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July 29, 2010
“It’s not hard to grow when you know that you just don’t know.” (Damien Rice)
One of the hardest tasks to do is to try and formulate words out of the experiences I am having here in Mombasa. Maybe that’s because turning the intangibility of experience into tangible words means I have to actually understand the things that happen around me each day. And that’s a lot to ask, because each day as I come to understand and learn more, I realize how little I actually know.
Women from an APHIA II support group proudly arrange their IGA and self-support efforts for display.
I do know a few things though. I know that despite the bustle of the city, life moves a little slower here. I know that if I accidentally look left instead of right, the matatu will probably run me over. I know that the familiar focus on efficiency and productivity has little place in the office here, but work still gets done and this method has virtues of its own. I know that even when the locals grab their arms and shiver because they are “too cold”, I’m still going to be sweating buckets. I know that I’ll always wake up at 5am because I love hearing call to prayer. I know that my host family, even in coming from a different world culturally, economically, and religiously, is made up of some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. I know I’ll miss them like I would my real family when I leave. I know that the extreme concentration of wealth in this country can be summarized by the image of a Lamborghini driving on the outskirts of a slum near Changamwe. I know that I’m not supposed to eat food from the street vendors but the smell of frying cassava with lemon and chili is just too tempting. I know that every time I think of Waka Waka or any song played during the World Cup 2010, I will think about dancing in the kitchen with my host sister. I know how the salty water of the Indian Ocean tastes. I know that a tuk tuk from work to home should cost 50 shillings, but the driver will pretend it’s 100 shillings unless I speak in Swahili. I know that most of the marriage proposals I receive need to be taken with a sense of humor. I know that no matter how comfortable I become here, and how much of a community I am able to build around me, I will never look like I belong. I know not to wear white on cloudy days because when it rains, it pours. I know that hakuna matata really does mean “no worries” (and I have to remind myself of this each time my work plan suddenly changes). I know that the upside of contracting malaria is getting to see the conditions in different health clinics in the region. I also know that no amount of words I write in this blog could ever capture the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, or experiences of actually being here.
I’ve come to Mombasa with a different kind of development perspective. My development studies degree fosters a very critical outlook, never taking for granted a single theory, institution, or even word. Because if we live in a world where meaning is socially constructed, only when we are committed to deconstructing it can we begin to conceptualize what development could mean for different people. Development isn’t a simple concept, one that should prescribe “the way” to live, act, be. Development needs to be fluid, something that is owned by communities and thus responsive to their own histories and needs. So that’s what it needs to be. But I had lost hope, after immersing myself in this critical perspective, that it could be so. A lot of wrong has been done in the world by failing to recognize local contexts, and by commandeering words like “sustainable” and “grassroots” to the point where they lose meaning. Yet by critically focusing on the bad, you stop seeing the good that is happening at the local level in spite of it all.
The view from Mazeras, away from the bustle of Mombasa city.
For me, one of the biggest outcomes of this trip has been the revitalization of my faith in the idea of development- that it can be defined by a community and not prescribed from above; and that it actually can be undertaken in a sustainable manner. I came into this opportunity skeptical that I, as an undergraduate student, could contribute anything to my host organization and community. Yet I have been able to find the delicate balance between knowing where I can make tangible contributions, and understanding when my role is to observe and learn from a different kind of knowledge. Sometimes the teacher, sometimes the student… but usually the student. I think we need to remember how to learn, and learn how to recognize knowledge in other forms.
You see, I’m an idealist, but in a different sense of the word. I get frustrated when people think they can change the world in 10 weeks, and even more so when they expect me to do the same. That’s not idealism as much as naivety, a lack of understanding about the systemic nature of global oppressions and the complexity of most development issues. But I recognize that you can support communities that are mobilizing in the face of these immense challenges, and to me that’s the purpose of this vague concept we call “development”. You’re not changing the world. But you are able to witness the beauty of groups and people who are empowering themselves to change their worlds. And if you’re really lucky, you get to be a part of that change.