Out of Africa - report on trip to Kenya from Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer, Pilgrim Place A few days ago I stood on a mountain road overlooking the great Rift Valley, which stretched out far below. 150,000 years ago—give or take a millennium or two—our first ancestors began a slow journey north. Seven of us, representing Church World Service, had journeyed to Kenya to witness a drop of hope taking place in that nation’s ocean of need.

A few days ago I stood on a mountain road overlooking the great Rift Valley, which stretched out far below. 150,000 years ago—give or take a millennium or two—our first ancestors began a slow journey north.

Seven of us, representing Church World Service, had journeyed to Kenya to witness a drop of hope taking place in that nation's ocean of need.  During these few days we saw, among other things:

An 1,800 student grade school in the heart of what may be Africa's largest slum. It is one of 60 such schools CWS is helping to make a bit safer from the ravages and violence of urban despair.  

Dams and a well in remote rural villages of the nation's far west, (a part of the world which probably hasn't appreciably changed for centuries), and where the women—almost beasts of burden—formerly had to haul the family's water for miles. CWS has funded six such projects, and a few thousand more are needed!

A group of village women raising their voices against the almost universal practice of "female genital mutilation."

A woman who learned to read and write in middle age, and is working to establish "under the trees" adult schools in an area with 98% illiteracy. And of the literate 2%, one in 400 is a woman!

Another group of women caring for AIDS afflicted orphans in the heart of Nairobi's massive slums. If you are getting the idea that women are the key to Kenya's hope, you have correctly read my impression.

"Businesses" set up though micro grants, offering a tiny snow flake of hope amidst an avalanche of poverty. Beekeepers, a by-the-tin-coffee-can charcoal seller, a one-man school for auto-mechanics, with two eager students.

An almost universal reappraisal of the United States as friend, not belligerent empire. That change in attitude is everywhere. The operative word is OBAMA!!

And much more.

Not one of these efforts is staffed by CWS —all but two of whose  dozen employees are Africans. What the CWS staff does is locate indigenous local community groups and partner with them. The CWS role is empowerment, not charity. If traditional mission has at one time unwittingly been a pale extension of western colonialism, the new standard revolves around partnership in which the local people—in their own groups—are the major agents. We try and identify them and offer monetary and technical assistance. But the projects and implementation belong to them. CWS doesn't run anything. Much more needs to be said about the meaning of "partnership" as a fresh approach to serious African concerns.

There are risks and limitations in both what we saw and how we responded.

NOBODY spends a week, or even a year, in any culture and thinks she/he knows, understands or can even talk coherently about what is really happening. We see only what we see and what our own experiences and prejudices have brought to the visit.

No matter how pristine we believe our motives to be, we are always tempted to view the persons we encounter as objects, who perhaps love us, celebrate our coming and exist to be befriended by us—and to be photographed.

We think that because we have been of serious help to a few persons, we have the key to solving the nation's problems. The history, dynamics, poverty, social unrest and almost universal despair are so much more overwhelming than we can even imagine, yet we are tempted to conclude we have really done something to address these dynamics. All we have done in to have profoundly touched a few lives and perhaps demonstrated what is possible.

Not-for-profits, churches, agencies, missionaries, people of genuine good will who go to Kenya with the best of intentions, will never adequately confront the root causes and conditions faced in Kenya or in any other African nation. It will take the massive support of the international community even to comprehend the issues and begin to address them. Nor will the dynamics of African culture be fully understood by westerners. While we can supply massive amounts of funds, the actual implementation must come from within these former colonies of Europe and its western religious and mercantile emissaries. CWS and many others may, however, demonstrate what is possible.

On the long return trip I re-read Jeffrey Sach's "The End of Poverty." His Earth Institute, at Columbia University, describes the massive problems of Africa, and how they can be successfully countered by the rest of the world. The Millennium Goal of 0.07% of national budgets has the promise of seriously responding to the crisis. Thus far the United States is not even considering approaching that figure. Nevertheless, only through enormous international attention will a breakthrough become possible. Sachs thinks it can happen, but will take a revolution in both thinking and commitment.

In the meantime, Church World Service and all the other agencies of benevolence, justice and good will, must continue to throw a few beached starfish back into the sea of hope. I am financially committed to CWS, and I encourage each of you to make it a priority in your financial decisions. If you want to know how, contact me.

Even while we are engaged with what CWS can bring to the problems of Africa, perhaps our main task is political—to exert pressure on our government to take the millennium goal seriously, and lead the world in addressing problems that were largely created by the colonial west and its beneficiaries--that's all of us.