The Beauty of Diversity

by: Dorcas Omowole

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

A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum
A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Keough on the mountain of Iten,Kenya
Keough on the mountains of 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.

The great wildebeest migration
The great wildebeest migration

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.

Training and retraining the next generation
Training and retraining the next generation

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.

TRULY AFRICAN

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.

Nanjala, –

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.

“O God of all creation

Bless this our land and nation

Justice be our shield and defender

May we dwell in unity

Peace and liberty

Plenty be found within our borders.

Let one and all arise

With hearts both strong and true

Service be our earnest endeavour

And our homeland of Kenya

Heritage of splendour

Firm may we stand to defend.

Let all with one accord

In common bond united

Build this our nation together

And the glory of Kenya

The fruit of our labour

Fill every heart with thanksgiving.”

A pose with past presidents of Kenya
A pose with past presidents of Kenya

Colombia at a Crossroads: The State of the Republic

by: Maria Camila Posse Gaez

It was 12:39 a.m. on Thursday, July 19, when a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook the land of central Colombia. The epicenter hit close to a small town in Huila—over 300 kilometers away from Bogotá—but the remezón was strong enough to jolt me awake in the middle of the night.

It had been five years since I last lived on land where earthquakes are a fairly regular occurrence, but the resilience of the capital’s structures protected me from any physical or emotional torment. That is, perhaps, one of the most interesting dimensions of coming back home to Colombia for an internship with the World Bank—the unexpected shelteredness. I grew up further south, in Cali, where the realities of the deep inequality of our country, and the precariousness of our peace and safety, are always just around the corner.

The Colombian Congress building
The Colombian Congress building

Bogotá, however, is much more neatly packaged for the international businessman or diplomat. It sells itself as one of the many capitals of the world and, often, its only “Third World” tells are the various potholes and occasional street vendors that add “charm” to the financial district. In Bogotá, only one house collapsed during the earthquake. It was an old house in the center of town and its inhabitants lived there despite an ancient eviction and demolition notice. The whole affair now stands as a fascinating metaphor for the state of the country—while the media reports mostly on the sleep lost by the capitalinos, not much is said about what happened in the smaller, rural towns closer to the epicenter, or what will happen to the one family who lost their home.

From abroad, watching the news through lagging livestreams or reading outraged updates on Twitter feeds, feeling disdain for the approach discussed above is quite easy. It is easy to blame the elite capitalinos for their blindness and indifference to the plight of Colombians on the peripheries (real or imagined). But being here, living in the bubble, I will admit to walking by the street vendors and pretending they are not there, to going back to bed after the earthquake, being thankful for how nice my apartment is and simply moving on. As I begin my internship with the World Bank and settle back into what once was a home, I recognize these pushes and pulls will become even stronger.

But which pull will be stronger? To give in to the comfort of a desk job in an elegant building in a wealthy neighborhood of a wealthy city? Or to reach out and find the crumbling houses before the next earthquake hits? Or, perhaps, we hide behind excuses of safety and security when forcing ourselves to choose either/or. As an outsider who was once an insider now trying to negotiate those forces, I hope this semester helps me find ways to pull myself and other Colombians out of these conundrums.

The past three months have represented a whirlwind of political events for Colombia, and I am glad I was here to witness and take it all in as an insider-outsider. May and June brought with them a heavily contested, polarized, and difficult presidential election. In a series of peaceful protests around the country, July brought the height of popular condemnation for the political assassinations of social leaders that have been occurring for years. Sadly, however, it seems that for many the most salient tragedy of the past weeks has been Colombia’s untimely elimination from the FIFA World Cup. One could argue that perhaps this avoidance-through-sports is due to the deep sense of uncertainty that plagues the country—unknowingness as to what will happen to the Peace Agreement with FARC under the impending Ivan Duque presidency; doubts as to what the legacy of President Juan Manuel Santos will be; and worries about the present state of the country’s other armed actors. For many of us, tossing and turning about what the referee could have done to spare us elimination at the hands of the English national team provides a stronger sense of certainty and control.

Colombia World Bank
View of Bogota from the World Bank offices

President Elect Duque will receive a country that is both hopeful and weary. Duque ran on a conservative “lets modify the peace agreement and lower taxes” platform that inspired urban elites and their economic interests, while also inflaming anti-Santos sentiments.

Weariness stems largely from the most recent onslaught of paramilitary, ELN, and FARC violence in the rural and semi-rural peripheries of Colombia. Indeed, the Democratic Center party and its members have a history of both being entangled with and denying the existence of paramilitary groups, and, as such, their return to the presidency concerns many observers. Together with ELN and FARC dissidences, paramilitary actors are responsible for the deaths of over 200 human rights defenders, indigenous representatives, and many others since the signing of the peace accords in 2016. This is, devastatingly, evidence that conflict in the country still abounds and that a Duque administration will face challenges not only in implementing the peace agreement (if they do so at all), but also in managing historical threats and new ones that may emerge.

As a Colombian who has been educated abroad for half a decade and who watched Santos’ second term and the unfolding of the peace negotiations through the lens of the media, I choose to share in the sentiment of hopeful weariness. I am worried about the future of the peace agreement—not because its failure would mean a FARC resurgence (I believe that ship has already sailed), but rather because it would represent a failure of the Colombian state and people to do right by the victims of decades of structural and direct violence.

As a peace studies student, I am keenly aware of the oppressive size of the challenges that face communities in Chocó and Antioquia, for example, and it worries me deeply to think these might be compounded by the destruction of spaces for justice where their truths might be told. Moreover, as someone who feels deeply committed to working for peace, development, and justice, I wonder what safe spaces will be left for us when the chips of violence fall according to new political arrangements.

I am also hopeful that the past years of political polarization and debates have awakened a spirit of moral activism in the hearts of many Colombians—we will not sit idly by and watch our prospects of peace be dismantled. Indeed, on July 6, a series of peaceful national demonstrations against the assassinations of social leaders spread throughout the country. Thousands of people in Bogota, Pereira, Cali, Barranquilla, Medellin, and many other cities, hit public parks and squares to clamor for justice and their protection. Using candles to represent the lives lost and the hashtag #NosEstanMatando (#WeAreBeingKilled), the crowds forced politicians, including the President Elect, to at least acknowledge the situation. As such, I have hope that the Colombia of 2018, one that has so many wicked problems and faces a tricky next four years, is also one of renewed political and ethical energy.

Fingers crossed that by the time the 2022 FIFA World Cup comes around, in those same four years plus four months, our getting eliminated truly is the only cause for national mourning.

Patient Magic

by: Leah Walkowski

“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.

health work

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.

A Letter to My Future Child about My Time in Greece

by: Mehak Anjum Siddiquei

Dear Daughter/Son,

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.

The phrases “No human is illegal” and “Stop deportation” spray-painted on buildings in Mytilene on the island Lesvo.
The phrases “no human is illegal” and “stop deportation” spray-painted on buildings in Mytilene on the island Lesvo

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.

From left to right. (1)The Greek Council for Refugee office, where amazing work is being done to provide migrants with legal aid (2) Me outside the Jesuit Refugee Service office in Athens where tea is organized for migrants daily
From left to right, (1) The Greek Council for Refugees office, where amazing work is being done to provide migrants with legal aid; (2) Me outside the Jesuit Refugee Service office in Athens where tea is organized for migrants daily

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.

The unofficial camp Olive Grove outside Moria, Greece. When we got off the bus in Moria, the first thing we noticed was the stench of sewage that  was openly flowing beside the road
The unofficial Olive Grove Camp outside Moria. When we got off the bus in Moria, the first thing we noticed was the stench of sewage that  was openly flowing beside the road

 

Yours lovingly,

Your mother Mehak

On Being (and Doing) in Partnerships

by: Sarah Davies Breen

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.

At the start of a weekend hike to visit some of the rock-hewn churches in the region of Tigray. There are over 100 churches carved from the rock in the cliffs in this region that date from around the 10th-15th centuries. ​
At the start of a weekend hike to visit some of the rock-hewn churches in the region of Tigray. There are over 100 churches carved from the rock in the cliffs in this region that date from around the 10th-15th centuries

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.

Having a coffee with some young surgeons that we spoke to about the government's SaLTS initiative. As a coffee lover, I was very excited to be in Ethiopia, the "birthplace" of coffee!
Having a coffee with some young surgeons that we spoke to about the government’s SaLTS initiative. As a coffee lover, I was very excited to be in Ethiopia, the “birthplace” of coffee!

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.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”

Can You Hear? Being Present and Open in the Field

by: Patrick Calderon

There’s something uncanny about how an almost-forgotten song can resurface in your consciousness. As I’ve traveled across three U.S. states and four different countries to investigate migrant issues, and as stories of migrant children being separated from their families proliferate in news outlets, I find that I’m silently replaying the melody of a song from years ago in my high-school choir: Kurt Bestor’s “Prayer of the Children.” It opens with these haunting lyrics: “Can you hear the prayer of the children / on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?”

Interpreted literally, the question in these lyrics is about sensory perception: Can you hear? But this is not a song about sensory perception, nor is the issue of migration something that can be apprehended by hearing or sight alone. Rather, I think what we need in order to fully grasp the complexity of migration is an openness of being, a disposition to not only perceive things on the surface level but more fundamentally at the level of the heart.

LISTENING, PERCEIVING WITH OUR GLOBAL PARTNER

For our i-Lab project, I and three of my classmates are partnering with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services to explore how migrants’ human rights and dignity can be better protected as they undergo various immigration-enforcement processes. To that end, we have been touring detention centers, shelters, courtrooms, universities, churches, NGOs, intergovernmental organization offices, and even deserts (as a Canadian, the Arizonan Desert seems to me to be so hot that it violates the laws of physics), conducting interviews where appropriate, to get a sense of how migrants are treated and how they might be treated better.

A migrant trail in the Sonoran Desert

Given the number of places our i-Lab team has traveled for this project—Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico, Germany, Greece, and Switzerland—I could honestly have just gotten lost in the whirlwind of travel, always just transiting through places instead of truly being there. But I felt like I owed it to the migrants who make dangerous northward journeys to really be present in these places, to really bring my whole self to them and listen as attentively as I could to what people were telling me.

Several months ago, as we were preparing to go into the field, renowned peacebuilder and professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies John Paul Lederach spoke to our i-Lab class on the “vocation of presence,” which I understood to mean bringing your full self to a place in a spirit of humility. ‘Presence’ means allowing the place that you are in and the realities you are witnessing to really touch you and move you deep within. One example: Before he visited Auschwitz, Pope Francis prayed for “the grace to cry.” That is, for the grace to be so affected by the reality one faces—to be so radically present—that one is personally moved. I have not yet been granted the grace to cry, but I have done my best to hear, to see, to be present in the sites that I have visited and to the people I have met.

This has meant going into each place and forcing myself to not become desensitized, to visit each location, as it were, with new eyes. I don’t want each transit or detention center to just get lost in a blur of misery and hopelessness. Nor do I want the interviews to fade into each other. I want to be present, and be with the people I am encountering—from migrants to other stakeholders, like NGO officials, activists, scholars, humanitarian workers, and intergovernmental agency staff—so as to really hear.

"A cross in the desert, marking the spot where a deceased migrant's body had been found."
A cross in the desert, marking the spot where a deceased migrant’s body had been found

And the places I have visited are harrowing indeed. The sense of fear and heartbreak is palpable in the emptiness of the detention centers, the austerity of the courtrooms, the stench of death along never-ending desert trails. Two weeks ago I visited a visibly run-down “transit center”—that is, a center for migrants deemed unlikely to win their asylum cases—in the German state of Bavaria, and almost smelled the stench of desperation in the air. I think that if anyone steps into these places with a truly open heart, one must feel the deep, distinct sense—that stirring of conscience—that there is something about this situation that is not right. Those who face these many difficulties, these long-suffering migrants, are human beings. Do we not see this? Can we not hear?

A POLICY OF PRESENCE

Me in Geneva, Switzerland, where I have been interviewing staff at intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations about migrant issues

Here in Geneva, from where I am writing this blog post, I have heard a lot of talk about international law requiring states to treat migrants humanely. I think that is incredibly important, but I don’t think that we’re going to move hearts on the issue of migration by focusing on international legal principles like non-refoulement or the technicalities of asylum law. No, I think the answer really does have to lie in presence. More than anything else, what we need to do is to somehow find a way to make sites like these present to ordinary people in prosperous destination countries. We need to show people the inhumanity of the detention centers, the harshness of the desert, the tears and desperation of the courtrooms. We need to support migrants in their efforts to make their stories heard. And we do, in fact, need to hear the prayer that they utter in unknown rooms, a prayer for hope, for safety, for freedom.

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

by: Jamie McClung

Bangladesh Field Sites: Communication without Words

Jamie McClung is currently working on a project with Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies for her Master of Global Affairs i-Lab experience, focusing on women’s adaptive capacity to climate change, particularly in rural Bangladesh. She and her partner, Chista Keramati, have just completed their first field site visit to Teknaf, in the southeast corner of Bangladesh.

Climate
(from left to right) Jamie McClung, Ausing, Chista Keramati, and Dewan Ali Emran bond in an indigenous Rakhine village near Cox’s Bazar.

It’s quite difficult to write a small blog post to describe a trip to another universe. In a few words, I’m meant to describe the surprising findings, the warmth of the people, the strange geography, the never-ending questions in my head, but how? Instead, I’ll highlight 5 aspects of our trip that were particularly meaningful or interesting to me, each accompanied by a picture.

1) Presents, but Little Presence:

School girls in a Teknaf village walk (and run) home from school.

One of the very first things I noticed was the overwhelming presence of NGOs in Teknaf—presence in terms of goods, like these UNICEF backpacks, but not in terms of people. Yes, we saw endless Land Rovers associated with different organizations on the road, but I was surprised by the lack of interaction between the people in these vehicles and the local people. I became curious about what these NGOs were doing in and around Teknaf, and if they ever stepped out of the Land Rovers. Some of my questions were answered when we met with UN Women later in the week, and I realized that they share similar goals for integral human development as we do here at the Keough School.

2) Communication without Words:

An elderly man outside of a typical bamboo house smiles at the camera.

We talked with this elderly man on our first day in the village, and saw him again on the second day. He showed me that you can make a friend and communicate without any words at all. This continued to happen throughout the week, through shared smiles, laughs, and simple eye contact that conveyed a curiosity about one another and an openness to learn more. I experienced these small interactions both during focus group discussions (FGDs) and during our walks around the villages.

3) Water, Water, Everywhere:

A cow grazes in a rice paddy field.

This first field visit made it beyond clear why Bangladesh is so extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea waters. One of my thoughts when returning to Dhaka from the field was that maybe Bangladesh was the last country God created, and He just had a bit of land left, so He spread it out as much as He could, took His chances, and let water inhabit most of the space. It is low-lying, marshy, and a land covered in rivers.

4) There’s No Average Bangladeshi:

A young Rakhine girl poses for a photo in an indigenous village near Cox’s Bazar.

To harken back to a comment I made during one of my first semesters at the Keough School of Global Affairs, I truly believe that there is no such thing as an “average” citizen of any country. This little girl, and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine village we visited on the last day of our visit to Cox’s Bazar, reaffirmed that belief. This indigenous community had their own language, their own religious leader, and their own way of life that was extremely different than what we had experienced in the days before that.

5) Geographic Vulnerability Can Be Overcome:

A typical house for Rakhine people near Cox’s Bazar.

The final insight I had during our first field site visit was that local knowledge is already being used for adaptation, without any assistance from the outside world. This indigenous, Buddhist village has always built two-story homes with an open ground floor. It allows them to have a safe place in their home when it floods. This kind of evidence gives me hope after a week of seeing small homes built directly on the ground, unable to protect families during floods or cyclones.

All in all, it was a positive week. There were times I was frustrated at how much families were struggling to survive, and how clearly the land left them vulnerable, but I was also awed by the resilience and hospitality I saw when interacting with the rural communities here. Despite being labeled as “vulnerable” by their national government and international organizations, these communities have survived and they continue to live life with or without us. This realization led me to another: development isn’t about helping people survive; it’s about accompanying them as they attempt to thrive. Now that we’re back in the smog of Dhaka, Chista and I are both counting down the days to our next field sites where we hope to continue bonding with and learning from the local communities we visit.

The Puzzle of Cocoa in Ghana

by: Sofia del Valle

I have been a big chocolate lover my whole life. If you ask my siblings, they will tell you I can be a generous person sometimes, but never when it comes to chocolate: every year, the bars that I would get as birthday presents went directly to a secret drawer in my room—to later be slowly enjoyed while reading a good mystery book (I would argue, however, that age has made me more generous, or maybe just more able to buy myself some chocolate when I want, and hence less of a Scrooge).

Given this love for chocolate, it is quite interesting that only this summer I came in first contact with the fruit from which it derives. Last week, in a farm in the Suhum district of Ghana, a kind farmer opened a fresh cocoa pod for me, and I finally discovered the taste of raw cocoa. It was very different from what I expected: sweet and slightly citrusy, closer to lemon cream than to chocolate as we know it.

Food system
Here I am, just seconds away from tasting fresh cocoa for the first time

DISCONNECTED FOOD SYSTEM

Unless you live near the equator, it is very likely that your experience is similar to mine, in that the closest you have come to actual cocoa is through cocoa powder or cocoa butter, intermediate products that later become chocolate. This disconnection is no coincidence, but a structural characteristic of the cocoa supply chain: around 60% of the global cocoa production happens in two West African countries, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Yet, the whole African continent consumes only about 3% of the chocolate produced globally, while Europe and the U.S. together account for more than 70% of this consumption. Several of these cocoa farmers with whom I talked this week have never tasted chocolate in their lives!

Group interview with cocoa farmers in the Central Region of Ghana

Cocoa is the main agriculture export in Ghana, accounting for 7% of its GDP and a quarter of their exports; yet it is produced almost exclusively by small-scale farmers that grow cocoa trees in few acres of land and take care of them with the help of their families. This makes cocoa a highly informal sector with an important portion of unrecognized labor. In many cases the farmers’ wives and children perform key tasks in cocoa production without being acknowledged as cocoa farmers or receiving any of the income.

Issues like this one are not exclusive to the cocoa sector. Our food system has become highly complex and globalized, and a great proportion of the products we consume can be traced to a few transnational companies on one side, and millions of small producers on the other one. These global supply chains have severe social and environmental impacts that affect disproportionally those who produce the raw materials.

A COMPLEX RESEARCH TASK

Launched in 2013, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign (BtB) is a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains. The campaign led these companies to commit to improving their policies regarding land, water and workers’ rights, gender equality and climate change, among other issues. The next stage of the Oxfam campaign monitors implementation of such commitments. For our Keough School i-Lab project, my Master of Global Affairs colleagues Moaz Uddin, Caroline Andridge and I have been supporting the work of Oxfam’s country teams in Malawi, India and Ghana on the implementation of this project at the national level. For the case of Ghana, the focus is, as you may already imagine, cocoa.

The task sounds more straightforward than it really is: I imagined we could take the main chocolate companies, review their policies, trace the communities where they are sourcing their cocoa, and see if such commitments and policies are being implemented there and how. Sounds easy, right? Reality is, as we keep discussing at the Keough School, more complex; linking companies with cocoa producers is a harder task than I imagined: each level of the supply chain ─ companies, traders, government agencies, middle-men, cooperatives, farmers ─ is a puzzle in itself.

Part of the amazing Oxfam in Ghana team. Oxfam’s GROW campaign englobes BtB and other efforts on making the food system more fair and sustainable

Like the books I used to read whilst eating chocolate in my home in Santiago, my task has become almost the one of a detective, asking questions and following clues that we find in interviews and field visits. The goal is now helping the Oxfam-Ghana team to gain a clearer picture of who is doing what in the cocoa sector. For now, I can say that the distance between cocoa and chocolate is indeed very big; however, our interviews with farmers and local organizations, and the work with the team here in Ghana, show that there are good people doing good work in order to improve the lives of cocoa farmers. I feel grateful to be a part of their team—to witness and contribute to their important work in my own humble way.

My Experience in the Philippines: A Unity of Opposites

by: Juanita Esguerra Rezk

If you asked me to summarize my experience of living and working in the Philippines in one sentence, I would say, “In the past month I have experienced both extreme feelings of familiarity and strangeness.” Beyond the contradictions, this combination has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on myself and my future professional life.

Getting out of my comfort zone

For my Master of Global Affairs i-Lab project, I am working in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) at Habitat for Humanity to improve how market analyses are conducted by international aid organizations within the shelter sector. Specifically, we are testing the market analyses process in one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Despite my prior experience with humanitarian assistance, diving deeply into the shelter sector has certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Shelter
Mapping the construction materials most widely used in northern Cebu.

You are probably inquiring why would a market analysis be relevant at all? I will try to answer briefly: When a crisis occurs (after an earthquake, a typhoon or a massive displacement), local market actors are often the principal means by which people obtain essential items they need to recover and adapt. In the past, this was largely ignored by international aid organizations, who often imported and distributed goods and provided services directly to those affected. These actions bypass and hinder the resources and capacities of local communities. For this reason, in recent years, humanitarian organizations have started to support and use local market supply chains in their aid response.

Advocates for this type of market intervention argue that it supports livelihood opportunities, improves economic rehabilitation and helps international organizations adapt better to the local context. This all sounds great, right? However, to support such interventions, organizations need to understand the local markets, and when it comes specifically to the shelter and housing sector, aid organizations are still struggling to do so. That is where our partnership with TCIS comes in.

The experience of a Colombian in the Philippines: The familiar within the unfamiliar

Shelter
One of the masons we interviewed is showing us the tools he uses to ensure the quality of his work. The device he is holding is a plumb bob (called “tun tun” in Cebuano), which is used to make sure columns are straight.

During our time here, we have been conducting interviews with families, masons, carpenters, local hardware stores and wholesalers to map the capacity of the local market systems to meet the housing demands of low-income households (including land tenure, financing, access to materials and labor). I am marveled by how willing people have been to share their knowledge, thoughts and experiences with us.

Every time we conduct interviews with households, families usually offer us a snack. This gesture has immediately transported me back to my days of fieldwork in Colombia, where I was always offered a cup of coffee and some bread or cookies when I visited someone’s home. More generally, Filipino architecture, cuisine and religious traditions— strongly influenced by Spanish colonization— together with the warmth of the people and their commitment to build a more peaceful and inclusive society amid challenging conditions of inequality and violence, have made me feel at home.

Shelter
A photo of our team with the first family we interviewed.

Despite these similarities, and the fact that most first and last names in the Philippines are in Spanish, I have not encountered a single person who speaks the Spanish language. Getting by in the cities has been surprisingly easy for our team, as almost everyone we interact with speaks English. Yet, in rural areas the use of English decreases significantly. Because of this, we are conducting our interviews in Cebuano, the language most widely spoken in Cebu province. To make this possible, we have a Cebuano on our team, who has not only acted as a translator, but has also helped us navigate our daily life here and helped us establish contact with different stakeholders.

Although it has been great working with him, it has also been frustrating not being able to participate in these interviews because it limits our capacity to build relationships and to analyze the situation from first- hand information. This is a completely new experience for me, and it has really made me reflect on the importance of relationships, cultural sensitivity and language training in development work.

Shelter
Our new team member Leonell, conducting an interview with a family about their experience in rebuilding their house after Typhoon Yolanda.

Reflections from a safe exposure

Although there is no doubt that international agencies supporting local economies is a step forward in the process of localizing development, I cannot help but wonder if these solutions are still rooted within the systems and power relations that intrinsically constitute an obstacle for the development of these communities. Does the analytical assessment of local markets by outside organizations inherit certain biases? One of the biggest challenges we face is to resist being absorbed by a technocratic mindset that ignores other aspects of social dynamics. Focusing solely on technical issues becomes a barrier for change because it eclipses the human components and does not contest the unequal power relations that hinder structural transformations.

Strangely, one of the things that I have found most enriching about this experience is the feeling of discomfort. This project has forced me to venture into a new region, a new culture and a new sector. Being here on our own, but having the support of the Keough School and our advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, has been a safe exposure and in my case, a chance to experiment with a completely different professional career path. Every day I ask myself how I would feel if this were my long-term job and what would be different if that were the case. I am sure these reflections will continue to grow as I continue my experience here and will certainly be useful as I start to think about what I want to do after I graduate.

 

Into the Warm Heart of Africa

by: Mian Moaz Uddin

“What is this boy from Peshawar doing in Africa?,” I kept thinking to myself as I looked down from my 30,000-foot window over the Sahara Desert. By the time we stopped at Addis Ababa for the layover, I was having a mini existential crisis.

The past four months of my master’s program, I’ve been in the i-Lab learning about the Behind the Brands campaign with Oxfam. My colleagues Sofia Del Valle, Caroline Andridge, and I had taken a deep dive into a program that covers ten of the world’s leading food and beverage companies on a comprehensive list of their social and environmental policies worldwide. The orientation week at Oxfam’s Boston office then brought our team together for one week to synthesize our work before we each parted for different research locations across the globe: Ghana, India, and Malawi, respectively. Now it was becoming real; I had six short weeks to gather as much information as possible to understand land rights and governance issues in Malawi to help the campaign.

Coming from a developing country myself, I’ve seen first hand the myopic development programs that are often administered by well-intentioned but oblivious foreigners. The Keough School of Global Affairs has further sensitized me to the perils of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘symptom targeting’ in the context of international development. Considering Malawi’s GDP is one of the lowest in the world and is heavily reliant on foreign aid, I wanted to ensure that I did not become one of those foreigners here.

A SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY IN MALAWI

Villagers participating in the awareness campaign

I’m glad to say that my first week in Lilongwe allayed all of these concerns. Instead of seeing a frail state swarming with foreigners trying to fill the vacuum, I saw that most of the development work on the ground was being carried out by Malawians themselves. I happen to be the only foreigner in the Oxfam office here (maybe the whole block!). Furthermore, the members of civil society and government officials I’ve met with recognize the aid dependency problem.

At one of the workshops on women and land rights issues, the participants unanimously agreed that Malawi must develop independently from the ‘mzungus’ (foreigners) aid programs. The sentiment of self-reliance reverberates in government policies and the national character, as well. I’ve seen many public sponsored billboards here promoting local produce and industry and have found the supermarket shelves stocked with local brands. I usually judge countries by the way they drive. The spirit of community can be seen very well on the roads of Malawi where each driver displays the utmost patience, even in rush hour traffic, and pedestrian crossings are taken seriously, even on the most remote roads.

Needless to say, I was delighted to see the inclusive and horizontal approach to development, which we’ve learned as part of the Sustainable Development concentration at the Keough School of Global Affairs, being applied where it’s needed most.

STORIES OF DISPLACEMENT

Land has been a contentious issue in Malawi. As a British Protectorate, the British land laws were superimposed on the existing customary laws of the land. This created a dichotomy of land law, and land use loopholes, which have often been exploited by investors, corporations and corrupt officials to grab vast swathes of land—often displacing the indigenous populations and disturbing livelihoods. I’m traveling to these plantations and meeting with the affected communities, government representatives and civil society representatives; I will gather information to assess the state of land policy commitments made by the world’s leading food and beverage companies here.

Development
A village right outside Lilongwe, where the local women gather to get water.

Last week, I traveled to the Mulanje district to the south of Malawi to meet with a community displaced by a tea estate. The village was a quiet place surrounded by iridescent green tea plants with a stunning view of Mt Mulanje. The people, with their broad smiles and hospitality, reminded me that I was in the warm heart of Africa. While the lush landscapes, jolly people and slow pace of life seemed very charming to me, my focus group discussion with the community revealed that this tranquility belies the heart-breaking stories of displacement and the historic injustices committed against these people. The villagers revealed how they had been driven out of their own land and were now faced with food insecurity because of the lack of cultivable land in the face of a growing population.

Civil society organizations, like Oxfam, have been partnering with the government and corporations to introduce laws that formalize land rights for ‘customary land holders’ like the villagers I met. Almost two decades of effort has culminated in the recent passage of the Customary Land Act, which provides villagers like the Mulanje a mechanism to register and exercise authority over their land. The representative from the Ministry of Land explained to me that this has been a huge milestone for Malawi that will effectively close the loophole allowing corporations to exploit these communities. The civil society organizations here widely celebrated the passage of the law, but also acknowledge the fact that the law will only yield results if the communities and corporations are aware of its provisions; hence, organizations like Oxfam are shifting gears from activism to awareness, monitoring and evaluation.

This has been a truly humbling experience for me, and the people of Malawi have reaffirmed my belief in organic and inclusive growth. I’m very grateful to be here and participate in the Oxfam campaign. I look forward to reconvening in Washington, D.C., where we will discuss our collective experiences and findings from Malawi, India, and Ghana.