The Welcome Dance. One of the best parts of field work by Justin Schon

July 6, 2010:


It’s interesting to be asked to write one post about my time in Mombasa. There are many different approaches that have been suggested to me, including writing a summary or a day-in-the-life kind of post, but none of them really seem to sufficiently capture my time in Mombasa. From the moment I landed at the airport, as cliché as it sounds, there have been new things for me to see, do, and experience. Riding into town from the airport, there were cows, goats, and chickens walking around freely on the side of the road. For an American from stereotypical suburbia, this was a surprise to see right off the bat. I have already been to South Africa, but that still had not fully prepared me for what I would find in Kenya. I have continued to find surprising and fascinating aspects of life in Kenya, and I would not want it any other way.

Being here for only 13 weeks, I decided before arriving that I would approach my time in Kenya as an opportunity to supplement my classroom experience as much as possible. I am not going to save the world while I am here. Instead, whenever possible I am attempting to apply lessons that I have been taught in my classes at the University of Michigan. For example, last week I went on a site visit to a small village that is about a one hour drive outside of Mombasa. The purpose of the visit was to ascertain the status of aloe production at the village’s 1 acre aloe farm. There were two volunteers with me from the Kenya Community Support Center (KECOSCE) and two employees of a non-profit NGO called Allavida. Allavida employees were accompanying us because their organization is a substantial funder for the project to help this village and a few others in the Coast of Kenya produce soaps and lotions with their potential for growing aloe vera plants. During the visit, we learned that the villagers had been involved in two separate projects to try and generate more income for themselves. Both times, greedy individuals had pocketed money that the villagers had pooled for investment in the projects. Now, the villagers are all reluctant to pool their money again. They are afraid that, once again, their money will be stolen. This situation strikes me as a prime example of a collective action problem. It is in the interest of villagers to pool resources, but their lack of trust in the ultimate use of those resources is preventing them from pursuing that interest.

Additionally, I have been struck by the full range of problems that can arise from high unemployment and a lack of economic opportunities. Besides the obvious financial hardships that can arise for Kenyans because of these dynamics, Kenya has also seen crime and radicalization result from these hardships. The link between poverty and crime has been observed and well-documented for some time, but the link between poverty and radicalization is less clear. KECOSCE has done a lot of work on youth anti-radicalization, so I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about this link. As youth get frustrated by their inability to secure employment, manipulative individuals have found openings to convince young people to adopt extremist versions of Islam. Then, they use that extremist version to convince young people to engage in violence or other anti-social behavior.

KECOSCE has held forums to engage young people in discussions on Islam and radicalization in an effort to combat radicalization. KECOSCE director Phyllis Muema notes that “young people now know what questions to ask” when people enter a community and attempt to convince them to adopt radical views. I have been very impressed to learn about the results from KECOSCE’s youth anti-radicalization project, and hope that this is not the only project of its kind.

KECOSCE’s other projects, working on social enterprise and peace and human security have also done impressive work. It is truly encouraging to see that there are organizations such as KECOSCE working so hard to address the challenges Kenya faces.

As I continue to live in Kenya, I can only expect my appreciation of the country and its people to grow. There are problems here of course, but there are also dedicated people working to solve those problems. As long as they keep working, and gain more support, Kenyans will only see their lives improve.