Gender and Development in Africa

Gender as an issue concerns the entire humanity and challenges every society and culture although it varies on political, cultural, economic and religious grounds. Bertrand Tietcheu describes the debate on the issue of gender in Africa as always being tense and critical where most men, antipathetic to any debate on it, will more likely adopt a defensive stance – viewing it as a means for women to attack and overtake them. In this context gender in Africa relates to power-seeking and the need for societal control.

Over the years, great Kenyan women have bravely undergone difficult and humiliating conditions to fight for equality and participation in politics. One such woman was Prof. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. In her memoir, Unbowed, Wangari quips that for a woman to feature in politics, she must have a skin as thick as that of an elephant.  Her story is one of triumph despite the challenges of a political system that favors men to a great extent. Like other women, the odds against her were lack of finances, socio-cultural perceptions, propaganda wars and criticisms. It’s also important to note that countries which have strong tribal allegiances (such as Kenya) have a more acute corruption problem since money and important jobs are given to allies of the ruling class. Albeit the description of politics as a ‘dirty game’ by many a prominent Kenyan politicians, it is also largely a ‘money game’ which actually locks out a huge percentage of women who are more economically disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts.

Other women who have over the years made significant contributions to democracy and equality in Africa and have demonstrated sound political leadership include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former Deputy President of South Africa and Ms. Luisa Diogo, former Prime Minister of Mozambique. It really therefore comes as no surprise when World Bank establishes in one of its policy research reports – Engendering Development – that greater women’s rights and more equal participation in public life by women and men are associated with cleaner business and government and better governance. It has also been shown also that where the influence of women in public life is greater, the level of corruption is lower and that indeed women can be an effective force for rule of law and good governance.

More good news is that since 1990, Africa has had more critical analyses of societal issues such as human rights violations, violence against women and good governance being addressed more publicly. Globalization has had a huge hand in shifting Africa’s socio-cultural arena by introducing new social values and cultural trends. For instance, following the Fourth World Women’s Conference that was held in Beijing, Kenya adopted the quota system in increasing the number of women in decision making by integrating them in more elective and non-elective public posts. In 2002, there were only nine women out of the two hundred and twenty members of parliament. In the previous 10th parliament the ratio of women to men had risen to 1:12 and now with the adoption of the new constitution, the representation of women in the august house stands at around twenty one percent.

Despite these advancements, there’s still a lot to be done by women in taking collective action on mechanisms that will ensure a higher and more equal representation in Parliament.

Counting days to my return to NYC

The week in Nairobi has been characterized by changing weather patterns – ranging from stormy rains on Wednesday to beautiful sunny days like today’s – which I’m enjoying!

The Saturday talk at Strathmore University went very well. I had initially thought that I would run out of material or things to say but the discussion on how education contributes to the economic, social and political development of Kenya was very interesting and interactive. We had excellent representation from different Kenyan Universities such as Maseno, Jomo Kenyatta International University and Kenyatta University. One of things that the participants were curious to know of was how I managed to get over the culture shock when I first arrived in the US. I admitted to at first being reserved but the American culture which encourages expression quickly caught up and of course family and new friends made it much easier.

I am now officially counting days to my return  although I still have some pending research business. Peter, my co-researcher, will still be working on  IDRC research focused on land tenure issues at Mukuru slum area in Nairobi after I’m gone. He offered to include some of my questions on the residents’ levels of income and saving patterns in his research tools. I will still be following up on this after I get back.

Have a lovely weekend!

USAIDs role in development

Before the beginning of my time with USAID Uganda I didn’t understand all the different avenues for development that existed.  I had some grassroots level field experience in Togo from Peace, but beyond that, the workings of large bureaucratic machines like USAID were a mystery.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned this summer is how USAID procurement works, who its partners are and the type of funding mechanisms that exist.  Even though I’m still unsure of whether or not working in the public sphere is a good fit for me personally, I am less disillusioned about the US government’s role in development and have grown to appreciate and respect the work that is done at this level.

Essentially USAID plays the vital role of patron for partnering organizations (otherwise known as Implementing Partners- or IPs).  But it is more than just the money. Many of the concepts for large-scale development objectives derive at USAID and, more broadly, Washington policies.  Project concepts are laid out here.  These concepts are results-based, meaning that USAID will put out request for proposals that specify objectives to be met.  For example, a project for improved food security might specify end-result objects like an increase output (harvest) of maize by 25% and increase appropriate input (fertilizer, for example) availability by 30%.   These objectives are easily quantifiable and will then be measured through careful monitoring and evaluation methods.  When this type of request for proposal goes out organizations, firms, etc. are able to then propose ways to achieve the desired outcomes.  I’ve found that this type of proposal request allows for a certain amount of innovation.  For instance, USAID doesn’t tell potential partners how to carry out a certain project.  Instead, they lay out the results they expect.

This type of results-based guidelines also offers another incentive.  USAID works primarily through contracts, or profit-based, high-risk agreements where partners are held to standards laid out in the project contract.  If USAID was to outline how certain objectives were to be met and the IP followed exactly these directions and the outcomes weren’t achieved, USAID is at fault.  When IPs are following their program and not achieving the results, contract enforces ensues (fault lies with the IP).  Before my summer in Kampala I had little understanding of the role of contracts and for-profit firms in development.  Now I’ve come to appreciate some of the large firms effectiveness in achieving project results, their efficiency and professionalism.  Though the “corporate” atmosphere is not for everyone, I’ve come to believe that the development status-quo requires these types of contracts to create real impact.

The other two mechanisms are either grants or cooperative agreements.  These are usually smaller-in-scale and less binding. They are often awarded to non-profits and smaller organizations and can also create opportunities for innovation- trying out new methods, etc.

One of the frustrations, I’m sure for many organizations in development is gaining access to the US government’s funds.  It seems to be a little of an “in” group “out” group situation where firms/organizations with the know-how and resources to draft impressive proposals or bids for projects are often the winners (and continuously so).  It’s somewhat of a catch-22 where the winners are winning and the losers are just trying to win.  Someone at USAID told me one of the main differences between nonprofit work and work with the government in development is money.  As a nonprofit employee you may feel as if you are always asking for money and as a USAID foreign services officer you may feel as if you are constantly asked for money.  I guess the third piece of the puzzle is who is able to win the money after all the asking. Nonetheless, the process has strict guidelines with a hoard of USAID lawyers that oversee contract procedures.  Rules and regulations make sure there is equal competitiveness among partners for project bids and that the selection process is void of bias.

USAID plays the important role of mediator between our US government money and the implementing partners that are in the field.  It lays out objectives that are meant to promote sustainable growth and American values while adhering to the capitalist system of fair and competitive bidding.  Though the red-tape and bureaucracy may cause unnecessary delays and abundant frustration, getting money to the right people is essential for effective development programs.

The Embassy is housed with USAID in Kampala

The Embassy is housed with USAID in Kampala

US embassy kampala

The Footfalls of Memory in Freiburg

I spent 27 July 2013 wandering the streets of Freiburg, a city in southwestern Germany located at the edge of the Black Forest. Freiburg is a  special place for me for several reasons: academically, in Levinas’s words, it is the ‘City of Phenomenology,’ where both Husserl and Heidegger lectured and worked; in terms of this project, it is where I first discovered die Stolpersteine; and, more personally, it is also the city where I met my wife. And so, this small German city is one pregnant with memories.

Below, you’ll find three photos from my day-long sleuth-like tracking down of all of the city’s Stolpersteine. These images are part of the essay length project I am currently working on and will be happy to share soon!

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More soon! -David

A Talk on Leadership at Strathmore University

If you have been keeping up with international news you probably have heard  of the fire which destroyed the international arrivals terminal at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Wednesday this week. It is very sad and shocking given that fifteen years ago, on the same day, a series of terrorist attacks occurred in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in which hundreds of people were killed. Investigations as to the cause of the dreadful fire are underway with the Kenyan Police and Criminal Investigation Department being aided by the FBI. Despite the inconvenience caused and revenue lost by planes diversion to the Mombasa and Eldoret airports in Kenya and Kilimanjaro and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Kenyans are relieved that no one was killed. The mood in the city and country is generally calm as citizens await the findings from the investigation as to the cause of the fire.

On a more optimistic note, I traveled to Faraja Children’s home in Murang’a, in Central Kenya county, last week for the second time this summer and was accompanied by my close friend and former colleague, Muthoni Ng’ang’a. We made it on time to have dinner with the children and go through some of the books that we had brought along with us. We also spent Sunday morning with them and traveled back to Nairobi on Sunday.

On Monday, I received an invitational email from Strathmore University’s Student Council to participate in a Leadership Seminar where I will be making an hour’s presentation on Leading Academically. I intend to focus not so much on ‘how to achieve academic leadership’ but on the importance of academics to the social, political and economic well being of Kenyans and the role played by education in poverty eradication.

It’s a sad day when education is merely thought of as a means to the end of securing a job and where rote learning is implicitly encouraged and enforced in schools just to pass exams. In line with is and in the course of preparing for the presentation, I ran across the following thought provoking quote from a research report written on the Evaluation and Profile of Education in Kenya,

‘Kenya’s education system has not been able to tailor its contents to the socioeconomic and cultural realities of the people capable of developing local solutions for local problems. Instead it continues to uphold an education system that is centered around schooling rather than learning, consequently producing a people who consistently look to Europe for models of development that matches their own social and physical environment’ Ntrangwi M

Kenya’s education system is criticized on the bases of administration structures, the quality and relevance of curriculum, cost of providing education and its ability to develop citizens who are socially, politically and economically well informed. The current 8-4-4 system (eight years of primary education, four of secondary and four of tertiary) overloads the students and teachers alike. The system is also highly elitist and very competitive, picking only the best. It has not been successful in imparting the key values of democracy.

Though I will not lay the 8-4-4 burden on the student leaders, given that they are probably more of casualties of the system (as I was), I will stress on our part as leaders who will influence Kenya’s education policy in the future and the role we would have to play as agents of change in attitudes and values that have a bearing on the economic development of our country.

A Story from Switzerland

Tragically, the Universal Postal Union archive is closed on the weekends so I spent my first few days in Switzerland taking in the beauty of the Alps. I hiked, fed carrots to marmots, and ate fondue with the loveliest of people instead of spending three consecutive days in fluorescence, straining my eyes at the scrawled handwriting of a nineteenth century tri-lingual Frenchman. Needless to say, this weekend was a welcome respite from archival research. During my first days in Switzerland, I had the pleasure and privilege of being hosted by Manuela–a friend of a Fordham professor–and her family. To be more precise, Manuela is the childhood penpal of my professor. The two were brought together across national borders (Switzerland to Canada) by the postal service and have been exchanging stories and building an intimate friendship ever since. Even though this leg of my trip was not research-driven, it does provide a lovely anecdote of how the international post can bring people together.

Rather than authoring this update with my usual postal service tunnel vision, I want to share a good story from my first weekend in Switzerland. A few tram rides and a short hike through a flock of mountain sheep (with bells!) led us to the vista of the Aletsch Glacier in Bettmeralp. At 46 square miles, the Aletsch Glacier is the largest glacier in the Alps and, to put it simply, is one of the most magnificent spaces I’ve ever seen. With the aura of both mountain and desert, the glacier extends beyond sight with tundric majesty. We were lucky enough to be at the vista when there were very few people around, which meant a quiet that wasn’t exactly so. In the quiet of little human bustle, beneath the sound of the wind, I could hear the glacier. I could hear the underground streams and the way they would moan and echo through glacial crevices. The whole experience was chilling. Certainly, the Aletsch Glacier is endowed with a mythic quality.

According to Manuela’s mother, in some folktales the Aletsch Glacier is a space of purification where poor, sinful souls expiate their sins. During my trip I got to hear one of the folktales of the glacier from Switzerland’s rich culture of storytelling. Inside the glacier museum, I heard the story of Schmidja, a pious old woman who lived in a hut by the glacier (thanks to a video with English subtitles and various additions from Manuela’s mother).

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In the tale, Schmidja prays for the lost souls ailing in the glacier. She can hear their cries each night while she is spinning wool at her wheel in her warm hut. Despite her continual prayer, the souls still moan for relief from the freezing glacier. One night, attracted to the candlelight in her window, the souls’ cries grew louder and became more oppressive. Whether from compassion or fear, Schmidja cracked open her window and said “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The souls’ cries subsided as they warmed themselves through the night and left with the rising of the morning sun.

This became routine. Shmidja would spin at her wheel until five o’clock every night, then she would make her way to the window, open it a crack and say “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The poor souls began to expect the respite of Schmidja’s warm fire and she always allowed them into her home.

One night, Schmidja became lost to time in her spinning. It was well past five o’clock and she kept at her work. She was deaf to the cries of the souls until they rose to a pitch of desperate fury. Immediately knowing her lapse, Schmidja ran to the window and threw it open, shouting “come in! Come in!” The souls poured into her hut, crowding every inch of space. Howling with anger and cold, the poor souls forced Schmidja to her wheel. They were angry at Schmidja’s oversight and were determined to make her remember their need for warmth above all else. Because she did not utter her usual request for the souls not to hurt her, they could punish the old woman. The souls put Schmidja to work at her wheel, spinning and spinning all through the night. With no rest, she spun and the souls howled. When the poor souls left in the morning, Schmidja could barely move her hands from all the work. The souls’ punishment was effective, indeed: Schmidja never forgot to allow them in at five o’clock and always upon the condition of not hurting her.

Not too many years after Schmidja’s harrowing night of spinning, she passed away in her warm hut. The poor souls, remembering the old woman’s kindness and hospitality, lined up like candles across the glacier to meet their friend. Together, the souls and dear Schmidja, glowing like candles, moved across the glacier into the afterlife.

I was deeply touched by the hospitality of my Swiss hosts and I am incredibly grateful that they shared this story–and many new ones–with me.

Postal Souvenirs

The souvenir shop, regardless of city, is a strange, strange place. Tourist-infested streets are lined with stores lined with shelves lined with kitschy memorabilia. People from elsewhere buy little tokens to mark their away-from-home experiences with something distinct. In New York City, you can buy matchbox yellow cabs, Statue of Liberty lighters, and t-shirts with the city skyline in silhouette. These items reflect what is unique about a city (and, of course, global consumerism and strange cultural simulacra). Really, what better way is there to remember your stroll in Central Park than a full scale model with apples for street lamps? During my London ramblings, I stopped into a few souvenir shops (please don’t tell anyone from Williamsburg!) with the hope of finding something to memorialize my experience here. As to be expected, I found union jack panties, some leftover Olympic trinkets, creepy paper masks of notable Brits, and Royal Baby banners–full price for blues, discount for pinks. What I didn’t expect to find, however, were Royal Mail street post boxes. There were red mail box pencil sharpeners, banks, salt and pepper shakers, and–my personal favorite–a full tea set.

Street letter boxes are far from unique to London. In the United States, we have navy blue, R2D2-like fixtures on many street corners. In Switzerland, you’ll frequently find slim, bright yellow post boxes. Street post boxes are ubiquitous. They offer patrons an increased degree of anonymity in access to the post, no matter the country. Just imagine the secrets sent through the nineteenth century post–abolitionist tracts, correspondence between suffragettes, claims to land in the West. By the middle of the century, these documents and their senders were no longer subject to the gaze of the local postmaster. Anyone could surreptitiously slip a stamped note into one of these blue, red, or yellow boxes.

Despite the nearly universal presence of street letter boxes, the nature of international travel lets us see the world through new eyes. As a tireless optimist, this means that I can experience the most mundane detail of a place as an object of wonder. Even though I did not buy the souvenir Royal Mail tea set, my touristy disorientation to London allows me to see the intricate and ever-present nature of the post. Thanks to changes in nineteenth century postal systems (in both the US an the UK), the post office is boringly commonplace. I hope to embrace this postal disorientation as I continue my research in London, Bern, and at home. By doing so, I hope to gain insight into how widespread implementation of the street letter box as evidenced in literature from the period shaped an individual’s experience of time, space, and community at home and abroad.

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The Medium of Education

“What is being brought home to them, to him and his mother, is that in Cape Town different classes of people attend different schools. St. Joseph’s caters for, if not the lowest class, then the second-lowest. Her failure to get him into a better school leaves his mother bitter but does not upset him. He is not sure what class they belong to, where they fit in. For the present he is content merely to get by. The threat of being sent to an Afrikaans school and consigned to an Afrikaans life has receded–that is all that matters. He can relax.”

J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life

In his fictionalized 1997 memoir, J. M. Coetzee recounts growing up in 1940s South Africa from the perspective of his boyhood self. This evocative account of attending school in South Africa as the National Party ascends to power in 1948 (with its policy of apartheid that would plague South Africa until 1994) draws attention to the issue–perhaps threat is the more fitting word–of language and its impact upon education. Indeed, the medium of education, as Coetzee eloquently writes, can “consign” an individual to a certain lifestyle, and, at the same time, can exclude others from this same lifestyle. Throughout Boyhood, the narrator fears the Afrikaans who bully younger children, and, consequently, this fear is projected upon all Afrikaners and their language writ large (an allegory of the nationalist violence visited upon lifestyles not “consigned” to the Afrikaans worldview).

Soon after D. F. Malan is elected in 1948 the narrator worries because “There are rumors that the Government is going to order all schoolchildren with Afrikaans surnames to be transferred to Afrikaans classes” (69). Here we see the National Party’s nascent educational segregation as white English students are separated from white Afrikaans students, a policy that would continue and culminate in H. F. Verwoerd’s 1953 Bantu Education Act that sought to train black South Africans for menial labor because, in Verwoerd’s infamous words, “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour…What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” Notice how, on the level of language alone, Verwoerd’s words refuse to recognize black South African children as human beings and instead excludes them from the category “human” through the dehumanizing pronoun “it.” Language became a tool that, on the one hand, represented the Nationalists and, on the other hand, maintained the party’s societal control.

ImageIn 1976, the apartheid regime attempted to institute Afrikaans as the language of education in math and social studies and English for science for those black students lucky enough to be receiving an education as they began standard five (equivalent to seventh grade). Problematically, up until standard five, these black South Africans were being taught in regional languages and not the languages of the oppressors, which meant that a curriculum at standard five was being taught in Afrikaans and English to students who did not possess the proficiency in these languages to succeed. On June 16, 1976 students in Soweto protested the new policy, and, in what is now known as the Soweto Uprisings, were violently suppressed by the government with hundreds of casualties (the amounts vary depending on the source–the government’s Cillie Commission claims 575, but some report the number as high as 700).

(An interesting literary note: June 16 is, of course, Bloomsday, which celebrates James Joyce’s Ulysses, a text that makes a play thing out of the oppressor’s language. Set on June 16, 1904, Joyce often alludes to the colonial catastrophes that the British visited upon the Afrikaners–especially the creation of concentration camps that killed countless women and children during the Boer War. On June 16, 1976 we see yet another struggle to throw off colonial oppression and the dynamic role language plays)

Unfortunately, the issue of language continues to haunt South African education, even post-apartheid. In its 1996 constitution, the South African government recognizes eleven officials languages (Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu). As Act 6 Article 2 reads, “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” While a noble ideal, the implementation of this policy is creating serious problems throughout the nation’s education system because Afrikaans and English continue to dominate as the medium of Education. As Professors Jansen and Vandeyar write “many white schools set conscious caps on enrollments to retain the dominant white culture and student body, or simply kept out black students altogether invoking language rights as in the elite white Afrikaans schools” (viii). While nominally schools are desegregated, in practice language proficiency in Afrikaans and English bar certain students (read black, coloured and Indian) from attending some of the best schools in the country.

The politics of language are omnipresent in South Africa, and the linguistic and cultural capital afforded to Afrikaans and English cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Coetzee’s boyhood worries over assimilation resonate today as much as they did in 1948.

Does access to low cost finance translate to poverty alleviation?

Last week Friday, Rachel Ruto, wife of the Deputy President of Kenya, William Ruto met with women groups from Narok county and urged them to form saving groups and take bank loans in order to improve their living standards. Limited access to information on credit opportunities was quoted as being the main cause of missing out on funds by about ninety percent of women in rural areas. She further noted that only women groups in urban areas seek credit from revolving fund kitties such as the Women Enterprise and Youth Funds because ‘they access information and know how to make business proposals.’ However, my study on micro-finance institutions (MFIs) and their collaboration with the Kenyan government in the disbursement of Women and Youth Funds seems to indicate that the problem is more deeply rooted or at least not as simple as suggested.

I recently interviewed Shiro, a former Jamii Bora Bank[1] Loans Officer and she affirmed that the government does offer low interest funds through MFIs however the exercise is intermittent and most importantly the supply of these funds does not match their demand. Well, this is quite understandable given the ten percentage point difference between the interest rates on loans from MFIs and the government’s revolving funds. So how do urban women access information on these funds? Mainly through government pronouncements in leading newspaper media and through MFI loan officers. Should urban women be more advantaged than the rural ones? Yes, to the extent that they can read and can spare Ksh.50 (about $0.6) to purchase a newspaper – which really does not account for the difference in the revolving fund loan applications. The women in the urban areas to which these funds are geared are also poor and have very little formal education, if any. So how will poor women be trained not only to write winning business proposals but more importantly, to translate the loans borrowed into improved businesses and profits in order to ultimately lift their socioeconomic status?

Most MFIs state their mission as existing for the purpose of giving poor people access to credit. However, it’s widely accepted and known that their ultimate goal is poverty alleviation. The institutions make the assumption that building strong financial institutions for poor clients will eventually lift them out of poverty. However, there is a palpable gap between accessing the finance needed to start up a business and creating a successful one.  According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review[2] , the latter requires MFIs to provide financial education, management training, value chain support and social services in addition to the services offered by the traditional financial institutions. This would shift MFI’s focus from tracking outcomes that are not in tandem with their ultimate goal such as loan repayment rates and loan sizes (rendering them no different from the commercial banks) to health, nutrition, housing and education improvements.

Economic pressures and the need to be financially sustainable have seen MFIs such as Jamii Bora develop into institutional-centered outfits as opposed to being client-centered. Prior to March 2010 that is, when Jamii Bora became a full-fledged bank, it offered its borrowers and their dependants health insurance covers at the subsidized deposit amount of Ksh.1,200 per year or Ksh. 30 ($0.35) per week. This service has since been scraped off. Undoubtedly, there are numerous advantages of the growth from a trust/MFI to bank status, such as access to higher loan amounts by clients; however, to the majority of the population, even the minimum is not attainable. Jamii Bora Bank had to lower its minimum loan level amount from Ksh. 100,000 ($1,176) to half of that because its clients could not service the higher amount.

So is the problem solved by access to information on low cost credit and knowing how to write powerful business proposals?

I don’t think so.


[1] Jamii Bora Bank was initiated as a charitable trust in the year 1999 by 50 street families who were seeking to solve their financial problems. Ingrid Munro and a number of Swedish investors were its founders.

 [2] http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/in_microfinance_clients_must_come_first