Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Kenya’s Roads: More Hindrance than Help

A typical paved Kenyan road.Here’s the latest dispatch from Peter Vigneron, in Kenya on behalf of the KIMbia Foundation.

There is a tremendously important article in the May/June issue of The Boston Review by the Berkley development economist Ted Miguel. In a meditation on Africa’s encouraging growth rate since 2000, Miguel argues that, for the first time in 30 years, African economies appear to have broken free of stagnant or even regressive growth rates. In the development world, this is big news, and Miguel’s article is one part of a trenchant discussion among economists who are trying to sort out why Africa is beginning, finally, to recover.

But the article caught my eye for another reason. Miguel opened with a description of Busia, a border town in western Kenya that has begun to cash in on trade between Kenya and neighboring Uganda. Busia now has ATMs, car rental businesses, supermarkets and, critically, Miguel writes, “the road from Kisumu, the economic hub of the region and Kenya’s third largest city, to Busia ha[s] become a paved, two-lane highway all the way to the border.”

Miguel’s is a remarkable observation, both in that a major road in Kenya is today well paved, and that in Kenya, the jewel of East Africa, something so basic as a proper highway is cause for celebration. And it is.

The Kisumu-Busia road is one of a few good highways in Kenya. Travelers headed from Nakuru to Kabarnet also will not find potholes, though they may similarly fail to encounter any other cars—the route conveniently links two homes of former Kenyan dictator Daniel Arap Moi, and is ignored by most commercial and even passenger vehicles. Besides Kisumu-Busia and Nakuru-Kabarnet, there are some other good stretches of road, but they’re difficult to find and don’t often last more than 10 or 15 miles. More typical is the road north from Nairobi, the main artery bringing goods from the capital to the cities of Rift Valley Province and beyond to Uganda, which is disastrous. In some stretches, drivers avoid the road itself and follow dirt tracks alongside the potholed and crumbling pavement.

Good roads are good for trade, but Busia’s new road was likely a product of economic growth rather than a cause. I’m told that the smooth, wide roads in Narok District, home to the Masai Mara game reserve, are funded by tourist dollars, and, as Miguel writes, Busia is clearly benefiting from the successes of Kenyan and Ugandan interdependence. But in other regions, the majority of regions, the cost of bad roads to Kenyan society is staggering. Driving 20 miles from Eldoret to Iten takes 45 minutes, a major expense with gas in Kenya over $7 a gallon. Flat tires are commonplace. Suspension systems cannot possibly last—in working condition—more than a few thousand miles. These are major costs to a developing economy, and frustrating and unnecessary costs.

Yet the the real price of Kenya’s bad roads is paid in human lives, not in fuel or vehicle repairs. Each year thousands of Kenyans die in traffic accidents (the government reports around 3,000 deaths annually, but the World Health Organization assumes significant underreporting in most developing nations, and presumably Kenya too) and traffic fatalities occur, per registered vehicle, at a rate 20 times that of the United States. Pedestrian deaths account for nearly half of all fatalities; in the United States the figure is closer to 12 percent.

Driving in Kenya is terrifying. Even the best roads are too narrow, and all are trafficked as heavily by pedestrians and cyclists as they are by cars. The safety features of American roads—stop lights, speed limits, lane marking, warning signs, traffic enforcement—which are almost banal in their ubiquity, are nearly absent in Kenya. Because transit takes so long, when road conditions are good, drivers proceed at wildly excessive speeds. Since March, I have witnessed or heard first person accounts of 4 fatal accidents. Weekly I read about a major crash in The Standard or The Nation—typically when an overloaded matatu, or taxi, has suffered a flat tire and careened into oncoming traffic and killed five or six or 10 people. On two occasions I have seen the charred remnants of tanker trucks sitting forlorn and forgotten in deep ravines by the side of major roads; in May I was a passenger when the vehicle I was traveling in hit a pedestrian (at low speed).

The shell of an abandoned truck.It may seem strange to write about car crashes in a country battling AIDS, hunger, illiteracy. But these problems are less visible to prying eyes, and it may be that the governmental neglect of transportation infrastructure is in fact representative of its neglect of the entire spectrum of social problems affecting millions of Kenyans each year. In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki declared his willingness to tackle the roads question and limit the corruption that allows government officials and contractors to pocket money and leave roads in disrepair. If Kibaki was sincere, his initiative has been slow in coming. Worse, it is almost as if, by maintaining his personal highway, former President Moi is publicly acknowledging the billions of dollars he looted while in office, or the members of Parliament, riding in their Mercedes and Land Rovers, are acknowledging that driving safely in Kenya requires extraordinary vehicles. Few seem concerned that government serves itself first and Kenya last.

I wonder if there is another dimension to the issue of roads, however. At the intersection of traditional Kenya—small farms, big families, village culture—and the new, rapidly growing Kenya—of satellite television, Lexus SUVs, and high-rise office buildings—we find that here the value of human life has not yet synced with the swiftness by which a speeding car erases a person from the earth. Or, perhaps, at the margins, where the modern car and its modern driver encounters those Kenyans still hovering within a society that has changed so little in hundreds of years, there is resentment for the old ways, perhaps even hatred. When a driver clips a cyclist at 70 miles an hour, or swerves too wide around a pothole and catches the drunkard who didn’t jump quite quickly enough, maybe he is unconsciously doing his part to bring Kenya into the 21st century.

These are uncomfortable ideas. They do not seem in line with the Kenyan people I know, who are among the most gracious and caring individuals I have ever chanced to meet. But I cannot decide what to think. It is inconceivable to me that the drivers of these modern cars have yet internalized the corresponding appreciation of human life. If they had, they would have slowed down.

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, former Bogota, Colombia mayor Enrique Peñalosa said that when a city planner or a politician builds a good sidewalk, he or she is “constructing democracy,” because in developing nations most people do not drive. I imagine that the relationship is slightly different—maybe sidewalks are themselves signs that democracy has taken hold, that citizens can demand a safe place to walk and find that their leaders are listening, or that an effort is made to safeguard life even if it has never been safeguarded before. This was supposed to be the role of government—to serve people.

Africa, or at least Kenya, is developing, and I agree with the unstated premise of Dr. Miguel’s piece, that we in the West should want Africa to develop. It just seems that within this bizarre form of accelerated growth—where many Kenyans sleep on dirt floors and under grass roofs, and other Kenyans fly to Europe for medical care—some essential priority has been lost in the scramble.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Singore Girls Track Project Update

Not quite Mondo, but still an improvement.The Singore girls may be, collectively, the best high school runners in the world, but until this spring they haven’t had a track to train on. In December, they went 1-4 at Nike Team Nationals, dismantling a good field of American high schoolers. Their fourth runner, Mercy Kosgei, finished over a minute up on the first U.S. runner, and owns a silver medal from World Junior cross country. The team’s fifth, Emmy Kerich, placed a disappointing 45th while recovering from a very recent wisdom tooth excavation. In normal circumstances the girls could be expected to have swept.

Recent Singore alumna Janeth Jepkosgei won a world title at 800 meters last year, and in 1997, graduate Sally Barisosio took Kenya’s first womens’ world gold at 10,000 meters. Internationally, it is difficult to imagine another school even considering the Singore legacy, much less challenging it. Only one country, Ethiopia, has approached distance running success on a level comparable to this high school program. It is possible “best girls team in the world” doesn’t fully capture the Singore dominance.

Future running stars watch their track come to life.And yet, for all this, the girls haven’t had a functional track in decades. Each year during rainy season, water cascades from the school’s hillside campus to the playing field below, washing away what appears to be a long-forgotten attempt at grading and constructing a soccer field and dirt oval. During his trip to Kenya last year with Matt Taylor and Tom Ratcliffe, Bellarmin Prep girls coach Matt Ellis decided something ought to be done. Ellis and his team raised over $2,000, and KIMbia agreed to oversee a track reconstruction project, to begin in early 2008. Political chaos, and a series of greedy contractors, have slowed construction, but we’re happy to report that the track is nearing completion.

Thus far, drainage has been the name of the game. The field is both at the bottom of a hill and itself canted, so that the curve from 0 to 100 meters sits nearly 4 feet below the curve from 200 to 300, compounding the erosion problem. Thus far, we’ve devoted most of our efforts to diverting water away from and around the field, and correcting the gradient imbalance from one side to the other. Next, we’ll mine a special soil called marrum, a crushed volcanic rock, and spread it across six (hopefully) level lanes. Most tracks in Kenya use marrum, which doesn’t absorb water during rain storms, because Kenya’s soil has a high concentration of clay and sticks underfoot with shocking tenacity. Tune in for a report from the girls’ maiden home-field interval session in a few weeks.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

KIMbia Foundation: Oh, Canada

Students from Greendale Elementary School (Pierrefonds, Quebec) visit KIMbia in Concord.Before leaving for Eugene we had a great visit from Jason Cordery and his students from Greendale Elementary School in Pierrefonds, Quebec. Jason is a runner and long-time follower of chasingKIMBIA. Last year he motivated his students to raise money for the Foundation. As part of a recent school trip to Massachusetts (Cape Cod, Boston, Lexington and Concord), Jason and hisstudents stopped in Concord to deliver the money they had raised. All told the students from Greendale Elementary, Greendale Home & School Association, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School (Vaudreuil, Quebec) raised over $2,000. When Tom asked if the students would like to set up a letter exchange with students from Kenya, they nodded enthusiastically.

A big THANK YOU to Jason, his administrators and fellow teachers, and of course the students.

Pictured above are:
Back Row (L-R):
Tom Ratcliffe, Matt Taylor, Jason Cordery, Adam Fabian
Kaitlin McSweeny, Dawn Wanono, Teneille Arnott, Justin McInnis, Ashley Ta, Shelby Bryan, Maymoona Najm, Olivia Vanstone-Cadogan, Lauren Abrams

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In Kenya, Primary Education is, at best, Secondary

school1.jpgOur Peter Vigneron sent us the following analysis of Kenya’s public primary education system. In Kenya for the past few months on behalf of the KIMbia Foundation, Peter has immersed himself in issues related to his work on education.

I saw a teacher beat four of his students last Thursday. They were late returning to class after lunch, and they carried plastic bags of berries, which the teacher took and threw away. “They were collecting wild fruits in the bush,” he told me with a smile. “What if one is bitten by a snake? What can we tell the parents?”

Two weeks ago I visited a different public primary school, on the other side of Kipsomba Location from where I found the berry collectors. With my research partner and translator, I was investigating a family we had come across while surveying in a remote corner of the location. We had found the family—seven children and their father—through a neighbor. The mother was dead, and we were told that the father, an alcoholic, spends most of his time drinking or looking for drink. I wanted to see if there was something the KIMbia Foundation could do for the children, whom the neighbor indicated were struggling to feed themselves.

In the course of my research, which I have just recently concluded, I focused especially on public primary schools. KIMbia is principally interested in supporting education efforts in Kenya, and I wanted to understand better what problems we were up against. When I asked parents about schools, I expected to hear about overcrowding and the poor quality of instruction. In fact I did, but for weeks I was puzzled at the number of parents who told me that too many families cannot afford to send their children to class. Kenya is famous, of course, for instituting free and compulsory public primary education in 2003.

When the government launched free primary education it neglected to fund the effort properly, and the number of teachers nationwide increased only slightly against a tidal wave of new students. Within months, student-teacher ratios, which were high before the initiative, exploded to 60- or 70-to-1 in some schools. The number of students going to school has risen, but for most of them, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously. And there is this: free public education is not entirely free. There are nominal fees for uniforms, books, and examinations, usually totaling about 1,200 Kenyan shillings per child per year, about $20. It is unknown how many more children would attend if these expenses were also waived.

school2.jpgI have spent the majority of my time in Kenya at private schools, especially at Paul Koech’s boarding school, Silgich Hill Academy, which I have long viewed as an oasis of scholarship and learning in a vast expanse of failed and failing classrooms. My perception of the public schools—as overcrowded, understaffed, and unruly—had affirmed our decision to focus the Foundation’s efforts in places where education is succeeding. Right now, at the primary school level, education is succeeding only in private institutions.

It has taken visits to public schools over the last weeks, however, to jar my understandings of overcrowding and disorder into a visceral and more realistic appreciation of what happens at these schools on a daily basis. Most classrooms are in a state of startling disrepair—they are dirty, without chalk boards, and often lacking even glass in windowpanes. Students are dismissed for lunch at 12:30 p.m., and in grades four and above, are due back for afternoon instruction at 2:00 p.m., meaning that older kids must complete two round-trip treks between home and campus every day. At one school, the principal told me that he had a staff of 12 teachers for 667 students. He counted himself among the 12, but I did not see him perform anything but administrative duties during the course of my visit, and I imagine that the number of actual teachers is 10 or 11.

We met with three of the seven children that day two weeks ago. Three more have dropped out to work as laborers on nearby farms, and we were told that another, a seventh-grader, was home sick. One of the three we met, a 14-year-old girl, short and rail thin, did not look a day older than 10. “They don’t eat enough,” the principal said after they returned to class. “The one who they said was sick is probably home looking for food for the others.” He explained that, twice a year, when crops have been planted and the last harvest has been eaten, the school experiences a dramatic drop in attendance: children are kept home by their parents to look for food or earn money to buy it.

I suspect that the children I saw being whipped Thursday were searching for lunch. If they knew they would find no food at home, they may have decided to scavenge on their own. It is a realization that, for me, makes the reality of their beating difficult to bear.

school3.jpgYet teachers are hardly to blame. They are responsible for too many students, they work in inadequate facilities with inadequate teaching materials, and cannot readily use the threat of suspension or expulsion to discipline their charges—it is a challenge enough to maintain regular attendance in perfect circumstances, and probably close to impossible in these. For its part, the government, which has struggled to meet payroll deadlines for prison warders and teachers over the last month, appears close to bankruptcy and unable to consider education reform.

In six weeks of research, I never encountered a family willing to admit that they were too poor to send their children to public primary school. I visited dozens of houses with a full complement of children running around during school hours, but my questions about their attendance were met with polite smiles and little more. Those fees for uniforms and books are enough, evidently, to prevent many children from attending class, and in times of hunger, I suspect, education becomes only a passing concern. I worry, as Kenya prepares to confront its own unique national food shortage, and as the World Food Program warns that it will begin limiting food disbursement as international cereal depots run dry, that the crisis in Kenya’s public schools will continue unabated.

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Letter from Kenya

Peter Vigneron, in Kenya for the next few months on behalf of the KIMbia Foundation, sent us this dispatch. It’s a thoughtful, well-informed look at some of the historical factors behind the recent troubles in Kenya, and how those historical antecedents are likely to continue to affect attempts at political reunification.

In Kenya, the coalition government survives day to day. Last Friday, Vice President Kalonzo Musoka just nearly fooled Prime Minister Raila Odinga into speaking first at a peace rally, suggesting that Odinga should introduce Musoka and President Mwai Kibaki as his superiors. Constitutionally, Odinga and Kibaki are supposed to be equals. As Vice President, Musoka’s role in government is to assume presidential duties if the real president dies, and then only for 90 days until an emergency election can be held. His status is so clearly and indisputably inferior to Odinga’s that the controversy might be amusing if it had not headlined the nightly news each evening this weekend. As such, it strikes a sadly Orwellian chord to this Western observer.

Vandalized buildings in Kapsabet.Meanwhile, 150,000 Kenyans languish in refugee camps–and for some, “languish” is probably the wrong word. Non-refugees have been found sneaking into the camps, people looking for government handouts and lured by rumors of impending land grants to refugees. Stories have circulated of families selling their property and heading to the camps to get in line for those grants. So maybe 149,000 people are languishing in refugee camps, and the rest are laughing all the way to the bank.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of land to Kenyans in Rift Valley and Central Provinces. “As agriculturalists,” anthropologist and rebel leader Jomo Kenyatta wrote of his Kikuyu tribesmen in the 1930s, “the Gikuyu people depend entirely on the land. It supplies them with the material needs of life, through which spiritual and mental contentment is achieved…The Gikuyu consider the earth as the ‘mother’ of the tribe[.]” A Kalenjin would almost certainly say the same. Kikuyus and Kalenjins are farmers, as Kenyatta notes, and so depend almost exclusively on what their farms produce. A family without land does not eat, does not live.

This is why, like many famous ethnic conflicts in world history, Kenya’s post-election violence had very little to do with ethnicity. In the 1960s, after Kenyans fought and won their independence from British colonial rule, Kenyatta, now recast as the nation’s first president, awarded large plots of land in Rift Valley Province to his Kikuyu tribesmen, who bore the brunt of British oppression and savagery during the Mau Mau uprising, and who had suffered the greater indignity of losing their property to British settlers throughout the first half of the 20th century. It is unclear if Kenyatta believed he was righting historical wrongs or just bestowing patronage on his Kikuyu supporters, but he couldn’t have been surprised when the Kalenjin community reacted poorly to sharing their ancestral homes with new neighbors. In the 45 years that have followed independence, a low-grade land conflict has simmered in the Rift, and the post-election violence of January and February is the latest chapter.

It might be useful here to consider the use of the word “genocide,” which was bandied about at the height of the violence, especially after dozens of Kikuyus were burned to death while taking shelter in a church. In genocides, the object is generally murder. In Kenya this year, the object was land reclamation, which makes the killing that occurred ghoulishly purposeful, but not genocidal. It is perhaps for this reason that the number dead, usually estimated at around 1,200, is dwarfed by the number of Kikuyus initially pushed from their homes (over 300,000), and the number of those who still find it unsafe to return (150,000).

And in the midst of this conflict, now generations old, we find the current power-sharing debacle between Kibaki, a Kikuyu who brazenly tried to snatch December’s presidential election from his Luo challenger, Odinga. Luos, traditionally fishermen from Kisumu, have no particular affinity for land, and the Luo-Kikuyu violence was strictly borne of hatred for Kibaki and his abuse of the democratic process. Kalenjins have no particular affinity for Odinga, except that he opposed Kibaki and offered to decentralize the government, which many Kalenjins interpreted as their long-awaited opportunity to assume greater control of Rift Valley and drive their neighbors back to the ancestral Kikuyu land at the foothills of Mount Kenya, in Central Province. For the time being, Kibaki and Odinga are sharing executive power, but badly. Neither the hardliners in Kibaki’s camp, like Musoyka and Justice Minister Martha Karua, nor Odinga—a hardliner himself—will likely compromise well enough to run the government, which is already deeply corrupted and inefficient, and so it seems only a matter of time until the whole thing collapses once more.

More destruction. Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.And still—the refugees. Compounding the government’s ineptitude is a legitimately complicated and serious refugee crisis. For decades the only stable and peaceful nation in East Africa, Kenya has never had its own refugee problem, and Kenyans are rightly clamoring for a return to normalcy. The government is under enormous pressure to move the 150,000 displaced Kenyans out of tents and into permanent homes, but cannot decide where those homes should be. Parliamentarians from Rift Valley argue that most refugees shouldn’t return to the Rift, where the land conflict would be renewed, and yet haven’t offered a way to determine which Kikuyus were driven off land given to them illegally by Kenyatta and which were driven off land they purchased legitimately. Disallowing all Kikuyus from returning to their homes seems like a massive perversion of justice, but allowing them all to come back seems like a recipe for disaster, revisited. Worse, it certainly is not clear whether resettlement away from the Rift will do anything more than alienate a new generation of Kikuyus, who will feel that their land was stolen by the government, as the Kalenjins felt in 1963, and still feel today.

The government appears to have adopted a third solution, however. Over the past two months, construction crews have been feverishly building big police stations in the worst-affected areas, evidently hoping that the imposition of law and order will keep Kalenjin-Kikuyu tensions from re-igniting. It is not a particularly good solution. In some areas, the Kalenjins who died during the clashes were shot by police, not by Kikuyus, and there exists a hard-bitten distrust of the police in several North Rift communities. Worse still, land conflicts have a way of outlasting the original disputants, sometimes for thousands of years. Too often, an escalation in force by one side—and today Kalenjins do not believe the police to be impartial—triggers an escalation in violence.

On the other hand, any government’s first priority ought to be the safety and security of its citizens. Perhaps law and order could be an partial or interim solution to this decades-old conflict. In the long term, though, it is hard to be optimistic for a real peace: Kenya’s land dispute is not particularly different than any of the world’s other famous land disputes—in Palestine, Kashmir, the Balkans. Kenyatta should have known better.

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