I first traveled to Africa in 1998 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. I was in my 20s, naïve and eager to change the world. Fortunately, our training was comprehensive and ensured we put the brakes on our eagerness to impulsively implement change according to a very Western value system.
Yet when I look back on those two and a half years I wonder if I did more damage than good. Although in the big scheme of things my impact was minimal, I can’t help but question how I had any right to traipse into a community and assume I had all the answers to improving a way of life based on ten weeks of training.
Fifteen years later I return to a continent that although improvements have taken place there are still many of the same dilemmas facing the people and the communities here in Kenya. Drought, poverty, corruption, deforestation, hunger, disease and a dilapidated infrastructure leave me scratching my head especially when there are so many aid organizations and donors running around.
In fact it was only last year that my dear friend lost his two year old child to cholera — a disease many Americans have never heard of. Then on top of everything else you have the constant threat of terrorism to an already fragile system. My heart breaks for Kenya.
I have been questioning the phenomena of Western intervention in accordance with modern “ideals” and traditional living coexisting for some time. The sight of abandoned bore holes and Western-style housing, overgrazed land and deforestation, discarded plastics and packaging, and in some ways the destruction of the family structure. The list is endless.
The developed world’s intervention and implementation of modern conveniences, I believe, has always been backed with good intentions. However, the outcome often devastating for a land and a people that have survived in this harsh land long before these mechanisms were available.
A visit to the Laikipia Plateau, bordering the tribal heartlands of the semi-nomadic Samburu people, gave me pause. To be up close and personal with a culture that is so extremely different than our own, yet so beautifully unique, made me wonder why anyone would assume one culture reigns superior over another.
We had the honor of visiting a Samburu manyatta (compound) where the melodic sounds of the morans (warriors) singing and dancing in their bright red shukkas, adorned with elaborate beaded jewelry while whipping their ochre red hair to the rhythm greets us and is absolutely enchanting.
The young women who are just as decorated complement the dance, joining in when it seems they are invited. The sounds, smells and energy that is part of the pulse of the manyatta is contagious. This particular manyatta houses a man and his two wives. Each woman has her own house, which she builds with the help of other women out of local materials, such as sticks, mud and cow dung. The circle of houses is surrounded by an acacia thorn bush fence and at the center of the manyatta there are animal pens protecting the livestock at night from predators. As we are guided through the manyatta the young children fascinated by Jayna’s presence are temporarily distracted from their daily chore of coaxing the livestock into their pens for the night. Their bright smiles a stark contrast the clay and dust stuck to the rest of their bodies after a long day of herding.
We are escorted into a hut where after our eyes adjust to the dim light we watch as gourds that carry milk are sterilized over an open fire with the course hair of a cow that has been attached to a stick. We sit quietly for some time as no words are necessary to see how this simple way of life meets the needs of those that call this manyatta home.
I find myself confounded on how balance is to be achieved between progress and ensuring human rights and the conservation of a very special way of life. To visit a singing well and to listen to the songs that will bring the cattle in to drink, to walk through the local market and see all the amazing colors and the women busy stringing beads together that symbolize a right of passage, to hear children’s laughter as they simulate their dreams of becoming a warrior and to see the smiles — a universal representation for happiness only emphasizes that not all progress is good.
Wenatchee native Jane Davis and her daughter Jayna are spending the fall in Kenya, where Jane will be teaching at a girl’s school. She can be reached at email@example.com