Monday, July 03, 2006

Listening Skills

I realized this weekend that by the time my COS (close of service) rolls around in August 2007 I will have attended three July 4th parties sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Nairobi, which is basically a chance for American embassy staff, PCVs and Marines to get together and eat hot dogs and have a tug of war. PCVs always get a goody bag full of free toothpaste, soap and other hygiene products donated by various companies who know how dirty and cheap we are. Score.

Life in Kenya has been a bit disorienting lately. It's weird to have a capital like Nairobi, where there are so many western-style amenities and a large middle class, and then go back to a place dotted with mud huts and banana farms and women carrying firewood on their heads. It used to be that I looked forward to going home to the serenity and familiarity of my village, but lately my community doesn't really feel like my own (drop me an email if I haven't told you all about my supervisor going nuts), and towns like Kisumu, Nairobi and Eldoret are my refuge from a culture that I understand better than ever, yet accept no more than I did a year ago.

I met an American grad student at the July 4th party who is doing a summer internship with the UN in Kenya. She was the perfect example of why I've become a little jaded about the international development community. I really think most development workers have impressive academic credentials from top universities, are pretty intelligent people who have lived in different countries, and can regress the hell out of any policy issue, but have never spent enough time in the cultures they're working for to really understand why most sustainable development programs are neither sustainable nor development.

The longer I'm here the more I understand why Kenyan culture is the way it is, and the more I realize I'll never fully understand why Kenyan culture is the way it is. I see that there is logic to the way people behave, whether I agree with the value system it's based on or not. And I realize that the reason most development programs aren't successful is because the people designing and implementing them don't understand the culture and people that they're trying to benefit. Development needs to happen at the hands of locals, not foreigners with good hearts, deep pockets and no freaking clue.

I wonder how many policy makers and program designers have actually lived in a rural Kenyan village, talked to people living their about all the things affecting them - traditional customs like circumcision and wife inheritance, gender roles, HIV. I met an American doctor living in Western Kenya who has spent years researching the AIDS epidemic from a Kenyan cultural perspective. His observation over the years is that when Americans brought over "AIDS awareness," they actually brought over the American moral debate and culture war over AIDS - teaching abstinence-only vs. autonomous decision-making skills - and we've never bothered to ask Kenyans what they think of AIDS in their own country. And how can we distinguish what they really think from what Western health and development workers have told them to think?

The doctor facilitated a lively discussion between PCVs, Kenyan Peace Corps staff and Kenyans from the local community about the way the development industry has dealt with AIDS in Africa. One of the Kenyan Peace Corps staff asked, "Why can't we just tell everyone who is HIV positive to stop having sex instead of just giving out ARVs, which don't cure them but only help them live longer? New infections are caused by infected people having sex after all."

There was a lot of thinly veiled eye rolling and scowling from the Americans, but the only comment was from one PCV who said, insightfully I thought, that in any other audience the Kenyan would have been instantly torn apart by the Americans for his views. In most situations I think we're all still quick to pounce on any views that go against our own value system, but personally it was a reminder of how hard it is for me to be humble and not jump to conclusions everytime a Kenyan says something that offends me. And yet as little as I understand Kenya, I still understand a thousand times more than most Americans.

As I was explaining to the American grad student how deeply ingrained female circumcision, wife inheritance and other traditional practices are in Kenyan culture (in many tribes they are fading quickly but in the villages you still see a lot of resistance to change), she kept scowling and shaking her head and saying, "There must be a way to educate people so they stop doing these things." And I realized how perfectly her question embodied all the well-intentioned arrogance and utter cluelessness of Western aid workers, including Peace Corps volunteers (though to a lesser, more cynical degree). Somewhere in there we all know that the only people who can address Kenya's problems are Kenyans. But yet we all want to do something to help.

I tend to think all we can do is let Kenyans tell us about themselves, then go back to America and tell our friends and family about it. The Peace Corps has three official goals, paraphrased below, but I think only two of them are realistic.

1. To provide the host country with volunteers trained with some semblance of technical knowledge in some area of development the host country needs. Health, education, small enterprise, fish farming...etc.

2. To create a cultural exchange that raises host country nationals' awareness of Americans and our culture.

3. To create a cultural exchange that raises Americans' awarenes of host cultures.


Blogger bankelele said...

A very enlightening post. There needs to be more interaction with rural folk and it’s a shame that so many ideas are devised and programs are run by people with just a superficial idea about the lives they affect

6:49 PM  
Blogger renee said...

What a great post. It's always interesting when I discribe Kenya and what you guys are doing there to people from here, I always get the American views of how problems should be solved, but they seem to forget the real picture sometimes.

7:54 PM  

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