After lunch one day, Alixa and I were waiting at the elevator to return to the Undugu Society. As we stood talking, a woman we work with approached and teased us that when we walk down the street we don’t notice anyone around us. Apparently she had been waving at us and we had blithely ignored her and walked right on by. Without a moments thought, both Alixa and I started to regale her with stories of what happens when we make eye contact with people on the street:
1)Do you need a taxi?
2)Do you want to go on a Safari?
3)Do you know how to make a website?
4)I’m a Somali refugee, can you buy me some food?”
5)I’m a boxer, can you find me a coach?
6)I’m starting an elderly support group, do you know someone?
7)Will you marry me?
8)Will you top up my phone?
9)Can you help me make a brochure for my business?
10)Can you help me get to Uganda, my daughter was in an accident?
11)Can you donate to our school?
12)Can I have a dollar as a souvenir?
13)Can I ring you?
14)Buy a banana?
15)Buy some shoes?
16)Buy some candy?
17) I need money for school.
18)I need a computer.
19)I need some milk for my baby.
20) I want to go to America.
21)I need assistance.
This list is neither exagerated nor exhaustive.
A couple days after I arrived, I met some priests who worked in Kibera. As I was telling them about an orphanage I had just visited, I got this funny feeling that what I was saying wasn’t quite getting in. They were smiling and nodding, but I felt a disconnect between what I was saying and what they were hearing. A month later, I think I have begun to understand their response.
Here in Kenya, most people don’t judge me by the content of my character. They judge me by the color of my skin. In a sea of so many shades of brown, I stand out. At night, I practically glow in the dark. And I have been told that when many Kenyans see a white person, they see money. When Alixa and I went into the various slum areas to explain the “Digital Storytelling Project” to the youth there, it wouldn’t take long before a throng of people would form. As we drove away from one such gathering, Jones, a project officer explained, “when you involve a muzungo, expectations are very high.”
I encounter this reality with a tremendous amount of ambivalence. On the one hand, as a foreigner, I have access to resources, both material and human, that others do not. Because I’m an American, people expect me to be pushy and impatient, so things get done more quickly than they otherwise would. And I can tell myself, because I am working in the service of the Undugu Society and for the good of marginalized youth, these opportunities I am afforded are actually being handed off to them.
On the other hand, this power is not just handed to the well-intentioned volunteer. It is waiting for even the most unscrupulous of muzungo and handed to them like a souvenir as they get off the plane.
I had a friend that served in the Peace Corp in Zambia for two years. She came back with a stalwart conviction that most of the aid that came to Africa was actually counter productive. What seemed like a puzzling sentiment to me before I arrived, now seems more understandable. While it is not true across the board, there does seem to be a default patron/recipient dynamic that occurs here. What’s more, I wonder if the West didn’t supply so much aid, whether the Kenyan people would hold their own government more culpable. After all, if the countries in the West are always supplying just enough token support to quell the tumultuous masses, what motivation does a corrupt government have to invest in economic and social improvements?
So where does that leave someone like me…besides hiding behind a pair of sunglasses? How do you compartmentalize without losing your compassion? I’m really not certain. I don’t think the answer is cutting ties with the country or the continent. And I do think the Advocacy Project Model is a good one because 1) It builds a relationship with the organization served and 2) it attempts to make visible the grassroots work in a community that is already locally underway.
And maybe that is part of the solution. Glow in the dark. Draw some attention, and then when you break eye contact, slip back into the growing crowd and let those to whom the country belongs walk through the newly opened doors.
Posted By Barbara Dziedzic
Posted Jul 29th, 2009