Greg Schundler's Semester in Kenya
March 27, 2006

We’re well into our third course and I’ve been reluctant to pick back up the journal. It seems a daunting task to tailor these entries to such a diverse set of readers.

Tonight was Jen’s birthday party. We celebrated the closing of her teenage years in conjunction with Nathan’s leaving tomorrow. We haven’t seen much of him lately because he is no longer our TA and has turned to his own research in his final weeks. After a lengthy conversation about Star Trek after dinner and a debate as to whether the United States looks female or male (yes, on a map) I decided I was out my league and it was time to retire to my tent. My gastrointestinal issues as of late didn’t inspire any desire to drink.

As the trip goes on, the reasons for my coming to Africa are proving to me clearer and clearer. I’m missing Princeton a lot and can’t wait till I get back. I can’t imagine how much more fun this thing would be if I had my roommates along. Its always a learning experience traveling to a new place, especially when you go with people you might otherwise never meet. I’ve had a lot of time to read and concentrate on my work. Getting to bed early and getting up at 6:45 everyday haven’t left for much else to do. I’ve also had a chance to see through the projects what being an ecologist is really all about. I’m starting to find out that research isn’t for me, but policy making or business might be. There’s a lot of headway to be made in the Third World and gains to be made in Africa if development initiatives were only pursued correctly.

The present course is called “Global Technology” and is taught by an engineering professor, Wole Sobeyejo. He is among the best professors I’ve ever had; his genius is matched only by his sense of humor and easy laugh. He’s the kind of person you know has it figured out. He insists that his professorship isn’t accurately described as “work”. He has traveled the world and his legitimacy is constantly affirmed by periodic temptations by the private sector for “bigger and better” things (not the least of which was a tech company’s offer to fly him to London on Monday for business advice). He has an amazing story: he grew up in Nigeria, went to school in England, and spent a few years working as an aerospace engineer.

The course has entailed a lot of discussion about “Globalization” and the best ways to approach it. We’ve read “Globalization and its Discontents” by the Nobel Prize winner of economics Joseph Stiglitz which has been very enlightening about the misgivings of the IMF. To learn that the IMFs efforts to bail out developing nations, force them to repay their debts, and raise their interest rates have contracted aggregate demand and caused such disasters as the East Asian economic collapse of the late 1990’s and have impeded the development of Russia post Communism has done well to challenge my views of economics. Other topics in the class have to do with solar panel technology, nanotechnology, BIOMEMS, and other cutting edge research in materials (I look forward to enlisting Grandpa’s electrical expertise in installing some solar panels at the lakehouse).
Lekigi Prmary School

Each day is filled with discussions and thought exercises about how to apply this knowledge here in pastoral Africa. We’ve made trips into local communities to assess how realistic our hopes and expectations are. The neighboring community ranch, Lekigi, represented the worst example of overgrazing I have ever seen. Wole has a refreshing approach to globalization emphasizing personal ownership and national ingenuity, not aide or big foreign business, as ways to build wealth not “reduce poverty”. Africa has to find a niche much the way Taiwan, China, and Singapore have. Solar technology may be a good place to start as the glorbal demand for alternate energy sources is only likely to increase. The common sense approach of taking ideas and dreams to policy and application has been productive for some of the bleeding heart liberals in the group.

Recently, we’ve been joined by the head of the physics department of Nairobi University and two of his graduate students. They’ve crowded our van and are an awkward presence at dinner, but have provided an interesting perspective. The van by the way been dubbed by the group as “The Venga Bus”; I find “The Short Bus” to be a more vivid description of both our group and the vehicle. It is what the Kenyans refer to as a “Mutatu”, it sinks to 2 inches above the tires when we fill it and its dashboard does more to absorb the shocks than the suspension. Usually riding shotgun, I have had the opportunity to hear an array of profanity in both English and Swahili from whoever happens to be driving.

Lionneses at Sweetwaters

Before we came back to Mpala we were at Amboseli National Park for a week and Sweetwaters Conservancy the week before that. Sweetwaters had insane wildlife densities and we saw our first lions there (we resorted to using their radio collars to find them). We did behavior studies which entailed checking what the zebras, Cape Buffalo, or Grant’s Gazelles were doing every 60 seconds for 30 minutes. Eating, resting, “health maintenance” (i.e. - shitting), or social behavior (if we were lucky mounting or fighting). We became experts in discerning “lunch packs” from “derrière’s” (courtesy Dan Rubinstein) to sex the animals. Research is not for me. The theories of natural history and studying the different mating systems were interesting, but I’d rather leave the data collection to someone else. Admittedly there are worse things in the world than sitting on top of a Landrover tanning in the equatorial sun. After Sweetwaters, we were all looking forward to our first National Park at Amboseli.

After enduring a 9 hour road trip (the last 3 of which we drove 20 km/hr on a washboard road) we were hoarded at the gate by phony Masaii seeking to sell us souvenirs (I’ve become quite adept at getting fair prices after a few hard lessons). As we drove to the park petrol station to fix punctures on the underside of The Short Bus, we learned that all the animals had left the park. Amboseli is a series of marshes that percolate up from underground springs melted from the snow atop Mt. Kilimanjaro which collectively serve as a dry season wildlife refuge. A planned project on elephants was substituted for by a project on vervet monkeys. We didn’t have to view any of the National Park because the vervets were located at our campsite. We spent 4 or 5 straight days (a blur to me) observing vervet monkeys. Nick and I did a project on their visual attention. Our task for 4 days straight was to record data as to how and as to what monkeys were looking. The people at Amboseli have been studying baboons in similar way for 30 years. Again, research is not my thing. We did get to go on some game drives, go across the border to Tanzania to observe some baboons, and hear about an interesting herbivore exclosure experiment (it concluded that elephants were mostly responsible for the long term deforestation of the park-elephants had fled to the park in unnaturally high densities to escape poaching pressure in the 70’s and 80’s). The camping conditions added to a week long vegetarian diet and my getting sick towards the end made Amboseli a low point. The 9 hour road trip home over the same washboard road and behind lines of trucks in Nairobi didn’t help.

In other news, my roommates and I got the 5th best draw time for senior year and can pick anywhere on campus to live. We are thinking of filling Opa’s old stomping grounds in Patton. When I get back to school I’ll have nothing to do, but write my JP and hang out with seniors. We go to the beach in Mombasa in two weeks and my beard continues to grow.

kids from the Mpala community
Kids from the Mpala Community!

I almost forgot. On Sunday we went up to the local village to watch our staff play soccer against a local ranch. We got to play with the village children. They referred to me repeatedly as “Ma Zungu” or “white guy” (to which I eventually retorted by calling them “Ma Africa”); they were fascinated by my smooth hair, knee scars, and beard. The kids were adorable and insisted on being picked up, spun around, or chased down.

On a random note I found it surprising that the population of Africa in its entirety is only about 75% that of China or India.

This afternoon we go out and learn how to wire solar panels…

Go to the next page..... April 12, 2006

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