Category Archives: developmentissue

Thoughts on Change

When I was deciding on this developing country experience, I figured that six months would be just long enough that I would really be able to become engaged with the community, but not quite long enough that it would feel like I had to leave a new home.

I now have less than three weeks remaining of my 5.5 month assignment here.  And I was right.  I’ve made lots of friends, and gotten comfortable in my own home here, and made relationships with my neighbors.  Hell, I’ve even adopted a cat!  (and found a family to care for it after I leave, too, yes.)  And it’s a strange feeling that I have now.  It’s not one of longing to stay here.  No, I’m ready to come home.  Which makes the feeling even stranger.  I’ve been here so long and gotten into such a rhythm, that it feels odd to imagine that in three quick weeks it will all end and change drastically, all over again.  Maybe part of that is a reflection of what it is like to live in Kenya.  Change is hard to imagine.  Whether it’s introducing a new item to the menu, replacing the ferry with a bridge, or understanding how a complete education could improve your child’s life, many people in Kenya just do not comprehend, or have no experience thinking about, such things.

But I hear you asking, Didn’t Kenya just usher in a new Constitution, under the hopeful banner of We Want Change?  Yes, they did.  And most everyone here has high expectations for how it will make their country better very quickly, like some magic potion mixed up by the medicine man on the corner.  And there have been headlines daily about this Prime Minister here and that official there being exposed as corrupt, and now arrest is even being threatened to them.  But what is the ordinary person doing in their life to affect positive changes in their life and community?  Well, some are deeply committed, yes, but on average? From my impressions, not much. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not that those people are lazy or dumb or would just rather steal to make money.  It’s more that they simply cannot imagine that it could work any other way.  Kenya has just emerged from a 24 year regime, as one Kenyan friend put it.  Corruption was so commonplace and expected that a whole generation, the entire youth of the country, grew up thinking that was how life worked, that you had to give someone some money to get anything.  Slowly, some of these youth are starting to realize how deeply engrained this has been in their minds, and are working to undo it, and to help the new generation see life in a different way.

What I’ve come to learn is that when you live in a developing country… where your government has never provided or looked out for you, where your parents are forced to view you more as an expense and a burden than an investment and a source of joy, and where your work options can be counted on one hand… When you live this kind of life, maybe you get used to nothing good happening to you.  You get used to nothing changing, and you learn to be happy with whatever life hands you, and to not demand any better.  Maybe that’s why visitors so often become enamored with smiling children and families living in squalor, seemingly content with so little.  The tourists wonder “Do they know something important about life that we’re missing?”

In a way, yes. There is one fact of life that is deeply engrained in their collective minds, but it is so depressing and firm that it is better to just make do with what you’ve got and forget about it. This fact is how desperately difficult it is to change your circumstances when you’re on the world’s bottom-most rung, how unfairly lacking your opportunities are. Without something new being added to the equation from outside your bubble of resources, you have no options. Learning about new crop techniques, new seamstress training courses, or how to research available scholarships online are some of these new things. Local civil society and international NGOs have been working for decades to introduce these small advancements. Some few people throughout the country (and world) have seized these opportunities and made their lives better. But until the government steps in to make the big changes, like sewage systems, adequate public education through high school, and potable water systems, everyday life for the everyday person will remain unchangeable in any meaningful way.

Well, this post took a swift turn for the disheartening.  That was unintended.  Changes are happening, and lives are improving.  But perhaps it’s appropriate to think about this as I evaluate all that I’ve learned from this experience.  I have yet to see an example of international NGOs or local organizations making drastic improvements in a country.  No that’s not true. Bangladesh was recently lauded for its incredible rise in the HDI rankings (Human Development Report 2010).  And much of that effort can be attributed to Grameen Bank and all of its subsidiaries.  I am not sure if that model is repeatable.  Do you have other examples of work in the development sector having a direct connection to improvement in national numbers and indices?

The lack of examples do not lessen my resolve or spirit.  I am only further inspired to be a part of some effort that does make lasting positive BIG change.

file:///F:/Library%20Borrowing%20Card.doc
st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}
 

When I was deciding on this developing country experience, I figured that six months would be just long enough that I would really be able to become engaged with the community, but not quite long enough that it would feel like I had to leave a new home.

I now have less than three weeks remaining of my 5.5 month assignment here.  And I was right.  I’ve made lots of friends, and gotten comfortable in my own home here, and made relationships with my neighbors.  Hell, I’ve even adopted a cat!  (and found a family to care for it after I leave, too, yes.)  And it’s a strange feeling that I have now.  It’s not one of longing to stay here.  No, I’m ready to come home.  Which makes the feeling even stranger.  I’ve been here so long and gotten into such a rhythm, that it feels odd to imagine that in three quick weeks it will all end and change drastically.  Maybe part of that is a reflection of what it is like to live in Kenya.  Change is hard to imagine.  Whether it’s introducing a new item to the menu, replacing the ferry with a bridge, or understanding how a complete education could improve your child’s life, many people in Kenya just do not comprehend, or have no experience thinking about, such things.

But I hear you asking, Didn’t Kenya just usher in a new Constitution, under the hopeful banner of We Want Change?  Yes, they did.  And most everyone here has high expectations for how it will make their country better very quickly, like some magic potion mixed up by the medicine man on the corner.  And there have been headlines daily about this Prime Minister here and that official there being exposed as corrupt, and now arrest is even being threatened to them.  But what is the ordinary person doing in their life to affect positive changes in their life and community?  Well, some are deeply committed, yes, but on average? From my impressions, not much. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not that those people are lazy or dumb or would just rather steal to make money.  It’s more that they simply cannot imagine that it could work any other way.  Kenya has just emerged from a 24 year regime, as one Kenyan friend put it.  Corruption was so commonplace and expected that a whole generation, the entire youth of the country, grew up thinking that was how life worked, that you had to give someone some money to get anything.  Slowly, some of these youth are starting to realize how deeply engrained this has been in their minds, and are working to undo it, and to help the new generation see life in a different way.

What I’ve come to learn is that when you live in a developing country… where your government has never provided or looked out for you, where your parents are forced to view you more as an expense and a burden than an investment and a source of joy, and where your work options can be counted on one hand… When you live this kind of life, maybe you get used to nothing good happening to you.  You get used to nothing changing, and you learn to be happy with whatever life hands you, and to not demand any better.  Maybe that’s why visitors so often become enamored with smiling children and families living in squalor, seemingly content with so little.  The tourists wonder “Do they know something important about life that we’re missing?”

In a way, yes. There is one fact of life that is deeply engrained in their collective minds, but it is so depressing and firm that it is better to just make do with what you’ve got and forget about it. This fact is how desperately difficult it is to change your circumstances when you’re on the world’s bottom-most rung, how unfairly lacking your opportunities are. Without something new being added to the equation from outside your bubble of resources, you have no options. Learning about new crop techniques, new seamstress training courses, or how to research available scholarships online are some of these new things. Local civil society and international NGOs have been working for decades to introduce these small advancements. Some few people throughout the country (and world) have seized these opportunities and made their lives better. But until the government steps in to make the big changes, like sewage systems, adequate public education through high school, and potable water systems, everyday life for the everyday person will remain unchangeable in any meaningful way.

Well, this post took a swift turn for the disheartening.  That was unintended.  But perhaps appropriate as I evaluate all that I’ve learned from this experience.  I have yet to see an example of international NGOs or local organizations making drastic improvements in a country.  No that’s not true. Bangladesh was recently lauded for its incredible rise in the HDI rankings (Human Development Report 2010).  And much of that effort can be attributed to Grameen Bank and all of its subsidiaries.  I am not sure if that model is repeatable.  Do you have other examples of work in the development sector having a direct connection to improvement in national numbers and indices?

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, developmentissue, Motivation

Brain balance

Oh wow, it’s been three weeks since I last posted!  Everything here is still good.  Work is getting a bit complicated.  But my projects are gaining a clearer focus as the weeks tick past. I’ll give a work update later this week, but for now, something different.

Chances are probably quite good that if you’re reading this, you have a hobby.  Dancing, painting – something related to music?  Amateur photographer?  Doodler, or designer?  Using the left side of my brain is yet another luxury that I’ve taken for granted (with many grateful thanks, Mama and Papa!).  I have learned to play the piano and the trumpet, taken ballet, singing and hip-hop dance lessons.  I brought a set of gouache paints with me to Kenya, and have been practicing watercolor painting while here.

And it’s days like this past Saturday that make me wish so fervently for the day when all children have such everyday opportunities to creatively express themselves.  I went to watch our most recent football tournament, and to be the photographer for it.  As usual, when I break out the big SLR camera, every kid wants to play with it.  I had two girls in my lap, so I kept the strap around my neck and let them take pictures.  One of the girls, Fatuma, was enthralled.  Snap, snap, snap, zooom, snap!  Putting a camera into a child’s hands is one of the most thrilling transformations you can ever watch.  Suddenly they’re in control of how they look at the world – and some of the ways and things that they see will stop you still, and make you realize how much their young brains take in.  In fact, Kids with Cameras was the organization that first got me thinking that I wanted to work with NGOs in the developing world.  More specifically, it was their documentary Born Into Brothels.  If you missed it somehow, I recommend you watch it immediately.

Fatuma and Aisha

Anyway, as Fatuma was happily snapping away on the camera, another child, a 7 or 8 year-old boy, became intrigued with my hair and kept petting it.  He asked for my hairclip, and began trying out at least a dozen different hairstyles.  He passed judgment on each one, until he was finally satisfied.  About a month ago, a volunteer brought beads and string to the Center, and the kids leapt on the activity of making necklaces and bracelets with a fervor.  We also brought in a poi instructor to give them two lessons, and a few of them picked it up really quickly and really want to learn more skills.  It’s examples like this that make me realize how little there is to activate this half of impoverished kids’ brains.

Now, I’m not saying that there is a dearth of creativity among the children in Kenya.  Not at all.  You’d be amazed at some of vehicles that they make out of plastic bottles, straws rubber flip flops, and scrap wire.  But that short list of materials just about exhausts the resources available to the average child in Likoni.  Oh, there’s also the old classic “hoop and a stick” – I am not lying, it’s one of the more prevalent toys here.  And some of the kids are damn good with it!  But every time I see one of them running down the road with one, I can’t help but think how 19th century it is.

And unfortunately, the government, specifically High Education Minister William Ruto, doesn’t think very highly of the arts as an essential part of your daily education.  In fact, universities that offer majors in the arts are having their funding reduced, so that more money can go towards science and technical degrees, because those will lead to jobs that directly boost the economy.  This is important, and does make some sense.  BUT we are not all right-brain-dominant robots though, and this approach won’t benefit Kenya.  Some of us are left-brain-led monkeys.  Society needs artists and musicians and photographers and performers and designers too.  Thankfully, his plan has riled a lot of people in Kenya who agree with me.  Unfortunately, despite being a “working” democracy, that doesn’t mean that officials in Kenya actually have to listen to their constituents.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, developmentissue, politics

Wengi Watoto (Many children)

One of the Directors here at Hatua is excited and eager to revamp the curriculum at our school, Madaraka Community Nursery School.  We will be speaking with some of the top-performing schools in Likoni about their curricula, and adapting ours based on what we learn from them.  One of the crucial elements that my Director is already aware of, and very excited to implement, is having the teachers switch to a method of teaching that focuses on tracking each individual student’s progress and learning abilities, rather than teaching each day’s syllabus by rote, without adaptation to the students’ grasp.

I realize now how very fortunate I was to grow up taking such attention for granted.  Here in Kenya, it seems the emphasis has had to be more on getting the kids into the classroom, than on what to do with them once they’re there.  So, schools are built, teachers are hired, and kids are collected into the classrooms.  Slowly but surely, more and more parents (and their children) are realizing how powerful and valuable education can be for one’s future.  And the government provides free primary education, which is a huge step forward.  The result is that many kids are getting into school.  Unfortunately… that’s also part of the problem.

There are never fewer than 25 kids in a classroom – and there can be as many as 60, or 100!  Does that mean there are not enough schools?  No, I don’t think so – there are 30 schools in Likoni alone, though admittedly they range from 100-1000 students each.  And of course, building schools is a pet charity of foreigners from all over.  I believe the Issue is that there are simply too many children.

our Baby Class has 58 students

In the past 10 years, the population of Kenya has climbed at a steady rate around 2.6% each year (the 27th highest rate in the world). The result is that 42% of Kenyans are under the age of 14.  (ref: CIA World Factbook) Check out this interactive comparison of population growth rates of all the countries.

Having identified an Issue, I’ve been trying to trace back its Causes, in order to find a Solution.  (Spoiler alert: It’s never that easy.)  Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had in pursuit of one though.  They are by no means fully developed or even that helpful, but I felt like this was a good example to share, to show how difficult it is to address and remedy such an issue.

Ok, why are there so many children?  Well, families are huge here. The average family has 4 children (ref: World in Balance), and a family with 8 or 9 children is not uncommon at all. Why? In a developing country, I would’ve expected that people would want to keep the number of children that need feeding to 1 or 2.  But that’s like putting all of your eggs in one basket, apparently.  I’ve been told that the reasoning is that the more kids you have, the more likely it is that one of them will get a good job that pays well and can take care of the whole family.  Life is viewed as so tenuous here that you hear people speak about the guarantee of your next meal feeling as slim as the chance of whether you’ll be alive tomorrow.  So, the running philosophy is to make lots of kids, to increase the chances that one of them will live long and prosper.

Except Kenya can’t afford to provide this free primary school education for all of these kids, much less begin to provide free secondary school education (high school).  But the value of education is becoming more appreciated – surely more parents will begin deciding to raise and educate fewer children for longer, like my host family is doing with their 3 children.

Except if a Kenyan says they have 2 or 3 kids, people look concerned, and ask what went wrong. A large family is a sign of a capable man.  Kind of like how a large man is a sign of a rich man.  So, that’s a major cultural hurdle.  The egos of men are not to be trifled with when attempting to change a male-dominated society.  But spreading information can change that right?  Perhaps a campaign that outlines the many benefits of smaller families, not just for the children and the family’s sakes, but for Kenya as a whole.  And increased family planning services and sharing information about how and why to limit your pregnancies.  Ok, it seems Kenya is already doing this. Back in the 1960s, Kenya was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to begin developing a national family-planning campaign.  The average number of children per woman has dropped to around four from around eight in the 1980s, which constitutes one of the fastest-ever national declines in family size.  (ref: World in the Balance)  But that’s still a lot of kids per family.

AND family planning can only do so much, now that the kids already exist. But a 1993 study found that literacy was a strong contributor to desire for small family size (ref).  So, as education continues to spread, desire for fewer children will likely increase.  That also explains my hostfamily’s smaller size.  So, in time, this issue should right itself?

Family planning poster

Except “While the Kenyan government formulates official strategies on family planning, promotion of the message and means of family planning falls mainly to local health-care offices and nongovernmental organizations.” (ref: World in the Balance)  For family planning to be even more effective, the government probably needs to take an active role in promoting its use.  And, despite the efforts that have been made, I’ve been told that many women like the idea of the pill’s benefits, but as a whole, tend to forget to take it on a regular basis.  And abortion is as divisive a topic here as anywhere, if not more so (thanks to the legacy of missionaries, and the stoking of the issue with regard to a clause in the new proposed Constitution).  Although my Muslim hostsister said that although her religion says it is a sin, she doesn’t think the Kenyan Constitution should ban it – she’ll simply follow her religion’s rules, over the government’s.  Well, maybe the other forms of birth control, like the Depo Provera injections, and IUDs, are something that could be made more readily available in developing countries then?

Except I’m sure it would be extremely difficult to get pharmaceutical companies to make them available at prices low enough to make a difference to the women most in need of them.  The poorest people are the ones who won’t get the information or medical supplies that will let them control the size of their families.

So much for figuring out how to reduce classroom size.  I feel like the last station for this train of thought is to do market research in order to woo corporations into a new market.  Well, one can’t expect such a major issue to be simply remedied.  It muddles my brain a bit.  Which explains why this blog post that is a bit all over the place.  And way too long.  🙂  If you made it this far, I hope your brain isn’t too befuddled, and got something from it.  Now go outside and have a good weekend.  I welcome your comments on this topic, and its many threads.

4 Comments

Filed under Culture, developmentissue, education, populationgrowth