Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Let's talk about Kenya!"

Some days, I can't stop talking about Kenya and some days, I don't want to talk about Kenya. Some days, I can't say enough about the people I worked with and the things I saw and did. Other days, if I have to hear another, "How was Africa?" or, "Let's talk for five hours about Kenya," I may have my own version of a "youth uprising." It seems to be cyclical for me. I understand people are curious and want to hear, want to know. At the same time, there are more things to me than just Kenya. I may want to talk about my Youth and Conflict course, my rediscovery of my musical passions, or how I actually like my job this semester. Or my Peace Corps application. Or how I'm back at St. Thomas and I love it even more. Or, how I'm thinking of starting a band.

I'll admit, the "How was Africa?" has always been a pet peeve because I only went to one country. If I went to Europe, it would make more sense to ask, "How was Europe?" because I'll likely have gone to a bunch of different countries. Yet, maybe due to ignorance (because we only learn about other countries when it concerns bad things or beautiful celebrities), we have to assume Africa is a monolithic continent and all Africans are the same. So it does make me cringe a bit. Also, where do I start? I experienced A LOT in four months, I can't put it in one nice little sentence.

And then there are days where everything out of my mouth is, "Kenya, Kenya, KENYA!!!!!!" Like, I'll respond to statements in Swahili, talk non stop about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and go on and on about every tiny little thing I did. Those are the days where everything relates to Kenya somehow and I must talk at great length (surprise, surprise) about it. I can't stop those days and it takes a friend to tell me to breathe before I can shut up.

I wonder if this is how new mothers feel, sometimes? Some days, they want people to ask them about something other than the baby and other days, they can't stop talking about their baby. At any rate, this is how I feel about Kenya. Please bear with me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Feel Guilty......

One of my buddies told me reentry was going to suck. First, thanks buddy (remember, sarcasm means I care). Second, while it actually does not suck (I am happy to be back to my life in the District), I will admit to having a few difficulties adjusting to life back in the U.S. Kenya did change my mindset and force me to question values I held dearly (such as my faith) as well as behaviors I rarely gave much thought (such as, throwing as much away as I do). Being away for so long made me realize relationships that I needed to reestablish, especially because I kept in touch with few people on a regular basis and it's hard to really give them an accurate depiction. Mainly though, there is a ton of guilt.

Given my ancestry and my religious tradition, guilt does not surprise me. It seems built into my bloodstream along with a side helping of stubborn. But this guilt is different. I feel the guilt of leaving someone behind, a beloved. I feel guilty for all the cultural gaffes and mistakes I made, for the relationships I could have developed but didn't. I feel guilty for not being able to do more, especially being as privileged as I am. I feel guilty for all the things I took personally when no offense was meant. I feel guilty for the opportunities I didn't take. Mainly, I just feel guilty for leaving. I felt I left so many behind.

I know that I am not completely responsible for this. I know that some of it was personal growth I needed to undergo so that I can do this again. I know that I was really busy (going to school, having an internship, plus a four hour daily commute) and I couldn't do all that I set out to do. I know I needed to give myself a break. I know that I needed to make those mistakes I had made, in order to learn and grow from them. I know that I can only own up to the things I did do wrong and move on. I know I can't save the world.

Still, I feel it. Even more than guilt, I feel sad. I miss it. I miss them. As much as I love my life in DC (and I do), I don't go through a day when I don't wish I was still there on some level. I miss my colleagues, my friends, the kids....I miss it. I feel that, while my body is in America, a piece of my heart is somewhere in Kenya. I'm not going to lie, it hurts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Celeb Causes-A Perspective

According to this article, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made their first huge donation to charity of the new year. They have donated $2 million to a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia (by the way, dear journalist, it's Namibia, not Nambia). This sanctuary takes care of injured animals and protects threatened species. A heartwarming cause, right?

I've never rolled my eyes so much in my entire life.

Look, I don't know the hearts of Ms. Jolie and Mr. Pitt. However, there are a couple things that irk me. First, this so called Namibian sanctuary is not even run by local people. While that doesn't automatically make it a bad organization and I've known several that have the goal of transitioning to local management, I have also known several organizations that ARE run locally, do amazing, sustainable work and don't even get half of the recognition of an organization run by white people. I worked with a wonderful organization that helped over 200 young people get trained in computers in the slums and learn how to manage their own businesses despite odds of lack of education and insecure property rights while also founding a medical clinic. They get NONE of the recognition as an organization that also happens to run a luxury guest house (as seen here). While Naankuse may be a good organization, all I'm seeing currently is an excuse for white tourists to do a small act of good while living in style. I'm not seeing a true impact.

Second, it seems that issues are only worth mentioning if they've got a pretty celebrity on the cover. Never mind that local people working on these issues may know a little more than Ms. Jolie does (considering she gets to fly home in luxury the next day), never mind that there are so many complexities to the issues of poverty and oppression, never mind that money isn't everything, as long as Angie's looking pretty and holding a cute African baby, the world is saved. While I know celebrities can at least shine a light on certain situations that would have been ignored (and, I'll admit, my pull to Africa started with a U2 obsession), there is a reason they are actors and entertainers, not development economists or environmental experts. It is a sad day when they get more recognition than those struggling and fighting to improve their countries and their situations.

If you really want to help, give your money to organizations that aid people to stand on their own but may not get that kind of recognition. The Acumen Fund allows people to invest in entrepreneurs in developing nations (examples: those selling malaria bed nets, thus creating a sustainable livelihood while also combating a major infectious disease). Global Giving allows others to give to local projects that may not have received attention (including a few projects by Seed of Hope, an externship site for one of my Kenya mates). Amani ya Juu is a business that creates amazing jewelry and products for people all over the world, products created by refugee women who are currently picking up their lives and making a living, thanks to this business. Finally, I must put in a good word for Alta'awon Youth Trust, a Kenyan organization that helps youth in the slums gain access to technology and entrepreneurship training, thus building their own livelihoods and gaining a leg to stand on (contact me for more info).

So, what's my consensus? Celebrities, to their credit, help make us aware. However, beware of what they endorse, lest it sound as glitzy as themselves. As mentioned, celebrities are only experts of their own craft (and sometimes, that's debatable). They also are extremely disconnected from the developing world and have the ability to escape from it (in their designer clothes and private jets) any time they want. What about those who stay behind? When will it be time to give them THEIR voice?