Saturday, March 10, 2012


I've spent the last month crafting this blog post. It's a lot more work than I usually put into my journal-style entries. It was important for me to be intentional this time - instead of ranting about the frustrations I alluded to last month, I figured that some research and analysis could enrich the conclusions I've drawn from my own experiences.

Whenever I think of how the world really is a small place, and that we're all connected to other people/locations/experiences in one way or another, I remember a scene from one of my favorite movies. "I <3 Huckabees" is about a man who repeatedly experiences the same coincidence, in which he is convinced there lies profound meaning. He begins to search for it's significance, aided by two married "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) who, in the course of their sessions, try to reveal to him the nature of the world. Hoffman attempts to illustrate it by draping a blanket over his hands, and poking his fingers upward to give topography to the flat plane, saying:

"Say this blanket represents all the matter and the energy in the universe, okay? This is me, this is you, and over here, this is the Eiffel Tower, right, it's Paris!"

We do really share one blanket. One, for all of us in the world, and we have to share it responsibly while coexisting peacefully - all 7 billion of us. I think it's safe to say that at this point, our efforts leave a lot to be desired. Learning how our global interactions should look and the reality of how they look now has been a constant journey during my time in Kenya.

It's no secret that there are discrepancies in how much different people "own." Our earth is not shared equally, and that's a result of a host of reasons that aren't really the point of this blog. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds like to imagine solutions to global problems, which oftentimes arise from such discrepancies. But ironically, the ability to put such ideas and dreams in action is the privilege of those who can afford it. After all, it's no secret - "helping" isn't cheap. Not financially, and not in terms of time.

From my angle as a US citizen, it has become clear through media and personal conversations that most people from my "Western" tradition perceive the most pressing global issues to be centered around "lack." We are very concerned about lack of things like food, water, education, clothing, shelter, knowledge and/or religion, in places that are quite culturally and spatially removed from the USA and Europe. We also typically hold two interesting beliefs: that our own nations don't have the same problem with "lack" as less industrialized countries do, and that there's not a lot that our beneficiaries can offer in terms of dreams for their own future, plans for actualizing those dreams, and/or resources to make it all happen. The solution we come up with to deal with all this "lack" (that makes us feel the pang of injustice at best and pity at worst) is to travel somewhere where we perceive a lack, and fill the void with our own perceived surplus. Or, if we can't travel or don't want to travel, we give money to someone who will.

I don't want to cast judgment, because I have held those exact thoughts. Also, it's important to mention that there are absolutely valid reasons and responsible ways to travel internationally, experience new cultures, and contribute to a process of healing and growth in our broken world. I just think it usually looks different than tradition suggests. I want to tease apart some of the things I've thought about, read about and experienced within the past year and a half that have made me seriously re-evaluate our culture of "helping."

My story begins with my first encounters with poverty. I'd seen people without homes in the US, but traveling to India and Jamaica in college exposed me to communities that were crowded, looked dirty, and had few of the familiar comforts I was used to at home. My knee-jerk reaction was to give. Empty my pockets in response to wide eyes or hungry faces. It was an instinctive desire to DO something, to quench the guilt or shock that my previously-sheltered conscience was experiencing. However, that reaction was ultimately about my own comfort. It's also important to note that in my guilt-driven generosity, the faces in front of me were interchangeable. I wanted to throw money and make the dirt, hunger and discomfort go away because they scared me - not because I knew, loved or understood any of the people with their hands outstretched. I may have wanted to know, love and understand them, but how is that possible in a matter of weeks?

Once I'd flirted with the symptoms of poverty, I felt like I'd stumbled upon something mysterious and hidden, yet raw and incredibly pervasive. I began to internalize what I'd been told all my life, that "the fact that you can read, write, go to college and have clean water and food puts you in an incredibly small percentage of humanity." Well... that's not exactly what I'd been told. People had used the word "top" instead of "small," which I'm not sure I agree with. More on that later.

To look back on the period after these travel experiences and pre-Peace Corps is to glimpse myself during an interesting window of time. When I wanted to express my empathy with those in poverty, I bought a pair of TOMS shoes or donated money to a mission trip. I wanted to establish myself as someone who cared more than I wanted to (or even knew how to) do the legwork necessary to address gross injustices that result in poverty. I was much more idealistic and a touch less cynical than I am now. When I was accepted for the Peace Corps, I was so excited to have a job with purpose, and to make a lasting impact. Why I thought I had to travel halfway around the world to find purpose and make an impact is still lost on me. Any job can be purposeful, and we all inevitably make an impact. Nevertheless, I feel blessed to work here not only because I've had the adventure of a lifetime, but because I've been able to live with people whose living conditions are similar to those who I offered coins to in India - and it's been humbling to say the least.

Kenya is economically strong compared to many of its East and Central African neighbors. It's a land rich in natural resources and human capital. There is untold potential unlocked by the passage of a new constitution in 2010, and there is a feeling of optimism for the future. But there are a few things that keep Kenya from functioning in the way it's citizens yearn for. Most notably there are ethnic tensions born out of British colonial tactics of subverting the natives that still pervade every aspect of life, especially politics. This is probably the greatest contributor to inequality, because it begets corruption and results in misappropriated resources. And because Kenya is one of the many African countries who has been played like a pawn in the interests of globally influential countries (beginning with the Berlin Conference, continuing through the Cold War and into the present day) there are cycles of dependence that were created and are partially perpetuated by "help" from Westerners. Many times, charitable and government aid does more harm than good, and marginalizes Kenyans who could and want to manufacture the supplies or earn the money that Westerners give them. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have lost all patience for most of the forms of aid I've seen. This time, I'm standing with my Kenyan students on the other end of the cash flow, and I resent the Westerner's knee-jerk reaction, the same one I had myself while navigating the winding slums of Delhi. Now I'm the one with dirty feet and no electricity or running water, next to kids with no shoes - but it isn't scary. It's my lifestyle, my reality, the existence I've grown to love. Through my students, I've had a glimpse of what it's like to be pitied, and it leaves me feeling dirtier than my feet could ever get. I find myself yearning for the same thing as the kids - "Know us. Love us. Understand us." But instead, the pity usually gets us a different kind of "help" than we'd hoped for.

To give some examples of "help" my school and students have received:

1. Hearing aids without hearing tests that are not only unsustainable (parents here can barely afford school fees, much less batteries or new ear molds as their children grow) and fragile, but are also mostly useless (some of the kids are profoundly deaf and wouldn't hear anything even with an aid, and none of the kids here speak - they would need intensive speech therapy to do so, and we have no speech therapist). No parents were notified of the decision to provide their children with hearing aids, so there was no opportunity to opt out. The whole process is unbelievably expensive. But it's a tax write-off for the donor organization, Minnesota-based Starkey.

2. Visits by foreigners overflowing with candy and good intentions. School and lessons are stopped in the middle of the day, and the visitors are "entertained" with a song/dance by the kids. Then the visitors play soccer with the kids - that's the "helping" part. Learning comes to a screeching halt, except for the one lesson that is reinforced every time : white people have cameras and candy to give us. They are important enough to stop school for. They are always the ones who give, we are always the ones who receive.

3. Flush toilets. Two million shillings and counting have been poured into this project. The toilets are perpetually broken, the septic tank is always flooded, and there are perfectly good pit latrines mere steps away.

Yet how many of us would hesitate to pull out our wallet if someone said "I'm raising money for hearing aids for Deaf kids/a trip to Kenya to spend time with Deaf kids/toilets for Deaf kids?" I wouldn't have. Not before I met the Deaf kids.

For me, that's where the most important truth lies. Ours is a culture where we can say a few buzz words and the money comes pouring in. "Disabled" or "orphan" or "African," to name a few. We focus on labels that make us feel pity, and we don't get to know the people, their lives or their stories. We don't ask questions - for example, why isn't the community or government rallying around the cause we're funding? Is it because they know they can get someone from the West to pay for it? A staggering number of times, the answer to that question is yes. It's the reason why, whenever I leave my house, I am prepared to encounter someone who asks me for money. We've brought it upon ourselves, but more tragically, we've caught countless cultures up in the same lie. As my Kenyan friends often tell me, "I'm sorry to say, but whenever we see white skin, we just think 'money.'"

This seems like an appropriate time to address the Peace Corps' place in this whole thing. If I'm so anti-aid, why am I pro-Peace Corps? Isn't my job a sort of aid? First of all, I'm not entirely anti-aid. I'll explain that toward the end. Second of all, yes and no. It's true that the U.S. government is responsible/pays for me, and that the Kenyan government has requested the presence of volunteers. However, I am not taking a job from a Kenyan (there is a shortage of trained Kenyan teachers qualified to work in schools for the Deaf, since so many have sprung up in the past decade... our sorely understaffed school is a good example) and the main problem I have with intergovernmental aid is the interest that accrues, leaving the borrowing nations in mountains of debt. There is no cost for a volunteer, and there is no debt. Also, I believe that cultural exchange is the best way for us to break down walls of misunderstanding. I can tell you that since being here, I've debunked some pretty interesting myths and beliefs held by both Kenyans and Americans.

Giving has become a response to guilt, and has grown very trendy in the process. It's about quieting the voice inside you that says "how is it fair that I have so much, while these people have so little?" But within that statement, degrading falsehood breeds. It's true that there is a group of people who truly have next to nothing, who suffer and die because they have no water, no food, no access to medical care. But I believe that acting responsibly with less impoverished communities will give support to their struggle. Less impoverished communities like mine. It's a community FULL of aid, but much more full of blessings and resources that are always overlooked by fly-by-night donors. There is a strength of family that I've never experienced in the USA. Almost everything eaten is fresh, locally grown and healthy, and there is usually enough for everyone. People here know the language that their ancestors have spoken for thousands of years. The lack of electricity which we may view as archaic ensures dark, quiet, peaceful nights. I've learned more about what it means to be human after a year and a half in Sipili than I have during my whole life in the USA. This place is incredibly rich. When I say this to my coworkers, they say "but you Americans are so far ahead! What could you really learn from us? We have so little." Comments like that break my heart. It is a lie that I have more than them. It is a lie that they have less than me. We both have different, incomparable blessings. I'm still wrapping my head around that thought, because it's SO contradictory to everything I've ever been taught. And in my opinion, that's where the real lack is. It's a lack of understanding that is incredibly important for us to address, especially if we ever wish to address other areas of lack.

I know it's hard to shake, but there needs to be an intentional abandonment of our identities of "whites in shining armor." Kenya has almost entirely beat it out of me - and while it caused a mini-identity crisis, I am so grateful it happened. Now I know that the best solutions to Kenyan problems are born and grow in Kenya, not my mind. It's the same with any country. I think the best thing we can do as partners in a community's growth is to get behind local efforts to change - IF that's the desire of the community. We can start conversations with our friends who live overseas, or those who live in the USA who are part of a diaspora and/or have strong ties to their homeland. We can foster relationships based on trust and understanding, and share values and ideas. Equality in our partnerships and humility in providing assistance are the keys to future confidence and self-reliance.

So, let's think before we give money. Think before we buy TOMS (why are we sending foreign-made shoes to kids instead of buying them locally and stimulating the economy where those kids live?) or a KONY 2012 bracelet (will it really help find a man who has eluded countless manhunts if we give money to an organization whose founders are paid close to $90k a year and support intervention by the ethically questionable Ugandan military? For a red waxy string?) Think before we write checks, buy t-shirts and go to benefits. Let's first spend time learning, listening, reading and thinking critically because I believe that a deep understanding of our fellow blanket-sharers is the only road to peace and justice. If money follows, let it be for something we fully comprehend, support and have the ability to CONTINUE to support.

If that sounds complicated and hard, I agree. But I think worthwhile things always are.

If you're interested in what I read to explore my questions, check out the books "Dead Aid: How Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa" by Dambisa Moyo, "It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower" by Michela Wrong, as well as the blog "Good Intentions Are Not Enough" by Saundra Schimmelpfennig (an RPCV, as it turns out). I'm not finished exploring and understanding how we all can contribute to a collective brighter future for the globe, so if you have any other reading suggestions, please send them along!

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