Monday, February 4, 2008

are we so different?

During the month of January, I was busy writing up stories from information I collected while I was in Africa. Until now, I didn't quite realized exactly how much work I lined up for myself during this trip. Normally, I might be working concurrently on 4-5 stories at the very,very most. I might have other stories lined up to work on after those stories were completed but wouldn't have to work on them until the first set was done. I didn't get to order things that way this fall. Instead, I just had to collect mounds of information, trying to make sure I collected the right information, and then sort through much of it once I returned to the US and finally had time to write.

The result of that process has meant that, as I write the stories, I've been revisiting places I visited months ago, places I didn't get to sit in for long before having to move my head and heart (and feet, too!) on to the next stop. It has been good to go back to them now with slightly more time for listening to what they told and taught me then.

While in Kenya, I interviewed two men who are government employees, perhaps accurately categorized as mid-level manager types, one more senior than the other. I met with them in their offices in the main government building during my fourth or fifth week in Kenya. By that time, I'd heard plenty of stories about government corruption, misappropriation of funds, road projects uncompleted because of the corruption and misappropriation, etc. (And I'd ridden on said roads and experienced their terrible state.) I'd heard stories of Kenyan pastors exhorting their congregations to pray for the evil spiritual hold on government to be broken--particularly in light of the upcoming election--,citing reasonable evidence that political leaders have to take oaths and make agreements that amount to pacts with the devil, something that stems from Kenya's (and much of Africa's) spiritist history. Additionally, I heard stories about the growing violent, gratuitous crime in Nairobi, in particular. The things that are happening with increasing frequency there sound very similar to the reports that come from Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I heard stories about a former president who was a friend to the church yet was considerably shady.

So, to be honest, based on the things I heard when I was in Kenya, the things happening there now, though nothing short of tragic, aren't surprising to me. The seeds for all of it, from rigged elections to awful violence were there. In many ways the reports about how stable Kenya was and how surprising all of this is don't feel correct to me. Perhaps it was stable by the numbers or on economic fronts or on world diplomacy fronts or something, but in just a few weeks of listening there, one could hear a very different story.

However, in spite of all that, when I interviewed the government guys, I came away hopeful for Kenya. It seemed the government was working on some important reforms, and these guys were excited about them. One of the reforms was a shift from process-based management to results-based management, a shift from services getting bogged down in the process but never delivering to government entities and employees being evaluated on the actual delivery of services and products. Employees were being given performance contracts with expectations for work to be completed. Additionally, both men spoke well of ways to address other issues and of the possibilities for pan-Africanism (greater cooperation economically and otherwise between African nations, perhaps in the spirit of the European Union) to help solve some of Africa's challenges.

One of my interviewees gave me a copy of a brochure describing "Kenya Vision 2030, a competitive and prosperous Kenya." As I read it in January, in the midst of the post-election violence, I found it sadly ironic. The Vision 2030 development process was launched by Pres. Mwai Kibaki in October 2006. Here are some quotes from the first page of the document I was given [emphasis mine]:

Kenya Vision 2030 is the new country's development blueprint covering the period 2008 to 2030. It aims at making Kenya a newly industrializing, 'middle income country providing high quality life for all its citizens by the year 2030'...The vision is based on three 'pillars' namely; the economic pillar, the social pillar and the political pillar...The economic pillar aims at providing prosperity of all Kenyans through an economic development programme aimed at achieving an average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 10% per annum over the next 25 years. The social pillar seeks to build 'a just and cohesive society with social equity in a clean and secure environment'. The political pillar aims at realising a democratic political system founded on issue-based politics that respects the rule of law, and protects the rights and freedoms of every individual in the Kenyan society.

It's frustrating that the current president could have endorsed such a plan and then act as he has in the current situation. And Raila Odinga seems little better. From afar it sure seems like neither of these men really has the best interests of their dying and displaced countrymen in mind. It's hard not to believe they're not both motivated mostly by a desire for their own power.

It's also hard to understand the depth of hate that spawns ethnic violence. (I found an excellent BBC radio report here that was helpful. It's just over 20 minutes long but is worth listening to.) On Friday, though, I was reminded that we're not immune to such things here in the US. The Graduate Christian Fellowship group I'm part of at Vanderbilt University invited a speaker on immigration issues to address our group gathering.

I've struggled to follow the immigration issue that has been a fairly hot topic for a couple election cycles now (senate/congressional and now presidential). Mostly I just know I've heard things from people and commercials and sound bites that seemed pretty uncaring (to put it mildly) toward the immigrants in our midst. Plus, I'm increasingly confronted by the reality that my closest relationships fall within a fairly small subset of the American Christian community, so there are things being espoused by American Christians that I don't think of as widespread because I don't hang out with people who talk that way.

Our group discussion on Friday night included an attempt to understand what Scriptural exhortations are relevant to this issue. We discussed Biblical commands toward love, hospitality, and care for both neighbors and strangers and commands against from selfishness and hoarding what we have away from others. We talked about addressing the in-country issues and economic disparities that prompt people to try to get into the US. People shared stories of Christians they know who actually say that people trying to cross the border should just be shot. We talked about how many of the illegal immigrants are hard-working people who are less likely to be involved in crime than American citizens. We wondered how many people who advocate "keep 'em all out, shoot 'em if they come in" type measures have ever considered themselves in the shoes of those trying to get to America. We discussed how much racism plays in: why do we always only talk of Mexican immigrants when there are Canadians working illegally in the US, too? We talked about how Americans want to be free to go anywhere they want but want to keep other people from coming here. And, we're all immigrants to this land anyway, so where to do we get off trying to keep other immigrants out? We talked about how much fear feeds and plagues all of this: economic fears, fear of "the other," and so many more fears.

We acknowledged that the issue is complex, and we didn't solve it or figure out which immigration policy to endorse. (Though I wish we could just let whoever wants to come, come, I guess I understand why we can't do that.) It was good for me--in a this-is-the-truth kind of way--to be reminded of how much hate still exists in our country. We can take a moral high road and condemn what's happening in Kenya. But, perhaps we should consider how far away we really may not be from something similar here. Bad things must certainly follow when we don't love our neighbors, be they like us or not like us.


Anonymous said...

Hey Kami, this is David Ray.
Thank you for an insightful post. I enjoy hearing a little more information from someone who's been there. It seems to me that in third world countries like Kenya (and Pakistan- my field of experience)there are the optimists who desire for peace and prosperity and come out with simiar plans for the economic and social prosperity of their people. Without fail, the missing link is always the one true God and Jesus Christ of the Bible you and I know. There are secularists even in the most staunch muslim countries that have the same ideals that the Kenyan gov't espoused in thier plan. But, unlike our founders, they are missing the link to Our Great God and the worlview that explains reality. I also am interested in the comments that were made about illegal immigration. It saddens me that debates these days degenerate into an arguement that casts people who break reasonable laws as victims of the oppressive "lawmakers". That's a pretty hot debate these days. Thanks for your post. Sorry this was so long. My brain just won't let my keyboard rest :).

Mark Kelly Hall said...

This sparked my thoughts on immigration; my views are still being formed (not based on racism, but hopefully on what's best for everyone in the long run), but here are a few (I'm open to argument) in answer to your comments:

"We talked about how Americans want to be free to go anywhere they want but want to keep other people from coming here."
--No anti-illegal arguments I've heard are from anyone who wants to travel illegally; and when an American travels or moves to another country, he generally brings economic benefits to the host country ("ugly Americans" notwithstanding), due to our relative wealth. On the other hand, the illegal immigrant, while he does perform vital services, uses benefits (such as health) he is not paying for while exporting his income back home. On a small scale, this isn't a problem, but on a massive scale it threatens the system itself (when too many people are in a lifeboat it doesn't do any of them any good). So there have to be reasonable limits.

"And, we're all immigrants to this land anyway, so where to do we get off trying to keep other immigrants out?"
--The blunt answer: I was born here, therefore I'm not an immigrant. And, again, only the usual lunatic fringe is advocating keeping LEGAL immigrants out. But I know what you mean. If you want to take it to the ultimate macro level, why do we bother to maintain any borders anywhere? People have an instinct for associating with and identifying with similar people, who have similar values, etc. It's not a matter of deserving or even fairness, really; it's a matter of identity. On a more immediate level, it's about preserving order and value. I don't find either unspiritual.

"We talked about how much fear feeds and plagues all of this: economic fears, fear of 'the other,' and so many more fears."
--I agree that this is the motivation behind many people's views. But not all. And like the saying goes, "just because I'm paranoid it doesn't mean they're not after me." : )

"Bad things must certainly follow when we don't love our neighbors, be they like us or not like us."
--Bad things also follow when we set aside some valid principles (justice and order) for the sake of others (mercy and compassion). Namely, we get chaos and resentment. I have to give credit to C.S. Lewis for this point.

The trouble with the "love your neighbor" argument is that it brings up the issue of trying to apply spiritual principles to a worldly enterprise (like a nation), which is problematic because the two operate on contradictory terms...those of Christ vs. those of the world. Do we want our military to "turn the other cheek"? Where would religious freedom be then? Do we want our Secy. of Treasury to "give all we have to the poor"? Since taxation is enforced, would that be charity or robbery? OK, some Democrats may be fine with it (HA!), but you get my point.

OK, so that issue is solved. Time for lunch! Hope to make it to one of your presentations in Nashville.