Archive | January 2013

Kenya Day 6: Internet Service, Cel Phones and Money Transfer

SafariCom USB 3G Stick

SafariCom USB 3G Stick

It might seem pretty absurd to be complaining about internet service in an area where most people are pretty happy just feeding themselves, but if you got out here, you would, too. Kenyans in my situation would complain, too. The awful service here at the guest house finally motivated me to act.

Just about everyone has a cel phone in Africa at this point. I think that the only people that don’t are elderly, and even only a small minority of them don’t have phones. In a part of the world where one’s most prized possession is family and friends, it’s pretty much a given to have a cel phone now.

Here, cel minutes are about as necessary as water. Families work and grow food in order to raise money to purchase cel minutes, even if it means that their children will be malnourished. No price is too high for keeping in touch with people in the social network, since one lives and dies by who one knows. The business of cel minutes creates jobs and attracts entrepreneurs, so the situation can’t be seen as all bad.

Now, you can even do your banking through the cel network using M-Pesa, which covers most of East Africa at this point. You can save money without worrying about getting everything stolen, which is really helpful if you are trying to squirrel away money to start or expand a business. You can make purchases with it. You can send money to friends and family.

If you have family overseas, they can send money cheaply and safely through the M-Pesa system. You don’t have to worry about getting robbed on the way out of the western Union office since your money is on the cel network and not in your hand. M-Pesa even supports micro-financing. Customers can receive and pay loans, with no hassle. M-Pesa is one of currently the most advanced mobile banking system in the developing world.

All types of cel phones are for sale, NOKIA being the most popular (the unmmistakable NOKIA ring tone should become Africa’s continental anthem). The shops widely stock smart phone and BlackBerry style phones. There are cheaper phones out there, of course, usually sitting sadly on the bottom shelf.

A decent phone with cel service, texting capability, GPS, and 3G internet service will run you about $30-$100. The good ones even have a dedicated Facebook button (everybody here is on Facebook). You can then buy SIM cards for the backbreaking price of $1.00 and phone minutes for a penny each. There are no screwed up contracts, no extra fees, no bills and no surprises. Everything is prepaid.

I can get 3G access in just about every part of East Africa. Coverage is actually better than and service superior to GDP giant, the United States of America.

And this leads to today. I bought a 3G USB internet stick for the incredible price of $15, and data time for a penny a meg, which is about what I pay in the States. I can use it all over the continent. If I buy a SIM card, I can use it in Japan and Europe. In fact, it seems like I can use this thing everywhere but the United States.

The process of buying the stick was pretty much horribly painful, since the lady at the store didn’t seem to know much about it, but eventually I got it. A new government policy of registration had me making several calls to SafariCom to register the thing, but 3 hours later, it got done.

The long and short of the story is that the US is embarrassingly behind when it comes to cel services. In the States, the stick would have cost me nearly $250 for the same brand and almost the same model, I’d be locked into a medieval contract scheme, and get slapped with overage fees and inexplicable charges on a monthly basis. To make matters worse, I could only use the thing in about 20% of the country, if at all.

The M-Pesa system allows a way of money transfer without the use of cash, unbelievable archaic checks or third party credit cards which levy huge fees on transactions. It’s a system that’s far superior to the patchwork of antiquated and big brother laden money systems that hobble the American economy. Sitting here in poor Kenya, America’s system of money payment is starting to look entirely backwards.

But I have my internet stick, a new phone SIM, and even found out that I can send money back to Kenya for research projects. Life is a little bit easier now, even way out here in the sticks. Amazing.

Kenya Day 5: Pre-Election Optimism

Tough looking ladies at the Mbita square

Tough looking ladies at the Mbita square

Tough looking ladies at the Mbita square[/caption]Kenya is a country on edge right now. The next elections are set for early March. In most places, this wouldn’t be more remarkable than any other election, but the last time Kenya tried to have one, almost 2,000 people died and 180,000 people were displaced. In fact, all of Kenya’s elections since independence have been marred by inter-ethnic fighting and bloodshed. Much of the violence occurred in the area I’m in right now.

Everyone has a story about the previous election. Kikuyus in particular, have not forgotten. I met a guy last January who had to evacuate his family from this area, forcing him to abandon his car, home and nearly all his possessions. Fortunately, has was able to get a flight out in time to save himself.

Kenya’s vast map of tribal and linguistic groups, along with economic inequalities and poverty, make it an easy target for self-serving politicians and mob violence. It is difficult for most Kenyans to feel represented by politicians who do not share their ethnic lineage. To make things worse, An inept and corrupt government can’t provide sufficient services and mobility to placate citizens.

Right now, though, most every person one speaks with states emphatically that this election will be different. There will be peace, and power will transfer smoothly. Their confident statements, however, are read like a script. While I sincerely wish that the election proceeds without incident, the manner in which Kenyans speak strikes me as a case of “if we say it enough times, it will come true.”

The truth is that no one knows what will happen. The elections are much closer than they were in 2007 and seats could be decided by a handful of votes. Accusations of vote fixing were a major trigger of 2007’s violence. More salient, reaction to political events in Africa are almost always completely unpredictable. A peaceful demonstration can suddenly become a full blown riot within a matter of seconds.

For the moment, things are calm, let’s hope they stay that way.

Kenya (1 of 1)-15

Kenya Day 4: Reflections on fish and global capitalism

FIsherman along Lake Victoria

Fisherman along Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is a rich source of Nile Perch and Tilapia. Both fish are recent introductions to the lake. The Nile Perch, as a top predator, is associated with extensive ecological damage to the Lake’s ecosystem. Extensive fishing of the Nile Perch has led to a decrease in size, and the comeback of several types of local fish fauna.

Local fisherman on hand made boats use crudely fabricated nets to pull a few fish out of the water, they then sell either whole fish or smoked chunks to dealers. Dealers in turn sell the fish to processors, who then sell the fish to European, American and Japanese distributors. The distributors sell the fish to large supermarkets, who, of course, sell the fish to you and me.

Where the fish may bring as much as $20 a kilo in giants such as Whole Foods, a local fisherman can expect approximately $1.00, but the price is set by the world market and also subject to the whims of dealers. Without a union, fishermen have little means to negotiate prices.

As the lure of quick and plentiful cash is hard to resist, local fisherman have abandoned traditional fishing practices to enter the cash economy. This, of course, in itself is not a bad thing, but the money often gets spent on alcohol and prostitutes, rather than school and health fees for children. The nutritional profile of Lake communities suffers, and children are malnourished in an area that brings nearly $500 million dollars in revenue to Kenya.

Worse yet, ready cash creates a new market for sex work and positions are easily filled by poor women from the rural areas with no other options. The result is that the fish trade, and its destabilizing effect on families, is fueling HIV transmission here. Up 40% of people in any community along Lake Victoria may be HIV positive.

The trade has brought people from the inland areas to Lake Victoria, which has led to displacement of indigenous populations. Displacement has serious implications for security and livelihoods but in this area of intense malaria transmission, displacement and encroachment both impacts human health. The movement of populations has changed the genetic profile of local communities. Millennia of interactions between locals and parasite had led to at least some minimal level of genetic balance, which may have been disrupted by the introduction of new humans not acclimated to local strains of the parasite which causes malaria. This present added risks of serious disease.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am pro-economic development, pro-market and see no merit in suggesting that developing countries uselessly stick to old, antiquated and oppressive ways. No matter how nostalgic we may be for an idyllic past that may or may not have ever existed, the reality is that economic development in many cultural contexts has extended human life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, freed women to not be treated as cattle and reduced the subjugation of social minorities. But being pro-development means that one must support, err, development, which is only occurring slowly here.

The fishing communities suffer for a number of macro level factors.

  1. The nature of global economic disparities means that the government cannot step in and help negotiate fair prices for fish. The producers live entirely at the mercy of the market. The government would probably not be successful in artificially raising prices, but could help reduce price volatility by negotiating a yearly floor.
  2. There is no reliable means of taxing earnings to make sure that money is invested in schools and infrastructure (instead of alcohol). Say what one will about taxation, but the truth is that without it, power lines and roads don’t get built.
  3. The economy here is insufficiently diversified. The entire economy relies on fish, that developed countries may or may not buy. There is sadly little agriculture here, almost no tourism and, like just about all African countries, no manufacturing. A concentrated economy like that along Lake Victoria, could easily bust overnight.

All of these things, however, are challenges that all developing countries are facing. The economy along Lake Victoria is hardly an exception, but the mechanism are at least somewhat more obvious.

Kenya Day 3: Malaria Journal

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

As part of our research in Kenya, we have hired a couple of local people to keep journals on malaria. Basically, we give them a notebook, they observe people in the community, watch for conversations about malaria or malaria related things, and write down what they hear.

Called “hearsay ethnography,” it makes ethnographers out of non-professional folks who are already embedded within the community. To date, it has been used in understanding the cultural understanding of HIV in Malawi.

We are turning local young people into anthropologists.

Through this technique, we can minimize the observer effect, i.e. the problem of influencing the data collection environment by being the odd, linguistically challenged white people of ambiguous intent. The writers have to write in English, in a manner assumed to be understood by educated folks, which presents problems of its own, but it’s a somewhat more flexible methodology.

It’s a valuable tool for medical anthropology. Through this study, we hope to begin to understand how people in this area conceptualize malaria, malaria treatment and health delivery.

I hired these guys last May, the money ran out, and I thought that the project was just a bust. To my surprise and delight, the data collectors are still writing in their journals and I was finally able to see the results.

Here’s a sample:

I attended the funeral of a child below five years old at Kamyeri. There were so many people who attended irrespective of their age or gender. The discussion about malaria broke out when the child’s father was narrating the cause of her death. He said that many people may think that his daughter had been bewitched but according to him, her death was as a result of his wife’s negligence.

He went on saying that he wasn’t at home when he received the news about her daughter’s illness. He told his wife to take the child to the hospital. However, he arrived home after two days to find out that the child had not been taken to hospital and have not received any kind of medication. He rushed her to the hospital but it was too late because the child died dew hours after the doctor had confirmed that she had serious malaria.

He went on saying if she would have diagnosed early enough, maybe she could have not died.

He added that before someone make or jump to any conclusions about the cause of any illness, he/she should go to the hospital and get tested in order to know the real cause of a disease he/she must be suffering from.

Then an old woman who was just in front of me said that she had informed the child’s mother to take to her the child so that she could treat her through “frito” and “suro.” ”Frito” means a method in which powder traditional herbs are administered to a patient through snifting, while “suro” means a method in which herbs in a powdered form is put on small cuts made using a knife. However, the woman did not turn up instead she went to a preacher to seek divine healing.

The old woman continued saying that the shivering and headache could have been treated using traditional herbs.

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

Kenya Day 2

Lady cooking dinner under election posters

Lady cooking dinner under election posters

This time I got to ride over from Nairobi to Lake Victoria instead of having to take the plane. In the end, it takes just as much time and is fraught with fewer hassles.

We got into an interesting discussion with our driver. Joseph is a great guy and, most salient on African roads, a great driver. He asked me if I was a Christian. I told him flat out that I didn’t believe in anything. I usually try to hold back, but maybe I was too tired to care.

He asked why, and I told him: The Abrahamic God is a despot. He let’s children die. He punishes his faithful followers with poverty and suffering and astonishingly still demands tribute. Paradoxically, the people that don’t believe in Him live relatively bountiful lives. I told him that I respect and do not think badly of people who choose to believe, but I, personally, have serious problems with religion. We can coexist peacefully.

Joseph struggled to come up with some reason why, pointing out that it is the spiritual failings of the children’s parents that cause infant death. We discussed the subject further, and it expanded into a political discussion of the nature of foreign aid and development.

“Africa is behind because our ancestors weren’t faithful. The white people came to give us the message of Christ, but it was too late. It will take us 100 years to develop.”

Of course, I jokingly replied that the white man came because he want to enslave Africans to act as farming tools and steal African gold.

This brought up some important issues. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to assume that one’s continent is in disarray because people 300 years ago had made the mistake of practicing indigenous religions (as opposed to a foreign import). It’s worse that white people, in their exploitative glory, are seen as saviors and not the raw opportunists they were (are).

It’s even worse to think that common Africans are stuck in a state of self-loathing simply for not being born European. Western contributions to the world cannot be denied, but it’s fantasy to believe that the world couldn’t live without us. I don’t think that Joseph is particularly set in his views and was likely merely making enjoyable conversation, but the statement was revealing.

It is now almost cliche to talk of the evils of aid and the creation of the problems of dependence. If foreign governments are so motivated, they can simply stop sending money. There are other ways of helping Africa’s economies to grow (ending US/European farm subsidies is one). An issue of identity, however, is a much more difficult problem to solve. If one of the African economies joins the top ranks of the world, as I think one will in the next 50 years (it might be even Kenya), we may, perhaps, see significant change.

Back to Kenya

I arrived in Kenya last night after a grueling flight. It turns out that I flew so much last year, that I’ve seen just about all the movies I would have ever wanted to see on the Delta on demand system. It was pretty slim pickings.

The flight, of course, was filled with kids on their way to spreading the gospel of white people to helpless Africans. I’m never sure what these people really do.

Today, we have to drive out to Lake Victoria. I was really apprehensive about coming to Kenya right now, but now that I’m here, I’m happy that I came.

Is a balmy 90 degrees, so I can’t complain about really much of anything.

Does Economic Growth Create Democratic Societies?

I’m in a development mood right now, having had a conversation with someone over whether the American democratic model is portable to other cultures. Let me ramble on about democracy and development for a while.

I say yes, with caveats, of course. There are certainly things about American style democracy that are peculiarly American. Our intense emphasis on property rights being the main candidate. Outside of that, I can see no reason why the American model isn’t transferrable elsewhere, and would even argue that an American (or western style) democracy is not peculiarly Western, but rather a natural outcome of economic growth.

Benjamin Friedman, a Harvard economist, writes in “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth“:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western thinking has regarded each of these tendencies positively, and in explicitly moral terms.

I tend to agree with this. Persons who participate in an economy also participate within a system that requires them to step outside their small circles of family and friends. They are forced to rely not merely on one another, but rather must negotiate and interact with persons they may not know, and may not even like. Old hierarchies become meaningless, as the nature of jobs and value become fluid. A King may be necessary today, but useless tomorrow. Most salient, violence and force, which are both wholly un-democratic, become less attractive when one has something to lose.

Interestingly, one researcher has found the same result, that GDP leads to democracy, but that these effects were weaker than that of primary education:

Over the last two centuries, many countries experienced regime transitions toward democracy. We document this democratic transition over a long time horizon. We use historical time series of income, education and democracy levels from 1870 to 2000 to explore the economic factors associated with rising levels of democracy. We …nd that primary schooling, and to a weaker extent per capita income levels, are strong determinants of the quality of political institutions. We …find little evidence of causality running the other way, from democracy to income or education.

The interesting piece here is that, in most contexts, primary education is a state-provided service. Thus, using public funds (socialism!) to allow near universal education can actually enable the creation of democratic states. I would argue here, that the authors are taking a narrow view. I believe, though cannot test it, that it is not education, but rather women’s education that creates democratic states.

The development – democracy theory, however, can be countered when one considers mostly undeveloped India. India has a GDP lower than that of Ghana and Papua New Guinea, but is a functioning republic, with disparate, linguistically diverse and culturally heterogeneous states that don’t kill one another after elections. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, is a devoted believer in democracy as a universal and essential system:

India, of course, was one of the major battlegrounds of this debate. In denying Indians independence, the British expressed anxiety over the Indians’ ability to govern themselves. India was indeed in some disarray in 1947, the year it became independent. It had an untried government, an undigested partition, and unclear political alignments, combined with widespread communal violence and social disorder. It was hard to have faith in the future of a united and democratic India. [End Page 5] And yet, half a century later, we find a democracy that has, taking the rough with the smooth, worked remarkably well. Political differences have been largely tackled within the constitutional guidelines, and governments have risen and fallen according to electoral and parliamentary rules. An ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, India nonetheless survives and functions remarkably well as a political unit with a democratic system. Indeed, it is held together by its working democracy.

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