Thursday, February 24, 2011

Biligual baby

Caleb pulled out his tiny plastic toddler chair, sat down, and declared: “baby kaa chini” (baby sit down).  Later that night, he put his tiny head on his pillow and said “mtoto lala.” (baby sleeps).  And Colin and I were instantly giddy at his effortless acquisition of Kiswahili.
One of the consolations in raising Caleb in rural-ish Kenya – something that helps make up for time away from grandparents and easy access to playdates and parks – is the ability he’ll gain to look at the world through multiple cultural lens.  To understand at an innate level that there is more than one way to navigate the world and that no one way is necessarily more natural or superior than the next.  And picking up another language is provides, in some way, a daily reminder of that lesson. 
Plus, there are all kinds of benefits to growing up bilingual, despite the concern people consistently express to us about Caleb being “confused.”  I’m no expert, but a brief study of the literature shows that bilingual kids have better classification skills, concept formation and visual-spatial skills, and it also becomes easier to learn subsequent language.  I’ve even read that bilingual elderly people have shown a lower incidence of cognitive decline.  All this – and the great effort and expense I took to fail at learning French - makes me sorely wish I had grown up bilingual. 
Or maybe I’m over-intellectualizing.  Truth is, there’s simply a cool factor to being bilingual and bicultural; and try as we might as adults, we are often clumsy despite great efforts at achieving either.  It’s a joy to watch Caleb, with the purity and ease of childhood, accomplish things that we so often fail at as adults.      

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mob injustice

Yesterday morning, on the way to do field work, I saw a dead man. Or more correctly, a man who was beaten to death just minutes before.

I’ve never seen a body like that - freshly killed, limbs sprawled in unnatural ways like a ragdoll thrown to the ground by an angry child, lying there completely devoid of animation. I’ve seen pictures like this, always from some warzone. But never up close.


We saw the mob from a distance. Crowds form easily along the main road, and whenever any bit of excitement happens people are drawn from whatever they are doing - selling vegetables, getting a shave at an outdoor kinyozi, gossiping with neighbors - ants to a fallen piece of cake. I’ve seen such mobs before along the road and it’s always been because of an accident.

So, as our car passed cautiously through the crowd, I wasn’t totally surprised to see a body lying in the dirt ditch on the side of the road. Still, I felt a jolt at the site – the shock of the fresh and indiscriminant loss of young life, followed by a profound sadness.

But when I looked back I saw something that made me see everything suddenly differently. Like that drawing that is sometimes an hourglass and then suddenly becomes 2 faces when you look at after blinking, the meaning of the scene immediately morphed when I saw a man gleefully running over the motionless body with a motorcycle. Another man lifted a heavy rock over the dead man’s body ready to crush an already lifeless body. And then I noticed other things. People weren’t gathering to tsk tsk the sadness of a life lost. They were celebrating it. Or watching others celebrate it. People were running, and laughing and shouting, seemingly giddily energized by the event. That’s what disturbed me the most. The glee people expressed in the face of the brutal ending of another’s life. It left an utterly sour taste in my mouth.

Police were heading in our direction towards the scene as we past it. I found out later that in an effort to disburse the crowd, the police shot and killed someone else. Probably someone we just saw running or screaming or simply taking a break from the monotony of their day to peer in on the excitement. A second person, who woke up that morning, drank their daily chai and didn’t expect it to be their last.

The crowd turned on the policeman, this time outraged instead of titillated by a killing, followed him back to his compound and threatened to burn his house. I know this because one of our field officers lives in his compound. She was scared to go home and spent the night at her sister’s.


I also found out later that the dead man was presumably a motorcycle thief who had succumb to mob justice.
The last time I was in Kenya, mob justice occupied nearly a month of my thinking. It was the subject of my independent study. I had all kinds of theories and interviews to support them on why people took justice into their hands in such an immediate and unforgiving manner. The collective frustration of the poor and the way poverty intensifies the effects of theft. The unreliability of police and justice systems that can be too easily bought off. The African sense of communal responsibility – that a theft of my neighbor affects me too. Even the seductive allure of drama and violence among the bored and idol. All these things people mentioned to explain the spontaneous group think behind mob justice that’s nearly non-existent in the US.

And I thought I had a pretty clever little handle on this social phenomenon.

But what I still can’t seem to reconcile, now that I have seen the aftermath in person, is the glee. The joy people seem to take in all the brutality. I know this is not unique to Africa. Hell, there are amphitheaters in Rome dedicated to this kind of spectacle. Maybe this is more the rule than the exception to human behavior throughout history. But I still don’t get it.

Obviously when you vilify and dehumanize someone it’s easier to avoid empathizing. But taking joy in someone’s pain? Even if someone explains it to me, I don’t think I’ll understand it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grandmother of the Free World

We have the dubious honor of living in the least visited part of one of the most visited countries in Africa.  Western Kenya has none of the big game of Kenyan savannas, none of the picturesque  beaches of the coast and no Leakey ever made a famous archaeological discovery here.  Personally, I think this area is breathtakingly beautiful, with rolling green hills, patchwork shambas and easy proximity to lake Victoria;  but most visitors pass it over in favor of the more impressive game parks and luxury safari tents.    
If you do get out to Western Kenya, one of the few things guide books will recommend you do (other than feeling proud of yourself for being in a non-touristy area of a very touristy country) is go visit President Obama’s ancestral homeland in Siaya province.  Visiting Obama's grandmother seems at least a blog-worthy, if a bit weird, thing to do, so that's what we set out to do this weekend.
In keeping with a culture that believes it an honor to receive visitors and welcomes them with great hospitality, mama Obama (his paternal grandmother) sees a study stream of about 200 visitors per week.  
It’s customary to bring a gift of food or even a small goat, but it’s not required.  A cynic might say she’s “cashing in” on her long lost grandson’s fame.  But seeing as she’s 88 years old and makes time to welcome and sit with visitors and answer the same inane questions 6 days out of a week, something like duty seems more apt than profit.   We were curious enough to see for ourselves.
Siaya is actually a very poor and dry district relative to its neighbors and the road we drove was craggily and pot-holed, a visceral reminder of the yawning gap between Obama’s gilded life and his ancestral roots.   We knew we were getting close when we started to see schools and various welfare projects named for (and some supported by) President Obama.


The whole visit to nya nya Obama is rather well organized, with regular hours (including lunch breaks), a sign-in book, and an officious looking guard who steadfastly imposes the “no videos” rule.  And what tourist attraction would be complete without a small stand of curios for sale? 

I actually thought the visit would have something of a distasteful “human zoo” feel, like those horrible organized treks you find in developing countries to local Potemkin villages in which you can watch “natives” working at their handicrafts for your photographic enjoyment.  I thought we would go gawk at the grandmother of the free world, take a few pictures for the scrapbook and go away feeling a bit phony but with a story for the folks back home.
But it actually wasn’t that bad.  It was unexpectedly thrilling to be that close to Mama Sarah and her two children (Obama’s aunt and uncle) who serve as interpreters and cultural ambassadors. Her son, the naturally intelligent and charismatic character from Dreams of My Father, is buried only yards away from where we sat in the yard. 
Mama Obama was surprisingly energetic for her 88 years and more than gracious. It really felt like a visit to pay our respects and not at all like we were gawking.  (Though I have no idea how it felt to her.)  She answered our pesky questions and actually insisted we take pictures.
Caleb, oblivious to her fame, would rather chase around chickens than pose for a picture

At the end of the day, she’s a strong Luo woman who worked hard to see that all her 9 children (Barak Obama Sr. and 2 others were step children) got a decent education.  One of those children happened to win a scholarship to an island of the “land of opportunity,” and happened to meet a woman with whom he had a child, who happened to grow up to be President of the most powerful country on earth.  It’s a crazy and randomly interconnected world we live in.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Heard the other day

In a bizarre mix of political correctness and xenophobia: “I have nothing against Kikuyu personally. I just think they are all bad people.” I wish I were making this up.

(This probably warrants a longer post about latent and not so latent tribalism in Kenya.  But it's late and there are books that do the topic greater justice)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Old school recycling

I’ve long bored people with my diatribes on the tragedy of our throw-away/disposable culture, pointing to the dying off of repair shops as a natural result.   Not so here in Kenya.  What people lack in resources, they make up for in resourcefulness; and you can get pretty much anything from a sandal to a stereo repaired by one of the many fundi flanking the main road to town.
So, when all of Caleb’s soccer balls were destroyed by his very enthusiastic friends, we simply took them to the bicycle repair shop to be patched and pumped up.  Now, this is a bare bones operation, but they had a pump.  When it didn’t fit the ball exactly, they picked up some plastic from the ground and wrapped it around the pump nozzle for a tighter fit, and when they didn’t work they took a hacksaw to the bit of the nozzle that was getting in the way.
I love that Caleb is learning that things can be remade and repaired with a little care and ingenuity, and that it’s not always appropriate to throw things out when they lose their luster. At least I hope that lesson is slowly and subconsciously sinking in.  Whatever he learned, it was definitely second to the thrill of working the bike pump.

Friday, February 4, 2011

No one here. Just us women.

The word in Luhya for “person” implicitly means “men.” So, if you come across a widow’s house, and ask if anyone lives there, the response will be: "No one lives there. Just a woman.” And if you ask if a woman has any children, you may get:"No children. Just 2 girls."
This is from a Kenyan friend explaining how far her culture has to go to achieve gender equality. She told us this with her characteristic good humor and it led to a lot of laughter and dark jokes that if we all perished (there were 3 woman and 2 men), the news reports would say: “2 dead, and 3 women.”

But behind the laughter was a serious critique. Despite her independence – she’s a single working mom raising four children – and her fearlessness in speaking her mind, when the laughter died down, she shook her head soberly and said, “until the language changes, we’ll never really fix our gender problems.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Musings on "poverty professionals"

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why people (myself included) go into “development.” Why do people chose to move to and work in countries that see so many of their native born fleeing for the greener pastures of the place the development workers just left?

If, as economists have it, we are all “utility maximizers” striving to maximize our own enjoyment, these development professionals must be getting some “jollies” that compensate them for the harsher living conditions.

Maybe those jollies come in the form of bragging rights about what appears to be an exotic adventure to folks back home, adrenaline rushes of pushing your comfort zone or simply the feeling of self righteousness that comes from working on poverty alleviation.

I’m aware that was just grossly cynical. Those in development like to think of themselves as idealistic. They will tell you (myself included) that they got into the field because they learned about glaring global inequalities and felt compelled to do something about it. Maybe they had an eye opening experience abroad, read something influential, or drew on religious or spiritual traditions that stress duty to fellow human.

However, if you scratch just beneath the surface (and, again, this is cynical) there’s something other than selfless idealism driving their decision – likely something to do with how they want to see themselves and how they want others to see them. This is probably true of most decisions, and it’s a rare person who is a true and pure altruist.

But the reality of development work is that, excepting a few dues paying years in the peace corps or other similar “field” experience, you actually don’t have to be totally self sacrificing to have a development career. You can still “make a comfortable living” filled with personal rewards. Those who work for big NGOs or consultancies probably live a more luxurious existence abroad than they would at home, negating the need to cynically question their motives.

But if you do live such a plush existence, you have to reconcile yourself to several uncomfortable paradoxes. First: you are, at the end of the day, personally profiting – and maybe at an indefensible rate – from poverty. Second: because of the nature of your work you have an amplified and discomfiting awareness of the unjust luxury of your comforts. Last, and most prosaically: the higher your standard of living, the farther away you are from empathizing with and understanding the plight of the poor – something crucial to your work.

Some have suggested that development workers (including well paid economists and consultants) do more “poverty immersion” to address some of these issues. Done right, that’s probably a good idea. Obviously, you can’t pauperize the profession or you’d drive out all the talent. So, it’s a conundrum debated in some form or another on many development blogs.

But, do you know who has managed to successfully address the purity of motive problem as well as the profiting from poverty problem that vexes development workers?


Missionaries are generally driven by moral, not self aggrandizing or self image motives, whatever you think of those morals. They are also willing to live with the communities they are attempting (whatever you think of those attempts) to help. And for long periods of time at significant material sacrifice. Despite their religious posturing, I’m going to hazard a guess that they’re better at listening to and understanding those communities than development professionals who fly in for weeks to months at a time or who live in-country in gated and heavily guarded communities.

I just think it’s ironic that as much as missionaries are popularly eschewed as dangerously paternalistic relics, robbing cultures of their legitimate heritage and unjustifiably conditioning aid on conversion, they also just might have something to teach the rest of us about working with and for others.