Sunday, November 28, 2010

African Babies: How the West Objectifies Children in a Quest to Do Good

We all have seen pictures of starving children in Ethiopia, children in refugee camps in Darfur, AIDS orphans and other pitiful looking African children in the news. We also have heard tales of Angie's and Madonna's adoptions of African babies. Many Christian missionary groups will take opportunities to work at orphanages in Africa. Let's face it, African babies are trendy. Who can resist those chubby little babies with smooth brown skin and big eyes framed with long, thick lashes? Who can resist when a parent hands you a baby, asking you to please take that baby to America and give it a better life? Here's the problem. In our quest to save the world, we tend to objectify these little ones, treating them as nothing more than trendy accessories. What it has left is a wake of harm.

Now, I'm not against helping the children and I don't doubt that many Westerners come with the aim of objectifying them. However, there are many issues that arise. For example, let me point out the aforementioned adoptions. Madonna adopted a little boy from Malawi a few years ago. This was not a boy without parents, in fact, he had a father. His father was actually reluctant to put him up for adoption and Madonna practically begged to take him, saying that she could save his life. I don't doubt this is true, at the same time, I have a problem with this. Madonna basically said that, white Westerner that she is, she has more of a right to parent this child than the child's own father, simply because she's rich. Of course, a white woman with a cute African baby looks like she's the Holy Mother (gotta live up to the namesake, right?). Not that I think foreign adoption is bad, I have two cousins adopted from Russia and China (who truly didn't have parents/futures there) and I think my relatives did good things. However, taking a child who already has parents? Maybe some families struggle on $1 per day but it doesn't make them horrible parents. Also, no one ever remembers the African American children we have in our country, those who live out their lives in foster care and never know what unconditional love looks like (guess they're not as lovable as an "exotic" "tragic" African baby).

Next, the orphanages. I won't deny that there are those who do wonderful things. Some are genuine and provide a loving haven for children with truly no place to go. At the same time, an article from The Guardian (found here) shows how many of these orphanages prey on these missionaries by deliberately exploiting the children. Often times, they'll take children away from families and trick them with the promise of better lives for the children. Then, they'll keep them in deliberately squalid conditions so that Westerners, wracked with guilt, will donate lots of money as they pity these children. So, the staff makes bank and these children languish. What a nice, loving, Christian concept. Not to mention that strangers end up with complete access to them. Would you want someone having access to and touching YOUR child without your permission/consent?

This brings me to other points of exploitation. Street children will come up to a white person and ask for money. Usually, theses children are exploited by adults who, again, want to make bank off the Westerners' emotions. Many times, these children are told that the white man or woman is a generous person. Of course, this leaves them vulnerable to another cruel form of exploitation: human trafficking. People will traffic children from all over the world for sex or forced labor. So, by giving them money or tricking parents to give you their child, you may be either perpetuating a bad situation or leave other children vulnerable to a worse one.

If you really want to help the children, here are my suggestions. Donate to a local organization (after researching the hell out of it and making sure it's legit) that provides for the education of children, economic empowerment of women (usually, a child is not far from their mother), employment development for teens and increased legal protection for street children/survivors of trafficking (a great international organization for that is IJM). Help children in a sustainable way, providing them with the tools to build their own lives as they grow up. Learn about and advocate for the rights of children (check out the Convention for the Rights of the Child while you're at it). Finally, appreciate the rights of all children, not just the ones who are cute, exotic, and "tragic". Children everywhere need help. They don't need to be accessories to the Westerners' needs to feel like heroes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Money is SO Complicated..........

Every day, it feels like, I will have someone ask me for money. Children on the streets try and ask (but we avoid them since giving them money can actually be child exploitation-they're often used to beg). Families will ask for sponsorship or for a school uniform for one of their kids (even though public primary education is free, it's up to the family to provide the uniform). Others will ask for tuition, visas, and other things. Because I'm white and foreign, it's assumed I have millions of Kenyan shillings waiting to be spent. It's difficult, because most people are not malicious. Many of them are merely desperate, trying to provide for families on less than a dollar a day. They know Americans and Europeans make more money, so why shouldn't they try when they have the chance?

The thing is, it really is complicated because I know that giving someone money won't solve anything. First, it's not sustainable, the money will be gone and I don't believe people should depend on handouts from me to survive. Second, if I give money to one person, everyone will hear about it and try and get some. If you don't give an equal amount to everyone, a fight could start (for real, there was an issue with stipends at work the past two days). Third, if I give all my money away, I am of no use to anyone. Fourth, I'd be fostering the ideal of "The White Man's Burden", of proving that it's our duty to save people. No, people need to be taught to save themselves, though they may need access to resources in order to do that.

Another reason why it's so complicated is because people here have no comprehension of what life is like in the U.S. How could they? All they see are the magazines and movies that show fabulous white people wearing designer clothes, drinking champagne, and hanging out with beautiful people. They see Barack Obama, a man they consider their own, become President simply because he had the good fortune of being born in America. They hear that Americans make tons of money, much more than they'll ever see. Naturally, when they see an mzungu, they think, "Oh, she's loaded! Maybe she can help me!"

As a result, I've ended up in so many conversations about how, actually, I am a student and only have enough money this semester to eat and do some things I may want to do (travel, bring things back for family, all of which they encourage me to do). They become very shocked to hear how much things in the U.S. actually cost, how a teacher's salary in Kenya is my rent for a month. Or how, due to the economic crisis, it's now difficult to get jobs and there are those in the U.S. who live in poverty. How university education is now so expensive, families go in debt to put a child through and students themselves spend years paying it off. How I myself have to work as a waitress during the academic year to pay for things like my rent and my groceries. They don't believe it because they've never experienced.

Americans can't really comprehend the level of poverty here until they see it. One dollar a day is just words on a paper until you see people living in their own filth. Likewise, when faced with so much poverty and knowing that Americans will make more money (in numbers), it's hard for quite a few Kenyans I've met to understand the situations Americans face. The problem is, it's difficult to fix economic disparities simply because we have these misunderstandings.

Why money is complicated........

American Prejudice

While commuting to work this morning, I listened to the news on the radio. Apparently, a British couple was released from Somali pirates after a long period of captivity. Over the summer, when it came to Somalia, we all heard about how warlords threatened harsh punishments for all who watched the World Cup. In addition, everything we hear about Islam, the religion of the majority of Somalis, is about terrorism. There was even question about whether President Obama, thought to be a Muslim, would make a good President. What does this have to do with my work? Everything. Why? Most of my colleagues are Muslim and my supervisor is a Kenyan Somali, as are many members of the community I have come to love.

I'm writing this because I want to make one thing clear. These Muslim Somalis I know are not the "fanatics" you see on the news. They are not committing acts of terrorism and many find it abhorrent to support it. In fact, the people at my organization worked on peace building efforts in the wake of post-election violence. What are they doing instead? They are dedicated teachers, working to educate the children of the community (some of whom are orphans). They are administrators, overseeing the work of the organization and allowing it to run smoothly. They are youth mobilizers, recruiting young people to take action in positive ways, such as learning entrepreneurship skills, speaking out on HIV testing and prevention, working for female equality in terms of reproductive health and good governance, continuing education. They are good parents, working to instill values of hard work and education in their children.

In addition, while Alta'awon is Muslim in origin, our staff is diverse. I am a Catholic, as is one of my colleagues. Another is Baptist. Many are Muslim, but some of the teachers are Christian. Some of the students at the primary school are Christian and many community members who take part in Alta'awon's services are of differing religious and ethnic backgrounds. Alta'awon does not seek to proselytize ANYONE. Rather, they would like to translate their faith's principles of charity into action, to create change and empowerment for the community.

Sadly, I often hear so much anti-Muslim sentiment back home. I hope Americans realize that the majority of Muslims are like any other person, of faith and of no faith. They simply want to live their lives, pray as they wish, raise their families, aspire for better, celebrate their holidays, and, for those strong ones, enact change throughout their communities. Many DO speak out against terrorism occurring in various parts of the world and proclaim shame at sharing faith or ancestry with them.

Let's not give ammo to those who wish to destroy us. Let's not allow them to divide and conquer. Instead, let us embrace each other as brothers and work to bring justice on this earth.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Word of Advice

If you go to an equatorial country (unless you're in the mountains), you may have the impression that it's always hot.

Not always. First, at least in my experience, our short rainy season means it can be quite chilly. Second, nights are cold, especially because there's no heater. Third, it may be hot during the day, but cold during the early morning, when you're leaving.

Advice? Bring a sweatshirt for nights, when you're in the house. Buy some cute shawls for during the day. That way, you can wear shorter sleeves but still keep yourself warm in the morning. This also works for modesty, as it is unacceptable to show your knees and shoulders most places (even in places where it may be acceptable, you may attract double attention if you're white). Also, you'll have something cute from Kenya.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart

Of course I'm referencing Bruce, when do I not? Though U2 is my favorite, I grew up with Bruce. He was my first inspiration and I find myself playing with his style in terms of music (started by inverting the rhythm and chords of "Atlantic City"). He's what I revert to when I need to feel adventurous, like I did riding in my dad's car at seven years old, going fast, listening to "Thunder Road." I also relate to him quite a bit, particularly with this particular line, "Everybody's got a hungry heart." Because you know something? I have one. Like my stomach, my heart likes being full. The problem? Mine feels like it's never full enough.

I never am satisfied. Not with easy answers, not with a stable, comfortable, never-changing life, not with papal documents, and not with myself. I always feel I'm pursuing something. I just can't put my finger on what it is. Once I go after one adventure, I'm already after another one. You tell me to run a mile, I'll run ten. "You give it all and I want more."

Kenya is making me realize this in some big ways. I am busy during the week. Busy as in, a four hour commute each day (two each way) to either USIU on Thika Road or to Alta'awon in Korogocho). Most of my week is tied up with commuting, class, homework, internship work (which is fun, but I can't be as involved as I want to be) and then the weekends, I've been trying to go out and do things, then catch up on sleep and school work. Right now, I have a grant proposal draft due Wednesday, a project due in less than a month, a short paper and a quiz coming up, two term papers, the final grant proposal, then all of my finals. And then, I'm trying to plan some final trips (like one more to the Maasai Mara, since a friend of mine hasn't been yet and also to see some friends I made while up there). Then, we have a final trip to Mombasa and we're gone!!!

I feel like my time in Kenya is too brief and I've rarely had a break to consider what all of it means. Working with the kids and youth of Korogocho is rewarding but, at the same time, I'm sad that I can't get to know them better or get more involved with the really cool youth groups in the area (by the way, check out Blue Cross and Miss Koch on Facebook). I wish I could consider going to Uganda, like a bunch of my classmates did this weekend. I wish I could hang out with my Kenyan friends more but we're all so busy. I wish I wasn't limited by time.

I need to remember that I have had some truly amazing experiences. I've done things I didn't expect to do before 30, much less before graduating from college. I've hung out at the UN complex, smoking a cigarette with a dear friend of mine. I've spoken with UN evaluators on various projects. I visited a school run by a Maasai Catholic priest for nomadic children and learned a bit about the Maasai culture. I went to a Hindu celebration. I lived in rural Kenya for a week, met a Gospel singer who lives in Nairobi, talked with an American missionary, and peed in the bushes. I spent the night in Huruma, another slum, with a friend and her family. I went to a site where the most ancient human fossils were found. I went to a music lounge to celebrate Heroes' Day and learned to dance like a Kenyan (albeit, I still can't). I met people from the German Foundation for World Population. I rode motorcycles to school, got hit by moving vehicles, met religious leaders, learned about Kenyan primary education, and played my guitar in random events. I questioned my faith and politics more than I thought I would and I made amazing friends.

Still, I want to do more, see more, and act more. I want to come back. I want to do more work with children and youth. I want to do more with music, not only as a musician but as someone fascinated from a cultural, economic, and social perspective. I want to do more with Africa, to learn more about the history and diverse cultures and nations that reside on this continent. I want to do more with economics and business, to figure out how to work with the market forces and give people access, so that they can improve their livelihoods. I want to learn how I can contribute to the world.

Kenya didn't quench my thirst. It put salt on my lips. I want more.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I know they need jobs, but........

I don't like having a housekeeper. Cleaning gives me a measure of sanity (something about cleaning kitchens is calming). Also, it's really awkward to be sitting in your PJ's at the computer when someone just comes in and starts cleaning.............Like what's going on right now.

I know these women need jobs. I know that unemployment is high in Kenya. I know some of them have been through horrible things and need a respectable way to earn a livelihood. Or they have babies to feed. At the same time, I don't know about giving someone that access to my life.

It could also be that the culture's different. Even though people have maids in America, it's usually for the very rich. While I am considered one of the "very rich" here, I'm certainly not in the U.S., so that's an aspect that takes getting used to. In America, we tend to grow up with our mothers telling us, "This isn't a restaurant," or, "I'm not the maid," to encourage us to be responsible for our messes. In addition, I tend to be EXTREMELY independent, so I take pride in cleaning my own house, taking care of myself, getting myself to where I need to be (which is why I find it a huge turnoff when a guy calls me Cinderella and tries to romance me by playing a hero. Dude, I'm my own hero. Shut up). I guess the housekeeper thing is another aspect of my own personality. To me, having a maid makes me feel spoiled in a bad way. Like, I need to be coddled with kids' gloves. As a white person, as a female, people always treat me like that and it's one aspect that I will never really like.

I like that people are willing to watch out for you. I just hate being babied. To me, it feels like people think I don't work, that I'm not strong, etc. It just makes me feel very impotent. Maybe it's selfish. But I think that's why I'm so adverse to having a housekeeper. I know they need it. I know all of what I've written probably has nothing to do with my initial statement. It's just what I feel and how I feel.

It's. A. Slum.

I love academia. At the same time, academics fight over useless shit. We can't say, "Third World" anymore, let's say "developing world" (though, in my opinion, the West is still "developing." We certainly don't have all the answers). We can't say "tribe", it's "ethnic group" (though I notice the people who want to ban the word most are rich white people?). Now, it's not a "slum", it's an "informal settlement" (bullshit, even the UN calls it a slum. I mean, c'mon!).

OK, guys. Can we get real? I'm all for not sounded racist or condescending but is fighting over a word going to save people? Is calling it an informal settlement going to erase the fact that there's shit everywhere you put your foot down? Or the fact that you can have eight people in one house with two rooms and typhoid-water, if there's water at all? Or the fact that they're at risk for cholera and they very likely will mourn the death of at least one child? Or the fact that people have no claim to their land and that their government does not give a rat's ass about securing their rights? Or that women will find themselves pregnant and desperate enough to OD on toxic chemicals or perforate their cervices because they have no way to feed themselves, let alone a baby? Or that, even for those fortunate enough to earn a university degree, their future may still lie in selling fruit on the road side because they lack political connections to get a good job? Or that, if something bad happens, you have no recourse to go to the police because you're pretty much an illegal resident? Or that corruption hurts them the most?

Why are we worried about how nice or PC the word sounds? Shouldn't we be more worried that people have to live in their own excrement and that their government treats them like the refuse that fills their neighborhoods?

I mean, get real.


In Kenya, we see intense poverty that just does not compare to the U.S. The government provides very little in terms of public services (lack of good roads, access to secondary education, sanitation, a justice system that's actually functional and ethical, I could go on). Moreover, due to corruption (a level that would make the Mafia blush), most private companies do not want to risk investing in Kenya. As a result, 66% of Nairobians live in slums and a good portion make less than a dollar a day. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. Guess what? Young people make up 70% of Kenya's population. In addition, the government uses ethnic tension to its advantage and even sponsors massacres on various populations. Yes, you guessed it. Kenya is actually pretty violent.

Before you worry about my safety, remember a few things. First, I am a mzungu, a white person, so people leave me out of various ethnic difficulties. Second, I live in Westlands, a wealthy and high security neighborhood in Nairobi, where all the diplomats, business people, and other expats live, so they have every reason to keep violence away from us. Third, my program has strict rules about us traveling at night and, if we want to leave the city or spend the night away from our apartment, we have to text our country director. Fourth, even though we work in slums, our program monitors the areas we're in. They'd never put us in Dandora, for example (Dandora being the most violent of the slums, with high rates of Mungiki activity, Mungiki being a local terrorist group). In addition, I live in a high crime city in the U.S. and have managed to stay away from most of it. So, I'm OK.

At the same time, Kenya has rates of violence that are extremely disturbing. Those who speak out on corruption or for the rights of the people have a rate of "disappearing", of being found dead in mysterious, yet brutal circumstances. In addition, the government will play a role in covering up the crime, in hosting investigations that are slow moving if at all, in inciting violence across ethnic lines, and in ensuring that memories are silenced from the national consciousness. Many acts of violence, such as ethnic massacres (due to protests over land rights, for example), usually take place upcountry, away from the city so that they can go virtually unnoticed. The corruption I mentioned earlier aids in the silence, as Kenyans know that the police are not to be trusted. Because of this, Kenyans will also deal with crime via mob justice. For example, if someone is caught stealing a cell phone, a mob will go after that person and beat him to death. Violence permeates much of the society.

It seems almost contradictory. Losing your temper in public is much more taboo than in the U.S. and Kenyans place a high value on greeting people, smiling, and showing politeness. Their ties to their families are strong and, if they love you, they give you everything-literally, everything-to convey this. Religious faith is perceived as strong and even students in public schools receive not only religious education but pastoral instruction (depending on which clergy they need) on how to be a moral and upright person. At the same time, there is intense competition for power, for money, for survival and, in some cases, life actually is not valued as much. Friends one week can instantly turn into foes, should something happen. Rather than secure the rights of the people, the government violates them, divides them, and uses their corpses as pawns for political gain. It's disgusting.

Now, we have a population of youth who are idle, unemployed, and have a government that completely screws them over and runs on ruthless ambition. Many are educated and have the potential to turn the tide. However, if things continue as they are, I fear that one strike of a match could send this country up in flames.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"No, Really! I'm OK" and Other Cultural Misunderstandings

I mentioned earlier that most Kenyans I know are extremely generous people. Due to the issues they face, both agricultural, urban, and ethnic, they tend to be more community minded. In fact, the motto of Kenya is Harambee or "Let's pull together" and this became the rallying cry for the start of self-help groups and business cooperatives that formed post-independence under Kenyatta's regime. I find it wonderful. However, at times, it takes getting used to.

Like food. When I stayed in rural Kenya, I got fed a LOT. Of course, I could never finish my plate, which would provoke concern about my "fear of eating" (of course, any American who knows me knows that this is patently untrue). Or statements about how skinny I am, which, due to some body image hangups from my childhood, I find more than a little bit annoying (at least they're not like some Americans who told me my body would break if I attempted to have children. Don't worry, Dante and I had a talk. They're going to the twelfth circle). It's really sweet but sometimes, it feels a little forceful. "No, really! Eat more! Can I add you? Why not?" I swear, they give the Italians a run for their money (and I thought we were food pushers). Or when people offer to buy you a soda or milk. When you refuse, they always tell you it's no issue and that Africans are big on generosity. It doesn't occur to them that you really don't want either and are cool with your water. You still are made to feel bad if you say no thank you. Or you have to go into an explanation about how your doctors told you NOT to drink soda or whole milk and, even if it's true, you still feel like it's just an excuse.

Or compliments. In America, you tell someone you like their shoes and it's just a compliment, a way of saying, "You look nice today." In Kenya, you tell someone you like their shoes and they take them off and give them to you. Or they buy you a pair. It's awkward because you weren't asking for the shoes, you just wanted to be nice. And, if you wanted them, it wouldn't have been an issue to just buy them yourself. At the same time, it's rude to refuse, like you're rejecting their generosity. I've had to learn to not say, "I want xyz" or "wow, that's a really nice xyz" just so I wouldn't be put in that position.

Or needing to pamper the mzungu, especially if she's a woman. "Wow, are you sure you're OK with walking this far?" as we walk the five blocks from one matatu stage to another. "Dude, I walk much further in the U.S.!" Or worrying about me because my pants got stained in muck. "Look, it's a STAIN! I'll be FINE!" Or the need to escort me all the way to my hotel room (which feels even more awkward because, to me, it looks very improper if I'm not "with you" with you). I'll admit, this one isn't just awkward or a little strange, it's frustrating. I have always prided myself on my independence, on my ability to carry heavy things, take care of myself, bring myself home, walk long distances (by the way, I'm in VERY good shape, if I do say so myself) and never wanted to be treated differently because I have boobs. I do appreciate concern if I seriously need it. But worrying about me because I get a little dirty or have to walk from a sidewalk to a door ten feet away? After paying my own rent, doing 30 hours of manual labor a week while going to school full time (and still making awesome grades), not to mention flying here by myself, I think I'll be OK with a little shit on my shoe (yes, it's actual shit, not making that one up).

Really, I do like the generosity and I find a lot of kindness in my friends here, a willingness to share that puts me to shame. At the same time, I'm really not used to it. I've been such an independent individualist all of my life that I'm just not used to being helped with the tiniest things. And, in America, if someone offers you something, you're supposed to say no out of courtesy. So I'm not used to people insisting so much on treating you to things. It's just not what I'm used to. And yes, some of it does annoy me, simply because I don't like being babied and I never have.

Nevertheless, everyone can use some cultural awkwardness. It's good for the soul. It means you've learned something about someone and about yourself. So, even though it does frustrate me at times, I'm glad because it means I'm learning.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ideology Questions-Obituaries of Young Girls

Many who know me may recall some strict pro-life convictions on my part. For the most part, I still believe human life begins at conception. I believe that pregnancy is not a measure of character and that motherhood should not determine a woman's employment or reputation. I believe that all should be done to allow babies and mothers to thrive and I never really liked the idea of abortion. At the same time, a few troubling questions have come up, especially since my stay here.

Abortion is actually legal in Kenya under the old Constitution. However, it's legal under strict circumstances and guidelines. In addition, stigma is still attached to the procedure and it remains extremely inaccessible to most Kenyan women. Even though the new Constitution was merely clarifying, NOT adding new policy, the Catholic bishops of Kenya still felt the slightest mention an outrage and urged others to vote no, despite the multitude of other positive changes (that fall more in line with Catholic values than how the government is currently run) present. Basic health care still remains out of reach for many so, even if abortion was not so heavily stigmatized, it would still be inaccessible.

What does this have to do with my viewpoint? I started realizing the problems lack of access can cause. What really catalyzed this was the presence of obituaries in The Standard. Some of them were for young girls who passed away from illegal, back alley abortions. One in particular had procured one (by OD'ing on drugs) after becoming pregnant by her secondary school teacher. I never felt so angry.

Because of a man's abuse, a young girl is dead! By the way, so is her baby. Rather than save both lives, both were extinguished. Both extinguished before they ever really began.

I don't think abortion should be birth control. I think every effort should be made to reduce the need for one. This includes giving young women and men education and resources. This includes removing stigma of unwed pregnancy, of women in the work force, and of young motherhood. This includes providing opportunities for job training, connections with employers, and chances for education. This includes providing family friendly policies that allow women to earn a living while taking care of children. This includes making sure men and fathers are accountable and responsible for the children they beget and the women they are with. This includes making health care a priority. Finally, it includes making sure any abortion is done in a doctor's office, with qualified supervision and sanitation.

I don't like abortion. I'd like to see it rare. I'd like to see a need for it reduced. However, I must also value the mother's life. No teenage girl should have to die alone with her child due to some man's greed. No woman should have to leave little ones behind because she can't afford another one. No mother should feel she has nothing left to lose if a pregnancy puts her life in jeopardy and her child is unlikely to be viable.

Restricting abortion to this extent isn't saving anyone. Rather, two lives are lost at once. For what?

I wonder what those bishops would say if they had daughters.

A Week in Rural Kenya and Thoughts as a Youth

As part of our program, we took a week to go upcountry, specifically in Western/Nyanza provinces, to learn about rural issues. One of the major themes in our studies is the phenomena of urban migration. Nairobi is not only Kenya's capital city, it is the hub of Kenya and many people move to search for economic opportunities. As a result, due to issues of rent and other factors, slums pop up everywhere. Around two thirds of the city live in slums. You can imagine the resulting issues with this. This week, we were out to see the rural side. As part of our final projects, we were assigned to choose a topic relating to urban issues and, while in the rural areas, were supposed to ask questions.

I stayed in a small village near Kisumu. My host mother is a lovely woman who lives with her three youngest children (she has eight in total) and her grandson. The three boys were in school and her littlest one, an adorable two year old girl, stayed at home during the day. My mama's husband lives in Nairobi (in the slum of Kibera) and works for the Kenyan police, in order to support the family. Three of her eldest children work in Nairobi and two others live in neighboring villages. Unfortunately, one of her sons chose drugs and crime as his path. According to her, he's one of many idle young men in the village. Her estimate is that fifty percent of the young men are involved with serious crimes (including burglary and murder) due to idleness, lack of employment, weakness of local law enforcement, and easy access to opium. There is actually a registered gang in that area and my mama forbade me from going outside at night. Robbery is common and my mama's house was burned down last year. Due to security issues, if I needed the toilet at night, I had to use a bucket.

I was able to talk to many people during my week. In a twist of fate, I met an American missionary on one of my walks. Later, she and a Kenyan gospel singer found me playing guitar at my mama's house. They invited me to an event at the local primary school. I brought my guitar and ended up winging it. Later, I was able to talk to the singer, ask her questions about youth and music (my issue, as I know others partnered with an organization that helps youth turn music into a livelihood, so that they can improve their economic situation and stay away from temptations like drug abuse) and ultimately ended up with her contact information. My mother is right, I am Forrest Gump.

I also talked with students, a pastor, and my mama. Everyone mentioned the lack of youth opportunities. Think about this. About 70% of Kenya's population is under the age of 35. Unemployment is a serious problem. Many Kenyans may not have the choice to enter secondary school (due to cost) and those who may even make it to university find themselves without the necessary experience or connections to make it into a profession. They may not have access to credit. In addition, corruption is common and land/property rights are not always secure. So, you have these youth who have little opportunity and nothing to do. What results from this? Street gangs, like the ones in my mama's village. Terrorist organizations, like the Mungiki near the area I work in. Robbery. Drug addiction. Remember too, these young people have easy access to tools like machetes.

It really struck me because I learned about this through my interfaith work. Terrorist organizations like Al Quaeda work in the same way. Those parts of the world also have a booming youth population, as well as high rates of unemployment and poverty. How do you think those terrorists recruit? By promising glory, money, a living, meaning in their lives, attention. All the things young people need and crave! Yet, politicians and leaders are so quick to dismiss us, no matter what country we live in. It's easy to treat us at best as if we know nothing and at worst as if we're nothing but troublemakers, smartasses and criminals. It's easier for media to focus on issues such as teen pregnancy in the U.S. and young suicide bombers elsewhere, while they ignore the stories of young people who fight to the death for their rights and work to give something to their communities.

Young people are not always angels. They may still choose to forsake education, regardless of how accessible it is. They may choose to break the law, regardless of how good law enforcement is. At the same time, they need the opportunities to make a true choice about their lives and future. Should they choose to still follow a destructive path, every effort must be made to help them get back on track and prevent them from contributing negatively to society. I'm not saying that they should be coddled and that we should expect all to swim. At the same time, they need an equal chance to start life with.

The old adage "Children are the future" is no mere cliche. Youth will inherit their nations as they grow older. However, the choices they make and the opportunities they have while young are what determine the destiny of that nation. Would you like to see your nation bask in the sun's glory? Or would you rather it go up in flames? How a nation provides for its youth will determine the answer to that question. I hope Kenya chooses to shine.