Monday, November 28, 2011

Maintaining an Audacious Hope

I’m an undergraduate student at Columbia, who completed the Fundamentals of Global Health class offered by faculty at the Mailman School. This confirmed my interest in the field of global health and I was therefore delighted when, last semester, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Kenya.

The program, which focused on health and development, taught us a lot about East African culture and current events, and how different health and development organizations operate within that context.

One issue that struck me regularly through my time in Kenya was the disconnect between government and the day-to-day realities faced by many people. For example, Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa, is in Nairobi, the capital. In fact, Kibera may be the largest slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, but slum populations tend to be hard to count. Estimates for Kibera range from 200,000 to 500,000 people. One group estimated 1,000,000. However, the Kenyan government does not recognize Kibera as a human settlement and marks it as forest on official maps.

This leaves hundreds of thousands of people without rubbish collection, electricity, or access to clean water that the government is supposed to provide. The fact that three Kenyan officials summoned to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity during the widespread violence following the last elections continued to hold positions as government ministers during my stay also jarred with me.

That being said, it was a fascinating time to be in Kenya, because things are seemingly beginning to change. A new Constitution was passed last year, paving the way for a highly functional and beneficial government when it is fully implemented. The uprisings in the Arab world are encouraging Kenyans to believe that that they too have the power to hold their government accountable, and people are beginning to find their voice and call for an end to corruption. Kenyans are also beginning to unify as a nation, instead of each identifying first as the tribe of which they are ethnically and culturally a part. Everyone seems tired of the problems and, aware of the underlying causes, are ready to work to make things better.

Change comes slowly however. Many services, especially in the health sector, remain significantly supported by bilateral funding or foreign NGOs. Though there is talk about sustainability and a time when programs will be entirely run and funded by Kenyans, most people suggested to our study abroad group that this would not be anytime soon. Problems of governance, a lack of natural resources, limited infrastructure, and high disease burden are obstacles that are not going to be easily or quickly overcome.

Buses in Kenya are often decorated, and many of them have signs on the front or back. The bus shown here was one of my favorites. Using the name of the book by then-Senator Obama, this sign is indicative of the phenomenon of Kenyan identification with our president. It is also indicative of the hope that so many Kenyans have in the face of their continuing challenges.

- Devon Welsh
Student, Columbia University