My Adventures in the North

So there I was, in the back of a pickup truck at night, with all of my team’s stuff, with a Kenyan journalist, two Rendille warriors, my two co-workers, a breastfeeding mother, and eight other people, rifle in hand, as a warrior necklace gifted to me earlier that day clanked uncomfortably against my neck, while I talked about Arsenal’s style of football with a guy (sadly, not one of the warriors) as I simultaneously tried to avoid being thwacked by the low-hanging branches ahead of us. Not for the first (or last) time on the trip, I found myself wondering, “how in the world did I end up here?”

I suppose the full answer to that question involves my decision to work in international development, my conclusion that it was time I give East Africa a try rather than another stint in Latin America, and several other choices made along the way. For the time being though, I’ll just focus on the immediate explanations.

My work thus far had involved attending training sessions, where my organization’s local staff (“Business Village Mentors”) taught a group of people with whom we work (ranging from 20 to 100) on any given day. After the presentations, as a show of gratitude, the entrepreneurs would often gift me with some sort of artisanal jewelry. I now have a pretty sweet collection of warrior bracelets and necklaces. For this reason, I was wearing a very ornate warrior necklace at the time of this adventure.

I was delighted to discover that for whatever reason, Arsenal seems to be the team of the people in Northern Kenya. Despite the fact that most people I talked to told me that they had never seen or heard an Arsenal game, there was tons and tons of Arsenal attire. Kids wearing Theo Walcott jerseys, old, distinguished men wearing Arsenal beanies, and all kinds of other apparel. Once when I was playing soccer with a group of maybe 20 kids (more kept coming!), when I high-fived a kid wearing an Arsenal jersey, they went on to try and impress me with their knowledge of teams and players (Barcelona and Messi also got high-fives, Man U, Chelsea and Real Madrid all got thumbs downs.) They even knew who Arsenal’s (former?) star Robin Van Persie was–I decided now wasn’t the appropriate time to explain to them that he had recently disgraced the club by demanding a transfer. Anyway, this Arsenal passion and the cheapness of Arsenal jerseys throughout Kenya meant that I was wearing an Arsenal jersey at the time, which led to some guy next to me discussing Arsenal’s playing style, and what our chances were in the future.

For the first 18 days of my trip, I was with my American co-worker. However, the plan was that my Kenyan boss would come up on day 18 and replace her for the rest of the trip. He also brought a journalist from KBC, a Kenyan channel with, to cover our organization. However, this plan for a smooth transition fell apart when his car broke down on the way up. Our driver had to go pick him up, then take part of the team back down to my home in Nanyuki. It meant that the rest of us were without a ride. Thankfully, my boss it would seem is something of a, well boss in Northern Kenya. Everyone seems to know him, and he was able to finagle his way into getting us a ride.  The catch was that all of our stuff, and all of us (except for my boss) would be riding in the bed. And in Northern Kenya, the only “reliable” means of transport other than walking 80 km at a time is by bumming a ride off someone. Accordingly, if you have a car, you give everyone going the same way as you a ride. (Princeton in Africa, I remember all you told us about cars and road safety! It was either this or possibly spend multiple days in the town of Namarey for another ride that might or might not have come!) Sadly, I cannot offer an explanation as to what the Rendille Warriors were up to.

Finally, the gun. Well, since I was the only white person around, I was given the honor of being able to sit with my back against the cabin. However, it also meant that I was given the responsibility of carrying anything that couldn’t be easily placed amongst the stuff. As my previous Fellow wisely observed, guns and babies are really the two things that you shouldn’t sit on. And while it was my first time being handed a gun, I can attest to the truth of the statement, as I was in fact handed a baby for safekeeping at an earlier point on the trip.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, full of both crazy and memorable moments like the one I just described (okay maybe not quite as crazy), as well as plenty of mundane moments that I’m sure could have happened anywhere, and not just in Northern Kenya. It’s difficult to really put three weeks of adventures into a single post, so I think periodically I’ll talk more about my trip. For the time being though, I’ll just offer three observations I had while in the field.

1. The standard convention in development/aid relief/charity organizations seems to be to describe poverty in very extreme language. People are “stricken” with poverty, “disasters strike” and any efforts made to change the status quo involve “eradication.” However, being exposed to “extreme” poverty in a way like I never have before, I think I fully came to terms with how methodical the process is, and how gradual any change is. For all the discussion about extremes, most people have lives, fears and dreams not so different from ours. Poverty doesn’t seem to me so much like a storm waiting to strike as a constant burden lingering over their heads. They need to spend more time figuring out how to piece together the money they need for day-to-day and major expenses, and are more exposed to threats, but I don’t think the lives they experience are so extraordinarily different. Accordingly, it doesn’t seem to me like there is that “simple fix” that so many people are in search of, in much the same way that there is no guaranteed path to wealth in say the United States. Any real efforts out of poverty seem to me like they will have to be piecemeal and gradual, 1 step at a time.

2. If in Northern Kenya, you are given a cup of tea and are able to bring it to your mouth without spilling any, you were not given a full cup.

3. Finally, my Kenyan co-workers, who are all based up in Northern Kenya when not travelling with us, taught me a lot about gratitude, and about how camaraderie isn’t limited by language. When I gifted each of them a Letterman Knife (at my Dad’s suggestion) they were so overcome with emotion, one could hardly speak, and another told me later he couldn’t sleep that night out of excitement. Every time I tried to do something simple for them, like buy them a Coke, they were unbelievably appreciative. Also, in spite of how little they had resource-wise, they made every effort to return the favor. I was gifted with sodas, beers, snacks and even a warrior belt by them, all of which were expenses that I’m sure they didn’t take lightly. My longest conversation with our security, Semeji, which took place at a urinal in a bar in a town called Marsabit went as follows:

Semeji: Good Marsabit?

Me: Yeah, Marsabit is good.

And yet I think that I have made a genuine friendship with him and with the other members of our team. While I was very ready by the end of the trip to be home, I’m sure the next trip will be a blast, and equally informative and exciting!

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One Response to My Adventures in the North

  1. lrb5 says:

    I think I’d rather trust you with a baby than a gun… Have to say that the advice to not sit on either of them is pretty sound!

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