Women, how many cows are you worth? Men, how many cows would you be willing to pay as a dowry for your wife? Two? Three? How about forty? How many of your wife’s extended family members would you be willing to support? My last day in Kenya, I was invited to have tea with the directors, chairmen, and head staff of the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK). They invited me to hear about my accomplishments during the week, what I hoped to do with the information and media I had obtained, a reflection of my visit, and my personal future plans. The issue of gender arose as we spoke about my desire to become a surgeon. Surprisingly, the differences in the role of women in East Africa versus in the United States turned out to be mainly based around the concept of dowries.
Murder. Genocide. Political unrest. Displacement from homes. Here at MIT, most of us are fortunate to say we have never experienced these griefs first hand. Most of us are even so fortunate to say that we do not have close friends or loved ones who have experienced these horrors first hand in Sudan, Iraq, Haiti, or even in more stable locations like Kenya and South Africa. However, with MIT’s diverse student body, growing focus on international development, and increasing number of students traveling to countries all around the world, events occurring in locations hundreds of miles away are coming one step closer to our lives and our hearts.
Known as “Asians,” Indians make up a significant part of the East African population. Though the minority, their culture has been strongly integrated into the East African culture. Considering themselves Asian-Africans, the Indian community in Kenya are well-respected and mostly in the higher economic class. Though I did not interact with any Asian-Africans in Kenya, the integration of the two cultures was obvious. However, I should say, the differences were pronounced and some environmental factors were almost the opposite of what they were in India.
Remember the dilemma from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” where a prisoner was released into an unfamiliar, bright world? Seeing only dark and shadows created by a single fire behind him, the cave was the only world the prisoner had known. The unchained prisoner only returned to the cave to enlighten his fellow prisoners and was unable to adjust back to the dark, chained environment.
Being dropped in an economically, socially, politically, developmentally, and linguistically foreign country can be a major culture shock. It seems almost essential that all individuals visiting a new country for the first time should study the language, culture, history, and current events of the country prior to their visit. Students traveling should take the initiative or even be required to take courses pertaining to the country.
Making a positive impact in a community that you do not live in can be daunting and overwhelming. Designing a project to fit what the community needs requires research and experience. One of the most important things to consider is what the people want and what they believe they need. We do not live in their society, do not suffer their pain, and therefore cannot fully understand what is best for them.
Though my summer was extraordinary, it was also heartrendingly eye-opening. It was more than the suffocating heat, nauseating odor, and hordes of flies. Our group was welcomed by most people, but sometimes I’d find older women gazing scornfully at me, a foreigner marching in with an expensive-looking camera, here to take pictures of their pitiful living conditions.
Out of the thousands of photographs I took this summer, I can count on two hands those that I absolutely love. My first project in India proved to be the most difficult in many ways: adjusting to brushing my teeth with bottled water, overcoming the language barrier, reaching the right balance of respect, and, of course, taking a good photograph. While I was able to control composition, lighting, and other technical aspects, I ran into problems with capturing a variety of subjects and emotions.
I became so comfortable in India that I began to feel as if I had been there for a long time. In reality, my time sped by. I became close to both the Indian and MIT students in the group and loved our conversations. Besides documenting the students’ work, I had the opportunity to help them with theirs, eventually becoming a part of the community and project. The other MIT students and I really got a chance to immerse ourselves completely in the Indian culture.
Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamed of becoming Superman, minus his wardrobe and enemies, of course. As I grew older, I felt most content when I could help others. In a sense, volunteering is one of the most selfish things a person can do. Volunteering gives me a purpose for my own life and makes everything worth while. Though it is satisfying to serve in my own community, I had always dreamed of helping those suffering in developing countries around the world. I always thought that this would make the biggest difference.
The air was thick with humidity when I stepped off the airplane into a bare airport that was very unlike any other airport I’d ever known and still under construction. However, I had arrived successfully in India and went through the visa checkpoint swiftly and without any trouble.
Machetes, stalkers, white sand beaches … airplanes, rickshaws, matatus … pickpockets, knifemen, lions, zebra carcasses … ugali, dosa, choma, peppercorn … kindness, laughter, sparkling eyes … hospitality, disease, sewage, monkeys … what a summer. Starting in the outskirts of Delhi, India, I traveled to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Thailand (for a 24-hour layover), and China this summer. It was my first time in all these countries, and, in fact, my first time in any developing country. Spending one to two weeks in each country, I documented MIT students working in those areas through photography and videography, interviewing them and the locals around them while searching for new projects.