Is it good or is it bad?

Joseph turned to me and smiled. “So life in the US…. is it good or is it bad?” We were moving along the ridge of a mountain from Narok to Nairobi, the view of the Rift valley in all its vastness spilled out before us. This question from our driver friend took me a moment to process. In some ways most of our experiences have been in the pursuit of understanding what life here in Kenya really consists of. It wasn’t until Joseph’s question that I realized that our time in Kenya may turn out to be more of a mirror to our own way of life than it is an investigation of someone else’s.

When we create a video for a non-profit there is always a clear temptation to use binarys… these people suffer, these people triumph…. this is a problem and here is the solution. In Kenya I’ve found myself searching in the same way. Is this a country of farmers, plagued by HIV, poor governance, tribal conflict and broken infrastructure? Or is it a country of people who work from dawn to dusk. Who have learned how to expertly use their fertile soil. Who have put their children’s education above almost all else. Who create instant businesses on blankets by the side of the road. Who love to dance and sing and smile. A people who, even if they are literally destitute, will insist you take tea with them.

I’ve had trouble figuring out whether life here is good or bad and of course that’s because there is no such answer. Kenya is all of these things. As visitors (not to mention storytellers) it has to be our job to consider it all … the good and the bad.

In our American minds there are immediate aspects of life in Kenya that conflict with our sense of “a good life”. The roads here make the potholes of Brooklyn feel like the Autobahn. Female Genital Mutilation is still practiced. Bride Inheritance. Ethnic Violence. Medical care is a luxury item, which puts our entire recent medical debate into perspective. Mostly the opportunity to succeed and improve ones standard of living does not compare. In Kenya with a good mind, a strong immune system and a good education you can still find yourself unable to succeed. I guarantee there are a few Nobel, Pulitzer, Oscar winners hoeing beans right now in the fields of Kenya. This is life without a safety net (you’re lucky if you have a big strong family). This is life without the helping hand of the government. The crippling corruption here is unimaginable to us.

On the other side there are so many aspects of life here which I think any visitor is enchanted by. We have been welcomed here in a way that seems impossible in America. One day a woman (who spoke little English) walked us almost a mile before we realized she was going the other way. She simply wanted to make sure these visitors in her community found their way.

Kenyans use what they have, they conserve, they recycle. They are connected to the land (almost everyone here has picked corn and milked a cow in their life). In my own American life, I’ve only dreamed of being this connected to the natural world. It makes all of the local, organic farming we do seem ridiculously backwards.

Keynan kids are hungry for education in a way that mothers across America would die for. School here can easily last 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.

See… as I think about life in Kenya my thoughts inevitably return to my own country, my own way of life. Have I taken for granted the stability of life that our rich economy and (by comparison) honest government has afforded? (Yes.) In fact, I’d like to invite small government-right wing Americans to take a trip here. This country is begging for more government… more schools, decent roads, clean water, medical care. A safety net. We consider all of these things as constants and we should not.

But don’t I want to actually LIVE on land? To know where my food comes from. To greet every visitor as though they were my long lost best friend. Don’t I want to be hungry for knowledge and treat the opportunity to grow as golden?

Kenya has taught us that engaging in “International Aid” can often turn into an exercise in superiority. “Look at these poor people and all the things we could do for them to fix their mixed up backwards country” But the truth is life here is filled with everything. A Mama dies from AIDS leaving five children orphans. A primary school choir sings a triumphant piece of Beethoven (without reading a note of music). Half of the students eat only once a day… a meal of corn flour. The same kids take turns jumping over a river, laughing the whole time.

Kenya has taught us that the American allergy to walking isn’t just making us fatter, but probably diminishing our inner life by 35%. It has taught us that we are obsessively clean. Obsessively afraid of being late. It has taught us that we have so conquered the quest for food, shelter and fire that we have often become bored (think of dog pedicures, everything in Brookstone, hot dog eating contests)

My answer to Joseph was pretty lame. How can you compare life in our country to life in this one? I had more money in my wallet than he would earn in a month. But the breathtaking view out my window… into the land of the Maasai… well, I’ll never have that. We’ll leave Kenya understanding the reason why half the world is clamoring to know our way of life. And why we, Americans, should be clamoring to know theirs.

 

3 comments

  1. Jonathan Streeter
    June 23, 2010

    When talking to Americans who have never been to a foreign country (let alone a "developing nation"), I find it hard to explain my views on life here in the U.S. It is easy for me to imagine that people in Kenya or Haiti or Iraq can believe that the place they live is beautiful or wonderful, even if it doesn't conform to what *I* think of as beautiful or wonderful. I'm glad that you bring such valuable insight and sensitivity to the work that you are doing with Goodeye.

  2. nicki k
    June 24, 2010

    Beautiful post, Dan.

  3. Jon
    July 8, 2010

    well put Dan

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