Does Civics Cross Borders?

As I’ve talked about extensively, the idea for Generation Citizen initially came about after my observing emerging democracies at work resulted in a realization that the American democracy needed a youth revitalization. Specifically, observing the successful 2002 Kenyan elections as a fifteen year old showed me the power of individuals coming together to make a collective difference in a society, and traveling through Kenya a few years later during the bloody 2007 elections made me recognize just how fragile democracy can be. My experiences in East Africa play a meaningful role in GC’s conceptualization.
So when I decided to take a few weeks off this summer to recharge, I immediately decided to spend time in East Africa, using my former home of Nairobi as a base. While I’ve spent some time in the last few weeks relaxing, I’ve also met with Kenyan civic leaders, trying to gauge the current state of civil society in the larger democracy, especially in the build up to President Obama’s visit to his father’s home country at the end of the month. I also spent five days in and around Arusha, Tanzania, helping to lead civic engagement trainings for Maasai village members and students.
Last summer, I met 30 young people participating in the US State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a program that brings 500 promising young Africans to the United States for a summer of networking and training. Linda Simon, a Tanzanian who started a civic engagement program in her home villages while working as a full-time doctor in Arusha, stayed in touch with me aftewards. When I told her I was coming to East Africa, she invited me to help lead civic engagement trainings in her rural villages, located in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had no idea what this would entail, but I agreed to help as much as I could.
Following a five-hour bus ride and a two-hour car trip, mostly on dirt road, I ended up in Linda’s remote village. After a quick stop at her parents’ home, we drove to a small hut, which served as the village’s community center. Despite arriving a few minutes past the training time of 2PM, no one was there. I skeptically walked around the area for a bit, unsure if anyone would actually show up. But twenty minutes later, over 30 village people had gathered, curious as to what this “mzungu” (white person) had to tell them.
I began the training nervously, and the villagers began it skeptically. With Linda translating, it quickly became clear that the Maasai wanted to know how I would help them, in a material way. They wanted me to help build fences around their crops, give money for soccer balls, and provide a solution to their water problems. Unfortunately, they were probably responding to the more traditional forms of international aid that they had previously witnessed—westerners coming in and attempting to directly solve their problems.
Potentially for this reason, I was nervous about conducting these trainings in the first place. I’ve spent a lot of time in East Africa, but I am a “mzungu”, completely unversed in the issues that affected these Maasai, let alone in the local and Tanzanian governmental structures that would allow them to solve their problems. How would I avoid falling into the same pitfalls that so many international development efforts succumb to, in which white westerners essentially tell primitive, black Africans how to improve their own lives?
I’m not sure it’s possible to completely rise above the complexity of this dissonance (although, a Brown University education provides plenty of ammunition to problematize this situation several times over). But as the training went along, I realized that Generation Citizen’s framework actually does provide at least the possibility of transcending cultures and languages.
I reviewed our famed “Advocacy Hourglass” and asked the participants to provide specific examples of issues they wanted to change in their community. They quickly debated a list of numerous daily challenges, ranging from an upsurge in elephants trampling their crops (caused largely by conservationists unintentionally re-routing elephants into their farm-land), to inadequate water pipes and supplies, to unequal education systems. These were issues that affected their actual livelihood, and they wanted to take action and help solve them.
At times, they wanted immediate answers, but I could not provide concrete solutions to their challenges. I could not tell them how to get fences built around their farms, a water source closer to their homes, or better-trained teachers. But our advocacy framework did prove helpful—demonstrating that they needed to identify the root cause of the bigger issue, determine a specific goal, figure out the decision-makers most pertinent to their problem, and then formulate tactics to achieve the goal. It did seem that they understood the framework, and the villagers set out to form advocacy committees to move forward.
Over the next three days, all of our trainings, which included two with high school classes, followed a similar narrative structure. The Maasai would start with a mix of skepticism and desire for immediate solutions to their problems, then begin to recognize the value of the training. Ultimately, each group began to analyze the key problems in their community, deciding how to move forward with tackling the issues.
Having left, I’m both excited and nervous as the villages move forward with their plans. In the United States, GC attempts to empower young people to take action on issues they care about, even though most of the young people we work with are victims of an unequal educational system that needs vast systemic reforms. We’ve made the conscious decision to focus on small but meaningful change until that larger system is fixed.
Similarly, I felt the vast injustice that these Maasai are exposed to. Formerly a completely self-sustaining society, they have been forced to adjust to the rapid modernization of their land. They used to peacefully co-exist with animals, but western-led conservation efforts have altered migration habits. They used to have plentiful water supplies, but climate change, largely originating in urban areas, has diminished the natural resources. Their pastoral ways did not require formal education in the past, but now, an increasingly global economy (power lines were just coming in as I visited) necessitates it.
So what to do? The reality is that these Maasai, like villagers throughout Africa, must adjust by attempting to secure more political power. And over the course of three days, I began to see how important this was for them as they worked to survive as a people.
Thirteen years ago, East Africa showed me the power of the potential of democracy, and how much it can mean when individuals come together to make a collective difference. Last week, I saw how challenging modernity has made democracy in the developing world. But by the end of the trainings, I felt re-enforced by GC’s central premise—that the only way problems will be solved is if the people most affected by those problems lead—whether these be leaders in urban minority communities in the United States or remote Tanzanian villagers. As these leaders emerge, the rest of us must work to facilitate this shift in power. From rural Tanzania to urban America, that’s the only way to solve these intractable problems.
– Scott Warren

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.