Thursday, April 9, 2009

Throwing Rocks off the Soccer Field

It's been a long time since my last post, and I can't say that's for lack of material. Happily, I think it is more a result of being a little to engaged in this place to be thinking like a blogger, but as I near the end of my stay in Kakamega, I'm starting to look back on and evaluate the time I've spent here. It's not yet time for the final post which neatly sums up the experience in a little package of wit and wisdom, just time for a few thoughts.

One of things I have done with the children at the Care Centre is to take them to local soccer fields on the weekends and scrimmage other orphanages. I have generally joined them either as a player or a referee and have trotted gingerly after the ball with my soft, pink feet shoeless on the stony ground. Every few yards I stoop to pick up the most threatening rocks and toss them off the field, but after hours of play and hundreds of rocks, the pitch is somehow just as hazardous as when I began. The fact that I have continued to wage this battle is a sign of a quixotic stubbornness that has gotten in my way at times, as well as the lamentable state of my environment.

I, of course, have generalized the metaphor at this point to my entire experience here. Some of the "rocks" are fairly harmless--different ideas of punctuality, personal space etc.--which, while aggravating, pose little more danger than a stubbed toe. Others--sexism and gender-based violence, child abuse, mob violence--are much more serious.

A young, female friend of mine here (let's call her M) has a boyfriend in Nairobi who she sees occasionally. She mentioned him now and then, but I never heard very much about him until we happened upon M's sister having an affair with her married neighbor. It came out that he was abusive as well as unfaithful, and as we talked about gender roles in Kenya, she began to tell me about her boyfriend. She told me how he cheats on her, how he beats her, threatens her, and threatens her family. When I asked her why she doesn't break up with him, she told me that she was scared he would come to Kakamega and beat her or worse. When I asked about the police, she said he would just pay them off, and from my experience with the police here, it's probably true. When I pressed her, she confessed that she also was afraid of being alone, because it's so hard to find a boyfriend here, and without a man, there's almost no way for women to support themselves.

It's not a new story, but sitting and trying to talk through the options with her, it gained new meaning for me. She truly is trapped. All the power lies with the men. In my attempt to clear a few stones, I refuse to associate with the cheating neighbor, and continually argue with a promiscuous friend who sees no harm in having five girlfriends simultaneously, and lying to each about the others. I can't say that I've convinced him, and the neighbor doesn't so much, but I can't swallow my indignation.

As a teacher and a donor, I have a little more power to do something about child abuse at the school where I teach. When I first heard a 10-year old girl screaming and sobbing for mercy from the deputy headteacher's office as she was beaten with an inch-thick stick, I was horrified. I asked the headteacher to speak to the deputy and put a stop to the practice, which he promised to do. When, a week later, I came across the headteacher himself laying savagely into the buttocks of twenty whimpering children grovelling on the floor below him, I couldn't contain my outrage. I demanded that he stop immediately, which he refused and then we had a heated argument afterward in which he belittled my anger and I picked up the books that had been donated for the library and started to walk out. The deputy chased after me and after a calmer discussion agreed to put a stop to all corporal punishment, a promise she has with only one exception kept.

What will happen after I leave, is hard to tell. Despite the satisfaction of this seeming success, I still wonder if I did the right thing. The library project was seriously endangered by what the headteacher saw as my insubordination, and I don't know if that was worth risking. It's always the children who stand to lose the most.

I can't help but think, however, that there is more to this issue than the pain and psychological trauma the children experienced. A few weeks ago, I went to town, as I often do, to run some errands and get a snack. Just before five o'clock, I hurried down the quiet main street and took a bicycle out of town in order to make it in time to practice for the church choir I sing in. What I didn't know until much later, was that just five minutes after I left, a group of car thieves were apprehended by an angry mob of pedestrians, who managed to tie up the criminals, pour gasoline over them, and set them on fire before a single police officer arrived. Does it not seem likely that children raised to obey the man (or teacher) with the biggest stick are more likely to engage in this kind of violence later? One of the men who works at the Care Centre was present for this atrocity, and did nothing to stop it. For once, I left the stone where it was and did not ask why not.

I believe that all of these issues are too important to be left alone. As long as women are powerless to stand up to abuse, children are taught to fear their mentors, and murderers roam the streets simply because the people they killed were unwanted in society, it is wrong to stay silent. The perennial question is, where do you draw the line? How do you stand up to injustice and aspects of a society which are simply broken, without spending all of your time fighting? Too often, I have fought the small battles and found myself frustrated or alienated, but I'm learning. I have made friends, and made partners, and at the end of my time here, I'll have some things to be proud of. Symbolically, I recently placed an order for soccer uniforms for the girls at the Care Centre and the library is nearly finished. I've found some time to play the game, and to help clear the rocks from one small part of the field.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Kakamega Township Primary School International Library

Before leaving the U.S., I sent letters out requesting donations from friends in Vermont that I could use with some discretion to carry out a project here. The response was amazing and touching, and I am happy to say that I think that I have found a suitable project to help that generosity reach the people of Kakamega.
As I have written previously, I have been appalled at the state of the educational system here, and at the lack of opportunity available to children. At Township Primary, there isn’t even a single storybook for the students to read outside of class, so I’m undertaking the renovation of an abandoned classroom and the creation of a library.
Already, I’ve received more support from some of the same people, as well as other friends in Vermont and books will shortly be on their way. Here on the ground I have cleaned and repainted the room with the help of some dedicated students, and the Care Centre has generously donated books from its collection. Two teams of carpenters are building tables, chairs and shelves, and one of the teachers has volunteered her expertise in creating a card catalog.
It’s truly amazing to watch two communities a world away from each other coming together to make this happen, and the appreciation is very clear. After considerable disenchantment with international development and our ability to have a positive impact, this project is proving very cathartic. I have come to the conclusion that for the most part, Kenyans must help themselves and determine their own futures, but there are times when outside assistance truly is needed.
I have a very bright student in my sixth grade math class named Florence. In class she begs me to let her do examples on the board and flies through introductory algebra while her classmates struggle to keep up. At 8 am on Saturdays when I arrive to teach my seventh grade science class (yes, there is class on weekends here), Florence is alone in the classroom, already seated at her desk, waiting for the teacher who will arrive at some unspecified time in the following six hours. The burning desire to learn and the frustration with the slowness of school are obvious in her eyes (and the way she covers them when a classmate incorrectly answers a question), and it was the proudest and most gratifying moment of my stay here when she asked me for storybooks to read, and I was able to assure her that they were on their way.
In a school system that is broke, and in a community that is remote enough that you have to travel two hours to find a shop selling novels, there is a clear place for help from abroad. Florence’s future is for her to decide, and in the future, Kenya’s problems will rest on her shoulders, but the head start we can give with a few generous donations and a little trans-Atlantic cooperation means the world to her

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Price of Opportunity (aka The Post that Never Ends)

Coming to Kenya, after experience in developing countries on four different continents, I felt confident that I had already shed my naivete about poverty and would take this time to share the life of the poor and work to improve it. I thought that having spent time in poor countries, some for extended periods, I understood what poverty meant, but in the last two weeks, I have lost any such pretension.

When I first arrived at the Care Centre, I resolved to do my best to live the way the children do so that I can better understand their experience. I went to bed at 10pm and woke up with them at 5:30am (okay, I was up by 6:30). I shared their ugali (boiled corn flour) and cabbage, or boiled corn kernels and beans at each meal, and washed it down with water from the tap. On weekdays, I joined them for homework time from 7-9pm, and on Sundays attended church. Without internet here I made an exception for trips to town to check email, and indulged in the occasional coke with the staff, but it was by far the most simply I have ever lived.

Two weeks later, I've given up. I still share much of their schedule and many of their meals, but when I left a four-hour staff meeting at school today, I bypassed the corn and beans and headed for a nearby restaurant for "meat and chips". In some ways, this was a concession of my inability to cope with the quasi-monastic lifestyle at the Care Centre, but it was also an acknowledgment of a deeper meaning of poverty.

Growing up in the cultural relativist, politically correct environment of liberal America, I had always understood poverty as a lack of money whose true hardship lay in the accompanying poor health, gruelling work, and lack of access to education, rather than in the geographic location of the poor. I therefore dismissed those who extolled the superiority of life in the U.S. as ignorant materialists; but while this may be true, I have come to believe that the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Friends Orphan Care Centre in Kakamega looks great on paper. Children get plenty of food with a balance of carbs and protein, with the ocassional piece of vitamin-rich fruit. They are all enrolled in school and provided the supplies they need to complete their work. Above each bed hangs a mosquito net, and toothbrushes lie hidden somewhere among each child's belongings. But the privilege largely ends there. Although American sponsors have generously donated books, toys and computers to the Care Centre, broken bycicles, ruptured soccer balls, and computers collecting dust lie inaccessible behind padlocked doors. Some of the reasons for their disuse are legitimate. Some are not. But the reality, is that for children who seldom leave the compound, except to go to school, available stimulation is limited to plastic bags tied together to approximate soccer balls, church songs, and the puny textbooks that make up their only schoolwork. And they are not the worst off.

Among the students in my 6th grade math class, more than half had not been provided by the school or their parents with a notebook in which to do their homework (I had to go buy them for a whopping 18 cents a piece). Few if any of these children are going hungry, and all have access to education (in some form). What they are deprived of is opportunity. The liberals are correct that there is nothing so inherently terrible about not having a lot of "things", and there is nothing bad at all about living in Kenya instead of the U.S., but the kernel of truth in the American superiority argument is the importance of having access to the great variety of experiences in life.

During the first few days when I would walk out of the Care Centre and found the entire staff simply sitting in the sun and staring, I was baffled. I couldn't understand why they spent hours on end barely even talking. When I asked, they agreed that is was a boring life, and it took me w while to comprehend that there simply are no other options. When you wait day after day for your savings to accumulate enough to buy a small TV and some rabbit ears, the privation is not the lack of a TV, but the incredible smallness of the world.

As I walked to the restaurant today, I acknoweledged that there is no way for me to truly understand what is like to not have opportunity. With my time here, I am concentrating on expanding the horizons of the children in my classes and at the Care Centre. My big project is to set up a library at the primary school so that children and teachers can read outside of class. I may call on you in the coming weeks not to share your wealth, but to share your opportunity, so that these children can escape a place of poverty, and experience the richness of the world, if only through a book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Introduce to You...Mr. Burns!

I know I haven't written anything about life at the Care Center yet, but I still need some time to consolidate my thoughts. For now I have my first adventure with the Kenyan education system:

While planning out this trip, I was a little worried about having enough to do while I'm here, so Friends of Kakamega Treasurer Sukie Rice mentioned that I could always teach English in one of the local schools. It turns out that I do have a fair amount of free time on my hands, so on Monday, I went with the Care Centre pastor, Ida Nelson, to visit the nearby primary and secondary schools. We had a short meeting with the portly, jovial headmaster in which I did little more than introduce myself and explain that I wanted to volunteer, taking pains to emphasize my lack of experience or qualification and my consequent willingness to perform whatever functions might be helpful. He told me to come back in the morning once he had had a chance to think about the schedule.

I returned as the students arrived, expecting to be told to come back on Saturdays to do tutoring or something similar, and took a seat in his empty office. After an hour and a half of waiting, I began inwardly cursing the slow pace here, at which point the head master returned, shook my hand, and before I could ask if he had decided what I would be doing, he escorted me out of the office and stuck a textbook in my hand, informing that I would be teaching is eighth grade English class.

Incredulous, I stammered, "What, now?" and only had time to ask if students use first or last names with their teachers before we reached the classroom, and I became "Mr. Burns". The topic of that day's class was the order of adjectives, something I had never thought about as a native English speaker, and the rules of which were completely new to me.
I had the students complete the exercises in the book, reviewing them on the chalkboard and then playing a game of improvised madlibs when these were finished. I did my best to appear confident and personable, downplaying the usefulness of the rules (which were completely bogus) and attempting to joke with them, but was met with mostly silent stares. Nevertheless, the class was not a complete disaster and I think one reason for the lack of response was my thick, American accent.

One of the other reasons, as I later discovered, is a markedly different approach to education. In order to get a sense of how other teachers handled their classes, I attended eighth grade social studies later in the day. The topic was 'The Evolution of Early Man", and the material was pulled directly from two sparse pages in the students' textbook. Class consisted of a series of fill-in-the-blanks with the teacher starting, "Evolution is____" and a student responding "developing gradually"--a phrase that the class had clearly memorized, as all the students repeated it in stereo when prompted, "Evolution is dev...". The rest of the class followed the form, with the teacher following every echoed statement with the rhetorical, "Isn't it?", which the class affirmed in unison.

This extreme focus on rote memorization of a simplified version of the facts resulted in only the most narrow learning, leaving students to learn things like "Were there women during the evolution period" in the question and answer period afterward; and unfortunately, this was not the only disservice being done to the students by the Kenyan educational system. Sitting in the staff lounge in between classes, I examined the class schedule with with one of the teachers, and was surprised that he was supposed to be teaching during the period that was coming to a close, as well as the upcoming one. When I asked him about this, he told me that he had given the students something to read, and he had a lot of grading to do, so he wasn't attending. A number of the other teachers in the lounge had similar explanations.

Yet, despite this, the children seem to be model students. At the Care Centre, every child works on homework for two hours per night, Friday and Saturday included (I even found some working on Sunday morning before church) and the students in both classes I attended were attentive and respectful. For me, it's a unique opportunity to get to teach, as I have always wanted, and hopefully to expand the minds of children whose education is restricted to a textbook and a few square kilometers.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Road to Modernity

I've finally arrived at the Care Centre in Kenya, but not before spending over thirty hours in what I can only describe as a 50-ft slow cooker and tenderizer. Officially, it is the Akamba Bus Line, which I took from Kigoma to Kakamega, leaving at 4am on Tuesday and arriving here on Thursday at 10am. The ride was wild thanks to potholes which sent my head crashing into luggage rack three feet above me and the angle of the bus as we swerved back and forth across the road, giving me the unnerving experience of looking down into the rack on the opposite side of the bus; it was facinating, however, thanks to glimpse into the future of Tanzania that it gave me.
This came firstly from the journey itself which took me from the banana groves of Kigoma to the cool aisles of Nakumatt, a Kenyan version of Walmart. Tanzania has always been poorer of the two countries, thanks to both colonial neglect and the more egalitarian socialist orientation of the post-independence regime (as opposed to Kenya's unfettered capitalism), but there is now doubt that it is entering the 21st century. Not only does every tin-roofed roadside stand carry cellphone credit, but new road construction is everywhere, and by this summer, there will finally be high-speed cable internet available in the region. The question, then, is what will a modern Tanzania look like?
At one of the towns along the way, two Maasai men stepped on the bus with traditional cloth cloaks, their long knives at their belts and with the long, looped earlobes, made particularly noticeable on one by the baseball cap he wore above them. Looking at this icon of globalization, I had to wonder how much longer the traditional knives and clothing could last, and how Tanzania could hope avoid sacrificing its culture for commerce.
On both buses, I sat next to high school boys on their way back to school, and asked their thoughts on the issue. The first, Ibrahim, eagerly predicted that soon all Tanzanians would speak English (Swahili is the national language) and could enter the world economy. The second, Ray, agreed that this was the trend, and went so far as to ask if I could help him get to the United States. "Tanzania is too poor". He said, emphatically, and I couldn't help but agree, as crowds of children swarmed the bus at each stop to try to make a few cents selling snacks to the passengers. But why can't development preserve local culture?
I'm not sure that it can't it would be patently false to say that Kenya has completely lost its roots, but as I sit here listening to Akon, I worry.
The good news is that I am beginning to make some connections. The first came with a woman on the bus who stole my seat. I came back from buying breakfast and she immediately stood up to return it, lifting the infant swaddled to her chest above the seat in front of here. Seeing the forelorn look on her face, I asked her to sit back down, and Ibrahim and I traded places in his seat for the two hours she stayed on the bus. The woman spoke no English, but her smile communicated a great deal, and immediately I felt that I was no longer just a muzungu, but the muzungu who gave her his seat, and she immediately became not just another Tanzanian woman, but a Tanzanian woman I could do a favor for. This, the boys on the bus, and the warm welcome I have been given here at the Care Centre give me hope for the ability for cultural diversity in a globalized world. We don't even need to share a language to share experiences and friendships, so perhaps the same is true at a macro-level. I'm heading back to try it again with 50 smiling children. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Role Here

My friend Bradley left an interesting comment on my last post about my role here and how that fits with what I talked about in the last post, which made me realize that I maybe have depersonalized the blog a little too much. The reason these concerns about Western involvement in Tanzania have been in my mind is because I have been questioning my own role here. I include myself in the criticisms I have offered, and it has forced me to fundamentally rethink this trip.

Walking down the street here, I feel my foreignness as palpably as the equatorial heat. While I have found people to be very open and friendly (perhaps more so than anywhere I've ever been), the children who greet me follow my passing with cries of "Muzungu!" (stranger, or white person). There's no animosity in it, but they are right. I am a stranger. It is the disconnectedness of the group of aid workers who I joined for their regular after-work tennis matches who despite having spent the day administering sanitation projects and refugee camps, seemed to be completely comfortable discussing the new shoes they had bought, the wind-surfing board they were bringing over from Norway, and the party they were going to that night, without a single mention of anything Tanzanian.

This is not to say that all foreign involvement is bad, or that these particular ex-pats are not having a positive impact. There is a considerable lack of trained professionals like civil engineers here, and refugees need resources from wherever they are available, as quickly as possible. It's just important to remember that Westerners should always be a second choice after local employees. There is a fundamental paradigm shift that has begun, but has not pervaded the aid and development community from helping the underpriviliged, to providing the support that cannot be provided locally for these people to choose their own futures.jkxcnvkd

One organization that we have been working with here that fits that mold is called Sustainable Harvest. This U.S.-based for-profit company exports specialty coffee while helping farmers improve their crops, their profits, and their quality of life. The unique knowledge of agronomy and the international coffee market brought by their foreign staff combined with the deep understanding of local culture and conditions of their Tanzanian staff has helped make Kigoma coffee some of the best-respected in the world.

What this trip has already shown me is that international aid and development is not the simple, altruistic endeavor I had thought it was, and is often counterproductive, but also that the field is learning and improving quickly. With any luck my time in kenya will be an experience that feels meaningful and worthwhile, and so will a job upon graduation that supports the underpriviliged.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome to Africa

I’ve found Africa. I’m now in Kigoma, in the west of Tanzania, along the banks of Lake Tanganyika. It’s a quiet town of a little of 100,000 residents, although it has a significant international community due to a number of refugee camps for people fleeing violence across the lake in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. As opposed to the imitation Western sterility of Dar es Salaam, Kigoma exudes Africanness. Roads are made of the same rich earth as the tarmac at the Kigoma airport, and are covered with a checkerboard of ruts that must look like the Grand Canyon did a few million years ago. Buildings are low and made of wood and steel, rather than the ba? Glass and steel of the capitol, and everywhere there is a feeling of simplicity and strong cultural roots. Looking out over the deeply green, fertile hills falling to the impossible topaz of Tanganyika, balmy air carrying fresh lake air spiced with rich earth and flowers, it seems incredibly idyllic. And there lies a paradox.
Kigoma is a spectacular home to the cultural and environmental beauty that Westerners cherish in Africa, and seems a very livable place to boot. In fact, the calm climate, rolling, verdant hills, and crystal clear water recall European Rivieras where many Westerners choose to retire to escape city life, but here, instead of a rural paradise, it is considered an area in need of development. Meanwhile, Dar seems to have little to show for the foreign aid community cloistered in its north, and instead is marked by ugly, concrete behemoths, an exclusive commercial world, and very little that is recognizably Tanzanian, yet it is considered on its way to development.
It’s true that there is poverty here, and a considerable lack of access to essential services, but the same is true in Dar. Places like Kigoma are ideal locations for foreign NGOs, as there is the opportunity to start from scratch, where little has been tried before. Coming to this sort of community is indeed what I had envisioned in coming to a developing country to “help”, but Kigoma is in no need of a white knight.
Visiting the Jane Gooddall Institute (JGI), one of the few NGOS here not related to refugees, I was surprised to find the well-renowned organization staffed exclusively by Tanzanians. Tanzanians who were confidently, effectively, and independently taking steps to improve the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. The surprise was not that they could do this, but that it happened in a development community dominated by the belief that foreign expertise and training is needed for organizations to act effectively. The raw Africanness of Kigoma is not a reason to call in the Western development paramedics. It is precisely the opposite. Tanzanian-staffed organizations like JGI (although funded by a Westerner) can effectively address the challenges found here.
A visit to an Anglican hospital outside Kigoma highlighted the need for locally-grown solutions. In the impressive facility, we found room after room of empty beds not, according to the staff there, because of a lack of demand, but because so few people could afford care. Greater resources are certainly necessary, but that doesn't mean Kigoma needs to be saved. The knights are here, they just aren't white.