Saturday, December 24, 2005

dreaming of a white christmas

it's christmas eve and 80 degrees outside. my fingers are still crossed for at least a dusting of white powder for the morning, and while this may be in vain, the view of the glaciers topping mt. kenya may provide me with some amount of solace. i'm currently in nyeri (about two hours north of thika), visiting with seven other volunteers who congregated in the area to celebrate the holiday. it should be a cozy time - we made a christmas tree last night out of a beer bottle, a stick, and some green tissue paper which has served quite nicely in place of the real thing. we're conducting a white elephant gift exchange tomorrow morning over a breakfast of cheese omelets and hash browns.

i finally moved into my new house in mabanda, a small village about ten minutes outside of thika. i was able to purchase the majority of the furniture from the previous peace corps volunteer, luke, who i am replacing, so the move-in transition proceeded smoothly. without a reliable means of transportation here it is incredibly difficult to move larger items such as couches and chairs, and even groceries become a burden on public transport. there are several small maduka (shops) in mabanda which sell various high-demand goods such as toilet paper, eggs, soda, and fresh fruits and veggies, so it is only on rare occasions that i am forced into thika to make purchases.

i have spent the last several weeks trying to acclimate myself to the happenings at my ngo, youth action for rural development, where i have succeeded luke as the project manager for sfmap (small farmers marketing assistance program). i'm determined not to commit myself to anything until i feel comfortable in the working environment and until i fully understand not only how the program works, but what it needs.

the previous volunteer was a really nice guy, at least for the few days in which i got to know him, but in my opinion he seemed to miss the idea of sustainability in several of the projects that he left for me. one, the "community" library, was a pet project of his that was set up to fail. not only did the library doors open one month before he was to leave, but he arranged for the first two months of rent to be paid by friends of his in the US, with hardly a passing thought as to how the library would continue to meet its fiduciary responsibilities after his departure. while the project remains beneficial in theory, it will take a lot of work to ensure its future success.

the second project which i feel lacked any foresight was a subsidiary of sfmap, through which handmade bags by local widows were sold for export to the US. "what a great idea!" or "they must be making a fortune!" are two exclamations that immediately jump to mind when first informed of this endeavor. however, once specific details of the project are revealed, it becomes much less encouraging. over the course of his two years of service, his mother had been purchasing the handbags from the group for resale to friends and members of her church. these bags fetched a very attractive price for the ladies in the group, who no doubt were grateful to the volunteer who was able to set up this mysterious yet profitable arrangement. having performed this service for the past two years, his mother tired of the chore and has expressed her desire to discontinue the purchase arrangement. while my mother or other relatives may be willing and perfectly financially able to continue in this enterprise, i refuse to ask for their "assistance," as it would be inevitably doing more harm than good. these women need an outlet for their goods that is directly available to them, or at least to someone in the community who is willing and able to provide the service over the long term. before i delve into a philosophical tirade on the evils of empty financial aid, i will desist.

for a specific example of work-related issues in kenya, i'll leave you with an account of the first library committee meeting i attended late last week. i was informed by the librarian, titus, who works on a volunteer basis and seems incredibly committed to the library's success, that a local group of seventeen youths was coming to meet with him to discuss membership. i was encouraged by this initiative, and met with titus to review his plans for the meeting. after i learned that he was clueless about the matter, i set to providing some guidance as well as culling some information from him. we brainstormed together a list of different methods of attracting members, from which we selected group discounts, a writing contest, a wall map project, and a talent show to pursue further. he showed great interest in all of these, and i suggested that he mention these planned activities at his youth group meeting, especially the group discount of 20 percent which we discussed.

come 3:45pm, 45 minutes after the scheduled meeting time, titus came to the office to let me know that we were ready to begin. i followed him to the computer room in which he had set up about 10 chairs to accommodate those attending. including the two of us, there were 8 total attendees, two of whom were the library's sole members. two others were attending from the youth group, and the remaining two seemed to be just passersby who wanted to sit down. titus began the meeting by asking me to introduce myself, after which he berated the two girls in attendance who represented the youth group. "do you have an apology for the rest of your group?" he demanded. a poor start, considering these were prospective library members who we were courting. however, the apology he demanded was mostly offset by his very weak, softspoken manner - his low, gravelly voice was subdued even further by his downcast gaze and trembling hands. while these features may have developed sympathies for him on behalf of those present, it did little to build confidence in the meeting's agenda or the library in general. i could tell he was struggling, so i segued into an account of the propositions that titus and i had previously discussed, specifically the group discount (speaking directly to the representatives of the youth group) as well as the talent show (titus's favorite of the ideas). the talent show offering met with approval among everyone, and induced a wild fervor and flood of ideas - some useful, most not. the oldest in attendance, a thin, outspoken man of around 40, took the lead in the discussion, which was warranted by his confession of having owned a library about which he offered very few, very vague references. the longer he spoke, however, the more i realized that the discussion was moving away from the talent show and towards the man's idea for a concessions enterprise in or adjacent to the library ("i think we can all agree that human beings are attracted to food"). i hesitated to interrupt, since i didn't want to create ill-will (most others listened to him with rapt attention), but luckily the more confident of the two girls cut him off to suggest that we get back on track. everyone nodded in agreement, and the attention shifted to titus, who silently consulted his small notepad for the next order of business. "i think," he began, "that you are ignoring those people without money who would be caused to suffer by watching others eat and drink while they try to read their book." this caused the room to fall back into the spiral of discussion on the matter of food and beverage in the service, completely ignorant of the fact that the library currently listed only two individuals as members.

two hours of discussion, during which i patiently kept silent, offering only tidbits of advice when directly questioned, yielded no conclusive agreement except that we should have a talent show, and that it should be either the last saturday or sunday in january or the first saturday or sunday in february (titus apparently missed this agreement because yesterday i had to convince him that we hadn't decided to hold the talent show on january 31st). titus called another meeting to take place in a week, which fortunately i would be unable to attend.


  1. Jonny,

    Just caught myself up on the last month of your postings. The word "beauracracy" is thrown around a lot in this country, but it hardly can measure up to the clusterf@#$ you describe with the library. I think we can all agree that human beings are attracted to confusion.

    The handbag scenario reminded me of a few labels I saw at the Dayton Farmer's Market that promote commerce between American consumers and third-world artisans. Maybe there is a link that has already been established through which those handbags can be sold. It would be no small task to line up purchasers and ship the bags from a town that seems to place more value in artificial insemination than fast postal service.

    On a more philosophic note, your pictures and journal are quite inspirational, not so much for what you are doing, although commendable, but because you are already there, halfway around the world, having committed two years of your life to something that I have thought about but truly never been serious in pursuing. And now, since I said something serious, I must counterbalance with an appropriately juvenile comment:


    Enjoying the blog. Keep up the good work and for GOD'S SAKE, PLEASE take pictures of that talent show.


  2. Anonymous9:51 PM

    hi, i happen to come from mabanda village and i personaly don't think there is much any of you volunteers can do to improve things. two years is
    just not enough, you would first have to learn how they think and the socio-economic & cultural differences(between you & them) are just too much to be overcome in 2 years. I think you will gain something by learning about other countries and ofcourse MR wambugu will gain alot of prestige, afterall he bringing the americans to help us. by the way the 40 something guy who had a library lived in the states for 8 years and if he didnt learn anything...


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