Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On a positive note!

I realised that all my entries up to now have been quite negative and mostly about my coping mechanisms in the first month. However, of course, I’ve been doing some really fun things here. My main project is working with a mzee (elder) called David Ngala, who is a self-appointed guardian of the forest. Arabuko-sokoke is 420km² of a forest which once stretched from Somalia to Mozambique and is the only significant chunk left. It is one of Myer’s 25 hotspots for biodiversity and endemicity with 500 plant species, 270 birds and 52 mammals. Even this last chunk is threatened by illegal extraction of bushmeat and trees, most of which is for subsistence by the extremely poor communities around the forest.
                David and I go into the forest looking for evidence of these illegal activities, recording information about stumps or traps we find in order to build up a picture of what’s going on. Once we even met someone carrying building poles out of the forest. David just said that he was guiding me on a bird hike through the forest!
                We see a lot of logged trees, many of which only a small portion is taken and the rest left. It can be really sad to see, but it’s good to remember that at least in Kenya the park has a boundary, some legal status and protection. That’s a lot better than most African countries! We see some traps, but not too many, so thankfully the poverty doesn’t quite stretch to this level of need to provide food from the forest. Also unlike in Western and Southern Africa there is no cultural attachment or prestige about bushmeat, hence there is no illegal trade. What does exist is the insatiable hunger for wood, for building, fuel, charcoal and the carvings sold on the coast.
                We spend all day in the forest. It’s a real privilege to work with him. He’s a wealth of knowledge about the woods and animals and even traditional medicine. No day is complete without some casual racism about wazungu! For example, “why does a mzungu only half fill his cup of tea? So he doesn’t burn his long nose!” lots of funny nasal accent of wazungu speaking Swahili too. Aiesh! He calls me his son, which perhaps is his way of rationalising that he has a mzungu for an assistant. I do everything for him from writing his blog, data entry and report writing. It’s really good.
                Two weeks ago I took a half-way holiday to Lamu for the Maulide festival. Lamu is an ancient Swahili port on an island near Somalia. Maulide is to celebrate the Prophet’s birth and seems to be an extended and very disorganised party. There are people from all around the world, you see Swahilis from everywhere, Somalis, West Africans, Arabs etc. all in their traditional dress. It was nice not to stand out for once! There were donkey races, dhow races, swimming races and lots of singing and drumming. It was quite a spectacle. The one day I walked up to Shella on the north part of the island. In the morning I trekked through the dunes. It was really beautiful; lots of birds, no people and the first natural beauty I had just seen without having to pay or report to the office why I wasn’t paying. That afternoon I just lay on the empty beach at the back  of the island; very indulgent! The day after I went out on a dhow with local fishermen. We set off at 3am in the dark of a moonless night, the phosphorescence in the water was spectacular, The sun rose as we headed out to open water. It was a really basic narrow dugout with two outriggers to give stability. We used single lines and bait to catch predominantly triggerfish and white snapper. We finally got back at 1pm and I was quite sea-sick, sunburnt and tired! It was a good experience though, especially because it was just some local guys. Lamu was amazing, but I paid for it when I got back. After packing a lot into 3 days I got a really bad fever. I was wiped out for the rest of next week!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

World's Apart

Frances' whole family. He is above his dad

As I wrote this in my diary I was surrounded by a rural African scene: A few bird are calling, people are chatting gently as they go about morning tasks. The living space is centred around a couple of mango trees with three corners marked by small mud huts made out of the red earth and thatched with palms. A few chickens and ducks run around as well as a goat or two, while the women cook on open stoves. This is my friend Frances' home.
From the coast is took two hours by matatu. When we arrived I met the whole family, Mum, Dad, his 9 siblings, his older brother's wife and their 3 children too. All living and subsisting on what can be produced from the same small shamba (small holding). Only his older brother has a job as welder and is an important provider for the whole family. Frances is the only one who has completed his high school education and can speak English.
During the journey on the previous day Frances had told me about his time at school. He was sponsored by the ASSETS programme from A Rocha, which helps the poorest families around Arabuko-Sokoke forest to go to high school, which isn't free in Kenya, but essential for any kind of stable employment. The programme provides a bursary for a portion of the fees based on need, which in Frances' case was 60%, so his family had to find the remaining 40%. Unfortunately they couldn't provide this so Frances had to work as well, which often meant doing casual labour at home and missing portions of school. His final mark was a D plain.
After leaving Frances' home we went to Pwani university in Kilifi to look for a college course for Frances. It transpired at Pwani that he needed a C plus minimum to get on these courses. In a very polite way he explained his whole story to the admissions officer, about his hardships and problems of getting to school. Of course the admissions guy couldn't change anything, he just tried to get Frances to understand that, “Unfortunately you can't make orange juice into passion juice.” Frances was devastated; he had his plans dashed. Everyone meets difficulties when they try to achieve in life. Myself, I am struggling to get into Marine Biology because I don't have the diving experience, which is so expensive to build up. For Frances I think it is harder for him to deal with these challenges because no one in his family can give him that support. He even said that when he was working so hard to get money for school people in his village would laugh at him for putting himself through such hard work. We had a really good chat on the matatu home about his future. Nevertheless I couldn't help feeling sad that he had such a long way to climb compared to me.
The next night I was due to give a talk about the ASSETS programme at Turtle Bay, one of the hotels here on the coast in Watamu. Visiting Frances' home had given me great preparation for understanding what was going on. Walking into the hotel was so shocking. Everything was so ornate, clean and beautiful. Compared to what I've seen over the past weeks it was the most luxurious place I felt I'd ever seen. I was led to the pool area where everyone was dinner and gave my speech. The dozen people or so that came were interesting in what was going on, although it was clear that they didn't have a very good idea of what was happening outside the hotel walls. On woman even asked, “What do you mean poverty surely there's loads of money here because of the tourist trade?”
Tourism here is not great. Sure it brings in for some, but much of it doesn't filter through, one reason being many of the tourists never leave their cozy compounds. As a result many locals only see wazungu (white people) walking round in their skimpy clothes, driving in flashy cars with their gold and accessories. In addition many people walk around giving out sweets to children and money to people who look poor. Of course the locals have got wise to this and some exploit this misguided generosity, e.g. there's a guy with elephantisis in his leg, and has been given money many times to get it treated.
Sadly many tourists also want not particularly wholesome holidays and in fact many Italians come for sex holidays so there are many prostitutes and even “spouses” who are hired every year when their “husbands and wives” come to Kenya for their two months. There are also many drugs and other problems as, mostly young local men, try to emulate westeners, funded by petty crime and conning gullible tourists. What this all means is that society on the coast is quite broken and steeped in sin and ordinary Kenyans are constantly reminded of their inferiority as they sturggle to get a slice of Mzungu's money pie. Of course what I've mention are extreme cases and not 100% of the time, but what seems universal is the polarised view that Kenyans have of Wazungu. A Rocha is the only place I've seen so far where the distinction between white and black is almost non-existent, which can have funny consequences outside the centre, Mwamba. One time when shopping with Henry the Indian shop keeper looked at me and said, “get this one for your job boss,” adter a moment to figure out what he meant I pointed to Henry and said, “Hey, he's the boss, I'm the assistant doing the carrying.” At Pwani university the admissions guy said to Frances', “Sorry I can't help, but don't complain; look even your donor has come to the Uni with you!”
The reason for this drawn out explaination of these two world's and their interaction is because for a long time I was very uncomfortable with the situation. I felt a lot of guilt compared to Frances and a lot of embarrassment being lumped with the Italians. After a talk with Roni (wife of the director, Colin) I realised its not the material difference that's the problem it's the inferiority that many Africans feel, or as Roni calls it, the yoke of oppression.
As I'm sure you know, Jesus had a huge heart for the poor and as Christians we need to remove any concept of superiority. In Romans 12 v 10 it says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves,” and v 16, “Live in harmony with one another, do not be proud; but willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior” A message repeated so many times in the bible.
In summary the best thing to do is to show humility and kindness (obvious huh?) in a wholesome way, not lording around handing out sweets to the poor African children. It's a a big task, especially when people have so many preconceptions, but one friendly encounter can have great repercussions.