Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Back in the OC

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to present my "final" presentation to the Rotary Club who made this past year possible for me. I am so thankful for this club - for the encouragement they provide, the amazing energy the members have, the various projects they are doing on their own throughout our local community and Africa as a whole, and the support they have given me and are likely to continue for my own work. Here are the comments I offered this club - along with my profound thanks for fulfilling last year's Rotary of "Making Dreams Real" - the sure made mine! I'll post more pics when I get them - the pic above is with club member Ron Lacey who along with a handful of other Rotarians made my scholarship year that much more personal.

August 27, 2009 Rotary Presentation

Somewhere around a year ago I had the opportunity to visit you all and share my history and my hopes for my scholarship year. I shared the recent process I’d gone through to reorient my path and pursue work in the international arena, and how for me this translates to the collecting of stories and experiences that must be shared in pursuit of the goal that this scholarship embodies – to foster a global community and enhance international understanding.

Your club has played a paramount role in allowing me to take that many more steps along this path, and for that I must first offer my profound and deepest thanks. Your support, example and enthusiasm for the goodwill of Rotary and the opportunities it has extended to us all has been an inspiration and encouragement to me throughout. I have especially appreciated the opportunity to get to know a few individual Rotarians (some of whom I did not meet in person until today!) including Bob McCauley, Char Martin, Ron Lacey, Dr. Stephenson, Bill Courdes and of course Mike and Jean Abdalla who all provided special support throughout the year.

So let me tell you about it!

I know a number of people in this room have been to Africa – has anyone been to Kenya? It’s a fascinating place, one in which you are likely to have had some very different experiences depending on the point in history in which you were there. I recently met a gentleman who visited in the 70’s, who talked about how impressive the country was – so modern, so on the up and up. As I learned and lived as a student of development studies, sadly, the 80’s painted a very different story for Kenya – in part due to the international oil crisis of the 70’s, in part due to the expansion of international trade and lop-sided trade statutes, and perhaps most significantly due to the massive loans our country led the way in offering – loans that came with conditions that effectively halted the social progress Kenya had been making to that point. It has been humbling to learn the specifics of the role my country has played in suppressing the development of another (and this, by no means, is the sole reason for which Kenya continues to struggle, but it is a prominent one), and it made it that much more significant to be serving as a Rotary scholar – as an ambassador for the U.S. to share my joint hopes and dreams for the country to get itself back on track.

Let me first say that because I hoped to be in the country for two years, I tried to spend the year simply observing and taking it in – not passing judgment or trying to fix things per se. I can say, that after doing just that this year, the country has a long way to go. Kenya was recently ranked the most corrupt nation in all of East Africa – and corruption permeates the day to day operations of the country – both on a local and national level. But when I would confront these things, or when my studies would focus for too long on the challenges – I would look to my classmates for inspiration and the courage to believe that someday the country will once again chart its course for the good of all Kenyans.

So let me tell you a bit about my classmates! There are nine of us in the 2010 IDS M.A. program. We meet on the 5th floor of the Mahatma Ghandi building on the main campus of University of Nairobi. I should mention that I’ve taken a fairly untraditional route – of the 40,000 or so Nairobi students spread amongst roughly 5 campuses, I believe I am one of about 5 non-African international students (I’ve only met three others). I am affirmatively in the minority and stand out like I’ve never quite experienced before! It’s been a unique experience – something I think very few of my peers or many in my community will ever truly experience – being an “other” on such a scale, and in such an obvious way.

Back to my classmates – in the group of nine there are five women and four men ranging in ages from around 24 to roughly 36. Of Kenya’s forty or so indigenous ethnic groups, there are at least 7 present – from Luya and Meru to kamba and the biggest group in Kenya which is Kikuyu. A few recently finished their B.A.s and started their M.A. straight away (I should mention that education is of paramount value in Kenya with an extremely high percentage of the population getting Masters degrees – many of whom do so abroad and have shown in studies to outperform all other ethnic groups in the U.S.), while others have worked in the fields of politics, economics, healthcare and youth services. They are an inspiring bunch – some clearly in school simply for the job opportunities the degree will present, others with hopes of once and for all changing the trajectory of the country and promoting a more equitable and socially just land.

As I mentioned before, one’s impression of

Kenya might be very different depending on the time in which you visited it – but one thing that won’t change is the people – the threads of a Kenyan culture that transcend the tribalism that continues to rear its ugly head in the promotion of differences. Tribalism allows politicians to manipulate the masses into thinking that it’s impossible for all Kenyans to be afforded the same opportunities – thus they are willing to fight for the sake of protecting their own – at the worst times (as in late 2007), to the death. But on a day to day level to be Kenyan means to warmly welcome any outsider, to be fascinated with the goings on of the world and one’s country – I was so inspired by the young people (and everyone else for that matter!) who read the paper thoroughly each day, who often knew more about what was going on in the U.S. than I did as I struggled to adjust to life away from the news headlines I’m used to reading throughout the day online at work.

We need more of this – more focus on what it means to be Kenyan. And this is where I find one of the most valuable lessons of my year as an ambassadorial scholar and the opportunity to take what I learned and bring it back with me to my own country. I have found that I never understand more profoundly how deeply blessed I am to have been born in this country and afforded the opportunities it presents than when I am abroad. This is not because being abroad I see countries whose problems are so much worse than our own – but rather I see problems that simply reflect the very human struggles we all share to live side by side, manage collective resources and empower all to live life to the fullest. While there are many things I found myself thankful for during the year as an American, I also saw that each issue I confronted in the Kenyan economy, government and society I could find in some form in my own country. Perhaps most importantly – the failure on all our parts to recognize our collective similarities, before we break each other down with our differences and opinions. In Kenya, a place now dear to my heart, such divisions resulted in over a thousand lost lives at the beginning of last year, and many people believe that the election of 2012 could be worse. One bright spot in the midst of the country’s recovery following their own elections that must be mentioned, regardless of the political demographics in this room, is the absolute joy and pride that all Kenyans experienced upon the election of Barack Obama. Seeing people of different political opinions, ethnic groups and backgrounds all rejoice in our country’s decision gave me hope that someday they will collectively identify a leader of their own who will once and for all end the corruption and grow the country so that all people can benefit from a vibrant economy and the opportunities it presents.

I’d like to share some specific experiences by way of my slideshow now, and I encourage you all if you have a moment to check out my final report (well, a version of it – I failed to save the final version I submitted via fax!) to learn more about some of the specific experiences I had and how I did my best to mobilize the support you provided for the sake of those around me. I want to especially thank you for the donations you raised that allowed me to cover the hospital costs of my night guard’s child – I wish I could convey the joy, relief and excitement I felt when I received emails from Char, Bob and I believe Ron telling me about your outpouring. I would also like to report that the additional funds you raised have been distributed - $50 to Kibera Girl’s soccer academy that works with at-risk girls in Africa’s biggest slum (about 15 minutes from my house) to get the education they so desperately desire, $25 to a dear friend whose story I hope to share with you if time permits to re-enroll her young nephew in school after his parents were unable to pay school fees and around $125 which was given as a loan to a struggling youth project that creates beaded bracelets with logos and slogans (great to keep in mind for any of your fundraisers, businesses or school!) and needed to get a website running to keep afloat. That money will be reinvested in similar projects so you can be confident that though my year as a scholar has come to a close, I will continue to spread the generosity you have extended to me and through me as I return. And of course, my involvement with Rotary does not end here!