Nairobi Diaries 5: The Day of the African Child and Obama’s Address to Africa
As I mentioned before in the summary of my itinerary in Kenya [here], probably the most amazing day of my trip was June 16, the International Day of the African Child. I don’t know if this was a serendipitous coincidence or if the organizer of the trip planned it that way, but it was an extraordinarily perfect coming together for me of event and meaning. The Day of the African Child has been a major event throughout Africa for almost twenty years, organized by the Organization of African Unity and The United Nations Childrens Fund. It commemorates the anti-apartheid uprising of students in Soweto in 1976. The students were massacred by the South African government, but the Day of the African Child celebrates the spirit of young people working towards a better world.
Because of my experience on this day last month, I was very curious to see what Barack Obama would say this weekend in Ghana [text here] [video here], especially since I experienced the Day of the African Child just a few miles from where Obama’s father once lived. Not surprisingly, he concludes his speech with an appeal to the young people of Africa to hold their leaders accountable and build good institutions. It is common for politicians everywhere in the world to focus on the children to fix the errors of their parents and grandparents. In America children often become either something of a symbolic scapegoat or something the stuff that dreams are made of in these speeches, so I’m usually critical of such rhetoric, but in this particular case, Obama was right to do so, for as he mentioned in his speech, children and youth make up the overwhelming majority of the population in Africa. To see the truth of this, one merely has to take a walk and look around — children were everywhere; middle-aged adults were not. However, while I and so many Africans appreciated Obama’s speech, I had some gut-level problems with it too — gut-level problems that I’m not sure how to parse out. So, I’d like to narrate the amazing experience I had that day and as I go along I’ll see if I can use that experience to theorize a response to Obama.
To summarize the day in a single sentence, my colleagues and I were taken to several sites by social workers for Catholic Relief Services (CRS): an orphanage, the homes of three men whom CRS was helping, a theatrical competition among students celebrating the day, a parish compound also celebrating, and finally a Savings and Internal Lending Communicty (SILC). As soon as we arrived at the orphanage, a group of the children were paraded out and sang a song for us. In addition to caring for and teaching the children, the nuns raised crops and chickens for food. Most of the children there had lost their parents to AIDS, and I remember one girl who was so malnourished when she was admitted to the orphanage that even now she could still not stand up — her legs were so thin and undeveloped.
Later we visited the house of a man and his twenty-year-old son. The man had lost his wife to AIDS, and CRS had helped him build a new home. The man told us the story of his fall and his redemption, and the social workers translated from Luo to English. We then visited another man who told a similar story.
The third man we met was really just a boy, age fourteen, who was caring for his little brother after both his parents died and his older brother disappeared. When we visited him, his neighbors were helping him build a new home out of mud and wood. I doubt this boy would have had the opportunity to hear Obama’s speech, much less take his advice to hold the elected officials accountable. But at the same time, he perfectly illustrates Obama’s “yes, we can” message that I saw written at the top of a chalk board in a elementary school classroom in Nairboi. Obama is right that “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” and this boy could be the poster-child of that message. Obama is also right that it needs strong institutions, not corrupt strongmen, but on the other hand, we shouldn’t be surprised if a 14-year-old allies himself with a strongman to survive. As much as we might pretend that democracy is nothing more than transparent elections and accountable bureaucracies, it has also always been a network of strategic, ad hoc alliances. The people we met were allied by necessity, if not also by faith, with CRS — whose recent message [here] to Obama was essentially to continue support for organizations like CRS, because they are both strong and necessary.
After visitng these men, we briefly attended a competition where selected students from various schools in the area were performing songs, dances, and theatrical skits in honor of the Day of the African Child. Our itinerary was tight, so we could only stay for an hour and see a few performances. We had a lunch appointment we were already late for at a parish compound.
I think this compound was chosen for us to visit because it contained a CRS sponsored center for distributing antiretroviral therapy (ART) for combatting HIV. But we didn’t have much time to visit that, because when we arrived, a crowd of men, women, and children were in the midst of enjoying a celebration in which young people sang, danced, and recited poetry.
After lunch at the parish, we got in our trucks once again to visit a Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC), of mostly women and a few men. A SILC group is not the kind of microfinancing that most Americans have heard about, involving loans from banks or NGOs to individuals and communities. Rather, these men and women lend money to each other, usually just a few dollars here and there — just enough for emergencies and the proverbial “rainy day” (which in Kenya is more like the proverbial drought.)
To get to our appointment, we walked along a small trail until we came to a small house made of mud with a lovely view of a valley, and in the shade of a tree sat about forty men and women. We could talk with them about how their community got started, what the benefits as well as the difficulties were, and of course why so many more women than men. They were shy about answering this last one, but finally one man stood up and boldly admitted than men were stubborn and didn’t listen to others. It took me a while before I realized that not only were there fewer men because men were less likely to join such cooperative communities; there were also fewer men because they were more likely to die of HIV for precisely the reasons he gave. It wasn’t until the very end of the meeting were my colleagues and I informed that all the members of this SILC had HIV.
What I’ve so far left out of this blog is my own feelings. I don’t know how to make sense of these. There were too many, and they were too strong. On the previous day, the administrator of a hospital said to me that he would get to heaven before I would, because he’d already been spending time in purgatory. But later, one of my colleagues, a professor of theology, remarked that he felt God’s work was here. Both of these statements resonate strongly, and while one captures the horror, sadness, and struggle of the everyday, the other captures the hope and the joy — because after all, the there was so much beauty. . . the children were dancing on their day. . . but I don’ t know. Any meaning I put on the experience seems to depend on the context I hang around it. Obviously thinking about those contexts and making sense of things is the whole point of my blog, right? But I’m struggling with out to think about this one. Paradoxically, I know this will be one of the most meaningful days of my life, perhaps precisely because I don’t know how to make sense of it.
During the Day of the African Child, I wasn’t thinking about Barack Obama at all, but listening to his speech this weekend, I thought maybe I could make sense of this experience by putting it in dialogue with his speech. That is (I think) one of the other goals of theory — to foster dialogue. My experience has helped me see a tension in Obama’s speech. On the one hand, he encouraged a self-sufficient democracy that is not only transparent and accountable but also organic to its community, but on the other hand, he recognized the unavoidable relationship between African countries and the United States — a relationship that once was colonial but now (Obama hopes) will become more of a partnership. And indeed, words such as “partnership” and “solidarity” are the words CRS also uses. What these grand conceptualizations seem to miss is the everyday — the often expedient strategies for getting by that the individuals in the SILC as well as the social workers for CRS need to use. Obama was wise enough to recognize this everyday struggle, but it is hard to figure out the relationship between it and his abstract policy. The role of transnational organizations such as CRS is praiseworthy, but it is also peculiar. As the staff of CRS explained to us, their goal is (almost paradoxically) to end the need for CRS — they work towards their own disolution. But if democracy is meant to be an ”enduring institution” derived organically from the people, then where does an NGO like CRS (much of whose funds comes from the U.S. government) fit? And where do these people whom I met, who all look to CRS for help, fit? And why did I have the nagging, creepy feeling that a lot of what I saw was a show put on for the visitors from America — a show put on in expectation of what? What were we all expecting from each other? What were we anticipating? From this vantage point, the abstract notion of corruption so often levelled at African governments is harder to see. Instead, what we see is various people and organizations making do with what they got and making meaning and finding joy where they can.
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