Greg Schundler's Semester in Kenya
February 20, 2006

This morning I was accompanied in the shower by a frog and was glad to get up and read some in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Last night we met the newly appointed executive director of Mpala Wildlife Foundation, Phillip Winter. He has spent the last 30 years managing a variety of initiatives all over Africa (Rwanda, Brunei, Congo, and Botswana) and has a broad scope of the challenges at hand in developing Africa. The priorities as he sees them are 1) Security 2) Education and 3) Communication infrastructure (roads and cell phones). The conversation continued over kerosene camp light in our dining tent and once again I was the student who talked most. I seem to represent the conservative voice in the group and I think the other students are tiring of my viewpoint.

Kenyan Flowers
Looking up to the peak on Mt. Kenya

Yesterday we experienced our first rain shower- just enough to dampen the dirt on the road, not enough to get your hair wet, one the way back form a Masaii village. We made the trip to see how African pastoralists make their living and also to view a new “eco-tourism” lodge. We were first shown the dung hunts of the Masaii which consist of a foundation of sticks weaved together with grasses covered with a layer of cowdung on the outside. Ecotourism is a promising future from the standpoint of ecologists because it provides locals with incentive for conserving wildlife and poses as a tremendous economic opportunity. The concept is promising, but its implementation seems to be problematic. Local pastoralists are not those funding (this one received 120,000 Euro from the EU), managing, drawing blueprints for, or organizing the project. They have been able to assist in laying down the stone and thatch of the structures. Once the structures are standing, however, the question of management and the division of profit arise as challenges to a (through-poverty) egalitarian populous. There is no intellligensia or sophisticated division of labor (electricians, plumbers) in these societies, let alone a suitable road leading to the lodge. The fact that the lodge is tangible and has received guests, however, is incredible, especially because a Masaii women’s group has organized the entire project. The men admit that if they are even in charge of funds they would have drank them away along time ago. Later, at the cultural show, the entire village council of men, was indeed, hammered.

After the tour of the ecotourism lodge we were given a cultural presentation of traditional warrior and women’s dances. They slowly incorporated us in to them resulting in some of the most awkward interactions I have ever witnessed. I decided to go all out and starting spinning my Masaii woman around just like I would at any eating club. The chanting and dancing eventually subsided into the cries of children and discussion over the prices of souveneirs. Our brief moment of communion in these traditional dances was quickly divided into our two parallel existing universes; one of the rich white West and the one of poor black Africa. I decided to go chill with the relaxed high council of men and asked them questions about their history; including the old rite of passage involving killing a lion alone to be recognized as a man. I was amazed to learn the ages of some of these men and women; those who looked seventy or eighty were in their 40’s and 50’s. Exposure to the elements and a difficult life has very obviously taken their toll on these people. Women in their 20’s looked twenty years older; they probably had already had 3 or 4 kids. All in all we were glad to contribute to their (growing?) venture by paying an admission fee (700 shillings) for the show and buying various souvenirs. I bought a belt made of beads in the repeating design of the Kenyan flag.

Lectures for the second half of the course have been more concerned with conservation and have been unnecessarily long-winded and vague. Our field trips are still, however, fascinating. On Friday afternoon we visited baboon cliffs and observed uncannily human-like primates for a couple of hours. Infants chronically wrestled; adults groomed each other, another baboon attended to himself. On Thursday afternoon we went to the hippo pools and caught two hippos in the midst of a territorial dispute. Later, we crossed the path of an elephant group; a juvenile male attempted to scare us off, but a short revving of our Landrover’s engine quelled his machismo.

I’ve been becoming friends with the guys on our staff, especially Joseph. Conversations have become more interesting and encompassing; I’ve heard their impressions of Americans and Europeans, their interpretations of their tribal and Kenyan history; and the details of their family lives. Joseph lives 50 km away from his wife and child; he walks home monthly for four days to visit them. I’ve expanded my Bob Marley repertoire and feel comfortable hanging out around their fire. Laporno is the best chamonga player (Kenyan guitar) and appreciates my attempts to jam to his chants.

Baboon cliffs
Across town, the Yale-in-Africa Program

Over the weekend, one of Jen’s old band geek mates from British Columbia (Dylan) who resembled Trey Anastasio visited with his Kenyan host brother (Joe). Their presence was at first awkward because the visit seemed to have been forced on Jen and Joe was a really touchy-feely dude. Later Mark informed me that such is normal behavior in Africa; two male friends will hold hands walking down the street for example. Once I got over the cultural divide, Joe had a lot of entertaining stories to tell about his experiences in Canada like sledding and playing Halo for the first time. He was so excited to relay stories about things that were otherwise commonplace to me. He also told me about how at his high school of 300, in a good year only 7 will go to college. Ten percent of his friends, at best, will get jobs. We compared various costs of livings and salaries across countries and then we go to talking about how sweet Mombasa (a beach city where our last course well be held) is and got me stoked to go there. Whenever you talked to the kid about something he liked he erupted in enthusiasm and when I started asking him about the seafood in Mombasa, he was nearly rolling on the ground and could only be heard repeatedly muttering numochoma or “barbeque”. After Joe and Dylan left on Sunday, everyone laid out towels in camp for a tanning session. The most direct sun rays on Earth became unbearable at about 12:30 and I retired to my tent to play some guitar.

Also, Wednesday last week was our only official day off thus far. We spent the day driving up to the tree line on Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kenya is an ancient volcano and the most gradually sloping mountain I have ever seen. It experiences rainfall much greater than surrounding Kenya. The base is the site of some of Kenya’s best agriculture; the mountain itself is a pristine national park containing broadleaf rainforest flora and fauna totally different than the savanna…

Go to the next page..... March 3, 2006

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