As we drive through the villages, the towns, and the cities, I watch out the window as dozens of Kenyans line the roads. They stand or sit on the side of the roads, lying in the dirt or next to grazing cattle, chatting in groups, or staring solemnly into the sky, alone. My initial thought was, “Everyone must be taking a break.”
After a while I realized this was not a break at all. This was an all day, every day sight. There is nothing for anyone to do. They are all just waiting. Kenya has a 40% unemployment rate (http://www.cia.gov/) and all people can do is sit around and see if anyone will hire them to do something, anything: wash a car, pick tomatoes in a shamba (garden), style hair, carry groceries, change a tire… When you don’t know a trade, and have nothing to eat, you will do anything you can to make money. Thus the 50% of the population living below poverty level. And I don't mean United States "poverty." I mean true poverty, can't get a meal because NOTHING, no shelter, no relatives, no job search agency is available to you.
I was reminded of Dr. Seuss in “Oh! The Places You’ll Go.”
“The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.”
It is a terrible, terrible cycle. The government is corrupt, steals money, and doesn’t pay their workers. Therefore, people are poor. Since people are poor and cannot afford good food, hygiene, or education, they cannot become educated and learn a skill or even just live a healthy lifestyle. Because they are poor and cannot become educated or feel like they can change their society, they do not stand up to their corrupt government who is stealing all the money. The government keeps raising prices of food, education, and housing. The people still cannot afford those things and live in squalor. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.
There are some rays of hope, I have found.
Yesterday, my mom and I visited Nice View Academy, the school that Saved By God’s Grace helps sponsor kids through. I sat in on the English class and Social Studies class just to get a feel for their education. I was expecting poor quality, since much of Kenyan workmanship is poor quality (I have found). But I was pleasantly surprised when the English teacher taught an entire lesson, doing everything I was taught to do through ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership. After class I told the teacher what a great job she did and how I was very impressed with her grasp of the subject matter. I also praised her to the principal, so I think she was happy about that.
I did notice something interesting though. Whenever the teacher asked a question with an answer directly from the text like “What was the president’s name in this story?” or “Who was speaking?” hands would raise across the room begging to be chosen to give their answer. However, whenever she would ask a “why” question like “Why did they need extra security at the Olympics?” the room grew dead silent and students sat quiet at their desks. It wasn’t that the question was difficult. It was simply because it required critical thinking, not just looking for the answer in the text.
This is something my parents and I have had many conversations about, the much needed ability of Kenyans, or rather people in poverty, to think critically. And it all goes back to that vicious cycle. The British colonized Kenya back in the day, creating stores, hospitals, and educational facilities. When Kenyans said, “We want to take over now.” The British said, “Ok. Peace.” And they left without teaching Kenyans how to run anything. The things left over from the British eventually went into ruin and Kenyans had to figure out how to do all these things on their own. They have done a good job at piecing things together as they fall apart, or simply leaving them there and getting accustomed to broken things. They’ve become accustomed to poor quality workmanship and poor living conditions because of this. They have grown so used to living day to day that when a problem is posed involving planning for the future, they have no idea how to solve it. They’ve never had to. Nothing is guaranteed to them.
Their own government can’t issue mandatory ID cards because they ran out of paper.
Yeah, that’s right. The freaking government ran out of paper.
How does this happen you ask? Well, the government doesn’t pay their paper vendor, so the paper vendor stops giving them paper. Instead of paying the vendor, the government just says, “We’ll just wait and make all these people that require these MANDATORY IDs stick it out.” Then when they’re ready to pay the vendor, the vendor again gives them paper because he can’t move on to anyone else because no one else is demanding his paper, so he sticks to the government who screws him over.
How can you care to better yourself, let alone your country, when your own government officials are corrupt, don’t give a crap about you, monopolize the markets, and steal their own country’s income?
There’s no point.
Therefore, you learn to do the bare minimum to get the most money, do everything with poor quality because that’s what you and everyone around you has learned to expect, trash the streets because no one cares to clean it up, and steal from each other because that’s what your society and government has taught you.
It’s easy, as an American who expects people to do their best and at the very least act with goodwill toward one another, to get frustrated with the culture.
But, like the teaching at the Academy, there are bits of hope.
Some Kenyans we know have traveled and have seen how other parts of the world work and live and the opportunities available. They see that and want better for Kenya…they just have to put it into action.
There are also beautiful aspects of community here. There is a group of women called a Merry-Go-Round who get together and put in 200 ksh each month (about $2.50USD). Each month one of the women gets to collect the money and use it for her family. Isn’t that the Gospel in action right there?
At Bosco’s daughter’s birthday, the whole family was there and all the neighbors too. We all celebrated and laughed together. Community.
Poverty can pull people together or tear them apart. To love your neighbor as yourself is a hard concept to grasp when you’re the neighbor who needs some love and no one is helping. But beautiful things can happen in the midst of poverty, lonliness, and frustration when God opens a door or a window and makes an opportunity to show a little love.