Lauren Thie, June 2006
Selected excerpts from emails and CORE 200 Journal
Fortunately, before traveling to Kenya, I was able to speak with a few persons who are knowledgeable about the area. Dr. John Mecham, Professor and Department Head of Biology at Meredith, has visited Kenya before and I spoke with him about my planned trip in November 2005. He shared my excitement and told me I was in for a real treat. However, the most important knowledge I gained from Dr. Mecham was through his chronicles on the Meredith web site while he was in Nairobi, Kenya for the spring semester. His journals gave me a little insight about the vibrant culture and beauty of the people in Central Kenya. Dr. Mecham's chronicles also put me a bit at ease knowing that he was making an excellent transition, giving me the confidence that I too would feel comfortable in Kenya. Additionally, the pictures he posted on the website gave me an idea of what sort of dwellings I would be visiting, the hospitality of the people, and what sort of dress was appropriate for women, as Kitty was dressed in full-length skirts and sleeved tops. The Kenyan contact which I gleaned the most information from was Dr. Lawrence Marum, Director of the CDC Global AIDS Program in Kenya. He has been based in Nairobi, Kenya for a decade, and up until just one week ago. He has traveled extensively in Kenya and Africa and has a second home close (closer than Nairobi) to the SFS site, at Mombasa. He and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Marum gave me information on dress, temperature, and reading. One suggested guide Elizabeth e-mailed me was the Insight Guide/National Geographic Guide on Kenya. In this book, I found a lot of information on Kenya's politics and history, culture, animals, and geography. However, I am finding out as I arrive in Kenya, that although you can read a lot about somewhere you're going, the information takes on real meaning when you are in Kenya and can see the effects of the history, culture, etc. Finally, Sara Milani gave me a country profile about Kenya that was a great starting point from which to read the book and had the basic, important facts that I needed to know. I feel that I am going to learn so much more over the span of the four weeks at the Kilimanjaro Base Camp (KBC).
The Kenyan landscape is beautiful and awe-inspiring. I am enjoying sleeping in our cozy bandas (huts), where four of us sleep together under our mosquito nets. Kilimanjaro has been out almost every day; viewing Kilimanjaro through the acacia trees is stunning! In the AM, I get up early to see if Kilimanjaro is out and to listen to the sounds of an African sunrise.
Right now we are having several orientation sessions, one of which has brought up an interesting conversation about sexuality. Ross, our student "manager," spoke to us about open LGBT persons, saying that others at KBC would be at varying degrees of openness. Also, she said that in Kenya homosexuality was illegal and that Kenya, especially rural Kenya, ignores/denies the presence of homosexuals. One of the interns for the semester, a local Maasai man named Daniel Kaaka, spoke up and said "Well, there are gays in Nairobi but we don't really have any around here." What he said spoke more about the rural Maasai ideas about homosexuality than any statement from Ross could have ever done. Homosexuality in the United States is acknowledged as a lifestyle, and by many, as a natural one. I am sure that there are homosexual Maasais -- men and women that will never expose their sexual preference.
I learned more about the rural, Southern Kenyan sexuality this first week when we visited a Maasai boma (a Maasai dwelling where livestock are kept). What an amazing trip! It was so humbling to be invited into a Maasai boma by the Maasai "mamas," especially as a representative of a culture that has created so much strife for the Maasai people. With a tour around the boma, a picture of the gender roles in Maasai culture emerged. Women -- who live in rural, southern Maasailand -- stay at home, take care of children, cook, and clean, while men herd the animals, visit town, take care of security, and look for greener pastures. Later, on our visit to town, we all headed to the "New Paris Bar" for a beer, where we learned more about gender roles. With a group of thirty-one females and three males, females crowded into a bar of men. The only women in the bar were "mamas" selling jewelry and bowls. When we returned to KBC and discussed this, Ross and Daniel both told us that only women who are grandmothers can drink when they please, within the home. This is so different from most of the USA, where women drink often in public around men. This situation was especially different for me, coming from an all-women's college. Although I am not sure how this rule evolved, I believe in Southern, rural Kenya it was probably partly because of work and partly because of social restraint. Since women stay home with the children and do the housework, they do not have time to visit the bar.
Today we climbed a hill called Loisoto, from which we could view much of the surrounding area. It was beautiful! I saw baboons, vervet monkeys, giraffes, gazelles, zebras, impalas, and wildebeest! Daniel, a Maasai moran, gave us a demonstration with a moran spear. Monday of this week we had lecture and did community service in the afternoon with a local Catholic secondary school. We planted several hundred trees around the perimeter of the school to buffer the existing milkweed fence, and to add to the overall courtyard in the center of the school. I made a friend named "Leah." She taught me a new Swahili phrase, "Jina langu ni...Lauren." (My name is...Lauren). The school children are fascinated with cameras, especially digital cameras. They loved being able to see their own images right away. We had a lot of fun. Tuesday we began to practice some of the methods that will be used for our Directed Research project. My group interviewed eight local farmers about the problems they encounter with their crops. Wednesday we took our last trip to Amboseli National Park for our four weeks here - or so we thought at the time. In the morning we visited a "cultural manyatta" in the Amboseli National Park. On the way to the manyatta, we saw three lionesses taking a morning nap in the grass, and also the many zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles (Thomson's and Grant's). We also saw a rare waterbuck, a species which is disappearing in this area because of the huge numbers of other large mammals. The purpose of our trip was to compare the "tourist" manyatta, which may be visited for a price 365 days of the year, with the "authentic" boma we visited last week. We were only able to visit because of KBC's (Kilimanjaro Bush Camp) status as a member of the local community. Afterwards, we "lived it up" for lunch at the buffet at Serena Lodge, where I ate a lunch of cheese (I haven't had cheese since I arrived here) and was very happy. We also went for a short, chilly swim in the pool there. Vervet monkeys swung overhead, but I think they were more interested in possible food than hanging out in the trees. Our afternoon drive through Amboseli was indescribable. The sky was amazing, and we had lecture in the middle of the park. Our teacher would stop and lecture in the middle of the five land cruisers, while we took notes out of the tops of the land cruisers. We finally saw a male lion! Also, an elephant led the cars for a few minutes, as he walked down the center of the road. We also saw a baboon family. Zebra, wildebeest, elephants, antelopes, and hippopotamuses were everywhere! As we drove back to camp, Mount Kilimanjaro peaked out from the clouds for sunset. I finished the day having "shot" three of the big five (elephants, lions, buffalo); hopefully we will be fortunate to see a rhinocerus and a leopard in Tsavo.
Kenya is well-known for its world-class runners. The current world record for the marathon is held by a Kenyan, Paul Tergat. Kenyans also participate in soccer, rugby, cricket, boxing, and volleyball ("Sports"). While I was in Kenya, I saw how much the group of Kenyans I was with love soccer and World Cup. I figured this was indicative of the rest of Kenya, as generally the international community takes much more interest in the World Cup than the USA. When we went to the closest town, Kimana, it was odd to see shacks and open sewers in the streets, yet you could pay to watch the World Cup games every day. At night at KBC, professors, staff, and students would crowd the TV shack to watch the games. Sometimes dinner would be postponed if the chef was watching his team, Ghana. We also played soccer in the afternoons with Daniel, in the thorns (everything had something prickly and painful attached to it, even the grass). Because most people in the area around KBC could not afford to maintain cars, most people walked, biked or rode the matutus (public buses). Therefore, the people were much more in shape. The children at the secondary boarding school each walked a few miles to school every morning. The outdoor sports and recreational habits make sense, since Kenyan climate is warm year-round. Also, the sports in Kenya are relatively low-cost, especially running. The popularity of soccer, rugby, and cricket make sense since the British colonized Kenya.
One form of recreation in which very few Kenyans engage is visiting national parks. It is common that we see pictures of African children, especially Maasai boys, against the backdrop of a beautiful landscape. However we learned about the irony of such a picture in Dr. John Kiringe and Dr. Salaton Tome's classes at the KBC. Our two professors both spoke of how ironic it is that Kenya is a place internationally known for its landscape, yet so many Kenyans are working so hard to survive that they will never be able to afford to visit any of the national parks in Kenya.
This week, classes continue about the environmental issues facing Kenya. We have now been fortunate enough to visit Amboseli National Park twice and view all the amazing wildlife, along with viewing the critical environmental problems. Amboseli is an once-in-a-lifetime, larger-than-life park that I will never forget. Pictures and words do not do justice to the experience of riding through Amboseli in the hatch of a Land Cruiser.
Kenyan sexuality came up again this week, giving another perspective on the topic. This time, our professor Dr. Moses Okello spoke about the AIDS problem in Kenya. Dr. Okello was at first very shy, having trouble elaborating about AIDS or talking about the need for condom availability. However, when Ross stepped in and tried to make him more at ease, he quickly gained some courage. I was surprised that a well-educated man would blush when discussing AIDS. However, the rural area of Kenya where KBC is located is a much more conservative place than the USA. People dress more modestly for the large part, especially women, and so it is not surprising that they will not speak openly about sex. But it is necessary for rural Kenyans to continue to open up about sex in order to decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to Ross, one survey done in Kimana revealed that at least half of the population was living with HIV. If rural Kenyans remain silent and shy about HIV, the consequences will be devastating.
One of the lectures from Tome this week touched on politics, as it gave a brief outline of Kenya's history. Kenya is a republic and held its first "free" (according to the international community) elections in 2002. Each district of Kenya has a Parliamentary Member (PM) who represents the area, and who makes more money than a congress member in the USA. Tome seems comfortable speaking about politics to all of us. Tome, the professor of economics, is a thirty-five year old Maasai man from west of KBC in the Maasai Mara. Actually, Tome's lecture goes back much further than the elections of 2002 in which Mwai Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition (NRC) was elected to majority. He also taught about Kenya's independence in 1963. Kenya's first president was Jomo Kenyatta, followed by Daniel Arap Moi, and then Mwai Kibaki. Tome spoke freely about his opinions of the history of politics in Kenya, especially the corruption of the government. He mentioned that Kibaki had improved the status of corruption, but still that so many basic needs were left unmet. He emphasized the need for roads, basic services, and more infrastructure. I wondered why the government stays so corrupt if people all acknowledge that it must change. I know this is a na´ve statement, but growing up in a country with excellent infrastructure and a relatively corruption free government where people can voice their opinions, it seems so strange to be in a place where everyone does not like the corruption but yet the corruption continues. Continuing the lecture, Tome highlighted that the one difference is the economic status of the Kenyan people. Since most Kenyans are struggling to survive, they are not able to take part in the political processes in ways in which Americans are able to engage. Therefore, politics in Kenya affects Kenyans' social life in a lesser way because most Kenyans must be about the business of working to make a living. The poverty does not afford the Kenyans the same time for politics as Americans have. If greater prosperity came to Kenyans, perhaps they could be involved in a way that would lead to a more stable government and better services for the peoples of rural communities.
I survived our five day expedition with the man-eaters! Camping in Tsavo West National Park was an excellent first camping experience. Camping at the base of the Chyulu Hills (one of the newer mountain ranges in the world, at around 500 years old) provided us with a beautiful backdrop for our five day expedition. Every morning we awoke around 5 or 6 am and spent most of the day in the Land Cruisers, driving around Tsavo West for lecture and field exercises. Many of our classes took place from the roofs of the Land Cruisers. The landscape of Tsavo West is African savannah with lava flows and cinder cones from the formation of the Chyulus. The wildlife was amazing; we saw gazelles, giraffes, and buffalo. We also saw many elephants, which are not found close to the roads like the elephants we saw at Amboseli National Park. Since elephants may live to be 60 years old, many of the elephants remember the recent poachings at Tsavo West and therefore stay far from the roads. We also were fortunate enough to see the "man-eating" lions of Tsavo West, just a few meters from our cruisers. The experience was exciting and frightening. Because the grass is so high during this time of year, we were very fortunate to see the lions -- many tourists do not see the lions of Tsavo. Additionally, wildlife has lots of room to disperse within Tsavo and is therefore much more difficult to spot. Tsavo West and Tsavo East combined are roughly the size of Massachusetts. My favorite day of the expedition was our last full day in Tsavo, when we visited the rhino sanctuary. I was in the only Land Cruiser that spotted a black rhinocerus, an event I attribute to my staying in the "Kifaru" (rhino in Swahili) banda back at base camp. We were so excited when we saw the rhino that several girls in my car screamed, and we scared off the shy rhinocerus. He ran off across the road in front of us before I could "shoot" him, but I still feel very fortunate to have spotted a rhino. The staff said that 75% of the trips to the sanctuary take place without any such spottings. After the sanctuary, we spent the afternoon at another Serena lodge, with a beautiful view of the surrounding areas. It was nice to soak in the pool and finally get a shower.
While on the Tsavo expedition, I had a discussion with one of the drivers and a mechanic, as well as Ross' Maasai husband, Paul Musa. I spoke with Musa about my upbringing as a pastor's kid and found that he, too, was a pastor's kid. Musa's dad is a Protestant minister in the Rift Valley. When I talked with him about my very liberal (to most) faith, I was surprised that he shared most of my views. I never thought that in rural Kenya I would find a traditionally-raised Maasai who shared the same liberal religious views as me. Perhaps this shows that no matter if you are three hours from a paved road in Southern Kenya or if you are in New York City, people everywhere struggle with their faith and find answers. Musa told me that the majority of Kenyans - as I had read before coming - were Protestant, with Catholics second, and Muslims third.
So we are celebrating July 4 by slaughtering a goat. I have given up meat three weeks ago, so I won't be taking part in the festivities. On July 4, I feel strangely patriotic. I have been vaguely proud to be an American before, but mainly just proud of my state, North Carolina. However, being in another country on Independence Day made me proud to be an American. I found that for the bad we may do, Americans still have done some good and that also we have a lot of excellent resources in our country. I felt grateful for infrastructure like good roads and sewage systems and trash collection, and also that if a politician is corrupt, the American people have the power to remove him from office. My notes about recreation continue as the intense World Cup debate continues. Even in a vast National Park like Tsavo (Tsavo West and East combined are the size of Massachusetts), we still managed to have a radio to listen to the World Cup games.
We are working hard to complete our research projects this next week. So before the rush began, yesterday I stole the afternoon and walked the six mile round trip to the nearest town, Kimana, with my banda mate, Jessica. Walking to town always produces some interesting images of modern-meets-traditional...we see Maasai morans with spears riding bicycles, and people with no running water on cell phones...sometimes it is so strange to me.
So, we have learned much about the environmental situation in Kenya and about community wildlife management. The area we are staying in is referred to ecologically as the Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem. Kenya's national parks are renowned for their wildlife biodiversity. But human population expansion, agriculture, soil composure and erosion, group ranch uses, and spatial distribution are all factors that influence the ability of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem's ability to act as a critical habitat for some of the world's most interesting wildlife.
Kilimanjaro and African savannah are the dominant landscapes here. In an arid environment like Kimana, the people and ecosystem depend on the water of Amboseli National Park, which comes from the glacier on Kilimanjaro (Western). Currently, the glacier on Kilimanjaro is disappearing at a rate of two meters a year. Looking at Kilimanjaro, I am surprised at the little amount of snow on its peak compared to the pictures I have always seen. Conservationists and communities alike will have to work hard to conserve the important wildlife diversity of this ecosystem. People cannot involve themselves in protecting the environment because they are struggling just to survive. So if people can be educated to understand the value of the environment, and can benefit from the environment, they will stop using non-sustainable practices. The people in this area are environmentally friendly because they walk, bike, or use public transportation, but this is not by choice but necessity. Also, there is no heating or cooling in this part of Kenya. The organic farming methods of the past have been replaced with widespread use of pesticides like DDT. Most of the DDT comes from America, where it is made. Kenya's problem is not unlike the environmental problems of the United States, where people will not work on the problems. However, the problem is different because of the deterrents. Kenyans cannot help because they are struggling for enough food and money to get by. Most Kenyans live on $1/day. Although this amount is deceptive because of Kenyan prices, it is still too little. And as Kilimanjaro's glacier - the water source for this entire area - continues to decrease in mass from global warming, the picture looks dim for the people in this part of the world. Water is very, very critical to the Kenyans. I do not believe any Americans value water in the way the southern Kenyans in this Maasailand do. So I have been slaving about this work of writing my Directed Research, which is shaping up to be close to twenty pages. I have real difficulty with the discussion and stay up three whole nights working on it, until I think I will go crazy writing it. The deadline of Friday is looming over my head and if I do not turn this paper in, I cannot work on it anymore. The deadline of leaving on Monday is frightening. I stare at the computer and try to write, but I believe I am so exhausted that I am stuck on the same problems, again and again. Finally I speak with my advisor/instructor for the DR, Tome. Tome is very gracious, but tells me to turn in the paper. Like Meredith professors, he is encouraging and understanding. I am able to finish the paper Saturday night around 4 am. I print out the paper Saturday around 8 am. I am so relieved to turn in the paper. I learned a valuable lesson - to trust myself. In the future, I need to go to sleep and trust that I will be able to get the project done. I do not have to stay up night after night, because this will make the problem worse. Tome was so helpful and supportive. I also learned a lot during the writing process about Kenya's environmental problems. A particular focus was the struggle between wildlife and people for resources. Going out to conduct social surveys of the area Maasai was an amazing opportunity. If Kenya is going to preserve its beautiful wildlife yet take care of its people, Kenya's government will have to really educate people and make sure that the Kenyan people know that they, not the animals the tourists come to "shoot," are the most important aspect of Kenya.
July 9, 10, 11 - Reflecting about What I Will Miss and What I Have Learned We visited an orphanage that the students of the School for Field Studies have been linked to for awhile, and all pitched in to bring the woman who runs the orphanage a week's groceries. Then we headed to Loitoktok's market day. We all have gotten brave enough to eat some street food, which is actually pretty good...I had some "hot chips" (50 KSH ~ 70 cents) and chapati (10 KSH ~ 15 cents) at market day. After lunch in Loitoktok, we headed for one final drive to Amboseli National Park at the base of Kili. Right as we entered the park, we spotted a mother cheetah and her two young...WOW! We also saw a herd of elephants, ostrich, baboons, gazelles, buffalo, and vervet monkeys. To top it all off, we stopped in Serena Lodge, where I ordered a cheese plate while watching the sun set on the savanna and acacia trees. I don't think life gets much better than Saturday.
Sunday I elected to go to a local church service in Swahili at Christ the King Catholic Church. The music was phenomenal...drums and lots of instruments and half of the service was singing...It was a great time! We were asked to introduce ourselves one by one via microphone in front of the whole church of ~200.
On our return to base camp, we received our grades back and walked to Kimana to celebrate with a final Tusker and some more chapati. Before bed, we all packed into the "tv shack" to watch Italy beat France for the World Cup title. I think I am ready for a hot shower, a washing machine, and hugs from family, but I will really miss it here. This has been an experience of a lifetime and thank you all for your support! What I will miss...ugaili, grass roofs, seeing Kili when I brush my teeth and shower, being in the minority, riding in the Cruisers with the hatches off, walking to Kimana, waking up in a mosquito net to bushbabies and lots of birds, acacia trees, seeing the Milky Way at night...
There were some real similarities between rural Kenya and the Southern United States. First, people were incredibly hospitable. When you entered a Maasai boma, the women offered you a seat and sat on the floor. They offered you tea and wanted you to share with them whatever food they were cooking. I was told that if you are Maasai, when someone invites you to stop with them, the hostess/host will not get up until you do. Also, I felt the food of the Southern Kenyan Maasai resembled Southern American food. There were lots of tomatoes, greens that tasted just like collards, and, of course, ugali. Ugali is a mixture made from corn and is a national staple. I think it tastes like grits, especially when butter and salt are added. Also, Kenyans make lots of beans - another popular Southern dish.
There were also some differences. Although I have always strongly felt the patriarchal society in the United States, in rural Kenya it was stifling at times. I could not believe how little the Maasai women could do, how tied the women were to the house. In most homes we visited, the women had not been educated at all. Genital mutilation still goes on for around 70% of the women in the area near Kimana. Polygamy is common and women get married early. Women in bars are treated as prostitutes. On a positive note, the women usually stay home with the children, creating a "family" atmosphere. Another difference is that Kenyans view time differently than the US. They show less adherence to a strict schedule. Many of our teachers were exasperated with keeping "the time of the great commonwealth of Massachusetts" (SFS is a Massachusetts-based organization). Although classes were kept within a twenty-minute period of starting and ending times, when we went to town we found sometimes the most reliable thing to do was to start walking to town and the ride would pick us up for a ride home -- which leads me to another difference, transportation. It would be excellent if Americans walked and biked half as much as the rural, southern Kenyans do. We would be much healthier and have much less of a negative environmental impact. Also, a major difference between rural Kenya and the United States is the amount of convenience in every day life. This is an obvious difference, but it really struck a chord with me. Most everything about American life is easy and available. Life in America can be one completely mind-numbing experience if Americans wish it to be. However, in rural Kenya, you work hard - for dishes, for water, for clothes - none of it is easy! That is something I still miss about Kenya. I miss that if I wanted to go to town on my own time, I actually had to walk for an hour to get there. When I wanted clean clothes, I had to scrub them on the washboard. I feel that a lot of Americans are so far-removed from the hard work it takes to get all the conveniences at their front door that they have become mind-numb, lazy consumers. And I dislike that about myself and my country.
Some observations about what I learned: new-found American pride but also new-found judgments about the United States, a love for Kenyan music, a hunger for things new and different - especially people with different experiences than mine, that the world is such a bigger place than I ever thought it could be, that helping other people in developing countries is not such a big job if everyone does a little, and that the elephant that WWF wants to fight for is a feared, hated creature in many rural Maasai villages, and - most importantly - that I can thrive in a country like Kenya.
Lauren Thie, June 2006
Today we climbed a hill called Loisoto, from which we could view much of the surrounding area: Chyulu Hills (one of the newest mountain ranges in the world), Amboseli, and even Tsavo West. It was beautiful!
I saw baboons, vervet monkeys, giraffes, Grant's & Thomson's gazelles, zebras, impalas, gerenuk, and wildebeest! School has started today, so it means I actually have to start working in free time and can't spend it all gazing at beautiful "Kili."
For lunch we had a traditional Kenyan dish -- Ugali (spelling is butchered I'm sure) -- which is much like a thicker version of grits. We also had chopped greens; they tasted exactly like collards. I think that southerners and the Maasai would get together well at the dinner table. After lecture this afternoon, we had a demonstration with a spear from the Maasai moran that works here. I think I am going to bring a Maasai spear back with me; so watch out! :)
Tomorrow we will head to Amboseli National Park, the most visited park in Kenya that is infamous for its elephants and its proximity to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the largest free-standing mountain in the world. Next week we are heading on a 5 day expedition to Tsavo West, home of the "man-eating lions." (Don't worry guards are coming with us, mom!)
Blessings from Kenya,
P.S.I am 8 hours ahead here of Eastern Time.
P.S.S. These plants have the most intense defenses I have seen to
protect their leaves!!! Today at Loisoto we were warned against the
candelabra cacti that have sap that blinds, and every species of
acacia wants to take my pants! But the trees are so beautiful, that I
am happy to pick out all the thorns...