By spending time cheap lodgings in Nairobi, I’ve gotten to meet tons of backpackers, NGO workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and fellow researchers. When I spend time around these people, I’m reminded of numerous descriptions I’ve read and heard about frontier societies that have existed throughout time-the peripheries of early modern Europe, the “wild” American west, and the first round of the European colonization ofAfrica. In all of these cases, colonization wasn’t a centrally directed process, but rather occurred as a result of the decentralized action of this hetereogeneous group of adventurers, crusaders, fortune seekers, social outcasts, and criminals.
Last night, I overheard a young man recounting the list of countries he’d visited to a woman he’d just met - Somalia, Columbia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and so on. “I’m not actually a tourist,” he told her, “I’m a freelance war correspondent.” As I listened with half interest, he regaled her with tales of his swashbuckling, risk taking lifestyle, an American sitting at the table behind me caught my attention and stage whispered to me “STAY AWAY FROM THAT GUY. HE’S BAD NEWS”. Before I could even ask him how he knew this, he told me that he was a peace corps volunteer working in central Kenya, and they had received an e-mail over the Peace Corps listserv warning that there has been a con-man working the Upper Hills campsite for the last few months, posing to be a war correspondent. After giving me this warning, the Peace Corps volunteer, a neuroscience PhD from Iowa, engaged me in a conversation that covered Kenyan politics, research, and the frustrations and trials of working as a teacher in a secondary school for deaf students. When I asked him how he’s liked his time, he said “oh its good” but with a familiar weary ambivalence. He was jaded, but full of ideas and seemed excited to have an outlet.
Its easy for me to narrate these events, as if I’m the “normal” observer who just happens to be running across all of these bizarre adventurer types. Yet, when I pull out the focus a bit, I realize that I’m every bit as bizarre as the strangest people I’ve met- a PhD student from Yale who hangs out with Maasai 20 somethings, riding around in the back of trucks, drinking blood out of cow’s necks, and obsessing about trash collection and littering. By adopting a certain degree of risk-accepting behavior I’ve unwittingly made myself part of this whole “frontier society”. The question is, if these misfits are the people who are engaging in development work (as we were the people driving prior rounds of cultural transformation and state expansion), can any good ever come of it? Or is “western” driven development doomed to follow the whims of the individuals who take it upon themselves to concern themselves with countries like Kenya?