In My Own Defense

Twice yesterday I heard it voiced that I will likely have to change my volunteer trip from Kenya to Ghana in July. While it might well be true, I continue to reject lost hope for the success of Kenya to soon arrive on the other side of chaos.

When I last spoke with Village Volunteers executive director, Shana Greene, we gracefully wove the rhetoric of possibility into a conversation filled with concern. On 14 Jan 2008, two volunteers decided to stay behind while the rest had been transported safely to the airport with the help of the village coordinators and hired police guards. Understandably, Village Volunteers cannot send people to the Rift Valley if the violence continues, but Shana reassured me that we still have time before making a solid decision and that continuing VV’s sustainable programs was of the utmost importance for the re-stabilization of the village. The decision to send more volunteers would likely hinge on either a re-election or the formation of unity government. Then, two days after we spoke, Kenyan protests began and more violence broke out for another three days.

With each report of a new incident my heart sinks, and yet I continue to read the news voraciously. The flattened images and impersonal media analysis in the phosphorous glow of my monitor at 2 A.M. can crush even the greatest optimist, of which I am not. When will I learn to supplement media’s generalized regurgitation and myopic focus upon the violence? I must remember to visit, with due diligence, the Kenyan blogs, to read the personal stories and opinions of a nation wounded, mourning and traumatized and yet filled with conviction, self examination,? and critical debate about how best to take their country back.

I frequently return to a blog called Gukiri, particularly a post called “We, the Innocent,” in which Keguro explores the delicate shades of gray between the dichotomy of good citizenship and bad. There is a recognition too of the difference between being a Kenyan in Kenya and being a Kenyan abroad. One is no less difficult than the other, but according to a comment from Rombo at What An African Woman Thinks, location is both “an alibi and a source of much needed perspective.”

I am also a recent and avid fan of the Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman. Although WM, the author, could thrash me with a shitstorm of nouns and verbs for my American ignorance (I’m working on it. Truly I am), she thoroughly inspires me. In fact, I would probably admire the eloquent tapestry of phrases that such a thrashing would produce, even if I was the subject.

In her post “After the Ballot: Coming to a Donation Box Near You,” MW contemplates:

the place and purpose of western philanthropy in Africa. Thoughtful Africans, in East Africa and elsewhere, have concluded that aid dollars demand too great a price in African dignity and autonomy and it has been argued that the aid industry serves to excuse African governments from many of their responsibilities towards their own people. Moreover, policy making becomes skewed, as priorities are determined by donor countries and organisations. It is their money, after all, if one ignores the tiny details of the continuing saga of colonial grand larceny without reference to those most likely to be affected by such policies. We all understand this, and we even understand that just as the original version of colonialism was ably supported by the civilising and Christianising mission, so also the contemporary corporate and political predators are well-served by an aid industry which pretends there are no political foundations or power dynamics involved in any of this; that wars, poverty and disease are simply African conditions existing without known cause or culpability; that it is a mere accident that best paid members of this industry, grass-roots credentials notwithstanding, are likely to be white; and that several decades after these schemes were introduced for our “development” one needs a microscope to find signs of progress.

In response to this, I feel I must make a case for cross-cultural and, most importantly, ethical collaboration. My intentions for visiting Kenya from the start, and I can only speak for myself, ¬†have been deeply rooted in combating the damaging effects of American globalization. I can’t single handedly change the national direction the wealthy elite of my country have chosen, but I can be responsible for my own actions. Sure, I vote and rally for greater change at home, but the result is not immediate enough for my taste.

I do realize that stereotypically “poor Africans” are lumped into some hapless blob as if they have no ability to help themselves. The reality is that these are people just like me, born with the same capabilities as the most “successful” of humanity, and still the equality of opportunity is denied them based on Western racism. This is a global issue and responsibility, yet very few whites are willing or able to admit that white privilege exists at the expense of others.

Subsequently, there is also the stereotypical white volunteer who, in an effort to save the world, does nothing more than ensure dependence upon the West in the age old cycle of colonization. I don’t believe their intentions are malicious, but I do believe there is an ignorance so deeply rooted in Western culture that one has difficulty seeing beyond the seemingly normal ideology. As for me, if I can somehow help to responsibly address the damage done, and to recognize that being white is also a stigma from the other side of the looking glass, I do not have to be part of the vicious cycle.

I chose Village Volunteers because their philosophy is entrenched in sustainability and village independence. The local people choose a direction for themselves and I am just a cog in that independence machine. The system can never be perfect as our cultures do not provide for full understanding of each other as yet, but we need to start somewhere and I’m working hard to educate myself and others before I step foot on Kenyan soil. Of course, suggestions are always welcome.

Oh, and by the way, I’m an Atheist with no intention of eradicating Kenyan culture in the name of some Christian patriarchal god. As far as I’m concerned, no god owns the monopoly on kindness.

Aside from all that, some interesting political movement was reported in the media today. According to Reuter’s India, in “Kenya opposition, police clash at funeral” (23 Jan 2008) even if the headline is just more of the same:

Earlier, opposition sources said ODM would call off protests planned for Thursday.

“Annan has told us he will request no more street protests while he is here, and I can tell you we will not be objecting to that,” a senior Odinga aide told Reuters…

Odinga has demanded Kibaki stand down or face an election repeat, which some diplomats have cautioned against as having too much potential for further bloodshed.

But Odinga hinted he may accept the creation of a prime minister post for him. “We are ready to share power with him. He remains president and we take the position of prime minister,” Odinga told Germany’s ARD television.

While I find Kibaki and Odinga equally offensive, a re-election would only spur more violence and voter intimidation. A second election cannot be decided fairly when sabotoged by fear. This is a sure recipe for more of the same. A unity government offers the most immediate salve to the political wounds and a chance to quell the uprisings. Perhaps Kofi Annan’s presence and mediation will be more influential than I first believed. Hope is, once again, beginning to thrive.

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