Thursday, December 24, 2009

the end of counting

I was hoping it would rain at least once while I was here. I’ve missed the smell of the rain and not being able to hear anything else when it’s really pouring on a tin roof. I got my wish yesterday, in the form of a huge thunderstorm that turned the compound into a puddle, knocked trees down all over Nairobi, and left our electricity even more unpredictable than usual.

Except it’s not supposed to rain like that in December, in Nairobi or anywhere in Kenya. December is supposed to be warm and sunny and dry, the midpoint between the short rains in October and the long rainy season in March/April.

Any Kenyan will tell you that the weather is now impossible to predict. Farmers plant without knowing if there will be enough rain for their crops to mature, or if they’ll lose their seeds to flooding. Kenya’s pastoralist groups once had a sophisticated understanding of seasonal cycles, enabling them to predict droughts decades in advance and plan their movements to sustain their herds. But in the last two decades, the elders of these groups have reached “the end of counting”. It’s not just that some of their knowledge is being lost as young people move to cities and take on a more global cultural identity, it’s that a finely-tuned understanding of the environment developed over hundreds of years has been rendered completely irrelevant by changes in the last twenty or thirty years.

Here climate change is not polemical, abstract or debatable. It’s as tangible as the skinny Maasai cattle that are still clogging up Nairobi traffic months after one of East Africa’s worst droughts started to ease and the prayers of a whole country for rain in its season.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


There is at least one question I can't come up with a satisfactory answer to no matter how many times I get asked it: "what was it like growing up in Nairobi/Kenya/Africa?" I usually launch into a little speech about how Nairobi is a modern city of nearly 5 million people (to dispel the myth that Africa is all villages and huts) in the Kenyan highlands (to explain that not everywhere in Africa is unbearably hot) with some infrastructure and crime issues (so yes, my experience growing up was still a wee bit different than yours'...water shortages and carjackings, anyone?). At that point I usually trail off and want to turn the question around - what was it like growing up in your hometown? It was home. It just sort of...was.

I don't think being back four and a half years after I stopped living here is going to make me any better at answering that question, but the last week has at least reminded me of one thing - this place is home.

A few of the things I didn't even know I missed that I've gotten to re-connect with...

1. the food mangoes, bananas, pineapples, perfect honeydew melons, mandazis, Fanta orange, Weetabix (always better here than in the US), Ethiopian food, and of course, the universal appeal of fried potatoes (featured here in bhajia form)

(note to aspiring artsy photographers with no actual skill...just rest the camera on some flat surface and shoot in the general direction of your subject)

2. the football
(particularly evenings like this one, when ManU loses 3-0 while Arsenal wins by the same margin!)

3. my family here
By far the most poignant reunion was with this woman, Jocinta, who was our househelper for fourteen years She told me she was so happy to have "her girl" home, and how pleased she was that I had gotten so tall and so fat. I was holding back tears the whole time and I think she was too.

4. the sickening feeling of approaching a riot. Not something I was hoping to relive, but such is life in Nairobi. Also wasn't looking to reconnect with equatorial sunburn, power outages, mosquitoes, or upset stomachs, but have failed on all counts.

5. the wildlife

and not-so-exotic:

Our dog, Snoopy, who has been with two other families since we left and more or less didn't remember us. Oh well. At least we were able to tell her new owners that she howls when she hears scales played on the piano and that she'll doggy paddle in the air if you pour water on her head.

6. for lack of a better descriptor...street culture
We went to buy an internet modem and ended up hanging out with Father Christmas and this colonial character who makes an appearance in many Kenyan comedy sketches

Most of their routine was dancing

Hopefully this explains some things for those who have wondered where I learned my dance moves.

At some point in the last few years I convinced myself that I had not real home and was doomed to be a rootless wanderer, at least until the magical age of 30. While the latter part of that is probably still true, every time I laugh out loud at something that hasn't changed in Nairobi, I suspect the former just might be false.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

consumer charity II

Yesterday I wrote about some of the ethical complications I see in the conspicuous efforts of companies to tie buying certain products to charity donations. It’s probably not surprising that this isn’t the only US “giving” practice that makes me cringe.

On my way to and from visiting the Angkor Wat temples while I was in Cambodia, one particular village caught my eye. All the houses were made of the same green corrugated iron (which strikes me as impractical in a hot, sunny climate), but this didn’t make it stand out – groups like Habitat for Humanity and Tabitha make houses that look similar. What was special about that village was that in front of every house, placed close to the road for maximum visibility, was a sign with little American flags announcing the name of the donor whose funds had built the house. I wonder what kind of people really needed to know that their names would be displayed in a language none of the locals would be able to read in order to give money to construct a home.

I see this as an extreme example of common need in the West to make our giving personal. A more typical scenario is child sponsorship. For $30-35 a month I can provide a child with school books, basic medical care, and a nutritious lunch every day (or something along those lines). In turn, I get the child’s picture for my refrigerator and receive occasional letters from him or her.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad arrangement. Rather than just throwing money at big problems like poverty, underdevelopment, malnutrition or child labor, I get to know (or at least think I know) that my money is making life better for little Joseph in Tanzania.

Except it’s rarely that simple. The reality is that organizations like World Vision and Save the Children with child sponsorship programs often pool the money for sponsorship within a certain community – so I’m supporting Joseph’s village, not just Joseph. That seems fair. After all, it’s a bit offensive to think that Joseph is receiving more care than his playmates because I picked him out of a catalog of children. But even though the funds may be combined for community projects, child sponsorship organizations still use a significant amount of their resources facilitating and administering the connection between the donor and the sponsored child. If those resources could be going instead to providing more books or mosquito nets, at what point does sponsorship become more about me than about the kids?

Perhaps it’s natural for us to want a human connection in our attempts to do something to address the suffering in the world. And perhaps its better to use money connecting sponsors with kids than for that money to not be given in the first place (though I’m not convinced – perhaps a future post on that). But at least we can start by being honest about the importance of feeling good in our attempts to do good.