Friday, September 01, 2006

Back From Vacation

I got a new laptop! My brother so kindly brought me a sleek, lightweight little number and I just started playing with it tonight. I’m looking at it going, they make this stuff in the first world? Ship me home now! I mean, this thing doesn’t even have a PS/2 port for my mouse. Apparently in the 21st century developed world, mice use USB ports. And a little red light that senses movement, instead of a rolling dust magnet called a “mouse ball, snicker, snicker.”

Post-Vacation Decompression. Nick and Cath are winding down their whirlwind tour of Kenya, hopefully catching their flight out tonight. First I have to send them a big thank you (THANK YOU!) for tugging so much crap across the Atlantic for me, including probably 15 pounds of Clif Bars, trail mix, dried fruit, cereal, giant Toblerones and Swiss chocolate. Thanks to Mika and Guillaume for the 15 pounds of Clif Bars, trail mix, dried fruit, cereal (gone in three days), photos and hilarious letter. Thanks Mom for all the wrinkle cream and plane tickets. Hm, wrinkle cream and plane tickets sound like some ex-pat formula for coping in the developing world.

Just slowly transitioning back to PCV life since my wageni left town. It’s weird having just moved to a new site and organization with only a year left here. I’m not exactly starting over from scratch, but I still have to take the three-month “do nothing” period, where my primary responsibility to is to listen and observe and learn the needs of the organization and community, but restrain myself from starting any projects. I’m not strictly following this rule since there are other volunteers in my town who have asked me to help out with their projects, and I’m still working with a few groups from my last site. Hm, I feel like I’ve written this before in a previous post, and it sounded just as boring then as it does now.

What I Would Name My Dog If I Had One. We had a three-day intensive language training in June where I was speaking Kiswahili like a pro, and then promptly got lazy and forgot it all by the time I got back to my village. But the one thing I do remember is that there are at least three different expressions for “good Kiswahili.”

“Kiswahili sanifu means fluent Swahili,” our instructor, Kitui, said. “Kiswahili halisi means proper Swahili. And so does Kiswahili mwafaka.”

The four of us in the class started giggling. “What was the last one?”

“Kiswahili mwafaka,” he said.

“Mwafaka?” we repeated. Kitui nodded. Pretty soon we were four adults in our twenties and thirties with tears streaming down our faces laughing. Poor Kitui just looked at us quizzically and tried to continue the lesson.

“Very good,” he said, each time we pronounced “mwafaka” and burst into more tears laughing.

We finally stopped hyperventilating and collected ourselves, and explained why we were acting like idiots. “Mwafaka sounds like a curse word in English,” we said. “It gives the statement, ‘I speak Kiswahili mwafaka,’ a bit of a different connotation.”

Every so often our language instructors put on a skit for us where they imitate dumb things PCVs have done in their classes. Would not be surprised if this one shows up in their performance.

Phases of the Moon, Phases of Obsessive Anger. Okay, I’ll be honest. Living in Kenya involves a lot more negative emotiveness than I let on in my blog. As if you hadn’t guessed. In fact this blog is a diplomatic miracle by some estimates. But the frustration is mostly personal internal struggles with impersonal external factors, all manifesting themselves as obsessive rants in my head in the privacy of my own home or out loud in a safe circle of drunk, raving PCVs.

Anyway, the objects of my frustrations have evolved over time, although mostly boil down to the same things that have frustrated me from the beginning. Right now, it’s a sense of disempowerment and lack of problem solving skills on an individual level.

All my frustrations were triggered afresh three weeks ago when I met with a community group in the sugar belt near Kisumu, whom I’ve been working with for three or four months now. My irritatable, opinionated version is that this group seemed to think that creating change in their communities requires very little effort on their part. By “very little effort” I mean they had never truly thought through the project in question. What problem do they want to address? What is the best way to address it? Does the community really need it, or are there already systems, institutions or infrastructure in place that can be improved upon with fewer resources to solve the same problem? Or do they want to start the project in question because there happens to be a lot of government money available for, say, orphan and vulnerable children (OVC) projects this year?

I’m not EXACTLY saying this group was reluctant to get off their arses. I’m just saying there was a failure to grasp the reality of what goes into starting a large project like, for example, setting up an orphan support center. An honest mistake.

It’s one thing when a group approaches me and doesn’t really know where to begin. That’s common and understandable. People don’t have access to information about their own communities the way we’re used to in the U.S. The last time I’d met with this group, about six weeks ago, I had asked them to seriously consider the questions above, along with a bunch of others. I gave them a detailed list of items to investigate in order to conduct a needs assessment in their community and research what needed to be done to get the project off the ground, to sustain it, and to expand it long term.

I got to the meeting and they hadn’t done any of the research – recommendations I had made not for a giddy power trip, but because I believed it was the best place for them to start. So I tried to get them started again. I asked them if they knew of any similar existing services in their community, and they said no. I asked how they knew, and they said they lived there, so they knew.

It turned out that there were five other organizations that were already offering the exact same service in their community. Not two. Not even four. FIVE. And in this room full of so-called leaders and motivated change-agents, none of them had even made an effort to find out more about their own community. Why didn’t they consider any of my recommendations? If I answered that question honestly, this blog would lose its diplomatic miracle status. I’d even given this group a hard copy detailing how to conduct a needs assessment, one that I had written specifically for their project and their community, not a generic photocopy I got from one of my Peace Corps training manuals.

In the last meeting they had expressed interest in sending one of their members for a workshop. I had given them the phone number for a guy at an NGO who sponsors these workshops. Today I asked them if they had contacted him.

“No,” they said. “We wanted you to do it for us.”

“I don’t know this guy,” I said. “I’ve never met him. I’ve never spoken to him. I only know his name. The workshop is for your group, not for me. I’m not understanding why you want me to call him.”

“Because you’re a mzungu and you have more credibility.”

“It’s time to lend yourselves some credibility then,” I said.

On top of all that, the group’s chairperson handed me an application form that he had completed. When I asked what it was for, he said didn’t know. I asked why he had filled out the form and he grinned sheepishly because again, he didn’t know. I then asked what he wanted me to do with the form. He was either too embarrassed to tell me, or he didn’t know, because he couldn’t even speak at that point.

“My recommendation is that you contact the organization that gave you this form and find out exactly what it’s for,” I said. “Then you can decide if it’s really something you want to submit to them.”

I got the feeling I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. The guy is no dummy. And yet I was telling him, because he was acting like he didn’t know better. Why?

Why? Why?

There are times in Kenya when I’m truly baffled by people’s behavior. Anthropologists say that there is a rational explanation for everything people do. I don’t need a PhD in anthropology to say that that’s crap.

I left the meeting feeling like I had wasted not just that afternoon (including the time and cost of transport, which I paid for myself), but all the previous meetings I’d ever had with this group. They’d gotten nowhere. Okay, to be fair, they had registered themselves with the national governing body, and secured an office space, all for a project that would turn out to be redundant in their community. In their excitement to start this project, ostensibly because they wanted to apply for money as soon as possible, they had failed to think through their real reasons for wanting to do it, and whether those reasons had anything to do with benefiting their community. They ended up investing time and money to start a project that they scrapped in the end.

I was ready to abandon this group. Let them wallow in their harsh sugar belt lives. They didn’t have the commitment, independence, or problem solving skills to bring development to their communities. I went back to the crisp climate of my town nestled in the tea-covered escarpment and complained to my co-worker.

“Oh, no,” she laughed. It was a very Kenyan response which a year ago would have sent me through the roof. This is funny to you? Now I take it for what it is – sympathy and understanding and shared frustration disguised as light-hearted amusement. It’s like a member of a widow’s group once told me, “We women hide our suffering by being patient.”

Anyway, my co-worker eventually convinced me to change my mind. “Be patient,” she said, a familiar sentiment. “Don’t give up on them. This is how our Kenyan people are.”

She was right. I fumed for three days, the sugar belt group’s chairman sent me an sms apologizing for their lack of commitment and organization, and I am still planning to meet them again. I’m reevaluating my own approach and communication style to make sure they understand my role and their responsibilities. But next time, they’re paying for my transport.


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