Thursday, January 19, 2012

Swimming Through Life

Following is a review of an interesting book. 
Swimming Through Life by Eric Krystall, self published by,  2011
This book is the autobiography of the life and times of Eric Krystall, a social anthropologist and development expert noted especially for family planning and anti-AIDS efforts in Kenya. 

Krystall led an interesting life. Born a Jew in South Africa in 1928, he became an anti-apartheid activist when in college in the late forties.   Self exiled to the United Kingdom for more studies at the London School of Economics, he remained engaged in such efforts as well as burgeoning African independence movements.  He married an American and re-located to the U.S. for graduate studies at the University of Michigan. For a research project he moved into a Detroit ghetto and interviewed black women about their family expectations.  This led to involvement in civil rights campaigns, which intensified with subsequent academic assignments at traditionally black colleges, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Shaw in Raleigh, NC.  In this phase of life (the late sixties) Krystall provided cross cultural training for several groups of Kenya bound PCVs (including mine).  

Anxious to get back to Africa, in the early 70s Krystall took an assignment with FAO to develop family planning projects in Kenya.  Except for a brief sojourn at FAO headquarters in Rome, he has been in Kenya since responsible for a series of family oriented projects – family planning, rural communications, anti-corruption and AIDS education.   Throughout, he proved himself – certainly by his own admission, after all this is an autobiography – to be capable, effective, innovative and sensitive to Kenyan bureaucratic culture.   No doubt he was.

Krystall is an unabashed name dropper and he drops hundreds in this book.  It is astonishing that he remembered so many folks, but each anecdote is complete with the names of people involved. Some Krystall remembered fondly, others he skewered unmercifully. He kept his knife sharpened especially for fuzzy headed government or UN bureaucrats who did not understand or appreciate how the development process functioned.  In that regard he was ever faithful to the ideas of local input and sustainability. He lamented the predilections of donors, especially the UN family and USAID, to fund and support the development flavor of the year, then to drop it abruptly and move on to something new. Similarly he documented the self-interest and corruption that plagued the Kenyan side.  Indeed Krystall’s insights and critiques of the development process and his successes and failures (of which he admits a few) should be mandatory reading for development personnel - both international and Kenyan. 

There are some interesting Peace Corps comments.  First, Krystall claimed to have been among the students on the steps of the University of Michigan administration building when Senator Kennedy revealed his plan for international service.  Later Krystall was drafted by several RPCVs from Tanzania who put together an organization to do PC training in the mid-sixties. Among the groups trained was mine for Kenya in the summer of 1968. Krystall was responsible for cross cultural training.  I remember the language and technical training much more vividly than anything cross cultural.  Although he got the North Dakota location correct, he mistakenly reported we were on an Indian reservation.  Although we did a “live-in” on Standing Rock reservation, our training site was at a defunct job corps facility just outside Bismarck.  Krystall later told of trying to get more black Americans into the Peace Corps.  A project that had limited success, in part because Kyrstall alleged - in a bit of hyperbole -  that potential volunteers  required twelve references and no police record.  He stated ”few blacks, especially black men, grew up in the south without one.”   Krystall also asserted that “Peace Corps administration… was located in the State Department.”   That statement is just wrong.  These errors and exaggerations about issues I knew something about, compel questions about what else in this book is similarly affected.

My nit-picks aside, Krystall’s narrative of his life reads well.  The recounting of his youth and coming of age as a Jew in apartheid era South Africa shows how he came to be liberal, progressive and an activist for change. He reveled in playing a similar role in the American civil rights movement, but truly found his calling as a development expert in Kenya. In addition to broader topics, Krystall keeps the reader informed of his family, friends, loves, religious and political views and activities. In sum it is a revealing portrait of a man who has long come to terms with himself and his life.

1 comment:

clinickenya said...

Today have added some body among my mentors, He is Krystall.