We moved to Kenya for reasons equal part idealism and adventure. We got jobs working for an NGO that does research on anti-poverty programs to assess which strategies (microloans, fertilizer subsidies, free bed nets...) were actually helping the people they intend to. Not every program you give your money to actually works well and there are often unintended consequences. The mission of this organization is to find out what works best and advocate to scale it up. We believed in it. We still do.
But working in the environment of research and policy development is like addressing community problems - problems that were right under our noses - with a sanitized 10 foot kiboko. We wanted to help in a more visceral way. We wanted to dirty our hands, but instead we were straining our eyes, looking at data and financial systems.
Still, living in this part of the world it's hard not to feel the heavy weight of your relative privilege and be pushed to do something more directly in your community.
So, we did little things. We raised money for an orphanage, sponsored some kids to go to school, gave a number of gifts and no interest loans. We were loose with almost all harambe requests. Now, that I'm only working very part time, I'm volunteering at a nutrition clinic.
But the real paid work feels too removed, too technocratic. The direct help we do give feels like a drop in the bucket. I've resigned myself to this unease. The shine has worn off my idealism and the pretense that we can move here and make some kind of a difference. I'm not sure how anyone sustains their idealism or feels they are making a tangible difference.
Most expats I've met here would share my sentiments and conflicts. Most, but not all. Probably not missionaries.
You know like most politically liberal spiritual agnostics, I was prepared to disdain missionaries. This idea that anyone would go to another part of the planet and tell people that what they have believed for millenia is wrong, even that they would burn in hell unless they changed their world view, is anathema to me. That any help missionaries could provide would be contingent upon a religious conversion seemed unjust and harmful. The whole thing smacked of paternalism.
But, let me tell you something: Sub Saharan Africa is already largely Christian. It's fully woven in the fabric of life. For better or worse, there are few left to convert. So, today missionaries come here largely to help. Sometimes it's to help churches, but often it's to help people - street children, orphans - the most vulnerable. Christians yes, but also Muslims and others. Sure, there's still a lot of God talk, and missionary sponsored self-help groups often start off with an opening prayers, but so do NGO staff meetings. Like I said, country is already very Christian.
And the missionary families I've met have been able to harness that elusive idealism and embed themselves into the community in ways not found among other expat families. It makes sense. It's easier, personally, to endure the distance from grandparents and Cheez-its if you believe in your calling to be somewhere. It's easier to be the odd-person out in a community of culturally different people and to commit to staying long term when you believe that you can make a difference. It's easier to push away the creeping cynicism of development work when you are taking the long, even eternal, view.
So, they are the expats who know Kiswahili, know the community and build actual tangible things that help people in the community. There's a part of me, an admittedly non-religious person, that longs for that.
But maybe that's weirdly selfish. NGO expats work on programs that help people, but often from a fancy office. Kenyans do the implementing because they know the community, the language the cultural barriers. Maybe that's how it should be? But it means that the expats, who are often in positions of power, don't know the community as well. We could probably use some missionary-style community integration.
Still, I've come to unexpectedly admire these missionary families and what they are able to achieve personally and in the community. I'm sure the criticism of paternalism might still be apt in some cases, and I'm not saying the whole model is without problems. Listen, I'm Jewish, for crying out loud, so all the Jesus talk often feels exclusionary. But we're all here to try and make a positive difference, and I think there's something to admire about the model of striving for solidarity with the people you are here to help, and anchoring your idealism in something larger than your self.