Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shillingi Kumi (10 Shillings)

When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other. ~Chinese Proverb

What's the worth of 10 Kenya Shillings? In terms of U.S. dollars (for reference only) it's about 13 cents (give or take, depending on the exchange rate).

10 shillings is the price of a cup of chai in several smaller cafes.
10 shillings is the price of a very small bottle of water.
10 shillings is the price of one egg.
10 shillings is the amount of money I am asked for by children and adults who are looking for handouts (in my community and in Nairobi as well).

10 shillings doesn't seem like a lot of money right? Pragmatically, it is not a lot of money, its rather a small amount of money. So, why is it then, that I choose not to give 10 shillings to people looking for handouts? It's definitely not because I am greedy and mean person. On the contrary, I don't give these handouts because I care.

I've noticed, in different parts of Kenya, that there is a "Robin-hood" mentality where 'wealthier' people are required to give handouts to people who are less fortunate. The amount of the handouts seems less important then the handouts themselves. Typically foreigners and wealthy-looking nationals are asked for money.

The stories vary: "my wife/husband is sick"..."my (insert relative) is sick"..."my boy/girl does not have books/pens/food for school"..."my wheelbarrow is broken"...or sometimes the person wont even say anything and just have their hand cupped and, possibly, point to their stomach.

I've noticed that as time has progressed many of the people who, day after day, continue to ask for handouts have stopped asking me or ask on fewer occasions.

I firmly believe in the "teach a man to fish" instead of "give a man a fish".
So while giving a handout today, whether it be 1000 Kenya Shillings (~13$) or 10 Kenya Shillings, the person is not learning anything more than "this person gives money" - which over time can contribute to an over-all mentality of 'money will be provided for me so I need not worry about work'.

That's not to say that all people who are looking for handouts don't work, though. In fact, even people who work will ask for handouts. This just goes back to the idea that the people who are presumed 'wealthy' are required to provide handouts to the less fortunate.
Add in the perception that all foreigners are 'wealthy' and what do we get? We get the wrong perception that even volunteers have lots of money they can hand out to host country nationals who need only ask for the assistance.

In trying to derail this mentality, I will, when possible, explain why I will not give a person a handout.
When I say I wont give them money the typical response is "hata shillingi kumi?" (eng: not even 10 shillings?) "Hapana, pole" (eng: no, sorry).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy Peace Corps Week!

The Peace Corps stands ready to support the next generation of dedicated volunteers who are committed to serving their country in the cause of peace and believe in the importance of grassroots community development. ~ Aaron S. Williams, Current Peace Corps Director

The Peace Corps community is celebrating Peace Corps Week this week March 1- 7. This year's celebration marks the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, founded on March 1, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the agency.

As Peace Corps approaches its 50th anniversary (next year!), its service legacy continues to promote peace and friendship around the world with 7,671 volunteers serving in 76 host countries. Historically, nearly 200,000 Americans have served with the Peace Corps to promote a better understanding between Americans and the people of the host countries.
At present, Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 countries building strong bonds with their host nations, promoting development at the grass roots, and helping unlock the potential in every human being. Their efforts in agriculture, business development, education, health, the environment, and combating HIV/AIDS have improved the lives of countless individuals in communities around the world.
Returning with a wealth of experiences, Peace Corps Volunteers bring a deep knowledge of other cultures and traditions back home.

[Note: the information above has been copied and slightly paraphrased from 2 sources: Peace Corps' news release and from President Obama's letter of greetings to those celebrating Peace Corps week]

Reflecting on the continued existence of this wonderful program, I feel that I am still serving as a PCV in Kenya.

I used to wonder about what the "Peace Corps experience" would be like. I would ask myself, am I living the PCE? Having some of the luxuries that I have: electricity, running water, regular internet access - is this the PCE?

Certainly when the Peace Corps was started not all of the volunteers were able to enjoy some of the luxuries that some of us are able to enjoy today - but that does not mean that we're not really living the true PCE.

Taking into consideration that throughout the past 49 years of the Peace Corps existence, technology has changed a great deal. With the change in technology, the needs and challenges of PCVs has also changed over time. With these changes, the PCE has also changed to meet the new needs and challenges of communities where PCVs continue to inspire change, peace, and understanding.

Having this understanding in mind, I continue to do the best I can to inspire the members of my community to bring about positive change in the community (as well as future communities they may end up moving/traveling to).

Being an inspiration to others can be tricky at times - sometimes I may feel ill, or lazy, or 'homesick' thinking about some luxuries I had access to that I took for granted while I had access to it. And yet I persevere. I am still here and I will continue to do my best to inspire members of my community each and every day I am here.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to approx 130 youth about the importance of volunteering within the community.
Today, I am teaching a class on HIV/AIDS.
Next week, I will again teach classes on computer literacy and HIV/AIDS.

Yet the information can be taught by anyone. In fact, many of my colleagues at the school could teach the classes I teach.
The difference with me teaching these classes is me; my presence.
I've come to see that my presence is a source of inspiration to my students and other members of my community.