Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.
A bottom-up approach
Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.
I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.
The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.
Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.
How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.
Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.
Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:
Master of Global Affairs student Jenna Ahn is working with teammates Steven and Juanita, in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International, on a project to design and test a pre-crisis market analysis toolkit for the shelter sector. A better baseline understanding of local markets can guide both pre-crisis programming to build resilience and post-crisis interventions for shelter in sustainable and scalable ways. The team spent two months in Cebu Province in the Philippines conducting interviews and gathering data.
“Hello mamser!” We turned around to see who was calling us with what came to be my favorite gender neutral and delightfully formal Filipino greeting.
It was the woman we interviewed earlier that day. She was grinning and waving at us.
“Hello, Ma’am!” We called back.
As we continued on the dirt road, we encountered other familiar faces from our previous interviews: a husband and wife at dinner who greeted us, counter managers at neighboring hardware stores, and a few friendly nods in the street. We were a motley crew—four Filipinos, two Americans, and a Colombian—and I assumed news of our arrival had spread through the small neighboring barangays of Santa Fe and Pooc. In just five days conducting over 70 interviews, we were still very much foreigners, but I couldn’t help feeling that in our five days in Bantayan Island we had glimpsed a tiny part of the integrated ecosystem of the shelter market.
We had planned to track the supply chain backwards: from households accessing the local market to reconstruct their homes to the hardware stores, construction laborers, and NGOs who aided them in the process. While a relatively linear strategy, our interviews elicited a much more complex reality of relationships, motivations, and obstacles that left us with more questions than answers. What follows is a brief snapshot of just a few of the people we met along the way. *
Despite the blaring speakers next door playing “Despacito” on loop, Ma’am Castillo was calm and thorough as she told us her house was the only one in the neighborhood that had survived Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It wasn’t because her house was particularly durable, she admitted— her house was a mixture of recycled plywood, woven bamboo, and corrugated iron—but because her family had been the only to remain in her neighborhood despite the evacuation warning so God had protected her. She had tried to make some improvements to the house, but her limited budget and compounding loans made things difficult, especially when the price of materials and construction workers skyrocketed after the disaster. How was she supposed to hire a skilled mason if NGOs were willing to pay their masons 150% of the pre-typhoon daily rate?
Around the corner at a construction site, we met with Cuya Jason as he took a short break from laying concrete blocks. A hardworking mason and father of four children, Cuya explained that he had learned his trade by shadowing his father as a helper, and eventually took on the title of mason himself. After Typhoon Yolanda decimated many of the homes in his community, Cuya helped to rebuild using the same construction techniques used before the typhoon. He hadn’t changed his building strategies, but why would he? He did what all the other masons did, and ultimately they were all limited by budgets. If anything, Cuya had to explain to households that forgoing reinforcing steel bars altogether would be unethical. When asked if he would be interested in training workshops to improve his trade, Cuya smiled—perhaps assuming I was searching for a “yes”—and shook his head. Maybe, but he didn’t have time and couldn’t lose out on his daily wage. After all, he needed to get food on the table.
I stood at the counter of RJ’s Hardware and I could tell Até Maria was still convinced that we might sell her business secrets to the other stores in town, but she spoke to us anyway. Like any good business manager, Até closely observed changes in customer behavior and demand when ordering stock. It’s not that she wanted to sell substandard materials, she said matter-of-factly, but it’s what the people could afford. It’s what they wanted. She hoped another typhoon wouldn’t hit the community, but we both knew that it would significantly benefit her business.
We interviewed many others along the way—some with similar stories and still others with different experiences. Ultimately, we found that 60% of households we spoke with did not believe their house would withstand the next climate disaster. And though we must acknowledge there are no easy solutions to the fragile and interconnected relationships within the shelter market in places like Bantayan Island, I do know that the need to act now to benefit people like Ma’am Castillo, Cuya Jason, and Até Maria is central to a commitment to human dignity.
In the end, a home is not simply four walls and a roof where families are forced to live in fear of devastation. Lives are not worth saving only after inevitable climate disasters strike. If we take seriously the Keough School’s mission towards integral human development and protecting the inherent dignity of all persons (especially vulnerable persons), we must work before the next disaster to increase access to dignified housing.
“A closed country is a dying country.” — Edna Ferber, American novelist
This summer, three Master of Global Affairs classmates and I traveled for eight weeks to investigate immigration enforcement in the United States, Germany, and Greece, partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services. Unexpectedly while we were in the field, stories of family separation swept through the US. The heartbreaking experience and brutal reality along the US-Mexico border shocked many Americans and stimulated protests across the US to call for more humane border enforcement or even alternatives to enforcement.
IMMIGRATION’S DIFFICULT HISTORY
Many people argue that America has always been a country of immigrants and was built by immigrants. These people do not understand how a country of immigrants could implement seemingly merciless immigration policies, separating children from their parents, prosecuting migrants who do no harm to national security, and deporting people whose entire family and lives are in the US.
To some extent, they are correct. Despite the fact that many countries, such as Argentina, Austria, and France, welcomed large flows of immigrants in history, none of them have developed a collective cultural identity of “nation of immigrants” to the same extent that the US has. People believe in the American Dream that, no matter who you are and where you come from, you can achieve success if you work hard.
However, people who believe in the immigrant ethos of the US often neglect the fact that, although the US is indeed a nation of immigrants, at the same time, it has always been harsh on immigrants. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act implemented in 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted migrants from eastern and southern European countries as well as most Asian immigrants. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement exposed the discriminatory and unjust nature of the quota system, which led to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Although it terminated the quota system, it was still quite restrictive and maintained the per-country-of-origin limits.
Occasionally, there were pro-immigrant laws and policies carried out thanks to pro-immigrant advocates, and the University of Notre Dame played a significant role in that. Father Theodore Hesburgh, then-President of the University of Notre Dame and former head of the Civil Rights Commission, chaired the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) in the late 1970s.The Commission was set up by Public Law 95-412 (passed Oct. 5, 1978) with the mission “to study and evaluate…existing laws, policies, and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees to the United States and to make such administrative and legislative recommendations to the President and to the Congress as are appropriate.” The SCIRP report produced by the Hesburgh Commission helped establish an expansive framework for immigration policymaking, and its central ideas were largely codified in the 1986 and 1990 immigration reforms. Despite some restrictive features, the Immigration Reform Act in 1986 created one of the largest amnesty programs for undocumented immigrants at that time, with a seasonal agricultural program offering legal paths for migrant labors to become permanent residents and citizens, and various protections against discrimination (Tichenor, 2002).
Unfortunately, the pro-immigrant atmosphere changed quickly in the mid-1990s when California’s Proposition 1994 stripped undocumented immigrants of a wide range of social services, including educational benefits for undocumented children. Then, in 2005, Operation Streamline was started, and the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach that aimed to prosecute every migrant crossing the US border without authorization. Recently, the family separation scandal broke out, exposing the ignominious immigration policies and enforcement to public scrutiny and criticism.
IMMIGRATION POLICIES: LAGGING BEHIND THE TIMES
The purpose of listing the restrictive immigration laws of the past is not to justify the current administration’s immigration policies. Many of them were implemented when racial discrimination prevailed and universal principles on human rights were not recognized. Sixty years have passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many other international or domestic documents that advance the interests of the migrant population have also been established. The rights of migrants and refugees ought to be better protected.
Nevertheless, during our field observation at the US-Mexico border and in Germany and Greece, we questioned our progress since that time. The enhanced border enforcement on the US-Mexico border pushes migrants and asylum seekers to more rugged and dangerous routes. The criminalization of migrants, especially treating illegal re-entry as a felony, punishes those people who have the strongest ties in the US the most, as typically people whose families and social networks are in the US are those willing to risk crossing the border again after deportation. It is the same group that receives the toughest punishment. How could this be just?
In the field, we learned that a grandpa, who was also an undocumented immigrant, was arrested when he was taking his grandchildren to school. Would there be better occasions to arrest him rather than when he was with his grandchildren? We also learned that the Border Patrol adopts a strategy called “dusting” in which a helicopter flies over a group of migrants, raising a dust in the desert and dispersing and disorienting the migrants. Hence, many migrants get lost and die in the desert. There are many more examples of inhumane law enforcement practices like this, casting doubts on the nature of law enforcement.
BUT WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT MIGRATION?
We still don’t know the answer after our two-month fieldwork. Maybe there is no definite answer to this question. For many people in society, law and order is their most important concern. In their minds, undocumented migrants deserve retribution for their illegal act, and the law enforcement practice on the border is just and well-founded.
Critics of immigration may not reflect on the law itself and debate whether it is just or not. Some may ask how to decide whether certain laws are just or not. To be honest, I don’t know. I am not a legal expert. But I know that, if laws and policies punish humanity and undermine human dignity, there must be something wrong.
One blog post cannot show the complex picture of the whole immigration enforcement system. This is not the intention of this post. Nevertheless, it sheds some light on the restrictive nature of immigration law and the brutal reality on the ground facing migrants.
It is clear to us that, not only is more humanitarian assistance needed, but also more research on immigration laws and enforcement are in great need to protect the rights and interests of migrants in the US and other parts of the world.
My classmates and I will continue to strive to advocate for migration rights and interests. It is our hope that migrants, regardless of their origins and status, can be better protected and their human dignity can be fully respected.
Master of Global Affairs students Jamie McClung and Chista Keramati are currently working in Bangladesh with their global partner, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. Below they reflect on their most recent field site visit and their experiences interviewing rural community members in the southwest part of Bangladesh, the Satkhira district.
Jamie McClung: Deep Tracks
This week, Chista Keramati and I traveled to villages on the edge of Bangladesh where people’s livelihoods rely on the resources of the Sundarbans—the world’s largest mangrove forest.
En route to the villages, we confronted slick and muddy roads, where one wrong step meant the difference between staying upright or falling into the rivers and ponds used to hold drinking water. The challenge of navigating these roads was actually quite enjoyable, as it gave us the opportunity to connect with locals, who graciously helped us make our way safely.
Our deep tracks in the mud, and our presence in the villages, seemed to leave a meaningful impression on the communities, as NGOs and even government officials do not seem to visit here often, especially not during such wet weather conditions.
Most meaningful to me was all the people who helped us—each day, and in each community—so that we did not fall. Seeing how adept they were at navigating these treacherous conditions left me with two thoughts: 1) the very location of their homes leaves the entirety of these communities vulnerable; and 2) the sheer strength and resilience within these communities is why they are surviving on very little outside support.
Much of this strength comes from traditional and indigenous knowledge. Most people still live in traditional homes, which are intentionally built with locally grown materials and methods to withstand floods or other climatic hazards.
Through our interviews, we discovered that international trade and the strength of multi-national companies are threatening these ways of life and contributing to many of the development challenges we are witnessing today, from malnutrition to lack of housing. Local communities are quickly losing access to the resources they have depended on for generations, as multi-national companies and NGOs introduce services and materials that don’t align with traditional ways of life. The question for me now is: how do we create locally innovative development that delivers sustainable services in line with traditional ways of life?
Chista Keramati: A Humble Reminder to Self
I wrote my first blog post after I had spent barely ten days in Bangladesh. My research partner Jamie and I had not yet interviewed many people. Dhaka, the capital, and its busy streets and narrow pedestrian areas were the only places we had seen of this geographically and ethnically diverse country. Simply put, I knew not what to expect.
This past Friday—fifty seven days into our stay, and at the closing of our second field trip in rural Bangladesh—we gathered in the local restaurant below our hotel to have our last breakfast in Shyamnagar, a small coastal town in Southwest Bangladesh. While waiting for our now usual “Naan roti and eggs,” we chatted about the past week’s experiences interviewing rural communities, local government officials, and NGOs about their work and life in coastal Bangladesh.
Jamie and I were baffled by what we had heard, observed, and experienced during the past week. Just one day prior, we were on an island where people had lost their land and livelihoods to river bank erosion, and lost family members to cyclones.
We walked some of the most difficult hikes of our lives where the seemingly trivial task of going from one village home to the next was a huge challenge in and of itself. Constant heavy rain turned the island’s dirt roads into little (or big) pools of sticky and slippery mud. At every step of the way, I tried to remind myself that, while this was for me a perhaps one-time hardship, it was an everyday routine for local habitants.
Of course, locals are much more skilled at handling rain and mud than we are. I was reminded of this fact when Shahrbanu—a local woman who had patiently guided the two of us through the mud—bid farewell to us and turned to go home to prepare her family’s lunch. Once assured we were standing on a safe spot, she broke into a sprint towards her home, not minding the slippery road, the heavy rain, and the mud splashing all over her bright red sari. She ran cheerfully and freely as though all the hardships that nature was imposing on her at that very moment were nonexistent. We watched in awe as she disappeared into the mangrove trees and bushes in the distance.
Now silently sipping our sweetened coffee, Jamie and I contemplated what could be done to help. We agreed that it was both humbling and ironic that the locals, in all of their modesty and generosity, did the most to make our experience in Bangladesh, in their villages and homes, pleasant. At our final breakfast, Jamie and I never reached a concrete, satisfying answer. It was like walking through slippery, sticky mud again—toddlers trying to learn how to walk, taking small unsteady steps. We will continue to contemplate. And to this day, the voice of one female participant from a community focus group will continue to echo in my head: “We told you about our lives, don’t forget about us.”
Thirty-three interviews, three focus groups, and eleven classroom observations later, the Enseña Chile team’s eight weeks in the field has come to a close. I write this from my host family’s house as my host dad watches rugby in the living room, both of us bundled in our jackets, as the house is nearly the same temperature as the winter air outside. As I sit down to write, I realize that I’ve barely had a second to myself to reflect on this experience; I’ve been too busy working and exploring Chile with family or friends. Despite the exhaustion, I feel incredibly fortunate for this busy yet fulfilling experience I’ve had here. As I think about what to write, I feel I should address three major things: Our project, of course, some things I’ve learned about education, and the thing for which I am most grateful—the people.
OUR MASTER’S PROJECT
To provide some context, Enseña Chile is an organization modeled after Teach for America in the U.S., and is part of the Teach for All network. This organization selects talented university students (who have not studied pedagogy) to spend two years as teachers in vulnerable schools across Chile. Our work, in particular, relates to a relatively new project, “Colegios que Aprenden” (“Schools that Learn,” in English), in which Enseña Chile hopes to create a consultancy model that helps schools achieve continuous improvement based on concrete evidence.
Therefore, our fieldwork is centered on the following question: How might schools achieve continuous improvement, using data and evidence, to enhance student learning? This is a broad and daunting question. Where would we start?
With the help of our dedicated and kind Chilean team members, Trinidad and Francisco, we began by visiting schools and talking to relevant stakeholders to learn about current feedback systems in Chilean schools.Based on our conversations and observations, we gathered ideas about how to improve these systems. We visited schools in three major cities: Valparaíso, Concepción, and Santiago (our home base) in order to gain perspective about distinctive regions in the 2,653-mile-long country. The interview questions changed throughout the process as we uncovered major themes or discovered new questions, and the Spanish became a little less daunting as I gained practice. I was delighted by the enthusiasm and openness of the teachers and school administrators who carved out anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to talk with us.
THE URGENCY OF EDUCATION
As was the case for some of our classmates in the master’s program, our team’s research didn’t require us to confront overly sensitive or urgent topics. Our questions were along the lines of, “What is your relationship like with other teachers?” or “How do you know that your students have learned the class material?” While these questions didn’t seem pressing, I was reminded in each interview of the fact that every student’s future depends on the quality of his or her education. From this I began to comprehend that this work should, indeed, be approached with a sense of urgency. Many of the schools where Enseña Chile teachers work have a high percentage of students from vulnerable communities. For many of these kids, when home doesn’t offer a safe, loving, or stable environment, school offers solace.As science teacher, Sebastián told me, “My priority [is] to construct a safe place for them…to form a family.” For these kids, ensuring—as soon as possible—that school is a place of caring and love, and that their education can give them the power to transform their own lives, is urgent. It’s urgent in Chile and around the world. For those of you from the U.S., I ask you to think about the impact of gun violence in our schools, for example. Where do we expect our children to learn if they feel unsafe at home and at school?
FROM FOREIGNER TO FRIEND
As interesting and challenging as this research has been, what is most imprinted in my memory are the people I’ve met here in Chile. Just the other day, Enseña Chile celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a day-long celebration. Teachers, school administrators, and funders from all over Chile gathered to converse and attend workshops. As I glanced around the auditorium at the event, I realized how many people Ikrom and I have had the fortune of meeting—teachers with whom we spent hours chatting in Concepción, a school administrator from Viña del Mar who invited us into her home, several mentors who let us spend the night in their apartments, and all the Enseña Chile team from Santiago. In two months, I went from feeling a foreigner to a friend. And when Enseña Chile uses their slogan “somos red,” (“we are a network,” in English), I feel that I am a small part of that human network.
Dorcas Omowole interns at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya. With Master of Global Affairs teammates, she assesses the implementation of devolution in Kenya, gathering data and interviewing county officials, civil society organizations, independent commissions and other devolution stakeholders.
A RICHNESS OF FLORA, FAUNA, FOOD, AND GEOGRAPHY
Not only is Kenya home to more than 42 communities, with an estimated 6,506 higher plant species, 359 mammals, 1,079 birds, 61 reptiles, 63 amphibians, and 34 fish species, it has the second highest population of bird and animal species in Africa (Survey of Kenya 2003, World Resources Institute 2003). It’s been interesting and awe-inspiring to experience this diversity, filled with the richness that Kenya represents.
From the community of Somali traders in Eastleigh, Nairobi to the Asian community, most cities in Kenya can be rightly defined as cosmopolitan.Our taste buds were not left out of this interesting experience as they savored Italian, Indian, Somalian cuisines in Nairobi. Of course, our tongues did not escape Ugali, a staple food made with maize and eaten with vegetables, respected in word and in deed by Kenyans.
Our eyes were also not left out, especially on meandering roads as we climbed the mountains on our way to Kabarinet, Baringo County headquarters and Iten. Iten is the headquarters of Elgeyo Marakwet County. It has very high altitudes and is a training ground for many national and international athletes. Iten is also tagged “home of champions” because many of the medal winning sprinters from Kenya are from Iten.
Virtually every curve met my awe as we faced the deep valleys on either side of the road. I was transformed to that experience where your whole life flashes before you and you wonder what if it all ended now. I had to close my eyes and hum some soothing lyrics to get my mind off the road. It was a relief that the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu was through relative lowlands and straight roads – or, maybe my eyes and heart had become immune.
A BUSINESS LESSON FROM A HIPPO
Our visit to the Masai Mara Game Reserve is in the offing, most likely post fieldwork in July when we may also get to experience the great wildebeest migration described by maasaimara.com as the “The World Cup of Wildlife.” However, we have experienced snippets of the variety of wildlife in Kenya through the monkeys and birds on our street, pictures and carvings in the museum, elephants at national parks, and zebras, baboons, camels sighted during our inter-county field travels, and the near sighting of a hippopotamus on Lake Victoria.
The ambivalence that accompanied the desire to sight the hippopotami by those who had seen them before was at first confusing. Hippopotami are herbivores but, in an effort, to protect their territory can overturn boats and provide food for crocodiles—intrinsic division of labour in nature. On hearing this story, although I still verbalized interest in seeing the hippos, I silently prayed that they do not show up or show up at a far distance.
It is this diversity of wildlife and landscapes that makes Kenya a beautiful sight to behold and compels tourists who bring with them 60 percent of government revenues. It is this diversity that people travel from far to experience. It is this diversity that has made Kenya famous. It is this diversity that Kenya cherishes and protects. It is this diversity that Kenya keeps seeking opportunities to maximize.
BRANCHING OUT TO DO GOOD AND BE MORE
Our discussions in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties had been along similar lines. Having both highlands and lowlands within the county, these counties plan putting in mind the unique needs of and benefits from both terrains.
Nature is full of images that aim to instruct us that branching out is a means to be and do much more. A river that branches out does more good compared with a river with one branch, which tends to become a deluge that drowns some and starves others. It is the same reason that we use a comb with multiple teeth to comb our hair. It is the same reason that we prefer a rake to a stick when clearing our garden and prefer a watering can or sprinkler to a bucket. Not only would a bucket be of no help, it would be cumbersome to use and there is the risk of hurting or killing the plants. For this same reason, Kenya wisely branched out into 42 counties with a decentralized system of government in 2010.
As we cherish and protect the varieties of wildlife, we should cherish and protect even more the variety of peoples that make our country what it is. Our common history and future binds us. Every tentacle or part of the body has a role to play especially in providing support to the other parts, helping it play its part better. The beauty of diversity is the multiple blessings that diversity offers when the benefits from all parts are acknowledged and maximized.
I am proudly Nigerian and have lived the most part of my adult life in Lagos. In my opinion, Nairobi is a milder version of Lagos. I get more frustrated by the complaints about traffic or mosquitoes in Nairobi than by the traffic or mosquitoes. So far, I am loving Nairobi. I am also loving Kenya. Kenya is calm.
At Kisumu, the owner of the venue we had rented for our Focus Group Discussion—an ArchBishop—thought I was Luhya. When I told him I was Nigerian, he said, “Nigeria!” with an accent, saying, “that was how Nigerians say Nigeria.” I smiled. He was indirectly saying Nigerians are sassy, and was referring to our country with some sophistication and class by stressing the “er.” The ArchBishop even had a pose and accompanying head movements as he said, “Nigeria.”
Back in Nigeria, I get comments that I must be Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and it’s hard to place the tribe I am from. I just tell people I am Nigerian and I am pleased with any tribe I am placed in. Nowadays, my conviction (that God created the earth) override and I see myself as a global citizen—although, I have only travelled the world in my dreams. By close of day I was christened “Nanjala,” confirmed in the mouth of three female witnesses (participants at the Focus Group Discussion) and no male protesting. It is interesting that these women were not there in the morning when the Archbishop said I was Luhya but thought a Luhya name was best.
Nanjala means rainfall, and is the Luhya name for a girl born during a time of hunger/famine, as a prayer for the rains to come. Although my given ancestors are of the Luhya tribe, I would rather also just be proudly Kenyan.
as the rain falls,
may it wash away every filth and pain, make us see and know the things that really matter,
may the rains become a river that branches out and feeds all,
may the words of the Kenyan national anthem resound in sonorous unity and supplication.
“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for your wits to grow sharper.”
– Eden Phillpotts
Before I begin, I want to point out that I share a lot of the same reflections regarding the need for human-level partnerships and collaboration about which my teammate, Sarah, wrote in her reflection of her (our) time with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change in Ethiopia. In order to avoid repetition, however, I will use this blog to touch on a different aspect of my experiences this summer.
Sitting here, trying to write this post, I realize this process is much more challenging than I had anticipated. As a frequent (ok, not-that-frequent) blogger during my time in Kenya studying abroad and Uganda as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am a bit surprised. Perhaps it is because this summer has been a whirlwind—the whirliest of winds, in fact—and the insights I have gained cannot be found at the surface of this experience. As a result, the mere exercise of writing this blog is forcing me to reflect much deeper than I have yet done. How do I synthesize the highs and lows of the past weeks in an honest, yet coherent and constructive, way—particularly when the said highs and lows of this global partner experience cannot be processed in isolation from the past experiences of my personal (and professional) journey?
Let me start a few steps back in hopes that contextualizing my perspectives will allow you to share more deeply in my reflections.
I received my bachelor’s in Anthropology with minors in Global Health and African Studies, so it would therefore seem like I was a perfect fit for this project in partnership with PGSSC and Partners in Health (PIH) as they seek to improve access to safe and affordable healthcare—specifically, surgery—in resource-constrained settings. However, somewhere in the past few years, while my love for people and culture (particularly on the African continent) remained, my passion for global health was replaced by a fierce commitment to community development, youth empowerment, and gender equity work.
Therefore, as I began to learn more about the project, I often questioned how this would be different from my past experiences, or how I could contribute in a meaningful and effective way when I had already deemed that global health was no longer my life’s pursuit. I had built walls around my expectations for this project, fabricated a finite space in which the opportunities to learn and grow were limited to what I had previously experienced.
Before heading out for the field earlier this summer, I was at peace with the focus and goals of this project and set my expectations accordingly. I had accepted that while this was not my calling, I could learn a thing or two along the way.
Fast-forward to today. As I near the end of my time in the field (split between Ethiopia with PGSSC and Sierra Leone with PIH), I have realized how I was simply looking for meaning in all the wrong places. There is a quote by Eckhart Tolle that says, “I cannot tell you any spiritual truth that deep within you don’t know already. All I can do is remind you of what you have forgotten.” From where I am now, I feel like these are the wise words of this partner experience, not Eckhart Tolle. I am now recognizing that this i-Lab project (at least, for me, personally) was not meant to be a revolutionary experience, opening my eyes to “new worlds.” Instead it was meant to serve as reminder of what I had forgotten: people are my passion.
I became so consumed in the tangible outputs and expectations, as well as the technical skill and knowledge, associated with this project that I forgot how much power there is in creating relationships and learning (whether about surgery or food or diamonds) from others. I forgot how true passion—passion for things that are greater than ourselves—transcends areas of interest or expertise; it does not matter if it’s youth and gender or global health and global surgery, if I am surrounded by people who are passionate about making the world a better place, I am right where I need to be.
This experience has also reminded me of one of my favorite quotes (last one, I promise) from Rumi that says: “What you seek is seeking you.” I, like many people, am too easily distracted by both internal and external expectations for the concrete and measurable. The reality is, however, that what I truly seek in each experience is genuine relationships—relationships rooted in compassion and authenticity, and opportunities to see the world through a different lens.
Through this global partner experience, I am reminded that this is what I truly seek, for it has also sought me. It has found me in the company of the dedicated, passionate, and fearless team at PIH in Sierra Leone in particular, as well as all the other wonderful people I have encountered in the past weeks.
So, as I prepare for my last days in the field, I am consciously trying to “sharpen my wits” so that I can fully enjoy all of the “magical things” patiently awaiting me— waiting for all of us— in this beautiful world.
Let me tell you about the time I spent in Greece during my master’s degree fieldwork. It is the month of July and the year is 2018. It’s 34 degrees Celsius outside, but the room must be a few degrees warmer since there is only a tiny portable fan on the desk and the open window fails to provide much ventilation.
Imagine me sitting on an uncomfortable chair with a few months-old baby in my arms. The child is agitated maybe because he/she is hungry or feeling hot or both. I try to pacify him/her. Imagine this baby is you. The air feels thick and I try to ignore the sweat. However, this woman is not me. Instead, I sit in the opposite chair facing her.
I could be this woman easily. We are from the same country, same city and almost the same age. So I could be the one in that chair with that baby in my arms, forced thousands of miles away from home. She does not like me at first—her face is hardened, and she makes no attempt to conceal how unwilling she is to talk to me. To her, I am just another person who wants to hear her story and not offer her any help or benefit in return.
Yet as I explain our project to her and tell her that I cannot really offer or promise anything in return other than listening to her and telling her story, she opens up to me. The system has failed her and thousands of people like her. People are in limbo, as if their lives have been paused while they are stuck in Greece trying to find a safe space for themselves or trying to build a better life. Some are lucky to be able to apply for asylum and get accommodation. The rest, however, struggle to be able to register even. They sleep on the streets.
There are so many things I want to tell you that I have seen. I wish I could show you, but I do not wish for you to be here. I get a tiny glimpse into the life that the migrants are living here due to my hijab. When I walk the streets or board a local bus, people think I am a migrant too. When they see me, they stare. When they see me with my American colleague, they stare. The other day on the island of Lesvos, as I sat alone working on my laptop at a coffee shop a few feet from the Aegean Sea, three old Greek women walking by stopped near my table and commented about me while almost pointing at me. I am assuming a migrant sitting at a coffee shop with an expensive-looking laptop puzzled them. All this staring was amusing at first, but it soon became annoying. I now know what it feels like to be an ‘outsider’ and what it means when people say that situations between locals and migrants are sometimes tense.
I tell this to you so that you know that this world is a strange place. There is so much pain and unfairness. Despite all that we had been taught in our Voices from the Field sessions in i-Lab, nothing could have prepared me for this, but those sessions did help me cope when I did not know how to process things that I am seeing here. On the other hand, there is also a lot of good in this world—people full of compassion, kindness and hope. I have come across many of them here. I am constantly amazed by the resilience of these people on the move and those helping them. In the most hopeless of circumstances, they are persevering. Know that you must be in this latter part of the world.
Being part of the Master of Global Affairs has put me in a unique position. This summer project, part of the Integration Lab at the Keough School, has given me the opportunity that very few have. This world is complicated, which explains why people can justify keeping more than 7,000 migrants in a place like Moria camp under terrible conditions. But I am trying to learn at The Keough School how to start a conversation about this and eventually change this complicated international system that we have created. If there is one thing I want you to know, it is that complicated and flawed systems do not need to be accepted just because they have existed for so long. Instead, they need to be changed.
I have a friend who likes to remind me of her favorite mantra: “We are human beings, Sarah, not human doings.” — “Not me!” I usually retort, only half in jest. “I’m definitely a human, doing.”
In June, I boarded a plane from Boston Logan airport to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the first leg of international travel with my Keough School i-Lab project. The Program in Global Surgery and Social Change is a research group at Harvard Medical School that is working to improve surgical outcomes in low- and middle-income countries through evidence-based national health policy and advocacy. In Ethiopia, PGSSC is a part of the implementation partnership known as Safe Surgery 2020, funded by the GE Foundation, and working in collaboration with the government of Ethiopia. I traveled to Ethiopia to observe and learn about the partners working there under the umbrella of SS2020, as well as the Ethiopian government’s national plan for surgery, called Saving Lives Through Surgery, or SaLTS.
When I left for my work this summer, I was admittedly a little disappointed not to be “doing” anything. Our project plan could essentially be boiled down to “listen and learn,” while many other groups had detailed execution plans from their partner organizations. My own biases for “doing” in the front of my mind, I decided to embrace the opportunity to simply be present, observing and reflecting, and allowing those around me to drive our conversations and ultimately the direction of my final product—teaching cases designed to “tell the story” of surgical policy and implementation initiatives in low-resource countries.
In truth, our group has been incredibly fortunate to be supported in such a vaguely defined project. Having previously worked as a grant manager, I can tell you I do not know many funders (even in higher-education) who would support such an exploratory mission—an opportunity I wanted to fully embrace as I entered interviews with my teammate in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A few key themes emerged from my listening tour, one of which I think is particularly relevant to the i-Lab and to our summer global partner experiences: the challenge (and reward!) of partnerships. It is not a secret that true partnerships are not easy to form or maintain, but when properly nurtured, they can bring about lasting relationships, changes, and outcomes that would never have been possible otherwise. This has been true for the SS2020 initiative in Ethiopia, a collaboration across not only organizations, but industries, nations, and cultures. Despite many initial challenges, the early participants from SS2020 in Ethiopia all shared some version of essentially the same story with me: once they took time to get to know their collaborating partners, via improved communication and personal relationships, the professional relationships became stronger, and their work was both more effective and more rewarding.
With my tendency to consider myself a “human, doing” I know how easy it is to get focused on the task at-hand, rather than the people we are serving or with whom we are working. This was also true in some ways in SS2020, as the Ministry of Health asked SS2020 to provide their very promising leadership training to all surgical hospitals in the country.“Safe Surgery is not about the leadership training [alone]—it is about the action plan, and mentorship, and all of the other resources that fill the gaps,” said one informant, referring to the follow-up task each team is assigned. With the support of mentors, teams collaboratively identify a barrier to surgery in their own hospital, and create a step-by-step action plan to address the need. The surgical teams who have completed this exercise have succeeded at a remarkable rate in addressing their barriers, but—perhaps even more importantly—they have improved their communication and their relationships with one another.
It didn’t used to be this way. Before, surgical teams didn’t communicate outside of their limited, individual roles in the operating room, we were told, which led to a lack of coordination that affected patient care. Now, the entire team knows the responsibilities of each of its members, enabling them to work more effectively in both planning for and executing surgeries. This further improves outcomes for patients, creating lasting changes in the operating room, hospital, and health-system culture that will survive long beyond the life of any purchased generator or newly acquired technical skill.
Unfortunately, partnerships alone cannot fix under-resourced health systems, deteriorated infrastructures, lack of cash flow, and the many other barriers that prevent the average person from receiving safe and affordable surgery in every country. However, with partnerships, the load that must be carried clearly gets a little lighter, and the path a little more clearly lit.
As my favorite saying (about doing) suggests: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
We may not be going very fast with our work this summer, but the value of sitting still and listening—and bringing others along with us through our teaching cases and other forms of storytelling—cannot be underestimated. In fact, with these resources and this newly-formed partnership, it is my hope that Harvard’s PGSSC and the Keough School will ultimately go much further than I can currently imagine.