The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love...Kenya

The contents of this website are my own PERSONAL opinion. They do not reflect the opinions, policies, actions, feelings, or eating habits of the Peace Corps, the U.S. Government, any government, shadow governments, or anyone else, for that matter, but ME.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mzungu on Parade

I realized I haven't been writing too much about what has been going on in the village. So, I thought I'd share with you my women's group meeting this week.

I find meetings in Kenya simply excruciatingly painful! Tell me if you don't agree after you hear this. So, on Tuesday I am going to meet with a new Women's group way down past Kendu Bay (an hour's drive in a private vehicle on a rutted dirt road). The meeting was set to begin at 10am but begins at 11. An hour late isn't too bad. The meeting opens with a prayer, a long one. So I spend the first 5 minutes during this prayer examining everyone's shoe selection, over and over again. Then there are the introductions where we all tell what we are doing, where we come from, what brought us here, and what was for dinner last night. All these pleasantries take at least a half hour. Then the meat of the meeting begins. This is a long process of lecturing on a subject while the audience looks dejected and distracted. This portion can take from 2-3 HOURS!!!! I am not kidding. There are no breaks. There might be some call and response in there to the audience, but generally someone stands up and harps on a subject for about an hour and then someone else gets up and harps on either the same subject or different subject for another hour. Whenever that FINALLY ends, the concluding pleasantries must begin. There is first a round of thanks from everyone and hopes for a speedy return. Then it is time for another prayer, and I spend that time re-examining everyone's shoe choices. Getting out of a meeting takes a good half hour. Now, this is the way all Kenyan meetings run, but if there is a mzungu there, then the parting words are a bit different. Their goodbyes are more intense, the pleas for "help from the outside" or "help from your people" last for a lot longer time. So, needless to say that my meeting on Tuesday was thoroughly infused with pleas for "help from outside." That is what is troubling me lately.

I have been thinking a lot about the donor culture that exists in my community (and really throughout Kenya). It is hard to explain the frustration and sadness I constantly feel because I am bombarded with requests of "help me sister," "sponsor me sister," and "promote me sister." Just walking to town this morning, I passed a complete stranger on the road, get the usual greeting of "how are you" and then a "help me sister." A complete and random person; and this can happen all day long. Not to mention what happens anytime you go out to work with anyone in the community. The perception is that if you are from the West, you bring money.

Kenya has been at the center of International aid efforts for decades. It is the headquarters for aid organizations that operate throughout east Africa, including conflict areas such as Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia. There are an infinite number of NGO's (non-governmental organizations) CBO's (community based organizations) and self-help groups throughout Kenya. And at the end of the day, most are looking for donor funding from "outside" (outside is the Kenyan-English term meaning anything from outside the village, outside the country or outside the continent, but in this instance it means from the West.). There are so many white Land Rover's of big time aid organizations in Kenya, I wonder sometimes if the people in them ever get out of this air-conditioned bubble and see what is really going on in the communities the purport to help. The government knows that international aid and supporting it is an industry. So much money is flying around and very little of it actually trickles its way down to those truly in need. There is even a term for some greedy and fraudulent endeavors; they are called "brief case NGO's." They are created to benefit from the lack of oversight from anywhere. Then this donor culture has created an extraordinary mentality of seeking help from "outside" and not finding answers from within the community. The mzungu has the answers and the answers are always in the form of money.

This conflict, harm vs. help and sustainabilty has been going on for a long time in the international aid community, and I am not sitting here with any more answers than they have. All I know is that I live in a community that could grow enough food to feed all of Kenya, but has to accept donor food aid. I live in a region with some of the highest AIDS infection rates in the world, but I have yet to meet someone who is unfamiliar with how the disease is spread. I live in a country with "free" and "compulsory" primary education, but I still see plenty of children everyday not in school because the family can't afford it. I don't think any change is possible without a desire for it. I do think that this donor culture, the culture of looking to mzungus for answers, money, and change will never have the impact that donors from the west and desperate people in the community wish it to have. I can't bring development, Kenyans can't buy development, and no one is looking for the alternative in the mean time.
As I have said many times before, Kenya should be an extremely prosperous country. It has growing regions, tourism, industry, infrastructure (that is crumbling from lack of care) and countless resources. There problems are just as dramatic though, and there are no outside answers to them. Those can only come from within, from Kenyans.

Now, I should explain mzungu, again. I am considered a mzungu. In the old translation of the term, it meant a traveler from far away (and was applied to lots of missionaries because they traveled far and wide). In the modern vernacular, it means white person. Yep, this has messed with my head. I am not white. And oddly enough in Kenya, there aren't many mixed race people (odd considering the habits of colonizers in most other places). So, when I tell Kenyans that I am not white, they don't understand. I explain that my mother is white and my father is black American (that's the Kenyan term). And they still look at me confused. Barak Obama is HUGE here, and he's mixed (Junior Senator from Illinois). His dad is Lou (the tribe I live with) and his mother is white. I say I am like Barak Obama, and that there is a possibility that my dad was Lou (helps to put a picture to it, and I have no idea where my family's slave ship sailed from). Well, they still don't understand. Never have I had to work so hard to make people understand my race in my life. I come from the first generation of mixed race kids who really were culturally able to identify with both sides of their families, to identify as mixed (or bi-racial if they preferred). Along with that came its own set of complications (being brown in America is never easy), but none of them required me to explain over and over again that I am not white. And that America isn't all white. And that people with money aren't all white. And that poor people aren't all in Africa. There are poor people in America too. My family in America is poor, white, black and mixed! So, when I am constantly called mzungu, it is with a mixed bag of anger that I try to explain that no one likes being called "white person," especially when they aren't, that I have a name, that I don't call you "hey African kid," (although it is hardly just kids committing this transgression) and please stop yelling that at me over and over again. If you ever visit Kenya, you'll know that my efforts are very much in vain!

On this same topic of being non-white in the donor culture, my Peace Corps friends of color have a different set of frustrations. I was lucky to be part of one of the most diverse training groups ever in Peace Corps Kenya, so I am lucky to have lots of friends to commiserate with. They face different challenges though, from people not believing that they are American, or educated, or knowledgeable, or skilled, or, why aren't they fluent in Kiswahili. The Asian Americans in our group face a constant barrage that can only be explained as inciting "murderous rage," as a very good friend puts it. Everyone who joins Peace Corps faces their own set of challenges, but if you aren't what is considered "American" then those challenges are multiplied. It has made a lot of us who aren't white confront our own identity as "American" in a way that living in the US would never had made us do. I love my group, I love that we are Black, White, South Asian, Asian, Latina, Persian (some of us a combination there-in) and all of us AMERICANS!
PS--Have no freaking idea why this won't format properly. I would be profane here, but my Grandma reads this!!!


  • At 7:15 AM, Blogger the ant said…


    It's Jenn from Canada! Nice to meet you at Upper Hill. I've linked to your blog from my blogspot, and look forward to reading more about your experiences in Kenya ...

  • At 4:40 AM, Blogger Justina said…

    Hey Misty thanks for your well-articulated blog. If I had a nickel for every unfinished blog post saved on my hard drive talking about donor mentality, chingchonging and corruption, I'd be...buying a lot of mandazi. Maybe one day I'll get around to actually posting one of mine. And getting around to reading my copy of Guns Germs and Steel.

  • At 9:27 AM, Blogger KR said…

    Thank you. That was a really intense post. I'm impressed that you manage to touch on two huge issues: donor culture and racial identity. And you articulated your thoughts so well!
    I really had very little understanding of either of those topics. I had a friend who was a PCV in Tanzania and he never had a problem being called Mzungu, but that's likely because he really was white. But he'd never mentioned the constant associated please for help. Maybe he just got used to it? Or maybe people in his village finally caught on that he wasn't bringing any outside resources in.
    I'm sorry you've had to spend so much time and energy thinking about your racial identity. Sounds like that's really been challenging for you. I'm glad that you have other PCV's who share your experiences.
    All the best in year 2 of your experience!
    (public health student in NC)


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