Thursday, July 13, 2006

Pondering On the Slow Train

We're on the slowest train in Africa, rattling our way through the Rift Valley, peering down into lush green valleys full of maize, dense forests, velvety pasturelands and a thin jagged brown river. I've just asked Devin and Shinita why there's so much poverty in Kenya when everywhere we look there is an abundance of natural resource, fertile farmland and healthy crops. It's a complicated question, and we debate for about ten minutes before we shrug our shoulders and sigh in resignation. We don't really know the answer. Kenyans don't really know the answer.

A Kenyan Peace Corps staff member once old me, "Your village has no excuse for being poor. You have fertile soil, constant rain, lots of land for farming and grazing, your cows give lots of milk, you have tea and pineapple cash crops." On an individual level it seems like people just aren't organized and forward thinking enough to use their resources to their full potential. But that's an oversimplified interpretation. "It would be so simple, if only they would..." It's easier said than done.

Then there's the bigger picture. Road infrastructure is so poor that transport costs are prohibitive for most small scale farmers who try to sell domestically. The U.S. and other developed nations' farm subsidies make the cost of exporting Kenyan cash crops prohibitive as well, except for the largest growers. NGOs buy up a lot of the crops from rich landowners, so neither the money nor the food goes back to the local communities. And then there's...for example...

In my community there is a civil servant, a government employee, who is known to be corrupt. He is supposed to serve our location, which is one of the smallest administrative jurisdictions (it goes, top to bottom: national, provincial, district, division, location, and sublocation). He answers to the Ministry of Health in Nairobi, the national headquarters, NOT to his bosses at the District, who are all aware of his irresponsible work ethic. Because all the decision-making is centralized at the headquarters, the process of getting him fired for his widely known professional transgressions would take a lot of organization, patience and time. When this civil servant steals money from community groups made up of village farmers - who have no reliable transport, no cell phone, no internet access and no money - he knows that for these poor communities, organizing to throw out the bums probably wouldn't be a very rational use of their time. On top of all this, there so much turnover in all the levels of Ministry admin that a case can easily get lost in the shuffle everytime someone new comes on board.

I want to read a book called As They See It, by Raymond Downing, an American doctor who has lived in Kenya for over 15 years, whom I met a few weeks ago. In his book he talks about AIDS in Africa and why Africans - leaders and villagers - think it has continued to spread despite the increased availability of information and drugs. I think a lot of his findings can be applied to a lot of the social problems in Africa, including poverty, and I also think that until Westerners start listening to what Africans have to say about their own problems, and letting Africans find their own solutions, we're not going to see a lot of improvements. Western solutions, in my opinion, haven't worked because they're not tailored for African culture. How could they be when we don't understand it, and after being in Africa for decades we still can't understand it? There's a lot of PCVs who feel like the best solution would be for all foreign aid to just pull out of Kenya kabisa, cold turkey. The presence of foreigners only reinforces a false sense of dependence on Western-designed solutions that don't work in non-Western cultures.


Kiswahili language lesson:

In our sleeper car there is this sign over the window that says, in both Swahili and English:

Ni hatari kujitokeza nje ya dirisha.
It is dangerous to lean out of the window.

I find the word kujitokeza humorous. It's translated as "to lean" but when you break it down literally it looks like this:

ku = to
ji = reflexive verb infix meaning to do something to yourself, e.g.
jitayarisha -> prepare (yourself), get (yourself) ready; tayari = ready
jisaidia -> help yourself, an idiom meaning to use the toilet
jifunza -> learn, or literally, to teach yourself

toka = go out of
eza = causative verb suffix indicating that something is being made to happen

So, kujitokeza literally means to make yourself go out (the window). Somehow all those actions you inflict on yourself just to stick you body out the window makes for a funny image in my head.


Post a Comment

<< Home