Friday, February 11, 2011
"What are you humming?" I asked one morning. The sun was shining across the waters of Lake Victoria, and little children were chasing their donkeys laden with water kegs up the hill to the village of Wagusu, Kenya.
Eddy, my host in the village, looked up from the watermelons. He grinned shyly. "I am writing a song to my mother," he said. We were going to see her in a neighboring village later that afternoon. "When I am finished, I will write a song to your mother. She carried you for months so that you could come work with us today."
We had many such short-yet-profound conversations over the course of my stay, and even three years later I am still drawing meaning from many of them. Eddy, an ambitious young man about my own age, had done a lot of work to get his tiny village put on the map. He'd made partnerships with Africa Home Adventure and the Kenya Voluntary Community Development Project to bring foreign volunteers, and their funding, into projects he had helped pilot. I paid around $100 a week for one of the most rewarding "vacations" I'd ever had. Only a very small portion of that went to buy things needed to host me -- some soap and cooking oil, for the eggs and cabbages we harvested in the field ourselves -- and the rest went to fund a vocational-technical program for girls.
The vo-tech program consisted of a small adobe -- that's mud, you know -- building, fancy because it had a poured concrete floor. Inside were two treadle sewing machines. The girls received training in tailoring and could come here to take turns using the machines. Some were orphans; others provided support for elderly family members. All of them were excited to have access to this simple machine, which required no electricity and gave them an opportunity to start their own businesses. To become self-sufficient.
How strikingly different our versions of self-sufficiency seem on the surface. To me, it means being able to make enough of my own food and materials that I don't need to depend on products imported from far away and produced through practices with which I don't agree. To the ten-year-old girl who unobtrusively followed me through the watermelon fields, all it meant was a chance to turn a bolt of cloth into a garment, and make a few shillings to buy eggs for her ailing grandmother. She was just learning to write her name, and could recite a few phrases in English, but she was a fiend on the sewing machine. School academics were important, but distant -- sewing skill on the treadle was critical to survival and future.
We aren't so different, really, both bored by the study of things that don't produce immediate, tangible results. It's not that theory isn't interesting, it's just that it takes a backseat when there are so many other, more pressing things competing for attention. All this girl needed was the loan of enough money to buy her first bolt of cloth -- less than $5 -- to give her the hope that she needed to consider her ability to change her own future. A micro-microloan. What do you need to feel you have a bit of control over your destiny?