One Year in Kenya [Lesson 5/5]

In any foreign country, I will always be a foreigner.


I know, I know! This seems obvious. Maybe it is. I think it is a really important lesson, however. I’ve written a lot about the concept of ‘home’ before (here and here). Here’s the critical nuance: while certain aspects of life in Kenya have come to feel like home and it may be important to strive to create ‘home’ wherever we happen to be at any time, it is important to understand that in any foreign country I will always be a foreigner. I am an outsider and it would be a mistake to think otherwise.

There are large swaths of life that I will never fully understand. There is stark need for humility in all aspects of life. I’ll illustrate this thought with a fun story, to be sure however, the lesson goes much deeper.

A couple months ago I was riding a boda boda (motorbike taxi) into town to run a couple errands. At this point I was fairly confident with myself in the task of riding a boda boda into town. I had been living in Kitale for over 6 months, I could hardly go anywhere in town without being recognized, I was maybe a little cocky.

About halfway into our 5 minute ride, the driver turned to me and asked, “Is it ok if I stop for petrol?” Of course, I politely agreed, but inside I was panicking. What am I supposed to do? Do I stay seated on the bike? Do I get off the bike? How am I supposed to behave? It seems like such a meaningless part of life, and it probably is for many local Kenyans, but for me it was existential.

I was forcing this place to become my home so much that I was overlooking the necessary humility I needed to have. The difficulty is, constantly behaving with humility causes constant anxiety, because you realize that you actually have no idea of what is going to happen next and how you ought to react to whatever happens. This anxiety is exhausting.

1342902911_lawrence-of-arabia-movieWithout this humility (and constant anxiety) outsiders force themselves to reduce reality down to something that they can understand, comprehend, and manage. There is a term for this used by art and literary historians (and increasingly cultural and development scholars): orientalism. In art and literature this is the depiction of Middle Eastern or East Asian cultures by artists and writers from the West. (See Lawrence of Arabia as an example.) The phrase often used by orientalist critiques is reductive repetition. Reducing aspects of culture down to something manageable and creating something that gels with these basic characteristics.

Orientalism is dangerous in development practice and rife in development studies. Consider the following from the abstract of the most cited paper on this topic:

Contemporary Africa is generally depicted as a ‘failure’. ‘Progress’ has eluded the continent throughout the 20th century, and despite new ways of thinking about the reasons for failure and possibilities for success, allusions to the ‘natural weakness and incapacity’ of Africans and their social realities remain evident in theoretical, policy and political discourse on development in Africa. The practice of ‘reductive repetition’, as identified by Abdallah Laroui and Edward Said, has been imported into African development studies from Orientalist scholarship. Reductive repetition reduces the diversity of African historical experiences and trajectories, sociocultural contexts and political situations into a set of core deficiencies for which externally generated ‘solutions’ must be devised. In the field of development studies, the notion of development is introduced to Africa as a deus ex machina [god from the machine]. (emphasis added)

Said differently, outsiders suffer from ‘the god complex‘ and pretend to ‘be experts’ and ‘know what they are doing’ by bypassing humility and reducing a setting down to core deficiencies which make sense and are manageable. I find myself writing the following over and over on this blog: most development programs that fail, fail because a complex situation was oversimplified.

This brings me back to my first lesson. The more I learn about the world the more I find myself saying, “I don’t know”. Perhaps this is the main reason why experience abroad is so important for a career in development work. Spending time in Kenya is not so that I will be able to understand life in Kenya. That will never fully coalesce. Experience abroad teaches you that ‘being an expert’ and ‘knowing what to do’ are impossible for an individual to achieve.