Theory Teacher's Blog

Nairobi Diaries 9: the Ethics of Aid and the Catholic Church

Two obvious understatements: (1) Kenya has been seriously affected by HIV, and the Catholic Church does quite a lot of AIDS relief work there; (2) the Catholic church is officially against the use of condoms and many of the other things that social workers in Africa think need to be done to address HIV properly. Contradiction? Problem? A valid disagreement about what works best? Or maybe just an effective division of labor?

I ask this question (and don’t expect me to answer it) in light of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s provocative statement on a segment of NPR’s Speaking of Faith in December 2008 entitled “The Ethics of Aid.” His host Krista Tippet was surprised and baffled that he’d rather white people in Europe and the United States stop giving aid to Africa — that no aid was better than misguided aid. He compares the 21st-century desire to help Africa to the 19th-century desire to colonize it. His biggest criticism is directed at those Westerners who seem to want to save their own souls and alleviate their guilt by donating something — something that ends up being temporary and soon forgotten by the donor. Such ineffective programs help the Westerner imagine themselves as saviors of the poor Africans who — in this imagination — can’t save themselves. However, as far as I know, Wainaina hasn’t said anything specifically about the Catholic Church or any of the programs I witnessed, and I am curious about what he would say. CRS’s programs aren’t temporary fly-by-night, feel-good charities, and the staff of CRS are mostly Africans themselves working with local organizations and culture. After all, about 33% of Kenyans are Catholics.

As several of my earlier Nairobi Diaries mentioned before, much of my trip was about this situation. Whether in the background or in the foreground, both HIV and the Catholic church were very much present. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one of the largest non-governmental organizations doing AIDS relief there. Most of CRS’s budget for AIDS relief comes not from the church itself but from the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) set up by President George Bush in 2003 — which is to say, it comes from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). PEPFAR has been much praised for the widespread distribution of antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications free of charge to the poor and needy around the world. Many non-governmental organizations, both religious such as CRS and non-religious, have collaborated effectively with international agencies and national governments all over the world to make this happen. However, what has been controversial for a long time about both PEPFAR and the Catholic Church’s involvement in AIDS relief  is the conservative “family values” agenda that severely hampers aid workers in their efforts to do what they think they should to address the real roots of the problem. See [here], for just one example of this criticism. Some worry that such efforts may just prolong the problem. I personally wonder whether PEPFAR creates a dependency in Africa on ART so that the corporations that manufacture it can continue to rake in money from the American taxpayer (though admittedly I have no idea if these companies are making a profit off it or not.) I also couldn’t help but wonder if the evangelical presence of the Catholic and protestant churches in Kenya were not being deliberately strengthened by PEPFAR dollars, and I wondered what would happen if the U.S. government allowed such aid to support HIV programs organized by socialist or Muslim organizations. (And I think I need to emphasize something about USAID, because a friend of mine doubted me — I saw USAID signs all over rural Kenya,  including at the Day of the African Child events that I attended.)

In any case, the biggest criticism of PEPFAR and USAID is that the money comes with strings attached. In the case of CRS, the money seems to be tied to identity politics; for example, when I asked one CRS worker about the difficulty of fighting AIDS within the limits of U.S. government and papal policy, she implied that their identity as a Catholic institution was part of what made them effective and ought not be compromised.

In particular, Pope Benedict XVI is somewhat notorious for stating during his first visit to Africa that (against all evidence to the contrary) “the problem [of AIDS] cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.” For the full text of that statement see [here], and for just a couple of reactions, see [here] and [here]. Naturally, the African Bishops fully endorse the Pope’s position as you can see [here]; what else could they do? While I was in Kenya, I wondered whether this policy was adhered to by those who had to work with HIV cases everyday. And I wondered this several times out loud. Do the CRS social workers strictly follow papal decrees? It’s impossible to know for sure what the answer to that question is… but… when we were interviewing a poor farmer with HIV who received assistance from CRS, and he proudly told both us and his case worker that he now used condoms. (I was afraid to ask how he was able to afford them, considering that he couldn’t even afford a tin roof for his mud home without CRS assistance.)

Interestingly, the Pope’s comment about condoms was said in passing during an interview, not during an official speech. His speeches given in Africa never made any recommendations about sexual practice. Catholic TV’s coverage of the Pope’s visit focused entirely on the ethics of reconciliation in the context of violent civil conflict.

I think liberal media such as the Huffington Post  have made too much of the condom comment and done so in a rather unsophisticated way, when you consider the issue in the context of regional violence, systemic poverty, government corruption, human trafficking, child labor, etc.  And of course, this is exactly the context that the Pope was addressing, so if we are to evauate the Pope’s overall mission, we need to think more broadly about the his emphasis on personal and religious ethics as a solution to the various problems in Africa — problems that everyone living in Africa recognizes to be extremely complex, in part because Africa is far, far, far more diverse than the average politician in America or Europe seems to realize.

So, for instance, in his first speech ever delivered in Africa, after detailing the horrors of regional violence and human trafficking, the Pope said,

At a time of global food shortages, financial turmoil, and disturbing patterns of climate change, Africa suffers disproportionately: more and more of her people are falling prey to hunger, poverty, and disease. They cry out for reconciliation, justice and peace, and that is what the Church offers them. Not new forms of economic or political oppression, but the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21). Not the imposition of cultural models that ignore the rights of the unborn, but the pure healing water of the Gospel of life. Not bitter interethnic or interreligious rivalry, but the righteousness, peace and joy of God’s kingdom, so aptly described by Pope Paul VI as the civilization of love.

Obviously he is not giving technocratic solutions but searching for guiding principles… but hold on a second…. Am I reading this incorrectly or is the Pope’s solution to child slavery and ethnic violence really that we ban abortions? And exactly how are “righteousness” and the “Gospel of life” going to address the global problems he lists? My knee-jerk reaction is to critique the Pope via another theologian, Reinhold Neihbur, whose famous book Moral Man and Immoral Society argues in a Marxist sort of way that individual morality (such as the Pope seems to be speaking of) cannot solve systemic, social problems.

But the Pope’s thinking might be a bit more complex. Later, right after I came back from Kenya a little over a month ago, he delivered his third Encyclical “Charity in Truth” that focuses on the ethics of global capitalism and suggests that the logic of the market only works if there is a moral consensus guiding it, and of course there isn’t any such consensus, and in a “fallen world” such as ours, there never will be, implying that regulations and global governance is perhaps necessary. I would agree with him there, except that he also seems to me to be implying that the Vatican might be a good candidate for governing the globe. [Here] is a somewhat incoherent response to that encyclical by People for Peace in Africa whom we met on my trip and whom I mentioned in Nairbi Dairies 2. And [here] and [here] are a couple other summaries because I definitely don’t have time to read the whole thing — yo, it’s 144 pages!

One of the theoretically interesting upshots seems to be his notion that capitalism may be moving into a new phase beyond the simple profit motive, beyond simple commercial value, and towards a realization that social welfare and ethical human relations are increasingly a part of the way the economic system measures value. This almost sounds like Negri and Hardt’s Marxist manifesto for the 21st century in their books Empire and Multitude, except without the many social antagonisms (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) that Hardt and Negri and countless other theorists of globalization recognize as basic to the capitalist world system. Their books argue that an economy increasingly based on information systems, human services, and social capital (and not just financial capital and commodities) will transform itself — a sort of “democracy from below” — almost (but not quite) the way the Pope seems to imagine because of the ethical relations immanent in social capital. So, maybe the Pope and Bush are right that, when thinking of aid (i.e., charity) and solutions to HIV, ethics should come first…. But then that begs the question of what kind of ethics are we talking about here?

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At the end of the day, however, what concerns me can be summed up in these two photographs that I took. The first photograph on the left is of a Bishop’s house in a small diocese. We had lunch with the Bishop in the house. It was the largest and most opulent structure I saw my entire three days driving all around that diocese. Kenya 398The second photograph is a street corner of a nearby town. The motorcycles are basically taxis, which have become popular all over Africa because they are fuel efficient and oil is too expensive. It’s clear that the Catholic church is powerful in Kenya, since it owns a lot of the most expensive land…. And so I repeat, what are the ethics of aid here?

In addition to that kind of disparity, I can’t help but remain sceptical of a church that requires Africans to adopt European names in order to be baptised and that still officially and adamantly promotes an image of Jesus as a white man — yes, I asked about that while I was there, and no, Jesus obviously wasn’t a white European — and still seems to be waging an ideological battle against protestantism, Islam, and secularism not only at the level of the Vatican but also precisely at the grassroots level of CRS itself.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion, only questions, but for a really good novel about ethical ambiguity, family, and the Catholic Church in Nigeria that I just finished yesterday, check out Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus.


August 12, 2009 Posted by | global, international aid, Kenya | 4 Comments

Nairobi Diaries 8: the Glocal Maasai Market

 Ooooh, so many pretty colors!!! 

Masai market

I gotta admit, I’m a bit proud of this photograph I took of the Maasai Market in downtown Nairobi. Isn’t it pretty? We went there one morning after visiting the National Museum and the memorial to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassay, which is also downtown not far from the market. It was a rare moment of classic tourism for our trip, and a couple members of our group were very excited about spending all their money on statuettes, jewelry, and decorated cloth. The Maasai Market’s very reason-for-being is to satisfy the desire of tourists — desire for what, I’m not really sure. For mementos of their time in Kenya? To own some objects with the aura of authenticity? Hmmm… I must admit, this kind of shopping has never been my cup of tea, and quite probably “I just don’t get it”…. Take me to a bookstore or a swank restaurant — now those are things I can get into… and so I spent most of my time in the market taking photos of my colleagues as they tried their best to bargain. I had quite a lot of fun in my own way.

Kenya 306And here are the two things I noticed as I walked from stall after stall after stall of trinkets — (1) the repetition and (2) the insistant claim about every object’s authenticity. I think I saw exactly the same print or statuette about thirty different times in ten different locations, and each time the salesman tried to convince me that this was handmade by a member of his family. Maybe they were, but my intuition told me that in some cases there was probably more than just a little mass-production going on. I’d be interested in an economic and/or cultural study of this market, and it appears that someone else is interested too since a quick google search got me this syllabus here and this scholarly article here. My favorite “authentic” Maasai wrap (or shuka), was the one with Barack Obama’s face on it.  A couple days earlier, at a supermarket, I saw a Maasai woman wearing such an Obama-adorned shuka, so I guess they actually are authentic and not just for tourists.

The Maasai are only 2% of the population of Kenya (in comparison to the Kikuyu who are 22%, the Luhya 14%, the Luo 13%, the Kalenjin 12%, etc.), but they are the Kenyan ethnic group most famous to the outside world, perhaps because of their unusual ear piercings, their fame as warriors, and — as a nomadic culture — their refusal to integrate into the modern world. As professor Leslie Rabine has noted [here] in her book The Global Circulation of African Fashion, what the Maasai are most famous for is simply for having “kept their culture.”  

Except maybe they have integrated into the modern world after all — into what economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “modern capitalist world system” — by adapting their culture to the rapidly changing Kenyan economy, population growth, and land scarcity. Just as Saudi Arabia’s economy is based on oil, so too the Maasai contribute to the Kenyan GDP by selling their own authenticity, exoticism, and rebel spirit to the world. In other words, paradoxically, they have adapted to the global marketplace by refusing to adapt.

As I have discussed in a previous blog post about Oromo hip hop (as well as in my forthcoming article on globalization theory in the new James Bond movie), such cultural exchange is an example of what some theorists call “glocalization” — a neologism that combines two antithetical concepts, the global and the local. The word was originally coined in the Japanese business community as dochakuka, meaning the adaptation of mass produced, global products to local environments and/or the adaptation of local products to the global market, but it has been picked up by sociologists and literary critics to conceptualize the dialectical nature of globalization. In other words, because the word neatly combines antitheses (local being the opposite of global), it seems useful for exploring the strange, contradictory, and dialectical nature of capitalism. In this case, it would seem to illustrate Fredric Jameson’s argument in this essay here that globalization does not simply intensify sameness (a.k.a. McDonaldization); it also, and at the same time, intensifies difference (i.e., the Maasai Market).

Okay, that’s nice, but so what? Well, the “so what?” is precisely the question that the concept is supposed to focus our attention on. In other words, the point is not to say hooray “glocalization” exists, woot! woot! Because concepts don’t exist. Rather, concepts focus our attention on questions about the relations among things that do exist. So, a number of research questions might follow from my conceptualization of this market experience. How do we understand a culture such as the Maasai as modern or not modern in relation to the capitalist world market? What is the causal chain that led to the Maasai developing in such a way and other ethnic groups developing in different ways? Can we say that the Maasai culture is simply authentic, indigenous, and/or pre-modern when it seems to be so powerfully affected by a postmodern European, American, and Asian consumer culture? Economically speaking, how do we assess the value of any of the objects, and psychologically speaking, why do we want them? Is the global market good for providing a means for the Maasai to survive as a culture in the McDonaldizing world, or does it trap them in a vicious cycle of undevelopment and poverty?

July 25, 2009 Posted by | global, Kenya | Leave a comment

Nairobi Diaries 7: The Non-Place of Kibera and the Utopian Politics of Dance

Kibera: Africas largest slum

Kibera: Africa's largest slum

One day we visited the Cardinal Otunga Girl’s Empowerment Center in the morning and the Christ the King parish’s library and school in the afternoon. At both places, we met monastics, social workers, teachers, and legal advocates working together to give disadvantaged children both the practical and the cultural skills for escaping poverty. The former institution is run by nuns and is located in a quiet, suburban environment, and it is something like an orphanage for teenage girls to get them off the streets. The latter is located in one of the world’s largest slums, Kibera. Kibera is somewhat unique compared to other slums because even though over a million people live there, the government (for various political reasons that I don’t understand) doesn’t officially recognize that it exists. Consequently, there is almost no official infrastructure. Electricity, running water, sanitation, schools, daycare, and even real streets strong enough to support an automobile — all these are extremely scarce, and what there is has mostly been innovated by the impoverished people who live there or by non-governmental organizations. Some of the girls at the empowerment center came from Kibera.

When you go to a place such as Kibera (and without a guide, you probably shouldn’t), you expect mile after mile of intense poverty. You expect the smell of raw sewage, and you expect to see babies playing in that raw sewage. But what I didn’t expect was middle-aged men in business suits coming home from work. What I didn’t expect to see was young adults studying quietly in a library. What I didn’t expect was a class of children carefully and joyfully choreographing a dance. And that’s what I want to talk about in this blog. On the one hand, since Kibera does not officially exist (not part of the census or the GDP) it is something of a non-place. But within that negative, hellish non-place is another more positive non-place — the utopian project of the Christ the King school and library. And connected to both the hellish and the hopeful non-places is yet another non-place in the idyllic, suburban sanctuary of the Girls Empowerment Center. And within these spaces, I saw something I want to call the “utopian politics of dance” — and what I mean by that is the subject of this blog post.

(Excuse the long theory-laden parentheses, but for those of you reading my blog who are unfamiliar with Thomas More’s famous book or with the literary history of the concept that his book generated, I am using the word utopia as More did — as a double entendre for no-place (outopos in ancient Greek) and good place (eutopos). As an aside, I want to also mention that More’s double entendre might be a useful conceptual tool for thinking through a statement I mentioned in Nairobi Diary 5 that my colleague made — that never before had he more strongly felt the presence of God or witnessed in the labor of the social workers God’s work being done… that God was here. There is a powerful yoking together of two contradictory senses in that theological formulation just as there is in More’s play on words. Why articulate God’s goodness and sublime beauty in the context of such absolute horror, poverty, oppression, and violence? Why does one seem to both rhetorically and ontologically require the other?)

kibera_1But before I go on with my philosophical exploration of spaces, I want to ask you to keep in mind the dancing not only because all of my colleagues were totally impressed by it but also because, once again, just like I did in my Nairobi Diaries 5 post, I want to put my experience in Kenya in dialogue with some stuff I have been reading recently for my more scholarly research — critiques of Paul Gilroy’s famous book of theory, The Black Atlantic. In it Gilroy makes an argument against an American version of Black Nationalism that asserts a unified, essential pre-colonial African identity and myth of origins — i.e., roots — and argues for a more transnational identity politics grounded in the movement of peoples and cultures — i.e., routes. Gilroy celebrates innovative, culturally hybrid forms of music such as reggae and hip hop as tools of cultural resistance to racism, poverty, and the exploitation of labor. In response to Gilroy, quite a number of theorists (such as Laura Chrisman, Neil Lazarus, and an entire issue in 1996 of the journal Research in African Literatures) have critiqued his distinction between the “lived crisis” of ordinary people’s experience and the “systemic crisis” emphasized by Marxist theory, black nationalism, and pan-African political strategies that all emphasize some form of broad political solidarity against the forces of “Western” capitalism. These critics argue that Gilroy undermines the political strategies of coalition building in favor of a vague “cultural resistance” whose form is somewhat utopian. It’s hard for me to do justice to the many facets and astute sophistication of both Gilroy’s argument and the many critiques of it in something like my blog, but to relate Gilroy to Kenya’s recent crisis of ethnic violence, one can see him emphasizing the more transnational forms of cultural identity that synthesize old and new, foreign and domestic, rather than ethnic identities, Kenyan nationalism, or postcolonial critiques of global capitalism (i.e., critiques of “systemic crisis”), since all of these projects have (for very different reasons) failed. Hence, Gilroy would probably appreciate what I wrote in Nairobi Diaries 2 about Kenyan literary responses to the ethnic violence that bring together the poetics of everyday life with a utopian, transcendent spirit and wit. But against Gilroy, the professor of English Supriya Nair wonders — and I wonder right along with her — why he makes it seem like the distinction between “lived crisis” and “systemic crisis” is an either/or. Instead of focusing either on lived crisis (i.e., personal experience and local culture) or systemic crisis (i.e., international politics and global economy), why not both together?

Okay, now I want to come back to the school children dancing in Kibera, which we witnessed just one year after ethnic violence burned across the nation but was especially brutal in Kibera where people were hacked to death and even burned alive. (One of the people working in Christ the King’s school showed my colleagues and me photographs of the violence, and you can read this recent article about the effects of that violence a year later.) The young students whom we saw were not just dancing their blues away; rather they were choreographing the dances of the many different ethnic groups in Kenya. In other words, with the guidance of their teachers, these students were theorizing through dance a multicultural identity that would simultaneously affirm and transcend ethnicity. So far, so good — I am totally impressed, and I think Gilroy would be happy. But what his critics suggest that he unfortunately leaves out is a complete characterization of the actual physical space in which such culture is happening.  In my case, using his theoretical approach would lead me to ignore how the students’ dancing is guided by teachers and social workers with a very definite political strategy (not to mention the very material support of a very powerful Catholic Church) for effecting positive change. People had to build these spaces in which the kids were dancing after all. The teachers have to get paid.

kibera_2So, agreeing with Supriya Nair, I think the utopian politics of these children’s dancing is quite sophisticated in how it brings together a cultural response to lived crisis and a political response to systemic crisis. Likewise, I think we can conceptually bring together the idea of a”cultural responses to lived crisis” and the idea of a “political responses to systemic crisis” in how we think about the library at the Christ the King parish — where, by the way, I noticed by glancing through the record of borrowings on the front desk that the most popular books were the practical ones about business, farming, and applied science, not the books about Catholic spirituality, literature, or politics. And I mention this fact for those who might want to donate books to the library. They need science and business books, not propaganda. But that said, the propaganda matters, too — matters in a positive way. In the stairwell of this library, somebody had painted a beautiful mural celebrating not just the neighborhood where these people live, but also suggesting the utopian promise of a way out.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | Leave a comment

Nairobi Diaries 6: “Wild” Animals and the Environment

As I mentioned in Nairobi Diary 1 — the overall itinerary — we did have some time to do a bit of that touristy safari thing and see some animals. And of course when I show people the 600-plus photographs that I took in Kenya, the ones everyone oohs and ahhhs over are the animal photos, not the people photos. (And this should come as no surprise if you’ve read Wainaina’s satire “How to write about Africa.”) I’m a contrarian by nature, so I was going to not blog about the animals just out of spite for all ya’ll who love them so. I tend to be that sarcastic friendless guy who snidely demystifies everything — especially the kind of myth of Africa one finds in Hollywood movies.

But then I looked up some fun facts and came to a different conclusion. The tourism industry based on that safari myth is 10% of Kenya’s GDP — the third largest contributor to the overall economy after agriculture and manufacturing according to its government. I imagine also that it’s one of the only things protecting the land from pollution produced by weakly regulated industrial farming. So, this is one of those instances where I should be encouarging the myth, because the myth does really good work, but as I mentioned before, my impression of Kenya’s reality is that it is very crowded with people, farms (both industrial and subsistance), and commercial cities. Just like every other country in the world, from the U.S. to Japan to Europe, the days of unowned land seemed long gone to me. Hence, government run parks there are aplenty. Ironically, after I came back to Minnesota from my trip to Africa, I saw some “wild” animals (that is to say, really wild and not in a game park — a baby deer one day, a fox the next) running around my university’s pristine campus.

city of Nairobi behind the wild giraffe

city of Nairobi behind the "wild" giraffe

My group never got out to any of the big, beautiful wildlife parks that are so popular with tourists, because we had another agenda, but one afternoon we did spend a few hours driving through the Nairobi National Park, which is 117 square kilometers huge and only seven kilometers from the center of the city. As you might imagine, searching for animals was really a lot of fun, and we saw giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, ostrich, buffalo, baboons, zebras, warthogs, etc. — all that stuff that you’ve all seen in picture books, so I’m not going to spend time putting up all my pictures of the animals when you can find better ones taken by more skillful photographers on the internet.

Two things that I found interesting were (1) how close the city was, which you can see in this photo, and (2) how close the animals would get to us. In fact, they appeared to be so used to tourists driving about taking pictures, they would stand there looking at our car completely unperturbed. In the middle of the day, they were hard to spot because they were hiding from the hot sun, not from us, so keep that in mind if you go. And notably, we only saw the vegetable-eating animals, no carnivores.

They're coming straight at us... Run!

They're coming straight at us... Run!

The only carnivores I saw that day were my fellow travellers, and after the park we went to the most touristy restaurant in the country — named appropriately The Carnivore, where you can eat as much meat as you want. The waiters walk around with skewers of beef, goat, chicken, ostrich, crocodile, etc., and you take your pick, and then wash it down with some of Kenya’s gorgeously refreshing Tusker beer.

The second-to-last day of our trip, when were on the western edge of Kenya, we took a boat ride in one of Lake Victoria’s large bays. We saw a hippo, and then as we got closer, that hippo became two, then three, and suddenly a whole posse of hippos were coming straight at us, so our guide started up the motor and we took off.

However, the lake was brown with polution. Our guide said that when he was a boy the lake was clear and beautiful, but alas, no more. The difficulty with the lake, I was told, is that several countries use it, and getting one country to find the will to do some environmental conservation is hard enough — but several countries collaborating during a time of ethnic violence, even harder. I am beginning to see the value of an Eco-Tourism industry, something I was skeptical of before since I once believed the government should just protect the land and the animals by effectively enforcing good environmental policy.  Maybe such a thing as tourism might help save this lake, which really was pretty cool…. I mean, look at those hippos!!!

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | 1 Comment

Nairobi Diaries 5: The Day of the African Child and Obama’s Address to Africa

Children in Kenya

walking home from school

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.

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roads crowded with children

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.


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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. 

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typical farmer's mud home

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.


telling his story in front of his home

telling his story in front of his home

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community building a house

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.

Kenya 486

Day of African Child competition

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.

Kenya 483

audience of competition


shaking their shoulder feathers

shaking their shoulder feathers

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.

more performances

more performances


reciting poetry

reciting 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.)

a SILC group

us with a SILC group

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.

leaders of the SILC

leaders of the SILC

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.

July 14, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | Leave a comment

Nairobi Diaries 4: The Private Security Industry

One night in Nairobi, after watching the play Cut Off My Tongue (which I blogged about before here), my friend and I shared a taxi back. It was about 9:30 pm, and my lodging (owned and run by Catholic nuns from Germany) had a 10 pm curfew, so we came to my place first to drop me off. I didn’t get out of the taxi right away because I hadn’t seen my friend in several years, and we were still chatting. Suddenly, two tall men rapped their knuckles harshly on the taxi window. They wore ill-fitting uniforms, and one was armed with a large automatic rifle, which he held carelessly, while the other had a handgun on his belt. “What’s the matter?” he asked us. Good question, I thought to myself. My friend answered, “Oh nothing,” and pointing to me, she continued as if this sort of confrontation were nothing unusual, “I was just giving him something.” They turned and walked away.

Who were these men? Soldiers? Police? No, they worked for the private security company hired by several of the residences in that neighborhood, including the place where I was staying. And I want to repeat, the place where I was staying was run by nuns. Considering that the nuns’ compound already had a gate and a security guard, why this extra layer of surveillance and show of force? And why did they have such big, automatic rifles? (The short barrel shotguns used by American police officers are, I would think, a bit more handy for urban environments than large, automatic rifles.)

During my trip, people would always ask me the usual questions: “How are you enjoying your stay?” “What do you like the most?” and finally — and always — “What surprises you most about Kenya?” I usually evaded answering this last question, but I have to say, what surprised me most is the character of security. I am used to thinking of cities as streets with buildings, but that is not what Nairobi is. Rather, it is made up of compounds. One compound after another after another. Residences, shopping malls, offices — you name it — were all gated and guarded, and from what I could tell such armed private security is not only expected, it’s even legally required. I was told by everyone I asked about this never to walk outside the gates… I mean NEVER, whether I was with people or not. Although my “delegation” was staying only a 10 minute walk from one of our destinations, we were driven there (a 15 minute drive, ironically, because of the nature of one-way streets.)

When we went out to the rural areas, things were much different — more relaxed, fewer walls, fewer armed guards. We could walk around… in the daytime… kind of.

So, the constant feeling of risk and danger surprised me, but actually it surprised me only a little. Kenya had just gone through a violent civil conflict, so I expected there to be a lot of security around. What surprised me more was that all of this security was private rather than public. To me, private security seems both more expensive than public (more expensive because less efficient) and also less accountable to whom it is supposedly meant to serve: the people. I talked with one person who had once worked for such a security firm — and it seems typical for young men to earn money for college by working as security guards — and discovered that the security companies are usually European or American.

The fact that these companies are foreign made me want to research this topic further, as the private security industry seems to me to be a very complex phenomenon, and if I had a lot more time, I would. But for now, from a quick search on the internet that I did for the sake of this blog, I found that some books have been written about it.  And from what I can tell, not only has there been a significant increase in private security in Kenya over the past decade or so, but that this increase is worldwide. See here, here, and here. And for those of you who like to play the stock market, note that the financial community considers private security to be a growth industry. See here, here, and here . So um… like, hey… the sooner you invest, the sooner you’ll be able to afford that Caribbean vacation or maybe even save enough money to pay for your child’s college education. Considering that the cost of education is rising right along with the demand for private security… well… hmmm.

I remember reading about the rise in the private security industry around the world since the early 1990s in both of Naomi Klein’s books — No Logo and Shock Doctrine — but I hadn’t realized until now how central the phenomenon is to the processes of globalization. Its centrality seems to me to be significant evidence against the claims of those cheerleaders for free market globalization such as Thomas Friedman (not to mention IMF economists), since it’s an aspect of globalization that Friedman left out of his rather self-indulgent globetrotting tails.  And naturally all of this scares me for quite a number of reasons. First, the corporations are multinational and therefore less subject to the laws of any single government or to the concerns of local communities. Second, they are expensive, and this means that Kenyans are investing less of their money in their own industries or in public infrastructure. Third, unlike the publically run police, private security is for profit — which means (1) that there is a market incentive to increase demand for security and (2) that there is an incentive to reduce the cost of labor. Already, as you can see here, companies are underpaying their security guards, and it doesn’t seem wise to me (or to the Kenyan journalists) to have a lot of underpaid men with machine guns hanging around.

How do we analyze the evidence? Well, it is easy to notice how the growth in the security industry happens side-by-side with its cheapening. But what is less easy to do is to figure out the economic causes of demand — whether such causes are “natural” market forces or artificially fostered. Am I suggesting that such multinational private security corporations actually encourage ethnic violence in order to increase demand? No, that would be a bit paranoid. But it is a paranoia that is shared by many and is becoming the basis for many movies being made these days — a new genre of film that I call the “global thriller” in one of my other blog posts here and in a forthcoming article in a film studies magazine. 

But yes, I do think that the private security industry will exacerbate rather than solve the problem of ethnic violence, and the reason I think that is not because I believe these companies (all based in Europe and America, i.e., the so-called “first world”) are conspiring to provoke violence in the so-called “third world” in order to enrich themselves, but because the day-to-day decisions they make and the priorities they have reflect the wrong mindset. Their priorities will always be profit and the protection of the people who pay them, and not the positive development of the whole community. They are, in a word, evil — not evil by conscious intention as most people understand the word, or even by unconscious intention, but rather by their lack of intention.

July 11, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | 1 Comment

Nairobi Diaries 3: Oromo in Kenya

Back to my Kenya trip.

As you may recall from the summary of the trip that I outlined a while back [here], I was able to carve out some time from the official itinerary — so rigorously planned by one of my colleagues —  to visit with some representatives of the Oromo community in Kenya. If you’ve been reading my blog much at all, you know from my previous posts [here], [here], and [here] that I’ve been working with the Oromo community in the United States and Canada for about two years. What you may NOT know is that there is a large Oromo population in Kenya. So, there are two questions that I want to raise for this blog. The first question is one that any Oromo reader would know the answer to already: why are there so many Oromo in Kenya? And the second is more theoretical: why would I be so brazen as to think I could promote Oromo arts in Kenya, and what’s the use of doing so? (The answer to my brazenality question, as well as to the use-value question, may be already obvious to anyone who read my earlier Nairobi Diary post on how to write about ethnic violence in Africa.)

So, to answer the first question, there are basically three categories of Oromo living in Kenya: indigenous, refugee, and immigrant. It may surprise you to learn that there is a large indigenous population of Oromo living in Kenya, but in fact there are many ethnic groups living there, and as we all know, the British Empire drew its colonial boundaries to suit its interests without the least bit of deference to the people already living there. The indigenous Oromo in Kenya are called the Borana, and they moved to the rather arid regions  of  north and northeast Kenya about two hundred years ago as the European powers began colonizing the neighboring areas and as the Abyssinian kings began conquering the rest of Ethiopia. I started reading this book about them a few days before I left for Kenya but haven’t finished it yet. Through the global Oromo network on FaceBook, I got the opportunity to meet with a young man who is a Muslim Borana trying to create an NGO to help develop the communities where he grew up. 

Here is some of the backstory. The Kenyan government discriminates against the Borana because it sees them as outsiders and also because it confuses them with the Somali. This confusion is not surprising since the Oromo and Somali languages are both Cushitic and since many of the Borana have mixed with the Somali there for the past century. (And of course, there is a large Somali population indigenous to northern Kenya as well, so it’s not surprising that when Kenya gained independence in 1963, the majority of people living in the northeast area voted to join with Somalia which had already gained its independence a few years earlier. And of course the British — being British — ignored that vote.) Although more than half the Borana are Muslim, a large percentage are Christian, and a few practice the more ancient Waaqeffannaa. The Kenyan government also believes that the Borana towns provide support and refuge for the Oromo Liberation Front who cross the border to escape the Ethiopian military. So, today the Kenyan government makes little effort to develop that region and inside Nairobi the police sometimes harrass the Borana and Somali. So, the work of this young man whom I met is quite important from a humanitarian perspective because his goal is to promote development by encouraging grassroots civil society in the region.

The refugee population is a bit diferent. They tend to come from other areas inside of Ethiopia. All of the refugees whom I met came in 2002. In 2001, the Ethiopian government brutally suppressed student groups who protested a corrupt election process. Then in January of 2002 the government tried to exterminate all dissent along with the remaining Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). In its attempt to chase down not just the OLF but all forms of it dissent, the government burned down some of the Bale forest where the OLF was supposedly hiding — an environmental tragedy whose real cause was not reported in the Western media as you can see from this BBC report. These refugees fled to neighboring Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya, and when the U.S. president George W. Bush asked the Ethiopian government to invade Somalia in December of 2006, presumably to go after al Qaeda terrorists, the Ethiopian government used that opportunity to kill Oromo refugees there. In Kenya, many of the refugees have lived in limbo for the past eight years.  Or rather, they have lived in something like a purgatory. It is illegal for them to work in Kenya, but they can’t leave either, so they can do nothing. Many live in refugee camps on the border, but some live in Nairobi, where they wait year after year for something to change.

Through the Oromo Lutheran church network in the United States, I was able to meet with a woman who works with refugees (not just the Oromo, but all refugees) and tries to help them with their legal problems and find them asylum in the U.S., Canada, etc. Her job is difficult because of course the United Nations refuses to recognize that the Oromo are political refugees and the United States considers the OLF to be a terrorist organization. (This is a curious contradiction — at the same time that the UN understates the political reality, the US overstates it. A whole essay could be written about that contradiction, I think.)  

After talking with her, she arranged for me to go to one of the training sessions for the refugees organized through the church in one of the slums of Nairobi. A member of the church picked me and two of my colleagues up in his taxi and took us there, where we talked with four of the refugees. An hour later I gave a short presentation to a congregation of about 100 people about my work encouraging “Oromo arts in diaspora.”

The third group is a relatively small group — the legal immigrants living and working in Kenya, such as the person I met who works on behalf of the refugees. Many of them actually came to Kenya not directly from Ethiopia but through other countries like the United States or Germany. They are often middle class, doing business or working for international organizations.

So, the second question for this blog post is, why arts? Most of the Oromo I meet give me a quizical, confused look when I start talking about art and literature. I get the distinct impression that in their minds such artistic endeavors are not so important compared to direct political action, the work of religious institutions, or scholarly efforts to correct the historical record. In fact, when I say I work with literature, almost everyone seems to assume I mean history — something I noticed before in the United States [see here], and noticed again in Kenya.

I think this question can be answered easily. Immediately after I gave my presentation, a young man in the audience came forward and showed me a painting he made shortly after the student uprising and subsequent repression in 2001. As I suggested to my audience that day, art has the ability to help people work through the trauma of history and to develop their cultural identity in response to a changing world. Art also has the ability to communicate across ethnic and political divisions, and therefore it has the ability to tell the human side of Oromo experience to a global audience, to gain recognition for their political struggle.

There is a lot of work to be done. Oromo culture has been largely an oral one, not a written one,  and it has been this way not because of some essential Oromo-ness that privileges oral culture, but  because publishing in their own language was outlawed by the Ethiopian government for most of the twentieth century. In actuality, one of the Oromo heroes is Onesimus Nesib who first translated the Bible into Oromo and thus not only created an Oromo written language but also gave the Oromo a tool for fighting colonization and political oppression. I suppose one could criticize me and suggest that I am imposing Western, middle-class art forms such as the short story and the novel onto their culture, and that as a white guy I have no right to be giving out such advice. But I have little patience for that position. That position assumes an intact, pure Oromo culture, but historically that obviously has not been the case for centuries (if it was ever the case, which I doubt.) It also reaffirms a racialist position that only a member of the ethnic group can understand and speak for that ethnic group. Personally, I agree with the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s critique of that position.

So, onward and upward we go, fostering the kinds of dialogue that I hope will foster art and literature — not art for art’s sake, but art for our sake.

July 9, 2009 Posted by | Kenya, Oromia | 3 Comments

Nairobi Diaries 2: How to Write about Ethnic Violence in Africa

Cut Off My Tongue

The title of this blog post is meant to allude to Binyavanga Wainaina’s well-known, satirical essay, “How to Write About Africa.” During my recent trip to Kenya (whose overall itinerary and agenda I blogged about here), I had the good fortune to visit my friend Doreen at the new Nairobi-based publishing house Storymoja, and she took me to a performance of one of its plays, Cut Off My Tongue, by Sitawa Namwalie — a play which is actually a series of linked poems that, among many other things, addresses Kenya’s post-election violence that devastated the country from December 2007 to April 2008. It was a beautiful performance, and I hope they can either come to the United States someday soon (as they did in London in May at the Hampstead Theatre) or find a way to put it on video.

A couple days later, the other members of my faculty development trip/delegation met with members of People for Peace in Africa as well as their friends in the literary community, including Monica Arac de Nyeko (winner of the Caine Prize for African writing), Muthoni Garland (founder of Storymoja, who is also an author and who also performed in the play that I saw), and their staunch ally Father Joseph Healey (scholar of Africa and theologian). One of the questions that we discussed that day was how to write about ethnic violence, and that is the question I want to think about in this blogpost — and for me, Cut Off My Tongue was an exemplary model.

In case you weren’t paying attention to the news last year, what happened is this. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes, as conflict among those who were ethnically Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin, and others burned through the country after the controversial election results gave Mwai Kibaki (ethnically Kikuyu) the victory over Raila Odinga (ethnically Luo). During my recent visit to Kenya, it seemed to me that the memory of the violence haunted everyone’s conversation, and nobody seemed to have much confidence in the coalition government created as a compromise to stop the killing. In fact, the very faculty development trip/delegation that I was on was supposed to happen last year, but was postponed to this year because of it.

So, how do we write about this event? Not the way wikipedia summarizes it [here] or the way Amnesty International’s video clip pathologizes it [here]… right? All of us sitting around the table agreed that mainstream journalism — even quality journalism — did little to explain the causes and did even less to lead to constructive solutions. It certainly did not understand what it needed to understand most: how people were feeling. Journalistic hype at its worst seemed to inflame the problem and at its best seemed to offer only sentimental platitudes. But as we discussed the issue, I found myself disagreeing with the members of People for Peace in Africa; one individual seemed to me to be suggesting that lengthy personal accounts of individual, subjective experience should be the form of writing we should promote, and another seemed to me to be suggesting that a more comprehensive, objective journalism was what was needed. A third person seemed not to see any contradiction between subjective accounts of experience and objective journalism since for him both were aimed at the truth, and the truth needed to be told before any reconciliation could be achieved.

me, Caine prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, author and Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland, an intern at People for Peace, and author, Storymoja editor, and friend, Doreen Baingana

me, Caine prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, author and Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland, an intern at People for Peace, and author, Storymoja editor, and friend, Doreen Baingana

While I agree that both subject and objective truth tellings are necessary and important, and I might even agree with a deconstruction of the subjective/objective binary, I don’t think they are enough. There is also a role for the literary and the symbolic. I suggested that beyond merely descriptive accounts, writers should work on something imaginative, perhaps even something utopian, which could turn despair into hope. During our conversation, I quoted Oscar Wilde — somewhat lamely, I now realize in retrospect — who once suggested that  the most important place on any map is utopia. In other words, to write about ethnic violence one has to write about what’s not there as well as what is: what’s on the margins of experience, the dreams and fears that shape that experience, and also the ordinary lives of people who above all seek to live their everyday lives despite the crisis that dominates the media. This is what Doreen Baingana’s short stories in Tropical Fish and Sitawa Namwalie’s poems in Cut Off My Tongue do so well. They not only give voice to the voiceless, but also carefully reconsider how those voices get framed by media and political parties rather than by the everyday aspirations of people who work, eat, travel, argue,  fall in love, dance, have sex, raise children, and grow old. Sometimes tragic, at other times sharply satirical, and above all, they tell their stories with both love and a playful sense of humor.

But the statements of People for Peace carry some weight, as their prescriptions seem to have been followed by one of Kenya’s new literary journals, Kwani?, whose founders include Binyavanga Wainaina. (Members of Kwani? were supposed to join our gathering, but for some reason they couldn’t make it.)  The latest issue of Kwani? focuses entirely on the violence, and unlike its earlier issues which tended towards the playful and the fictional, this issue contains mostly non-fictional first-person accounts and interviews. It interests me that Kwani? made this move towards the factual whereas the author of Cut Off My Tongue made the move toward the dramatic and the imaginative. I’m not sure what to make of that difference, but I suspect neither People for Peace nor Kwani? would consider beginning a blog post about ethnic violence with the image with which I began this one — an image of love — but maybe they should.

But of course non-fiction is also dramatic, even if its writers sometimes pretend that it isn’t, and as Muthoni reminded me, such interviews and accounts provide the raw materials for artists. One of my favorite pieces in the issue of Kwani?, “Benediction in Oyugis” is written by a Ugandan who is ethnically Luo, and as he narrates his journey through post-election Kenya and recounts his many conversations, he seems to put in question his own objectivity — he is in some ways a complete outsider (visiting from Uganda), but in some ways an insider (ethnically Luo). His essay contains a dramatic play of perspective as he vacillates between subjective and objective styles of narration and as he addresses his subject matter sideways instead of head on. This literary play of perspective is, I think, essential for any real “peace work,” and it is something that Sitawa Namwalie’s play/poems does/do so well, which is why I think I’d like to teach it next year in my class. As Doreen wrote [here] about the play, “it is politics that is personal” which will help “start a dialogue among Kenyans… and beyond.”

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | 2 Comments

Nairobi Diaries 1: the itinerary

Foolishly, I didn’t actually keep a diary during this trip, and unlike my stay in Japan, this time around there wasn’t a computer downstairs for me to use. So, I’ve returned from two of the most intense weeks of my life, my head swimming with emotions, ideas, and information, and I hardly know where to begin.

Where to begin…. How about this? I’ll start off with a couple of random thoughts, and then sketch out the overview in this post — the itinerary — so that my subsequent postings can focus in on the particular nuggets of experience.

Random thought one — the smartest thing I did was get a cell phone my first day in Kenya, and I advise everyone travelling to Africa to do this. It cost me just $30 for the phone and roughly 200 minutes of domestic calling time. A phone is necessary, in my view, because the country seems to run on cell phones, even moreso than in the United States or Europe. People even lend money to their friend by transfering cash via their cell phones. Whether one is walking around the glitz of downtown Nairobi, the pristine halls of academia, an impoverished city ghetto, or among subsistance farmers in the country where many people are near starving, one will see cell phones everywhere. It seems to epitomize the paradox of globalization where poverty and wealth, traditional culture and modern technology, exist side-by-side.

And this leads me to random thought number two. The image of Kenya that most Americans have is the romantic Hollywood images of Tarzan,  Madagascar, Out of Africa , and The Green Hills of Africa — that is to say, an image of the safari into the untouched wilderness, a journey back in time to an Eden-like pre-modern world. And still today the Kenya government promotes this nostalgic image because of all the cash it generates; it is one of the largest sectors (if not the largest sector) of Kenya’s economy. Ironically, the main cell phone company is called Safaricom. But whether that image was ever really true (or just a convenient motif invented by British colonials to justify their pillaging of the land and violent removal of the indigenous farming communities), it certainly isn’t true today.

Today, except for the national parks and wildlife preserves maintained for tourists, Africa is crowded with people, not just in the cities but also in the countryside — more crowded, it felt to me, than the United States and Europe. Land scarcity is one of the primary causes of ethnic violence; in some areas, the percentage of the populations with HIV-AIDS is 30%; and deforestation and industrial farming has caused permanent environmental damage. Lakes, once pristine and clear, are now repositories of raw sewage, chemical fertilizers, and soil erosion. Whether all this is primarily the effects of neocolonial/neoliberal capitalism or of a corrupt government is still a matter of debate, but one has to acknowledge that the “nation” of Kenya began its history with a serious handicap. After a long fight for their independence, the terms of that indpendence in 1963 left their nation in debt to the very colonial powers that had ransacked it of its wealth for the previous century. It’s hard for a fledgling government to build infrastructure when the largest chunk of its budget goes not to police, education, roads, environmental regulation, or sanitation, but to servicing its debt.

I apologize if my random thoughts are negative and dreary, but I have my reasons. First, I want to disillusion you that this blog will engage in romantic portraits of gazelles leaping through the bushes, but more importantly, it sets the stage for the raison d’etre of our trip — which was to see the many ways in which the people of Kenya are trying to solve all its problems. My colleagues and I were deeply impressed by the Kenyans we met and the work we saw, and we have perhaps never met a group of people more deserving of the title “saint” than those we met on this trip.

So, to finish this blog post and prepare the way for the posts I plan to write over the next few days, I want to give an overview of the itinerary. But of course, before I do that, I have one more prefatory remark. (Come on, you must know me well enough by now to expect endless prefacing!!!) The trip was organized by another faculty member at my university, so the itinerary was his and his alone, though during our few “free” hours here and there, I could pursue my own agenda. Basically, for the most part, I was along for the ride (literally, since we spent quite a bit of the trip being driven here and there), but I am grateful for it — what an amazing ride it was!

However, the goal of the trip was a bit confusing at times. Although the trip was billed as a “faculty development” trip (which is why I went on it), it was in many ways really a “delegation” with two distinct, though related, agendas that I would describe as more “missionary” than “scholarly.” As you’ll see from the itinerary below, the first agenda was to build upon an already existing relationship with a Catholic university in Nairobi in hopes of engendering future student and faculty exchange, and the second was to represent the Catholic diocese local to my university here in midwestern U.S.A. and bolster its “solidarity” with a rural diocese near Lake Victoria in the southwestern part of Kenya. I put the word “solidarity” in quotes because I plan to discuss the complexities of this concept in more depth in a later post.  In addition to the two agendas, some time was set set aside for us to be tourists… you know… see the gazelles leaping through the bushes.

So, the trip combined many different goals, and you’ll see what I mean when you see the itinerary. To be honest, I did not expect this trip to have such a missionary focus, and as a non-Catholic, I was uncomfortable with this at times and unsure of my role on the “delegation” — but I’ll have more to say about that later. Here’s the itinerary:

Day One: we met with Catholic Relief Services in the morning, and in the afternoon toured the Bomas museum of traditional huts.

Day Two: we toured the Catholic University in Nairobi in the morning and in the afternoon visited with the Benedictine community close by.

Day three: visited the institute of Islamic Studies (which turned out not to exist, oops!) at the aforementioned Catholic university in the morning and then toured the Nairobi National Park in the afternoon.

Day four: visited with the Kenya Human Rights Commission in the morning; free time in the afternoon. I chose to spend my free time first meeting a friend of a friend who is working on behalf of the  Borana Oromo (and is himself a Borana Oromo) — a people indigenous to northern Kenya. After that, I visited an old friend from graduate school, Doreen Baingana, author of the terrific collection of short stories, Tropical Fish, and this fortuitously led to the two of us attending a wonderful play. More on that later.

Day five: visited the Cardinal Maurice Otunga Girl’s Empowerment Center in the morning and then in the afternoon visited the Christ the King church/school/library mission inside of Kibera, one of the largest and poorest slums in the world.

Day six: visited museums and downtown Nairobi (including the famous Masai market) in the morning and in the afternoon met with People for Peace in Africa and its friends in the literary community (which coincidentally included people who knew my friends in the literary community, which turned out to be very lucky for all sorts of reasons as I’ll explain later.)

Day seven (Sunday): in the morning Catholic mass (which I hear was way cool because of the combination of African and Catholic traditions but which I skipped not for any religious qualms, but because this was the only time I could meet with someone I desperately wanted to talk to — a friend of a friend who works on behalf of Oromo refugees from Ethiopia living in Kenya), and then in the afternoon we boarded a plane to Kishimu and there got in a minivan bound for the rural southwestern diocese that faces Lake Victoria.

Day eight: in the morning we met with Catholic Relief Services there, and in the afternoon visited a school way out in the countryside and a hospital.

Day nine: this was probably the most significant day of the whole trip. In the morning, we visited CRS “project sites”, which were the homes of impoverished farmers who had been impacted by the AIDS epidemic in one way or another and which CRS was helping get back on their feet. Talking with them and hearing their stories was an incredible experience. Then we visited a Day of the African Child celebration, and then a festival at a local parish. Lastly, we met with a group of men and women, all subsistance farmers struggling with poverty and HIV, who with the help of CRS had created a “Savings and Internal Lending Community” or SILC.

Day ten: after a morning boat tour of Lake Victoria, we had lunch with the local Catholic Bishop, and then returned to Nairobi.

Day eleven: our last day was left for last minute shopping, but instead I took two of my colleagues to an Oromo Christian Fellowship meeting in the middle of the Githurai slum so that we could talk with Oromo refugees and so that I could give a brief presentation on Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora. This was set up for me by the person I met on Sunday.

Then we came back to the United States, and I promptly fell asleep.

So… please stay tuned for more Nairobi Diaries….

June 21, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | Leave a comment

How to Write about Africa

I just re-read Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa” for the second time. It was published in the journal Granta in 2005. Since then, Wainaina has been profiled in the special issue of Vanity Fair magazine about Africa (edited by Bono!) two years ago and appeared as a guest on Krista Tippet’s show Speaking of Faith last December, where he shocked the poor, idealistic Tippet by pointing out that he’d often rather westerners do nothing to help Africa than all the stupid, misguided somethings that they do. He is almost as fearful of guilty white liberals as he is of avaricious neoliberals from London and militant neocons from Washington D.C. (and that’s saying something, because those mo-fo’s are scary-ass… you know what I’m saying?)

Anyway, Wainaina’s essay wonderfully exposes the way white westerners have represented Africa (or mis-represented… or in Lacanian terms, misrecognized, meconnaissance, because of their own psychological issues), and I’ve decided to use it in my class tomorrow (and wish I had used it in my class last week) on “representation.” So, I don’t have much to say in my blog today except “You got the link; now read it!!!”

And moreover, I now want to assert that every teacher of classes about race, history, African studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, geography, international relations, peace studies, postcolonial literature, intercultural competency (whatever that is), etc., etc., should begin their classes with it… not only as a means of fostering a healthy skepticism among the students, but also and even more importantly to remind themselves not to be stupid teachers. (I often need this reminder myself.)

March 31, 2009 Posted by | global, Kenya, race | 2 Comments