Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Numbers Game

Since shortly after the second world war, when major development efforts began in what was called the third world, hundreds of projects have set out to bring a quantifiable good to some quantity of people. Though methods have changed and theories have developed, the planning of development projects is today at its core quite similar to what has gone on for the last sixty plus years. The project planners set targets, and the targets are always numbers. There is a problem with this method, however. Numbers provide planners with better information to make decisions, but concurrently reinforce a way of viewing issues that is radically disconnected from the nature of development. Development is about empowerment, and in a system of top down planning, it is the planners who are empowered.

Numbers help set goals. Most simply, numbers are countable, so they make projects accountable. They make something achieved or not achieved. They are attainable. Numbers can impress donors, governments, and voters. Because they provide something concrete, numbers have come to hold a central position in the world of development. Without a doubt, numbers are necessary to monitor and evaluate projects, yet the way that numbers are set up and used can detract from the very goals they are intended to quantify.

If, as a planner, I look only at numbers, then I have the power to solve the problems of development by balancing the other half of the equation. This makes me quite an important guy. I can direct resources where I think they will be best used. I can get even better numerical information, balance an even better equation, and pretty soon I can lay out a plan to solve just about anything. That can be quite gratifying. Hitting a target becomes less about the overarching goal as it is about me. This sort of ivory tower planning has occurred in innumerable situations in the short history of the development industry, from the halls of academia, to the UN, to the management levels of any international and national NGO. It has produced the kind of surveys in which poor families have their every possession catalogued, from livestock to land to eating utensils. All in the name of informing the planners, so better decisions can be made for them.

My intention is not to demonize the development industry or those who study the challenges facing people in the developing world. Rather, the point is to remind us that there is a person who is represented by that number, and if our goal is empowerment, we should be aware of whom it is that is being empowered by our actions. Not many country directors, World Bank economists, or members of the board would like the field staff to show up and take account of every possession in their homes.

Development has some very large numbers involved. Billions of people live on some few dollars a day, don’t have access to clean water, and don’t get basic healthcare services. These numbers need to be fixed. But this is not an equation that can be balanced. To balance it is to treat people as numbers, which does not allow them to be free acting, independent variables.

In any project there has to be a plan, and that plan must involve some numbers to monitor and evaluate its effectiveness. But that plan should also have at its heart the notion that each number, each targeted individual, is actually an independent variable, and the true goal should be to make them even more independent, not to pigeonhole them into some preconceived scheme of economic behavior.

In the end, numbers are a tool like any other, and can be used wisely or poorly. Tools are empowering to those who use them, but if we become too enamored with our tools, we lose sight of our goals. In the orthodoxy of development speak, it is kosher to say that the planners and workers serve those people who are the targets of their projects. But if the targets are numbers, and the numbers are a tool, then who is serving whom? In our desire to fix these broken numbers, we must not lose sight of a basic equality, stemming from our shared humanity, with those whom we are there to serve.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Logic of My Cold Dead Hands

The recent mass shooting including the murder of six people in Tucson Arizona would have grabbed mass media attention had the victims not included a U.S. Representative, a child, and a Federal Judge. That said, the range of media commentary and self-reference (often without valuable introspection) would likely not have been so great had the victims been migrant workers. Commentaries have appeared with regards to the vehemence of political rhetoric, media bias, and of course gun control.

Venting on the failings of people in positions of social responsibility is not my strong suit (though that has not kept me from trying from time to time), but I have been on occasion known to use logic decently well. As the debate over the second amendment again rises to the forefront of the national stage, there is an opportunity to apply logic, that oft neglected capacity, to the political discourse. This argument does not directly support one side or the other of the gun issue, but rather says that the debate is misplaced. Beyond the federal government making sure that every person has the right to bear some kind of arm, it is not a federal issue. The state or local governments should sort out the details.

First to the logic, and please forgive the simplicity with which this is put forth, but it allows for clarity in analysis. The argument is:

1. The second amendment to the Constitution states that we have the right to bear arms. It does not specify beyond the word 'arms.' It does not say 'some arms' nor 'all arms.'
2. If some arms are banned legally, then it would follow that the second amendment does not guarantee the right to bear all arms, but at least some arms.
3. Some arms are legally banned, such as nuclear arms, therefore the second amendment guarantees the right to bear some, but not all arms.
4. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that one branch or another of the Federal Government (including the Supreme Court) has the power to specify which types of arms are protected under the second amendment and which are not.
5. The tenth amendment to the Constitution says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.
6. Because the power to determine what sorts of arms are permitted and what sorts are not is not delegated to the federal government at any point in the constitution, that power rests at the state or local level.

In more plain English, if we accept that individuals should not be allowed to own nuclear weapons, a type of arm, then some arms can be restricted as long as some other arms are protected. But the Constitution itself provides no more specific guidance as to what can be allowed or disallowed. It says that any issue not specified in the articles and amendments laid out should be left up to the states to decide. Therefore, as specific arms are never detailed in the Constitution, it must be left up to the states to decide whether they wish to allow automatic weapons, tasers, swords, or lead pipes and candlesticks. The debate should not be on the national stage, but on fifty or more state and district stages. The federal government, beyond guaranteeing that the right to bear some arms is protected, should not be involved.

A second point is more of a supporting practicality than an argument in itself. It is simply to say that given the difference of lifestyle and prevailing opinion in the diverse locations across the nation, it makes more sense to have state governments debating what arms are to be allowed than having a federal decision. Of course someone living on a ranch in Nevada will have a different take than someone living in Washington D.C. It makes sense that they should be allowed to regulate their right to bear arms differently. This means if the people of one state vote overwhelmingly to allow unregistered automatic weapons, then they should be allowed in that state. Similarly, if the people of another state or district vote to disallow handguns, then that should be upheld in that region so long as the region specifies what type of arms are allowed (halberds, perhaps?). It would follow that if a case went to the Supreme Court, they would uphold the local decision so long as there were provisions as to what sort of arms were allowed. If the local decision were an outright ban on all arms, then it would have to be struck down.

In the recent case of McDonald v. Chicago it was ruled that the fourteenth amendment protected an individual’s right to bear arms, unhindered by state or local intervention. That would be true, or logically valid, if the Federal Government had the power to determine what arms a person can bear. But if we apply logic to the premises given in the Constitution, the Federal Government does not. That power should belong to the state and local governments in the first place. The only place the Supreme Court would have a place in overturning a local decision would be if no arms were stipulated to be permitted, as that would violate a person’s right to bear arms.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Resume Building

I never expected the word ‘agriculture’ to appear on my resume as often as it does. In fact, when the concept of a resume first met my unwitting mind, agriculture was probably the least likely word to appear on it. As a child and then a teenager, I never gave much critical consideration to what sort of job I wanted to have when I would grow up. For a long time a combination of action toys, war movies, and a victor’s reading of history planted in me the idea of being a soldier. That vague plan was abandoned sometime during adolescence when I realized that there is no black and white in world affairs, and there is no such thing as a glorious battle. For a couple of years, perhaps from the ages of nine to ten or eleven I was drawn to becoming a comic book artist, but my talent never passed far beyond the ability to create scruffy looking faces in the margins of my notebooks. My interest in the comic books themselves waned in the middle school years, and that fancy died out.

My one distinct memory of agricultural planning occurred when I was perhaps five or six years old, sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car with a good friend. I decided that we would one day have a farm together. This decision was predicated on my then love for animals, and the premise that on a farm one could have a wide assortment of them. This experience was the only mental preparation I had done for a career quite literally in the field. Beyond these passing thoughts, no real plans for employment ever developed in my mind. School always seemed to provide something to do the next year. Now, some twelve years or so from the time I first tried vainly to encapsulate experience on a sheet of paper in order to get a job, the amount of time I have spent wandering through fields with farmers is somewhat astounding. It is odd both in that such an experience ever happened to a kid from the suburbs with little applicable knowledge, and in that said kid kept going back.

I enjoy my time in the field. I enjoy growing plants, hoeing rows, plowing up an acre of land, and walking around inspecting crops. I enjoy driving tractors and planning management schemes, thinking about logistics and having my hands in the soil. Yet there are many things I enjoy just as much as the aspects of agricultural work that have not kept me in their respective fields. I enjoy languages, but I’m not a linguist. I enjoy games, but I’m not a game designer, nor a gambler. As much as I enjoy being on farms and would love to have my own, those things that I enjoy about the field are not what have kept me there. What have kept me going back are the small farmer, and the idea of justice.

In comparison to the world I come from, there is a beauty in the relationship between the farmer’s labor and the fruit it bears. I do not intend to romanticize the condition of billions of people living in poverty. Quite the contrary, I have found in my years working with populations of small farmers that there is nothing romantic about the life. It does strike me, however, as a lifestyle of reason. There is a clear relationship between the labor, the weather, the crop, the animal, and the land. You take what you are given, and you do what you can with it. There is a meritocracy in it, not to say that a farmer deserves too little rain or poor soils, but that given those conditions, a farmer can affect their outcomes in a way that is proportional to their knowledge and labor. Obviously, no amount of labor can make up for the rains not falling, but the inputs and outputs of the small farm are close and understandable.

If, as John Rawls put it, justice is fairness, then provided inputs are in fair and direct proportion to the outcome, it is a just outcome. A farmer puts labor into growing a crop. Without that labor, the crop would not bear fruit. Up to the natural limits available to the farmer, such as the amount of water or nutrients he or she can access, the farmer’s labor is the factor that makes the difference in the outcome. There is a just relationship between the labor and the outcome, provided that the labor is the limiting factor, not the elements. Does this mean that for some people, poverty is a fair outcome? For those who put no effort in, is it just that they live in poverty?

The failure of our world to reach this ideal of justice is not in its outcomes; it is in the opportunities provided and the lack of balance in the relative inputs and outcomes for various people. A small farmer can work very hard, strive to attain more knowledge, put that knowledge into practice, and still earn a dollar a day. An investment banker can work very hard, strive to attain more knowledge, put that knowledge into practice, and earn thousands upon thousands of dollars a day. The difference between the two is not the amount of labor they put in nor intelligence they possess, but the opportunities available to them. Equality of opportunity is the goal to strive for if one wants to live in a just world; equality of outcomes is not.

Perhaps the relationship between the inputs and outcomes of various jobs is skewed and unfair, providing more fiscal compensation than their true value merits. CEO compensation packages spring to mind. Overcompensation, however, is not the heart of the matter; it is a symptom. The problem is that the limiting factors themselves, the opportunities, are unfairly distributed to begin with. I would like to live in a world without poverty, but I would rather live in a just world. In a just world it is possible that there would be no poverty, but the burden would lie upon each person, not upon society. If society can provide the conditions for justice- a fair opportunity- then the outcomes would be up to the intelligence and labor of the individuals.

It is likely that educating small farmers and providing them with opportunities is not the most efficient way to a just world, but I never claimed to be the most intelligent person on earth. Going the other way by telling people in certain professions that they are overcompensated for their labor will not get you very far. The small farmer’s is the one profession I know to have a fair field to play upon, all other things being equal. The problem is that not all other things are equal, and poverty is a terrible outcome.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Expectations

On Sunday we moved. It was not a difficult process, from one furnished apartment to another, and it only took one tuk-tuk, or rickshaw ride to carry all of our things to our new home. The new surroundings are quite comfortable by any standards, and I likely have more amenities than a large proportion of Kenya’s population. It is a two bedroom, one bath half of a duplex, larger than any apartment I ever had back in the U.S. Two beds, a couch and two easy chairs, a book shelf, a coffee table, an inconspicuous rug, assorted remarkably tasteful decorations and side tables, and a couple of squeaky fans compliment the recent renovation. Located just a fifteen minute walk from my office, it seems too good to be true.

But not all is so easy, for not all challenges have revealed themselves. On the first night in our new home, we unpack our belongings along with the few new items purchased to fill any gaps in the furnishings. A new water filter, ice trays, and a handful of sponges and soaps all make their way into the kitchen. It is apparent that the stove and small refrigerator are not nearly as new as the paint on the walls. They are chipped and stained with use, and the rubber in the joins has begun to dry and crack. Luckily my misgivings about the refrigerator are calmed when we plug it in and flip the switch on the outlet. It begins to buzz and hum and our recently purchased groceries go in.

Later that evening we look to the stove to prepare for dinner. Three of the four burners have all of their components. One is conspicuously incomplete, missing the black ceramic plate that splits the flow of gas into a wide circle of flame. This fourth may not help with cooking dinner, but if we ever have need of a Bunsen burner, we should be covered. The oven appears to be electric, and also appears to be completely non-functioning, given the jumble of wires hanging uselessly out the back. Neither of these are real problems, as I cannot remember ever needing all four burners, and it never is cool enough to seriously consider baking.

Next to the oven sits the large orange gas tank. It feels heavy, indicating it is almost full. I lift the rubber hose connected to the back of the stove and go to put it over the nozzle of the tank when I notice the white substance plugging the hole where the gas should come out. I am unfamiliar with this particular type of nozzle. Perhaps they put a plug in to guard against leaks. I scrape the white stuff with my fingernail. It feels like chalk or plaster. Perhaps it is some new kind of filter, allowing gas to pass out but nothing to get in and block the flow. That is an unlikely possibility, given the apparent age of the rest of the tank, but I try putting the hose over the end anyway and opening the valves. No gas comes through. I close the valves, pull the hose off and look at the white plug again. Plaster. It has to be plaster, but why would anyone put plaster in the nozzle of a gas tank? My short fingernails can’t reach any further into the opening, so I grab a spare screw and prepare to scratch or drill a hole.

As soon as the screw puts pressure on the chalky white substance, it crumbles and gives way like a paper-thin wall. Out pour a tiny dead spider and an enormous dead grub. I probably killed them when I opened the gas valve. I’m not sure what they were doing in there together, nor which of them constructed the barrier, but at least the gas blockage has been dealt with. Or so I think.

After cleaning out the nozzle and replacing the hose I open the valves again and try to light the stove. Nothing. No gas moving out. Try again. Nothing. I remove the burners and open the top of the stove, checking that all the pipes are going in the right direction and that turning the knobs on the front of the range actually opens another valve. It’s getting late. We’re hungry. The pipes appear to be in the right place. The range gets put back together. The hose is reattached. The valves are opened. No gas comes through, and our first dinner in our new home ends up being two melted and re-cooled candy bars, thanks to our loudly buzzing fridge.

Quite often it seems that our happiness is dependent more upon our expectations than the objective circumstances we find our selves in. Thankfully my girlfriend and I have enough perspective and our senses of humor are strong enough that we were not left devastated by our low-grade chocolate dinner. That said, a working stove would have rounded out an overall better dining experience. The same concept holds true with birthday presents, family vacations, and development projects. It is all too easy to fall into latching on to the latest idea as the cure for the ailments of the developing world. With each iteration of big words and projections, expectations are raised. This may be necessary in the world of fundraising, where once a bandwagon is big enough it reaches the critical mass needed to possibly make an impact on a large scale. For the people targeted by these projects however, such great expectations can create as many problems as opportunities.

Throughout the history of the development industry communication with targeted populations has not been crystal clear. The interpretation of a message will always depend upon the previous experiences of the interpreter. The greater the differences in experience between those creating a message and those hearing it, the greater can be the difference in the interpretation, and hence expectations generated. What you say and what is heard are not always the same things when speaking to your coworker at the water cooler. When the message is generated by the moneyed donor or the scholarly professor, and received by the semi-nomadic tribesman, the orphaned urban youth, or the small farmer the difference in what is said and what is heard is potentially that much greater.

I work for an organization that plants trees with small farmers. This activity holds a great amount of potential to generate income for rural families and to help halt certain environmental woes such as desertification. People should know that the potential impact is great, but it cannot end poverty on its own. Such rhetoric, though perhaps useful in motivating donors, only sets up the targets of development projects for disappointment.

While in the field, I walk a line between the desire to motivate people to be excited about the projects we do, and the need to ensure that we manage the farmers’ expectations fairly. I cannot help but be seen as someone in a position of more power than those people I work to serve. My education, my speech, my nationality, economic background and skin color all point to my being in a position to make changes happen. It is radically unfair that it is so, but so it is. And in that position, it is my responsibility to speak plainly, to explain clearly while not talking down, to motivate without planting false hopes, and to work enthusiastically on a project that will take years to bear fruit.

Despite these responsibilities of good development practice, at the end of the day each individual has the capacity to base their happiness either upon their prior expectations, or upon a more objective idea of their wellbeing. In that light, a stove that does not cook, a refrigerator that can’t make ice, a leaking roof and a rubble filled toilet that will only flush twice a day are things that can either make you pine for those things you don’t have, or remind you of those things you do. A few hundred trees on a small farm plot will never buy someone a Mercedes or cure malaria, but it might pay for a high school education, a clean water system, or keep someone invested enough in their community to have them see options beyond moving to a slum in a major city. Those, at least, are some of my expectations.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Town and Country

Pelé, Hermán and I were up well before the break of dawn. We would spend the morning in the field, from around six until around one p.m. Then we would go back to their home for lunch and a siesta. Sometime around three they would head back to the field and I would move on to visit another farmer or family. This morning we were up early and the weeding had to be done. The cotton field that Pelé and Hermán worked together was a good kilometer away from their home, and we would set out after drinking máte, just as the sky was getting lighter over Misiones to the east.

Before leaving the patio where we often ate together, Pelé took a small plastic bottle from his coat pocket and took a swig. He offered it to Hermán and I, and we each refused, so he took another in our honor. To start the motor, he said. The old soda bottle was refilled on a daily basis with caña, a sugar alcohol like rum only sweeter. Pelé spent a good amount of his time in a mild state of inebriation, and several times a week was stumbling drunk. He was not an angry drunk, nor a mean drunk. If anything he was a happy-sad drunk, who delighted in the company of others, resented his position as the town drunk, and had no idea how to not be seen as a bit of a buffoon. He was a short, strong, and funny man, not a deep thinker, but a quick wit, and despite him being some thirty or forty years my senior and perpetually intoxicated, he was one of the best friends I had in the two years I lived in southern Paraguay.

Pelé was far from the greatest farmer in the world, and he never took to my suggestions of planning crop rotations or using green manures. But despite his alcoholism, which likely inhibited any large leaps forward in his lifestyle, he provided his wife Dominga and daughter Vicki with a decent standard of living. The amount of work done was greatly improved by Hermán’s arrival as the son-in-law, but even without Hermán, Pelé managed. Outside of the occasional day labor on the nearby ranch, he will never be employed by anyone. He owns no land. If he lived in the United States, he would likely be a homeless man.

In the developed world, there are few if any positions in the professional workplace where it is acceptable to arrive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This does not mean that people do not get away with it, or that functioning alcoholics don’t manage to keep their problems under wraps, or that some people never look the other way at such behavior. Overall, though, in a developed economic system that has amounted centuries of specialization in multitudes of professions, there is no place for a person to be operating as inefficiently as they do when they are drunk.

The world of the small farmer, either at a subsistence or small holding cash crop level, does not have the same professional culture. Showing up on time is not an issue. Of course you go to the field early, because it is incredibly hot in the middle of the day. But if work needs to get done in the middle of the day, it will get done. If that work can be done at another hour, it will likely get done at the other hour. You can hoe a good number of rows with a few shots of hard alcohol in you. You might not do the best you can, but it will get done. You take a break when you want to take a break. You drink when you can afford it. There is always work to do.

A job is a different cultural animal. A job tells you when to work. It tells you when to stop. It tells you how you must be while doing that work. At the organization I work for in Kenya, our extension agents range from those around twenty years old to those in their fifties who have spent all their lives working on a farm, and from those fresh out of high school to those who did not complete middle school. In that population the difference between the developed economy sense of work and the small farm sense of work manifests itself in myriad ways.

Two weeks ago we fired one of our field extension agents for showing up drunk. He apparently is an alcoholic, and his intoxication at work had occurred several times before being brought to the attention of his superiors. Today I ran a training session at his farm, and when I greeted him he seemed cheery and not at all upset over the matter. Perhaps he was covering up disappointment, or perhaps for him the idea of a job was a novelty that just did not work out. I was reminded of my friend Pelé, whom I last saw a couple of years ago while working back in Paraguay. He had not changed too much in the intervening years. He still holds his own in the manual labor department, and still makes lewd jokes at regular intervals. He still spends his pocket change on caña, he still makes a lot of noise or falls off his horse when drunk, and he still gets into the occasional yelling match or fistfight with his rivals of forty years. But he does look older, Dominga looks a little more tired, and Hermán and Vicki have long since moved to Buenos Aires in search of jobs.

Viewed in a harsh light the history of development is one of people being left behind. In a way it is the inevitable flip side of someone getting ahead. You can’t have one without the other. You go to the town; you leave the country. Like the law of conservation of matter and energy, it can appear that development is a zero-sum game. But in the face of that cynical equation stands the human being. The ability to learn and grow is the ability to empower one’s self without disempowering others. It may not always work out that way, but the potential lies waiting, not only in the youth getting his or her first job, but also in the farmer of forty years, open to the possibilities that are out there.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Risk Management

My father first brought me to Kenya when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I confess that at the time, I probably did not understand the benefit to me of such an endeavor. Why couldn’t I just stay home where I could do what I wanted to do (Nintendo) and not be killed by snakes (spitting cobra)? Perhaps it was in some way character building, but to understand that you would need to have a concept of character, which I was lacking. I did have an innate grasp of laziness and fear, and I was able to display a professional level of ingratitude (destined for greatness!) all of which culminated in what my dad would lovingly describe as a ‘rotten kid.’

Being a late bloomer, I was still more a boy than a man-child, and I remember the concept of Africa as a whole being frightening. This trip was an enormous thing, and in the run up to departure time I was scared of the enormity of it. The magnitude of those risks I faced appeared to invalidate the benefits of the trip, of which I had no idea to begin with. On my arrival, however, the large, overarching irrational fears began to melt away in the face of concrete experience. Once in Kenya there was nothing of which I remember being particularly frightened. I ate, slept, breathed, rode in cars, and so on, pretty much the same as back home. The overwhelming fear of the massive unknown was quickly dispelled, and I could enjoy the experience.

Now, considerably older but only slightly more mature, the idea of living in Kenya for an extended period brought me no fear. I have lived in and travelled through enough countries to know that even if there are deadly snakes, they don’t usually search you out. The enormity of the unknown was replaced with the knowledge and expectation that certain things would be similar or different from what I had experienced previously, and I would be able to manage those things each in their own time.

And then I rode in matatus. When you are a child, there is so much that is out of your control that you are simply accustomed to situations where you do not have any say in the outcome. As you grow, you gain more and more say over aspects of your day-to-day life. At some point, you might even end up with that greatest of all illusions, the idea of complete control. To have this false sense of control shaken can leave a person infuriated or stimulated, but at a very basic level it is frightening. Now I get frightened when sitting in a matatu to Mombasa.

Consciously or not, we calculate our risks. Whether to forego a future benefit based upon the possibility of a negative outcome depends upon how great the probabilities of those outcomes are and upon their respective magnitudes. To facilitate the movement of people and goods along the Kenyan coast you can lay down a strip of asphalt, allowing commerce to progress quickly. This strip of asphalt, however, creates the possibility of fatal automobile accidents, which did not occur when goods were carried by foot or animal and ferried across the mouths of rivers. Is that negative possibility worth the benefit of the faster transportation? One could further argue that laying down that strip of asphalt between major population centers not only creates the possibility of fatal accidents, but makes them as close to a certainty as anything can be. Is that certainty, that some people will be killed on the highway, worth the benefit of the faster transportation?

Planners and policy makers might try to mitigate the risks by doing things such as creating a median, a passing lane, or a pedestrian overpass. Or they would, you assume, if there was a budget for it. Or maybe they would not. It seems that there is a budget for keeping the strip of asphalt in good enough condition that vehicles can attain very high speeds, but not enough to paint a line down the middle of the road. But why, they might ask, paint that line when it will not stop accidents? There are accidents on expensive four-lane highways with medians, and there are accidents on the two lane highways with no divider. If you miss hitting a person by two feet while driving sixty miles an hour it is the same as missing that person by twenty feet while driving thirty miles an hour. So say the numbers.

Seen from afar, the risk is almost always worth the benefit. It is highly unlikely that you will be in the matatu that crashes in a ball of flame or mangled metal, even if it is highly likely that one of those things will happen. Yet when you approach a blind curve and the driver passes a petrol tanker by hugging the edge of the asphalt at sixty miles per hour, you are forced to reconsider those risk management calculations.

I put my life in the hands of my driver, who seems to have not considered this situation in much depth, and also in the hands of every other driver on the road. This is apparent to me as we swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid the enormous lorry that has tipped over. No longer scared of a great unknown, I concentrate more on the specific fear of partaking in a high-speed collision. I could have spent my Saturday afternoon sitting at home, with an infinitesimally small possibility of being killed by a matatu, but it was worth it to take the risk. At least it’s not boring.

Kids pile into the matatu, and are passed from one person to another to make room for a bag of grain. Unless they are babies, they are at least somewhat aware that the matatu might crash. But this is not a shocking realization to them. They are accustomed to not being in control. It does not bother them.

I am not in favor of claiming that ignorance is bliss, nor of relinquishing decisions to the fates. Overall I am glad for my small amount of control over the regular happenings in my life. It can be unsettling at times to have this shaken, but may be beneficial in terms of keeping us grounded. Thinking back to when my dad brought me to Kenya, I remember confronting the large irrational fear of the unknown and becoming comfortable with stepping into the world. It did not increase my control over anything, but it did broaden my perspective. It was a valuable experience, just as my explorations of nearby cities may prove to be. It is also good to remember that once you are in the back seat of the matatu, there’s nothing you can do but try to enjoy the ride. There’s always something new on the road.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Less than Historic Day

On August 21, 2010, I completed my first triathlon. It was a half triathlon, to be precise, but why quibble about the details? It was three sports together, and it is done. You can call me a triathlete. I am proud to have completed it, especially considering several key factors working against me. First, I am not in very good shape. This could be overcome with a rigorous training regimen, but that discounts the second thing working against me, namely that I decided to compete in the event a full hour and ten minutes before the starting gun went off. Finally there was my bicycle.

A triathlon is a swim-bike-run race, and of these, my strongest suit is by far swimming. My plan was to do respectably in the swimming, hold my position in the bicycling, and with any luck complete the running. The logic proceeded thusly: In college I regularly swam up to two miles a day. In the last eight years, I have swum at least three times. So that part should be no problem. Bicycling- well, you never forget how to ride a bike, and my friend’s bike will be back from the shop by the time the race starts, so I should be okay there as well. Running on the other hand is where I expect everyone to pass me by. So much for training and preparation.

This race consisted of a 750m swim, a 20+km bike ride, and a 5km run. I got off to a strong start in the water, not taking the lead, but at least holding my own for a good ways. At some point I realized that, this being the mouth of Kilifi creek, I would not have a wall to push off, and 750 meters is a long way to swim. Still, by conveniently switching to the breaststroke a third of the way through, I managed to swallow less water and finish at least in the upper 75% of the pack, possibly even in the upper 50%. It was hard to tell exactly where I stood as I made my way on rubber legs to my friends who stood by my bicycle.

Standard procedure at this point, I believe, is to have some water, put on your shoes, and get going. Never to be one who does things by the prescribed method, I took a nice five minute break to catch my breath, have a little more water, and advise the people who sped by me to take it easy, don’t make any rookie mistakes. Finally it was time to get on my bike and to be on my way up the dirt trail. A flying start was not in the works, but a wobbly start was just as good, and I was off.

“Standi! Standi!” yelled the kids who I rode by for the first few minutes. Not knowing what that meant in Swahili I took it as words of encouragement. “Thank you!” I responded, pushing my way up the hill from the beach to the main loop around the sisal plantation. After passing a few more groups of kids who helpfully pointed at my back wheel, I realized the jangling sound my bike was producing was from the kickstand being down, bouncing on the rocks and the dirt. 'Standi' means kickstand. Duly noted. A quick kick with my left foot and I was still moving, not having missed a pedal push. A minute later there was more jangling, and more shouts of “Standi!” and regular pattern soon emerged of me kicking the stand up, and the stand falling down.

Somewhere around kilometer four, where the path around the Mnarani plantation opens up and you can see past the few scattered luxury villas out over the Indian Ocean, I realized my back tire was completely flat. It was still moving, but it was completely flat. By kilometer five, where you yell your number to a race official who is making sure no one takes any short cuts, I still had not been passed by anyone. Not a bad showing on a flat tire and a dragging kickstand, but it was not to last. The second half of the first lap saw me get left behind, as pedaling my bike with its flat tire became more and more difficult. One friend who passed by said, “Ouch, you’re not going to make the second lap on that.”

“Oh yeah?” my spirit responded.

“Yeah,” replied reality.

By the end of my first lap I was firmly in last place, and the leaders were passing me by again, completing the bicycle portion and moving on to the running. Cries of “Standi!” were joined by shouts of “Puncture!” indicating my back tire. The thought crossed my mind of simply stopping there at the finish line. It was excusable. My back tire was flat, and I was out of the competition. But then I thought, “What the hell, I’ll keep going,” and that proved enough reasoning to keep me pushing through. I have found that I don’t have a very strong competitive streak, but my ‘Oh, what the hell’ streak is fairly well developed.

So I proceeded to begin the second lap, slowly trudging over the dirt roads, taking in the nice views, smiling at the cries of “Standi!” and “Puncture!” and the quizzical looks I received from plantation workers and grounds keepers. They stared as if to say, “Didn’t those crazy bicyclists finish their race an hour ago?”

Somewhere around kilometer 17.5, the back tire came off completely. The wheel stopped turning. The bike was dead. I got off and pushed. The final stretch was over a grass airfield, and the tire dragged considerably, so I picked the bike over my shoulder, determined to finish in dramatic fashion. I dropped the bike past the finish line, smiled to my friends who were laughing at my predicament, and began jogging.

By this time, the sun was getting low, and I could take it easy on my lonely trek through the plantation. It was a beautiful day, and I found it quite relaxing to not be racing anyone as I shuffled my feet in some pattern that resembled a run. In the end, I think that my bicycle was actually a saving grace. It spared me the embarrassment of coming in last place on my own merits. It also provided the motivation to keep going. I had originally thought that after swimming, everything was a wash anyway, that I might do the bicycling just for fun, and that in the run I stood no chance. Once I had the bike meltdown, my drive to finish, my stubbornness, took over. By the time I started the run, there was no question that I would complete the whole race.

I made the final turn to come down the airfield and finished it off with a ‘Chariots of Fire’ sprint. The awards ceremony was almost finished, and people applauded, friends laughed and gave high fives. Done. You can put it in the record books. Last place. Saved by the bicycle.