Nov 11, 2012

Children Cheerfully Change Choices

The three of us go to
Amboseli National Park
If I went back in time 5 years, and asked myself how I pictured things working out there are a few things I expected. I would likely be happily living in Colorado, I'd have some nice office job, and having a baby would be the last thing on my mind. How things have changed. I'm living in Kenya, starting and running a small factory, and my daughter is due in January.

Even though I made every key decision along the way, daily I am surprised when I step back and realize where where this path has taken me. The biggest surprise, without a doubt, is the baby. I never really wanted kids before. I like children, to be sure, but I also like giving them back to their parents. I'd looked at a lot of people around, and wasn't convinced that a massive lifelong responsibility would really improve the quality of my life. Objectively, the decision to not have children isn't hard to understand. There is no doubt that kids are messy, expensive, and a constant drain of attention. I've lived my life in such a way where I would regularly reboot my life, in an exotic land, starting with little more than vague idealistic intentions. I could afford to take gambles like that, because at the end of the day the only person who pays the consequences is myself or another adult that simultaneously chose the same thing.

I moved around a lot of as a child, and was often the 'new kid' at school. And I don't feel bad about it, it was a remarkable childhood that helped me launch into a deliberate life spanning dozens of countries. That being said, I never really had a say in it. Several years ago, I had a friend who was thinking about moving and she talked about how she asked her 5 & 7 year old their vote on it. That struck me as ludicrous, why would an adult who understood the opportunities and challenges for the whole family share massive life-changing decisions with those who most certainly don't. I said as much, and she gave me a puzzled look. She thought it was ludicrous NOT to consult them, as it was their life too. That insight knocked me back, pretty far. A corollary of my 'Live Deliberately' creed is to actively support and encourage others to live their own lives deliberately. Apparently, I'd been operating under the assumption that 'live deliberately' doesn't apply to those under 18, which really doesn't make any sense.

Although I had never really considered having kids before, as this moral insight cut deeper into my thoughts and made up my mind for a child free life. For many years, I've been saying I want to live 'an exceptional life,' and carefully make my own decisions and whenever possible not let any others in a position where they could make them for me. I may be particularly sensitive around this issue, because I had so little say in how my childhood unfolded. This perspective has certainly doomed many wonderful romances, but it also freed me to figure out what I wanted in life and doggedly pursue it without having to ask permission. My family has long since come to terms with the fact that I will go anywhere in the world, and do whatever I want, without asking. In some cases, happily, I found people whose own life path kept us together. When my brother and I quit everything for an extended trip through Latin America we shared a tight bond. I found that bond stronger because I was secure in the knowledge that he was choosing his own path, that he also chose to travel together. There is a real and profound freedom in arranging ones life with only these kinds of relationships. I was wise enough to recognize that if I had a spouse, or a child, their deliberate life might not correspond with mine. Unless I wanted to develop a dictatorial, 'Father knows best,' personality (which just isn't in me) there would inevitably be compromises.

All that still makes sense to me, so I'm more than a little bewildered that I've now come to the opposite conclusion. Although Erin has long wanted a child, I shocked both of us when I told her I wanted one too. What happened is, the whole question got elevated to a another level. This, I think, deserves some exploration.

Although I've always enjoyed playing with little cousins, or tickling friends babies, children haven't been a significant part of my life. Few of my close friends have children, and I never made an effort to seek kids out, so I could easily go months without saying a word to a little person. That changed in Tanzania, quite a bit. Erin was working at a small school, IIS, and very quickly our lives started revolving the school. I started out the endeavor by substitute teaching 10 year olds, and found myself happily enmeshed in almost every school event. The school held regular events, from school plays to fundraisers, and they expected that the teachers, like Erin, would work them. Sometimes that got tiresome, when yet another Saturday night needed 'volunteers' it got frustrating. But then we'd try to figure out what else to do, it usually turned out that the school event was the most interesting thing happening. There is not a lot going on in a small town in rural southern Tanzania, so a Saturday night spent selling drinks to friends at a concession stand was better than the alternative of sitting at home surfing the internet (until the power went out). As I wasn't a teacher I didn't have to volunteer, but most of my friends were doing it, so otherwise I had little to look forward to but a lonely night at home.

Very quickly I realized that none of these parents had given up on their own exceptional lives to raise a family. Quite the opposite, in fact. We became close to a Finnish family with three kids who'd left their lives in the cold north to have a adventure in Africa. About half of the students were children of expats, and none seemed like they were being dragged around the world unwillingly. I remember being fascinated as a child by the animal pictures in my families encyclopedia, so I can only imagine what it'd be like growing up next to one of the largest national parks in Africa. None had X Boxes, but since no one did they didn't whine about spending most of their free time outside and exploring. Their childhood is pretty exceptional in it's own right. Although they had a lot more responsibilities, their parents didn't seem like they were sacrificing as much as choosing different exceptional experiences. Its true that none joined Erin and I on our shoestring Xmas trip around Malawi, including riding the back of pickups. But instead many piled everyone into the family car and went off to see the world. It's a different experience, to be sure, but I was no longer quite so certain that my way was the best, even for me.

Most couples are 'nesting' when 6 months pregnant.
We went to Egypt
Most of what hit home was getting to know the kids. After my brief stint of substitute teaching finished up, I joined Erin to run the weekly chess club, and eventually worked as a science and math tutor. Every day there were little people running around, causing trouble, and innocently commenting on the world in ways I find utterly fascinating. I found that I love explaining things and getting a glimpse of the world from their eyes. Sometimes, rather than looking forward to sending them back to their parents, I was annoyed that their parents were taking them away from me. I'd find myself developing ideas about how best to treat a certain child, but was forced to recognize that I hadn't earned the right to my opinion. Almost by accident, I caught myself daydreaming about 'if I had a kid we'd…' with an impossibly long list of what I'd imagine would be fun for both of us.

All of this came together, but it wasn't an instantaneous shift, it was long and slow with plenty of setbacks. But all the sudden, when I did one of my periodic 'what do I want out of life' gut checks I realized that the deliberately chosen life I wanted included progeny. There absolutely will be compromises I wouldn't choose if I was a bachelor, but that is inevitable in all deliberate decisions. Whenever I choose a new country to visit, I simultaneously don't choose all the others that I would also like to see. I probably can't have all the crazy Saturday nights on the town I've enjoyed so much, but the reality is they haven't been much of a priority for about half a decade. And for all the sacrifices, there will hopefully be a lot of rewards too. I can't wait until my daughter clobbers me in chess or squeals in delighted fright when she sees a herd of elephants. Giving those experiences up so that I can retain the freedom to drop everything and start over alone on a shoestring suddenly seems like the sacrifice.

I won't ever become one of those people that thinks everyone they know should have kids. The world already has more than enough babies and there is no doubt that many wonderful life paths never involve procreation. But if I could go back in time, I would try to soften my own resolve about the issue and would encourage others sharing my former perspective to consider what I've written. If you've got a partner craving kids, or are a confirmed bachelor that isn't quite ready to give up on the idea, it might be worth it to find some way to integrate children into your life for a while. Maybe you'll come around to where I'm at now, or maybe you'll learn for sure that you don't want your own. But either way, it not a deliberate life if you don't really consider what life isn't being chosen.

Then again, my plea for unsure people to integrate kids into their life probably has an agenda. In a couple months, I'm going to want babysitters!

May 7, 2012

The best feeling abstract statistical numbers

  There are a lot of awful news stories coming out of Africa, but it's a huge continent so it's vital to keep anecdotes and meaningful statistics separate in ones thoughts.
Yes, there are armed genocidal maniacs in the Sudan and I have wild lions running free in my neighborhood. But overall that doesn't mean things are getting worse or even stagnating in Africa.  A World Bank report just came out that shows child mortality across 15 African countries is falling faster than almost any imagined possible, an almost 6% drop every year.  That's about quadruple the rate the ambitious 'Millennium Development Goals' aimed for. 

This is an powerfully important statistic for a couple reasons.  One, is that child mortality actually reflects a lot more than the "how many under-5 yr. olds die per 1000 born" number.  It's a simultaneous insight into a whole lot of areas.  Keeping babies alive requires a lot: nutrition, medical care, stability, energy, and a coherent (if diverse and complex) social support network.  You could help child mortality a little in an area by building a hospital, but to really make a difference that child has to go live in a mostly stable home with constant access to healthy food and water.  If a newborn has all of those, there is a good chance that their parents, siblings, and neighbors do too. Although the causes for this massive improvement are as diverse as Africa, it indicates that things are getting better for millions. And FAST.

The second part is what it means about the future.  Many people are rightly concerned about the world population, but it's a tricky to actually do anything about.  Chinas 'One-child' policy has been very effective at lowering the population growth, but not many countries in the world will likely follow their model.  However, when one generation sees that most of their siblings survive there is a lot less pressure to have large families in the next generation.  Both Erin and my parents came from large families in a generation that reaped the early benefits of the polio vaccine, widespread antibiotics and the roaring 50s-60s economy that pulled many Americans out of poverty.  Not coincidentally, I suspect, both Erin and I only have one sibling. If the same pattern holds true here, the smaller families will have a larger impact on societal, economic and environmental sustainability than almost anything else. 
All of this is wonderful news, but it isn't why this feels so wonderful.   Everywhere we go, kids are thrilled to model for our pictures.  Of the 27 kids in just these pictures, statistically more than three wouldn't make it to age 5 in Kenya in 2003.  Today, just a handful of years later, that number dropped to less than two.

Apr 1, 2012

A Nuanced Perspective of Kony2012

Kony2012: Absolutely worth watching, but not the whole story
This internet sensation movie talks about Kony, a leader of the horrible Lords Resistance Army (LRA) that kidnaps and maims children in Central Africa. He is despicable, the organization is terrible, and no one anywhere supports him (except for Rush Limbaugh). The movie itself is very slick, and seeks to publicize his actions so that he will be stopped.

That's all true, but the critics say it's naive and incredibly oversimplified. That is true too. For example, the LRA used to be massive in Uganda, today it is maybe a few hundred soldiers running for their lives in the jungle of a neighboring country. Much of the world mostly ignored the movement in it's heyday, mostly in the 90s and early 2000s, but we are well past that point today. The powers that be in the world have long since actively worked to shut down the LRA are almost done. There are American troops on the ground helping the Ugandan army hunt down Kony with broad international support. The recent huge facebook mobs are quite late to the party.

We found Uganda to be a spectacular and comfortable country
to travel in. The war torn country was a decade ago.
Africans, in particular, seem to be the most annoyed at this movement. Ugandans stormed out of the theater in anger when they saw the movie because ironically they didn't find themselves represented in it. Editorials across the continent skewer it's naivety, and it's reliance on the 'White Savior Complex.' The vast majority of the victims shown in the movie were Africans, the majority of the 'heros' were white people from another hemisphere. However it has mostly been African soldiers and African communities that have beaten the LRA back over the last decade, and so it's more than a little insulting to say that they now need George Clooney to come in and finish him off.

I suppose I am part of the 'White Savior Industrial Complex' and although I won't ever pretend that Africa needs me, I do think I'm doing genuine good. Contrary to the adoring facebookers, or disgruntled Africans I see the movie in a different way. It's far less about what needs to happen now, and much more about what has happened. Jason Russell has spent much of his adult life organizing and agitating for awareness of Kony and the struggles of central Africa. It's impossible to know how much practical influence they have had, but it's likely more than nothing. And now, this long standing campaign is almost over.

The movie, and incipient movement, are most effective with young people.  Although oversimplified, it is bringing an awareness of contemporary history to a demographic known for being apathetic and disengaged from some of the worlds bigger injustices.  It shows how privileged young Americans have been able to make a difference on another continent.  If it engages anyone enough to want to make a difference, and think a little on their own, there are some very real and practical steps that they could take.  For example, the movie points out that the International Criminal Court (ICC) finds Kony to be one of the worlds worst war criminals.  However, the ICC doesn't have much power, in part, because the United States has not ratified it. If an American acted like Kony, and is arrested by the ICC, George Bush Jr. famously said he'd invade Holland to 'rescue' them. A Facebook campaign in an election year really could force politicians to bring the US into the world community.      

Rather than soliciting support for a necessary movement I think the point of Kony 2012 is more subtle. It's inviting an entire generation to join in a victory for humanity.

Mar 3, 2012

Ancestors affect an American-African

My American-African Fiance

I'm now engaged to an American-African. Identity is a fickle thing, legal, social as well as individual.  That's how, after a long and lovely relationship I asked an American woman to marry me. A few short months later, I found myself engaged to a resident of Africa.

A lot changed, and nothing. After the painfully slow machinations of the government Erin got her Kenyan work permit.  That means, at this moment she is legally a resident of two different East African countries. I'm being facetious, but not entirely. Most African-Americans have a much smaller personal connection to Africa than Erin and I do.  At this point we've spent about 5% of our lives in Africa, but most African-Americans haven't stepped foot on the continent, nor have any of their ancestors in living memory.  At what point does ones physical location completely define ones continental or national affiliation?

For me, calling Erin an American-African is an amusing play on words, but for others these kinds of distinctions are vitally important.  I have a good white South African friend here who has told me a bit about his experiences.  During the crumbling of Apartheid in his country the white people had a lot of deplorable reasons to maintain their stranglehold, but they also had some legitimate concerns.  As the black majority began to flex their strength some advocated 'pushing the settlers to the sea.'  That's made for a powerful sentiment, but the reality of it was complicated.  Many parts of Africa had been heavily colonized well before North America was, with the first Dutch settlement established near Cape Town in 1647.  So these settlers had no other homeland since well over a century before my country got around to existing.  Even most black South Africans aren't 'native' depending on how one chooses to define it. The majority of the black populations ancestors moved in from other regions in the north about a 1000 years ago (which means it's closer to today than it is to the time of Jesus).  That's a long time, to be sure, but their people have only been in the region for less than three times the as long as the Europeans.
This fear of being 'pushed to the sea'  is why my friend said 'no white South African in his right mind would have voted for Mandela' (in 1994.) What happens to someone who doesn't have a right to exist anywhere on earth?  My friend quickly followed up his assertion by saying 'but then, Mandela's presidency was nothing short of a miracle.'  Balancing the opposing demands and rights of the whole population looked to be an impossible achievement, but one that has (with some hiccups) come into being.

I focused out South Africa only because it built to a crescendo within my life time, similar stories play out all over the continent.  I spent a a month living on a farm in Tanzania with three generations of farmers.  Although white, they easily identified themselves as Tanzanians in every way that matters.  Serious debates about who 'belongs' in a place is also an active issue in Kenya today.  During the colonial era tribes were pushed around as English settlers claimed vast swathes of land.  In many cases, entire tribes uprooted and moved to the ancestral land of other tribes.  Today on one side you have some angry that they have rights to land because their recent ancestors lived there.  On the other hand, todays residents also justifiably say they have rights to it because they have lived there for generations.

Identity and legal residence has been a vital issue for me too.  There was a time, while Erin and I were living in Tanzania, that I was an 'illegal.'  My visa took a long time to process through, and in the meantime the clock had run out on my three month 'Tourist Visa.'  Suddenly I had to live with the constant fear that if someone chose to make an issue out of it I could be deported on a moments notice.  Although I'm happy to still have an American passport, I didn't have as much to return to as my home, vocation, worldly goods and Erin were all in Tanzania.  If I was robbed, I would have had to seriously debate going to the police because the cost to me could have been far worse than what would happen to the actual criminal.

Sedona Arizona with Rein Teen Tours-4
Arizona, a beautiful place with ugly laws
Suddenly I had a lot more empathy for the illegal immigrants in America.  Although they always disgusted me, I now understand the horror of the recent anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama.  For me, at least I made the decision to come to Africa as an adult equipped to deal with the consequences.  For immigrant children who know nothing but life in America, and want to contribute, their nebulous status is not only dangerous and economically stupid, it's profoundly immoral too.  But it certainly gets worse, at least children born in the US are automatically granted citizenship, this is not true elsewhere.  In China and Switzerland, for example, you can have multiple generations of immigrants born in the country.

The point of this post is to show that, ultimately, our concepts of nationality are fundamentally arbitrary and based on the flawed rules of men not any higher morality. Congress could easily eliminate millions of criminals from the country by simply making their immigration legal. Those freshly minted Americans would have the prospects to add more to economy, serve in the military, pay into social security, and consider the police allies not enemies. It may seem outrageous today, but I see it as inevitable evolution.  Our modern ideas of nationality aren't new, the first evidence of something comprable to a passport was in the Persian empire in 450BC.

If we are indeed living in an era of globalization, it's tragically amusing that we're struggling with problems that exist largely because of concept of nationality established two and a half millenniums ago.

Feb 5, 2012

Identity infiltrates institutions illegally, involving the ICC

Erin, in front of my
favorite map of Kenya
A friend of mine recently complained that outside of Africa, most people would think of him as an African, not a Kenyan.   I teased him about that and said that when I go to another country I'm usually considered an American which really isn't a lot more specific.  Since July, and the birth of a new country, Africa has 54 independent countries while the Americas have a respectable 35.

I'll admit, that's kind of misleading.  When most people say 'American' they are referring to people from the USA much to the chagrin of Canadians, Argentineans and others.  But it's also misleading on the other end because an argument could be made that most Kenyans themselves don't see themselves as Kenyans.  Despite the well intentioned efforts of many, much of this country divides on tribal lines.  This concept of tribal identity makes huge difference here, and has arguably shaped post colonial history more than anything else.

Masai in Tanzania-51
 Masai, like these performing a traditional dance
are found throughout Kenya
Consider this, as the United States gears up for another 'most divisive presidential election' in modern history, the International Criminal Court just ruled that four of Kenyas most powerful people must stand trial for crimes against humanity committed during the last election.  Because of issues drawn on tribal lines in the 2007 election well over a 1,000 people were killed by angry mobs as they burned and looted cities.  High profile politicians (and many others) fanned the flames of violence, even as the then-candidate Obama pleaded with the people for calm.  This is history, but it's in no way the past, many of the same players are positioning themselves for this years election.

This puts things into perspective, doesn't it?  In the US, many are appalled that Newt Gingrich is running for president despite being the only Speaker of the US House in history to be reprimanded for 'Ethical Wrongdoing'.  In Kenya, two current top-tier presidential candidates have been indicted for crimes against humanity by the ICC.

Depending on how you divide it, there are 40 different tribes in Kenya but just a handful have a large enough population to dominate politically.  Since the countries independence whichever tribe had power brazenly shifted the priorities to help out 'their' people as opposed to Kenyans in general.  That applies roads, schools, government contracts as well as truly shocking levels of pure graft.  The book Our turn to Eat is a fascinating, adventurous, story that lays out a lot of this by telling the true and inspiring story of one mans fight against the status quo.
History is alive in Kenya

Before any take this post to be anti-Kenyan, it's definately not.  Nearly every country in the world has struggled with issues of corruption and some form tribalism.  When the US shook the yoke of colonialism and promised freedom and democracy, it shared little of either with any who weren't in the 'tribe' of Anglo-Saxon male property owners.  It took nearly a century before a literal civil war set free the underclass, and another century before the civil rights movement made it a legal reality.  Kenya is a young country, founded in 1963 in the place of a colony where tribal rivalries were created, encouraged and amplified.  Kenya has problems, but it is straining to make the same cultural shift  that the US is doing over two hundred years into a single human lifetime.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In many ways I'm very nervous about the elections this year, but I am in equal measure excited about it too.  Most Kenyans I speak with are not happy with how things work, despise the tribal political spoils system, and almost everyone is emphatic that things will be different this time around.  Almost two-thirds of the people approved a revolutionary new constitution in 2010 and in many ways Kenya is poised to quickly leap ahead as soon as it can put it's house in order.  One of the biggest indicators of what will happen is this coming presidential election through both how Kenya votes as well as their collective response to the results.

This is all complicated, scary, and profoundly uncertain.  This is one of those fleeting moments when humans get to decide whether their society should evolve.  It's fascinating, thrilling and I'm honored to be a witness.