Thursday, 7 February 2008

ICUU Kenya Leadership School Day 2

Kenya Day Two
Someone once said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I write this blog, I grow ever more aware that my own knowledge about life and politics in Africa does not even qualify me as a neophyte. Issues and concerns in this place run deep and span generations. As someone from a wealthy first world nation where peace and a reasonable degree of prosperity is taken for granted, I have no way of beginning to comprehend the undercurrents at play in a place like Kenya. It is a little like standing before a lake one has never seen before and having no way of knowing what lies beneath the surface waters. The waters may appear calm, rippled or stormy. The waters I can’t see may be deep, shallow, rocky and dangerous or smooth and sandy. I just don’t know.

And so Day Two begins in Kenya fresh and bright and optimistic as I stare at the calm surface. By day’s end some conversations reveal some of those underwater dangers and I go to sleep uneasy again.
The ICUU Leadership School faculty spends a couple of hours after breakfast preparing for the program. We then used a half day of free time to see a bit of Nairobi. Four of us hired a van to take us the David Sheldrick Trust, a small area next to the enormous wildlife park. The Sheldrick area is devoted to rescuing orphaned elephants and rhinos. I am amused for these are the two creatures featured in the Babar cartoons – favourites of my two daughters.
We drive for perhaps 40 minutes to get there. It is not far beyond city limits. We skirt the Kibera slums, home to some 685,000 souls, the largest slum in the world. It has been the scene of the worst violence in Nairobi with many deaths in past weeks. From a distance it is a valley of rusting, corrugated roofs. Culturally and experientially it is as far away from this first world innocent as the moon.

As we skirt the edge of the city we see people casually walking along the side of the road, well dressed as they herd goats and cows, tend roadside gardens or stand waiting for busses. As we reach the shelter area we turn off at a gate guarded by a small pack of baboons and warthogs. Inside the gate we see a pretty young women in fatigues armed with a binder and an AK-47 rifle. After a few pleasant words with or driver we head off over a remarkably rocky road. About a kilometre later we arrive at the shelter. We’re hoping the rifle is protection against wildlife.
By the time the 11-Noon program starts we are joined by about 50 other tourists. We are led down to a clearing where five young elephants aged four to 18 months are being bottle fed. They take mud and dirt baths, play with the keepers and themselves and are as adorable as one might expect. The presenter explains how each has been saved after poachers or natural disaster claimed the lives of their mothers. We learn much about the elephants and are touched by their plight. Later these five are sent into the wild for the day to learn how to exist in the world into which they will eventually be released. Three more come in to feed. They are all a little over two years old and starting to grow tusks. In a few months they will be returned to their natural habitats. The handlers are careful not to grow too close to the beasts or to let them become too attached to any human. It seems to be a good program. I am further reassured by the stability of it all.

There are also two rhinos on hand, but the presenter explains that they are emotionless creatures not needing the social interplay of the elephants. This makes them dangerous at all times and so we can only see them through stout pens.
After, many buy souvenirs or become ‘foster parents’ to the creatures. It is a moving experience. More importantly it is a sign of how people here are doing great work trying to preserve some of the natural heritage of this beautiful land.
We head back to town and to a shopping area – after all we are tourists today! The driver takes us to a mall that I find a little disappointing. It houses upscale stores that sell the same kinds of things I could find at home –electronics, furniture, clothing etc. I split off from the group and head off for an open air market across the street in search of more traditional African fare. I am not disappointed. It’s a slow day and I am soon accosted and invited by many vendors, pursued in an intricate dance where they understand the steps and I don’t. Hundreds of tin huts, perhaps 8 feet square are separated by pathways barely two feet wide. The sun overhead disappears altogether in the overhangs. Each vendor makes offers by punching numbers into a calculator, with the customer punching in counter-offers. No numbers are spoken aloud for fear that competition will know the prices discussed and the profits made.

I went in to the market knowing only that I would pay far, far too much for the things I needed. I left with a couple of bags half an hour later feeling that my faith had been rewarded – I had paid far too much! I didn’t really mind. They needed the money more than I did and I only purchased what I wanted. I did have the presence of mind to insist that the final vendor show me the way out of the rabbit warren market as part of the deal!
In the afternoon, back at the Guest House, we returned to work, finalizing our schedules and plans. Our first participants would arrive that evening from Nigeria. We were joined by Patrice Curtis, an African American woman from California who had considerable experience with foreign aid and refugee matters. She is here as an observer for the UUSC. She and Vincent Deroches clearly have the deepest knowledge of African history and politics. Dinner that night was an education, and not an entirely happy one.

I won’t try to rehearse their discussions, for I have neither the skill nor the knowledge base. Suffice it to say that the issues at play in the disputed Kenyan election are part of those deeper waters I do not understand. The question on day two is: How solid is the climate of peace in Nairobi? As we gather for our conference, the disputing leaders of Kenya are meeting with Kofi Annan and other negotiators searching out a long term solution. Some think a positive outcome will not be possible and that more unrest is in Kenya’s future. I can’t say, but I am more concerned than a day ago. Right now our hope is that the gentlemen keep talking through the end of our conference. That seems our surest guarantee. As I read this, I feel a little selfish. The Kenyans are facing hard times and I am only worried about our 60 people. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the Kenyans will have to live with the result. But as I watch the non-impact of international pressure by our governments, I am aware of my own powerlessness. Better, I guess, to focus on the safety of our group.
The one comfort is the stalwart friendliness of the Kenyans I have met. There are more stories of people protecting folks from other tribes than there are stories of atrocities. I look around me and feel truly safe among the people here. In a way that feeling of safety and the knowledge of what can be and has been doesn’t make sense. It’s unsettling.
I don’t sleep so very well this night.

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