June 29, July 4 (I didn't manage to finish this in one sitting, and the second sitting didn't happen until almost a week later)
Greetings from Kisumu, where I managed to successfully extend my visa until the end of September. This is a good thing since my return flight leaves Nairobi on September 27.
Hard to believe, but I am just about half done with my 6-month stint here. Wow. Three months from today, I will be home. Home. And it will be fall. September will have come and practically gone. Though I’m absolutely craving those cooler temps (plus sleeping with screens on my open windows, and malaria-less mosquitos), I can tell I’ve started adjusting to the Kenyan climate. Even my coworkers make comments when I put a sweater on at work – “You are becoming Kenyan!” And so I am.
So much has happened since my last post. So much. Life has been mostly good.
The interns arrived (both shipments of ‘em), and orientation went well. It has been interesting to note the differences between groups – lots of personalities and really great energy. The first group had eight days of orientation in Kakamega town, and the second only had three and a half since they’d gone through a fairly extensive orientation in Chicago before departure. This is all over the course of 16 days. I know I’ve complained about various aspects of my house here, but after a total of close to two weeks in a guest house (with spotty hot water and issues with providing all the rooms clean/dry towels), I definitely came to appreciate my place. The solitude, the familiarity of my own bed, the access to a fridge and kitchen and choosing what I cook and eat… really great. And now I’m staying at home for another two weeks until Mom comes (July 11th!) and we go to meet up with Maren for adventures! Hooray!
The transition from not having a lot going on to being busy full-tilt went pretty well, actually. The interns are all so lively and excited about being here and learning and jumping in to their projects, and that energy was really contagious. I am so excited for them – that they get to have this experience and see this tiny corner of the developing world. My first experience in Africa was so pivotal that I’m back for more. Whether or not they have a similarly influential experience in thees two months, who knows, but I do know that they won’t be able to remain unaffected. I only hope that my being here is helpful to them, even in some small way.
One has already had a really tough experience, and though I wasn’t directly involved, it made me think about who I am, why I’m here, and what I’m doing. This particular intern has been partnered with a health center in a fairly rural place, not too far outside of Kakamega, but I’m sure it feels very removed from any kind of town life. She spent her first week getting to know the various departments in the health center, and was privileged to go out into the field to meet some of the patients affected by HIV.
(Read her blog post here)
I’m no medical professional; I studied math. Some might argue it’s not a very “real world” major… obviously all mathematicians sit around proving things all day with calculators and slide rules and pocket protectors. Ok, maybe not. Suffice it to say that as a college student, I don’t think I could’ve ever envisioned myself here, facing these very real, and often heartbreaking, situations.
Regardless of what someone studies (even if it is global health or medicine), I think the first real encounter with someone (like this HIV+ woman our intern met) whose behavior doesn’t align with the western ideas of “healthy” is hard; it really shakes you. (I don’t know if I could pinpoint mine, though bringing a student with a broken leg over a mile along a rocky road on a donkey and into town via bumpy minibus taxi only to be told he would have to wait until the next day because it was a Sunday definitely comes to mind, even if it doesn’t compare in gravity.) For her to have seen this within her first week at her internship here was both immensely valuable and incredibly heavy. It makes perfect sense that she would want to write about it, both to process it and to share the experience with those back home, for whom such an encounter might still feel (and be) very distant.
I’d seen but not actually read her blog post, as I was busy preparing for and then also leading the second orientation. During one of the morning language sessions, I got a frantic text from this intern, saying someone (a fellow student at her home university, actually) had shared her post as an example of: “what not to do with your white savior complex.” (In case you’re unfamiliar with the white savior complex, google it, or here is one piece on it, or here is another. I could go on, but I’ll let you do your own searching…) For one of her peers (currently participating in a different but likely similar program in Kenya) to question her motives and accuse her of having a white savior complex completely blew my mind. Speaking on the phone to the (understandably upset) intern, I found myself getting quite mad. Where does this other student get off backhandedly accusing our intern like that?! Unproductive, unnecessary, untrue, and unacceptable… I won’t continue. I was angry.
After calming her down a bit (and trying to calm myself down too), we hung up and I went back to the Kiswahili lesson, deep in thought about my own reasons for being here, pursuing a career in international development. After all, I could have easily come home from Lesotho and gone to grad school in math or found a job completely unrelated to my time in Africa. I’ve thought about it quite a bit over the course of the last weeks, while running in the mornings, or as I job search, trying to find a next step in my professional life. Why am I here? What was it that made me choose this field? Why does it feel more “right” to me than pursuing a career in mathematics or academia or anything else? Is it maybe even a bit of my own white savior complex? I still don’t have an answer apart from knowing with conviction that I would not be able to go home to the States and leave development alone.
One of the things we’ve been emphasizing with the interns is the need for their projects to be sustainable. It was a buzzword thrown around during Peace Corps too. Many of the education volunteers quickly accepted that our presence in classrooms was not especially sustainable, but that there were other ways we could leave more of a lasting impact (I mean really, who was I to teach math and physics at a high school in rural Lesotho?!).
Maybe the “why do I do this” question is not a question meant to be answered simply and concisely. For me, at least, it cannot be answered simply or concisely, not right now anyway. I’m not there yet, maybe I never will be. I don’t have an answer, but I’m not content to walk away without trying to answer it, not for anyone else, but for myself. If the answer came easily, it wouldn’t match the complexity of the question. It seems like the big “why” question should not be far from the heart of this work, and anyone committing to working in development needs also to commit to a future of grappling with it.
On a far less serious note, Happy 4th of July!
I so wish I could make the hour-long drive up to my family’s cabin for burgers and brats on the grill and a day of playing in the lake… I also wish I could be in Eugene, Oregon this week for the Olympic Track & Field Trials as I have several friends who will be competing. If you have a chance to tune in to trials, definitely do it. Sending super speedy thoughts to those fit few, running their hearts out to be the ones to represent the U.S. in Rio later this summer.
Lots of love.