Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Helping the World? Or Imperialism?

I get very uncomfortable when people tell me I’m going to “help the world” or how great of a person I am for daring to go to Africa. To me, that amounts to telling me that I’m going to “save the pagan babies” or that I, as an inexperienced twenty-one year old, have so much to teach Kenyans who are old enough to be my parents. Honestly, I find that arrogant. I do not think it does any good to come to any developing nation with that attitude. I think we all need to improve our communities and learn from each other. I think we all need to be good to each other. At the same time, we have no business putting ourselves into the role of Messiah.

I find that these sentiments come with the assumption that all Africans, all non-Western people, and all who live in poverty are children that need to depend on our enlightened ways to save them. I find that they neglect the positive changes coming to places like Kibera (Nairobi’s largest informal settlement), the people’s innovation and work to improve their communities (for example, the creation of eco-toilets to solve problems of sanitation, waste disposal, and pollution), their own intelligence and drive to change the issues in their country. These sentiments neglect the presence of Kenyan intellectuals, activists, community leaders, and professionals. They also neglect the hearts of the people, who simply want to be treated with dignity.

Yes, Kenya has issues. Corruption is rampant, Nairobi’s pollution is more of a threat to the lungs than cigarette smoke, and over two thirds of the city alone lives in poverty worse than I’ve seen in the States. However, to act like the Western kids need to save the Kenyans is to make the Kenyans dependent on us. These problems will never be solved until the Kenyans themselves rise up to demand change. Some of that is already happening. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

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