Monday, April 12, 2010


Update on the “break-in” I wrote about last week: It turns out that the two men I saw were trying to steal a station wagon that was parked just outside my bedroom window. Thus the loud metallic sound that woke me, which I interpreted as coming from my tin roof, was actually due to the men's clumsy efforts to get into the car. I'm definitely embarrassed to have allowed my paranoid imagination run away with me, but I'm also quite relieved that the thieves had nothing to do with me or my house.


As the end of my service draws near, I've started thinking about what I'm going to do with all of my crap when I go home. I'm definitely going to leave most of my clothes and extra toiletries and all of that with my neighbors; that part is easy. But what do I do with some of the more expensive things -- my laptop, for example, or my old mp3 players? The laptop is kind of a piece of shit, a Linux-based netbook purchased for $150 online just as the netbook phenomenon was starting to take off. But although it's very basic – it can't do much more than run Firefox and a word processor – it's still a reliable, functioning computer, which are hard to come by here. Do I sell it to someone for cheap? Do I give it to the school? Or do I take it back home and continue to use it until it craps out? The problem is, even though I could certainly afford to buy another cheap little netbook, I don't want to leave the one I have with someone unless I am absolutely sure they will put it to good use . . . and I don't know if anyone will.

And then there is the issue of what, if anything, I want to do for the school when I leave. The principal of the school (who I really, really like . . . actually, the entire administration of the school is pretty great) has been not-so-subtly hinting that he wants me to raise money or donations when I get back to the US. A previous volunteer just had seven boxes of donated textbooks shipped over to put in the school's library, and the principal has mentioned this several times and even made me look at the boxes and a couple of the books inside.

The problem is, I don't really want to give anything to the school. It's not because I'm mean (although if I'm being 100% honest, it is partially because I am lazy). I just don't know what I could donate that would actually be useful. The idea of books is nice . . . but the school already has a pretty decent library full of used books, many of which sit on the shelves unused. I'm not sure how useful it is to spend a lot of time and money collecting old unwanted books from one continent and shipping them over to another continent, where they will be equally as old and unwanted. Do the students here really need another twenty copies of health books aimed at American teenagers? I've flipped through a couple of the health books in the library and it's shocking how little is relevant to peoples' lives here. Teens growing up in an environment in which malaria, diarrheal diseases, and malnutrition are still major problems have more pressing concerns than the emotional changes accompanying puberty, which seems to be the focus of a lot of these books. And the passages on relationships and sexual health, which are significant concerns in a country with such a high teen pregnancy rate, just do not apply in a non-Western culture.

So, if I'm not going to seek out book donations for the school, what can I give? When I initially arrived at the school, the principal told me he wanted help building a science laboratory. But I'm not overly thrilled by that idea either, mostly because of my experiences during my first Peace Corps service. My school in Kenya had a pretty well-stocked laboratory, which was the pride of the headmistress and which still figures in my nightmares. Reactive chemicals – purchased and never used – were improperly stored in crumbling containers. The one time I took my class of 35 into the lab to do a practical, which involved nothing more complicated than measuring the temperature of boiling water, the ancient tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas tap caught fire (twice) and two students broke mercury thermometers. Terrified, I ordered the students out of the lab, and henceforth I never allowed them to use anything more dangerous than a magnifying lens. The mere thought of trying to do any kind of lab activity with the unruly 150-person chemistry class I have here makes me break out in a cold sweat.

All of these examples illustrate the fundamental problem with donations. My basic issue is that all of the things it would be easiest for me to obtain are not the things that the school really needs. The school is desperately in need of money and resources, yes . . . but that money really needs to go to the teachers, first and foremost, so that they start coming to class and stop accepting student bribes. Class sizes need to be reduced before the students can really start making use of donated “stuff” -- books and lab supplies and all that. The students could definitely benefit from computer classes, but the few computers that the school owns stand useless throughout most of the day because the school can't afford the generator fuel to run them or the salary for a computer instructor. And none of these are issues that I can easily fix. They have no one-time solution, but require a continued inflow of cash.

So once again, I'm stuck in a situation that has no good solution. I can be lazy and do nothing, despite the fact that I know the school really does need resources. Or I could try to collect donations of books or school supplies in the States, knowing as I ship them that they are unnecessary and probably not all that helpful, and the only reason I'm even bothering is to quiet the little voice in my head that tells me I should be doing SOMETHING.


  1. Give the laptop to the school. Battery powered and simple.

    As for the "put to good use" concern... Some of the best things in the world are created when people are goofing off.

    You should also ask the teachers and kids (if you like any of the kids) what they would like if other than money.

  2. Yeah, I think you're right about the laptop. Maybe I could ask them to keep it in the library for students to use during the day and ask them to charge it when they put the generator on at night . . . If it's used at all, I'll be happy; I'm just afraid it will not be used or will be sold or something.

    I was thinking maybe I could try to set up some kind of reward/scholarship for the better-performing kids . . . pay their school fees for next year or something or get donations of school supplies to give specifically to them. That way, it's going to the ones who actually care . . . The only problem would be how to execute this. And I don't think that the principal would be too happy about this idea since it will only benefit a few kids instead of all of them (although the shitty donated books probably in reality aren't benefiting anyone).

    When I asked the principal what they wanted me to bring back when I went back to the US, he said "soccer jerseys." Personally I don't think that's a great use of funds so I didn't do it . . . I can understand that they want sports equipment but for myself I'd rather that any money I give or raise gets used for learning materials.

  3. Hi,are you willing to help me, a graduate student in University of Minnesota, understand the electrical needs of the people in Kenya?