Breaking the Rules in 3 Cultures

As Americans, we like the idea of breaking rules. It feels anti-establishment and counter-cultural, like we’re sticking it to the man and coming out just a little ahead. We use phrases like “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”  and “rules were made to be broken” to demonstrate this defiant, independent attitude. Interestingly enough, I believe America’s rule-breaking mentality actually makes it harder to break the rules. There are more lawyers in the state of Texas than the country of Japan and probably the continent of Africa because in America, catching rule (or law) breakers is now an industry.

Japan is a little different. Most Japanese wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules because conformity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Japanese work culture dictates that you stay longer than your superiors because leaving early would be a sign of disloyalty. Falling asleep at work is viewed as a positive development because it means you have labored for the company to the point of exhaustion. In fact, some workers fake falling asleep at work to convince people they have been working hard! In this sometimes absurd culture, local proverbs like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered” demonstrate Japanese attitudes toward breaking the rules.

Perhaps counterintuitively, in Japan it’s easier to break the rules, especially for someone like me who can never fully conform to society anyway. For example, everyone knows that the best skiing is under the ropes. But in Japan no one goes there! I spent entire days snowboarding outside the boundaries. Occasionally ski patrols caught me but I would reason with them in Japanese, apologizing profusely and lamenting my foreign ignorance. At other times (I am somewhat ashamed to admit), I used the language card and only spoke in English. They would point at the rope, cross their arms into a big X, and be on their way.

Finally there is Kenya, where some would argue there are no rules. I would say there are rules, but they often exist to extort money from ordinary people, like when I was talking on my phone while driving. The instant I saw a police officer I jerked the phone away, but just a moment too late. She gave me a lecture about how dangerous it was to talk while driving (even though I was inching along in traffic) and eventually said she could either take me to jail, or I could give her 500 shillings ($6) for lunch. I chose option C and pleaded with her to forgive me this one time since I was from America where the rules were different. Employing my usual strategy when dealing with African police, I simply wasted enough of her time that she let me go.

Now to my point. Wherever you are, I think it’s important to think outside the box to create the kind of life you want. That often involves breaking rules, at least society’s rules on the right career path or who you’re supposed to be or how you should live your life. I like Frank Zappa’s quote when he says,

“If you end up with a boring life because you listened to your mom, dad, teacher, priest or some guy on television telling you how to do you S***, then you probably deserve it.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law or wear Guy Fawkes masks. I just think nonconformity goes hand in hand with living intentionally because everyone can do something special, unique and interesting with their lives. But before you do that, people will think you’re crazy. To me, that is what breaking the rules is all about: finding that unique thing that you were called to do, even when other people (and sometimes yourself) tell you it won’t work. I am slowly learning that purpose for myself and I am trying deliberately to pursue it. It’s risky, but it’s the way I strive to live my life.

I will leave you with one more quote, this time from Sir Winston Churchill:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour



A Dollar a Day is a Poor Way to Measure Poverty

As I think about returning to Africa, I keep reading articles and hearing organizations quoting the “dollar a day” statistic. I’ve always wanted to write a response to this. Here it is

We’ve all heard it. “A billion people live on less than a dollar a day and another 2 billion live on less than $2 a day”. Intended to create shock value, I’ve heard a version of this statistic so many times it has ceased to mean anything to me. While I understand that putting poverty in simplistic terms like a dollar a day helps people in rich countries understand it better (and increase donations), I want to propose that poverty is significantly more complex and hopeful than our “dollar a day” paradigm.

First, let’s look at how a dollar a day is defined. Contrary to what I thought, the measurement does not take one US dollar, convert it to Ugandan shillings or Mexican pesos and see how much a poor person would need to live. It actually uses purchasing power parity (PPP), so a basket of goods that would cost $1 in the US might only cost 50 cents somewhere else. A person living on “a dollar a day” in Guatemala is actually living on less than 50 US cents because stuff is half the price in Guatemala.

So do people actually live on 50 cents a day? Yes and no, for two important reasons.

Social Capital and Agriculture.

The US is an individualistic and post-agricultural society. Individualism means income is personal and you can’t rely on anyone else (besides maybe your parents) in times of trouble. People who can’t pay their bills often become homeless. In a place like this, it is impossible to live on a dollar because you have to pay upfront for everything you need. Virtually no one in the US grows his/her own food anymore. We have to buy everything we eat, increasing our dependence on liquid capital, ie. Cash.

In contrast, poor countries are generally more communal, meaning income is shared to provide a social safety net. Africans who can’t pay their bills could move in with their brother, or cousin, or a dozen other family connections. They may earn less than a dollar a day, but they will not become destitute.

Likewise, a large percentage of poor people in developing countries are farmers. They may be poor, earning less than a dollar a day in cash, but at least they have avocados and banana trees. The lack of stable income does not necessarily mean you are starving. This isn’t true of cities, but cities are also the places where incomes are higher, significantly more than $1 a day.

All that to say, the average income of certain places in developing countries might be less than $1 a day, but that is changing quickly and thinking of assets only in terms of cash fails to see the entire picture. People in poor countries have more resources that they can rely on in times of trouble and they can only live on a dollar a day because they have these other resources. I’m not saying that poverty doesn’t exist. It is extremely vast and complicated and I don’t fully understand its consequences/causes. But a dollar a day is a poor way to think about poverty because it fails to consider so many intangibles. It’s a Western perspective on income applied to third-world contexts and while it tells one side, I believe it fails to tell the whole story.

Let me know what you think and subscribe to my blog if you would like updates as I return to Kenya.

Intense Moments

Today I was going to downtown Nairobi to make a routine delivery of our products. I arrived at a roundabout that I normally pass and found several policeman encircling it. With christmas approaching and police all over town looking for some extra spending money, I didn’t think much of it. I continued on and when I got closer to my destination, found some pretty nasty traffic. Although traffic is nothing new for Nairobi, I began hearing gunshot noises from the cross street behind me.  I couldn’t see anything happening, but as I sat in traffic, the noise and frequency of the shots increased. Inching along, I began to see people a hundred yards behind me running onto the street and throwing rocks at policemen. The police were firing tear gas at the protesters, but steadily losing ground. While I watched helplessly, the riot moved closer and closer to my trapped car. The police continued to back off, eventually coming parallel to my car. Soon rocks were landing all around, breaking the windows of the cars next to and in front of me. Rocks even hit my bumper, antenna and roof, narrowly missing my windows by the grace of God. Panicked, I was honking and yelling at everything and everyone, desperately trying to get away from the oncoming mob. Finally, traffic opened enough for me to pull onto a side street. I inched along and could still hear the noises behind me, but the riot turned in another direction and the danger passed. Who knows how long the entire episode took. 5 minutes – maybe 10? All I know is that it seemed like an eternity, and for the ride home I felt like I had just survived a war.

Although much milder, my experiences today remind me of my frequent discussions on Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007. In the wake of the disputed presidential election, over 1,500 people were killed and 200,000 displaced in the worst violence since Kenya’s independence. Check out the link to the wikipedia article for more information. With the first elections since the post-election violence taking place in March of 2013, the question on everyone’s mind is ‘what will happen this time’? Almost every person I’ve talked to has assured me wholeheartedly that this time everything will be peaceful. “Kenya has learned from it’s mistakes” they say and will not return to the brutality of 2007.

While I have no doubt that 99.9% of Kenyans genuinely desire a peaceful election, it only takes a few hundred unemployed adolescent idiots on each side to turn the election violent. These people are just waiting for something to protest, and losing the election is a perfect excuse to blow off some steam. Further, the losing politicians in the last election paid these people to demonstrate and riot for them. With Kenyan politicians rated even more corrupt than 5 years ago and Kenya ranked 139th out of 174 countries in terms of worst corruption levels, I don’t see why it wouldn’t happen again. Ironically, the presidential candidates at the forefront of this election are the ones charged at the ICC for inciting ethnic violence in the previous one. Even in the event of a peaceful election, Kenya’s corrupt leadership is failing this country in serious ways.

Having spoken out agains violence, I don’t necessarily blame protestors or claim that I would do otherwise in their shoes. In the absence of functional systems to voice their opinions and protests, what else can they do? Police only listen to money and politicians actively steal from the nation. They are unemployed, without serious job prospects and angry at the people who made it that way. What do they have to lose?

Without something serious happening, I don’t see Kenya changing in the near future. Aid money will continue pouring in, GDP growth will look great on paper and “corruption is evil” jackets will make the international community believe that Kenya is on the path to success. But underneath it all, corrupt leadership remains, eating away at what this country could be and satisfying the voracious appetite of those at the top. That’s a little depressing because Kenya has amazing people and is a great place to live, but something has to change. I’m not certain of the solution and I think it will take a long time, but this country has to unite and tackle the issues, no matter what the cost. Solutions have to come from locals and “we” as Westerners have to realize that sometimes not helping is the most helpful thing we can do. It’s going to be a long, painful process, but with the right leadership and dedication, I believe this country can succeed marvelously.