By Muddy Waters
July 25 to August 11, 2010 – At the invitation of The Honorable Joseph Lekuton, a member of the Kenyan Parliament, Claudia Daggett (Executive Director of the Elementary School Heads Association), Laurel Seid (outgoing Head of The Little School in Seattle), my son, Jamie, and I had the experience of a lifetime in Kenya. As we drove over 2500 miles, often on dirt roads all over Kenya, we saw amazing landscapes and animals, met many wonderful people from different tribes, observed the process of approving a new national constitution, learned about some of the challenges faced by educators, gained a sense of the traditions and culture of a people that many, even within Kenya, do not know or appreciate. Often, people speak of the value of travel and learning about different cultures, but I never fully appreciated the wisdom of that insight until this trip. I can honestly say that my world view has changed in most important ways.
Rather than try to write a travelogue, I have included a timeline for those who want some sense of what we did each day. My hope for this entry is to focus on some of the lessons learned from this experience. We had a wide range of experiences from being on safari in two game parks along with many tourists to attending a session of Parliament and watching votes being counted in the national referendum on a proposed new constitution to living in the parched north, far from electricity, the internet and cell service. Our hosts made sure we were well cared for at all times, but there were many significant adjustments for all of us.
We arrived in Nairobi and went to a hotel in the heart of the downtown that did not feel very different from hotels in this country except for needing an adaptor for our cameras, phones, etc. Traffic seemed to be as much of an issue as it is here in Boston and the air quality was not good. We travelled south to Tsavo West Game preserve on roads that were at time paved and other times dirt. In fact, we had more troubles with some of the paved sections that had developed huge potholes that often forced our host for most of the trip, Stephen Labarakwe, to go onto the dirt shoulder to avoid breaking an axle in a huge depression. The views of the landscape and the animals were amazing, and it was good to know that this wonderful resource has been protected for all to enjoy. At the end of the trip, we went to the Masai Mara Game Preserve where we saw the lions that had eluded us in Tsavo as well as the spectacular migration of the wildebeests. Approximately 4,000,000 of these huge animals make this annual trek and we saw them swarming over the land as far as the eye could see.
Also, we saw the evidence of many who would not complete the trip as the vultures were finishing the job begun by the lions we saw. It was exhilarating to see all of these animals in their native habitats.
LIFE IN NORTHERN KENYA
The most memorable part of the trip for me was found in the village of Ngurunit which we came to after 10 hours of driving, much of it on dirt roads and dried up river beds in the north of Kenya. We spent several days here staying at Joseph’s camp for four days and Stephen’s camp for two days. During our time there, we encountered a young man from the Peace Corps who told us that even Kenyans had no idea what life was like in the north of the country. They receive less than ten inches of rain a year and much of it comes in downpours during the brief rainy season so it is hard to capture. We were there during their winter season so the temperature was actually cooler than what we had left in Andover for much of the trip. We watched water being hauled out of a 12 foot deep well in pails by 3 moran (young warriors) who put it into a trough for the goats, cows and camels to drink.
Our hosts made sure we always had some bottled water and had set up a barrel they filled with water for us to use as a shower. We all agreed that given the severe lack of water, we would not use the shower during our time there, so the water could be better used. Stephen’s simple sentence early in the trip that “Water is life” was made crystal clear during our time there. On the one occasion when we ran low on water, we were all quite nervous wondering what we would do. Fortunately for us, we were able to get more water, but it made us wonder how hard it would be to never be sure that there would be enough water.
We ate a thin and tasty crepe every morning and lunch and dinner tended to be rice or ugali, which is maize flour mixed with water and formed into a ball to be dipped into the stew of broth, vegetables and some chicken or beef that made up the rest of the meal. I am certain that our hosts made more food available to us than they would usually eat themselves and we did quite well on this diet, although it did take awhile to get over the snacking habits we brought with us. We learned that they tend to eat only two meals a day compared to our three. Stephen was trying to have the schools he oversees start gardens so the children could learn from the process as well as improving their diets, but it will be a big challenge given the arid conditions for most of the year.
Before leaving, we had been warned to bring plenty of insect repellent and our own mosquito netting as well as taking anti-malarial drugs. Everywhere we stayed had mosquito netting and we were quite vigilant. However, since it was winter, we actually never saw mosquitoes, and by the end of the trip, we actually slept outside for two nights and used no repellant or netting. Stephen did tell us that he has had malaria several times as had his family, and that it is something they just accept as part of life. He said that for the very young and old or sick, it can be dangerous, but that for most it is something they just have to endure like the flu. There are no medical facilities, doctors or medicine within hundreds of kilometers. We met a two year old boy who had stepped in a fire. He sat still on his mother’s lap with his foot elevated and wrapped in some sort of purple plant. It did not look good, so we gave the mother the sterile dressings and bacitracin we brought with us to try to help fight infection, and she was most grateful.
Stephen set up a time one afternoon when the women of the village brought us many of the beautiful items they make, some of which made their way home with us.
Also, we had the good fortune to have the moran display the singing and dance that has been part of their culture for generations.
The most important lesson I took from our memorable stay in Ngurunit was that we need to be much more thankful for the many blessings we have that we take for granted. It seems ironic that the people of the Samburu tribe in this village seemed to be happier and more at ease with their lot in life than many of us in this country who never have to worry about running out of water or food or getting sick and having no access to a doctor or medicine. My fondest hope is that I can keep the perspective to which this visit opened my eyes.
National Geographic, September 2010
APPROVING A NEW CONSTITUTION
Another exciting aspect of the trip actually caused the US Department of State to issue a bulletin discouraging travel to Kenya during the exact period we were scheduled to be there. The Kenyan Government was trying to have a new constitution approved by the people. They had tried the same in 2007 and not only was the constitution voted down but the ensuing riots led to the deaths of hundreds. Our host, Joseph, was well aware of the situation and assured us that he would keep us safe. The vote was scheduled for August 4th, right in the middle of our trip when we were in far northern Kenya in the village of Loyangalani on Lake Turkana, home to the smallest tribe in terms of numbers in the world, the Elmolo. On our travels, we saw many green YES and red NO t-shirts as people made their preferences clear. As we read the newspapers, there were pleas from both sides to be sure the process was a peaceful one. Leading issues included abortion, limiting the power of the executive branch, deciding whether representation would be based on population or geographical size, the recognition of Islamic courts, and policies about land distribution. We actually were able to go to one of the polling places after voting had ended and watch the votes being counted. The final vote was 6,092,593 for and 2,795,059 opposed and the result seemed to be accepted by all, although there were long days ahead of legislation to clarify some of the more contentious topics.
We had the opportunity to eat lunch in the lunchroom for members of Parliament, observe a session of parliament and visit Joseph in his office. As a teacher of history and government, it was thrilling to watch this important moment in African history, as many hoped that this election could be a model for other African nations.
A major purpose of the trip was to learn about the Kenyan system of education and to help in the construction of a school. We did not do as much of the latter as we spent a few hours painting blackboards and one morning moving rocks from a river bed to the grounds of a school as the basis of a new foundation. We did not get to see school in session as the Kenyan schools have three terms a year with the months of April, August, and December as vacation times. Children are required by law to attend school through the eighth grade, but unfortunately that law is neither heeded nor enforced as many young children are required to spend their days moving the family animals to better grazing areas.
We saw several schools that ranged from fairly Spartan rooms where up to 100 children sat on the floor being taught by a single teacher in Ngurunit to the Kisima Secondary School in the central highland town of Nyahururu where 160 children are taught by 9 teachers on a five acre campus filled with vegetables and flowers grown by the children.
EduFro Trust, The Story of Kisima
Stephen and Joseph both received educations as the result of being taken from their village by missionaries who enrolled them in their mission schools. Stephen is in charge of seven schools in northern Kenya and works tirelessly to get them the resources they lack. He has organized the building of very simple buildings and is now trying to make connections to get the teachers and students any supplies he can. He told us that the children would be so excited to see the newly painted blackboards upon their return. Once again, he made me even more aware of how much we have and take for granted in American schools and it makes me even more resolved to be sure we make the best use of all we do have.
HOW TO BE OF HELP
Just before we left, a friend gave me The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz. It was the perfect book to be reading as we were on our amazing journey. Ms Novogratz tells her personal story of trying to bridge that gap and all the mistakes that she and others made. In her effort to be of service, too often did she try to impose her American perspective and solutions on very different cultures. Also, she studied many philanthropic efforts and found that throwing money at problems often compounded them. Her mission became to find people in impoverished areas with whom to collaborate. She looked for bright, committed and creative people who not only had local knowledge, but also would be the ones who stayed in the area and insured that any initiatives that were begun would be sustained. Her stories were truly inspirational and made obvious the importance of building relationships as the foundation for ongoing work. It is my hope that we will be able to work with our new friends, Stephen and Joseph, to help them continue to strive to improve life in northern Kenya.
Sunday, July 25
Monday, July 26
Tuesday, July 27 (cloudy and cool)
Wednesday, July 28 (partly cloudy and cool)
Thursday, July 29 (partly sunny)
Friday, July 30 (sunniest day yet and warm)
Saturday, July 31 (partly cloudy and cool)
Sunday, August 1 (mostly cloudy and cool)
Monday, August 2 (sunny and warmer)
Tuesday, August 3 (sunny and hot)
Wednesday, August 4 (sunny and hottest day yet – Constitution referendum today)
Thursday, August 5 (clear and hottest day of trip – 39 degrees Celsius)
Friday, August 6 (sunny and warm)
Saturday, August 7 (sunny and warm)
Sunday, August 8 (cool and brief mist before sun in Central Highlands)
Monday, August 9 (partly sunny, 15 degrees Celsius at wakeup)
Tuesday, August 10 (cool and partly sunny)
Wednesday, August 11