Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poverty and Promise

This is a book review of Poverty and Promise: One Volunteer’s Experience of Kenya, written by Cindi Brown, published by Just One Voice, Surprise, AZ, 2008.

This is a heartfelt memoir of Cindi’s eight months as a volunteer assigned to the Tropical Institute of Community Health and Development (TICH) in Kisumu, Kenya. Kenya truly was an eye opener for Ms. Brown. In mid-life she left a comfortable regime at home and signed on with Volunteers in Service Overseas (I was not aware that the organization took non-U.K. citizens) for a two year stint in Kenya. She was assigned as a communications, public relations specialist to TICH, an indigenous organization that is achieving great success in bringing better health to communities in western Kenya through grassroots education and organization of health workers. Throughout the book, Ms. Brown mostly lauded, rarely criticized the institute and its personnel. Yet she found plenty of issues to write about, especially cultural differences such as how meetings were organized and conducted (beginning with prayer), a narrow focus on tasks, burdensome bureaucracy, and even in a relatively well functioning school, lack of daily urgency.

However, it was chiefly outside the institute that Ms. Brown found Africa. Kisumu was a bustling, teeming city where a mzungu lady walking around drew attention – some friendly and curious, other intimidating and threatening. Glue sniffing street children, bodacious booda booda (bicycle taxi) drivers, and those believing that she could/would solve their problems constantly called to her, sought attention, money or advice. Early on Cindi met and befriended Walter, less of a conman than most, whose heart was in the right place, i.e. trying to alleviate the plight of abandoned children. With him, Tonny and staffers from TICH, Cindi went into to slums and the rural areas to see and experience first hand the terrible poverty – no water or sanitation, plenty of disease, inadequate shelter, lack of clothing, no schooling, etc. – that was the plight of the poor. She attended funerals of those who died of AIDS and witnessed the horror that malady has visited upon Kenyans.

In a rather odd inclusion in the book, Ms. Brown detailed health ravages of a half dozen stricken individuals she visited in the Provincial (Russian) Hospital. They were all in various stages of dying from mostly preventable diseases or wounds that if properly treated early on would have posed few problems. I suppose the purpose of this section was to convince the reader that much of the issue of poverty related to the inability of a developing society to provide basic services to its citizens.

In contrast to the darker side of poverty, Ms. Brown found promise in the optimism of the people, their steadfastness and their faith. She viewed the work of TICH as enabling communities through grass roots training to conquer their own problems as well as its secondary mission of training community activists at the university level and above.

Juxtaposed amidst the daily grind of Kisumu, Ms. Brown added travelogue vignettes: one of a trip to Goma, Congo (which she found to be terribly corrupt and dangerous) for a graduation ceremony for a group of students from TICH; another chapter told of a coastal sojourn as a budget traveler in Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Zanzibar.

On a personal side Ms. Brown wore her feelings on her sleeve. She wrote candidly about what she saw and felt. She felt exposed and vulnerable as an outsider in Kisumu, but found some solace with new friends and especially with her Sikh landlady, a woman who also felt alone in the sea of Luo humanity. Finally, a mugging brought all these insecurities to fruition convincing Cindi to leave. Later by writing the book and dedicating the proceeds to TICH, she assuaged the guilt incurred by not completing her two year stint.

Volunteers who experienced many similar cultural encounters and those who know Kisumu will find that this book resonates strongly, but others too who understand poverty and are looking for ways to conquer it will find the book interesting.

Poverty and Promise reads a bit like the diaries and letters it was drawn from, but that was expected. Spellings of some Swahili and Luo words (askari and erokamano) are wrong, but Arizona editors were probably not conversant in those languages.

I Remember a Gift

Following is an expanded version of this vingette, an earlier copy of which was posted on this site a couple of years ago. This version was published in the January 2010 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

I remember a gift. In 1986 as deputy director in the Office of East African Affairs. I was making a tour of U.S. embassies in the parish. I was in Djibouti, a small desert country at the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia, then at relative peace, had been warring for years. That conflict had been compounded by drought and famine. As a result many thousands of ethnic Somali tribesmen from the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia had sought refuge in Djibouti. They were confined to United Nations run camps located in the arid hinterland of one of the most desolate nations in Africa.

A dusty, hot half-day’s drive from the capital, I visited one of the camps, which grouped several thousand refugees who had lived there for months; essentially on a moonscape. This refugee camp was a bleak and seemingly hopeless place. Yet, the elders of the camp committee greeted me graciously and guided me on a tour of their squalid domain. We wove in and out little lanes between the stick huts. Green plastic sheeting provided cover from the sun. Bags of U.S. donated maize and tins of vegetable oil were stacked in the food distribution warehouse. A one-tent school was operating. It had little more than a blackboard, but children sat in rapt attention as their teacher lectured, then they recited back. Outside the small clinic the day’s clients – pregnant women, wailing babies and those worn with the ills of the region - waited patiently. Inside, several refugee nurses dispensed what care they could. They proudly proclaimed that childhood immunizations were up to date. Flies buzzed incessantly.

Elders bemoaned their plight: their suffering from war and famine, their flight from their homes, especially their loss of goats and camels. They noted youths were bored in the nothingness of the camp and all were stymied by the inability to look ahead. They were compelled to live day-by-day. Of course, they asked for America’s help, especially in rectifying conditions in Ethiopia so that they might be able to go home.

However, the camp committee was most anxious that I see their newly acquired well, water pump – provided by a grant from the U.S. government - and garden. We walked up a rock-strewn ravine past the cemetery where several new graves provided mute testimony to the ravages of disease and malnutrition. Beyond, nestled on the slope of the valley in a region where not a single blade of vegetation was visible for miles, was a small patch of green. The elders showed me how boys carried water from the new well to the plots where they had managed to coax several scraggly tomato plants and other vegetables from the hard earth. The chief pointed with pride to the first water melon, about the size of a small soccer ball. He then had it picked. He presented it to me with great ceremony and thanks for America’s concern and assistance. I was overwhelmed. The camp’s children were desperate for this sort of nourishment, yet it was given unhesitating to a stranger – to someone who obviously had no need for it. Yet, I had to accept. This was a gift from the heart. I managed to utter thanks and a few words of encouragement. We then shared the bits of melon.

In the years since, I have always been struck how people with so little and with such great needs could give so easily. Yet we with so much, find it hard to give a little.