Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kenya: The People, The Places, The Culture (2)

My plans for preparing a series of posts with my "closing" (you might say) comments as I prepare to leave Kenya were interrupted. Professional priorities took over, and we all know what that means in the scheme of things.

"The best-laid plans," etc....

So apologies to regular readers of these posts. Will hope to stay on track over the next few weeks.

In keeping with my little theme, I was duly impressed with not only the Winner of the Women's Open Division of the New York Marathon (Edna Kiplagat of Kenya) but with David Brooks's essay in today's New York Times.

In The Crossroads Nation, Brooks makes his usual strong and well-thought out case for his topic, which this time is how America attracts creative and innovative people, how in the United States people who have the talent to move forward with their ideas can do so. Despite the difficult times we're living in, Brooks notes, there is still an opportunity for creative people to find a place where they can fulfill their creative destiny. It doesn't seem to matter where you come from (he refers to someone living in "some small town in Ukraine or Kenya or some other place, foreign or domestic"). You want to go, he says, to "where people are gathering to think about the things you are thinking about, creating the things you want to create." And he's right. America - especially the United States - is the place you want to go. American truly is - and always has been - the "crossroads nation."

But is it?

I'm not an expert in these things, but of course I couldn't resist, and I responded to David's column (I read him so often I feel like we should be on a first-name basis!).

From my experience - from what I've observed and from what I've heard Africans speak about - I fear there is one important barrier inhibiting the United States as a crossroads nation, at least for people from outside our borders. Here's what I said:

"Thank you, David, for this cogent and stimulating essay: I totally agree with what you've said, and being a crossroads nation has many important implications for us both as a nation and as a society. However, there is one 'layer' (we might call it) that is preventing our moving forward in this direction: the dangerous, petty, and offensive resistance at embassies with respect to granting visas. I'm currently wrapping up a year-long business assignment in Kenya, and I'm shocked to hear the stories people tell about attempts to come to the United States from several of the African countries. In fact, the joke here is that 'it's easier to get into Heaven than to get into America.' In the past, I had not thought about this very much, and it is very sad to hear about this. It's a situation that, I fear, could be a serious impediment to our being a crossroads nation. Thanks again for your good essays. Good work. All the best."


Tom R. said...

Belated Happy Anniversary on completing your first year of blogging. Keep up the good work!

Guy St. Clair said...

Thanks, Tom. As you can tell, I'm really enjoying this. Does the one-year anniversary mean I'm a full-fledged member of the blogosphere? Does that make me a blogospherer? No, I guess it just makes me a blogger - just like you!

Doug Ragan said...

Great post - and I agree 100% -- the horror stories I have heard, especially post 9/11 -- of the barriers we are putting up to qualified, mostly young and often male visa seekers is significant, and in the end stifles creativity and innovation.

We in the developed world have to come to terms with the fact that we are demographically growing older. Beyond what we think about morally about assisting the developing world, we also need to look to our own house. To assure the developed world's innovation, creativity and productivity we need to engage and embrace youth both at home, and more importantly where the vast majority of youth live - in the developing world. If we do not find a way to do this, first we undermine our economies and our societies, and second we create flashpoints where conflict is sure to happen. For the US, an example is the Mexican border. For Europe, the growing divide is happening in cities such as Paris.

Ironically I have a realtime example of this - though it is a UK example, I am sure we could find an equal number of North American ones. I sit on a board of a NGO in the Kibera slums of Nairobi - the group is called MapKibera. This group has gained international acclaim for the work they are doing with youth using new geo-spatial technologies to map the "urban wilderness" - this being slums which up until now have had no "mapped" presence. (a recent article can be seen on the Irish Sunday Post - http://is.gd/gPT5d)

A few days ago one of the Kibera youth participants was accepted with full scholarship to attend a technology Conference next month at the University of London. He just found out that his visa was turned down by the UK. No chance to appeal. Stated reason - "lacking financial resources" - even though there was guarantee by the University and MapKibera that resources would be provided.

Yet again another opportunity squandered, for both a real meeting of the minds between the developed and developing world; and the potential for true "development" to happen, not the charity model we seem to support.

Sorry for the long post, but it was instigated by your great insight Guy!

Guy St. Clair said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Doug. Yes, it's a problem that is seriously depriving our country of the insight and intellectual (especially technical)input that we need. If we are going to continue to be a so-called "leader" in the global marketplace (to say nothing of the larger global society), some changes are going to be required. My own recent experience in this area was a sort of reciprocity-engendered nastiness. The fee and process for an American to get a visa to go to Brazil (which I had to do for business reasons back in March)is becoming more and more onerous and the visa application makes it clear that the process is as difficult (and expensive) as it is because that's the way the Brazilians are treated by the U.S. Not a very happy message to be sending around the world, is it?

Doug Ragan said...

I hear you on the "reciprocity-engendered nastiness". I to was in Brazil in March (maybe the same conference :)) I took my two children, and the cost (due to reciprocity), and the bureaucracy (had to go to the Brazilian embassy 4x) was insane. Sad to see we put up these barriers.