one of our favorite sights

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Musings on the Modern Global Economy--Kenya 2012

plastic shoes for sale in town

As with everything else that one runs across in the developing world, the influence of the modern global economy is striking here in Kenya. Kenya, being a coastal African country, has had a global economy for centuries, between the early early traders coming from Portugal, India and Persia, to the Europeans and others later on. The market for East African goods was large and deep and certainly global, even in those days, whether it was slaves, spices, exotic fruits, or minerals and gems.
Although at home we do try to buy locally as we feel it helps the local economy and lessens our contribution to green house gases,  it is nearly impossible to buy locally all the time. So, living where there are a lot of fresh tropical fruits, for instance, which is something that we had basically stopped buying (bananas, mangoes, pineapples and avocadoes) is pleasant because we can get them here knowing (and seeing!) that they are grown here locally and sold by Kenyans at the market. In fact, as we plant our garden, we are trying not to grow vegetables that we see around locally so that we can continue to support the local vendors in town. Having no idea how to grow a banana or avocado helps make that an easy decision, but we also will not plant tomatoes, spinach, kale, onions, and a few other items which are prevalent at the market.
Sadly, just as it is difficult in the States to only buy locally it is also here. Guess which country is selling a lot of non food items here in Kenya as well? You got it! China! Not only has the handmade housewares industry gotten completely taken over by Chinese wares, much of everything else has also. Hardware, electronics, decorative items and on and on. It is a sad state of affairs from our perspective. Nothing against the Chinese as a people of course,  but their trade and manufacturing industries are a bit all pervasive, let’s say. It used to be that you could find handmade items all over Kenya and people wearing clothes manufactured here in the country, but not anymore.
 Very few folks wear locally produced textiles and when they do it is for a special occasion. That is another industry which has completely changed due to the global economy. You know when you take a load of used clothes to Goodwill and you think it’s being purchased there at home (or you go there yourself?). The craziest thing is that apparently a lot of the used clothes which are not sold in the US are sent to these countries and they are sold on the street here. Most people wear “western” attire here and there are people hawking western style clothing all over the streets. Everything from undies to shoes and all that one wears otherwise is for sale. (There are some Kenyan made shoes).
 In fact, it’s kind of fun to read all the various tshirts that are seen on the street here. We are making a little game of it ourselves as some of them seem extremely absurd when walking down the street in Eldoret. My favorite thus far was a young man wearing a black tshirt that said “Future Trophy Wife”..LOL…anyway, it seems a little sad because as many people can verify, African cloths are lovely and it is so nice to see people dressed using their locally made cloths. I don’t know how it is in other African countries now but certainly in Kenya it is not the fashion! Of course with this lack of market there comes a lessening of the need for a textile workforce and therefore fewer jobs available here locally (sound familiar?). So, I’m not sure it can be construed as a positive.
liam working on garden fence

MG and the boys

Rafiki supervising work 

mamas with plastic bags

clothing for sale


market in Eldoret

atypical scene

plastic bag trash mostly in town
Most of the locally made products today are for tourists. There are plenty of artisans making baskets, decorated gourds, little statuettes, wooden bowls, etc, and they are lovely and plentiful and some are localized so there is a familiarity with that product nationwide. WE recently purchased outdoor furniture from a friend  from Busia, on the Ugandan border, which is known for its handmade woven furniture.  We are so pleased with them . They are handmade, comfortable, and they smell like grass!
Possibly the most disconcerting and unpleasant aspect of the modern global market here in Kenya  is the inundation of plastic. Plastic bags are everywhere and everyone here seems to think that they are a necessary aspect of “modern” life. It is very difficult for us, as environmental activists and anti plastic bag people from way back to see them all over the ground. I mean all over. That is one thing I will never get used to. There is sadly, no way to recycle them and the trash collection in Eldoret is practically nonexistent, SO they do not get taken away.   All we can do is try to make our point every time we go to the market and/or grocery store. It’s not so different than in southern IN really, although littering is more de rigueur here.  We take our reusable bag and make a mild pronouncement when they move to put things in a plastic bag, about how we don’t NEED a plastic bag and how bad plastic bags are. Even the vendors in the market are using them for their vegetables now! We can only guess that it is because they think that they are then competing with the grocery stores which use them at every turn (again, sound familiar?). So, as we continue on our path here, trying to be a positive influence, trying to do the right thing in terms of supporting the local economy, we are also hatching a plan to help eradicate plastic bags from the local environment and get some folks behind cleaning up Eldoret. Wish us luck!
One interesting note is that some countries, like some cities in the US, have legislated the elimination of plastic bags altogether. Rwanda most notably. People here say that that is what the government should do, but that would take some initiative on the part of the government….which there doesn’t seem to be….hmmm   well, not to be a broken record, BUT….sound familiar?
Another interesting aspect of the global market in Kenya is the ubiquitous use of cell phones. Actually the local cellular and internet service are homegrown so they too are local even though they certainly help one to stay connected internationally. No doubt they also help Kenyan companies and entrepreneurs do business worldwide. In fact, Kenya has one of the most innovative and modern money exchanging services, called MPESA, which takes place over the cell phone. It is crazy for this old fart, to be moving money with a cell phone, but it is very commonly done and most everyone here has a cell phone, even if they aren’t moving money. One of my favorite images is going by a market scene and seeing all the mamas selling their wares while talking on the cell phone. Well, so there you have it. The modern world is all pervasive some for the good and some for the bad but mostly for the absolutely mindboggling!

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