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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The House of Peace

As I mentioned, I'm currently in the capitol of Tanzania, Dar-es-Salaam, working with Grounds for Health. The name means "House of Peace", and it indeed seems to be a fairly laid back city, although it's difficult to say how this came about. The population is diverse, with large South Asian and Arabic communities, and the edifices of colonialism dominate the city, but while Tanzania is surrounded by neighbors in which this combination has been a recipe for bloodshed, I understand that this has not been the case here.

I have been spent most of my time here in the expatriate-dominated northern part of the city, which is almost a country unto itself, with wide, well-paved boulevards meandering through luxury hotels, walled private compounds, and dozens of foreign aid agencies. All along these streets (outside the security fences) are local Tanzanians, among them beggars and the homeless, almost none of whom are allowed into the expensive, air-conditioned shopping centers.

Walking past a bridal shop, the poster showing a blonde, white woman and her South Asian groom I can't help but feel indignation for the Tanzanians locked out of the world paid for with money supposedly sent to help them. Inside, many of the shops are run by the Arabic and South Asian minorities, and although I have no right to it after only a few days here, I feel vicariously disenfranchised. On a brief venture into downtown Dar, we caught a brief glimpse of the other world, with broken roads, no high walls, and no pale faces.

Yet despite sharing much of its history and demographics, with its neighbors Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, Tanzania has seen almost none of the violence that has plagued East Africa in the decades since independence. Guidebooks, fellow travelers, and our hosts here have talked about the kindess of the Tanzanian people, and while I usually dismiss this type of cultural generalization, it does seem to be the case here so far. Courtesy and good manners are a must as people people hold doors, extend thank you's, and use a dozen elaborate greetings to welcome you and ask about your family or work.

Maybe it is this kindness that has maintained peace. Maybe it was the lesser attention paid to by its German and British colonizers than to their more profitable possessions, or simple twists of history. One way or another, it certainly appears to be a "house of peace", but one has to wonder, how a house divided against itself into such distinct worlds, as Dar is, can stand.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Deal

So here's my deal. I'm currently in the Tanzanian capitol, Dar-es-Salaam, on the Indian Ocean helping my mom set up a cervical cancer program with the non-profit she directs, Grounds for Health. We have meetings here for the next few days, then we fly to Kigoma, Tanzania, which is near where the actual cervical cancer screening campaign will take place in June.

In Kigoma, we'll spend a week and a half meeting with partners, training trainers of community health workers (who will recruit women to come get screened), and figuring out logistics. Once this is done, my Mom and Kathy, Grounds for Health's project manager for Africa, who is also travelling with us, will fly back to the U.S., and I'll head overland to Kakamega, Kenya, where I'll spend the rest of my time in East Africa.

In Kakamega, I'll be living and working at the USFW Kakamega AIDS Orphans Project Care Center. I'm planning on helping around the care centre however I can, hopefully volunteering at a local school and a local hospital, and possibly running some programs in the community. We'll see what plays out once I get there.

When I return to the U.S. is unclear at this point, but I am definitely planning on being back for the fall semester at Wesleyan.

Nimekula Asali Udogoni, Utami Ungali Gegoni

I chose this Swahili saying for the title out of a little phrasebook I bought in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. It means "I ate honey in my childhood, and its sweetness is still in my tooth". The "honey" I ate in my childhood was international travel, particularly to developing countries. It is still in my tooth, and so I am returning to East Africa, where I visited briefly when I was 8, to bask in this personal and family love.

I am also here for another reason, though. As I recently learned, Kenya was home to one of the least-remembered mass crimes of European colonialism--an eight-year reign of terror unleashed by the British against the local population that left hundreds of thousands dead and a generation shattered*. The country is still recovering today. While my family had no direct connection that I know of to these events, I have grown up in the privilege of a society that was built upon the backs of colonies, and my life has been shaped by this privilege. Coming to terms with this privilege has been a difficult but important process, and Kenya presents me with an opportunity to act.

So what can I do with this awareness? Maybe I can come (humbly) to say I'm sorry. Maybe I can come to try to make ammends. I don't know the answer. So I'm coming to find out. Is there a place for someone like me in Kenya's future? Is there anything I can do to help? And if so, should I?

These are some of the questions I want to look at in this blog. If you're interested, I would love for you to follow my exploration. It won't all be so heavy. If you want to just hear about my life here, there should be some of that too. Please comment, and feel free to send me emails at jburns@wesleyan.edu. Thanks for reading!


*It was in response to the Mau Mau Rebellion. If you want to read more, check out Caroline Elkins' Imperial Reckoning.