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Lessons from Kenya

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In March 2012, I traveled to Kenya to help with some projects in the villages around Siaya county. For years, I’ve donated money to various organizations, but I’ve never been on the ground. I’ve had friends who’ve worked with Doctors without Borders and Engineers without Borders, so I’ve heard various accounts about what happens on the ground – about bureaucracy, about corruption, about failures, about the complexity of the problems.

So this is a story about serendipity, a bit of idiocy, and a lot of luck, due to the aforementioned idiocy. Naturally, like all good stories, it begins with a girl.[i]

So I met this girl at a Vipassana meditation retreat after staying in silence for 10 days. An incredible experience that everyone should go through, but I digress. On the last day, after breaking silence, there was a group that was having a discussion about the future, meditating for that long will cause you to re-evaluate your life. And so, then someone asks this girl, “So what are your plans?” And she excitedly responds, “Well, I’m going to go to volunteer at an orphanage in Africa!”

Having been seasoned by the school of hard knocks, cynical in the ways of the world, and bitter by the realization that life doesn’t really care about my opinion, I eloquently utter, “What?”.

In the ensuing short conversation, I then understand that she has a) no money, b) no job, and c) the boundless optimism and enthusiasm of youth that I could only assume that life would shortly beat out of her. Many years ago, I had a friend in the same situation, who had volunteered at an orphanage in the Philippines, and she told me that the money that is supposed to go to the children never actually got to the children. So with that in mind, I gave her the two hundred dollars that I had on me, my email address, and told her, if there’s a problem that can be solved with a little bit of money, it’s not a real problem. And with that, I left assuming that I’d never hear from her again.

Fast forward to six months later, she makes it to Kenya and helps out with a school organization in the slums of Nairobi. She then goes to a small village two hours from Kisimu. And from that point, after some phone calls, we started talking about some projects that could help the village youth. Naturally, since I’m not an organization and not having infinite wealth, I was more interested in making sure I wasn’t on the hook for something that wouldn’t last with only local inputs. So I started funding various agricultural projects that are started with the leadership of a local youth she was staying with.

Fast forward to three months later, the projects are progressing well. To be honest, at this point, I’m both astonished and bewildered. Essentially, a person with no resources and no experience, decides to go to Africa, works for a summer to save, arrives in Kenya, meets some locals, helps with a school in a slum, proceeds to stay in a village, and starts projects with the local youth. How could someone with so little do so much? I had always envisioned “things” getting done by organizations, not individuals. One doesn’t simply walk into a foreign country and do all of this? Right? So I have no choice, I work 90 hours/week to tie things up at work, write my will[ii], and proceed to Kenya.

And I’m still alive to tell the tale. I visit both the slum and the villages. And there are many things that I learnt which will need to be expounded upon in greater detail. But briefly:

  1. There’s no substitute for actually talking to people on the ground. Even in broken English / broken native language. In the villages, living with them, seeing their problems first hand, working with them. For instance, being an Indian, I love cows. A native cow that eats grass can produce 16-20 L of milk a day, you can feed a large family with that much milk. In any case, upon learning their cows cannot produce that much milk, I thought, well, why not bring in some cows that bring in more milk? Well, the pure dairy cows need vaccinations and can’t eat the native grass, so that wouldn’t help. In fact, I also learnt that the native cows are quite angry and don’t give very much milk.[iii]
  2. There’s an illusion of security in developed countries. We don’t quite understand the inter-dependencies of our economy, the dependence on our roads and the energy or the reliance on the government for our safety net. Life is much more straightforward in a village. You’ll quickly understand that if it doesn’t rain, you will starve.
  3. Development has to been done incrementally. Spending large amounts on capital infrastructure, modernization, technology isn’t necessary, and quite frankly, probably detrimental. Modern development is one of the primary reasons for the creations of slums. Slums are intractable because the root causes need to be addressed. It’s a systemic issue as life is actually easier in the slums than it is in the villages. No matter how much money is put into removing the slum, without the root cause addressed, the slum will grow.
  4. Some problems are easy to fix. Some problems are not. But just because hard problems are hard, doesn’t mean that easy problems shouldn’t be solved rather than giving up completely. So sometimes after donations, let’s say the locals end up getting close to nothing. Well, that was still more than they had before. Not effective, but still better than nothing. And getting money to locals and invested in long-term projects, that’s easy to fix, at least on a small scale.
  5. It’s very easy to make a difference at a micro/village level. Whether it lasts is a different story, as there’s a great deal of luck involved with the weather, the land, and disease, but it’s easy and doesn’t cost much. Each village has slightly different needs and resources. There are no one size fits all approaches, so it requires time, but it’s feasible.
  6. Hope. The entire experience was ironic because while I was in the villages, the locals were hopeful after we talked. But, in reality, it was them giving me hope. After seeing so many people doing so much with so little, how could they not succeed?[iv]

tl;dr: Met a girl, got dragged to Kenya, did stuff.

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  1. That is, good stories that don’t involve drinking, gambling, or almost inadvertently killing myself. There’s a venn diagram joke about good stories in here somewhere. []
  2. Yes, seriously. []
  3. And this is a very good reason not to Africanize bees []
  4. Barring the lack of rain, pestilence, floods, and other acts of God []
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