Book Review: The Kochia Chronicles

The Kochia Chronicles, just released by Dr. Khanjan Mehta at Penn State, is a book about a district in Western Kenya. Or, to put it in a different view, it’s a set of stories that could be set in many places, and show the cultural context that is often overlooked by people - engineers, donors, well-intentioned organizations, etc. - doing international ‘development’ work, and elucidating real barriers to changes that might improve quality of life. It is an amalgamation of the author’s experiences and research, blended and fictionalized, and it is excellent. The book could easily be labeled as required reading for anyone that reads about, donates, or works on issues of poverty, the ill-defined ‘sustainable development’, and more.

There are 9 stories, each focusing on a specific event and a specific issue. The issues range from the well-known HIV/AIDS epidemic to the less common complexities of how orphanages are run, or the prevalence of cheap knockoffs of electronic goods. The stories share a cast of characters, but each stands alone as its own tale. In part because of the narrative style, the book is a smooth read despite presenting complex and important issues. 

An example: it turns out (TIL) that traditional Kenyan funerals are very expensive - transporting the body, hosting many ceremonies, and the expectation of feeding many guests. One of the frequent characters‘ fathers dies (not a spoiler, I promise), and the story of planning his funeral becomes a vehicle for discussing the barriers to change imposed by social norms and traditions, even if current practices send families deep into debt. The story concludes with another one of the recurring characters starting a successful new business as a vehicle to affect change. A complex topic that I’d never heard about before - blending sociology, religion, and day-to-day economics - woven into an easily consumed 30-page story.  

The stories were written as a teaching tool, and that occasionally shows in the language, or the amount of exposition. While sometimes the stories feel like they could have been narrated by the Kenyan characters, there are points where the language shifts to include terms like ‘socioeconomic status’ or statistics that I couldn’t see these characters describing off-the-cuff. That’s not an issue for me - as someone that loves science fiction as a way of exploring different worlds, exposition is a key piece of the picture (see: Anathem), and as a teaching tool, that more academic context is important.  For the benefit of others who may not share my taste in literature, the focus intentionally stays on the narrative side of things. For a class that discusses any of these issues, the relevant story would provide a fantastic counterpoint to media on the issue from a macro-scale ‘Western’ media source.

One final aspect that may be more relevant to those directly involved in international development projects - which includes several ESW chapters - are the stories that bookend the Chronicles. These have a lot to say about a local viewpoint on the projects that we do, the timescales we do them on, and differences in norms that reduce the benefits we provide - or even create harms. As someone who’s wondered about these issues (and trusts the author’s experiences), having that other perspective laid out - as stories told while sitting around a communal drink - answered a question that I might never get to ask, and might never receive an honest answer. I’d encourage any ESW members or projects that are working internationally, or starting to think about doing so, to browse through these two stories and think about the project you’re pursuing. We can have a good impact, but not without consideration of the society we're affecting, which often has different values than our own. Innovation doesn't always mean new.  

The Kochia Chronicles, in the authors’ words, aims to enable readers - particularly well-intentioned and passionate students - to empathize with the daily and cultural struggles of the people many of them are eager to help. In my opinion, the book hits its mark in an excellent way. It is fun to read, interesting to contemplate, and well worth picking up. There will be two more sets of stories in the Chronicles over the next year or two, and I look forward to reading those as well. In the meantime, I foresee using one or two of these stories for in-class discussions for my upcoming class in Social Entrepreneurship, and recommending them to ESW chapters that we work with while they’re debating the best way to approach a community’s needs. 

(Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Kochia Chronicles free of charge, but any positive or negative words about the book are uninfluenced by others - the praise above is earned, not bought. Second, the review represents the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of ESW - though it might)