The Displaced Nation

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“We read to know we’re not alone”: 1st-ever litfest for expats & random nomads

The displaced writer Hazel Rochman once said that reading “makes immigrants of us all”:

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.

That must be why author interviews have played such an important role in the entertainment mix provided by The Displaced Nation since our founding one year ago.

A book that enables us to escape to a new world without buying a plane ticket? Bring it on!

A book that makes us feel at home in another part of the world? There’s nothing we crave more.

We’ve also taken authors into our confidence who, as St. Augustine once advised, treat the world as their book, rather than staying put and reading only one page. Because of their own peripatetic ways, these writers have much to say to the rest of us nomadic types about how to make sense of feelings of isolation, ennui and displacement.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

We read to know we’re not alone.

In honor of The Displaced Nation’s first anniversary, as well as in the spirit of World Party Month, I would like to propose the first-ever Displaced Nation literary festival featuring authors who have been interviewed or in some way featured on the site during the past year.

Note: The following is a tentative line-up. It includes previews of the kinds of insights we can expect to glean from such an extraordinary gathering of expat literati.

We anticipate the festival to extend from a Sunday night to a Thursday morning, with an opening night gala and a couple of closing events. Click on the headlines to go to the event descriptions for each segment:


It seems only fitting that we offer something totally mad on our opening night. We will screen Alice in Wonderland, the 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, which was partially restored by the British Film Institute and released in 2010. (NOTE: You can see portions of the film in a video specially made by Anthony Windram during The Displaced Nation’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme month.)

The film is memorable for its use of special effects: Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and then growing too large in the White Rabbit’s home, getting stuck and reaching for help through a window.

The film matches our theme of “We read to know we’re not alone” — could anyone ever feel lonelier than Alice did at such moments?

But here’s the new twist: the screening will feature a live accompaniment by Seremedy, the displaced Swedish visual kei band this is now making such a sensation in Japan, reacting musically and without any rehearsal beforehand, to the silent film in front of them. Unique, spontaneous — and perhaps even terrifying, given that the band’s (male) lead guitarist, Yohio, looks like an anime version of Alice.

DAY ONE: “We’re not alone” — We have each other

Iranian Childhoods, Inspiring Stories

TONY ROBERTS and ASHLEY DARTNELL each spent portions of their childhood in Iran. Roberts has produced a novel based on his memories of that time, Sons of the Great Satan, which we featured on this blog about a year ago. Dartnell, who has yet to be featured (we hope she will!), released her memoir, Farangi Girl, last year (it was recently issued in paperback).

Roberts and Dartnell have in common the status of being so-called third culture kids — growing up in a third culture not common to their parents (Roberts’ parents were American and Dartnell was the product of an American mother and British father). They also have in common that they were enjoying their lives in Tehran until something terrible happened — the memory of which affects them to this day.

In Dartnell’s case, it was the sudden collapse of her father’s business (her parents subsequently split up), whereas for Roberts, it was the experience of being evacuated because of the American hostage crisis — suddenly, he was back at the family’s small farm town in Kansas, having no idea of where his friends had gone.

TCKs experience such traumas in isolation (Roberts continued to feel isolated well into his adulthood). Roberts and Dartnell, who have never met before, welcome the opportunity to forge a new connection over their common displacement.

PERFORMANCE: “The White Ship,” by Ethan Kenning

Ex-folk singer Ethan Kenning — known as GEORGE EDWARDS when performing with the former psychedelic rock band H.P. Lovecraft — will give a special performance of “The White Ship,” a song based on a mystical tale by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (from whom the band took its name), about a vessel sailing on a sea of dreams. Critics have described it as “baroque, Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelia at its finest.”

Multicultural Marriage Boot Camp

Two Wendys — WENDY WILLIAMS and WENDY TOKUNAGA — will answer questions about the benefits as well as challenges involved in marrying someone from another culture.

Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love and has coined a term, “GloLo,” to refer to this phenomenon. She was last week’s Random Nomad and has also been a contributor to The Displaced Nation with the post: “Why expat is a misleading term for multicultural couples” — a topic big enough to be a festival theme in its own right!

Wendy Tokunaga, who was one of The Displaced Nation’s 12 Nomads of Christmas, recently published Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, consisting of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships.

GloTinis will be served — those in particularly challenging unions may wish to order theirs straight up.

Romance Across Borders: Fairytale or Myth?

JANE GREEN, a prolific writer and one of the founders of chick literature, will interview MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ and MICHELLE GORMAN — both of whom have produced first novels exploring the idea of looking for romance in other cultures. Lopez is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (self-published, October 2011), about a cross-cultural romance that blossoms through the asking of three questions; and Gorman, of Single in the City: One girl, one city, one disaster waiting to happen (Michael Joseph, 2010), about an American who goes to London in search of love and the perfect life.

The Displaced Nation recently featured Lopez on our site and will feature her tomorrow in a guest post. We have yet to interview Gorman but would like to — especially as she recently self-published Misfortune Cookie, about a young woman who moves to Hong Kong to be with her boyfriend.

Both women relied heavily on their own autobiographies to produce these first novels. As Lopez said in her interview with Tony James Slater:

Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did!

But is it the stuff of chick lit? No one is better placed to judge this than the displaced author Jane Green (she is now an expat living in Connecticut). As early readers of The Displaced Nation will recall, Green “came in” for a chat during our coverage of last year’s Royal Wedding — she had just produced a multimedia book celebrating the young royals as an example of a “modern fairytale.”

Though Kate and Will aren’t from different cultures, they might as well have been since Kate — unlike the Prince’s mother, Diana — does not come from a royal lineage. But from Green’s point of view, this is what is makes the couple modern — and why their marriage is likely to last:

I loved discovering just how unusual William and Kate are: grounded, humble, and thoroughly modern, eschewing much of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the wedding of Charles and Diana.

One Person’s Home — Another Person’s Nightmare?

BARBARA CONELLI, who lives in Manhattan for half of the year and Milan for the other half, will interview SHIREEN JILLA, whose first novel was set in the Big Apple.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her Italian grandmother, Conelli qualifies as the ultimate Italophile. Last year she published Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita last year — her first book in a three-part series about the Italian grasp of the “good life.” When asked by Kate Allison to explain the differences between her two homes of Milan and New York City, Conelli said that New Yorkers need to learn the Italian art of taking the time to actually live:

We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

On this point, Jilla would certainly concur. After spending three years in New York as an expat when her husband was BBC’s North America correspondent, Jilla came away thinking that “New York is a city populated by control freaks.”

But, unlike Conelli, Jilla found this control freakery sinister — which was what inspired her to write a novel that depicts the city as, as one critic said, “a teeming pit of vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

In the online discussion we hosted of Exiled, Jilla commented on how culturally different New York and London are — despite New York not being seen as a particularly adventurous posting among the expat crowd. She went on:

New York in fact reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

Hmmm… It will be interesting to see what Conelli, whose series includes a book on Rome’s joyful idleness, makes of that!

Are Expats Defined by Their Boundaries — or the Lack? James Joyce Unplugged

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, and the novelist JOANNA PENN will join forces to discuss the topic of whether being an expat necessarily entails producing “expat” literature. In a post published last year on The Displaced Nation, Windram noted that although James Joyce spent most of his adult life in continental Europe, he continued to write about his home, Ireland:

If we were to be glib, we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.

Likewise, Joanna Penn, who has been a TCK and an expat, does not self-identify as an expat writer and sets her novels at least partly in Oxford, the city she calls home. She does feel, however, that wanderlust is a big part of what fuels her to write thrillers set in various countries, as she explained in a comment on a post deconstructing a post of hers on what “home” means to writers.

DAY TWO: “We’re not alone” — Global activism

Travel for a Purpose

For this event, we hope to engage the world-famous novelist BARBARA KINGSOLVER to interview ROBIN WISZOWATY, who is Kenya program director for the Canadian charity Free the Children and the author of a memoir targeted at young adults on her own experience of living in Kenya, My Maasai Life.

Kate Allison interviewed Wiszowaty during the month when The Displaced Nation explored the topic of global philanthropy.

Around the same time, Allison also wrote a post on Kingsolver, exploring the idea that her novel The Poisonwood Bible was intended an allegory for what happens when you barge into someone else’s culture thinking you know everything and they know nothing.

Notably, Wiszowaty could almost have been a Kingsolver character in the following incident that occurred during her initial two months in Nairobi, as reported to Allison:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighborhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

Wiszowaty, of course, came around and now thinks constantly about what she can do for Kenya. We expect that Kingsolver, who funds a prize for authors of unpublished works that support social change, will approve; but will she also offer a critique?

PERFORMANCE: “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side,” by Pete Wentz

Fall Out Boy’s PETE WENTZ will do a performance in which he puts passages from his 2004 book, The Boy with a Thorn in His Side, to music. The book chronicles the nightmares he had as a child.

Wentz is a supporter of Invisible Children, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the cause of child refugees in Uganda. He once participated in an event called “Displace Me,” in which 67,000 activists throughout the United States slept in the streets in makeshift cardboard villages.

(Notably, Wentz has also earned his chops as world traveler. Before Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in late 2009, it made an unsuccessful bid to the only band to play a concert on all seven continents in less than nine months — unfortunately, weather conditions prevented them from flying to Antarctica.)

Why Feisty Heroines Need Not Always Be Named Pollyanna, Calpurnia or Hermione

Melbourne-based author GABRIELLE WANG writes books under the Penguin label targeted at young adults in Australia. Her heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang, who fell into writing accidentally — she had planned to be a book illustrator — loves to use her imagination to create characters who are historically plausible yet never show up in history books. One such character is Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she has a magical, transformative experience that makes her proud of her cultural heritage.

Another such character is Poppy, a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century.

Wang told us she was able to draw on her own background to portray how Poppy might have felt:

I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street.

The Search for Paradise

The search for paradise has been underway for as long as human history. Understood as an idyllic realm located at an exact spot somewhere on the earth, and yet as a place separated from the world, the possibility of reaching paradise has aroused the curiosity of travelers over many centuries and continues to do so.

MARK DAMAROYD, who has lived in Thailand for the past several years, subscribes to the idea that paradise is indeed what many men have claimed it to be since time immemorial: life on an exotic island, with sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut trees, and with an exotic, much younger girlfriend. That is why, as he told us in an interview last summer, he had Koh Samui in mind when creating the island setting for his first novel — the aptly named Pursuit to Paradise.

Coming from a somewhat different direction is JACK SCOTT, whose memoir — Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey — was reviewed at the end of last year by Kate Allison.

In it, Scott tells the story of how he and his civil partner, Liam, left the rat race in London behind to live in Bodrum, Turkey. A picturesque spot on the Mediterranean with a temperate climate, the city was their vision of paradise.

Naturally, though, things were not that simple. The couple soon encountered another rat race — the expat one. To quote directly from Scott’s book:

Sad people, bad people, expats-in-a-bubble people. They hate the country they came from; they hate the country they’ve come to. This was my social life. This is what I gave everything up for. This was Liam’s bloody Nirvana. We were the mad ones, not them.

PERFORMANCE: “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave

NICK CAVE is a distinguished musician and songwriter from Down Under. He took the title of this song from a line in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, referring to the vengeful hand of God. According to the lyrics: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”

Cave has also occasionally dabbled in literature. As one reviewer put it, his first novel “reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created.”

Ghosts of Nations Past and Future

In honor of Dickens’ bicentenary, Displaced Nation contributor ANTHONY WINDRAM will give a spirited reading of his favorite passages from A Christmas Carol (already explored in a post), followed by a discussion of whether Scrooge’s displacement could inspire the planet’s wealthiest people to behave more humanely. To quote from one of the comments made on Windram’s original post:

If such a man as Scrooge can displace his lust for money with a love of humankind — and an awareness of other people’s suffering — then does that mean there’s hope for the 1%?

Through the Looking Glass: Delhi & Bangkok

JANET BROWN, author of the travelogue Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and DAVE PRAGER, author of the travelogue Delirious Dehli, will discuss the need for travelers to do more than the usual amount of preparation when entering cultures that are very different from one’s own, on a par with Alice’s Wonderland.

As Brown explained in her interview with us, travelers to Thailand can be “tone deaf” because Thai is a tonal language and it’s easy to make mistakes. But they can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style:

“You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dog food and ought to go home and rectify that at once.

Whereas for Prager, one of the points about living in Dehli is that you may end up deaf as there are always people, animals and vehicles around.

In conversation with Anthony Windram, Prager admitted that getting used to America again — he and his wife now live in Denver — hasn’t been easy:

What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone.

WRITING LAB: What (Not) to Write

Expat writing coach par excellence KRISTEN BAIR O’KEEFFE will explore techniques to develop your writing skills and help you find which world, of your many worlds, you want to write about, and how to get started.

Last summer’s post “6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you” was officially dedicated to O’Keeffe for delivering these pearls of writerly wisdom during her “Expat Writing Prompts” series:

Writing a multi-volume treatise is NOT the answer. Of this, I am sure.
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
Just it.

DAY THREE: “We’re not alone” — Eat, drink, be merry & look good

Classy and Fabulous: French Style as Universal Norm

The French may be under fire for how they treat immigrants, but expats continue to thrive there. For this event, the classy and fabulous JENNIFER SCOTT, author of Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris — which has been a runaway success (it’s now under contract by a major publisher!) — will set out to prove, as she did last month in an interview with us, that no one can edit down their clothes and belongings as well as the French can.

The equally classy and fabulous ANASTASIA ASHMAN, co-editor of The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey — and participant in our “Cleopatra for a Day” series last month — will serve as discussant. Two of the cultural influences for Ashman’s wardrobe are Southeast Asia (she once lived in Malaysia) and Turkey (she was an expat in Istanbul for several years). She does, however, adore French perfume!

Which Came First, Story or Recipe?

It’s food — so that means France again! ELIZABETH BARD, an American who lives in France with her French husband, and her opposite number, CORINE GANTZ, a Frenchwoman who lives near LA with her American husband, will explore why food is so central to the works each of them produces.

Bard is the author of the best-selling Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes. So did she ever think of writing it the other way around: recipes with a love story? Here’s what she told ML Awanohara in their conversation last autumn:

When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Gantz can no doubt relate. When we featured her novel, Hidden in Paris, last summer, here’s what she said when the topic of food came up:

For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

Fans of Hidden in Paris, please note: Gantz has just now released a playful cookbook featuring 20 delicious dishes that were described in mouth-watering details in the novel.

Moderating the discussion between Bard and Gantz will be the well-known novelist JOANNE HARRIS. Harris, who was born over a sweet shop in Yorkshire to a French mother and an English father, rarely misses an opportunity to bring food and drink into her novels — the most famous example being Chocolat.

Displaced Storytelling Circle

Verbal antics, stories, music and more. Highlights include readings by

  1. Displaced Nation contributor TONY JAMES SLATER, from his highly entertaining travelogue, That Bear Ate My Pants! Adventures of a Real Idiot Abroad.
  2. Displaced Nation interviewee ALLIE SOMMERVILLE, from her wry memoir Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller. (Allie, please read the passage about the campervan being too wide for one of the Spanish streets!)
  3. Displaced Nation nomad KAREN VAN DER ZEE, from her collection of expat stories. (Miss Footloose, please tell us the ones about the crocodile and the couple in the Roman restaurant!)
  4. Founder KATE ALLISON, from The Displaced Nation’s weekly fiction series, Libby’s Life, which as you may have noticed, is now up to 46 episodes. (Kate, be sure to read the one where you introduce Sandra, Libby’s MIL from hell!)

The Art of Drink: Ian Fleming

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, will talk about the role of food (and especially drink) in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, on which he did a post last year:

The Bond of the novels isn’t solely a martini drinker. He’s always one to try anything local that’s on offer. In Jamaica he’ll drink a glass of Red Stripe, in the US he’ll have a Millers Highlife beer. Throughout the novels Fleming uses food and drink to convey an alien culture, demonstrate social status, show Bond’s mood and his sophistication and ease with the world.

An array of drinks — not only shaken martinis but also bottles of Heineken!– will be served. Green figs and yogurt, along with coffee (very black), will be made available to anyone who is still suffering from jetlag.

Enchanted by Wisteria: Elizabeth Von Arnim Unveiled

Displaced Nation founder (and the author of this post!) ML AWANOHARA will read her favorite passages from the collected works of travel writer Elizabeth von Arnim, on whom she wrote a post last year. As she pointed out then, Von Arnim was fond of the idea of a woman escaping her marital, motherly and household duties in the pursuit of simple pleasures such as gardens and wisteria. A magical Italian castle — such as the one featured in her best-known novel, The Enchanted April — can also be a tonic.


To close the festival, we will screen both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a critique from CHRIS PAVONE, author of the new novel The Expats. Pavone will discuss whether:

  1. it was really necessary for Hollywood to produce its own (non-subtitled) version; and
  2. all the female-perpetrated violence cropping up in film and on TV of late presages a “fourth wave” of feminism.

Pavone is well qualified to judge the latter as his novel (not yet featured on TDN!) is an offbeat spy story with a female protagonist — a burned-out CIA operative who moves to Luxembourg. Apparently, this was the kind of thing Pavone thought about when he was trailing his spouse in that cobblestoney old town.

And, just when you thought it was all over, we bring you a final treat: a chance to hear from the historian SUSAN MATT, who recently published Homesickness: An American History to much fanfare in the thinking media. Matt disputes the stereotype of Americans as westward wanderers by showing that Americans are returning to their homeland in greater numbers — that’s if they ever leave at all. (Our ancestors must be turning over in their graves!)

* * *

So, shall I sign you up? And can you think of any additional topics/authors/performers who ought to be featured? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s guest post from Meagan Adele Lopez, on the differences between American and British wedding celebrations.

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An interview with Robin Wiszowaty: Kenya Program Director for Free The Children

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with a young woman called Robin Wiszowaty. She isn’t a household name. You won’t find her in newspaper gossip columns, or on celebrity chat shows, or sashaying down the red carpet at the Oscars.

Yet I came away from our 45-minute conversation quite star-struck – not even my treasured chance meeting with Paul McCartney could compete – and more inspired than I can say.

A brief bio: From Suburbia to Savannah

Robin Wiszowaty was born in 1981 and grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois: a predominantly white, middle-class suburb outside Chicago. Although on paper Schaumburg appears an ideal place to spend childhood, with its summer block parties and strong sense of neighborliness, Robin says she never quite fit in.

“From an early age, I was unsatisfied with my ordinary life….I could never find my niche or any comfortable sense of self.” [My Maasai Life]

This feeling of discontent followed her through her teen years and into college at the University of Illinois where she studied speech communications. Only after a two-week trip to Israel in December 2001, to explore her Jewish heritage, did Robin begin to understand what she wanted from life.

“It [reminded] me how fiercely I longed to break out of this Western mindset and find something else.” [My Maasai Life]

While her concerned and long-suffering parents assumed the trip would rid her system of dissatisfaction and wanderlust, those two weeks in Israel were, in fact, only the beginning of a lifetime of traveling.

To the dismay of her parents a few months later, through a program run by the University of Minnesota, Robin was on her way to Kenya. After two months with a host family in Nairobi, where she learned basic Swahili and took classes on Kenyan culture, she went to live for a year in rural Nkoyet-naiborr, a Maasai community in the Great Rift Valley – a community and lifestyle as far removed from her Illinois home as anyone can imagine.

Nevertheless, Nkoyet-naiborr became her second home, in the truest sense. Here she forged deep, lasting friendships with her host family and members of the community, and was bestowed with a Maasai name: Naserian, meaning “peaceful person.” Mama, the mother in her host family, became her Kenyan mother, and Robin refers to the children of the family to as her brothers and sisters.

Today, nearly a decade after first arriving in Nairobi, Robin divides her time between Toronto and Kenya, working as Kenya Program Director with the charity Free The Children, implementing long-term development projects in partnership with local communities.

* * *

I spoke to Robin while she was in Canada, a few hours before she made the long trip back to Kenya. Her voice is soft, gentle, diffident, and not exactly what I’d expected; she’s had to overcome a lot of hurdles to be where she is today and, after reading her autobiography, I’m aware that I’m talking to one very determined person.

On Free The Children…

Kate Allison: Tell us a little more about what you do for Free The Children.
Robin Wiszowaty: As Kenya Program Director, I oversee the Alternative Income projects for Kenyan women. We teach the women leadership, financial literacy, how to access loans; and by being able to earn their own money, the women can invest that extra income in their families, their homes and, importantly, their children’s education. They work in groups — there are around 120 women’s groups now — and one example of how they earn income is doing quality beadwork. The bracelets and necklaces they make are sold at the Me to We store in Toronto, and also at the online store. My own Mama, by the way, is one of the beaders — she’s a fantastic beader.

Craig and Marc Kielburger, the founders of Free The Children and Me to We, have more to say about Robin’s role:

We’ve seen her sitting in hushed, intimate conversation with village elders, whose trust she earned through empathy and understanding. We’ve seen her astonish visiting students and volunteers with stories of her adventures. And we’ve seen her embraced by the teary-eyed mamas who are eternally grateful for her hard work in her role as Free The Children’s Kenya Program Director.

On writing…

Eighteen months ago, Robin’s autobiography “My Maasai Life” was published by Me to We Books — publishing division of Me to We, the for-profit social enterprise that supports Free The Children — and having read the book, I wanted to know more about it.

KA: Your book, “My Maasai Life”, tells the story of your transition from the American suburbs to life in a Kenyan village. What made you decide to write it?
RW: Lots of people have said to me that I should write a book about my experiences, but it was at the prompting of Craig Kielburger that I eventually wrote it. Craig was looking for books with a social message to be published by Me To We. “My Maasai Life” was the result, and was actually one of the first books in the Me to We publishing stable.

KA: What audience did you have in mind for the book when you wrote it?
RW: I originally intended it for high-school-aged girls who wanted to see the world — and also for their mothers, to help them understand this.

KA: Yes…in your book, you say your relationship with your own mother was somewhat rocky when you were that age.
RW: It was. But I look at myself now, and I think I’ve become the kind of person my parents always wanted me to be – albeit on my own terms.

(In fact, Robin’s parents long ago accepted, and proudly support, their daughter’s unconventional life choices.)

KA: What other kinds of readers have been attracted to the book?
RW: Young adults, in their 20s and 30s, who want to find a deeper meaning from life than they find in the corporate world where they are at present. And teachers; they read my book in World Issues classes, and discuss it with their students.

KA: Have you written any other books, or are you intending to do so?
RW: “My Maasai Life” has been adapted into a children’s book, subtitled “A Child’s Adventure in Africa”, and I’m currently working on another book, which I hope to have published in another couple of years or so. I’m about halfway through writing it — I don’t know what it will be called, and it doesn’t have a working title — and although it’s also about Kenya, this book is from the perspective of the women there, focusing on the universal concepts of motherhood and womanhood.

On fitting in…

KA: Can you think of a particular occasion in Kenya when you wondered, “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”
RW: [laughs] I can tell you exactly when that was. It was on my first night in Nkoyet-naiborr, when I was sleeping in the bed I shared with my sister, Faith, and I heard a wild animal howling outside…

“Faith! ” I whispered.
“Naserian . . . ?”
“What is that sound?”
Faith rolled over, annoyed at being woken. “Hyenas.”
Hyenas? Now sleep was even more impossible. I tried to block out those echoing wails, but my mind flooded with questions. Was I doing the right thing? Was I just substituting one set of frustrations for another? Had I made a terrible mistake?

KA: And what about the other way round — can you think of a moment when you felt more at home in Africa than in the United States?
RW: Oh yes…I’m “taken” by Kenya. There, I feel comfortable within my own soul, that I’m in the right spot. You could say that it’s a calling. The time I feel it most is when I’m sitting with the women, making tea over the fire, just talking…there’s so much soul, such a feeling of family and community.

When I first went to Kenya, I felt at home on the first occasion my Mama let me fetch the water on my own. It felt good to be a provider for the family who were hosting me.

Fetching the water is much easier said than done:

Transporting water, I saw from the women, is an art unto itself. The mitungi must be carefully balanced on two rocks beneath the spout and then held in place while the trickling water slowly fills it all the way to the top. And with water always in scarce supply, we could never afford to waste or spill a drop. When the cylindrical twenty litre container was full, it weighed more than twenty kilos.

More recently, I can think of an occasion at the Kisaruni High School, which is Free The Children’s first all-girls secondary school, and has 41 students who board there. When it first opened last spring, these girls came to the school and we all had a big sleepover party. It was such a lot of fun, and for many of these girls it was the first time they’d slept on a mattress.

It’s the feeling of true community in Kenya that I love. It seems to me that when people come together for the benefit of others, that’s when you get the most profound sense of community.

KA: What about repatriation? Do you find it difficult to adjust between living in your two different worlds?
RW: The first transition from Kenya back to Chicago was most difficult. I felt like a lost 8-year-old, trying to get used to life in America again after a year away. I found it hard to wear shoes, having been barefoot for so long. And I was full of anger, of judgment for the way things were done — for example, at people who ran the water for so long, at the extravagant amounts of food.

Huge wasteful, overpriced family dinners. Thoughtless waste of water, flushing the toilet so many times every day.

But I don’t feel that way now. Then, I was going through that time of life when everyone tries to work out who they are and feels a certain amount of anger. Now I accept that it’s not about everyone having the same; it’s about everyone having enough.

Today, whichever direction I travel in, I always feel that I’m going home to family.

On our November theme of Global Philanthropy…

KA: Over the last month, we’ve discussed — fairly heatedly — the growing trend towards volun-tourism. As part of your work with Free The Children and Me to We, you lead groups of people on international volunteer experience each year. Can the people who go on these trips, who lack language and cultural training, really accomplish much in such a short time?
RW: Volun-tourism can play a great part when it’s done responsibly. Our youth volunteer trips last three weeks, while our family and corporate trips are shorter at ten days. We regularly have employees of large companies like KPMG and Virgin Atlantic on our corporate trips.

After some orientation, our volunteers hit the ground running — they help with building schools, with clean water projects, they go into the community’s homes to help, they learn Swahili. For many of them, it is literally a life-changing experience. It gives them a different perspective on life and on their careers. It’s very positive for both the volunteers and for the communities they are helping.

Volun-tourism skeptics should maybe note that Robin herself first came to Kenya with an attitude of “What can Kenya do for me?” rather than “What can I do for Kenya?”, as can be seen in this extract from her book, describing an incident during her initial two months in Nairobi:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighbourhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

KA: Which person or people, dead or alive, do you look up to most in your work?
I would have to say the other team members of Free The Children and Me to We, both in Kenya and Toronto. They all work for the children, not the paycheck. The world may never know their names, but they work so hard and achieve so much for others.

KA: Are there any inspirational stories of theirs you can share with us?
RW: Spencer West, a speaker on the Me to We team, was born with a genetic disease, and lost both his legs at the hips when he was a child. We met in Kenya when he was on an international volunteer trip, helping to build a school there.

Next June, he is going to “Redefine Possible” and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in his wheelchair, in order to raise $500,000 to bring clean water programming to 12,500 people in East Africa.

You can’t get any more inspirational than that.

KA: And lastly — it’s the holiday season. We’re inundated with requests for giving. In your opinion, what’s the best way to spend our dollars (or pounds, or euros, or yen, or whatever) to help those in other parts of the world who have so much less than we do?
Well — you could sponsor Spencer West on his climb and help those affected by the drought in East Africa, which is the worst in 60 years. Or you could buy your holiday gifts from the Me to We store, either in Toronto or online at


The interview ends, and I thank Robin for giving her time, even when she has a hundred other things she could probably be doing, since in a few hours she will be flying back to her Kenyan home. I am awed by our conversation, by how much she has achieved in her short life — she is only 30 — and I feel humbled.

I tell her this. “People like you, who do so much with your lives, make me feel very small.”

There’s a slight pause at the end of the phone, then Robin says, “But… you’re a mother.”

I can’t count the number of times over the last fifteen years when, in answer to the question “What do you do?” I’ve said, “I’m just a stay-at-home mom.” Emphasis on the “just” — an apology for the mundanity of my existence. The counter-reaction, so often, is “But that’s a very important job!” in a slightly condescending tone that makes me feel, even more, that motherhood is merely a consolation prize for missing out on life’s other, more important achievements.

Robin’s tone holds none of this condescension. “You’re a mother,” she says, and it’s a statement of the obvious, that being a mother is an achievement in itself.

It occurs to me that her years with the mamas in Kenya have taught Robin the value of motherhood — a lesson that maybe passes by the young women growing up in our “developed” culture. It’s an irony, perhaps, that in our Western pursuit of progress and women’s rights, we have devalued the most important women’s right of all — that of pride in raising a strong next generation.

Robin, thank you. It was wonderful to talk to you. I hope we meet in person one day.


Quotations from “My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah.” Wiszowaty, Robin (2010-07-01), Perseus Books Group.

Img: Robin Wiszowaty — photo courtesy of

Related posts:
RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner
RANDOM NOMAD: Adria Schmidt, Career Consultant at Violence Intervention Program & Former Peace Corps Volunteer

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Journeys through nomadic Africa — a travel yarn in two parts (Part 2)

Today we are joined again by Kathleen Colson, who delivers the second part of her travel yarn on a trip she made to Kenya from September 8 to October 14. In Part 1, Colson shared some overall impressions of the country, which she has visited innumerable times — most recently in the role of founder and CEO of a micro-enterprise development organization known as the BOMA Project. Today she focuses on the portions of the journey having to do with that project.

I founded The BOMA Project in 2005. “Boma” is a Swahili word for a livestock enclosure, but it also means “to fortify.” Our main program is the Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP), which offers a seed-capital grant and business-skills training to small business groups of three people. The training is delivered by BOMA Village Mentors, who in turn are trained and supported by BOMA field staff.

So far, 2,688 adults, some of the poorest people on earth, are running 720 businesses, impacting the lives of over 14,000 children in northern Kenya.

As the project’s founder, I’ve had the great fortune to spend time with the pastoral nomads of this isolated region of Africa during several extended visits each year. In the first few years, there were four of us who traveled around the district meeting with village elders and groups of women. Since then, the organization has grown, and my trips have been busy hosting donors, photographers and consultants.

For this trip we would be back to the core team: Kura Omar, BOMA’s Operations Director; Semeji, our bodyguard; Omar, field support; and me, Mama Rungu. People always ask about my name, one that I have had for many years. It’s a long story, but a rungu is a warrior club. I got this name because someone thought I was tough.

I looked forward to the long drives across the rough terrain of northern Kenya — talking with Kura non-stop, sometimes shouting above the corrugated roads. While we drive, Semeji sings and Omar spots for cheetahs and hoopoes, all the while listening for the sound of a bad tire. At night, stories are told under a brilliant night sky, and we listen to Semeji’s soulful warrior songs along with the hyena’s call.

Shiny is good

The BOMA Project now has 40 businesses in and around the village of Kargi and we are soon to launch 20 more.

Kargi, home to numerous clans of the Rendille people, has grown into a substantial village because it’s a road-accessible location where missionary and aid organizations can easily distribute food relief. (Periodic droughts are part of the life cycle of these arid lands.)

BOMA has worked hard to establish ourselves in this village — keeping in mind that we also had to keep our staff safe in an area that sees frequent ethnic conflicts over livestock. Now there is tremendous enthusiasm for our work, including from the village leadership. The chief has told Kura:

…these BOMA people, they look shiny.

Clean, healthy, shiny. Shiny is good.

The case of Ndebe Arbele

In the Rendille village of Falam, near Kargi, Kura insisted that I meet Ndebe Arbele, a member of one of the BOMA businesses. BOMA had given her business group, May Yeel, a seed capital grant of $150 and they used it to buy food, beads, washing powder and other small essentials in Marsabit, a town on Africa’s main artery, the Cape to Cairo Road — which they now sell to residents and travelers in their village.

Ndebe and her partners have attended BOMA business-skills training programs, and soon they will start a training program on savings. After just two short months they were able to distribute profits, and according to their record book, they now have savings and cash on hand of 5,300 shillings, or about $56.

As Kura translated, Ndebe told me about her son who was bitten by a rabid dog. The medical treatment was 4,000 shillings for four injections. She told me, “If it was not for this business, I would not have been able to pay for the medical treatment for my son. Many children here die from rabies, but not my son.”

I am very aware when I visit with our BOMA businesses, that I am sometimes told what I want to hear. On this occasion, I decided to push back.

“But didn’t you also receive money from HSNP [Hunger Safety Net Programme]? I am looking at your group’s record book and I don’t see how the 4,000 shillings came from the BOMA business,” I said to her.

Ndebe looked down. “Yes, you are right. I also took my HSNP money to pay for the shots.”

She looked up at me with tears in her eyes, then said:

Please don’t take this business away from me. All my life I have been a beggar. I used to be idle, waiting for food relief to feed my children. Now I am a trader. Now I work every day. From others we get relief, but it always ends. This business stays with us, and now I am someone. Please, please don’t take this away from me.

I suddenly realized that it is here that we stake our claim. We can provide grants and training so that women like Ndebe can earn an income that will help her care for her seven children. But the human spirit craves dignity and respect more than it seeks wealth, and that is what we had given Ndebe. It was enough.

“I could never take this business from you, Ndebe. It is yours forever. Thank you for telling me why this business is important to you. I will always come and visit you when I am here, and I want you always to tell me what you feel in your heart.”

Kalath (thank you), Mama Rungu.”

A gloomier picture

In another Northern Kenyan village, Lengima, BOMA has facilitated the building of a school through the Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation. Currently, “school” is taught under a tree, with a blackboard and a volunteer teacher. For most of the students, there are no desks, no chairs, no paper, no pencils — not a single thing that would enrich the learning experience.

The whole village is involved in the building of the school. The men do the hard labor and each woman has been asked to collect a pile of stones — equivalent to a wheelbarrow-size load — for which they receive 50 shillings (55 cents).

The poverty in Lengima is extreme. Traditionally, the area relies on livestock as a source of income and food, but in times of drought, the men move the livestock elsewhere.

When we visited this time, a period of extreme drought, many of the children had the telltale signs of kwashiorkor (protein malnutrition), with reddish hints in their hair and extended bellies. The women were all painfully thin.

I met with Nalebicho Koitip, an older woman and a member of a BOMA business in the village, called Nkabe. She told me:

This drought has taken our livestock and our husbands. We keep our children alive with the small profits we make in this business. But it is hard because those without a business are turning to us for short-term food credit.

Locals must lead

In each village, we have BOMA Village Mentors. Using standard of living indicators — household assets and nutritional information — the Mentors select the “poorest of the poor” residents who are also enterprising and willing to work.

One of the highlights of my trip was attending BOMA’s Mentor University — our annual training session for the 26 BOMA Village Mentors — in South Horr.

This year, the goal of local leadership was a reality. I was now an observer. I said hello but was not expected to do anything else.

Sarah Ellis, one of our new researchers, has developed a micro-savings program for REAP participants, and at the meeting she introduced the new program to our Mentors. They will be the ones responsible for implementing the program region-wide. By regularly setting aside committed funds in a safe location, we believe we can provide insurance against the regular shocks that are typical for people who live in extreme poverty. It can also become a source of savings-led credit for BOMA grant recipients to grow their businesses.

Fresh ideas, goals

I always go to Kenya with lots of ideas and come back with even more. In the months prior to this trip to Kenya, I had spent time reading about the success of healthcare in Africa. While economic interventions, in general, have not been successful — incomes across the continent are down or stagnant — healthcare delivery has done reasonably well. The book Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding — And How We Can Improve the World Even More, by the economist Charles Kenny, is a fascinating read.

I wondered if we could apply some of the lessons learned by community healthcare workers in Africa to our team of BOMA Village Mentors.

In our last impact assessment, we had a 4 percent failure rate of the first 100 businesses. So I asked the BOMA team, “What if our businesses were patients? Would we tolerate a 4 percent failure rate?”

Once we started focusing on our failures, we became more imaginative, more creative. Every organization, for profit or not, likes to focus on its successes. If you are a nonprofit, you especially want to tout your successes, as this enables you to secure donations.

When we focused on our failures, however, we suddenly realized what we had to do — strengthen the training and support of our BOMA Mentors, the people at the heart of our program. We needed to give them the resources to fortify the success of BOMA businesses. We set a zero percent failure-rate goal for the following year.

Asked to say a few words at the end of the Mentor University meeting, I shared the concept of zero percent failure. It was a goal — a lofty goal — but I could sense the confidence in the room.

Our Mentors come from communities that have been overwhelmed by aid organizations that keep them on life support. Our program represents an opportunity to bring out the strength and resilience that resides in all of us.

Readers, any questions or comments for Kathleen Colson on her travel yarn or the BOMA Project?

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 the BOMA Project was recently listed as one of the top 50 organizations “making a world of difference.”

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post on the “celebrity’s burden,” by Displaced Nation founding contributor Anthony Windram.

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Related posts:

Images (top to bottom): A child in Lengima helping to collect stones for the building of the village school; a BOMA business in the village of Ngurunit; Kura Omar, BOMA’s man in Northern Kenya; a “taxi” full of  BOMA Village Mentors, at the end of the three-day Mentor University training program.

Journeys through nomadic Africa — a travel yarn in two parts (Part 1)

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.

Wake-up calls

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.

On safari

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.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

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.

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