Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More re Kenya Experience

As I indicated in my last post, the work I signed up to do in Kenya and the work I ended up doing turned out to be rather different. The title of the project was, and I quote, "Impact of harmful cultural practices - Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early Marriages for the Girl Child." So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when I got to the project site and learned that the project actually had nothing to do with that topic, and that the primary activity would be making bricks out of mud. Now mind you, brick-making is very important in Kenya. Nothing gets built until the bricks are made. The community group with which we were working, the Mowankwe Women Group, has a long-term goal of building a health clinic, as there is none nearby and most people go without any type of medical care except for major emergencies (and even then it's not always possible). Many women birth at home, unattended, and while I'm all in favor of home birth here, in rural Africa it often leads to very unfortunate outcomes, including mother to child transmission of HIV.

So brick making is an important activity, but not what I had signed up for, and definitely not one for which I'm particularly well-suited. (The fact that I had recently had surgery for a broken and dislocated thumb did not help matters.) But as several friends with development experience had told me before I left, when attempting to do any kind of development work in Africa, it is very important not to have fixed expectations, and to go where the flow takes you. That advice served me well. They wanted bricks; we would make bricks. We managed to make a few thousand of them, despite the daily rain. (It was the rainy season, arguably not the best time to make bricks out of mud.) It was unclear when we left whether the bricks would be sold, to raise income for the community, or whether they would be used to expand the one room building that currently serves as church, school, and community meeting place.

Mudmaking photos lifted from my friend Malcomb's Facebook page. Here you can see mudpit at rear, and Hitomi and Oska transferring bricks from mold onto ground.

In this photo I'm on the left. Mineshi (center) and I are trying to mix the mud that Oska is making, with
our legs. Way harder than a Stairmaster.

But I had done a ton of preparation regarding FGM, and here I was in Kuria, an area with an extremely high prevalence rate of FGM, so the Mowankwe group and I decided that I would give a presentation, during the last of our 3 weeks there. Mind you, this community has no electricity and no running water, so although I had been told that I would be able to show a dvd (Africa Rising), I was truly astonished when I saw that they had in fact procured a generator, a dvd player, and a tv. They even had a chalkboard and chalk. So with the help of 2 translators, I was able to give a presentation about FGM.

When one is a white person talking about FGM in Africa, one needs to be very cognizant of the complexity of the issue, including the history of it. Attempts to eradicate FGM have largely come from outside Africa, and from outside the cultures which practice it. A lot of resistance to change centers on this fact. I structured my talk in such a way that I left room for arguments in support of the practice. My intention was to have a discussion, not to give a lecture. I used the term Female Circumcision, rather than Female Genital Mutilation, so as to leave open as fully as possible the doors to dialogue. I was fully expecting to encounter the Cultural Imperialism argument. In the end, I encountered no resistance whatsoever. The women (and men) who attended my presentation expressed a pretty uniform opposition to FGM. I think this is because these women are activists within their community, working together to improve their own lives and those of their families. They are poor and in many cases of limited education, but they are engaged. Although most of them had themselves been circumcised, they seemed committed to not inflicting the same damage on their daughters. They lamented the lack of sexual desire/pleasure and were aware of the health risks. I realize that the people continuing the practice were not at the presentation, but it was heartening to see that the tide is in fact turning in Kenya, and to know that these women who are working to bring about change in their community are set against FGM. I hope that they will spread the message to their fellow villagers and lend them, especially the girls, the support they need to resist the tradition.

Btw, the video Africa Rising had been donated to me by the makers of the film, and I left it with the Mowankwe group. Thanks to EQUALITY NOW for the support.

Me, teaching.

Carol and Oska translating for me. They are laughing, despite the serious subject matter, because they are NOT used to saying these words out loud! And that of course made me laugh.

Watching the video Africa Rising.

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