Monday, July 13, 2009

VIP For a Day

On Tuesday, we planned to go visit the Fab Lab, which is near Bondo in a place called Majiwa. Bondo is a pretty big city area, smaller than Kisumu, but much larger than any of the central areas of commerce in between. Bondo is about an hour west of Kisumu on the highway. When you take the highway west from Kisumu city, you get to the Kisian junction. To the left the road goes toward Clarice’s house and towards Bondo and to the right the road goes toward Maseno, which is where Maseno University is. The Fab Lab was operational and would be a great resource for us, but we didn’t have time to coordinate any formal collaboration. They also said that they didn’t have adequate access to the materials that they needed, even though they had great equipment and computers.

We headed to Bondo very early, leaving the house around 8 am. We met the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) Manager at his office, where we also met some other government officers who were in charge of Youth Activities and Education in Bondo District, which includes Bondo and the area surrounding it. We headed to our first school of the day with the rest of the government officials, including the Member of Parliament (MP) for the area and the District Charman (DC). The MP, who happens to be the brother of the Prime Minister, was relatively soft-spoken. He seems to really care about his constituency, but probably has a hard time getting things done within the government because he isn’t as tough as some of the other MPs. The DC was my favorite, though, he was firm and told people to be disciplined and take control of their own destinies. He tried to explain that the people can’t just sit and wait for the government to fix everything – they need to take action on their own. He was Somali – so I can imagine that he was just as lost as I was since most of the speeches were done in Luo. The CDF manager was with us in the car all day. He was a nice guy and we ended up giving him a ride back to Kisumu.

In total, we went to four schools in addition to the Fab Lab, which we just stopped by for a few minutes. The basic procedure is as follows:

  1. Arrive at school
  2. Sign visitor’s book
  3. Take tour of school
  4. MP plants a tree
  5. Eat a full meal
  6. Sit in the VIP section and listen to so many speeches
  7. Run to cars and head to the next place

Signing the visitor’s book is very important here. Everywhere we have gone, there has been one, and it is considered offensive if you don’t sign it. Most are a variation on Date, Name, Address, Comments. So you can imagine that when the MP comes, he had better be signing that book.

Also, at every school, we ate. The villagers prepare so much food for the MP and the other VIPs, including ugali, kale, chicken, fish, and beef. The MP tried to arrange it so that we would only eat at one place, but the villagers refused to allow that because they didn’t want the school that provided the food to be favored. So we had to eat four times. At one school, the MP said we wouldn’t be eating, and the people got so upset that we had to eat anyway. The DC found this whole situation pretty amusing, and so did I.

After we ate, we would sit and listen to all of the speeches. There is a predetermined hierarchy of the order in which the speeches go. It starts out usually with the principal, then some of the people from the village who are in charge of education, then the official in charge of education for the constituency, then the DC, then the MP. Each speaker invites his superior to speak and it goes up the chain until the DC invites the MP. Interspersed between the speeches are various forms of entertainment, including singing, dancing, and music. The MP gives out money to all of the entertainment groups. The whole process is very unique, and the respect that people pay to their government is something that I have never experienced in the U.S. Steve put it well when he described it as the MP being a demi-god.

The funniest part of all is that as soon as the final speech has ended, as the MP is handing over donated books, everyone literally runs to the cars to head to the next place. After the long, laborious process of the touring and eating and speaking, the transitions happen so fast that if you’re not paying attention, your car will leave without you. Also, at one of the places, Steve and I looked out the car window just in time to see a goat, legs tied, being put into the trunk of a car. It was a gift for the MP. I learned later that giving someone a goat is the greatest honor and the most special gift that you can give.

After a long day, we headed back to Kisumu and went to Nyanza club to talk with the CDF Manager and the MP a bit more. It was strange to be sitting there with the two of them, after seeing how they were treated by the people in their constituencies all day. I knew that anyone from the villages could only dream of being in my position, and it bothered me that people were so reliant on the government. One of the school principals was lobbying so much just to have a bus to take his students to Kisumu, as most of the people that we visited had never even been there before. The villagers are so cut off from the rest of their own country, let alone the outside world. Their commercial activity is self-contained. While the government can help, the only way for change to occur is to empower the people to help themselves. I hope that people take the DC’s words to heart and start taking action on their own.

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