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.


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