A Shameless Dose of Youthful Idealism

It used to be that everything I saw abroad was glorified by being new and different. This glamour is evaporating. I have had the honour of travelling so much that places on opposite sides of the earth are beginning to look the same. What happens when that travel spell dissipates? Life becomes life no matter where you are. People are just people. I have a continuously solidifying perspective of a uniform world; something I believe to be crucial to the mind of a change-maker.

On a personal level, I think that my life-long quest to grow my character is best served by seeing and living in all corners of our planet. I have had ample time to reflect on my past week. It has been the hardest one yet. Out of my recent experiences is an emerging sense of rejuvenated confidence in the path I’m choosing to construct for myself.  I travel because I would rather know all shades of life than none of them. I was reliving some of my adventures recently:

 

Joy

I’ve accidentally swam with 200 sharks -only feet from me- off the coast of Ecuador. I’ve climbed to the top of a mountain in Scotland’s Isle of Skye, in absolute awe at my magical and untouched surroundings. I’ve strolled through the cobblestoned streets in Bruges, Belgium eating chocolates until my stomach hurt. I’ve held mint leaves under my nose as I wandered around the tannery district in Marrakech, Morocco. I have meditated nude on top of mountains with friends from a nearby commune and I have slept in an Irish barn and worked for my food by shovelling potatoes.

Tragedy

I have met strangers who tell be about their weeks left to live. I’ve covered the ears of a three year old girl as her care takers howl at the loss of her HIV-positive sister in the room next door. I have seen sick people, dead people, dying children.  I have been violated by a man unfamiliar to me and been helpless in the face of physical violence done to women whom I befriend. 

Wonder

I have felt the presence of Allah in mosques around the world. I have been brought to tears by the power of ceremonies in Hindu temples. I have sang my heart out in township churches.

 

so…

Am I running around in search of something I’ll never find? I don’t think so. I find it wherever I go. I find growth and I find beauty. I just know there is always more to find.

This week has been rough. The urge to hide visits me frequently these days. I could choose to live the quiet and well -tempered existence that I was born into. I could use my privilege to avoid the dark side of human existence. But I won’t.

Life is ugly and beautiful all at once and I don’t know what to do about it. I do know that I will spend my life reviving my youthful idealism and dragging it around with me as I attempt to find out.

 

 

Some photos of this amazing place:

 

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Mob Justice

Violence escalates faster than I thought. The sound of a person’s body making contact with another is louder than I imagined. Witnessing the transformation of a seemingly non-threatening disposition into one that is motivated by a desire to damage is more striking than I expected. Actually, I just didn’t expect it.

We all sat in symmetrical rows, our notebooks keenly opened on our desks. We were asked to write down all the aspects of ourselves that contributed to the privilege we carried. Half-hour later, there was no room left on the blackboard. Words like “sexual identity” “gender identity” “race” “ethnicity” “education” “socioeconomic bracket” filled my mind. There were around 80 words brainstormed among us all. Certainly more than I could have come up with on my own.

“Violence” was a word we all forgot to put on the board. I am almost 21 years old and until today, I have never, ever, witnessed physical violence. This is part of my privilege. It is part of the bubble I grew up in.

I was on a mitatu bus with a Kenyan friend Bernice, and my Canadian coworker David. We were on our way to the center of the city to attend a speaker event about journalism in Africa. A man across the isle dropped his cellphone under his seat. Everyone around him began bending down to help him retrieve it. This went on for a number of minutes, eventually involving the mitatu worker’s aid. No one could find the phone. The man called his lost phone just as the passenger next to me stood up in the isle. A phone rang in his pocket as he did so. He had taken the phone when pretending to help the man look for it. He was immediately surrounded by three men. The mitatu worker had him by the neck. Using all the strength he could muster, he began kicking the thief from behind. I watched his focused attempts to break his leg with the force. Someone else went for the rib cage. A third was slamming his fist into the back of the skull.  Two more men joined in the emerging chaos. I leaned as far away as I could and began covering my eyes with my hands. A young girl in the seat behind me started yelling let him go! The sounds of his cracking body got worse. People started telling them to move off the bus. They struggled to drag him outside the mitatu where more men joined in. I couldn’t see the thief anymore. I told myself to shut out the sounds. To shut it all out. I was fairly sure I was about to witness a killing. There was nowhere I could go to escape this experience…

The man eventually got away. They clearly could have stopped him if they wanted to, but the mitatu had places to be. Bernice said that in any other situation, he would have been beaten to death.

Criminals aren’t often brought to the police. Institutional structures lack the capability to maintain order at a day-to-day level. Police, when they do show up, will let criminals run free so long as they have money to pay the bribe. Kenya ranks 139 out of 168 countries on the scale of corruption. As such, adherence to protocol relies on community enforcement. In many cases, enforcement means mob justice. Mob justice often only ends when the suspected individual is brutally killed.

I really don’t yet know how this experience has impacted me. So I saw someone get beat up… this was bound to happen at some point in my life. But this was bigger. I am impacted by the energy with which they threw their bodies at this man. It was to kill. It was done with such utter commitment to the cause. Men joined in without hesitating, as if it was a relief to have someone at whom to aim their punch. After the drama ceased, the bus continued on it’s way. Everyone chatted and laughed as if nothing had happened. This was just life. Death is a more prominent aspect of existence here (the dead man on the side of the highway last week supports this claim).

“When one is killed in an almost ritualistic fashion by a mob hypnotised by its own savagery, this is dismissed as “mob justice”; tragic, yes, but no more avoidable than a lightning strike. It becomes acceptable that a mob made up of frustrated roadside individuals can dispense “justice”. It becomes commonplace to see individuals accuse, detain, judge, and execute others — and in the most cruel way.”

 -Stephen N. Wainaina

 

Thank you for reading,

Kyela

 

 

 

History

I was walking through the town of Githunguri when an old man began following close behind me. He wore a dirty beige suit and held a long stick in his hand. He shouted insults at me as I hurried along the crowded road. Eventually, I slipped into a grocery store and waited for him to lose interest. He watched me with a suspicious and loathing stare until he finally walked away. A few hours later, he found me again as I was waiting for my boda boda. I backed into an mpesa shop and asked to wait behind the desk with the worker. Never taking his eyes off me, the man mumbled in Kikuyu as he used his stick to mime shooting a gun. Sometimes he would concentrate on using his finger to trace markings on the back of his hand. Occasionally he would angrily point at me, point to the sky, then ramble on some more.  It was truly unsettling. A woman quietly informed me that the old man had been in the army. I had wondered if this was the case. She was referring to the group of guerrilla warriors, the Mau Mau, that fought for Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule a little over 50 years ago.

I am prepared to encounter people who do not welcome me on this soil due to the tragic violence represented by the colour of my skin. If my presence causes pain to someone in any way, my immediate reaction is to bow my head and leave. I feel disgust and shame for the actions of my ancestors. I want to do whatever I can to ensure that I do not disrupt the process of healing those historical wounds. Someone once told me hostility toward my racial legacy can only be met with grace. I try to respond in this way as much as I can.

A few weeks ago I explored Paradise Lost. I had the most wonderful experience sitting in amongst the trees and waterfalls. The tranquility I experienced has only recently inhabited the space. I happened upon an intricate system of caves that open up at the base of a waterfall. I was crawling through the same tunnels that the Mau Mau warriors used to hide from the British soldiers just half a century ago. I was most impacted by the “kitchen”, a small cave where the Mau Mau would cook their food. Visiting historical sites usually requires extensive effort by the imagination. It is often difficult for me to envision the space being occupied as described by the tales of history.  The revolution was so recent, however,  that visual evidence was rampant. Tears collected in my eyes as I ran my fingers along the ceiling, still blackened from billowing smoke created by cooking food.

 

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Exiting the caves

 

 

Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child. -Cicero, 46 B.C.

 

Kenyan history is rich with violent occupations. The Portuguese ruled over the region from 1498-1698, preceding the Omani domination from 1698-1837. What followed was the European exploration and “Scramble for Africa”. By 1920 Kenya was a formal colony of the British Empire. Post-World War II Kenyan politics created immense pressure for independence. The Kenya African Union, headed by Jomo Kenyatta, led the independence movement. At the height of the fight for independence was the infamous Mau Mau rebellion. Guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Kenyans while thousands more were detained in concentration camps. These camps were designed as a “cleansing process”  in order to “rehabilitate the bestial savages”. I read a book by Caroline Elkins that uncovers the secrets behind these concentration camps. The British have destroyed most recorded evidence that provided the prisoner count and have tampered with reports to minimize the frequency of horrific treatment that occurred.

 

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Mau Mau suspects being led away for questioning by police in 1952

 

I am learning about the struggle, the tragedy, the beauty and strength of this nation and its people. I will continue to do so, for I  have barely scratched the surface. I believe it is my duty- every traveller’s duty- to do this.

 

Kyela

My (White) Gender

I am creating and discovering an abundance of perspectives about every aspect of life here. I am grappling with which ones I should choose to adopt.

To be quite frank, today I feel simply exhausted of having a vagina.

I am getting frustrated by the minute-to-minute aggressions that remind me where I stand on the constructed hierarchy of the human species. I suppress the dirtiness I feel as I go about my day, never knowing if my presence is merely an amusing white-skinned abnormality or a trigger for unfiltered desires to use me for the exotic sexual experience that my body offers.

I am introduced to new people and converse with them. I later discover that the Swahili they were speaking on the side was full of descriptions about sexual acts they would like to perform with me. Men slap their friends when I walk by. They clap for the one who grabs my hand and tells me he loves me. They surround the mitatu that I get into. They tell me about their fantasies of having half-mizungu babies. They exclaim their jealousy as I pass on the back of a bodaboda, my white feminine body pressed up against the driver as we bump along.

Identity, as I have experienced in my life so far, is rooted in a self-centered power. It is a feeling I get as I stand inside myself knowing that my relationship with the world (and everything it contains) is defined by my choosing. I identify as a thinking being with endless agency, full and whole and complete within myself. Recently I feel this perspective changing. Instead of determining relations from the inside-out, I have been thrown onto the other side of the equation. I am absorbing the projections of others and being defined by them. I am an empty ping-pong ball whose power is being directed by the paddles of men who surround me. This changes where my attention sits. This changes how my energy is used. This changes what I do, what I think I should be doing and how I should be allowed to go about doing it.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in processing this new-found intensity of gender dynamics. I guess I’ll keep you posted.

I want to end by mentioning something I’ve come to realize. I’m sure this is something that  seems like a obvious truth to many people. I, however, have only recently really understood and internalized it:

Happiness and sadness can (and do) (and should) co-exist. My disillusionment and frustration do not dampen or crowd my joy. I am so joyful here. I write this as the sun streams down upon me. I’m watching children play with bubbles in the front parking lot of my apartment. I am about to go for burgers with a crew of mindful man friends that I am honoured to share a workspace with. I am thankful for the gift of life, and that the life I lead allows me the time and capacity to contemplate it’s complexities.

 

Thank you for reading,

Kyela

 

EDIT:

A comment was made by my colleague Graeme that I would like to add to this post:

“I think it is important to go beyond just your experience and maybe give some context… Your experience is the result of of the lasting legacy of colonialism on this continent and in this country. The colour of our skin is desired, fetishized, and fantasized because it represents privilege, status, wealth, the ability to travel around the world mostly unrestricted.

It is incredibly exhausting being a white woman in Kenya but I think it is also important to talk about what this means for Kenyans. Being and looking white is so desirable here people buy skin lightening creams and people pull and burn their hair to give it a more Caucasian appearance. The lasting impact of colonialism has created a social construct that constantly tells people in Kenya that white is better or more desirable than black. I can not even imagine what it is like to experience that on a daily basis or what effects that has on someone.”

Some Opening Thoughts as I Settle In

If you asked me about my day, I could recount events as follows:

Today I watched people take turns hopping from stone-to-stone through the swamp that has become the main road in Thindigwa. There was a flood here two weeks ago and measures taken have not yet solved the problem.

Today there was a chicken in the living room. It wandered around my feet as we ate the food cooked on a camping stove.

Today I saw beggars with children on their laps so deathly sick and wounded. They called out to me MIZUNGU, KARIBU! (white person, welcome!)

Today I rode in a mitatu down a four-lane highway. It stopped, then began driving in reverse back up the lane for quite some time, evoking only casually curious glances from other passengers.

Today I accompanied a colleague in meeting a high-ranking man on the streets of Nairobi to purchase an instant and expensive drivers license- something “everyone does” although officially, one obtains a license after taking a lengthy course and waiting through a year-long paperwork process.

 

Here is an alternate picture of my day:

Today I took a shower with a real showerhead.

Today I watched people on their way to work- shoes shined, pants hemmed and jackets pressed as they set out towards the day.

Today I watched fruit stand workers, restaurant staff and fellow mitatu passengers as they all pulled out their shiny smartphones to conduct their business as-per-usual.

Today I was handed a dominos pizza flyer. They deliver for free to the town where I stay.

Today I downloaded Uber on my phone. It’s the best way to get around here and often much cheaper than the cabs.

Today I listened as a man described the impressive level of entrepreneurial spirit and opportunities he believes Nairobi to have. “Great things are happening here.”

 

I’m talking here about features of ‘old’ and ‘new’, of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ that can no longer be categorized in these ways. It isn’t the rich man with Uber app and the poor man with the flooded road. These are aspects of one person’s reality (73.8% of Kenyans have a mobile phone subscription). When I think of the phenomenon of globalization, I think of discussions and articles analyzing the interconnectedness of resource chains and divisions of labour. I don’t immediately think of this idea of the changing nature of economic growth in ‘developing nations’. The linear model of development that is so deeply engrained in our narrative of ‘prosperity’ does not easily account for such drastic polarizations within single livelihoods. The introductions and integration patterns of these systems differ greatly from how we believe they are introduced (and should be introduced). How does this change the future of Kenya? How do we predict the future of a country that is mixing features of growth considered to be the-poles-apart on the slope of ‘development’?

Sometimes I feel devastated by the lack of infrastructure and state of the poor that I observe. Other times, I don’t feel like I’m in a developing nation at all. This is confusing to the part of me that is quietly culture-shocked and curious to the part of me who is wonderfully comfortable up on the traveller’s-eye observation deck.

Other questions I have developed this past week:

  • What assumptions am I assuming I don’t have as I walk around each day?
  • Do local people care that I’m here? What reason do they assume I’m here for? Should I be bothered by those who yell “go home!” or be comforted by those who greet me with kindness and curiosity?
  • Someone once described privilege to me as the number of aspects about yourself that you don’t have to be conscious of each day. I’m experiencing this at a new intensity as I navigate the towns I travel through. Sometimes I am so conscious of being a woman I have no attention left to absorb or observe anything else around me. Does this change? Does this numb with time?
  • Am I a development worker or am I an employee of a capitalist entrepreneur? By using the term “social enterprise” in depicting my work, do these two descriptions become one in the same? What do I really think about the whole concept of social enterprise?
  • How many hours will I have to run to work off all these bloody carbs?

 

It would take me a whole day to justly describe 5 minutes in this place. I am grappling with just how to go about sharing my life here. Generally, I am so thankful for this placement. I am learning a lot and have already been exposed to many wonderful experiences (in both the working hours and other adventures). I am in the midst of putting together a new measurable impact strategy for the company. It will incorporate the Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI) as well as lean data collection methods and analysis. Next week I will begin interviewing customers.  I promise to describe this in greater detail soon!

 

Signing off from the land of red-hued soil and distant sounds of gospel songs,

 

Kyela

 

(I uploaded a few photos here! I haven’t been able to take many around where I’m living, but I have some from the farms)

About

This summer I will be working with LishaBora Hydroponics, a small social enterprise based in Kiambu County, Central Kenya.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB)

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LishaBora is a venture of Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB), an NGO that I have come to love over the course of my university education. As a global development student, EWB is one of few international organizations I feel I can endorse considering the critique I hear everyday in the classroom.

The organization continually works to communicate a vivid and wholesome understanding of the context within which impoverished people live. The complexity of ‘development’ issues is recognized through analytical models of systems thinking. Their values are ones that identify inequality and acknowledge the luck of privilege.

“We don’t distribute seeds; we work with small businesses to help them provide the tools and information that farmers need to prosper. We don’t teach engineering courses; we work with engineering faculties and professional associations to change the face of engineering itself. It’s about people working with people to create lasting, scalable change that unlocks human potential. We call it intelligent development. “

Their Venture Model

EWB looks for early-stage social businesses with big potential for social change. “We seek avant-garde ideas and social entrepreneurs that have the potential to be disruptive and connect them with the resources they need to be successful.” The organization provides investments in the form of grants, debts or equity seed funding for a period of three to five years.

LishaBora Hydroponics Ltd.

Officially a Kenyan business since 2015, LishaBora is a small social enterprise that sells hydroponic-grown, highly nutritious barley fodder cow feed solution to smallholder dairy farmers in the Kiambu region of Kenya. Kenya’s smallholder farmers produce 70% of the dairy on the market but their dairy cows are not producing milk at the highest level of their genetic potential. One significant factor contributing to their low levels of production is the low-quality feed used by farmers. Using LishaBora’s feed for just one week can increase milk yield by 20 percent. Therefore, this model has the potential to make a positive impact on poverty reduction across Kenya.

A few Key term definitions:

• Smallholder dairy farmers: Those with less than ten cows.

• Social enterprise: “An organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being—this may include maximizing social impact alongside profits for external shareholders.” -Our reliable friend Wikipedia

download• Hydroponics: The process of growing plants without soil. In the case of LishaBora, barley fodder is grown in water. This method of growing allows for cow feed with greater nutritive value than any other feed on the market. Increased nutritive value directly results in increased milk yields.

 

My Role

In January of 2016, the business expanded its capacity by beginning work on a new and improved greenhouse. I will join them, along with two new long term fellows, to get the ball rolling as we implement plans to increase capacity for growing and selling of LishaBora’s feed.

I will be working to better understand LishaBora’s customers. There are many factors that contribute to shaping the current dairy cow feed supply chain networks in the region. The social, political, geographical, economic, gendered, legislative aspects of the system must be understood in great detail in order to best cater to the needs of the customers and to integrate into the market most effectively.

To explore the information further, visit

The website of LishaBora here

The website of Engineers Without Borders Canada here

My Introduction

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I would like to begin by saying that I know nothing.

This fact often hovers pleasantly above my head as I navigate through the fragile labyrinth of day-to-day life. Sometimes adopting a more foul nature, I am forced to drag it with me through feelings of inadequacy that trample my agility and openness. It is a reminder of my Umwelt, the narrow perception of reality that my experiences and senses allow me to form:

“I think it would be useful if the concept of the Umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear everyday- and just imagine if all these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

-David Eagleman

I don’t expect this feeling of knowing nothing to ever go away. It will only grow.

 

If I know nothing, who am I?

I believe my character to be an accumulation of my life experiences. I believe my spirit to be an accumulation of the ways in which I chose to absorb these experiences. I believe that no part of me is inherently stagnant. I believe that I decide in which ways I grow. I can shape myself in which ever ways I choose. I am ever changing.

 

A lesson I’m still working on accepting:

“That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being- to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”

– Malcolm Gladwell

Even one’s truths are temporary.  I will use my truths until they change.  Our truths are not invalidated by their temporary nature. 

 

I believe that beauty should be my focus:

When I use the word beauty, I am not simply referring to an overwhelming feeling of joy induced by an observation or experience. I think there is beauty in struggle too. When experiencing tragedy, I am able to step back and see beauty in my despair. Upon looking for rawness within a circumstance, one is able to connect with a deeper essence of life. In this way, beauty is what is. Beauty is the intrinsic light laced inside the human condition. It is where ever you look for it. I have come to learn that it is the most powerful thing to shape you as you grow (if only you pay it attention).

 

What all this means for this blog:

My thoughts hibernate in the winter, along with the rest of me. Recently I have found my wondering, pondering, inquisitive head returning to the surface. As this sunshine-induced transition occurs, I am reminded of the feeling of discomfort. I forget that breaking open assumptions I carry, seeing things in new light, and absorbing the wisdom of others often results in somewhat of a crisis of identity and perspective. I have had a multiple conversations with fellow chapter members about the value of discomfort. I want to embrace this idea whole-heartedly. I want this blog to be a record of my time getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Beauty is uncomfortable!

 

So, welcome to my blog.

I believe that self-growth, in its most pure form, is achieved through collective effort. I hope the words I write here can be my contribution to our communal discovery of all that exists within the expansive reality we are so privileged to explore.