Thursday, March 5, 2009

"That is a bird..."

Although it has been nearly a month since our defection from Thika, I can write about its splendor like it was yesterday. I remember sweating in our moldy volunteer shelter- to a point of laughing about it - laying side by side atop our single bunk bed like two corpses accidentally buried in one box, wondering, “How the f@%k did we get into this situation?”
This situation was hammering. Incessant hammering. All of Kenya seems to be under construction. People are actually getting busy with the “development” used to describe this part of the world. Will it be responsible? (Why should it?) Will it last? (How could it?)
Either way, as volunteers fresh-of-the-boat, our role soon became clear as sponsors of development. The impetus behind all of the hammering is that Mama Lucy- our volunteer host, a devout Christian, entrepreneur and single mother of three- recognized a precious survival niche in an unforgiving and harsh environment. It works like this:
A steady stream of well-wishing foreigners arrives in Kenya every day (us), looking for volunteer work that will make a difference (fulfill some fantasy concocted thousands of miles away in university classrooms). For the willing, there is no shortage in Kenya of opportunities to work for free- unlike the US, where young people with advanced degrees virtually need to do something unspeakable to get an unpaid, resume-boosting internship. Here in Kenya, the twin concepts of free work and philanthropy are greeted like messiahs and are more likely to have emerged from an alien spacecraft than to have evolved endemically. The homegrown organizations you do see are either 1) utterly un-funded or 2) funded and reeking of embezzlement. Either way, they are left clientless, toting empty briefcases, while farmers continue to starve and orphans with AIDS continue to sniff glue. It’s not that people here are blind or pathologically insensitive to the strife in their communities. It’s that their own problems are just too pressing to be concerned with the problems of others.
Enter the volunteer. Sun block (2). Mosquito repellent (1). Lariam (1/week for 2 wks + 3 wks upon return). Bandanas (3: red, blue, green). Crocs (1 pair). Lonely Planet: Kenya (1). The Alchemist (1). Idealism…(supply duration: TBD).

From the US, UK, Canada and Australia, we march on to the scene in possession of something we feel is noble, pure and priceless, demanding to be exploited and to have it mean something. It turns that our intentions do have a price and that we are traded about, from town to town, from brokers to shareholders, not as green, but as pasty-white, well-fed commodities.
Return now to Mama Lucy’s niche and the hammering:
For an entire month, beginning at 6:30 every morning, until 6:30 in the evening, two “fundis” (Swahili for “experts”) bashed and sculpted scrap materials together to form an 8’x12’ annex to house 4 more volunteers (new capacity: 9 volunteers).
Based on these figures, Mama Lucy’s new income stream could total KSh 120,000 ($1,600) per month from volunteers alone. Ironically, that’s roughly monthly salary of a professor at the University of Nairobi– employment I have been considering.
My fellow Americans, I hereby report from my perch abroad, that I can see the smoke that enshrouds you as Wall Street burns and pandemonium fills the streets. “Fear not!” I say. The beating heart of speculative investment is not dead. It has merely relocated to Kenya, like a Corleone to Vegas, and is now, to be precise, making a hell of a lot of noise from the dirt swath just outside our door.

To investors: the answer to the economic crisis is Mama Lucy Inc (NASDAQ: MLX). The volunteer market is soaring. Supply lines pump our crude across entire oceans, propelled by a guilty conscience or other more nebulous beliefs. The many faces of poverty are multiplying and becoming more appalling every second.

To prospective volunteers: the more you allow yourself to be “facilitated”, “placed” or “handled”, the bigger the pie, the better the feast etc.

All cynicism aside now…we have discovered the antidote, a natural defense to this predation that feeds on good will. The defense, as Emerson puts it, is self-reliance.

A month removed from our first assignment in Thika and happily dwelling in our own rented apartment in Isiolo, we can be ourselves. We can plan our mornings and our nights and then, miraculously, do the things we plan. We make appointments with interesting people and learn every day. We have become both the architects and laborers of our volunteer experience. Over the last 24 hours for instance, we did some yoga at home after working in town. After enjoying a wonderfully simple dinner we prepared- consisting of fresh vegetables and rice purchased from the nice lady across the street named Mama Dennis for about $1- we drank tea and revisited a conversation we had earlier in the day with a Muslim traditional doctor, hashing out some old philosophical issues of free will versus determinism on our 2nd floor balcony, overlooking the quiet streets of the Bulapesa slum. We slept comfortably and securely just under the breeze of two windows and awoke to make coffee and small-talk with our friendly neighbors and venture into town a little earlier than usual to capture some footage of the street kids waking up.
All of this without hammering, blaring televisions, awkward religious petitions or midnight sprints into the yard/ work-zone to relieve diarrhea pangs induced by the copious amounts of salt and oils that Mama Lucy’s daughter felt compelled to use in preparing kale.

Things are looking up. We’re feeling empowered. This morning we had slightly too much to look forward to and were feeling a bit neurotic. Then we hear that a police investigation of cattle-thieving Samburu tribesmen triggered a series of murderous raids in the plains outside of town –where we delivered our relief food a few weeks ago and had planned to go camp next week. Those plans have been scrapped. We now get to focus on creating a short film to advocate for government attention to the problem of street children becoming addicted to glue and dying before they reach 20.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What you are doing is amazing! You two, I am happy to read, are now the leaders of your own experience. I think that your documentary idea is superb. That particular problem is not unique to Kenya, and unfortunately, I don't believe starvation is either! Thank you for allowing me to see the world through your eyes! Keep on trucking and making a difference! Your work and dedication is felt by many! love to you!