Thursday, December 25, 2008

Selling Eggs to Buy Bread

I’ve wanted to share a bit about the Development field for awhile – but as it currently represents everything I’m studying, it’s hard to know where to start. I can say that in most ways, my perception and understanding of Development is changing everyday, as it is truly a discipline that carries a multitude of dimensions and perspectives. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s also an industry here – so on top of the theoretical and historical aspects I’m studying, there is the practicum I see around me. The sad reality is that what in my perspective is a discipline that should be rooted in sustainability and the external focus of aiding nations in need, is often turned into a for-profit machine that employs loads (many foreigners), while directly contributing to some of the challenges facing local people. I met my friend Attem the other night and he was telling me about the high cost of living in Southern Sudan. After quoting some prices, I asked who was supporting that level of living – who could afford to pay those prices and thus enable the market to keep them that high? “Well, there are a lot of NGO’s there,” he said. So, you’ve got a lot of NGO’s on the ground with a variety of goals that we can assume boil down to HELP SUDAN, and their mere presence is making it hard for local people to afford basic needs.

In one of my first classes here, we were introducing ourselves and a classmate said he worked for a NGO that was focused on poverty alleviation. My professor asked, “So you get a job out of it, what do the people you’re helping get?” I come back to this question over and over as I reflect on my reason for being here and my long-term goals. Development work, in so many ways, can never truly be altruistic – the “developer” needs the country in need to advance for a number of reasons. On an international scale, we all benefit if others advance and become producers of goods we want/need, and consumers of goods we have. There do become reasons why certain countries advancement and development become problematic – it is infinitely easier to exploit natural resources from a country with no infrastructure or stable government. It has also become obvious that whatever developed nations’ goals are for aiding the developing world, the theory and political ideology that guides the assistance offered can have horrendous consequences on the natural course of development that might be taking place.

In post-colonial Kenya, the country was doing quite well in the 60’s and early 70’s – at one point 95% of children were enrolled in school, industrialization was in place and the country had a solid export industry and access to international markets for coffee, tea and other products. Following the oil crisis in ’73, progress was stymied and Kenya got swept up with the rest of Sub Saharan Africa in low-interest borrowing when the commodity market fell apart. When the global economy started to recover and the interest rates started to rise, Kenya and other SSA countries shifted their focus from industrialization and programs focused on bringing equity to their populace, to straight debt management. The U.S. and Britain guided the World Bank and IMF in providing public loans to relieve the private sector of this debt burden, but they came with contingencies that ultimately reversed years of growth in Kenya by requiring the government to pull out of the market and social programs completely in favor of Neo Liberal, market-driven economics. Close to thirty years after these structural adjustment programs were implemented, Kenya is just starting to see the same levels of children enrolled in school, carries somewhere between a 50-60% unemployment rate and as we saw last January, has a long way to go in terms of democracy. What started as a developing sprint has turned into a marathon, with what was intended to be a paved road turned to a fragmented cobblestone street with gaping potholes along the way.

My housemate Megan has been in Kenya for eight years and has worked on a variety of poverty alleviation programs. I trust her work more than many of the ex-pats I come across who know very few Kenyans, live in posh compounds and guide their work based on studies rather than interactions or involvement in the community they’re attempting to aid. After working with street children when she first came, Megan has a network of people who come to her for help, and we never know who we might find washing dishes or cleaning floors in our home in exchange for a day’s wage or some food staples. For the last month a young man named Labon has been here once a week or so, and I always appreciate his big smile and hard work. His family lives in Kibera and Megan has acknowledged that his mother and brother are not trustworthy (his brother’s not allowed in the house), but if Labon comes and works she will send him home with food. When she told me this I acknowledged that Labon just seems to have a good heart – and certainly a good work ethic. Then last week I noticed that a favorite necklace of mine that I “borrowed” from my mom last year wasn’t hanging in the downstairs bathroom where it usually is. It’s the only necklace I’ve kept out of my room because I know Megan likes to borrow it. It’s on a gold chain and it’s a large leaf that’s covered in gold plate. When I asked the staff about it, it became clear at some point that Labon had taken it and given it to his brother to sell. While it’s startling to have something taken from inside your own home, it’s more startling when someone who you’d personally assessed to be a good guy takes it. The whole thing got me thinking – here’s a kid who is at our house working because his family cannot afford food – but the glitter of gold overrode the good relationship he has with us in favor of a quick fix and the need for cold hard cash.

This feels like the state of development as a whole – there are entire countries whose populace face food insecurity and lack of basic needs, but their leaders succumb to the draw of wealth and quick fixes offered by exploitative industries or less-than altruistic government assistance. Rather than looking at the security and needs of the nation as a whole, or taking the time to establish policies that ensure all people benefit as growth occurs, Developing nations tend to follow the paths of those of us already industrialized – resulting in a wide gap between the haves and have-nots, and a massive contrast between the luxury car of a big city exec and the blistered feet of a rural farmer. When you think about it, who can blame them? It’s humanity acting as humanity does – so I suppose I come back to, how do we change these trends while we still have the chance? Being in Kenya right now I can see that there are opportunities all around to make choices that will benefit all of Kenya – not just those with the education, resources or connections to advance. I hope I continue to learn, and in someway contribute, to this as a goal.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Hi, I'm Joe and I'll be your personal thief today."

The past couple of weeks have felt like a real whirlwind. I'm not yet at the end of my semester but we are knee deep in term papers. I'm finding that juggling a variety of topics, tracking down resources, making my other meetings and all in absence of reliable transport or internet can be thoroughly and bone-achingly exhausting. It's been a great time - some productive meetings and introductions, the start of feeling like I'm regaining my academic sea legs and the awe of the stories and opportunity for self-assessment I come across every day. My next post will be some long-overdue thoughts on Development (since prior to coming the biggest question I got was, "what are Development studies anyway?"), but for now I think I'll just share how easy it is for your day to get completely re-worked here before it's even begun, and how with every set back there is somehow an opportunity for humor. In other words, you have to laugh or you'd cry...

My housemate Angeline and I were heading to town yesterday for a Rotary event and various school errands. We hopped on a crowded bus - the first time since I've arrived that the conductor allowed entrance when there weren't enough seats. We both stood for a few moments and then Ang was ushered to the very back and crammed in to the far corner seat in the last row. I was starting to realize that we were on a completley different route than usual, but was more interested in the darling baby making eyes at me while I clung to the overhead railing. The bus paused, a guy squeezed past me and I headed back to take the now empty seat next to Ang. I caught her eye and recognized complete fear as she gasped, "My wallet!" Appropriate chaos ensued as I attempted to get the bus to stop immediately, further aware of how I had no idea where we actually were or where we had stopped to let the guy off, let alone what he looked like. I threw 50 shillings at the conductor and hopped off - followed by Ang and a concerned lady who exclaimed "I knew he was stealing!" Apparently she didn't want to risk being wrong and rudely accusing him.

Wonder of wonders we alighted across from the CID (Kenya pseudo-special police forces) office, and with our good samaritan Mary in tow, quickly gathered a crowd of plain clothes policemen around us. We found ourselves jumping into a taxi and wandering up the street in pursuit of the thief. The fact that I had not seen him, had only just figured out where we were and Ang was in total shock, did not help our meandering around in the hopes of seeing him. We returned to the station and it was recommended we go to the Kilimani police station to file a report. News to us as we thought we were at a police station. Further news to us when we discovered that the group around us was only half policemen, and the others bumming cigarettes from a distraught Angeline were just local business men (I imagine on official "business" meeeting the local police). After exchanging pleasantries and business cards (never a lack of opportunity for networking here) we were escorted by a recommended cab driver, Lanson, to the police station. Ang did her best to share the information of what was stolen, and filled out a police abstract (at a charge of 50 shillings - all sorts of requests were made that failed to reflect the loss of all funds and phone had she been alone) and then we headed off to track down the Irish Consulate and report her passport stolen.

I should note that immediately after the pick pocketing I sent a text to Ang's phone imploring the thief to return the documents - he could keep the money (about $100 U.S. she was carrying for books) and the phone - but could we get her passport and cards back? Well...upon arriving at the Police station I received a text asking me how well I knew town. I responded with some suggested locations, and indicated we could pick docs up anywhere at anytime.

Fastforward through close to an hour sitting in the blistering sun and traffic on Mombasa road (where for all extents and purposes it looks like people basically just wait there turn to run into each other - we passed three accidents at a snails pace) and the journey to the Irish Consulate. Apparently the Kenyan Embassy in Ireland has a prime piece of real estate - the Irish Consulate in Kenya is far flung from town and shares office space with a local tile company. It is also only open from 8:30 to 12:30, and we arrived at close to 3. After threatening to storm through the metal gate to attain her rights as an Irish citizen, the guard finally agreed to let us in (he'd previously suggested we call the staff sitting roughly 20 feet away inside. Again, Ang's cell phone and all resources having just been stolen seeming to escape the situation - and my credit was dwindling to nothing following frantic texts to Ireland to cancel cards).

We managed to meet with the local, non-Irish consulate staff, who was thoroughly unhelpful in her attempts to help Ang (we did learn a new passport would cost her close to a hundred euros), and then headed back home where we both passed out, entirely defeated by the day. I awoke about 30 minutes later to a text from the thief, indicating he would drop the documents in a waste bin at a cinema in town. I quickly called Lanson who'd indicated he'd be happy to help, and he headed to the cinema. The thief then began texting me the exact location of the docs, along with requests for a formal "thank you" over text for his returning of the documents. Over the next hour I text, talk and respond to the thief, and then put Lanson in touch with him when he finds the documents have been removed by someone who saw the thief drop them. It takes a 1000 shillings to get them back, and I am getting nararation from the thief, who is clearly watching, by text message the entire time.

Lanson comes to our house with the passport, credit cards and online banking info, and in the meantime the thief sends me a text asking if we need any important phone numbers from the phone. Seriously - this is full service robbery! Ang and I practically die laughing at the absurdity of it all, then send him some names and he sends the numbers back promptly. I then receive the following, "Ur taxi man is greedy. He didnt part with 1000 i was there but he didnt saw me he just took the doc. Otherwise we are not same its only that i got some feelin 4 u but i stole from u that mean i could not face you n say something good 2 u. Gudnite." (We decided to trust Lanson over the guy who pickpocketed Ang). I also received another request for a thank you text.

A few minutes later, I receive the following from him, "R u manchester united fan if u r ROY KEANE is our man."

Still later, "Is their any pickpockets at your country i can make alot of money i'm sure of that."

Then, "You want a black guy maybe we can have another obama."


Finally, "Do u take kenya beer kesho (tomorrow) I buy u one n if yes say where."

So there you have it, we managed to get Ang's documents returned, I befriended a thief and if I want I could have a date with him tonight. If we didn't stick out here so much I'd bring a policeman along with me, but I think I'll just leave the situation as it is - our luck at getting the docs back is fairly incredible and I just have to believe that the whole thing could only happen here.*

*FYI, I KID YOU NOT I just received the following text from him: "Hey baby gal i have missed u can we meet somewhere in town or what you say" He is also asking me what kind of jobs I came to create as I had sent a message yesterday (after he'd told us we should watch after our stuff better - imagine!) saying I was here to create jobs so people didn't have to steal to support themselves. Good grief.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Week in numbers and photo links :)

6: Mosquitos I counted INSIDE my mosquito net this morning
80: Gifts delivered to Red Rose elementary kids on Friday
1.23 million (ok I don't know but a lot): Bacteria residing in my stomach following traditional goat boil last Wednesday
3: Papers I need to finish by Friday in order to go camping in Naivasha this weekend!!! (following unproductive weekend due to above-mentioned bacterial condition...)

So ya, apparently two months is a pretty standard time in which some local bug gets you. My friend Sufia says she thinks it's the adrenaline you have when you first arrive that helps boost your immune system, because everyone she knows has succumbed to something or other right around the two month mark. My guardian angels intervened and let me get through the week (there were minor indicators starting Wednesday night) so I could attend a really neat meeting in Buru Buru with a local fair trade group who has registered on World of Good already (I presented the marketplace at a meeting about three weeks ago) and needed some guidance getting their inventory and shipping issues worked out. I also got to attend and play Santa Claus at the Red Rose Elementary Christmas party on Friday - which in true Red Rose fashion was a seriously wonderful and fun experience. I was joined by one of the few international students I've met at U of Nairobi, Lars (he's an undergrad taking six courses of some sort from Germany) and some Kenyan Rotoract friends Rosemary and Evans, who also helped me wrap the goodie bags we brought for the kids. I still haven't sorted out internet so I'll direct you to the Red Rose site to see the albums and I'm sure many unflattering pictures - but hopefully you can tell what a treat it was that my food poisoning held off until approximately two hours after the party concluded. See the blog post and links to the photo albums here. Talk about the Christmas spirit - these kids just might carry me through my first Christmas away from home.

After the party I came and laid down for a nap, thinking four hours of dancing with 3-9 year olds had taken its toll. I woke up achey from head to toe, and with a fever that would grow through the night. The stomach problems didn't really start until the next day, but suffice it to say I didn't really leave my bed (let alone the house) until this morning when I went to the doctor for a rehydrating IV drip. Wow - talk about feeling better - I wish I could keep one of those in my closet! So I've survived my first Kenyan food poisoning and while the heat in this cyber cafe is threatening to undo all the good of this morning's drip I should be back in class tomorrow or Wednesday. The truly tragic thing about this all is that I appear to have lost any desire for goat meat, which I really, really liked.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Contact Details

So I can't figure out how to post this permanently on my blog - but for those who have asked and lovingly suggested they will send letters/small packages upon receipt of this information, here's my PO Box:

Megan MacDonald c/o Margaret White
PO Box 73405-00200
Nairobi, Kenya

My phone number is: +254(0)734 715 780 - if you're in Nairobi start with the zero, if you're in the states, leave the zero out.

Unfortunately, nothing of "value" should be sent by mail as it can be assessed a random tax amount based on the perceived value according to the customs agent that opens it (ya, it gets opened). My roommate once had to pay tax on a bar of soap. But a friend who studied here last year said small packages (the size of a VHS or smaller) don't tend to cause much upset - and things like burned CDs/DVDs, small food stuff/goodies etc. shouldn't be a problem. Or, anything that looks previously owned/used tends to get by. Fortunately for me - there's nothing more valuable than a hand-written note from home!

I'll post this on the blog permanently when I figure out how - but in the meantime, there ya go!

Also - since this post is in response to the general awesomeness of friends and family requesting it, I need to acknowledge how wonderful my friends have been in supporting my mom post-surgery since I can't be there. From sending cards and emails to visiting in person - it means the world to me and I am SO lucky to have you guys.