Are Stories Enough?
Last year I learned about an organization called Worldbike. It was essentially founded by an innovative engineer who designed a tool that he wants to proliferate around the developing world: a very durable high-capacity bicycle. The bike can help people transport themselves, other people, and goods in and around their communities. Just like so much else, personal transportation in the developing world is almost indescribably different from that in the developed world. As you can imagine, almost no individuals own cars, and those who do are often taxi drivers. The vast majority of the roads are unpaved and unimproved, so even with a car, getting around is not that easy. Many people, as you can read about throughout the pages of these Nuru blogs, spend hours and hours per day walking – walking to the market, walking to school, walking to water sources, walking to health centers, walking to Nuru meetings. So durable bicycles being made available for community members would be a great service to most of them because it would open up more time each day for other activities.
I spoke to Worldbike’s founder about his organization’s mission a while back, and we talked about how the developed world would of course benefit from more bike usage. The developed world, in my opinion (especially the States), has gone a bit too far in its dependence on motor vehicles and fossil fuels. There are many neighborhoods around the outskirts of my city (Cincinnati, Ohio) that do not have sidewalks! Just driveways and paved roads – cars only. We agreed that more bikes around the world would be a good thing.
I think about that conversation rather frequently. I don’t tend to get too nervous about things as they go economically here in the States. Sure, job security is not great for me and my husband and other family members, the credit markets are not great, it’s not as easy to get a loan to buy a house as it was ten years ago, but truly, I am not worried about having enough to eat, or even having a roof over my head. These are the lucky benefits of living in a developed country. Pure luck of the draw.
However, the S&P downgrade that happened last weekend and the subsequent stock market plummet did give me pause. I wondered: are we regressing towards some mean? Will people in this country start needing to use bikes because the fuel stations will run out of their supply and the roads will go into disrepair? Is this stage 1.0 of that movement? Will our lives start to become a little more like the lives of people in Kuria, while at the same time, theirs becomes a little more like ours, so we all reach a uniform human experience that is a decrease in want and need for Kurians and a decrease in excess and greed in Americans?
Another thing that I have been thinking about this week is an op-ed that was published in the New York Times. It is a criticism of our Kenyan-American president, focusing partly on the fact that he hasn’t taken advantage of a good narrative in his communications with us constituents. He hasn’t “told the story right”, and if he had, he would have had more success creating that promised “change we can believe in”. The author calls out FDR as a more effective narrator whom Obama would do well to emulate.
I’m not so sure. Stories are great, but FDR came along at a time when the story alone cannot account for the change he was able to effect. People had direct experiences. Soup kitchen lines were around the block, and people saw that. There was rampant homelessness. People lost their jobs and immediately could literally not put food on their tables. That is not a narrative: that is an experience.
My job is to tell the story of the lives of Kurians using the data we gather from the field. It is an utterly gripping story if you expose yourself to it. Families saving money for months and years for simple medical procedures, hours spent per day gathering rainwater from a local stream, a new maize harvest meaning the difference between being able to feed your toddler every day or not. I know, however, that an obstacle I am always up against when telling the people that I normally see in this developed world these gripping stories is that they are just that: stories. They are not hands-on experiences. The former can only go so far.