Friday, August 29, 2008

August 29, 2008 - Politics

I have to say that this morning, as I watched Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination this morning (well...CNN showed long highlights but I was asleep for the live event), I couldn't help but ache for my classroom in NYC. I envy my colleagues who get to teach this historic moment in American history and I spent at least 15 minutes drafting lesson plan ideas in my head while I was eating breakfast.

Regardless of who individuals are voting for or if Barack Obama wins the election, I cannot imagine that every American watching that speech was not completely moved by the fact that an African American man is a candidate for President. I had goosebumps and I shed a few tears for was "awesome" in every sense of the word.

But actually, these days in Kenya I have been dealing with a different kind of politics. This week at work, a UNICEF colleague of mine and I had an extremely disappointing experience with another colleague from a different UN agency. It would be highly unprofessional of me to describe the situation in detail here, but I will say that I learned something very interesting.

You see, I expected that the UN system would be rife with political agendas and motivations, as any institution is. But for some reason, I naively thought that the politics at the UN would be different from other politics I have experienced...somehow more mature or worldy. This, as I learned this week, turns out to be completely untrue. The politics at the UN are the same as the politics of a high school in NYC or Washington, DC, the same as the politics at a major private university, and the same as the politics of an American small-town's musical theater company. Some people with a relative degree of power here defend it with their lives, at all costs, and at whatever expense it is to their colleagues. At this point, I am now in the middle of an unexpected and undesired battle, which will hopefully be resolved with mediation from high level administration on Monday. Sheesh! And I am just a consultant - I thought there would be no stress!

That's most of the news from Nairobi this week. Kristoffer has been a little less busy at work this week than last week, or at least he is going in to the office a little bit later than he was last week! We bought some furniture for our house from some friends who are moving back to Denmark today so we are only one room away from being fully furnished at this point. Sadly, it looks as though our efforts with a second internet company are failing and we will need to start our search again, or resign ourselves to not having internet at home. This seems unacceptable to me so I think we won't give up the fight just yet...perhaps we just need to change tactics.

Kenya is certainly proud today of its favorite "half-son" today (Barack Obama, that is) and, again regardless of political affiliation, I think all Americans should be too!


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August 20, 2008 - Good news!

Well...finally in today's paper, Kenya's Minister of Education spoke out AGAINST the reintroduction of caning schools, said that it would reverse the positive effects of the Children's Act 2001, and said that teachers are responsible for ensuring that children are not harmed while they are in school (either by teachers or other children)!!! I am so happy! Granted, perhaps I have taken this issue a little bit too closely to heart, but it is a huge relief to know that there are intelligent, sensible politicians in this country who can see when a policy decision would be seriously detrimental to society. Instead of reintroducing caning, the Ministry of Education is introducing new safety policies to assist in decreasing acts of student violence, drugs, and alcohol in schools.

In other news, it is a very busy week for Kristoffer, who is facilitating a School Feeding Programme training of all the District Education Officers (DEOs) who have jurisdiction in areas where WFP feeds children. It is a 4 day affair that has required him to leave the house in the dark and come home in the dark too! It is great experience for him though, is introducing him to many educational players throughout the country, and has probably increased his profile within WFP. Go him! But I'm sure he'll be happy to get a little more sleep next week!

We are also getting ready to have more visitors in a few weeks! Our great friends Morten, Morten, and Elsebeth from Denmark are coming to visit us! We are so excited - our first non-family visitors! Maybe we'll ask them to post a blog about how great it is here so that more of you will come :)


Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 14, 2008 - 28 will be great!

Hi there! I realized today that I haven't blogged since my "caning in Nairobi" tirade and that wasn't a very nice way to leave you. The update on that is that some groups have spoken out passionately against it (thank you very much) but the Ministry of Education is still remaining silent on the change in policy. Silence on such an issue is never good.

Work is really busy for Kristoffer these days. He has the possibility of travelling to South Africa and Uganda in upcoming months for different conferences, both which would be very good experiences for him (and they will certainly look good on the old resume too). We are hoping that they work out. Because of rising food and oil prices, as well as food shortages here in Kenya, his job is a bit stressful these days. WFP's budget is essentially the same size, but the money is buying a lot less than it used to - especially factoring in enormous transport costs. So he is basically trying to push their money as far as it can go in order to feed as many children as possible. Not an easy task.

Work for me is picking up a bit. At least I am getting paid now! One of the things I deal with is constantly being in meetings with humanitarian stakeholders who are talking about the "reality on the ground" for displaced people in Kenya, which even at this distance from the post election violence is really not good...and then at the same time I attend meetings with high level government officials who say that the situation on the ground is improving, people are happy and getting back to their lives, and the government is doing a great job facilitating the resettlement. There always seem to be a conflict between the truth and the perception that government would like people to have. Of course we (UNICEF) are worried about the displaced children, a large and surprising percentage of whom are separated from their guardians and participating in risky behaviors or have become the victims of various crimes against them, and the atrocious conditions they are living under right now. My job is not glamorous or high profile, but I keep track of a lot of information and hopefully I am helping in a small way.

We had some American visitors this week! Two of my dearest high school teachers with whom I keep in touch - Craig Simpson and Kathy Cook of Andover High School fame - have friends from Sante Fe, New Mexico who were coming here for a 2 week safari. I had been updating them on security in the country earlier in the year, and so we got together for a lovely dinner when they stopped over in Nairobi before their safari began. It was really nice to meet new people with whom we have a friendly connection and to share a bit of our knowledge of this country with them before their big adventure. Thanks to Craig and Kathy for putting us in touch!

Since my last blog I also had a birthday (yesterday)! 27 was certainly interesting for me as a newlywed with two big moves, two new jobs, and two heart surgeries! I would say it was an eventful year indeed and look forward to seeing if 28 turns out to be as exciting!


p.s. The installation of internet at home has begun...but technical difficulties abound so it is not quite working yet. I promise more pictures (and maybe a working slideshow!) as soon as we have the capabilities. Plus we will look forward to some conversations on Skype as soon as possible!

Monday, August 4, 2008

August 4, 2008 - Too Much Freedom in Kenya

Kristoffer and I are back to work this Monday after a restful weekend. We continue to make improvements on our house and with the purchase of a new piece of furniture and some art this weekend, our upstairs living room is finished but for the perfect curtains (we are still hunting!). I am happy that today will be my second day of PAID work at UNICEF (wow that feels good!) and all is definitely well.

Unless you are a student in Kenya. Excuse my tirade for a few minutes, but I am horribly outraged by a decision made by the Cabinet (the President and Prime Minister's top ministers) last week to re-introduce the caning of students, or beating students with a stick, back into schools. To give some background on this matter, caning was outlawed in Kenya by the Children's Act of 2001, which increased the rights and protections of Kenyan students. This was seen to be groundbreaking legislation on the continent and furthered the world's view of Kenya as one of the most progressive African countries. In the last month, though, Kenya has been plagued by secondary student unrest, riots, protests, school vandalism and arson [all put under the category in Kenya of “mass action”].

There are many reasons for the students' anger: botched national exam scores last year, untimely mock national exams this year, overcrowded classrooms and limited resources, emotional trauma resulting from the post-election violence, to name a few. And the majority of Kenyans, not just a select few, believe that the reason for these disturbances is because teachers are not allowed to cane students. Now, I am not condoning the violence that students have committed because they have caused millions of dollars in damaged or destroyed property, have injured and killed students, and have completely interrupted an already difficult academic year; but instead of looking at the institutional reasons why schools in Kenya are failing students, the government would prefer to just blame the problems on the students and the fact that teachers can’t beat them into submission. And while it is deplorable that students have committed these crimes, who are their role models?!?! Politicians who financed and supported tribal violence that left over 1,000 people dead and close to a million people homeless after a completely un-free and unfair election!

To quote the Minister of Energy, a Cabinet member, in yesterday’s paper speaking on the reintroduction of caning, “We met as Cabinet last week and what we observed is that there is too much democracy that is quickly descending into anarchy. There is too much freedom in this country and what we are witnessing in schools is just a reflection of the larger society…The Cabinet has decided and teachers should listen to this: Let us not have child kings and queens in our schools, you spare the rod and you spoil the child…If a child does something wrong, he or she must be caned. As a Government we have said discipline has to be enforced in our schools.”
Too much democracy? Are you kidding me? I suppose that quote really says a lot about Kenya, but after 8 months I am still shocked! Sometimes I feel like this country is so backwards! And while many people think (Kenyans and many throughout the world…at least previously) that Kenya is such a great example for other nations, I think that is a load of crap! The government is just as hypocritical and corrupt as those in other African or developing countries. To make such progress by banning such inhumane treatment of students was wonderful, but to reverse the decision seven years later is worse than if they had never gotten rid of it at all. The fact that so many Kenyans support this decision – including Kenyans that Kristoffer and I know – makes the reality that much more appalling.

Okay…I suppose I’ll step down off my soap box now. I should be very productive at work today now that I’m all fired up!