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Mario A. Bollini ’09 explains his group’s new 2-gear hand-powered tricycle design to a local client of The Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya that came to test the prototype. Mario was in Nairobi, Kenya this past summer.
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Murder. Genocide. Political unrest. Displacement from homes. Here at MIT, most of us are fortunate to say we have never experienced these griefs first hand. Most of us are even so fortunate to say that we do not have close friends or loved ones who have experienced these horrors first hand in Sudan, Iraq, Haiti, or even in more stable locations like Kenya and South Africa. However, with MIT’s diverse student body, growing focus on international development, and increasing number of students traveling to countries all around the world, events occurring in locations hundreds of miles away are coming one step closer to our lives and our hearts.

Mario A. Bollini ’09 traveled to Nairobi, Kenya this past summer after taking SP.784, a class on Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries taught by Amos G. Winter G and Amy Smith, senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Mario worked with The Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) to test and implement a new design for hand-powered tricycles. However, Mario’s experience in Kenya went beyond mechanical engineering; Mario worked closely with the technicians in the wheelchair workshop, the physically disabled individuals that came for a tricycle, and the administrative staff running the organization. Observing their interactions, Mario had really integrated himself into their every day lives. He worked with them, ate with them, joked around with them, and shared stories with them. I was only there for a week, but even during that short time, I was able to connect with them and feel a bond of camaraderie. Our new friends loved tea time, offering us more and more of the delicious (and very sugary) tea and taking delight in the peanut butter and banana sandwiches Mario had introduced them to.

Though things were stable while Mario was in Kenya, the nation is now plagued by violence stemming from the December presidential election. When asked about the effect of the current political situation, Mario responded, “Having been to many of the places in Kenya that are being torn apart by the post-election violence, I’m personally torn apart by memories of a much different Kenya and the horror of seeing many friends’ homes and lives destroyed. A particular photograph of riot police beating protesters at the bus stop that I commuted through daily really conveyed the country’s unfortunate transformation to me.”

On December 27, Kenyan voters re-elected President Mwai Kibaki (mainly supported by the Kikuyu tribe) into office. Or so we thought. On the last day of 2007, riots broke out and a ban was placed on live TV broadcasts as supporters (mainly the Luo tribe) of Raila Odinga, Kibaki’s close opponent, accused Kibaki of rigging the elections. Many Kenyans, including some of our friends, had unexpected murder, genocide, political unrest, and displacement from homes to start their new year. The slum communities and less-privileged regions suffered significantly. While much of the upper and middle classes in Kenya were not directly affected, they experienced effects of the conflict. For example, Herman M. Mutiso ’10, an MIT international student that lived in Kenya for the first 18 years of his life, moved to the states in late August, 2006 to start MIT. He was home from December 25 to January 9 and while he was not directly affected by the violence, he says, “I was forced to stay at home for days on end, as were lots of other Kenyans, given the fear of getting caught up in an impromptu riot, or of having to explain oneself to police who, out of a desperation to restore order, became increasingly aggressive. Considering that the whole point of my trip to Kenya was to see friends and family, the fact that a few prominent political figures were holding the country at ransom really upset me.”

Now why does that matter to us? It is understandable that it doesn’t as Kenya is an ocean and several countries away. Mario phrased it well, “Its easy to feel disconnected from what happens abroad, both because it doesn’t directly affect us and because we have no idea what riotous political turmoil really feels like.” However, the heartache and issues are not as far as you may think. There are many students, staff, and faculty that you have probably met or may even work with every day that have visited or lived in Kenya with friends and even family that are still there.

MIT is in a unique position with involvement from countries all over the world that allow us to learn and understand situations beyond what the media tells us. Gleb Kuznetsov ’10 was in Kenya with a team of five MIT students this previous summer working with the MIT Africa Internet Technology Initiative. Working at Alliance High School in Kikuyu and Strathmore University in Nairobi, the MIT team taught the students computer knowledge and skill they could apply to community service or entrepreneurial endeavors. “We developed strong relationships with teachers and students, especially at Strathmore University where the students were essentially our peers, and remain in contact via email and Facebook,” Gleb wrote in an e-mail. When Gleb contacted his students post-election troubles, he learned that the media had been “sensationalizing the events to some extent, though not to understate that people have been losing their lives and others are being displaced from their homes.” Gleb found that his students had the advantage of access to resources and information which allowed them to “absorb information from around the world and analyze the happenings in their own country from a broader perspective, leading to greater understanding and more responsible means of dealing with the issue. [Which allowed them to] carry on their studies and jobs with ‘business as usual in Nairobi’ as one wrote in a Facebook message,” said Gleb. Gleb is part of the AITI team that added the Cell Phone Application development to AITI this past summer, “providing access to content and information to a broad range of cell phone uses.” He commented, “Making content and information more widely available could prevent or at least tone down conflicts such as the post-election turmoil that is only now beginning to cool off.”

Herman also provided a unique perspective about the situation which he experienced firsthand on his visit home. “Yes, billions of dollars have been lost [these] past few weeks, but an even greater problem is the stratification of the country along ethnic lines. A lot of the rioting quickly devolved into ethnic cleansing, and I fear that it will be a long time before we can regain a national identity. Most people in the country now identify themselves primarily with their tribe and then secondly as Kenyan. As a youth, I’m also disturbed by the fact that given this was the first election where the youth really turned up in large numbers to decide the direction the country was going to take, the fact that such a large number feel cheated will mean that the youth will again fall into a state of indifference and apathy when it comes to the country’s elections, which is the last thing any African country needs right now,” said Herman.

Indeed, many individuals and organizations in Kenya are in disarray. APDK, an organization that Mario and other MIT students have worked closely with, estimates that more than 180 of the disabled individuals they work with have been directly affected through looting and burning of or displacement from their homes and businesses. More than 1000 of these individuals have been indirectly affected. The violence has resulted in a high demand for mobility aids, housing, food, sources of income, and post-traumatic stress counseling that APDK has been struggling to meet. APDK has no obligation to help them get through these hard times, but, they are trying. We, too, don’t have to do anything. However, at the very least, shouldn’t we try to know what is happening and understand? The people in Kenya are our colleagues, mentors, advisers, friends, and maybe even our family; don’t you want to know what is happening? MIT demands a lot out of its students. When we aren’t psetting or studying for an exam, we want to unwind and let go. Who wants to spend their precious free time reading the small print of the newspaper or watching the news instead of an exciting episode of 24 or Lost? But what if the situation was reversed and this had happened to you? Sure, you may say, “well, it didn’t.” But what if it had?