Monday, March 12, 2012

A more personal update

Most of my post have been somewhat thematic, I guess I haven't talked much about day to day activities and how my life is in Kenya. One question I often get from Kenyans is, "How do you see Kenya?" Here is a short jumbled response. 

In short, I love it here. The nature of my work, the travelling I do, the scope of my research, the Kenyans I work with, and the organization I am under are excellent. In fact, although my contract is ending in early April, I am planning on sticking it out another month (or two, … three?) to keep in touch with friends here, visit old friends in Tanzania and maybe tour Ethiopia. 

Pastor John, myself, Dr. Jeniffer, and Engineer Jane
The past four weeks I have been making field visits at the base of Mt. Kenya to Masai land in the south, to Kilifi on the coast. In my last posting, I indicated what an honour it has been and how humbling it can be to experience the love and kindness of people. This week I am reconnecting with two professors from King's University College (Dr. Spaling & Dr. Hiemstra) who are following-up with my research last year and to explore a tentative field-course. This has given me an opportunity to return to Kisayani and see my old 'home' in the village and see good friends again.

One thing that I love about Kenya is the ability to learn a new language. My time in Tanzania a few years ago gave me a great foundation to learn swahili and my time in Kenya has allowed me to nurture that over the past seven months. In the past two months especially I have begun to notice my comprehension and sentence structure of swahili to have grown immensely. Now during interviews and group discussion I can often understand what I being said (as long as it is not a local mother-tonge).  As someone who studied French for more than five years and failed tremendously, it's exciting to begin to speak and understand a new language. This has allowed me to have deeper relationships with people here, better understand the culture and to feel much more welcome.

The team from the ACT evaluation out on the Mombasa coastline

However, on another note, in the past two weeks I have received news that my grandmother has passed away, and also that my other grandfather was in the hospital. It can hit as a hard reality at times how far I am away from home and family and friends that I love. While being here in Kenya is deeply gratifying and fulfilling, at times I am reminded of all that I leave behind. 

The last thing on my plate worth mentioning is grad school. I have applied to three separate schools in the areas of international development, international affairs, and rural planning in January and am beginning to hear back from them. Each of the schools are unique, and have their own strengths, and draws. I have recently found that I have gained acceptance to all, which now makes my decision very difficult. Meanwhile, many of my Kenyan friends are struggling to attend college, not to mention finding the funds to go do a master's degree. So, I quickly shut-up and remind myself to count my choices as blessings. 

Whenever I do choose to come back to Canada, I will be equally as excited to see family and friends again as I will be saddened by leaving those friends and 'family' that I have back in Kenya, a strange feeling I am beginning to get used to. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Facing wealth and affluence

On thing I often struggle with here in my work in Kenya is coming to terms with my own affluence. 

Even in Canada I am fully aware that I am among the top 1% of the world (in terms of wealth, freedom, and opportunity) having been born in Canada to a middle-class family and having the opportunity to complete a university degree. Having travelled to developing countries in the past and confronting statistics in my studies I am fully aware of my status and wealth; but it is different when you are confronting these stark inequalities personally and daily. 

In my field visits I speak to beneficiaries of relief projects. Their communities are targeted as the poorest and most vulnerable to the effects of drought; and moreover the beneficiaries themselves are sleeted amongst a community as the most vulnerable: often single mothers, widows and households caring for orphans. 

I ask them questions about the effects of last year's drought, and how it was common to go with one meal or no meals in a day; to travel distances of around 8km (sometimes more) to get water that isn't clean to begin with; and how they haven't harvested a single kilo of maize from their fields.

Meanwhile, I arrive to these sites in an SUV with water bottles and often snacks like fruit and crackers. I bring my camera and backpack with books and even an ipod. The fuel alone costs more than some of the recipients make in a few months. 

When I return to my place, a more-than-comfortable house or hotel, I regularly speak with guards or maids. The other night I had a conversation with an askari (a security guard) watching the gate. I found out he was just a year older than I and how his real hope was to study in university and start a business. He told me, "I want to be a somebody" looking completely defeated. We shared a bit about his home in Western Kenya, he was brought to Mombasa area for his security guard work where we works night shifts mostly. I told him a bit about Canada and he was shocked I had already finished university. The conversation got more difficult after than as he asked if there are ways in which I can help him get to Canada.

This is not unusual at all. In fact, I get that question frequently, almost daily: "how can I get to Canada?" "Can you get me a plane ticket?". For many people, their hope lies far away from Kenya in a place like Canada, or where other white people live. The town I live in on the coast has quite a few tourists. As a single guy I often get approached by young beautiful African girls asking if I want to "spend time with them". I've begun to learn it is even uncommon to not see European-tourists with a Kenyan 'girlfriend' or even Kenyan 'boyfriend'. While my first reaction is to look down on these Kenyans (and scold the tourists) I've learned in my conversations with Kenyans, that most understand perfectly why they do it, and how acceptable it is to them. Getting the attention of a tourist or even marrying one opens many doors that some only dream of.

In other parts of this town, beggars are constantly asking for money or other things (one night two men approached my at a restaurant and asked to clean my plate off). Often these people are young mothers, young children, people who are crippled or severely sick, sometimes even showing exposed sores. If I was to give to all of them, I wouldn't have anything left…or that's what I tell myself. Sometimes I convince myself they don't actually need it or it will perpetuate a bad cycle; despite some truth to that, each and every one of them can certainly use my shillings more than I. I find the need and disparity of all of these people to be overwhelming that I tend to de-sensitive myself to it all. The easiest way to move along is ignoring them; it's what most tourist do.

While my heart often aches for these people, I don't even know what to do, or how to give in an effective or responsible way. Where/how can I best use my money, time, efforts and love? Should I just empty my wallet (or bank account for that matter) to a community group that isn't asking but can clearly use it?; do I give my clothes to a begger or street kid? Do I go home and fundraise for a borehole?  What about when helping hurts? Should generosity even be this complex? 

I also try to ask myself what 'poverty' really is. With billions of dollars floating from developed to developing countries in the form of donations, development or aid, loans, grants, and more I think it's important to think conceptually about poverty. While I certainly don't have an answer I am learning it is much more than wealth, money and possessions. Many students (and families) accumulate debt and call themselves 'poor'. While some many be running a debt, they have so much more; things I never realized at first: Beyond my own physical wealth and possessions I also have a supporting and loving family, a stable (mostly-transparent) government to provide me with safety nets and health care, strong connections and networks, a healthy natural environment, an encouraging and loving social network, excellent education, a bank account, access to loans, a passport and ID cards. I'm learning poverty in a small sense is a lack of money, but in a much larger sense also a lack of all of these other things. 

At first I found it difficult to know how to respond to poverty; now I am seeing it in a different lens: how do I respond to my own wealth. How do I use all of these blessings and gifts, this freedom and these choices and opportunity in a way that doesn't simply serve myself.


A regular sight during a community visit: dancing, singing
[What makes things more difficult is the total warmth and joyful hospitality,  kindness, and generosity shown to me every day in so many different ways during my visits to communities. Here is just a few examples]:

Kenyans school children showing me their artwork depicting
 their lives before and after the water project

Given a chair and being fed goat and ugali by a
warm-welcoming community group

A community, expecting our arrival placed thousands of sticks on the
sandy road so that we could pass and not have to walk even 100m to see them. 
With a group of smiling community members at a water pan they built

And finally, a beautiful performance by school children

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

UN: 'Famine has Ended'

About a week ago the United Nations declared the famine in the Horn of Africa was ‘over’. They were implying that the short rains from November-December had returned to non-emergency levels producing new harvest for many.

My field visits so far interacting with recipients of various development and disaster response projects have told a very different story. Communities unanimously insisted that they are still struggling with water and are still need food and other types of assistance. Indeed, I believe much of is a plea to continue getting food aid which can distort the reality of the situation. Yet I believe it also attests to the fact that food insecurity is not 'over'. The reality is that, while rains have returned, they will again fail.

In the past dozen years the UN has declared famine twice and droughts have been even more frequent. I do not believe this is ‘crying wolf’ on behalf of communities or international institutions. Many Kenyans face challenges with food security from year to year, and these are very real. It was explained to me once that "going to bed hungry isn't that big of a deal here" (certainly not something I can relate well to). In fact that has, in some cases, become the new normal.

So what happens when drought becomes the new normal? Will a drought continue to be an 'emergency'? Or just business-as-usual? And how should different organizations and governments respond to this; what should interventions look like?

Studies have been done that show in areas where drough occurred every seven to eight years, are now occurring every one to two years. There is an emerging shift in climate patterns that exasperate communities' and households' abilities to be more secure.

To me this indicates the earths already changing climate. Climate scientists have long agreed that the climate is changing, in many ways they are predicting disasters in the furutre: rising sea levels, resource conflicts, failed harvest and increase in the spread of certain diseases, and a whole host of other consequences. But in my view, the effects of climate change are already clearly being seen and experienced by many. Those in already insecure positions of poverty and of the highest vulnerability in adapting to these changes. And these effects are already taking their toll on human health, finances, and general security especially in the area of water.

With that being said, droughts are directly attributed the lack of rains; overall famines and the severity of them often have to do with political, economics, and other factors (see this post). The nobel peace prize economist, Amartya Sen, noted this in his essay "Poverty and Famines" and it certainly resounds today: the issue here is one of justice, of accessibility and equality, not simply availability or the existence of food. 

While I certainly don't have solutions for thus it has been in my thoughts and mind during my work here. It certainly has a lot to say of the role of relief, importance of development and policy work and for new types of innovation and thinking. I find it a privilege to work with an organization that is looking at innovation in their interventions, but I am often challenged by the needs for donors, governments and NGOs alike to begin re-thinking food security.

 *All photos were taken by Bethany Duffield during a goat re-distribution in a Masai community (recipients of relief from previous years had bred and shared the offspring of their goats with new beneficiaries).