I have been home in Canada for just over a month, and I have been trying to write this piece in a way that is cohesive, persuasive and nuanced. My time in Kenya through the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship program truly altered my perspectives on aid, the “developing” world, international organizations and more. I found my academic, vocational and personal opinions and goals shifting, but it has been slightly difficult to identify what shifted and how this will affect my future. Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about my experience that exemplified this shift, while telling a story about Kenya that is complex and beautiful.
Therefore, my goal here is to discuss the vocational, academic and personal experiences I had in Kenya through the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship (QES) Program. I am so thankful to the University of the Fraser Valley for empowering me to experience something that has helped me grow and learn. Therefore, my hope is to persuade every person to engage in all the stories of Kenya and of the Global South in general, especially through the QES program.
I feel so thankful and honoured that I was able to sit in an office with such extraordinary people at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). The Partnership Development Office is filled with visionaries who recognize the potential of East Africa and are relatively open about the positives and negatives of the United Nations system. I gained hard skills that are transferrable to any field, and I learned so much about the functioning of the United Nations and systematic aid. My job was to write proposals and reports, which meant that I had to believe in the projects that I was writing about, and I had to believe in the viability of The United Nations in developing countries such as Somalia.
As I neared the end of my internship, I began to question the validity of development and wondered what its true definition is. I didn’t merely have criticisms against the top-down, systematic aid that the UN uses, I also had issues with the term development in general. I sought to utilize terms such as, “participatory,” or, “transparent,” development in order to potentially salvage the term but realized I was only placing a band-aid over a large, infected wound (Rist, 2007).
Is the term ‘development’ beyond repair?
Some scholars such as Gilbert Rist believe that it is. Rist addresses how the term development is nothing more than a “buzzword” used as a “social gimmick” for various governments in order to suffice a moral obligation (Rist, 2007). Despite this view, Rist recognizes that development is more than a verb, it has become a societal value that is difficult to critique. Since development is so interconnected into the framework of society, it is much more difficult to rid ourselves of such a concept (Rist, 2007). Despite the negative outlook on development in general, this is not to state that all development is inherently harmful, but it could be argued that systemic aid often is detrimental. Therefore, I do not believe that all development is bad, but I do believe that I have become more realistic about what development looks like at the international, top-down level. Moving forward vocationally, I would love to work in a position that creates accountability for development organizations and safeguards beneficiary communities against harmful development practices.
In the first blog I wrote, I discussed the idea of “Culture Shock,” which is described as the looming feeling of anxiety one gets after arriving in a completely unfamiliar environment filled with new food, people, values, climate, language, and more (Global Perspectives, 2016). I explained my experience with culture shock to be, “new adventures that were far from terrifying, instead, they were exhilarating and fantastic.”
Coming home and experiencing reverse culture shock was very much the opposite. Reverse culture shock is defined as, “the struggle to re-acclimatize to your surroundings, particularly the surroundings of your home,” which is known to create feelings such as a lack of motivation, restlessness, and disengagement (Charters, 2018). Living abroad can make every day feel like climbing a mountain, filled with uphill challenges, and learning curves. Whether I was trying to get to work in Nairobi traffic, sitting in intimidating upper-level meetings at UNOPS, or walking to the market to get groceries, everything felt new and exciting. I went home every day feeling accomplished because I had learned something new about Kenya, my work, the people around me, or myself. I dealt with my preconceptions about Kenya based on my world view and felt proud to be there.
Therefore, coming home can feel slightly anti-climactic. I wanted to tell everyone about the amazing things I saw and how extraordinary my daily experiences felt, but it didn’t seem to translate into anything that was worth stating. More importantly, I wanted people to see Kenya (and Africa in general) as more than just a World Vision commercial or another news article spreading fear and a narrative of chaos. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009), a novelist and writer of short stories from Nigeria, describes the generalizations and stereotypes made about any location, especially the Global South as the single story. Chimamanda states that,
“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I had known from Africa were from popular images, I, too, would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and aids, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
The Kenya that the media, governments and international organizations portray can be a stereotype, but the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Chimamanda states that “Stereotypes make one story become the only story,” (Adichie, 2009).
My goal was to come home and describe Kenya for what it is: complex and full of many stories. This means that there is corruption in the government, but the people thrive despite it (Adichie, 2009). Kenya is the economic, financial, and transport hub of East Africa, and Nairobi is a business district filled with hard-working, powerful people. Kenya has famous musicians, inclusive to Muthoni Drummer Queen, Sauti Sol, and Blinky Bill. Ten years ago, Muthoni founded a music festival that occurs across East Africa called Blankets and Wine to showcase Kenyan artists inclusive to singers, dancers, painters, and more. These are the types of stories that need to be told alongside the news articles and advertisements in order to fight back against the single-story narrative. Kenya is far too complex to be narrowed down into one blog post, and that is the point I seek to make.
What does it mean to be a part of QES?
The foundational reason I was able to have such an amazing experience is due to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship (QES) Program. Only 3.1 percent of Canadian students per year go abroad for international study programs or exchanges, therefore the QES program seeks to empower passionate Canadian students with funds in order to go abroad and gain vocational, personal and academic experience with development organizations. This program seeks to build educated, well-rounded, and globally aware students. Being a Queen Elizabeth Scholar is not something that merely lasts during the few months of your trip abroad. It becomes an international community that you connect with, and it becomes a part of your identity as you continue to utilize what you learned in order to become a global citizen. My experience as a QE Scholar has affected me personally and continues to help me address my personal issues with development while simultaneously providing me with international and vocational experience that will be transferrable into any field.
I hope that my story persuades others to travel abroad and look deeper into the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Program made possible through the University of the Fraser Valley. I am filled with so much gratitude that QES and my University believed in me and gave me this life-changing opportunity. I hope it makes others question the viability of development and what it truly means to help others. Moreover, I hope it empowers others to engage in more than just one story about Africa, South America, or anywhere else in the world. As Chimamanda states, “When we reject the single story and realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
Adichie, C. N. (2009). Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/discussion?language=en#t-1110144
Charters, T. (2018, October 09). Reverse culture shock, yes it is a thing and here is how you deal with it. Retrieved from https://www.contiki.com/six-two/reverse-culture-shock/?fbclid=IwAR0Rd-aOiiWQyUdUS73yGVQT7PLQ72lPd6MPXGYKiouLZURz2dNTpG67IM0
Global Perspectives. (2016). The 4 Stages of Culture Shock. Retrieved from https://medium.com/global-perspectives/the-4-stages-of-culture-shock-a79957726164.
Rist, G. (2007). Development as a buzzword. Development in Practice,17(4-5), 485-491. doi:10.1080/09614520701469328