A struggle in Detroit and Nairobi to trust outside voices


Sr. Sia is part of an intercultural Maryknoll community based in Karen, Kenya. Originally from Tanzania, she now works to cultivate nonviolence by bringing people together from different backgrounds and working with them on long-term interpersonal conflict resolution.

Every last Saturday of the month, about 40 people gather at the Goethe-Institut in downtown Nairobi to talk about literature. Mostly twenty-something Kenyans, they discussed writing by Judith Hermann and T.S. Eliot at the last gathering, while munching on mandazi and sipping coffee. They also talked about a story submitted for critique by a fellow group-member: a tale about a Rwandan classroom, where elections for class prefect become divided by ethnic tensions.

One woman described this story as  “almost NGO fiction” – which incited debate about Kenyan writers who pen poetry about matters like FGM (female genital mutilation) for publication and payment by foreign-based NGOs (non-governmental organizations). When is this selling out? When is this making the most of an opportunity to create space for Kenya’s artistic voices?

Coming from Detroit, a city sensitive to stories told about it, this was interesting. Detroiters will thrill to the “Imported from Detroit” ad campaign and point fingers at “ruin porn” in national media. Like this Kenyan group, Detroiters are painfully trying to balance the stories it has to tell with the stories that “outsiders” expect from it.

The sector in Kenya devoted to “human development” is enormous, primarily manifested by international NGOs and the United Nations. What is particularly pointed is how many people from “elsewhere” are drawn to East Africa as part of this professionalized place-making (including one of my roommates, an American working for the UN Somalia program). This has been true for about a century’s worth of missionaries, entrepreneurs, investors, aid workers, and researchers in Kenya. People who want to change things are part of the standard landscape, weirdly neutralizing the sense of any effort they make actually radicalizing their surroundings. They are so pervasive as to even shape the imaginative life of Kenyan artists.

In Detroit, meanwhile, the professionalized development sector is young. The Kresge and Skillman foundations are among those that have elevated the city in their funding priorities. People from around the world—particularly, as in East Africa, young, white people—are drawn to Detroit to try things, anything, that might contribute to the city’s re-creation. But in Detroit, the barrier for entry is still low; there is a sense that anyone can show up with an idea, and this will overall be good for the city’s development. Create an energy-neutral house, for example, as Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert did with the Power House. Or open an independent bookshop, as Greg Lenhoff and Sara Winchell did with Leopold’s Books.  

In Kenya, there isn’t this low barrier into the place-making world: jobs with NGOs and the UN are fiercely competitive. This narrowed space for development work contributes to a sense of everlastingness. When, really, is this work done? While in Detroit, the sense is “anything could happen,” in Kenya, the sense is “this is what happens.”

There are reasons to be cynical. Many Kenyans, subjected to generations of people trying to ‘help them,’ are suspicious of today’s foreigners who show up trying to “fix” this place as professionals within the development sector. British colonial authorities used that same reasoning to justify brutal efforts to crush the Mau Mau freedom fighters in the 1950s, and, in living memory, incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Kenyans in a system of concentration camps.

Likewise, in Detroit, many locals push back on foundation-sponsored development efforts, fearing that they are subject to an agenda that is not of and by their community. They fear people will be pushed out of their homes if they aren’t located in “priority” neighborhoods. This isn’t just paranoia: the razing of Paradise Valley in the name of “urban renewal” really did happen. The building of GM’s Poletown plant really did eviscerate a vital neighborhood in the name of eminent domain just thirty years ago.

As in Kenya, Detroit’s history carries oppressive actions in the name of development and “helping” that, in fact, caused lasting harm. As in Detroit, Kenya’s development workers today often make meaningful contributions to the well-being of a place—a place that becomes a home to those from “elsewhere” who do what they can. Neither end of this truth can be ignored if either of these places will become increasingly just, vibrant, and sustainable. That, at least, is the story I want to see.

This article was published in the March 31, 2011 edition of The Detroit Free Press. Reprinted with permission.