Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I applied for this internship because of my growing and committed interest in international development and the world. I am curious about how populations and cultures can be so incredibly different, but on many fundamental levels so vastly similar. Working in a remote and poor village in Tanzania seemed like, and truly was, the perfect experience of discovering and comparing differences and similarities between the developed world and the underdeveloped world. Now we must learn how we can bridge gaps of humanitarian, educational and medical inequalities.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? As an English major, this internship was applicable in one sense because I taught English to the orphans at the organization I worked for. On a much broader application to my studies at W&L, this experience is one of many not innately related experiences which have offered me an incredibly diverse, challenging and satisfying education.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? How remote the culture I lived in was, and how similar people are everywhere. I now realize on that people are not very different by nature, but rather differences are a function of what has been provided to us by our governments, cultures and resources.
Post-Graduation Plans: Travel the world for a few years and then medical school or graduate school. The great thing about college and W&L specifically is that I can explore so many things and be confident that W&L will help me figure out what is right for me when the time comes.Favorite W&L Memory: Watching the sunrise over House Mountain with my friends. W&L is such a full experience with the people you meet, the surrounding area, the incredible history of the school and its tradition of excellence and honor.
Favorite Class: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson with Professor Warren.
On the last day of my three months in East Africa, I found myself driving with a taxi-driver-turned-friend named Paul on my way to the airport after a embarrassingly indulgent meal of local nyama choma, ugali and sukuma wiki. Paul is a native of the slums of East Nairobi, and like many Nairobians from his area, he is bilingual in Swahili and English, incredibly friendly and hospitable, and also incredibly poor. Paul drives a beaten down Toyota Camry from the eighties. The seat is torn up, and like almost every cab driver in Nairobi, he drives an unmetered and unmarked vehicle. I ask Paul what kind of music he likes to break the silence and he tells me that he does not have a radio anymore. He points to the back left window of his car and I see that it is covered by a homemade mixture of cardboard and tape. Paul apologizes for the appearance of his car and explains how someone broke into his car and stole his radio. He slumps, defeated, into his chair while we sit in the humid and notorious Nairobi traffic and announces, "I paid 10,000 shillings for that radio, and now some man is going to sell it for only 800 shillings." The sadness and futility with which Paul says this somehow takes my very full stomach and leaves me feeling quite empty and sad.
Fast forward twenty minutes and Paul and I are pulling into Jomo Kenyatta National Airport. Just like many of the roads in Kenya and Tanzania, this road is limited by speed bumps and police. We pull up to a policeman, and he and Paul engage in what I assume to be friendly conversation. Swahili is a language of greetings, and the response to the many versions of "how are you?" is invariably "fine." I have picked up enough Swahili that I can make out from this conversation that everything is, if not fine, then normal. Paul gets out of the car as if to open the trunk, but does not. Then he gets back in the car. We pull off and head for the airport. As the policeman fades off into the distance, I ask Paul what occurred between him and the officer and he says, "The cop was just doing TKK." I ask Paul what he means and he translates, "TKK. Toa Kitu Kidogo. Give a little gift." In order for Paul to drop me off at the airport free of hassle from the policeman, he had to give a "little gift" of 50 shillings (the equivalent of about 70 cents USD). Although I had been gone from the USA for 3 months, and this was only one of uncountable instances of its kind that I had seen, I still felt a pang of "I'm not in Kansas anymore."
Let me rewind a bit to my actual time spent working in East Africa. I spent two months interning and volunteering at an orphanage in the remote and undeveloped village of Ntagatcha, Tanzania. While working in Ntagatcha, my primary "official" jobs were teaching English and mathematics to the orphans, and also doing a variety of construction projects for the orphanage's compound. While teaching children and wielding construction tools that I was obviously unqualified to use were very important parts of my experience, I found that the part of my experience that most changed my perspective on life was not something that is listed on volunteer brochures or taught in development economics classes. In fact, what I discovered is oddly absent from most discussions of development: individual people. It sounds self-evident, but despite all the literature I have read and discussions I have had, I never really understood that in the end, all of the problems of underdeveloped countries come back to the lives of people. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I found that prior to my journey I understood development and poverty to be something very different than what I understand them to be today. I had read scholars such as Sen, Kholi, Galeano, Escobar and Easterly, and through them I saw and understood poverty and development as a series of terms and numbers: GDP, GNP, Gini Coefficient, Poverty Index, Democracy, Politics, Communism, Freedom, Colonialism, Capitalism, Open Markets, Agri-Development, Micro Finance and so on. It seems so obvious, but through all that learning and reading I failed to grasp that on the most fundamental level, all those terms and numbers and studies need to be about people. Even more simply, development needs to be about making peoples' lives better.
This must all must seem so obvious, and you must be thinking, "of course poverty is about people." But I learned that there is a huge disconnect between reading and living, studying and knowing, "poverty studies" versus people actually in poverty. I found that before I left for Africa I could approach my studies of poverty quite removed from the words of the texts. I could see the issue abstractly, and could then have the luxury of a removed understanding of suffering.
While working in the orphanage, I amassed a catalog of physical accomplishments of my time spent--the playground that I helped build, the library that we built and organized, the granary we constructed out of eucalyptus trees we felled with machetes, this kid learning to read, that kid learning addition, so-and-so speaking a little better English by the time I left, and many more. Despite these tangible accomplishments, I found a much deeper satisfaction and much truer education in the friendships that I made. Whether it was the meals shared in my friend Jack's modest mud-walled and thatched-roofed hut, the hours spent in the fields harvesting maize with Juma, Rengi, Daodie and Nagenya, or the time spent learning the games of my 13-year-old friends Samwel and Peter, I finally realized that this is what poverty is: people.
Since I have been home, I have been flipping through the texts from my college classes on poverty and development, but my experience with the texts has been quite different. I read my texts now, but where the page was once blank with text and graphs I see embedded behind the words the faces of my friends, the squandered resources of the rich land, men like Nagenya and Juma chained to the poverty of an agricultural life as they, like their fathers before them, and their children after them, must squeeze a life out of the dirt of their shamba.
Paul, just like all of the people I met in Kenya and Tanzania, was a very real person facing problems and adversities entirely foreign to me. Connecting the fact that such things as corruption, AIDS, exploitation, abuse and devastating chronic poverty truly affect real people seriously strained some circuits in my brain. I am sad to say that what I was able to give to the friends I made paled in comparison to what they were able to give me, and for such a valuable gift I am forever thankful to them. When I left for my journey a few months ago, I did not believe all the tales of how Africa would change my life. Many people now can say, "I told you so."
Despite my wonderful and eye-opening experience, I am still left with many unanswered questions, perhaps even more than when I left home last June. I have no idea how effective small NGOs like the orphanage I worked for can be or should be. I have no idea what direction we should head in concerning development in foreign countries. My vision of specific answers is very clouded, but my vision and understanding of the need, the reality of poverty and how it affects me, are now crystal clear. I may not know the answers yet, but I can finally see the problems.