a form of boiled dried meat) to bhajias and samosas introduced in Kenya by the Asian communities.

The term also elicits the beauty of different dialects spoken. Cohesive and fluent when spoken by the locals. In addition to that, it also elicits the picture of different cultural practices like circumcision of boys in a coming of age ceremony usually held in August amongst the Luhya tribe, the ruracio ceremony amongst the Kikuyu where the betrothed introduces their family to their fiancé in a rigorous process by having them pick out the bride from a group of her age-mates.

And what does this word mean to me going forward in the medical field? The word helps me understand that cultures shape an individual’s perception and have a significant impact on their health-seeking behavior. Superstitions amongst communities inevitably could be detrimental or beneficial to one’s health. Take for example the case of the native Maasai community where women prefer to give birth in manyattas because they consider hospitals cold and uninviting and would rather be tended to by traditional birth attendants who they consider less intimidating and more inviting than the medical practitioners in hospitals.

Secondly, it makes me sensitive to cultural cues and hyper-aware that some of the norms in society are still considered taboo in some communities. For example, it’s still considered taboo for a male doctor to undertake a physical examination on a female patient amongst Muslim communities like the Somalis and Nubians. In such instances, the medical practitioner has to tread carefully and ensure they are able to uphold the community’s traditions while also ensuring the proper dispensing of services. In this case a compromise can be struck where a female practitioner accompanies the patient in such scenarios.

Thirdly, it begs me, as a future medical practitioner, to be multi-lingual to establish proper communication channels with my patients. In Kenya, it’s not uncommon for individuals to be well versed in two or three languages, starting with their mother- tongue tongue, English and Kiswahili and an additional foreign or native language. Therefore, learning as many languages as you can is a significant advantage in medical services.

Looking back at it, it’s funny how little this word meant to me, and how now I realize it encompasses every aspect of my daily life. And so, I’d like to invite you, the reader, to also consider: What does the term ‘cross-cultural’ mean to you and how does it shape your perception of life?

Bertha Onduso is a medical student at University of Nairobi. She is also a self- described language and travel enthusiast.