Saturday, February 12, 2011

A steep learning curve

I've now been in Kenya for one month and it has been a huge learning curve. Africa is the most culturally distinct place I've ever been too and it's not even that different on a global scale. The first impressions when I arrived from my transfer plane into Malindi was of the colour of the place . Vibrant flowers of pink and red lined the main road where women in brightly coloured lessos walked past red ochre huts and wandering goats. Boys were selling mangos, men chatting on motorbikes waiting for a fare, chickens, cows and goats galore. A typical African snapshot!
The A Rocha centre (Mwamba) itself is a secluded collection of small buildings surrounded by beautiful bushes and flower filled trees just back from the beach. From the centre all you hear is the crash of the Indian Ocean, crickets and the trade winds blowing in the coconut palms.
My first week was blissful coming from the freezing cold of the English January, the heat was delicious. I would stand in the sun and just soak the energy. The beach was incredible and and especially the water, which is warm and clear. Only 15 minutes swim off shore is a coral reef, perhaps not the best in the world, but for me it is just astounding. The colours and diversity of fish and life is so intense that you have to just float and stare in order to take it all in. As I gfot out after my first swim with the evening light sparkling on crystal waters and white coral sands it was one of many times in that first week that I had to pinch myself.
The best part however is the people. A Rocha operates as a community; eating, joking, praying and working together. People care for every part of you, which is such a contrast to other places I've been. I think Christians are particularly good at this. God is so good to me!
The second week I started to discover more about Kenya, which was a steep learning curve. Firstly I saw in the news that the Northern areas of the country were suffering from drought and famine. Although it wasn't happening here on the coast, it was so much more real that when one hears about things like this in the news at home. I also realised how badly the incredible wild areas of Kenya were threatened. I basically had a large injection of the need here in Kenya, which filled me with passion for the work ahead.
After this I began to realise that some aspects of the Kenyan culture were just wrong from my perspective. Through stories and some of my own encounters I came to realise that the pole pole (slowly slowly) pace of life in face just wastes time and oppurtunites. Worst is the way people interact with money here. As a mzungu (white man) they will charge you any price they can get away with. Even when I went to a hair salon that Belinda, the hospitality manager at Mwamba, recommened and called to let them know that I was coming, did they try and rip me off. Maybe many tourists here just pay without realising, but it must annoy some. In addition there is an "aid" mentality here of people expecting something for nothing. Colin, the director of A Rocha Kenya, does really useful work in the area, but the park wardens still expect him to pay; they don't even help! There are so many stories of people not doing their job, or doing the bare minimum but still expecting to be paid. If some Kenyans just tryed a little to provide quality service they would make so much more money, but they just squeeze their assets dry. The worst way that this is expressed, of course, is in corruption. Nothing gets done, because everyone is taking their cut. The other day I saw the govenor of shipping's plush mansions with green lawns sitting above a cracked mud/dust bowl, which used to be a lake dotted with people trying to catch the last few catfish in the drying waters.
Just inland from the thin coastal strip with its tourism money is extreme poverty. The other day we were doing a bird count. The surrounding hills were bare of bushes and the numerous skinny cattle tramped about in the basin which should have been full of water. In the middle of this environmental disaster a group of children were pulling a mosquito net (probably donated by Western NGO concerned for their health) through the shallow water trying to catch fish. I was told that these tiny sprat only 1 inch long would be dryed and eaten whole. I just stood on the bank looking at the stinking black mud on their skinny legs and prominent ribs not really knowing what to say or do. Finally in a bizarre act of compassion I jumped into the water with them, to which they laughed and screamed with delight. Only after was I told the water is full of disease like Bilharzia.
Whoose fault is it these kids are scrapping food from disease ridden mud? Is it colonialism which suppressed the African psyche not to think for the future and just squeeze resources or is it corruption which prevents any meaningful organisation of people and resources?
My work here is also frustrating because there are so many little problems which get in the way of work. For one the national grid in Kenya is extremely hazardous with power cuts every day and on Thursday's there is no power because of rationing. The internet is through a mobile phone dongle only, for the whole centre. It used to come on a high speed cable, but the cable was dug up and stolen for the price that Chinese scouts would pay for the copper. Perhaps this could be a worrying hint for the African continent. Selling their future for pittance to a new colonial era of China. Despite it taking a long while trying to understand all what's going on here it is a great learning curve, one which is teaching me a lot of patience. Power goes out ... change tack. When I do sucees with something it's all the more sweet!

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