This I Believe

Carey - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Entered on January 10, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: change

I believe in the power of change and the individual’s power to make change happen.

If there is one thing I learned during my Peace Corps years in the tiny village of Lukore, Kenya, it is that there is no easy solution to a situation that seems to be steadily deteriorating. But still — I believe — change is happening and HAS to happen…even if slowly.

Though life in Kenya is often thought of as simple or idyllic (picture…giraffes meandering across acacia dotted savannas and colorful women cooking over three-stoned fires…), I found it to be a maze of complicated and interrelated pathways. These pathways wind between individuals, families, communities, churches, local governments, charities, and more. At each stage stands obstacles to the individual “trying to make a difference”.

One goes to Africa with ideas of actually changing things. This is not a bad goal. It’s not wrong. Perhaps it is simply a matter of scale. Personnally, I can say that I actually made a difference…but it was a difference in only a handful of lives—not, as I had envisioned—in major societal issues like poverty or injustice or gender equality. When one decides to work with Peace Corps, or any kind of development organization, he/she comes out with a completely revised view of how change actually happens. It has to start small. If it’s small, it’s real. Not that ‘large-scale’ changes can’t take place…but I didn’t see them taking place in my village.

I did see some changes in Lukore. The example that I am thinking of brings out an important point about change—that its agent has to be consistent with the home culture. The method may seem strange to us; no matter, it has to make sense to ‘the people’. I started a music and dance club at the high school where I taught. It started out slowly, painfully. We grew and learned together. At some point I got an idea of doing a dance with an HIV/AIDS message as a story line. The students took off with it, developed it—and through a musical story and their own local music, they were finally able to communicate about this important issue. Ultimately, they taught other students and community members (while entertaining them).

Change came not only in the opening of dialogue on a subject that was taboo; it came in the attitudes of the students. It came in their self esteem inching upward, in their feelings of being a vital part of their community. Change was obvious in villagers as students from Lukore won national recognition…all of a sudden, they were on the map. Change was seen in families who were proud to send their children to Lukore Secondary School and in government officials who immediately took credit for the good thing done in their district. All at once, those convoluted pathways between the society’s organizational levels were clean and clear and negotiable. Sometimes change happens like this.

I learned many things on the coast of East Africa, and if I could always remember them and consistently live by these lessons—I might one day be considered a wise person. I learned the importance of listening. Really listening…waiting and avoiding the urge to impose what I consider to be the logical solution to a problem. I learned that things work slower in rural Africa than in our western world but that it all comes around in time. I learned that there is usually a protocol (even in the most unlikely of places) and that the wise way to accomplish goals is to wait, watch, and quietly ask questions…then to proceed in a respectful, professional manner. I learned to not push change.

When, for example, I found out that a teacher at my school was exchanging high grades for sexual favors with one of my female students—it was tempting to storm into the Headmaster’s office or to pound down the doors of the Ministry of Education. At home there are options for quick action. There are clear consequences when someone (especially someone working with children) is clearly out-of-bounds in his actions. In Kenya, you have to take a deep breath and consider how to work the channels so that the most positive outcome can be achieved. Forceful reactions, even if warranted, usually give results just opposite of those intended. In this case, the teacher was transferred…and though that doesn’t seem to be enough, it got my student out of a bad (and common) situation.

I also learned that Africa is full of paradoxes. What we in the West know to be “true and right” is sometimes not applicable there. It is often 180 degrees off-base. Situations are only predictable in that they are always much more complicated than we could ever envision or comprehend.

For example, when I boarded the plane along with fifty other Peace Corps volunteers bound for Nairobi, I was sure that my ideas on environmental issues were sound and logical. I had signed petitions to “save the elephants”. I had donated money to the effort. It wasn’t until I had spent many months in my village and was able to piece together all the jigsaw-like aspects to the societal structure that I realized what a simplistic view I had held. In one two-week period, the fathers of three of my student were killed by elephants as they tried to protect their farms. They were subsistence farmers; pretty much their whole survival depended on the crops they grew. An elephant could devastate an entire family’s yearly food source in one evening. Because of pressure from overseas, farmers in rural areas had no choices but to use torches to fend off economic disaster, and often died trying to do it.

Steadily, I saw a whole new perspective on the elephant issue. One I could never have been exposed to without really listening. Yes, it was my turn to change. Yet, flip-flopping extreme views was not the answer. I realized (once again) that when you think you get it—that’s when you don’t. I didn’t have an answer to the problem, just a broader, more complete idea of the picture. It is in asking the questions, creating relationships, and listening with an open mind that things can begin to change. As Gandhi once said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”