Facing The Music

September 18, 2015

2nd blog from Programme Support Volunteer Matt Kinsella.

In my last blog I mentioned my plan to visit the National Museum, and last Saturday, while Kenya was busy thrashing the competition at the World Athletics Championships (finishing top with seven gold, six silver and three bronze medals), I decided to do just that.  Set amid pretty botanical gardens which teem with birds, the museum is a fascinating introduction to Kenya’s history, culture and wildlife.

Exhibits focussing on the region’s prehistory were particularly interesting, since the Great Rift Valley is regarded as the birthplace of the human species –  ‘the cradle of mankind’.  Meanwhile, for a British visitor like myself, exhibits about Kenya in the twentieth century made less comfortable viewing – the UK’s brutality as it struggled to retain control of Kenya during the Mau Mau uprisings in the 1950’s was a particularly ugly chapter in history.

In the evening, I was invited out for dinner and drinks with a group of new acquaintances, and had my first real taste of Nairobi’s thriving nightlife.  Most of the restaurants and bars are behind high walls and fences, so to the newcomer, there does not appear to be much happening.  Cars and taxis come and go through secure metal gates, but there are generally no crowds walking the streets, as you might find in a UK city on a Saturday night.  Yet, behind the walls, venues are packed with a lively, friendly and cosmopolitan crowd.  The music is loud and varied – homegrown tracks from Kenya and across Africa take a promiment place, as does commercial hip-hop and R n’ B from the USA and elsewhere.  The atmosphere was good, the cocktails potent, and the dancing plentiful.

On Sunday, with the sounds of the previous night still ringing in my ears, I made an unexpected connection between music and Renewable World’s work.  Senegalese-born hip-hop star Akon was speaking to BBC Africa about his work to promote energy access across the continent.  Though his music does not push my button, his knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject of energy access left a positive impression.  And when you hear a star of Akon’s popularity talking about energy access in Africa, you can be fairly sure that this is a theme which is gathering significant momentum.

Food for thought

Yet, I sense that there remains a certain scepticism here in Kenya about such well-meaning iniatives. This was brought home to me on Monday evening, over dinner with a Malagasy friend who works in economic development in Nairobi.  Our conversation turned to the work of the many international NGO’s who have offices here, and of organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, who both have a significant presence in the city.  In her gentle French-inflected lilt, my friend described from firsthand experience how so many organisations working in Africa over-promise and under-deliver, and how their policies too often seem to be dictated by their European and American headquarters, rather than by local needs.  She cited several examples of poor quality projects and initiatives arising from such skewed priorities.  Perhaps most worryingly, she described her perceptions of some of the many expatriate workers who arrive across the continent, full of naive idealism, preconceived ideas, and adventurous spirit, whose behaviour and attitude can sometimes give the development sector a bad name.  I cringed inwardly as she spoke, thinking how I had glimpsed such attitudes in just my first week.  I could already recognise some of the caricatures – the gushing ‘here-to-save-Africa’ type, usually in their twenties, on a student placement or gap year; the condescending neo-imperialistic type, who is older and probably with a major international institution, and speaks with a world-weary tone of superiority towards local people; the adventurer who sees Africa as wild and dangerous, a giant adventure playground, and is here for “the experience”.  Listening to water trickling and frogs calling in the grounds of the restaurant, I began to wonder which caricature best described me.

The conversation certainly gave me pause for thought, and confirmed some suspicions I already had.  It is true that not all the people who come here to work or to visit display a very good attitude.  It is also clear that not every NGO working here always delivers the goods.  Partly that may be due to the intractability of some of the problems they work on – poverty, social justice and access to basic services are difficult and persistent issues.  But, what gives me faith in the work of the best organisations, and in the approach of Renewable World, is their deep understanding of local context and their rigorous approach to financial sustainability.  They employ national staff who understand the region intimately, rather than relying on expatriates.  They work hand-in-hand with local partners, looking to cater to demand for energy arising from within communities themselves. They avoid imposing pre-formulated solutions to presumed problems, supporting local people in finding their own way of doing things, and helping to build appropriate, sustainable organisational models that will last.  Most of all, they listen, and approach local people with respect and humility.