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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.


Published: August 31, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

As a Brandeis Ethics Center Student Fellow, I spent this past summer in Isecheno, a village in Western Kenya, located in and around the Kakemega Rainforest.

This rainforest is the last remaining portion of the once-vast Guineo-Congolean Forest, which at one time stretched all the way across Central Africa. Increasing population pressure and fragmentation have diminished it down to a paltry 23,000 hectares (roughly 90 square miles).

In Isecheno, about an hour (by public transportation) from Kakemega Town, nearly everyone is poor and unemployed. Most survive by practicing subsistence farming and utilizing the forest for their basic, daily needs (firewood, vegetables, medicinal plants, water).

At one time, firewood collection would have been a sustainable practice, but in light of natural resources misuse and over-exploitation for centuries, (mostly by colonial powers and the Kenyan government), the future of the forest is looking grim. On top of this, most people are sick: with malaria, TB, and common, treatable ailments. Many have AIDS, but no one will talk about it.

I worked for a locally-run NGO called the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), which was started over 10 years ago by forest guides who saw the detrimental effects of these unsustainable practices on the forest. They seek to educate the community about the importance of forest conservation, and have a number of sustainable income-generating projects that attempt to improve community members lives and livelihoods.

While I learned a myriad of things about the rainforest and sustainable development at KEEP and spent the majority of my time working on a report and learning to navigate through frustrating and uncomfortable situations, life at my host familys compound taught me the most about Kenyan culture.

Even more than culture, it taught me about resilience, about acceptance, about what is possible.There seemed to be a general sense of openness and a desire on the part of Kenyans to include me in their culture. Everyone greeted me, or replied kindly to my Habari (How are you?). Many sought a cultural exchange, sharing pieces of their culture with me and asking me about mine. Even the Sunday when I went to church for the first time in my life, the preacher greeted me personally and all the churchgoers expressed their delight at having a visitor. The sign on the wall said, All Are Welcome. And thats how I felt.

I lived with the Azango family, right outside the forest, about a five-minute walk from KEEP. They were rich, by Kenyan standards, and I lived in a permanent structure with a tin roof, in the grandparents house. The grandparents had 10 children, most of whom had moved away over the years, and the four other mud houses in the compound were occupied by their children and grandchildren. The other residents included a motley assortment of chickens and baby chicks, three cows, a kitten, and some small lizards who kept me company in the pit latrine. The kitten often curled up with me under my mosquito net, on the darkest of nights.

I had a three-year-old sister named Jacobeth, and a nine-year-old brother named Joel. They didnt know any English, and I didnt know any Luhya, the local language. Our only common ground was Swahili, and I had the comprehension level of a 2-year-old. Although I received a few days of language training when I first arrived, I improved very little after that.

One of the most valuable lessons that the kids taught me is that you dont need language to play, to laugh, to love. The first phrase that Jacobeth taught me was Lets go play! and from then on, words werent necessary.

I was amazed at the resourcefulness of the kids, and of the people in general. My kids made toys out of everything imaginable: plastic bags bound with string to make a ball, an old bicycle tire, plastic bottles, drawings in the dirt, a vine. The adults, too, used everything. Nothing was ever new, but because no one owned any shiny new possessions, it didnt look shabby or tacky. Clothes were old and mismatched but always tidy, flip flops were sewn and sewn again to repair them, and nothing was ever wasted.

My perhaps two gallon bucket bath every morning taught me that you dont need a shower to get clean. The average American uses over 50 gallons of (drinkable!) water to shower. I had to have my drinking water boiled and then treated with chemicals (before I started treating it, I had terrible stomach problems).

I ate ugalithick corn musheveryday, with some oily green vegetables. Ugali is their staple food, and eventually, it grew on me. The pit latrine taught me, humbly, that you dont need gallons of water and indoor plumbing to answer your calls of nature. You dont need to sit high on a ceramic throne. Sadly, the re-introduction of latrines are probably not too likely, or feasible, in most parts of this country.

In Kakamega, I also learned that you can get used to anything. For one thing, the modes of transportation were dangerous. Matatus (the local bus system) are essentially seats in the bed of a pickup truck, with a covering over the top. Over 20 people are crammed into these buses, which are nearly falling apart as they rattle down the muddy, rut-filled roads out of the forest.

Once, I was in a matatu after a night of especially heavy rains. We drove through 6-inch deep mud, and slid back and forth all over the road. We nearly toppled, but then rammed, instead, into the earthen embankment, and stuck. Locals helped pull us out of the mud by tying a rope under the belly of the matatu and pulling;

then we got back inside. This is a typical occurrence, and no one questions it. It is out of sheer necessity.

Mostly, the matatu rides made me appreciate paved roads, seat belts and traffic laws. On these rides, I had people literally on top of me: women breast-feeding babies or hunched over in the middle of the truck, somehow managing not to topple as we swerved to avoid boda bodas. Boda bodas are bicycles ridden by young men, sporting a cushion and handle bars on the back. They take you wherever you need to go for a few Kenyan shillings, yet because you are a mzungu will try to rip you off.

Mzungu is the Swahili word for white person, or foreigner. Out in the village and even in the town, people are not accustomed to seeing white people. Thus, I was constantly subjected to screams of Mzungu! or the mocking voices of little kids, yelling, How are you!?. Apparently, our voices sound high-pitched and nasal to them. I was told this is just their way of greeting me and is supposedly harmless.

Yet on my 40-minute boda boda rides back to the forest from where the matatu dropped me off, I always got at least 50 different mzungu calls. Children would chase the bicycle, or point at me, as though I were a nine-headed dog. It was generally tolerable, but it made the rides far less pleasant. Especially by the end of the 10 weeks, when I felt more like a resident, I felt insulted for being considered a mzungu. I live here, I thought to myself. But in truth, I came only to leave again, and they were right to call me that.

I also learned that poverty is not a state of being. Newspaper articles or 10-second news blips might deceive you into thinking that people who have no money and live in basic living conditions are consumed by misery and despair. But the day after my plane landed in Nairobi, we went to visit Kibera. Kibera is a slum of over 700,000 people all living in dilapidated shacks with tin roofs, along muddy paths. There are no public toilets, so human and animal waste runs through the streets. It is overwhelming: an entire valley of destitution.

But walking through Kibera, you will not see people crying about how hard their lives are. They laugh, greet friends, sell vegetables. Kids run and play in the streets. People waved at us, children cheerfully chased us, shouting How are you mzungu!? It was so filled with life, and while there was a sullen sense of pain underneath it all, these people were not consumed by poverty. People are not poverty.

Every time it rained, I thought back to Kibera. The rain must transform it into a valley of mud and filth. However I later came to realize that, on a continent comprised mostly of desert, rain is a blessing. Out in the rainforest, it rained nearly every afternoon. There was an oppressive wealth of mud, everywhere. But everyone accepted it as just another part of their day, just as they accepted the unnerving means of transportation.

On many a boda boda ride, I got caught, half way back home, as the sky began to turn black and then burst open, like a swollen balloon. But what else can you do but get absolutely drenched and then trudge through the mud, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all? The poor mzungu, caught in the rain, looking like a sad, wet dog. It was humbling, to say the least.

Rain was doubly a blessing because it meant that my host mother, Pamela, didnt have to walk many kilometers to the river to get water. She did everything else: fetched and carried 100lb. bundles of firewood on her head, chopped wood, prepared all the meals, harvested vegetables, washed dishes, washed and hung clothing, swept beds, bathed children, tidied everything. She was super-human;

she was phenomenal.

Where sickness is a constant part of life and work in the field slowly drags out each day, I always wondered where Pamela and these people found their strength. They were tied to their homes by a profound sense of duty. But most of all, I noticed, that after dinner, when everyone was sitting around the living room, content, that it was more than just an obligation. I realized it is love that binds everything together. Everyone leans back sleepily, exhausted from the days work. Three year-old Jacobeth sprawls across Pamelas lap and Pamela cradles her, gently rocking her against her strong body, assuring the child that she is safe.

All in all, I went to Kenya to learn and to make a difference. I wanted, in the most earnest way, to save the world. But what can we do when there are so many forces acting against us, from all directions? Where do we even start?

I say that everything begins with putting oneself out there in an attempt to break cultural barriers. We must put ourselves in situations where we are not comfortable, to ask questions that are taboo, to be willing to hear the answers to these difficult questions, and to still somehow keep that small flame going to counter the weight of the world.

You must ask these questions so that you can tell the stories. And it is these stories, raw and too personal, that move us to action. From silent fear and defeatism, to empowerment. Dont set out to save the world, because you wont. Instead, set out to change it in some way. Because no matter where you are or in what context, you can still make a difference.