By Hollyn Hammond
I can measure my days here by the layers of sweat, dirt, bug spray and sunscreen that accumulate on my arms and feet. Really, I can measure my summer by the amount of bug bites that have covered my body (which I pray are not malarial) or by the amount of strange tan lines that adorn my shoulders. As an aid worker in the field, you often measure your successes by how the experiences affect you personally because it can be much too difficult to measure your immediate impact on others.
Today I’ve accumulated many layers, but some of the layers on my feet remain from yesterday since I haven’t had access to a proper shower in the past 24 hours. Yesterday I visited a tiny, rural village called Kobuin, located in the Turkana region of northeastern Kenya and near the borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. The village is a product of circumstances. The once-nomadic tribesmen who had made their livelihoods on pastoralism have all pretty much lost their cattle to raiding (stealing from other tribes, usually violently), disease, or drought. I visited this village to assess the damage of last year’s drought on education specifically. (As an intern with UNICEF’s emergency field office in Turkana district, I am writing a report on the impact of drought on education in the region, and proposing the next steps to be taken for disaster risk reduction in schools.)
As I approach the village I don’t see a soul in site. I squint from the fancy UN vehicle—I’ve learned that in the small villages, children usually shy away from cars and white people, a stark contrast to the reactions of schoolchildren in Kakuma Refugee Camp (where I am also working this summer with UNICEF). I get out of the vehicle and hurry toward a man walking toward me. He explains that he is the volunteer teacher for the school and that classes had ended early today because they ran out of food. “We only teach on days when there is food for the kids, otherwise there would be no students” he explains as he shows me the classroom built by the community with bare sticks and nothing else. He informs me that in times of drought, children cling to school as the only place to be fed. His school, not an approved Kenyan school, receives small rations from a nearby primary school, but it is never enough.
Slowly I spot some little ones, and the teacher in me instantly feels magnetized to them. A few brave girls and a handful of shy boys wander my way as the teacher enthusiastically explains in Turkana that I won’t bite. As if on cue, two babies burst into tears as their older siblings drag them my way. (I have lost count of all the babies I have made cry this summer with my whiteness. In South Sudan I was even told I looked like an “inside-out monster”! I am used to it by now.) I urge the teacher to translate for me as I ask them what they like about school. “Food. Water,” are their only answers. I nudge them to demonstrate their knowledge to me and a beautiful 8-year-old girl named Akiru (the Turkana word for “rain” because she was born beneath a rainy sky) recites the alphabet. She bends down to draw her letters in the dirt. The teacher explains that because they rarely have pencils and paper, the students are much better making their letters in the dirt. I am touched by the volunteer teacher’s determination to teach his community without compensation and even more humbled by this young girl’s ability to draw out her letters on the burning hot ground.
And it all comes back to me. Being a student and being in the field at the same time has a way of pushing you to make it about you at the end of the day. I was told this is a gift because it’s one of the rare opportunities we will get in this field to really question, really ponder what we’re doing in this world as development practitioners. Our professors have taught us to question everything, to leave no thought uninvestigated.
On the bumpy, long road back to Kakuma Refugee Camp (where I am stationed for my internship at the UNHCR compound), I think: “Did my presence in that village really help anyone?” Undoubtedly, the answer is no. Perhaps I showed a few babies and small children that all white people aren’t scary, but that might be the extent of my impact. Sure, I will advocate UNICEF to provide a School-in-a-Box kit to this village, but with the UN’s bureaucracy, my plea might never be heard. And if they receive materials, is this really a sustainable solution? Never ending questions bounce around in my brain like the wheels on the potholes beneath me.
Upon further reflection, of which there is little time for today as I’ve been dashing between refugee schools in the camp as I scramble to conduct promised interviews with teachers and students, I remind myself that this is all a part of my own development. We are all here to “do development” but really what you can measure is that of your own. I remind myself that this is part of my education, a crucial part of graduate school. I have come up with innovative solutions to refugee and nomadic pastoral education this summer. I have learned to communicate across intense language barriers in the camp, learned the battled of cross-agency coordination, learned the thanklessness that is aid work, and learned to listen to the quietest voices. My all-too-American “get ‘er done” attitude has quelled—at least for the summer—a stark contrast to life in Washington, DC. I have learned the processes of responding to acute-on-chronic emergencies and that nothing ever happens fast or right on the first try.
I am thankful for the balance that the International Development Studies program allows because, without this summer’s deep-field experience, I might have only understood overly articulated development articles in terms of class discussions and term papers. For me, this field is in the field, and the layers of academic and field experiences are preparing me for a life of humanitarian assistance and development.