Mary Walker: A different kind of bailout

Kenyan conditions place US economic turmoil in perspective

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Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 with funding from the United Nations, and it provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have either escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today. She recently visited the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Mary Walker

Special to the Steamboat Today

Before leaving Nairobi to head home, I had dinner with Mayling Hebert and Kate Kakela, who are Steamboat Springs locals working in Kenya. Mayling is the East African HIV/AIDS coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, and Kate is an intern for the United Nations doing humanitarian aid work. She was heading to Nakuru, Kenya, to develop strategies for assisting the many thousands of Kenyans still living in internally displaced persons camps throughout Kenya, nine months after the post-election violence in Kenya forced them from their homes.

We talked about many things - their work, my work in a rescue center in rural Maasai Kenya, and the political and economic situation in Kenya. We talked about the economic news we were hearing out of the United States from CNN and our families. Fifty-eight billion dollars of United States taxpayers' money is being given to AIG because it could not function properly as a profit-making business in our "free market" economy. Of course, more recently, this economic cycle has spiraled downward.

Here in Kenya, individuals and families struggle day to day in a way that people in the United States cannot even imagine. The concept of government buyouts and taxpayer bailouts is absolutely out of the question in this economic environment. In Kenya, there is an entrepreneurial spirit that pervades, not out of a sense of adding to one's wellbeing, but out of a sense of basic, day-to-day survival. It is difficult to describe how this looks on the ground. Imagine, along every road, people selling roasted maize, vegetables, baskets, used clothing, shoes, literally anything that they can accumulate. If they are fortunate that day, they may take home the equivalent of $2 to 3 to buy charcoal, some milk, flour and sugar - the absolute essentials for caring for one's family. The only government bailout here is a national annual allocation of money to districts based on a bizarre rating system of Kenya's richest to poorest districts. Most of this money doesn't make it to the people; it stalls in the bureaucracy.

In Kenya, I see how people struggle for the things that we take for granted in the "new" world - to feed their families and provide some measure of health, wellbeing and education for their children. Throughout the Third World, there is much talk about the need for "sustainable development," indigenous "ownership" of aid projects and the like. I hope the day is soon that companies such as AIG and Merrill Lynch will be expected to meet the same demands of sustainability and survival in a "free market" world economy that we seem to demand from truly life-saving programs throughout the rest of the world. Why do we hold organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, The International Red Cross and the United Nations to a higher standard than we do commercial, for-profit businesses such as AIG and Merrill Lynch?

Before heading home, I traveled to Eldoret, Kenya, for "Mothers Day" at Caro's boarding school. (Caro is one of the 45-50 Maasai girls who lives at the rescue center.) I donated the equivalent of $50 to her school to assist them in meeting the basic toiletry needs of several orphans at the all-girls secondary boarding school - menstrual pads (here, unmarried women do not use tampons), toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, etc. Throughout Kenya, many girls can't attend high school because their families can't afford these required items.

This was a bailout that made sense to me.

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