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.