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I originally wrote this as one monstrously long entry, but have decided to post it in two pieces to save you considerable eye strain. Please enjoy, and stayed tuned for Part 2 tomorrow. –M

My primary workplace sits just over the invisible, unofficial borderline that separates the “local” and “tourist” regions of my district. If you walk 20 minutes in one direction, you will find resorts of mind-boggling opulence. Guests are happy to pay hundreds of dollars USD each night for sublime Indian Ocean views and think little of laying down more for a perfectly chilled cocktail than the average laborer makes in a week. If you walk 20 minutes in the other direction, you will find villages where one household in ten has a bed-covering net to prevent malaria, where wells are unprotected from contamination and routinely test positive for fecal bacteria. You will find homes where 2 of the family’s 4 children have died from preventable disease before the age of five years. You will see women who are trying their damndest to educate a brood of children with the proceeds from selling bananas at a roadside kiosk. We have a dedicated clinic staff, as well as more than a dozen layman volunteers who serve to encourage their neighbors and friends to seek out things like vaccinations and treatments for tuberculosis. Nonetheless, the work is slow, and often feels darkly Sisyphean.

One of the oddest features of the intersection between local and tourist is the number of people who come rolling through my clinic as a stop on their vacations. Yes, my clinic. They roar into the main yard in white SUVs, dropping off plastic shopping bags of adhesive band-aids and nearly-expired drugs with labels in foreign languages (some of which are used, and some of which are accepted graciously before being dumped into a drawer somewhere never to be seen again.) They openly point at too-thin babies (aside from being rude for obvious reasons, pointing at a person has a very stark cultural distastefulness, and can be associated with witchcraft.) They take pictures of seriously ill patients curled up on the wooden benches in the waiting area, then shove their $300 camera phones back into the pockets of their skin-tight booty-shorts. They brush past well-spoken, uniformed medical professionals to gawk at the pit latrine toilets and reaffirm their expected narrative of the “African” experience.

I know they mean well. I do. It is through meetings like these that our clinic can sometimes find a donor willing to fund new microscopes or improvements to the birthing room. Some visitors are patient, thoughtful, and respectful. And there are DEFINITELY instances wherein infusions of foreign money or goods can serve to boost a long-term, sustainable goal. But even if I set aside the “donor syndrome” issue, it rarely strikes me as anything other than self-important (“Look at all the good we’ve done!”) or blatantly disrespectful (photographing sick people? SERIOUSLY?) If I may borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie, it’s poverty porn. For a few months, during the low-season, we receive a total respite from this experience. But then high season returns, and every week or two, another group shows up.

High season: the period of the year during which Europeans and (to a lesser extent) Americans abandon their chill, soggy homelands for the warm, welcoming embrace of the Kenyan coast. They begin to trickle in around July, rush forth in torrents by late October, and then depart abruptly the first week April, as though they all simultaneously remember they left the gas on and forgot to put the cat out. For the duration of our rainy season it’s a veritable ghost town outside the local areas. Peaceful, if not always convenient (example: the local grocer stops stocking peanut butter altogether until it becomes a reliably-selling item again. Boo.)

A number of my Kenyan friends and neighbors look forward to high season like it’s one giant, seven-month Christmas holiday. I can scarcely overstate the economic impact it has on my region: hundreds upon hundreds of jobs are created, from hotel staff and house help to tour guides and turtle watchers. Service, entertainment, and environment-related industries boom. Much of it pays rather well. People have money in their pockets, so school fees get paid and long-delayed doctors’ appointments are attended. Plus, more attention is given to infrastructure issues like sewage and electricity – a good sign that the deluge is about to begin is when you see teams of temporary government employees scoping out and setting fire to the unlicensed trash pits that spring up in every neighborhood.

It also coincides with the directional shift of seasonal winds, clearing the beaches of seaweed and improving conditions for the small-scale fishing that has long been an economic and nutritional staple in this area. The price of fish drops, allowing more families to access this lean, healthy source of protein in gluttonous quantities. Meanwhile, fisherman still make more money, because they’re moving more product to more people (tourists have an insatiable appetite for seafood – and it’s hard to blame them; it’s difficult to find fresher, tastier fish in the world. In my humble opinion.) Furthermore, most of it is hand-harvested by small crews in wooden boats, the way it’s been done since time immemorial, so one doesn’t even have to wrestle overmuch with the environmentalist concerns of massive trawlers spouting pollution and devastating area fish populations. Everyone is happy (except, possibly, the fish.)

Of course, even setting aside the renewed enthusiasm for poverty porn, not every side-effect of tourism is positive. Some of the jobs created are not entirely reputable. Drug use is shockingly common both among locals and foreigners, particularly among young men. The number of people involved in the production, movement, and monetization of heroin and marijuana skyrockets.

Similarly, teachers notice an uptick in the number of female students quietly dropping out of school, or disappearing from their homesteads. If you ask them, they’ll tell you they have a job as a waitress, or a cook’s help, or that a cousin knows a tourist family who needed a house girl. But in truth, many of these girls are looking to help their families make ends meet by joining the ranks of the world’s oldest profession. While many of the adult women who support their families this way have demonstrated in surveys an above-average knowledge of HIV and resulting trends towards consistent condom use, this often doesn’t translate to youth. They may lack a solid educational foundation about their personal risk for infection, or feel disempowered to demand protection from clients. Also: they’re often paid extra to go without.

Notice I didn’t say “young women.” I said “girls.” And I mean “girls,” some as young as eleven or twelve. Although some efforts have been made to combat it, this area of the Coast remains an international hot spot for child prostitution and human trafficking.

Crime also goes up slightly, as an influx of wealth can yield an influx of muggings, but this hasn’t really been a problem in my particular area. (On a personal level, it also doesn’t hurt that I’m rarely out after dark, and most of the people in my neighborhood know me to some degree.) Still, tourists quickly discover that if they leave their beach bag unattended while they nip back to the bar to refresh their cocktail, it probably won’t be waiting for them when they return.

Continued tomorrow with part 2

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I get it. Africa’s fucking confusing. I didn’t REALLY know too much shit about it until I was a sophomore in high school, and plenty of people go their whole lives without knowing shit about it ever. You can’t blame people for not knowing enough about a region if the media treats it all as one giant country full of rape and lions and people dying and Darfur and more lions. I am willing to cut people ENORMOUS amounts of slack, and consider it a privilege to have those conversations where I get to gently go “You know what? ‘Africa’ is actually a whole continent, with a billion people, and 2,600 languages, and lots and lots of different countries …”

But sometimes, the degree of DURR is so high I have little choice but to smack my forehead and grumble. For example, if you’re *been there* (or claim to be), I hold you to a slightly higher standard. ONLY SLIGHTLY, BUT STILL HIGHER.

The following is an actual conversation I had this weekend with someone who lives in my sleepy little college town:

*Conversation course: weather weather weather weather, last year’s summer was wimpy and cold*
Me: Yeah, I’m fine with it, though. I like cool weather. I’m saving it up for when I move to Africa in June.
Guy: AFRICA?
Me: *used to this reaction by now* Yeah, Africa.
Guy: I totally used to live in Africa!
Me: *excited* NO WAY! Really?? Me too! Where??
Guy: Lagunza
Me: Awesome, where’s that?
Guy: In … Africa.
Me: Right, what country?
Guy: The country of … Lagunza.
Me: Uh, ok. What part of Africa is that? Southern? West?
Guy: No
Me: North? East?
Guy: No
Me: So … central?
Guy: Yeah, that must be it.
Me: *blink*
Guy: It’s the part that was having the civil war.
Me: Which civil war?
Guy: The … African … Civil … War. The big one.
Me: *trying to laugh it off nicely* Yeah, I guess there’s a lot of political crap going down in a bunch of different countries at once.
Guy: Wait, what? There’s more than one?

. . .

Res ipsa loquitor.

I had guessed that the Peace Corps would train us in some major urban center of Kenya for the convenience of it – Nairobi, perhaps, or Mombasa if they didn’t want to scare us too terribly (Nairobi is – and I say this with all due affection – kind of a rough town.) However, it would seem we’re stationed in a place that doesn’t exist. It is the last remaining location in the world without a Wikipedia page or CIA World Factbook entry. Browsing the library online found me an occasional text reference, but not much by way of describing where it is, exactly. GoogleEarth is only useful if you can pick the vague general area. Locating my future self in space and time would require a bit of doing.

I’m currently enrolled in an anthropology/history/natural history/et al course focusing on East Africa. Each morning we have class, my professor’s valiant assistant perches atop the back of a chair to hang a massive floor-to-ceiling map of the region. If you’re a cartophile like myself, you could probably gaze on it for hours, visually tracing the wadis and disputed borders until your eyes crossed and your friends have you locked away for your own safety. But I digress. It was to this divine diagram that I turned to find my future place of employment.

It was, however, not there. At all.

My professor – who once offhandedly named and located on an unfamiliar map each of the Nile’s cataracts in less time than it takes for me to say my social security number – asked if he could be of assistance.

“Yes, please. Do you know where [Town] is?”

“What?”

“I’m looking for [Town].”

“You mean [MajorUnrelatedUrbanCenter]?”

“No … [Town.]” I found myself thinking, am I pronouncing it so abominably wrong as to render it indecipherable?

Something seemed to click in his brain, though. “Ah! Yes.” He snapped his fingers and gestured vaguely. “Right there.”

“Where?”

“There.”

“Where?”

“That sounds like a Tana name, so it should be somewhere here in the North.” He bent to inspect the map, his index finger extended. We both stared for a few minutes. It did not materialize. Shocking.
“Hmmmmmm …” he began ruminatively, “Could I have a hint please?”

I lamely suggested that I thought there was an airport there, and that it may be in the South. He looked perplexed, and we both stared at the map for a few more minutes before simultaneously giving up.

Yeah, you read that right. The Obsessive Africa Student and the Respected Africa Professor were both well and truly stumped. Clearly, I was assigned to a secret mission base from the X-Files.


*cue theme music*

Google, however, is a thing of magic and wonder. It yielded a map … posted by a coffee company. Go figure. Accompanying the map link, I began to find photographs. It is indeed a town in the South, name notwithstanding, and from the looks of it, would seem to be THE MOST GORGEOUS PLACE ON EARTH. Idyllic in a wholly unexpected way. A raw gem. East Africa is stunning, and the Kili region especially so, but if even vaguely resembles the snapshots that turned up …

I officially retract any misgivings about leaving soon. I want to leave right now. And I suppose that’s the moral to this rather vague and unimportant post; my trip is like one of those cheap advent calendars where each day you rip off a sticker to expose a bit more of the image behind. It’s simultaneously infuriating and tantalizing. I cannot begin to imagine what’s awaiting me.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly