I am spending three months working in a community in Kisumu, Kenya. Kisumu is a contradiction of dusty streets bordered by lush, rolling hills. Modern expansion lives alongside traditional methods in this western Kenyan city. Driving to my house takes you along the super highway, a marvel of concrete and bridges. The highway forks into a dirt track that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountain bike adventure trail. Local motorbikes swerve through rain filled potholes and mud with great skill. Kenya may not have the world’s best education system. However, almost everyone is trilingual, learning English, Kiswahili and their tribe language. Property is less rigidly enforced. Kisumu lacks an ownership registrar, and many plots of land have spray painted signs proclaiming “this property is not for sale”. At first, the law student in me was horrified. How do people count and protect their assets? Freely wandering goats regularly stop highway traffic. Yet all vehicles stop to let them pass. In the Obunga slum, people’s chickens and cows graze indiscriminately. No one watches them, or brands them, or herds them home. Yet they are never stolen. The little Obunga store that sells me drinks should charge extra if you take the glass bottles. Yet I have been trusted to return them days later without paying extra. Market vendors always give “a little extra” food for free, simply because it’s tradition. In Kisumu, traditional systems coexist with modern expansion. The tin houses that populate the Obunga slum surround the Akili Farm The Akili girls have computer classes every week, but are still fascinated by videos of themselves on my laptop The stereotype of poverty stricken families languishing in a slum, flies buzzing around their hopelessness like vultures, is rife in Australia. Now I am actually living here, I appreciate how harmful and belittling these stereotypes are. Ambition, ingenuity and entrepreneurship is everywhere in Kisumu. The unoffical motorbike taxis organise themselves at specific pick up and drop off points. They hold meetings to discuss their productivity. A local group set up a microphone and speakers in Obunga, using music to fundraise for a funeral. People live their lives here. Generalising a community along lines of poverty (seeing only what they lack) completely misses the point, and disempowers the people who have the keys to their own advancement. The Kenyans I’ve met are diverse, and have multifaceted inner lives as complex as anyone in Australia. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to wrap our minds around. The stereotype of children with distended bellies, eyes huge in shrunken faces, is also harmful. Charities use these images to evoke our pity. We sell pain, promising our White Christian perspective is the only route to pain alleviation. Pity evokes the white saviour complex that imbues much Western aid. From my point of view, selling pity is a fast track to disempowerment on a grassroots level. The girls at my project, the Akili Preparatory Girl’s School, live in a slum. They are bright, complex individuals, with dreams and potential. They eat ugali and kale for lunch, they play games in the local field, they have parents who love them. They are more than the simplistic photos of bare footed urchins we are shown. 0 0 0 0 The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions. So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece.
Each time I return to Guatemala I fall more in love with the warm people, the intricate culture, the staggering landscapes, and the vivid colors. When each person you pass on the street greets you with “buenas dias!” it’s hard not to feel instantly connected to the vibrant life that engulfs you. I’ve now spent two weeks living in Panajachel in the cozy, beautiful home of Ingrid, Carlos, their daughter Adriana, doña Alma (who tends the magnificent garden), Tina (a Japanese volunteer), a constant flow of visitors, extended family members, and a partially blind/deaf dog. After some torrential rain the first week, we are now passing into summer and I’m told I have some beautiful sunsets over lake Atitlán to look forward to. (From left to right: Luis, Linda and Joselyn making musical instruments, Celebrating Marsela’s birthday at Arbol del Niño- Marsela is the most amazing cook) The holistic education center, El Árbol del Niño, has 14 regular students, and is slowly adding a second class. Spending each day with them and getting to know their distinct personalities has been such a blast! They are now learning yoga and meditation every morning (taught by me), Capoeira, breakdancing, English, art, music, math, gardening, and soon cooking. They are learning about health, being served a nutritious snack and lunch everyday, brushing their teeth, and getting plenty of exercise. (This is usually an after school program, but now that the students are on summer break they come to the center mon-fri from 8:30am-4pm) Not only is the center focusing on these students, but also starting to teach and empower their families and community. Some projects in the works include: A vegetable garden at the center as well as small portable gardens in each family’s home (many of these children are not accustomed to eating fruit and vegetables). Learning how to cook and bake. Soon they will be selling their products to local businesses. This will help them learn about money and savings. Each student will open a bank account. Building a community park and large scale vegetable garden that will one day sustain the foundation so that they will not need to relay purely on donations and funding. This piece of land will help the community by permaculture education, providing organic produce to families, hosting nature walks and bird watching tours in the forest (this project will be funded by the money I am raising). I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be involved in these projects, to work with these children, and to see how much they learn each day! Only 62% of Guatemalan children make it to 6th grade (UNICEF), and although public school is considered “free,“ there are always hidden costs and many families can’t afford even small things such as books and writing utensils. Many children as young as 5 years old must work to put themselves through school, or work to help feed their family. With overcrowded classrooms, absent teachers, and chronic mismanagement, what is needed is not just more education, but a different kind of education. Children must be allowed creative expression, practical work, an appreciation for others, a feeling of responsibility to the world, and a life long love of learning so they don’t burn out and drop out of school. Children should believe that they can be leaders and that they can break the cycle of poverty in their communities. Much love! (Ingrid, Marvin, Giselda, Adeline (a French tourist) and I with the students, photo taken by Michelle, their teacher) Please help support this sustainable garden and park project by visiting my fundraising page and sharing my blog!
Look, aid is complicated. Development is a complex web of interconnected issues that are difficult to itemise and act upon. I have two degrees, I’ve read books and reports and attended global conferences to try and understand it. I indulgently smile at 18 year old Rachael, proclaiming she understood the realities of poverty after gaining a Distinction in Intro to Development. All my knowledge seeking has left me with one sure fact: I know nothing. You, dear reader, know nothing. Tough break, hey? I leave for Kisumu tomorrow, and I know that the world I’m heading for cannot be surmised by a CIA World Factbook page. Reading about HIV/AIDS prevalence, primary school enrolment rates and average income levels does not mean I have a single answer about the path to prosperity. I am no white saviour, marching into Kisumu with my malaria tablets and Kathmandu waterproof sandals. I have a set of skills (mostly theoretical) that those who know better (community leaders) will put to use. Claiming any shred of knowledge about the development challenges in the Obunga slum would be the height of ignorance and self involvement. I leave tomorrow, prepared to be a tool for and a student of David and Erick, the community leaders. The community leaders, whose visions Mama Hope supports I recently read a book called The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade. In one chapter, she spoke about SWEDOW – “stuff we don’t want”. It’s a nifty little acronym used to describe poorly reasoned development planning that has little or no use, or does actual harm. But how can aid cause actual harm?, you may ask. Good question – and possibly one you’ve never considered before. Foreign aid has many benefits, but we in developed nations have been lulled into the idea that aid will administer the solutions “Africa” needs. While a comforting notion, this ignores the inherent complexity of development. (Also, Africa is a continent. New Zealanders don’t like being confused with Australians. I bet Egyptians feel the same when compared to 53 other nations). EXAMPLE OF HARMFUL AID: sending used clothes to Africa. For sub-Saharan Africa, secondhand clothes has done incredible damage to local textile industries. The flood of clothes, given freely by good intentioned Western citizens, puts tailors and clothiers and labourers out of a job. This excerpt from Olopade, on page 53, sums it up; “In 1997, Nigeria’s textile industry employed 137,000 workers. Six years later, the number had plummeted to 57,000, largely as a result of free clothing from fat economies. In the past decade, Malawi’s largest textile manufacturer has closed, and similar companies in Mozambique and in Uganda, where 81 percent of clothing sold is secondhand imports, are teetering towards bankruptcy. In Zambia, garment industry workers have staged strikes in protest of this importation. Ethiopia and Eritrea have outright bans on worn and used clothes. Mali, one of the largest cotton producers in sub-Saharan Africa, has not itself produced a single T-shirt.” That is absurd, and difficult to fully recognise. Importing secondhand clothes to African nations may come from a good intentioned place. But good intentions do not make an undesirable result suddenly desirable. This was a shift in perception I didn’t even realised I needed. My good intentions in Kisumu may mean nothing, if all I intend to do is import my version of what a community needs. It is comforting to think that African nations have a straight path to development. The complexity and interconnectedness of poverty is daunting. However, I’m keeping my lens focused on David and Erick’s vision for the girls of Akili. 0 0 0 0 The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions. So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece.