Kerry ShapleighYou've been working with an organization involved in human rights work. Could you tell us briefly about what your organization does?
We primarily focus on making grants related to human rights issues. [In Kenya, for instance] we're looking to bolster gains made since the new government came into power in 2003.

You go there four or five times a year for work. What's it been like doing business there? Trying to get things done? Has it been easy?
No, it hasn't been easy. It's been a struggle to get everything. It's basically just dealing with reams of red tape and endless bureaucracy. Getting a phone, for instance, there's the logistical problem of just getting lines put in to your house. That takes a while. It's difficult to get fresh water out to your house. When I go there, the place where I stay only has water two days a week. It's difficult to acquire a post office box. You have a long wait to do it.

With all the logistical challenges, it must be a nightmare.
It would be a nightmare if we didn't have a very very wonderful staff member on the ground there. She's there day to day busting her butt and she's just a really persistent and strong-willed lady. She's been working in Kenya for a long time. She knows the people and she's able to speed up the process. For instance, we got a post office box in a couple weeks. It's been known to take years. We got a phone number in a couple weeks. That also been known to take years.

Any notable impressions of Nairobi you'd care to share with our readers?
The thing that always strikes me the minute I get off the plane in Nairobi is how desperately this world needs some kind of new energy policy. The city is filthy. Covered with smog. Every single car practically goes by belching diesel fumes. I don't even want to know what the rate of childhood asthma is or of other related illnesses. But it must be exponential. Gargantuan.

Now, wait, as I understand it, the average Kenyan makes less than three dollars a day on average. Where are all these cars coming from?
The cars have been there for years and years and years. A lot of them are these complete jalopies held together with glue and tape. People just keep them running because that's all they've got. I mean, of course, there are people who have made money, some legitimately, others through corruption, and those people have these large Landrovers or Mercedes. But those aren't typically the cars belching out all the fumes.

You grew up as as a foreign service kid living in Moroccco, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and France. Any wild or interesting stories to share about that?
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers who were an insurgent group, burned my school down. But it was over a weekend and no one was hurt. I think they mistook it for a government building. And then I was in Morocco when the first Gulf War started. All the Americans were evacuated back to the U.S. on a large Jumbo jet. ...

Were you afraid?
My parents weren't afraid, so I wasn't afraid. It was basically a precaution. There are all kinds of rules when you work for the U.S. government. For instance, you have to have bars on every window in your house, including on the second or third floor. You had to have a 24 hour guard. I mean, obviously not in Paris, but if you're in the third world, yeah. A lot of times there were curfews where you couldn't be out after 6pm at night when there had been an incident. There were a couple assassinations. Things like that.

So did you feel safe growing up?
Yeah, for the most part. There are always moments when you get frightened, people might get aggressive with you because you're coming along in a nice western car. You stick out. You clearly have different customs.

Did people ever give you a hard time?
The hardest thing for me was more of a cultural thing. Like being a girl on the cusp of puberty in Morocco, an Islamic country. You don't fit in. I would wear the clothes I would wear and as I became older it became less and less appropriate. I mean, can you imagine? I had very blond hair and very very fair skin. And very blue eyes. And my hair was showing and my legs. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Guys would shout things at me or my parents. Even at my school, which was an American school but had kids from other Islamic counties like Qatar, there were some issues. Like I once had a kid in school tell me that women had no souls. That was a really good one.

Really? He said that?
Yeah, we had a bit of an argument and both had to go outside and sit in the hall.

Ever come down with any rare, exotic life-threatening tropical illnesses?
Not me really, except the fungus, like a shower fungus I had growing on me. That's how dirty the water was. But my younger sister, when she was 11 or 12 in Zimbabwe, she caught this bug and it was awful. We were in the hospital and we thought that she was dying. The doctors told my parents that she had meningitis and that she had hours left to live. She survived the illness and the doctors never had any idea what it was. It was just this bug, this crazy Zimbabwean bug. One of a kind. In retrospect it was sort of funny because, well, she'd gotten sick and then she deteriorated very quickly, but we didn't realize how sick she was until she wandered out of my Mom's bedroom, where she'd been watching television, in full fledged hallucination mode convinced that she was on the Starship Enterprise . She came out and she was saying "Mom. Mom. We have to get to the bridge. We have to save Data. He's in trouble."

The periods when you would you would come back to the United States, was it strange? Did you ever feel displaced?
There was a lot of anger. A lot of frustration. One of the most memorable moments for me was one time in Virginia when my Mom sent me to the store to buy toothpaste. I walked into a Safeway and I found the pharmacy aisle and there was so much of it, and so many different varieties. And I actually ran out of the store and went home and told my Mom, "I can't do it. There's too much stuff!" Because in Zimbabwe there was only Aquafresh and then all of a sudden there's this total plethora of choice. And it was terrifying.

And I remember when I was seven years old, I couldn't count American money. They used to tease me at school about that because you'd get in at line at school for your milk and I literally couldn't count out the change. And the lunch lady would be, like, "What is wrong with you? You're seven or eight years old. Can't you count out a couple of quarters?" And I couldn't. I had no idea what the value of each piece was.

And so you would be there peering at the money trying to figure it all out and the other kids would think you were weird?
Yeah. And I didn't even know where to look on the coins to figure out how much they were worth. Because, like, there would be this big old seal of the U.S. on one side and George Washington's head on the other and it's all written out "Twenty Five Cents" and I'm there looking for a number. And twenty-five, I didn't know if that was a lot of money or a little money. I had no sense of the value of it.

Now, as an adult, with all that breadth of geo-political experience built into your social fabric, in all seriousness, do Americans ever strike you as grossly uninformed or ignorant, especially when it comes to world issues?
It's hit or miss. Actually, I think most Americans are fairly well informed. We have an interesting situation here in America where we can choose the information that we learn about. People can choose to read only liberal websites. Or only conservative websites. Or conservative papers. Or whatever. I think what drives me nuts is that people don't choose to become roundly informed.

But we're talking about a country where two-thirds of all Americans believed that Sadaam Hussein was in some way connected to 9/11. Either we're dumb or you've just got to believe on some level that the mass media has some kind of effect on people superceding mere selection.
I think that's simplistic to look at it that way, to look at it as just that we're "dumb" or that the media is "doing it to us." I think you've got to give people some credit. They are choosing to believe that. It's a comfortable thing to believe and they're going to stick with it. And you know what, when you think about it, yes, you can blame them but you can also understand why someone might choose to take an easy route and accept something that is just easy to believe.

I used to get mad at Americans when I came back, because I would resent them for being so oblivious to the rest of the world. There are people in pain. People suffering. People impoverished. Human beings, people like you and me with all their little trifling loves and hates and hungers and weird desires. Their lives right out there, but then one day you stop getting mad, because you realize that what Americans have is what everybody else should have, which is the luxury of not having to care or be aware of it.

I mean, why should you love somebody you've never met? Why? Why? It's ridiculous.

So you don't hold it against Americans anymore when they just don't give a damn?
I hold it against people who are so willfully ignorant that, that... it's like, if you actively choose not to give a damn, I guess, I can't make you do it. At what point do you have a moral obligation?

At what point do you?
I have no answer. It's a constant investigation for me.

Yet you have chosen this line of work for yourself. Is it something you see yourself continuing with?
I don't know. This work is awful. It's emotionally wrecking. Why would anyone want to do it all the time? It's good work. It is. But on a personal level it's horrible stuff.

So the people you have encountered in the fields of foreign aid, human rights advocacy, international development, the "do-gooders" of the world, so to speak, you've been around these types most of your life. Do you find they tend toward the optimistic or the cynical end of the scale?
For the most part I think people are pretty optimistic, but I have to say, my Dad worked in the U.S. government for years and sometimes people are pretty cynical. In the U.S. government, especially. You get some people who have been in it for so long, and in some of the worst places in the world and, like, your cynicism builds when you go and you do a lot of work and the next thing you know there's a coup and all of the work you've done for five or six years is destroyed overnight. How do you go back and do it again? But you just do.

But it's not really a question of optimism or cynicism. It's just a question of doing the right thing. It's just something that you do. I mean change either happens or it doesn't, but hopefully you are moving towards progress. None of us is going to live long enough to see if it actually works out or not.

Well it's interesting, though, because you grew up in a foreign service family, but studied Classics at Yale. Now, in a manner of speaking, you've ended up back again where you started. How did that happen?
I decided that I had to come back and keep looking for my answers. There is a personal bent to it, I guess. I definitely have some confusion and guilt about that. Is it selfish? Am I helping people out of selfishness? Just because I want to know more about my own... I don't want to use a word like salvation, but, like, just because I'm looking for some kind of justification? Or is it something that I do just because it really is something that I like doing?

I mean, all of these are true statements so it's a complicated situation, and it's part of, I don't know... I do think that it's building into something that looks like maybe it might be a life's work. We'll see. I'll keep bumbling along.

But solid on the horizon for you is law school, no?
Definitely. There's no question about that. Law school right now is this great fusion of two passions, this totally nerd academic thing and this thing that could actually be used for something constructive.

Ever have a feeling that you are doomed to this work? I mean, when we were rapping before we started this interview, you told me that you read about human rights law in your spare time for fun.
Everything in my life has kind of set me up for it, prepared me for it, and I watch my little sister growing into her career too and, of course, she's in Ecuador working for UNICEF. Doom is not a word I would use, but, yes, I do have this feeling that I was going to be stuck doing this come hell or high water.