Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Nairobi? Why not Paris or Rome?

I feel like people have asked me these questions quite a bit before I left. I told people I was studying in Nairobi for my semester abroad and they would ask, "Why? I get Europe, it's much more academic. What will you do in Africa?" Before pointing out that Africa is a vast and diverse continent (trust me, DRC is EXTREMELY different from Kenya, in terms of culture, former colonial powers, geography and national security), I would say that my reasons were unique to Kenya. I wanted what I could not find anywhere in Europe.

First, let's look at my passions. From my academics, resume, and conversations, poverty eradication comes up quite a bit. From a common sense perspective, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to study in Western Europe. Yes, the Western powers have their own issues (see it every day in DC), but you don't go to Europe to study poverty eradication. Nairobi, it's almost a business (sadly, there are several unscrupulous NGO's who make money off of Kenyans' misery and Westerners' checkbooks). Development comes after tourism. Whether people are employees or beneficiaries, everyone wants a piece of it. Quite simply, it makes much more sense to study these issues in a place where you face them head on, rather than study them in class at AU and go to Europe, where most of these are irrelevant (not bashing my friends who took the Europe/ID route in SIS, they have their own reasons. These are just my thoughts).

Second, after living here for nearly two months, I don't think I would have gotten as much out of Europe. Yes, European languages and cultures are different but not on the same drastic level. Americans still experience similarities. Kenyans not only have a completely different understanding of life and much different realities, it's a place where you have to prove yourself. I had to make my bones with Nairobi. If you remember posts from the beginning, I was very frustrated: at being ripped off, hit on, groped, begged for money, stared at, etc, just because I was white. I had to learn not to take it personally, but to learn from it. Since then, I've learned to put on a neutral face, made friends with Kenyans, learned more Kiswahili/Sheng/cultural idioms/Kenyan English, and developed more of a sense of humor. I don't seem as much like a clueless tourist who doesn't know what she's doing. Rather, I have more confidence in myself than I ever did in my entire life and I've started to see beauty in the culture and the people. I've also humbled quite a bit, realizing that I'm going to make mistakes, handle things wrongly, and accidentally offend people. It's up to me to learn from it, apologize when needed, laugh at myself, and move on.

Nairobi has a certain raw beauty to it. I liken it to Bruce's "Thunder Road," when he croons, "You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right!" No, his girl isn't the beauty you find in magazines or on billboards, just like Nairobi isn't Rome. At the same time, Bruce compares Mary to a vision as her dress sways. Likewise, Nairobi has a quality and charm to it you can't find in Europe. Whether it's the purple jacarandas and green palms alongside dirt roads and big buildings, people walking in their suits and high heels as matatu touts are screaming, "Mbao! Mbao! Mbao! Kariobangi!" (Mbao is Sheng for 20 shillings, comes from the British pound and Kariobangi is a slum in Nairobi, near where I work), the mix of Swahili, English and Sheng and the smell of smoke, samosas and sausages, it's got something. No, Kenya is not Italy. It's not France. I wouldn't want it to be. It's Kenya. It's different, it's beautiful, and it's special.

I hope poverty and politics improve here and that these determined people I know can find solutions to their situations. At the same time, there are some things I wouldn't have any other way. I feel like I've been through a lot. I wouldn't change a thing. People think I've gone to teach people. No. They've all taught me more than I could ever hope to learn in a lifetime. For this, I am filled with gratitude.

Asante sana, Kenya :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poverty Isn't Romantic

I don't understand how so many people in International Development (myself included for awhile) have come away with the idea that poverty is so romantic. Every discussion I heard was, "Well Americans (especially along either coast) have the money but these people (in developing countries) are so happy and value life so much more! Their lives are so uncomplicated!" Um, really?

First of all, most Kenyans I have spoken with lament that they have not the money to come to the U.S. I've spoken with teachers, secondary school students, leaders of youth groups, and others, many of whom are wonderful, joyous, lovely people. At the same time, they want the opportunities the U.S. has. From my conversations with coworkers at a restaurant back in the States, even a dishwasher making less than minimum wage can make more money in a day than they'll see in a month in their home countries. This is money they can send to families, save for a house (hey, the ones I know are extremely frugal and there are those who have done it, even on low wages), send for loved ones, etc. They can send their kids to school for free and not have to buy uniforms or books. They'll have more access to things such as running water, a functioning toilet, electricity, food. They know that Americans have a relatively stable political system. Yes, they want it too.

There's nothing romantic about extreme poverty. Nothing romantic about having your child die in your arms because you can't afford the hospital. There's nothing romantic about having your parents oust you and completion of your education denied to you because you found out you were pregnant at thirteen. There's nothing romantic about having to drop out of school because your family can no longer afford school fees. There's nothing romantic about living in your own muck because there's no sanitation. There's nothing romantic about having to live in illegal housing because you can't afford to live anywhere else. There's nothing romantic about having to take care of relatives with serious maladies because the water's dirty.

You know something? As lovely as many of the Kenyans I know are, their lives are not uncomplicated. "Value of life" is a relative term and I've seen fiercer levels of competition here than in the U.S. (considering that 66% of Nairobi lives on less than $1 a day, that's not highly inaccurate to believe). While we should not believe money is everything, it does help. It helps if you can gain steady employment to support yourself and your family. It helps if you can get sturdy housing with a functioning bathroom. It helps if you can afford nutritious food and feed your family. It helps if you can gain access to medical care and education. Having money, the basics, and some nice things does not make you a good or bad person. However, while man does not live on bread alone, man cannot live without bread. As much as these same people say they want to help, their attitudes about poverty give little incentive to end it.

I also wish to point out the hypocrisy of those who look down on "materialism." These same people are the ones who will gladly indulge on beautiful clothing and jewelry from Kenya, who love to have nice clothing back in the States, who would not care to live anywhere other than midtown Manhattan or near the Hill in Washington, who eat only at nice restaurants and look down on people who live in small towns and take their families to McDonald's. I'll admit, I do want to live in those places as well (though I'm content with living in the Bronx or in Northeast, if it was what I could afford)and I love me some good food and pretty clothes. But I'm a materialist and I can't pretend that I'm not. Yes, I want people in Kenya and in the U.S. to get jobs that enable them to support themselves and I believe their wage levels should be concurrent with their work. I want all children to be able to finish secondary school, without having to worry about school fees. I believe everyone should have access to health care and that insurance companies shouldn't act like oil companies. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with a little materialism. Not if it helps us improve our own lives and better the situation of others by providing them with employment and a market.

Ending poverty starts with the knowledge that poverty is not a good thing. If we keep acting like it is, many people will still experience social injustice every day. If we keep romanticizing the struggle, we will never help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and end it. By contributing to this attitude, we're denying people their dignity and their right to do everything to improve their situation. We rely on the hand out when we should be giving a hand up. People need not just money but a sustainable way of earning it. Yes, this involves competition and hard work. Who said they had to be intrinsic evils?

Piki-Pikis and an ounce of courage

I've spoken of matatus as a crazy Kenyan adventure. However, I don't think I've mentioned piki-pikis, also known as boda-bodas. Why? Because piki-piki is a Kiswahili word for motorcycle and I was afraid of never hearing the end of my riding on a motorcycle on unpredictable roads. As you can see, I've since gotten over my fear of chastisement because I am too much in love with the feeling of freedom.

Piki-pikis are often used to shuttle people from one place to another. I have taken them from the matatu stage (stop) on my way to USIU, not because I'm running late, but because they're fun. Same with my work at Alta'awon. Sometimes, I just want to ride to work. Each time, I feel a rush of adrenaline so exhilarating, I wonder why my body hasn't yet sprouted wings. In that moment, I am free.

Riding piki-pikis have taught me that, while I should use common sense, I cannot prevent life from happening. There are speed bumps, oncoming cars and pedestrians, rocks, dirt, and sometimes horrific accidents. At the same time, there is the feeling of the wind on your cheeks, the rush that comes with the speed of the wheels and the hum of the engine. There is that split second when everything stops and you're flying.

Embrace life. Don't live recklessly but live as if it's your only shot. Embrace the crazy opportunities that come, no matter how scary they sound. I'm not afraid of these guys on motorbikes. If anything, I'd rather die in a motorcycle crash while experiencing Kenya rather than live a long life only to find that I haven't gone anywhere or done anything. I don't look for death, mind you. I just don't let it stop me.

"My best friend gave me the best advice. He said today's a gift and not a given right." Funny, a friend has tried for years to impart this to me. My friend, with many others, should know that I'm finally taking it.

On another note, my extreme apologies for the lack of pictures. My Internet's been shady. I will put some up in good time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


I went to lunch at one of the teacher's houses today. She is a lovely woman and an amazing cook. She made pilau, a rice and meat delicacy that's become one of my favorites. Afterward, I went with a friend to a music event at a local Catholic church. The event was awesome, the music was great and I felt like I was really connecting with people. However, I realized something today. I am stingy.

A couple people kept asking to borrow my pen. I would lend it but always ask for it back........not so much because I thought people would steal but because I have a tendency to leave things behind (scatter-brained, absent minded person that I am) and I'm really paranoid about losing things. However, I realized the messages my reluctance conveyed: that I'm cheap, stingy, selfish and distrustful. In the end, I freely gave it, simply because I realized the mistake of my attitude.

It did make me think about something. Here in Kenya, yes, people do ask for money. Yes, we all have been ripped off at the market place. Yes, Nairobi has nicknames like Nairobbery. At the same time, that doesn't begin to convey the truth I have found here, in that most Kenyans I know are disarmingly generous. Children who had nothing and were trying to sell jewelry gave me one for free as a gift, without expecting me to purchase anything in return. A lady I work with cooked me the most delicious lunch and consistently shares everything she has with me. People here have given me time, food, gifts, and warm welcomes just for the fact that they are hospitable people. They trust me with everything, including their children (this one worries me a lot, actually. More later).

Who am I to hold back the smallest and most insignificant of my possessions?

I tend to keep up a wall when there's no reason for one. I hope this will always remind me that I don't need such heavy armor.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

So, what are you doing in Kenya?

Some of you may wonder exactly this. Here goes.

I take two classes through AU, at the office we have in my corner of Nairobi (Westlands). I take Elementary Kiswahili (also known as Swahili and the national language of Kenya. English is official) and Politics of Culture in Kenya. The former I've taken to pretty quickly, but I love languages (of course, this is the first non-Romance language I'm learning). The latter is intense and all encompassing. Politics of Culture in Kenya is meant for us to take a closer look at the issues of developmentItalic (as in, issues with informal settlements, past colonialism, government sector, interactions with people, and especially urban issues). At the same time, most of us have never been to Kenya before and our general knowledge is a bit lacking, so we're getting up to speed on Kenyan history and culture. This one is rigorous and I really enjoy it.

I also take classes at USIU. I take African Authors and Sustainable Resource Management. USIU is one of the best universities in Kenya (possibly East Africa but I'm rusty on that). The culture is very different here, as Kenyan education has a different set of standards. Our professors here are a bit taken aback by how much we question, though Kenyan students do too. However, Kenyan education tends to be more formal than American education and professors still wield the same authority that our high school teachers once did. I do love my African Authors class though. My professor is enjoyable and I really liked the book we're discussing this week (So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba, read it if you get the chance).

Finally, I am completing an externship. More than an internship (which implies you're simply working for the organization), an externship requires that you look at it from an external, scholarly position. As in, you're analyzing this organization as a development organization. What works? What doesn't? What needs are they addressing? How successful have they been? For mine, I'm working at Al-Taawon, a Muslim organization located in Korogocho, a slum in Nairobi. Al-Taawon focuses on youth issues and hosts a school, a cyber cafe, and a brand new medical clinic. I'm working on their computer programs (ICT: Information, Communication, and Technology). I also volunteer with the kids there. I've made friends with Class 3 and Class 4 :)

So, that's my academic and professional life. I like the perspectives I get from each. The last one I find is strongly influencing career choices. More on that later.

Apologies and some thoughts

I realize that my post on helping the world may come off as a bit condescending. For that, I apologize. I understand that what I'm doing may confuse people a bit. I also have a huge tendency to underestimate everything about the things I do. So, forgive me for coming off as insensitive. I also apologize for not updating regularly. Now that I finally have good Internet and a routine, I'll make more of a habit of doing so.

OK, life in Nairobi. Nairobi's crazy! People are everywhere, but not like NYC everywhere. They're literally all over the streets (zigzagging through speeding cars is somewhat of an art form here). They're not afraid to get up in your face to get you to alight a matatu (take a minibus-matatus are basically fifteen passenger vans that are really loud, cheap, prevalent, and crazy) or in a taxi or in one of their shops. If you've been here a month and have not been hit by anything, you must have been St. Francis of Assisi in a past life. I won't go into all that I've been through, so as to not dispense coronaries. At the same time, I love it. I'll admit, the matatus are my preferred form of transport (so long as the touts-that is, the conductors-don't hit on me or act like jerks). I love the loud music and the general atmosphere. I'll admit, American public transport will make me cry when I come home. Why does it have to be so boring?

One thing I'm not used to: getting hit on a LOT. I had heard rumors from friends that this happens to wazungu (that is, white) women. Men are extremely forward here, to the point where I've had to physically fight people off (don't worry, it's always in daylight, in a public space and I make enough of a scene so that they leave me alone). I don't want to give the impression that all Kenyan men are like this, because they're not. The ones I associate with are very respectful guys. However, whiteness is perceived to be a good thing the point where your money or (if you're a woman and I'm going to be blunt here) your body are coveted. I will say that I don't tolerate it. Not because I believe I'm making a stand for women, nor do I believe men are pigs. I just don't tolerate it. If you're going to approach me, do it respectfully. I don't care about your race or culture, that gives you no permission to be inappropriate. I believe men are humans, not animals. Thus, I expect them to act like it. And, if you're touching me in a way I deem is unacceptable, I'm going to backhand you. Don't like it? Don't touch me. Mom always told me to keep my hands to myself.

You do have to be a bit abrasive at times. If you're too nice, people do find a way to use it to their advantage. I do find that people respect you more if you're blunt and you stand up for yourself. I am glad for that because that has been a past weakness of mine. Of course, I've made mistakes in the other extreme and taken things too personally. I am working on that. I will find the balance. However, I like that I'm finally developing that strength. It's very liberating.

I do love Nairobi. It's raw and edgy but there is something that pulls you to it. The energy excites me and, despite from previously mentioned characters, I do like the people a lot. It's a unique city and for that, it will always hold my heart.