The Shadow of Development

by: Rita Sinorita Fierro

A journey to a place suspended in time. An island that calls into question the merits of an efficiency-driven society…


“Not to be racist…but how do you deal with them being so slooow?”

He was from the UK. A banker, twenty-nine years old tops. He was on vacation, and wore khaki shorts at his knees and a light green three-button classic polo.

We were in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya. We sat in a restaurant drinking fresh-squeezed mango juice. It was one of those impromptu conversations between strangers who could become vacation lovers or buddies, if things went right. I was full of good intentions, but the conversation turned very wrong.

Ever since spending the last two years doing anti-racist organizing with other whites, I was learning to use dialogue to overcome racism in my own assumptions and those around me. I also saw dialogue as an opportunity for my own growth. But I’m still learning how to stop rolling my eyes when people make statements that I strongly disagree with.

I paused to look up at him. He was cute. At least he’d looked cute when I’d spotted him that morning on the beach. Now he just looked very white and very clueless to me. There was a long moment of silence after he spoke. He sincerely expected from me an answer.

I had been in Kenya barely two weeks. The first three days were spent in Nairobi, a chaotic city that I like to call an African New York because it’s metropolitan, noisy, stressful, colorful, diverse, entrepreneurial, and dynamic. The rest of the time I was in Lamu, a beautiful Kenyan island close to the Somali border. Lamu has no cars and the streets are small and the only means of travel are by boat or donkey. Donkeys are ubiquitous on Lamu. They transport sand to build homes, bring mangos to the market, and pick up the trash from the homes.

Lamu is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The Swahili locals are mainly Muslim, of both Kenyan and Arab descent. It was especially quiet that year compared to the last ten. Kenya had just sent troops to Somalia in the fight against Al Shabab. Three white foreigners were victimized, two killed, and one kidnapped. The usually packed tourist season had become extremely slow.

Lamu is a magical place. It is the only place I’ve ever been where staring at the sea could keep me in a daze for hours. I never journaled while I was in Lamu. I never made it beyond the first sentence without becoming enchanted by the shore. Lamu is a place suspended in time. Of course, I welcomed the pause from my usually-hectic life.

From the smart looking bankers comment, as he leaned across from me at the bar, I inferred that he loved his hectic life so much that he wanted to import it from the UK to Lamu.

“I mean this guy took like five minutes to open my soda this morning. How do you deal with that?” he insisted, to win over my silence. While I secretly wished that the Kenyan sun would burn some sense into his brains, I breathed deeply and searched for a node of compassion in the pit of my stomach.

“Well, that’s one way to look at it,” I told him. “That is your perspective coming from the UK. Someone here may say you lack patience to rush someone working at his own pace. I mean, aren’t you on vacation?”

“Well come on,” he said, shocked. “I’m not saying it for me. I’m saying it for him. He can do so much better with his life.”

The truth is, I’m bad at these conversations. It’s hard to leave the other person enough space that they can talk and learn and gradually understand another perspective. Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe I’m learning and getting better at it.

“I mean I want this for him, for them, you know…development. He…they, can do so much better. This place could be so much better.”

I fought the urge to strike back. He had said the wrong word: development. He said it with authority, as many do. As if the very use of the word could make solid foundations out of a quicksand pool of assumptions.

I perhaps should have breathed in the warm afternoon breeze or the sunlight on the ocean just across from us and then asked him what he saw as the positive aspects of Kenya.

But instead, I blurted out. “Please tell me. Where has all our obsession with efficiency brought the West? We are a bunch of people dying of heart attacks because we cannot sustain the rhythms and standards we have set for ourselves. We are a group of people suffering with depression who need to hire therapists because half of the time we have no one to talk to and our friends are too busy to find time to help. Where has all this efficiency-driven society taken us? It has brought fulfillment but it also brought much, much more.”

“Well, you can’t deny that the West is better off than this place. We have technology and medicine and…”

I’ve often been accused of having a romanticized view of Africa, as if I were looking at the same misrepresented river as this banker-boy but from the opposite bank. Actually, I did see the downsides of Africa, but people who go to Africa only to point out the downsides irk the hell out of me.

But it was his first time in Africa. He was here by chance, on a house-swap with his best friend’s family. Can you blame him that all he knew about Africa was what he was missing from back home? Can you blame him that all he knew was the negative media portrayal? Can you blame him for not understanding the complexity of past and current colonialism?

Heroin addiction is common in Lamu today. Until only twenty years ago, no one knew of heroin. Islanders just grew and smoked marijuana. In the 1980s the international tourism boom started. With the tourism, came the heroin “market.” In Lamu it was an Egyptian and an Italian (yes my people, dammit…) who came to the tropical island to get “clean” from using heroin. They failed and instead, started asking around for the stuff. With the buyers came the market. I wanted to strangle the Italian Paisan with my bare hands, but he had since died of an overdose. Later a friend who worked in the Mombasa port confirmed that Italians still held the monopoly of the heroin imports into the country. My stomach still churns with shame for my people. I didn’t tell the banker this though. I was choosing my words carefully, for conciseness.

“We, the West, export an image of development that is dishonest,” I say. “Development, the development we know, is made of medical advances and technology, but it also carries a shadow. Our development carries the shadow of depression, and physical sickness due to stress, and violence, and drugs, and until the West gets honest about that shadow and we find ways to overcome these shadows in our own backyards, we have no business telling other people what to do to develop. Otherwise all we do is export a dishonest idea and wreak havoc by exporting the shadow with the so-called progress.”

He must have been following attentively because he responded very profoundly.

“I don’t think either of us are bad people. I think we just disagree.”

There was the wall. The wall of privilege. I’ve noticed it in the minds of most white Westerners. We assume that because we are richer, we are better than the poor countries of the world. It’s the wall that white-upper-class-oblivion hides behind. And because of our privilege, we can go about our lives in complete ignorance of what’s on the other side: all the historical and present economic, social, and military mechanisms that made things this way and perpetuate these myths.

Most of all, we ignore the truths about ourselves and our own intentions that we would have to face if we questioned our assumption of superiority. And then we can ignore the wall because we covered it with the softest, cutest, colorful blanket of fake niceness. After all, we’re just good people.

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