Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Lingering Question from the Maasai Mara

I met this group of American travelers when I was at the Maasai Mara with Patrick in March. They were fascinated with the fact that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, and suddenly I found myself cornered at the head of the dinner table while everyone shouted questions at me as if I were holding a press conference.

A few people in the group had done some short-term volunteer work as part of their trip. It was an acknowledgement of their sheltered middle-class American life, and their attempt to step out of it and see what the “real” Africa is like. Poverty! Death! Civil Unrest! They figured the best way to do it was to spend a few weeks volunteering with AIDS orphans in Uganda and Tanzania.

One older couple was so moved by what they saw at the orphanage that the idea that what they had experienced might be my daily life left them in awe. The husband, Don, asked me, “How do you deal with seeing such sad things everyday?”

I didn’t know how to answer him, because I was thinking, “I really don’t see sad things everyday. Maybe I should start paying more attention.”

I just shrugged and gave him some lame answer. “I don’t know, I guess you just get used to it.”

But the truth is that Africa is not a land of perpetual tragedy. Yes, I walk around my village and see poverty everywhere. Very few people own clothes without at least a hole in them. Hungry babies toddle barefoot and commando through chicken poo while their drunk fathers stagger around the market. From our Western perspective, this is all very tragic. For my Kenyan friends in the village, this is life. Life is hard. But why should it be tragic?

One day Hillary was unusually quiet so I asked him if something was bothering him.

“Yes,” he said. “I am really struggling to find money for my family. And I’m really disturbed about the way the meeting went today.”

We commiserated about the meeting, and then I said, “So what can you do about your family?”

I thought he was in a real bind and wanted to ask to borrow money, but he only said, “Oh, I will find a way. I have been living this way for over thirty years. It’s the way of life.”

That was the moment I realized that I could stop feeling guilty for not giving people money when they ask. No Kenyan has ever taken it personally when I say no. People were struggling before I arrived and they’ll be struggling after I leave. It sounds selfish and heartless, but the truth is that it’s not my responsibility to feed another person’s family. I have helped some of my friends in the past, either with money to buy food, to start an income-generating project, or to take their sick wife to the hospital, and I will probably help someone again.

But it’s some strange sense of socialism that I picked up somewhere, that makes me feel guilty when I don’t help someone who has less money than me. The fact is that MY money can’t help most people. I’m just a microeconomic insignificance. I’m not really even helping the people I’ve helped. I’m glad my friend was able to take his wife to the hospital in time. I’m glad when my friend’s kids can eat dinner. But the next time they need money and I’m not around, what will they do? Maybe they will find money, maybe they won’t. But that’s tomorrow’s worry. Am I really helping when I only solve today’s worry? (As a development worker, I say no.)

I still think about Don’s question a lot. Maybe I’m just obtuse, or maybe I’ve become desensitized to what I see. But sometimes I really do forget how poor some of my friends are. One friend told me that he hasn’t had money to buy soap lately, and that he has been eating dinner outside, under the moonlight, because he can’t afford to buy paraffin for his lamp. It suddenly struck me as tragic, and I felt completely helpless to do anything for him.

Kenyans put on such a strong face. I’ve met widows who tell me about their lives, and I think, “I would not be alive at your ripe old age. I would have jumped off the escarpment by now.” Once during a meeting a widow was explaining how she had nothing because a tree fell on her house and crushed it in a storm. She started sobbing and I remember thinking, “I’ve never seen a Kenyan cry. This is new.”

An interesting cultural note. I can’t attest to fully understanding the meaning attached to crying in Kenya, but to oversimplify, I gather that it is seen as a sign of weakness. In the U.S., crying is seen as a normal and healthy way to express emotion. In Kenya, men should NEVER cry, at least in the Nandi tribe. Women don’t bother to cry. It doesn’t do any good, they say. After we left the meeting where the widow broke into tears, Hillary said, “She shouldn’t have cried. It doesn’t bring the house back.” (Talk about major emotional invalidation. As much as I like him, I wanted to strangle him.) Instead, women are supposed to be patient through their suffering. It makes it sense how Christianity has taken hold so strongly here. It’s easier to accept suffering when you believe that God has a better life for you after this one.

There is a lot of happiness in these communities. Struggle and suffering are as much a part of life as love and celebration. By extension, death is much more an accepted part of life here, even though mourning is observed just as ritualistically as it is in our culture. You can’t escape the reality of death when you live so much closer to the cycle of life than we do in the West. Crops grow and die; cows, chickens and sheep are born and die; babies are born and die; young and old alike get sick and die.

It’s not the things I see that are hard to deal with. What I do feel sadness about are the root causes of the things I see everyday. Corruption. Tribalism. Gender inequality. Things that are invisible pour les yeux, yet very real.

I think the key to dealing with the frustration of these things is accepting why I’m here. I can do my tiny part – talking to girls, encouraging them to be leaders, etc – but mostly my power lies in my circus sideshow novelty. People come to barazas, meetings and lectures because they want to hear what the mzungu has to say. Sometimes it’s the only time so many people get together in a single place, and it’s when I can suggest to groups how to begin working together. Sure they could do it without me, but up until now they haven’t. Why not use my freak status to mobilize them? I won’t single-handedly weed out corruption or anything else, but once these communities stare at each other across these packed classrooms and see their own power, maybe they will.

Most of all, the key is accepting that I will most likely leave here after two years and have only left one legacy – not of a person who helped build a new gravity-fed water tank or lifted 20 widows out of poverty…let’s get real, it probably ain’t gonna happen – but of the kind-hearted mzungu who strangely looked like a China but spoke some Kiswahili and liked ugali and had an amazing shamba and some pretty good notes about HIV and AIDS.

But even then, I flatter myself.


Post a Comment

<< Home