Tag Archives: development

Reacting to “the Mess” – Part 2

The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.
The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say in this second part of my reaction to Paul Theroux’s recent article in Barron’s about aid in Africa, a sort of resolution that ties together my thoughts on development. But the truth is, I wrestle with ambivalence on the subject, and struggling to come up with a firm conclusions (or even multiple conclusions) leads me to the same answer I often give when I’m asked what life is like in Africa: It’s complicated.

Even a hardship post isn't all hardship - thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the roundtrip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.
Even a hardship post isn’t all hardship – thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the round trip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.

On the one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to see a few African countries from the ground floor, so to speak, living in small towns and villages and seeing beyond what I’d see if I were just visiting for a short time. Short of up and moving to another country with little or no outside support – following in the footsteps of Livingstone and Stanley and Mungo – working for (or having a spouse who works for) an aid organization provides one of the few opportunities to at least catch a glimpse into the daily lives of fellow human beings. And yet, that seems like a selfish reason to be involved in this sort of work, especially if you’re not sure that you’re helping more than you’re hurting.

Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo's eruption in 2002.
Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002.

I see the value of small aid projects – ones that build the small savings and lending groups, for example, that Anne-Claire and her colleagues are involved in. On the individual level, it’s not hard to find the results, like the man who stood up at a recent meeting and talked about how the group taught him the value of putting money aside for a rainy day – not a trivial realization when floods or droughts or volcanoes or rebel groups or even your own government’s army can take away everything you have in an instant. But these types of projects aren’t likely to change poverty on a broader scale. What’s more, they don’t generate the kinds of numbers necessary to build a data-driven case for investment – not that data-based development is a bad thing, but more on that in a later post.

But the piles of rubble can be put to use...
But the piles of rubble can be put to use…

I guess the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that communication across culture barriers is rarely a bad thing, and the presence of aid/development organizations facilitates that crosstalk in many ways. The challenge now is to leverage what comes out of those conversations to make for better aid projects. It’s only when the people involved – the “beneficiaries” in aid-speak – are intimately involved in coming up with solutions to poverty.

Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over town before the eruption even ended.
Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over Goma before the eruption had even ended.

Switching gears a little bit but extending that idea, I came across a new book called Aid on the Edge of Chaos. The thesis is that the best answers might come from not spending so much time designing projects for an intended outcome. Instead, the author argues for giving people a tool and standing back while they figure out the best way to use it. One example given (I haven’t read the book yet) is the installation of community computer terminals connected to the Internet in Indian slums. After dropping these hard-to-come-by objects into certain areas, the project designers were surprised to see children using the Web to teach themselves English. I’m anxious to read the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you already have.

Lodja's "premier" school - not an easy place to learn.
Lodja’s “premier” school – not an easy place to learn.
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Reacting to the “Mess” – Part 1

IMG_9459Paul Theroux managed to crystallize the hypocrital “aid mess” in Africa for Barron’s last month in a way I certainly can’t. In an elegant thrashing in turns of celebrity do-gooders, meddling politicians, and even Peace Corps Volunteers – a tribe of which he’s one of the most celebrated and controversial members.

His whole essay might come off as a polemic, delicately disguised in snap-smart prose by one of contemporary literature’s deftest hands – if he weren’t also right. The continent – what I’ve seen of it anyway – is a smear of development projects. A few work; most don’t. The ruins of concrete grain banks, broken pumps, and empty health centers don’t take much effort to find.

IMG_9470So why do it? Why bother? Anne-Claire and I have this discussion a lot, really trying to give some thought to what might happen if we all just left Africa to sort out her own problems. In my simplistic view, things might get better – imagine building countries in which the best and brightest worked in hospitals, government, industry, the next Google, instead of in the aid sector – but only after they got worse.

If we just pulled the supports out from under aid and development, hard-gotten gains – the near-eradication of diseases like Guinea worm and polio, and significant drops in infant mortality, for example – would be erased in a matter of years. So effectively, removing all aid would be unconscionable, condemning a generation or more to the worst poverty the world has ever seen.

IMG_9441What’s more, it’s impossible. We live in such an interconnected world, we can’t expect Africans to just accept the West leaving them alone, no matter how much of ‘that’s-our-lot’ fatalism tinges every aspect of life here. Nearly a billion talented, scrappy, eager, resourceful Africans want the healthy children and education and wealth, as well as automobiles and televisions, that they see the rest of the world enjoying.

If there’s one commonality among people in general – one that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – it’s that we humans are never satisfied with where we are. That sort of ambition – innovation, if you will – is what drives progress and invention, and it’s reassuring to think that there has yet to be a problem here on earth that we as a species couldn’t sort out. Not yet at least…

The darker side of that ambition is the urge to accumulate material things, whether it’s a new shirt, a pair of shoes, that car that’s just outside your price range, or a big house with a pool. We all struggle to live within our means – in Africa, the U.S. or anywhere else. In many ways the poverty in Africa can be boiled down to a credit crisis – that is, not having the funds to pay for something right now because you already spent it – which we certainly know a bit about in the West.

I’ll have more in Part 2 of my thoughts on Paul Theroux’s piece in the next couple weeks.

Chaotic Kinshasa: A New Adventure

A telling picture of Kinshasa by photographer Pascal Maitre.
A telling picture of Kinshasa by photographer Pascal Maitre.

“To the outsider the perception is chaos.”

This quote from a source in Robert Draper’s National Geographic piece on Kinshasa would be an apt description of most any sprawling African capital. Often the first thing a visitor notices is the helter-skelter of the roads where, as a driver,  anything you can get away with seems to fly. Thousands of the city’s 10 million inhabitants live day-to-day – polishing shoes, selling hand-me-down pants, or begging for handouts – and it would seem that most of the 500,000 coming in every year will do the same. Even verbal communication blends a dizzying melange of local and colonially imposed languages.

But as Draper points out, a rhythm, an order exists to the people living here. It’s not one we Westerners can easily understand.  Just as Eastern music written with a 5-beat meter can clang discordant in our Western ears so accustomed to 2 or 4 beats per measure, the swirl and chaos (two words Draper uses to great effect) on Kinshasa’s streets are disorienting. But just because we can’t hear the melody doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We had dinner last night with a couple of fellow Peace Corps Niger alums based in Kinshasa with the State Department. They’ve spent two years here and pointed us toward this article, saying what a marvelous encapsulation of Kinshasa it is. After arriving less than a week ago, I can’t help but agree.

Just to sum up for those of you who don’t know, Anne-Claire (my wife) just began a year-long fellowship with an aid organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’ll be learning the ins and outs of working for an aid/relief organization, and I’m lucky enough to tag along in the hopes of finding a few things to write about. We are going to be based in Lodja, in central DRC, but we’re in Kinshasa for the next three weeks.

Unfortunately, safety is a concern here in the capital, so with few exceptions, we can’t really go beyond the concession walls of our apartment or the CRS office outside of a car. It’s a little frustrating, brought on by the variety of schemes, ranging from petty street crime to impersonating cops (as well as cops themselves looking to bolster nonexistent government paychecks), that folks use to extract a little cash from visitors. But we’re looking forward to Lodja. Though it’s still a large town of about 100,000 people, it’s much safer and calmer and we’ll be free to move around.

A shot from the article showing the sprawl of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
A shot from the article showing the sprawl of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

We also should have at least sporadic Internet access, which means I’m hoping to post to this blog once or twice a week. I have a few ideas for posts, but if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me directly. I hope to adhere to the spirit of this blog, which I started a little more than two years ago when Anne-Claire and I were traveling around Europe and West Africa. In a nutshell, my bird’s-eye philosophy on traveling in Africa is that, more so than any place I’ve ever visited, the best experiences come from the people you meet. It’s not a new idea at all and certainly bears application in other places. But it’s here, where existence and survival are stripped to their essence that it’s most apparent, at least to me.

So take a look around at our past trips chronicled here, and stay tuned for what’s to come over the next year here in the DRC. If I’ve gotten something wrong and I haven’t been clear, let me have it in the comments or an email. I’d love nothing more than for this site to become a discussion of development and travel, in Africa and elsewhere.

If you do have a chance to read Draper’s article, let me know your thoughts. It’s a fun ride through a fascinating city.

Last Nights in Niamey

Anne-Claire with her Peace Corps supervisor Assalama and her family

Our final days in Niger were spent much as we spent our time in the capital during Peace Corps – visiting as many former staff members as we could, eating good food, running errands at the market and shops, and resting with friends during the heat of the day.

We left Anne-Claire’s town with several kids in tow who’d never been to Niamey before. Ali Baba, who’s older brother Soumaila had died just a few months earlier, gawked at the huge cement factory on the bus ride into town. “Niamey has everything!” he told Anne-Claire. We stopped first at the family of the gendarme chief who Anne-Claire had befriended when he was posted in Birni. Apart from his bear-like appearance and the no-nonsense mustache he wore, Yacouba (or the ‘CB’ as most people called him, short for Chef de Bureau) was an atypical soldier, extracting respect from the people of Birni with a fair hand and a kind spirit, rather than the abuse of his position.

The CB’s family in Niamey

Since we’d left Niger, the CB has served in a desert town north of Agadez to deal with the violence and banditry that’s been on the rise since our departure, and he even did a tour in Abdijan, Cote d’Ivoire, before recently falling ill. Now, he’s more or less bedridden. He has heart trouble and can’t walk more than a few steps, and his body’s just a shadow of the burly uniformed man in the pictures that hang on his walls.

His wife Issa was tickled to see Anne-Claire, and we spent a couple hours talking with them and two of their grown nieces in their bedroom. Though it wasn’t unusual for all of us (men and women) to be sitting together – the CB had a unique relationship with his wife, one in which he treated his wife as an equal – the sadness of the scene wasn’t lost on anyone. The CB reclined uncomfortably on the bed in little more than a diaper, restlessly moving his legs and shifting his body to ease his labored breathing. We tried to help him set up Skype on their laptop, but an electricity cut cause a blip in the Internet service, so we weren’t able to get online.

Lunch with Kelley and his wife Ashley in Niamey

We said goodbye after they fed us (though they didn’t partake in the midday meal because Ramadan had begun a day earlier), promising that next time we came, we’d all take a trip up to the desert together, when God-willing the CB and his country had found more solid footing.

The threat of violence from Al Qaeda has kept the northern two-thirds of the country off limits to all but those groups that can afford to travel with military convoys. While we were in Niamey, we ran into a former volunteer who we’d served with. Nearly nine years later, Kelley still hasn’t left Niger for much longer than a month at a time, first extending his service for a third year, then finding himself a series of interesting jobs, and finally getting married.

“It’s not the same country it was when we were volunteers,” he told me, after I tried to express my disbelief that Niger could ever be considered unsafe. While Nigeriens still aren’t a violent people, outsiders moving in from porous North African and Nigerian borders have tried to turn Niger’s moderate brand of Islam into something more extreme. Though they’ve had little success, it seems to me that in a country that only makes the news for famines once every couple of years, a few violent flare-ups might be enough to cast an unfortunate pall over an otherwise peaceful country.

Ramitou and Mohammed just before we left Niamey

Like most things in Niger, the process of seeing people took far longer than we’d anticipated. Though it was always a pleasure to share a few hours of conversation, this also meant we didn’t see everyone we’d wanted to see.

As we said goodbye to Ramitou, and as Issaka and his family once again drove to the airport to drop us off for our flight, I reflected on my time there as a volunteer. On this trip, we visited volunteers in other countries, and it was impossible not to see the commonalities, regardless of where someone serves. The locals you meet along the way make the two (or more) years the life-changing experience that it is, and there is no better way to begin to understand a culture.

Anne-Claire with Issaka, Ramatou (Issaka’s wife), and a sleepy Khadidja

But I’ve also realized that it was the volunteers Anne-Claire and I served with and the Peace Corps staff we had in Niger made our time there so formidable. My training group in particular was filled with intelligent, idealistic people, and though the frustrations of two years in Niger pummeled a lot of the quixoticism out of most of us, they benefited (in my view) from letting the experience shape them, rather than trying to shape the experience around their own expectations of what their service should be.

And our Peace Corps staff – well, I’ve come to realize that they are often the best a country has to offer – creative, energetic problem solvers all of them. I left my service five years ago convinced that the only lasting solutions to problems in development will come from within the country, not from aid agencies or NGOs or foreign governments. Those groups have roles to play to be sure – perhaps the best role might be to put folks like those who work for Peace Corps in a position to really affect change.

Life and Death Statistics, Part 2

Just like our Peace Corps service, being in Niger was once again filled with higher highs and lower lows than we’re used to at home. Though we enjoyed seeing Seyni’s family – and for me in particular, Safia’s father Mati, a gardener I remembered from the Peace Corps training site whose whisker-like scarification deepens the kindness already present on his face – saying goodbye to them emotionally exhausted us. But again, like Peace Corps, the low didn’t last long, and soon we were back in the village.

Penning a history of the Fulani

The library that Anne-Claire helped build is still in great shape. A man sitting at one of the tables was working on a history of the Fulans (or Peul as they’re known elsewhere) in the Birni area. In a region full of scrappy people, the Fulans are among the scrappiest, spending weeks or months in the bush as the seek pastureland for their livestock. As more and more of the arable land is snatched up for farming, their nomadic way of life has become increasingly untenable, and that’s led to conflict between farmers and herders. It’s encouraging to see someone making the effort to leave a legacy that could increase our understanding of the struggle, especially in this near-universally verbal society.

In preparation for our arrival, Djibo, Anne-Claire’s former counterpart, who is now in a political position at the sous prefecture in Birni, had found us a room on the edge of the town, complete with air conditioning and a Western-style toilet. We thanked him for his thoughtfulness but decided that it would be better to be at his house where we could spend more time visiting with his family. Unfortunately, in this your-guest-is-your-god culture, that meant that Djibo dismantled his own king-sized bed and put it outside for us to sleep on, while he and his wife took a smaller bed in one of the back rooms of their house.

The next day, we visited a family on the outskirts of the town. Much of Birni has electricity, but Jamila’s family lives as if they were in the bush. Her husband spends a fair bit of his income on beer and tobacco, and he has another wife in addition to Jamila to support.

Jamila, still smiling

Four months ago, Jamila’s teenage son Soumaila died suddenly. As with Seyni and Mohammed (Ramatou’s husband), they didn’t know why exactly. In this fatalistic culture, the search for answers doesn’t often go beyond the acceptance that such things are just God’s will.

Since then, Jamila had been hit by a car. She had an operation to put a steel rod in her thigh to stabilize the bone, but only local anesthetic was available for the surgery. “Have patience,” she says, shrugging, the smile returning to her face as she focused on the present and the return of her friend (Anne-Claire) after five years.

Fortunately, most of the families we visited had happier stories to tell. One particularly large family had a boy who wasn’t able to walk when Anne-Claire lived in Birni. The family and everyone else just sort of expected him to die.

But when we visited his family, they pointed to him with pride – a modern-day Lazarus bouncing around as healthy as any other kid. The trademark passive acceptance of fatalism may run deep here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a blessing or even a miracle when they see one.

Three people, cutting across economic and professional lines, have died since we’ve been gone. That may not seem like a lot, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. What’s more unsettling for me is the randomness with which tragedy can strike here. To hammer home that point, a Fulan was hit and killed by a bush taxi as he was walking along the road to market the morning we left Birni. He’d been hit once before and had to have part of his foot amputated.

Malaria, undiagnosed cancer, a nasty bout of what we’d call food poisoning, heart disease – all could have played a role in the deaths of the three people we knew, but the real causes aren’t known. And none of them came from the poorest of the poor families. I struggle to draw any conclusions – only that, in the States, any of these deaths would be met with “He was too young to die,” or “That shouldn’t have happened.”

Here in Niger – well, I’m left feeling the same way. All three were well beyond the dangerous first five years of life, which only 2 out of 3 children survive. None should have died. Their deaths should be unacceptable.

That to me may be the biggest hurdle to development in a place like Niger. It’s only when folks get fed up with the way things are that real change can begin to happen. Until that time, we can build clinics and libraries and wells, but real change will stay outside our grasp. In fact, you might even say those elements impede progress by “acting as a pressure valve” as Anne-Claire puts it, keeping life just bearable enough that the risks associated with fundamental change seem too great.

Of course, the behaviors that need to change to alter this course are ours – that is, those of the aid-giving West – rather than those of the masses in the developing world. Until we find a better way to help, aside from lobbing money at countries and carpet bombing the countryside with development projects that we *hope* (a bit fatalistically ourselves, if you think about it) will do good, things aren’t going to get better, and they may even get worse. Will that happen anytime soon?

Shrug. Have patience.