Today we welcome Kathleen Colson to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. Colson was in Kenya from September 8 to October 14 to lead a safari for her alma mater, St Lawrence University, and to meet with her staff and the participants of The BOMA Project — the micro-enterprise development organization that she founded in 2005. Colson has traveled to the African continent over 30 times.
In this, the first in a two-part series on her most recent travels, Colson shares some overall impressions of Kenya. In Part 2, to be published next week, she will report on her journeys related to the BOMA Project’s work.
For over a quarter of a century, I have traveled to Africa, visiting 11 African countries in the process. But East Africa — in particular, Kenya — is the place that keeps bringing me back.
Each time I’m in Kenya, there’s a moment when I feel overcome by the sheer physical beauty and rawness of the landscape. This time, that moment occurred when I was flying over the land that I had spent years driving through — northern Kenya. Now — only my second time to do so — I was seeing the land from the air.
Fractured volcanic mountains stood in stark contrast to the vast open spaces of desert and scrub brush. But for the occasional circle of villages inhabited by Samburu or Rendille nomads, the land looked uninhabited.
I was looking down on ancient untamed wilderness.
Land of infinite variety
Kenya is a land of varied terrains and climates. So it is always difficult to pack when you are traveling between the extremes — from the cold and damp nights in the village of Nanyuki (Kongoni Camp), at the base of Mount Kenya, to the heat and arid conditions of the nomadic villages of northern Kenya.
Millions of years ago, the African continent tore itself apart, creating a 5,400 mile trench that runs from Jordan in the north to Mozambique in the south. A 19th-century British explorer called the trench the Great Rift Valley. It is visible from the moon.
On either side of this crevice, great volcanic mountains erupted creating Kilimanjaro and Ol Donyo Lengai (Mountain of God) in Tanzania and Longonot, Menengai and Mount Kulal in Kenya.
Being in Kenya always heightens my sense of hearing — whether it is the sounds of the night that reach me through the thin barrier of tent canvas, or the sounds that come with the morning light.
In mid-October, while staying in South Horr, I was awakened by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at 4:30 a.m. In this village of mostly Catholic parishioners, South Horr was a typical village in northern Kenya with a diversity of spiritual practices.
As light filtered through the cracks of my wooden windows I heard the sounds of a village awakening — chickens and goats and the murmur of soft, gentle voices. A tropical bulbul, go-away birds and the honking of a hornbill joined the chorus. And then it came — the sound that has started almost every day that I have ever spent in Africa — the whisk, whisk of a palm branch broom.
By the next day, those noises were drowned out by the growl of winds blasting down the Rift Valley. I awakened from a night of Malarone-infused dreams to the sound of young fruit dropping onto the tin roof of my hut from the gnarled olive tree above it.
That day we would make the treacherous climb up Mt. Kulal to Gatab, a Samburu village perched on the edge of a sheer cliff. I was glad we would be staying in a solid cement house — the home of a doctor who had left the area but who allowed visitors, as long as they were approved by the missionaries, to use it.
That first night in Gatab, the thorn branches of a bougainvillea bush, brilliant with pink blossoms during the day, now clawed at the tin roof of the building, desperately trying to hang on as the wind blew and blew.
The missionaries’ dogs barked in desperate pleas for calm which eventually came with the dawn, as the winds quieted down and the mists descended from the forest, blanketing the village in an eerie white fog.
One of the purposes of my trip was to lead a safari of 22 people from September 16 to 28. After a costly snafu with my return flight from northern Kenya to Nairobi, I was finally able to check in with my head guide, Eutychus, and introduce myself to the group members, whom I recognized from their passport photos.
Our safari consisted of a mix of presentations on some of the good works being done in Kenya — Ken Okoth of St. Lawrence University started it off by giving us a tour of his facility in the Kibera slums of Nairobi — and animal sightings.
In the Samburu National Reserve, we saw cheetah, lion and leopard. We also had a sighting of rare wild dogs — unbelievable! One afternoon, we watched a delighted group of young elephants swim and bathe in the rushing waters of the Ewaso Nyiro River.
At a surprise sundowner setting in the hills surrounding Sekenani Camp, I awarded two of our travelers a rungu — the traditional club of Maasai and Samburu men — for carrying on with the trip despite becoming ill.
East African joie de vivre
Another purpose of my journey was to attend a training program for the Mentors of The BOMA Project. On our last night together, I paid for a case of Tusker beer and sodas. As it grew dark everyone straggled back to camp and gathered in a circle of chairs outside my hut. Song leaders like Teresa, our Mentor from Loiy, and Semeji, our security man, led us in rounds of music. Spirits were high by the time dinner was served — steaming bowls of rice, cabbage and goat meat.
After the meal, the dancing began. It started with sonar tenor chants and simple songs. Soon other guests staying at the club as well as people from the town joined in the celebration. Arms around waists, hands clasped and feet pounding in a circle of bodies, the ethnic mix of Samburu, Rendille, Ariaal and Turkana voices joined together in a shared chant — i-lee-um, il-ee-um, il-ee-um, il-ee-um.
Teresa and Semeji’s voices pierced the chanting voices with whoops and wails, connecting the voices to stories of love and longing and the battles of brave warriors.
Two young mothers handed me their babies and I held them close as the dancers pounded their feet and sang the songs of the nomadic people from the north. The dust from the dancers’ feet and the chanting voices rose into the night sky.
Rumblings of discontent
I arrived in Kenya in early September. By that time, the news of the East African drought that started over a year ago was bringing well-intended organizations into the region who had not spent time asking the people what they need. During my first few days, I heard many complaints from residents.
One organization, for instance, had proposed that the community build a greenhouse to grow vegetables.
“And where do we get water for the greenhouse?” the residents responded.
Another organization arrived with desks and chairs for the local primary boarding school.
“But we have desks and chairs,” the residents told them. “We need beds and mattresses for the dormitory so the children do not sleep on the ground.”
And those weren’t the only complaints I heard voiced against foreigners. In the remote mountain village of Gatab, I witnessed hundreds of residents quietly protesting the presence of one of the missionaries who has lived in the village with his family behind a tall chain-link fence.
I was only a casual observer and the circumstances were, I am sure, complicated.
But it is hard not to notice, in contrast to the poverty of this village, the relative wealth of a missionary family whom I am told do not interact socially with the villagers — multiple ATV and lorry vehicles, a backhoe, a wind tower, a satellite dish and a trampoline for children who do not attend the local school. All of this infrastructure was in support of a clinic and Haven Home — a boarding school for nomadic children and orphans.
A number of years ago a local woman had received a divorce after years of abuse by her husband. She was employed by this missionary family and had finally decided that she wanted to have a baby but would do so without a husband. She was fired. According to a number of village leaders that I spoke with, this was the last straw. “We’ve had enough,” the villagers told me again and again.
I tried to find out more and later that evening I did a search on the Web (yes, you can get slow Internet through a mobile phone modem), where I found this description:
Haven Home provides a Christian environment for these young people from many of the immoral and destructive tribal practices.
Before I started The BOMA Project, I spent two years traveling the district and listening to the people. We tried lots of things and we kept listening. Out of this came two founding principles — that we would focus on income as our development strategy and that we would remain committed to the local leadership of all BOMA programs.
But more on that in next week’s post…
For more details on Kathleen Colson’s recent East African journeys, go to the BOMA Project blog. Those familiar with the Matador Network may be curious to note that it recently listed the BOMA Project as one of the top 50 organizations “making a world of difference.”
Readers, any questions or comments for Kathleen Colson before next week’s installment?
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post by our guest blogger Lawrence Hunt, about gap years, voluntourism, and the search for the “authentic” travel experience.
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Images (top to bottom): Nalepicho from Lependera, a Rendille nomadic village in the Kaisut Desert; a rare sighting of a wild dogs in Samburu; dust from dancing feet during the BOMA Project’s celebration; GUMPS (the BOMA Project vehicle) crossing the desert on the way to Gatab.