Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A response to crazyfinger

I thought you made a really good comment to my last post and it gave me a really good place to jump off from so i'm posting my response to your comment as a new post. Again thanks for your questions. They definately stimulated my thinking.

I hear what you’re saying and I do believe when you say you’re coming from a supportive and Kind place.

Here’s where I’m coming from with my frustration:
I’ve seen many a ‘development’ project go horribly horribly awry owing to the backgrounds of the people that made decisions to implement it and the people hired to implement it.

It becomes about me when I and my family pay dearly, often with our lives for projects driven entirely by outsiders who haven’t the foggiest idea about what is happening on the ground. ‘Professionals’ who approach Africa’s problem with incredibly slanted and biased misconceptions. That’s when it becomes about me.

You’re not the first to espouse the “wait your turn, you’re still young and you’ll get your chance to change things when you’re older”
Its not what you said but its what I get out of you telling me that the movers and shakers started where I am now. Actually, Bill Gates started off in a different city and class situation. Gender, Race, Class and position within the global matrix still shape who has access to power and who becomes a mover and shaker….. To tell me and others like me that if we’re good and wait our turn at the policy-making table we will get a go at it is a lie that is not supported by the historical record.

What I’m saying is that its important to actively create space at the table for people like me and my friends while we are young. Young Black women from the third world who do have ideas about how the problems of their home country can be tackled. Before we get jaded and cynical. There is so much we could do with this energy and it makes no sense to frustrate us into diverting our energies into other pursuits. I think of other things I could do with my life other than Akili Dada. Jobs that would pay me impossible amounts of money to make sure that African’s come out more screwed than before. I could use my background and training to negotiate loans to African countries at horrible rates and conditions. It would certainly pay… And a lot too.

But that’s not what is driving me. I actually am still naïve enough to think that I can make a difference. That naivete and energy should be captured and its impact maginified. At least I’m hanging on to the last idea that my time and energy have value. Something that so many other African women give up on so early.

And I was thinking also, even though it’s a thin line, this blog is more about me sharing my personal experiences and less about Akili Dada. At least it’s a line that I’m working to make thicker and the distinctions more clear. Akili Dada the organization is more than just me, there is a whole board behind it. This blog is all me. So I’m the one that’s hysterical and self-concious. And I think the situation the continent is in calls for some hysteria and self-conciousness!!!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

young, educated, energetic, and frustratingly under-utilized

There are two images of Africans: we are either filthy rich elites who have gotten fat off corruption and assorted other evils, or we are starving masses of children covered in flies.

Nobody is seeing the young, well educated, ambitious, dedicated Africans who are coming up across the continent; Me, Betty, Wangui, Mueni and Laila…. A few who happen to be on the Akili Dada board.

I’m watching a televised report of a conversation held at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Don’t ask. Voice of America carries C-Span. Who knew C-Span was so globally ubiquitous that I can watch it sitting in my Nairobi apartment at almost midnight…..

Anyway, there are a bunch of folk from around the world (including Bill Gates, Bono, Mbeki, and my personal hero, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia) sitting around a table discussing the challenges facing Africa.
I can’t help but wonder, in all these conversations, so earnest and keen on improving Africa’s lot, are these people aware of people like my friends and I? Why are they not tapping into us and the limitless energy that we have?

I mean, here I am, I’ve got a really good education, incredible energy to burn, and am willing and ready to work to change the continent. Yet even as hard as I am trying, I cannot find anybody to pay me what I’m worth to work in Kenya. Mind you, not that they are not willing to pay obscene amounts of money to Americans and Brits to do the same kind of work! (I’m working hard not to digress into so many topics including how little sense it makes to hire foreigners to do work that I can do just as well, if not better because of my knowledge of the Kenyan social and cultural context. And how if I applied for a job from Kenya I’d get paid a fraction of what a foreigner would get paid for the same job. Seriously, lets talk about brain drain and how I’m not going to come back home and tolerate getting paid a tenth of what my less educated and lower ranked foreign colleague is getting paid simply because of my nationality!)

There is a huge and horrible double standard out there among external organizations working to solve African problems that African’s are unable to do development work. There is such blindness to the amazing numbers of young people like myself who are actually locked out of opportunities to work towards the continent’s betterment. And I do feel locked out. Excluded from something that I very much want to be part of.

I mean, honestly, I’m busting my hump with very few resources to accomplish the work of Akili Dada yet with the proper kind of investments, a project like Akili Dada could reach so many young women in Kenya and across the region! But the sad reality is that even the moderate amount of success we have had, is directly attributable to the fact that I live in the U.S. and I’m able to meet people and make connections there. If I lived in Kenya, Akili Dada would not exist. And how incredibly sad is that!!!

To me its incredibly frustrating to watch a group of world movers and shakers sit around a table and rue Africa’s lot while I, a young, highly educated young African woman sit at home bubbling with ideas and energy while my resources go untapped. That, I think, is truly Africa’s greatest tragedy.

There is a generation of us dying for space at the policy-making table, ready and willing to do what it takes to turn the continent around, but we have no idea how to get heard. And those at the table are too busy talking to see or even listen to us. Its frustrating. If only they knew the young people I know. If only they were friends with my friends…..I’d like to think that their conversations would sound different.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Babies and dogs....

On a more mundane note….My neighbors in the apartment next door have a 10 month old daughter. She’s adorable. But she’s recently taken to waking up and crying bloody murder starting at 3am!! She’s got a good set of lungs on her and her screaming goes right through the concrete walls, through the windows. For the last two nights I’ve found myself thankful for the super loud fridge that I have because it somehow muffles the cries of the child. Its weird, the cries of a child can pierce right through you. Its virtually impossible to sleep through that. I’d rather a freight train really. It wouldn’t tear at my heart so.

Then there are the dogs barking into the night... Kenya keep dogs for security purposes. Honestly, unless they are White, most Kenyans do not tolerate the idea of dogs as pets, all up in the house and on furniture.... Kenyan dogs live outside. But there is a history there. Dogs were used by the colonial state to terrorize Africans and were fed and treated better than Africans. I remember an interview with a colonial settler whose friend was attacked by the Mau Mau during the struggle for independence. She lamented how her friend’s dog was killed and neglected to mention the huge number of Africans that also died on that attack. That dog was more valuable in her calculations, than the Africans. From my time in Zimbabwe I know that dogs were also used in the same way by the Colonial and UDF Whites. Anyway, I digress…

So most Kenyans now have dogs for security. They are often intentionally underfed so that they are even meaner towards strangers and across many urban Kenyan neighborhoods dogs are heard barking late into the night. My parents’ neighborhood has a stray pack of dogs that are a menace after a certain time of night. In a strange way they kept us safe. No thugs would be crazy enough to venture out with stray dogs roaming about.

The thing with stray dogs in Kenya is that you don’t know if it’s a rabid dog or not. From my understanding (I admit that it could be misinformation), a rabid dog could act completely normal but then turn on you without any provocation since the disease gets into its brain. You could be walking along and cross paths with a perfectly normal looking dog that then turns on you and attacks you infecting you with the rabies. Because of this I’m always scared of dogs in the street. I hate it to in the States when some moron decides to take their dog off-leash while on a walk. You may know and trust your dog, but I DON’T!! grrrrrrrrrrr

Anyway, its about 10.30pm as I type this. I’m in my apartment. Well fed, watching T.V. on mute, and listening to a chorus of dogs in the neighbourhood. Tomorrow I have meetings with different organizations that would make good partners and friends to Akili Dada so I will spend my time doing that.

contradictions and frustrations

Its so weird that today, Rotary International (Kenya) had a lunch. Present were both the current president Kibaki and the immediate president Moi!! At the same event!!!

It must have been so weird for Moi to sit by and watch his successor enjoy the trappings of presidency that he had enjoyed for 24 years. It takes guts to sit back and and watch that. He’s gotten so much older and thinner!

Its amazing that this man I loathed so much, who headed Kenya since I was born, is now someone that I can recognize as good, even admire!

I do wonder though, in his secret thoughts, what made him step down. Why give it all up? Was it the winds of change blowing across the continent? Was it pressure from foreign governments? Is he ill and he knew the end was coming? WHY? Was it easy? It can’t have been. Its always hard to give up power…. For that reason, I admire the man.

Simon Matheri has been killed. He was the most feared criminal in Nairobi suspected of being behind the much dramatized crime wave that hit the city. Instead of being arrested and taken to court, newspapers report that he was shot in the head from behind in a standoff with police at around 3am. I wonder if he really did brandish an AK47 as alleged or if the police just decided to shoot him down to prevent him getting out on Bail or bribing his way out of justice. Much as I have a crush on the commissioner of police, I am skeptical on this one. Speaking of which, the commissioner was on T.V. again tonight. What an eloquent man! I think he definitely deserves his job. He is the best advocate for the police force they have ever had.

But back to the question of justice in Kenya The justice system here takes so long that eventually one will find a judge to bribe….

Delamere, the grandson of our former colonial terrorizer, Lord Delamare, is still languishing in jail after making sport of shooting Black Kenyans. Apparently they are taking their time hoping that Kenyans will forget what he did. Twice in two years he shot and killed Black people on his farm. How sad is it that 40 years after independence race is still an issue for us. And Delamare, what was he thinking, did he forget for a second of his colonial history. It’s the last thing I would do if my last name was Delamare and I lived on the Delamare farm, is get into the habit of shooting Black people whenever I felt like it. He was able to wiggle his way out of the first murder but surely, he was stupid to commit the second!

Its not just the justice system that drags its feet. So last year I officially changed both my first and last names. It was a long time coming and I’ll spare you the details here. After going through the legal part of it I submitted my application for a new identity card and passport in March of last year. I got my passport two weeks later!! I was totally blown away by how efficient the immigration department was in terms of passports. The National Identity card though is a different story. I kept checking up on it last year and finally gave up deciding to give the government one full year to sort the whole thing out. I went to pick it up last week, convinced that a year latter it should be printed and waiting for me. I was further prompted by a story in the news that the government department was overwhelmed by the number of uncollected ID cards. The card was not ready!! A whole year latter the guy had the nerve to tell me to try again next week!

Convinced that something else must be the matter, I went today to the headquarters of the ID department; the source, so to speak. And was informed that their computers were down and to try again tomorrow!

Now, let me place this in context. You need a National ID to do virtually anything in Kenya. That includes access major buildings in the city. You hand in your ID card upon entrance and are issued with a visitor’s pass. Not having access to a national ID really limits one’s life in Kenya. Virtually anything you ever need to do required and ID card! If I lived in Kenya full time my life would have ground to a halt by now. And being told to keep coming back week after week is the most frustrating thing ever! I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around how cumbersome it is to access some government services.

But again remember, I got my passport within two weeks as I was supposed to. So its not all government offices that are inept and cumbersome, just some. And unfortunately the ID folks are some of the most important offices that really cannot afford to be inept. That I think is the true cost of doing business in Kenya. In my experiences about half of the government machinery works and delivers quality services to the public (led by the passport folks!), the other half does not (and that includes the ID folks). Then there is the juxtaposition between the commissioner of police who is my hero, and the traffic cops who will solicit a bribe unembarrassed and shoot a criminal in the head from behind; The courts which hold an open house but then take seven years to hear the case of a stolen chicken. This is a country of contradictions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Poverty and attitude

I was standing in line for the bus no. 46 today after a long day trudging up and down town. First a bus came and let people who were at the back of the line get on. That got me because I’d been in line for a while and there is no reason for people who came after me to be able to get on the bus before me. Then, after some more frustrated waiting, this young woman comes up and just jumps in the queue! Granted it was behind me but that made me really mad still. I made a fuss about it despite the fact that I was not directly affected. I really hate waiting in line and I hate it even more when people jump the line!

Anyway, I soon found myself targeted by other people in the line who she had cut in front of. They went after me telling me to mind my own business! I couldn’t believe it. The no. 46 serves Kilimani, the wealthy suburb where I’m staying (but most people who live here own cars and rarely have to take public transport I’ve decided), as well as Kawangware, a really poor suburb.

My other experience queuing for a bus or matatu is the no. 58 which serves Buru Buru, not a wealthy area, but more white collar area of town where my parents’ house is. Had this woman jumped the queue on a no. 58 line, she would have been lynched! We did not take kindly to that mess and we made noise about it. The no. 46 folk seem to not mind.

So I can’t help but wonder if the differences are class differences. Do poor people care less for the sanctity of rules? Indeed, is it that poor people don’t follow rules because they are poor or are they poor because they don’t follow rules?

I see reluctance, through various interactions with people here, to follow the rules for the sake of following rules. If there is no-one to enforce the rules, then they don’t exist. For example, people don’t follow traffic lights unless there is a policeman around….. But I’d like to think that this is not just a Kenyan phenomenon. In the U.S. there are definite links between crime (talk about not following the rules) and poverty……

Is it that the poor just give up on the system because it seems to be so heavily weighted against them? Is it that they don’t get anything out of following the rules so why bother?


Its all tied into attitudes. I talked to a jobless relative this weekend who was blown away by my suggestion that she could just walk into an organization, offer to work as a volunteer, and be accepted. She insisted that she needed connections and to somehow use neopotism to land a position volunteering somewhere. That is just how closed off the system has been to people….

Because of my experiences living in the U.S. I am able to walk into a government office and demand the service that is due me without feeling like the person rendering the service is doing me a favor.

How long will it take to change Kenyan’s attitudes so they grow to expect what is truly theirs?

Starbucks and development

Starbucks has just signed a deal to buy coffee directly from Kenyan farmers. I’m glad for the deal but also skeptical. I’ve been boycotting Starbucks for years now because of the way they have historically traded coffee. My father was a small scale coffee farmer. Much of my family is. Its amazing the prices they get for their coffee compared with what multinationals like Starbucks make. So this deal is interesting. I think these are the kind of investments that Sachs talks about as being necessary to get countries up the next rung on the development ladder.

Rungs of development. A ladder where India is one step above Bangladesh which is one step above Malawi….I’m wrestling with this one. This teleology of what human eventuality is about.

I used to think that the whole idea of development was a sham. I went through a phase of questioning the whole value system inherent in the ‘development’ project. The superiority complex that comes along with labeling some developed and others developing. I’m past that now. No mother wants to watch her child die for lack of medicine for an easily preventable disease. If development is easing that mother’s access to the medicine, then heck, develop away!!

I’m still not down with the superiority complex that many ‘development’ workers come with though. I’ve been exposed to one too many of them who think that because I’ve lived in the States I’ll join in roundly condemning the state of everything in Kenya. Eeeh No! There are a lot of things that we need to improve but at the end of the day, this is still my country. And there is much that I’m proud of.

I watched the police commissioner on T.V. in a call-in show on KTN last night. He was completely open and vulnerable to the public. He took the criticism, explained the police approach to the current ‘wave’ of crime that is sweeping the country, and was the best ambassador the police could ever hope to have. I was so impressed by how articulate he was and totally bought into the vision that he was selling. I can’t believe it! Not only would this kind of public interview and scrutiny not have happened in the Moi days, its amazing for any democracy! Again I’m so impressed by the changes and improvements that the transition has brought. For example, Today I got interviewed by the CID (equivalent of FBI) about Akili Dada. This is part of the registration process for the organization. They have to make sure that we are not making Impressively, it was a really good experience. Hassan and I talked for hours and afterwards we talked about how he can help Akili Dada reach out to women in his home district. I hope something comes out of it.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Introductions and Contradictions

February 7th 2007. (10 hours in the country and blogging aready!)So this blog is going to be an interesting experiment. You’re actually getting an all access pass to my journal. I’m going to do this blog the same way I do my journal. On some days I have tons to say, and on others I’m too busy experiencing life to write…. I’m trying really hard to be honest to myself about my experiences and not focus on writing as a blog for outsiders. So, take all this with a grain of salt. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into what goes on into my head and if I do a good job of it, I will transport you to Kenya and show you a different side of the country, away from the tourist brochures or those infomercials of starving malnourished African orphans in slums (I hate those damn things. I think that’s an evil genre of TV. Its like porn for Westerners so they get to feel good about themselves for being so bright and smart and transforming their societies into vehicles of mass consumption at the expense of the rest of the world. No, you’re not so smart, you were just born lucky. Now stop exploiting children on those damn infomercials!)Aaahh I feel much better now.o.k. back to telling you what to expect from this blog. You’ll basically get a lot of me sharing my experiences here, processing them from both an individual standpoint but also trying to relate them to the broader global context through a reading of Jeffrey Sach’s the end of poverty. The book selection is thanks to Willy who always introduces me to new things then graciously allows me about six months for me to discover how cool they are. He told me about the book months ago but I was too clueless to realize how much I would love it. I finally got to check it out at the airport in San Francisco and bought it. I started reading it on the plane and I’m hooked. I plan on reading it and engaging with the text as I blog throughout this trip. I know, so academic…. But would you expect any different?So that’s what this blog is about: me experiencing things and processing them at an individual level and at a global level. Its basically a lot of me wrestling with issues.I really hope you will find it interesting enough to engage with me as I go through this process. Post comments to my entries and let me know what you think!

This is a country of contradictions. On the way from the airport a police officer straight up asked for a bribe. He didn’t bother trying to find a ruse for why the vehicle was contradicting a myriad of bizarre laws often made up on the spot. He just asked for money just because. He did not get one.

Fast forward to tonight where there was a documentary about the first ever open house for the judiciary. The judiciary is actually paying gobs of money to advertise its services to the public. To let people know what they do and how the average citizen can access legal services. In what country does the judiciary ever have an open house to sell its services to the citizens? I mean damn!! If ever there was a move to improve the quality of democracy, that’s it! I’m totally impressed and blown away.

On to more mundane stuff…
I checked into my apartment this morning. Damn!! Its nice. It’s a partially furnished studio (has some strange looking couches, a coffee table with stools, and a functioning TV on a stand that doubles as a bookshelf for me) I’m so excited especially about the T.V.! I have it on right now as I type this. The complex is a wonderful island of tranquility in a loud fast city. Its so worth the $500 a month. If only for the peace and feeling of security it is buying me. This is the first night spent in Kenya where I feel safe. I’m behind a tall wall topped by electric fencing and patrolled by guards. I’ve never felt safe on previous visits. This is partially because of the fact that Kenya apparently has a higher crime rate than Uganda and Tanzania combined. My parents’ home is in a rough neighborhood where, growing up, we did hear people getting violently robbed in the middle of the night. That kind of environment does not do good things to a child’s mind.

I kind of feel guilty for securing safety for myself while so many others will spend a terrorized night in their own homes. But I recognize my limitations and know that I can’t provide that for them. I used to always tell Jill this and I believe it more now, My first and foremost responsibility is to myself. If I am well, I can take care of others.

With that, I launch into the world out there after a comfortable night’s sleep in a safe apartment. I’m now focused on trying to settle in by buying the essentials like plates, a stove and soap, and re-establishing contacts with friends…….
Kenya, here I come!!!