183. Kenya 7: new light on a dark continent

malaria-dysentery-apathy-oxfam-poster-2008-by-roadsofstoneThis poster called as I walked from the station, reminding me that it’s time to wrap up my series on Kenya.

My visit last summer left me with a whole lot to say about the country, about Africa, and our attitudes to the continent and her people. I sat down to write, and the project found life of its own. Today I’ll outline some highlights, final thoughts and reflections.

This journey opens where it ends, on The road to Mombasa. When we look at Africa from within our daily lives, we see it always from a safe distance, on television or in the newspapers. That remoteness prevents understanding. From the comfort of our own familiar existence, we simply can’t comprehend the reality of the different world which exists there.

on-the-road-in-kenya-by-roadsofstoneThat’s why, right from the start, I want to take you there, into the heart of an African night. I want to place you deep within the dark continent, as the day is slowly dawning.

From here, we can focus not on the remoteness of Africa, but rather on the sensation of looking back at our own lives in Europe and America from another viewpoint entirely.

Travel offers us the unique facility of reversal through the mirror, as we reflect on lives lived another way.

Can you imagine yourself as a Kenyan woman walking down the broken tarmac of the East African coastal Highway at 4 am, in the rain, with a bright yellow water carrier balanced on your head? Can you see yourself, and your own work, through the hollowed eyes of the emaciated man wearing a muslim headdress, earning a slim living carrying tourist bags through the airport?

africa-the-equatorial-girdle-of-this-continent-by-roadsofstone In The dusk behind the beach, I greet you in the safe enclaves of little America and little Europe, in that thin beachside strip of land cooled by the ocean breeze, and I run with you to find Africa beyond. Four hundred metres is all that it takes to enter the equatorial girdle of this continent, stretching deep and green and humid for four thousand kilometres.

It’s a mix of cultures here, both imported and indigenous. The crippled beggar in the Arsenal shirt rubbing shoulders with the burkha-wearing women and young couple in student shorts and tee-shirts. ‘Jambo sana’ (Hello, very much) call the shopkeepers as I pass, their friendly smiles welcoming the stranger. Further along the road, I pass houses – mud hovels – and shops – pathetic tin shacks.

the-dusk-behind-the-beach-kenya-by-roadsofstoneLet’s consider the reality of living in a country with no infrastructure, no services, and not enough food either. Women fetching the water for their families before the pitch black of bedtime. Children going to bed on the earthen floor with no mattress or mosquito net and not enough to eat. How can we ever complain about our lives back home, as we routinely eat ourselves to death?

Can these half-starving millions forgive us? Do they? Should they? The dusk falls as I return to the hotel, the night air thick with the smell of woodsmoke, of insufficient food cooking on an open fire.

zebra-and-acacia-tree-masai-mara-kenya-by-roadsofstoneMasai Mara – the last wilderness opens as dawn rises on the great plains – daybreak over one of the last wildernesses on the planet. I marvel at the richness of the wildlife here, the drama of the kill, the peril of the chase, the wonder of the wildebeest migration across the landscape and the drama of the river crossing.

And increasingly, as the morning wears on, I ponder that the whole tableau is witnessed by a curious cavalcade of Land Rovers and minibuses, each bearing half a dozen long Canon lenses, poised for the shoot. It’s no desolate endless plain here, but a managed tourist bonanza extending across just a tiny fraction of the continent.

masai-villagers-masai-mara-kenya-by-roadsofstoneWe visit a Masai village, to witness the warm welcome of these people, and their hard business sense. Kicked off their land to accommodate mere elephants, this elegant race now depends on tourism to survive – both exploiting and exploited within the final zoo on Earth.

Back on the coast, I ponder on an orphanage and the disaster of African AIDS. We set up a visit to deliver some old clothes, shoes and toys. By chance, a new orphanage has just opened, run by a British woman who has sold up her house near the town where we live. She’s given her life to the welfare of the children of Kenya, and has braved bureaucracy and intimidation (even deportation) to accomplish her dream.

orphanage-children-kenya-by-roadsofstoneThe children in the orphanage are in many respects the lucky ones, sharing shelter and proper food, sleeping beneath mosquito nets and in safety.

But their happy smiles hide the hardships and family tragedies which have brought them here, and the wider disaster of AIDS which reaches into the lives of every community in Africa.

With no money for the purchase of paracetamol, let alone expensive retroviral drugs, one third of Kenya’s 34 million population will be dead inside a decade.

The situation in Kenya grew dramatically worse in late December 2007 with the outbreak of violence across much of the country following a struggle for the Presidency. In On corruption and a crooked election I describe some basic economic realities of corruption, and how it evolves through the Darwinian struggle to survive.

baobab-tree-gede-kenya-by-roadsofstoneIn 2006, Kenya was the 155th country in the United Nations table of economic prosperity, and that was before its economy was devastated by the outbreak of near civil war and the overnight collapse of international tourism.

The country had previously been targeted in 2003 Al-Qaida attacks near Mombasa, and the tourist trade had only recently recovered when violence broke out.

The eradication of corruption? That will depend on the establishment of a stable government and a dramatic improvement in the economic scene across the country. This will be hard to achieve without sustained foreign support. The country has no real funds of its own – and amongst the many western companies presently doing business in Kenya, the majority pay no tax in the country at all.

That observation leads to a far bigger question: Africa – how can we help? The fact is that the scale of the problems is massive, but every bit helps.

wildebeest-migration-river-crossing-masai-mara-kenya-by-roadsofstoneTourists visiting the country can do much to assist on a small scale, by engaging the services of local tour companies rather than lining the pockets of western hotel owners.

They can inject cash directly by tipping thoughtfully where appropriate, and by donating both to institutions and to people in need.

The shocking truth is that although this part of Africa lies in neither a famine nor a war zone, almost everyone here has real need of charity. Those in employment suffer low and unreliable wages. Those in jobs have to support the many who aren’t, and the majority of the people are, if not starving, then painfully thin.

A vivid debate broke out in the comments here. The point was made that individual tourists had no power to bring change, and that the most constructive action for Africa would be to donate your entire holiday fund to Oxfam.

masai-warriors-dancing-kenya-by-roadsofstoneCriticism also centred on the ecological cost of our visit, in terms of the carbon budget to travel there. And did writing about Africa from a tourist’s perspective run the risk of insulting the country and my readers by imparting an incomplete view?

These criticisms are well taken. Oxfam is the worthiest of causes, and Africa certainly one of the most deserving of her targets.

It’s true that my view of Kenya, and of this continent, only scratches the surface. But I’ve travelled to Africa throughout my professional career, and my work has afforded me the (not always comfortable) opportunity to witness more of Africa than many people can.

Kenya is a large and diverse country, with many more natural wonders and hardships to see. I read about the wild lakeshores, the bandits and flamingoes of the northwest of the country. The wonders of the Rift Valley, and the serenity of the Tsavo East National Park.

Even before our visit, I knew something of the desperate conditions in Kibera – the slums of Nairobi, and last winter’s violence has shown us much more of the conditions there on the television news.

weaver-bird-nests-kenya-by-roadsofstoneBut we’re back to that problem of remoteness again. In this series, I wanted to describe something of what I saw, on the ground, and to share my experiences in visiting just a small fraction of Kenya.

To provide a full account of the whole of a country would require much more time, yet my intention here was never completeness. You can check Wikipedia for that.

If this series has made us think, just a little, then it’s been well worth the effort. In the nine months since I returned, 5,000 people have read these articles, and I hope many more will continue to do so in the future.

Travel offers a different perspective. Reversing through the mirror, and looking at lives lived another way.

kenya-dhows-on-the-beach-by-roadsofstoneAfrica has so much to teach us, and she deserves so much more of our support.

new light on a dark continent : : new light on a dark continent : : new light on a dark continent : : new light on a dark continent : : new light on a dark continent : : new light on a dark continent

Kenya articles:
161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
164. Kenya 2: The dusk behind the beach
166. Kenya 3: Masai Mara – the last wilderness
168. Kenya 4: on the orphanage, and AIDS
172. Kenya 5: on corruption and a crooked election
179. Kenya 6: Africa – how can we help?

Related articles on Africa:
124. Exploring Africa with Bono
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco
25. Ghana
102. Moroccan red – Marrakech
92. Live from London – Live8

22 responses to “183. Kenya 7: new light on a dark continent

  1. Good on you, Roads! Good on you!

    “Guns, germs and steel” have devastated this continent. It’s high time…well past time…to make amends.

  2. I was with you completely until the ‘one laptop per child project’ … no, Roads … such waste, such extravagance … better a pencil, and a notebook … cost: less then a dollar. What is needed are teachers first and foremost …

    Also, while I think of it, thought you might be interested in this link too …

    Great photos on this post. And header shot too.
    Very evocative …

  3. Excellent, Jonas – many thanks. Meanwhile, did you see this updated machine destined for the one laptop per child project?

    It’s a whole new design concept – the microcomputer as book reader, complete with touch screen, and the longer battery time will work wonders in remote areas, too.

    Looks amazing – and all for $75 a piece, too.

  4. Thanks, C. The one laptop per child project is one means amongst many. Food and medicine are priorities, but education must follow.

    More teachers? Yes, let’s have them. But will IT megacorporations provide teachers? I don’t think so. If they inject cash, there’s a risk it’ll go missing.

    And the government can fund schools, but it can’t buy equipment. The provision of computing hardware is one route for philanthropy, harnessing the enthusiasm of Silicon Valley and putting it to work.

    It’s not an alternative to foreign aid. It’s an innovative addition.

  5. Still don’t think the laptop should come first. In many ways, conceptually, it’s akin to giving a Ferrari sportscar to a farmer who doesn’t even know how to drive a tractor … Education, proper teachers, must come first, ideally home-grown, not imported. Otherwise, the risk is just more megacorporations ‘raping’ the populace under the guise of ‘good works’.

    ‘Rule’ by IT corporations through philanthropic ‘gifts’ is illusionary. There is always a price to pay, and you can bet that any ‘corporation’ will be dealing with high level corruption and underwriting it to some insidious degree. Don’t mean to ‘rain on the parade’, but seriously, I do not ‘buy’ this ‘idea’ at all. Better that ‘do good’ philanthropists actually supported the NGO’s at the grassroots level and attempted to affect real change. Oprah had the right idea with the founding of her school for girls in (was it?) South Africa … Kenya needs a similar kind of ‘mentoring’ in my humble opinion …

    Otherwise, great post Roads, thougtful and insightful, as always.

    For extended ‘thinking’ on philanthropy, please see my short story – ‘The Philanthropist’. … granted, it ain’t all bad, but one must be ever vigilant and cautious about the real price …

  6. I didn’t say the computer should come first. Far from it. But it can come as well. And who said the computer corporations should rule anywhere? Not me, and that’s for sure.

    But let’s just take some of those billions which the IT moguls have stashed away these past two decades, and use them for the global good. It’s extra money – today’s philanthropy, so we have to use it. Otherwise that money will go where? Zürich, Geneva, Aspen, Jasper? A private art gallery?

    By all means keep your laptops in the schools if you must do, but in doing so you have to realise that whilst secondary education is state-funded, primary education has to be paid for. Only the minority ever go to school.

  7. To be sure it’s problematic …

    I meant to suggest that a farmer driving a Ferrari is as useful as a professional sportscar driver digging tatters …

    Literacy is key.
    How they get there is secondary.

  8. hey, am a kenyan and this blog has caught my attention.its an interesting serie and i would like to read before making any comment. and how comes i see the same bad image photos of kenya? starving children, masai morans awed by technology, and dilapidated roads? i mean, i know and believe and i can produce evidence that there is more to Kenya than this. Good roads do exist, starvation is being edged out by the promising development and yes, Kenya was not really on the brink of civil war- only ethnic strife gone too far.

  9. Sure, C – that’s agreed. Thanks for your input.

  10. Jambo sana, boyfulani – good to hear from you, and welcome.

    You’re right, there is so much more to Kenya. It’s a wonderful country, with fantastically friendly people and beautiful places to see, and she has so much to offer the world which gives her precious little in return. It’s precisely for all those reasons that your country and her people need more support from the developed nations than she currently receives.

    You’re also right, no doubt, that the media images of violence following your recent election last winter may have overplayed the situation, and I hope it’s all gone back to normal now. But there’s no doubt either that those images have damaged the tourist trade, at least temporarily, and harmed the inward flow of investment dollars on which future growth depends.

    This is not about doing Kenya down – quite the opposite. It’s about raising wider awareness of the problems which exist and helping Kenya to help herself for continued progress towards tomorrow.

    All best wishes from London. Asante sana.

  11. After reading this I want to visit Kenya 🙂



  12. Thank you, Lana. It’s well worth the visit.

    I see you’re working you way towards Cuba, which is on my list one day, too. Meanwhile, the closest I’ve come is a fantastic trip last week to see Havana Rakatan.

    Viva la salsa … and good luck with your quest.

  13. I should have known better than to read this right before turning in. I’ll be thinking about it for some time.

    In terms of aid, did you see any evidence of help via UNICEF or any other UN organization? Ot Save the Children? I hope so, but I suspect you’d have mentioned them.

  14. There was no evidence of any foreign aid of any description, anywhere that we went on our trip.

    We weren’t within any war or famine zones, so perhaps that’s not surprising. There are needier places in Africa than eastern Kenya.

    But in a way, that’s exactly my point. Unemployment, malnutrition and disease are huge problems right across sub-Saharan Africa, and not just in the few identifiable disaster zones which make it into our TV news.

    The grinding scale of the poverty is apparent at a moment’s glance, anywhere and everywhere you go. And yet, in the North we kid ourselves that the gap between developing and developed countries is narrowing all the time. That’s entirely a delusion, but it certainly helps us all to sleep better at night.

    It’s not comfortable to face these facts. On the whole, I think we’d really rather not think about them. One desperately edgy question I wasn’t able to answer was whether these people live in these conditions of hardship and insecurity exactly because we live such comfortable and pampered easy lives in Europe and America.

    Do the material excesses of wealth that we enjoy mean that others must suffer throughout their lives to provide the cheap goods and raw materials and services on which we depend, whilst not consuming the fuel and food which we expect and demand to use for our own unrealistic ends?

    I’m not sure if the economic world works quite like that. But my big concern and guilt remains that an element of that uncomfortable equation might after all be true.

    Many thanks again.

  15. Roads,
    I have enjoyed this series. It is too easy to gripe and complain in our country. The cost of gas is awful and it is reflecting in the groceries. Still, most of us have safe homes , abundant food and plenty of clothes. Your series has helped me learn to be more thankful and less wasteful. I will certainly read it again for more iron sharpenings.


  16. Many thanks, Nichole. I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed this series, interspersed with other material as it has been, and I appreciate your comments and your support of this site.

    The trip taught me a great deal, in quite unexpected ways, and has given me lots to think about over the past year. I hope I can keep that perspective and take it forwards with me, next time I feel like complaining about some minor inconvenience of life in London.

    Because the truth is that in comparison with sub-Saharan Africa, in Europe and America we live the charmed lives of paradise, every single day.

  17. Thanks for the insightful answer. Your question needs to be asked, I think, and while I won’t delude myself into fantasizing that a politician might actually answer it, I believe we all know, deep down, what the answer is.

  18. Thanks, Ella. Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest ones to address, especially when we really know the answer all along.

  19. Kenya provokes thought and this series advances that cause – thought – no end.

    Still, I wonder at how one compares the life of a Kenyan child with that of an Iraqi or, for that matter, Iranian, who might urgently need fundamental medical or basic nutritional supplies? One is embraced (yet for all practical purposes largely ignored) by the west, the other two ostracised by our all-powerful overlords thanks to political allegiance, yet each equally deserving of our support, none more or less responsible for the unique status of their plight. I tend to think of such things in impossibly simplistic, unfashionably uncomplicated terms.

    If a child is, for example, dependant on insulin, is he or she better or worse served under a negligent, uncaring regime or a politically embargoed one?

    I’m willing to bet there’s not a papers’ width of difference once you spend a day in their disenfranchised, confused, world-weary shoes.

    The true heroes of our age are unheard of and unsung. Ron Raab of Insulin for Life (Australia) is a case in point. Ron neither cares for nor abides by international boundaries or sensitivities. He’s all about getting unused medical supplies out of the surplus stores of the west and into the hands of the desperate and the needy, whatever their denomination, skin colour, religion or creed. The man’s a hero for the modern age.

    Kenya tugs hardest at us here because of our author’s personal experience. As it should be in the blogosphere; that’s what the modern age delivers – insight beyond imagining, unique reach beyond the sober hand of biased editorial or the myopic view of ad-guzzling world media.

    Keen insight, Roads, well received and much appreciated.
    A unique window on a warped world. And, as ever, food for thought.

  20. Thanks again, Sweder. Running offers an acuity of thought and a priceless window on the world. There’s a lot to see out there, and it just ain’t visible from a deckchair or the office, as you well know.

  21. This new book explores the problems of Africa, and looks well worth a close look:

    Africa – Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden.

    Review from The Independent.

    There was another excellent review by Tim Butcher (foreign correspondent and author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart), in this Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. I’ll add this as soon as I can find it online.

  22. Pingback: Atractivos turísticos en Kenia | Africa

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