Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hidden Masai

I have been enjoying a week off of school, catching up with friends and various projects. I'll head to Nanyuki on Friday to pick up some rugs that Rising International will use in fundraising efforts, and today I had the opportunity to visit the hidden Masai community of Olmaa, found just on the outskirts of Nairobi.

I joined the same guys and organizations from our visit to Mathaato a few weeks ago, along with Lars and our friend Sandra who is an up and coming designer here in Kenya. We followed the motorbike in the picture above along the edge of the airport, through uneven terrain as we left the paved roads of Nairobi. We knew we were close when we began to encounter the trademark goat and cow herds of the Masai.

Residents of Olmaa suggest there are over a 1,000 Masai living in the village. Having visited and driven through the central part of town, we're sure there are more. In the area we visited, many of the children (and believe me, there were many!) are the brood of the local chief - who with his cattle has secured the land for his family's use (rumor has it he has 19 wives total). Apparently it's protected space due to its proximity to the airport - formal development would be prohibited.

We visited with a number of Olmaa's women who create traditional Masai bead work. Both Sandra and I are interested in commissioning some custom pieces, so it was a great opportunity to see their creations and learn about the community.

Like so many of my experiences here, today's visit was special for the opportunity to bear witness to the existence of so many people living (literally and figuratively) on the fringe of society. In Kenya, districts are represented by MPs, and to move forward in government you don't relinquish your role as an MP - thus both President Kibaki and the Prime Minister Odinga (following the advent of the coalition government after the disputed elections of 2007) still have active constituencies. Olmaa happens to be in Odinga's constituency, and yet he apparently doesn't know this group even exists (thus leaving their land safe, for now).

We didn't bring anything for this community, and they didn't ask us for much. They did request help in supplying their one Pre-k through 4th grade school with books. Apparently one of the kids we met was told not to come to school anymore until she had a copy of the English reader they use in class, and the village lacks the funds to outfit their kids with the required materials.

Armstrong, the Executive Director of one of the orgs that has shared these visits with us (for the life of me I can't get their names straight!) first learned of Olmaa when one of the girls from the village was recommended by a family member for the boarding school he runs. Her family can visit her, but she won't return to the village until her schooling is done, as the school wants to ensure her proper nutrition and continued education, as well as protect her from the female circumcision that is still practiced in the most traditional of Masai communities.

We left the village in the late afternoon after meeting one of its eldest members (we were told she's 150!). You can see a few more pics of today's visit here. I'll leave you with this one, a perfect representation of Nairobi traffic. We had eight people in the car going back, and sat for quite some time in bumper to bumper traffic. That guy having a chat outside of the car? That's our driver.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Celebratory pics

One more exam to go. Here are some procrastination pics in the meantime for your enjoyment. Who knew there were cowboys in Kenya? No wonder I like it here.

Near the Yada Basket Weavers outside of Machakos.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, Kisumu.

Tea pickers showing us the goods outside of Kericho.

Sunset outside the Expanding Opportunities boy's home.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

2 down, 2 to go

I'm halfway through my first semester exams and so far, things have gone well. I haven't pulled my eyebrows out completely (a horrendous habit I practice almost unconsciously when stressed, and which I'd hoped I'd retired since college) and I'm fairly certain I've passed my first two exams in Theory and Research (good thing, considering the exams are worth 70% of my grade). I'm now knee-deep in Pigovian Tax* schemes, cap and trade programs and interestingly enough, the EIA process. My first job out of college was working for an elected official in Orange County - and a big part of our responsibilities as staff members were to review the weekly Environmental Assessment Reports (EIAs) that dealt with any number of County projects. I always had a hard time sinking my teeth into reports about the impacts a new graded slope at the landfill might have, or the potential threats of storm drain debris. I think my co-workers would get a good laugh out of the detailed understanding I am now developing of the process behind the massive reports we used to have to review and make recommendations on (yes Mr. Supervisor, predatory falcons are a good way to reduce the noise pollution** caused by seagulls at the landfill).

I think we often take for granted the steps taken during development in America to protect the environment around us and mitigate impacts that could greatly threaten our quality of life. In developing countries, environmental protection and awareness has long been viewed as indulgent, an inappropriate luxury, or at worst, an active detriment to development. Lest we think no process has been made, with various worldwide conventions over the past 40 years and increasing agreement on an international level, even Developing countries like Kenya have now adopted framework laws and processes to ensure future development is done in a way that is mindful to the environment and the quality of life of its citizens.

Studying such legislation and practices gives me new appreciation for my own personal history - for where I began my career and the opportunities I've had to be exposed to such things on so many different levels. Sometimes I think I've taken such a drastic turn, and the risks of stepping away from my first career path might have been too much. But then some experience or piece of knowledge comes along that reminds me that I truly believe in the path I'm on, and that my experiences in the past will only serve to guide me moving forward.

I'll let you know how the rest of exams go. I can't wait until break when I can re-focus on other projects and do some brainstorming about what the next steps on this path might be.

*Speaking of taxes, if there is a kind soul out there who happens to enjoy the tax process, I am in desperate need of assistance this year due to a need to be especially savvy so as not to be shot in the foot by my scholarship - which is almost 100% taxable. Any recommendations for good (affordable) tax people -or- if you happen to really enjoy plugging numbers and navigating the system - please let me know :)

**Or as I might have to identify it in tomorrow's exam, the negative externality (or is it positive? Debatable I guess!) of such noise.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

John 9:25

A few days ago I watched as a blind man in a mustard colored blazer very nearly ran into a wall adjacent to the sidewalk on which we were walking. I had not noticed him until I was just to his right, and about to reach out to re-direct him when a nearby security guard beat me to it. He had a worn wooden cane that he used as one would use the much thinner, white canes I’m accustomed to seeing blind people with. I worried as I walked on that rush hour in downtown Nairobi is no place for a blind man.

When I reached my bus I watched him from the window as he slowly and cautiously made his way down the street, finally past the point I’d walked ten minutes before. I started to think of how independent he was, but also how much he must rely on others to help him during those times in which he finds himself up against a wall, or at a busy intersection, or perhaps facing a new roadblock set up to accommodate construction.

I have also been thinking a lot about the current economic crisis, which I imagine I am experiencing in a very different way than my friends, family and fellow Americans back home. I check the news online, but in general I am shielded from the daily gloom and doom headlines referencing corporate bailouts and crumbling wall street institutions (they are replaced for me with the doom and gloom of staple food shortages and increasing corruption on behalf of those tasked with addressing the problem). I am not, however, shielded from the fall out – if I include myself (last July), I’ve just heard from my fifth friend whose been laid off as a result of the recession. Many friends who a year ago were talking about making changes in their job and pursuing better pay or opportunities are now quick to acknowledge their good fortune of having a job at all.

In Kenya, I’m not living the daily reality as it hits my country – but it still permeates my thoughts and analysis of what I’m studying. It even touches the words I choose to share this experience - I find myself worrying that if I am too honest about the realities of life in a developing country (more what I see, than what I experience), people will feel powerless to help, given the struggles everyone is facing at home. If I don’t share honestly about what I’m exposed to, I worry I’m dishonoring the opportunity to be here and the voice I can provide to those who are mired in the cycle of poverty, simply waiting for the added burden of the trickle down effect of the developed world's financial crisis to hit.

I have known many people who lived through the Great Depression or who came from desperate backgrounds to create successful and full lives. Many of these people can vividly recall vast expanses of time without employment, going to bed hungry, having to deny their children some of what they would desperately like to provide to them, and so much more. I have never felt as if I was living in a time in which such concerns were quite so global – or were threatening even the most secure and successful of those I know. It is, quite simply, a scary time – a time in which there’s no real way to know when the scales will tip and the forecast will finally improve.

Until that time, I fear we are all a bit like the man I saw the other day – making our way as best we can, but unable to see what comes next. Sometimes we trust the well-worn paths that have brought us this far, the familiar markers along the way and the confidence in ourselves that we will get from point A to B. At the same time, we are forced to recognize the world changing around us – the need to adapt, to plan ahead – and sometimes even to ask for help when we find ourselves up against a seemingly insurmountable wall.

I found comfort in this realization. No matter how blind we are to what lays ahead, if we are willing to take a step to redirect each other (and sometimes walk side by side until a safe path has been found), we will make it through this. We may end up with alliances we never knew we had and strengths we never thought we’d have to draw on. We may realize that things we once clung to for security pale in value compared to the freedom we find to pick ourselves up from the ashes of past choices and forge ahead.

It is my hope that we emerge with a new sense of humbleness that will serve to better our actions and the direction we take as a global society in the future – that if anything is understood from it all it is that we are in this together, the whole world, blind leading blind until we find a way to open our eyes and forge a new, safe and secure path for all to follow.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Since all my words are being spent on development theory...

These are some of the kids I met last weekend. The previous post includes a picture with some of their names and aspirations. Lots of kids in Kenya want to be pilots - some NGO should really start a flight school here :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Further out, further in

I’m still working on my posts about my two weekends trekking around eastern and western province in search of craft people and their creations with Bev and the Expanding Opportunities gang. In the meantime, I’ll share this past Saturday's trip to coffee country. A few weeks ago, Bev and Mwange (a former student of Bev’s from her Teach for Africa stint in 1996 that now runs all Expanding Opportunities operations on the ground here) introduced me to another former student of hers named Jared. Jared works for the Centre for Partnership and Civic Engagement Trust (CEPACET) and indicated he could introduce me to some craft groups around Nairobi and share about some of the development projects he’s a part of. On Friday he invited me to join in visiting a community that is starting to be affected by the oncoming famine (for more info on this, check out this article) and distributing food to a group of grandmas (who I kept calling Gogos...Zulu habits die hard) caring for their orphaned grand children. The community is in need of sustainable income opportunities, so Jared wanted to introduce me to some of the women to start brainstorming opportunities for craft-based or other businesses.

On Saturday morning I grabbed my friend Lars, who has the type of soul that leaps at the opportunity to participate in something as fundamentally spiritual as giving those in need something to eat, and off we went in a Toyota and one of the staffer’s old Mercedes (which Lars ultimately abandoned me to ride in – did I mention he’s German?). We got lost a number of times in the twists and turns of glistening coffee bushes. We stopped often to ask for directions, and I had to laugh at one point as we reached a non-descript corner and suddenly the coffee harvester we’d stopped for directions a couple miles back jumped out of the lead car (I’d never seen him get in), only to make room for a seemingly random older man who left his perch on the corner to guide us for the remainder of the journey.

We were greeted by Pauline and her husband Peter upon arriving, who had managed to keep a lovely lunch warm for us (we were close to three hours late) and invited us into their home to share about the village and the community based organization (CBO) they serve. CBOs are something we’ve discussed in class, but it has been some time since I was immersed in one, so already I felt better about blowing off studying for exams. We learned that this area is heavily focused on coffee production, and those lucky enough to have land sell their coffee for somewhere around 25 U.S. cents/kg to middlemen who in turn transport it to town to sell for a slightly higher price to the government or a few emerging private companies. Due to the remoteness of the village and the extremely limited resources, farmers can rarely sell their crops directly and recoup more of their costs. Peter indicated that in the past, these local farmers could plant 500-1000 trees on their small plots of land and enjoy a very comfortable existence. Now, the same kg they sell for a quarter is sold at a hefty markup (there are just over 2.2 lbs to the kilo - I don't know what a pound of coffee goes for in the U.S. or UK these days - but double it, add a bit and compare that to the 25 cents the farmer gets for the same amount).

Peter and Pauline have a vision to promote more dairy and poultry production in the area. The demand (and price) for milk and eggs is quite high, and the farmers would likely see more return on their investment while maximizing the use of their land. We discussed various ideas for developing cooperative projects (many of the local women do not own land of their own and thus cannot build chicken coops or cow stalls, and the upfront cost for a dairy cow starts around $300 US for a calf).

After lunch we went to a local church that serves as a community center of sorts, where 15 or so local grandmas were waiting with their grandchildren. We were introduced to the remaining board members of the CBO, and informed of the situation the community is facing. Unfortunately, this is not a new situation to me – it’s virtually identical to the situation in South Africa (which inspired The Africa Project). All the gathered children were orphans, with 80% of their parents' deaths attributed to AIDS. One of the grandmothers is 70 and caring for four grandchildren. One of my hosts shared with the room that if she was in the U.S., she might be facing pressure from her children to join a rest home, rather than caring for their offspring.

After the meeting our group dug in to distribute the maize, beans and cornmeal we’d brought (ok, I mostly took pictures and videos of the kid – digital cameras are always a huge hit!). It was wonderful to have been invited to join such a positive meeting and distribution – but at the same time disheartening, as each weighty bag of food packed up in brightly colored kangas for the long walk home would likely last only a couple of days with the number of mouths it would feed. Lars mentioned that by and large, the group didn’t reflect the food shortage, but we recognized that we are at the beginning of the famine – there has been no rain, it is planting season and in a few months there will be nothing to harvest. Bodies don’t reflect this yet – but faces and spirits do. They know what’s coming.

It was an incredibly impressive day for a number of reasons. I was happy to be visiting this community with leaders from Kenyan based NGOs – groups committed to solving the problems in their own country, and not being over reliant on foreign aid (though they of course rely, in part, on international support). I was impressed by the community – who in their varying stages of employment, education or means, were coming together to try and make improvements for the wellbeing of their children and community as a whole. There was a group of young teenage girls who approached some of the visitors to ask for help with paying their school fees – they’d achieved high enough scores to attend decent high schools, but they didn’t have any money (in Kenya the level of school you attend in high school is entirely dependent on a national test you take in 8th grade). I was addressed by the only mother in attendance, Cecilia, who has four children and told me they are currently homeless. I confirmed this with Peter and Pauline, who indicated she and her kids have been moving pretty consistently. It was clear she is the type of woman for whom the opportunities have run out – or perhaps were never there – and so she’s stuck in a cycle of instability, focused only on caring for her children in the most basic of ways.

As a community – there is so much potential in Mithaato. They have had iron pipes that run from their community well up to the main road that were installed in the 70’s, but never operated due to poor management early on. The local women and children thus face long treks to access the most fundamental of resources. They have dreams of a children’s home where the orphans we met could live so as to relieve some of the burden on their grandmothers, and ensure their health, diets and education are consistently monitored. Whereas lately I’ve struggled to come to grips with the vast need I’ve encountered in the last three weeks, in Mithaato I feel like I turned a corner because I could see the potential and visualize what was needed to pull things together. I hope to work with Jared on some proposals to share with my community here and abroad and I look forward to exploring the possibilities of seeing this community break the cycle of poverty they have heretofore been subjected to.