This summer, I went to Muhuru Bay, Kenya for DukeEngage to conduct research and teach at local primary schools. My experiences were markedly different from some, but many of my peers completed DukeEngage with thoughts similar to mine. This column isn’t intended to support or betray the institution that allowed me to have a remarkable summer, only to qualify its end as more selfish than selfless.
In Muhuru Bay, I was a celebrity. The shadow that walked with me was not formed by the African sun, but rather by a shoe-less fan base of adolescents who followed me everywhere I went. Insatiable child-sized paparazzi demanded, “How are you?” and “I am fine!” My hands, put out to shake, would not be shaken but rather rubbed, as if to reveal as much of me as possible. Besides making me nervously try to locate my Purell bottle, this experience detached me from Muhuru Bay. I was a “mzungu,” literally translating to “aimless wanderer” but commonly generalized to “foreigner” or, in my case, “white man.”
There is a phenomenon in physics in which the act of observation incurs a change on that which is being observed. It is cleverly called the “observer effect.” Traffic cops would smile and wave us through their informal tollbooths, stopping everyone but us. Teachers accustomed to caning disobedient students would hang up their long, bun-beating tree limb when we were around. Primary school students hung on our every word and stayed during the breaks so that we would keep teaching. But as the weeks passed, the classes grew rowdier and—I’d venture—more normal. Teachers stopped showing up to class. Relations with our motorbike drivers broke apart as we negotiated down from the original “mzungu rate.” We all saw glimpses of real Kenya, like overhearing something not meant for our ears. Evidently the observer effect decreases over time, but eight weeks still isn’t enough time to see Muhuru through the lens of a Muhurian.
Awareness of such limited understanding made me question the validity of our work in Kenya. If we were seeing an artificial, edited Muhuru Bay, with less caning and more smiles, how could we have worked to change it in a way we see as positive for the “real” Muhuru? Furthermore, how could we have deemed a change positive if we realistically knew nothing of the true culture? Spending a week or two at each school, the best I could do was to be a positive role model, provide a mediocre explanation of mean and median, and just simply show them that there is more to the world than Muhuru Bay. That’s not to say I didn’t become close with some students, but I’m not trying to romanticize things. To many of the students I encountered in Kenya, I am just a memory—that tall, white man who refused to give that one student an iPod.
Our view is filtered through a foreign perspective, so we can’t see the big picture, the implications or pathways of change. Any published research resulting from my work will lead to review and debate by a predominantly white, Western audience, as the research is backed by American grants. Corresponding policy suggestions based on their Western views will only temporarily stick in Kenya. There, tradition supersedes “logic,” or whatever else the West wants to use to justify its policies. Like all countries, Kenya has a river of problems. By treating symptoms with Band-Aid type policies, the West only dams part of the river, letting the real problems find another way to surface. We see pictures of unclothed children, so we send T-shirts printed with the names of losing Super Bowl teams. Then we see pictures of clothed children and feel better. We don’t see the textile workers whose business just got torpedoed by American excesses. Only Kenya can change Kenya, and only when Kenya feels like it.
On the flight home, I felt that although donating two months of my time was incredible, and that I did help on a day-to-day level, the greatest beneficiary was me. And call me crazy or selfish or just call me maybe, but on some level that’s enough. DukeEngagers who witness on-the-ground efforts to improve the developing world may more effectively piece together the right resources and strategy to ultimately succeed in their future endeavors. Maybe this was just the first step in evoking real change. Or maybe we’ll all just generally tell better stories at parties now. So though DukeEngage wasn’t quite the immersive and community-improving experience I was sold, it is improving the world, just in a much more indirect way. Every year hundreds of Duke students, some of them out of their homeland for the first time, open their worlds and learn that everything isn’t so black and white.
Travis Smith is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday.