Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Out of Africa

It has been a week since I returned from my research trip in Kenya.

I'm going to spend the next few weeks blogging about what I learned there.

It is difficult to imagine that only days ago I was on a completely different part of the planet. Standing on the equator (literally), and experiencing things from another world.

They have a word in Kenya for people like me. Mzunga. Which I guess means whitey, or cracker, or something like that. Though it's not said in malice. There's no way to blend in in a place like Kenya. You have to give up the idea that you will look like you fit in, or know what you're doing, or anything like that right away. Because when you're a mzunga, the truth is that you stick out like a sore thumb.

On the days I sat in the front seat of the truck as we traveled to the sites, I felt like I was riding in a parade. As we drove through the rural back roads, people --especially children-- would stop to wave, and to shout "how are you?"

I was in Kenya working on a sustainable agriculture project, promoting the grain Amaranth. Amaranth seeds are TINY, and for the farmers we are working with, the typical way to plant them is to broadcast the seeds along a furrow-- they're too small to make the effort to space them out by planting them singly. But then seeds are wasted, or plants are wasted when it's time to thin the plants. It's also very labor- intensive to thresh the plants by hand. To make it short, engineering students and faculty created a simple seeder and thresher, and we were there setting up pilot projects of farmers who would test the technologies. We want to know if these technologies will help them create a quality product with less time and labor.

So we would have our meetings under mango trees.

Or occasionally in the classroom of a school. 

The people I met were unbelievable. People without plumbing or cars, or wifi... kids without shoes, with holes in their clothes. We visited a polytechnic high school where the girls in the seamstress and tailoring program sew with PAPER BAGS, because they cannot afford fabric. And look at how well they sew, even with those materials. 

Sometimes the groups we worked with were HIV positive, or HIV widows and widowers. They formed collectives to fight the stigma of the disease and to farm together. And it's not necessarily that everyone was happy and carefree-- I don't want to marginalize the people I met and give the impression that they were all the same, or some colonial-era myth of smiling, happy content people. 

These were people just infused with an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. They were growing mangos, and amaranth in some cases, and raising dairy goats and poultry, and CHANGING their lives and communities. They were adopting AIDS orphans and trying to raise them. They were taking the profits they made to start SCHOOLS in their communities. They knew more about CLIMATE CHANGE and SUSTAINABILITY than most of my students. 

And they exuded joy.   


  1. Wow, Kat! What an amazing research trip. Glad you're back and thanks for sharing this with us.

    I can't believe those dresses were made from paper bags. Such ingenuity!

  2. That looks like one of those trips that changes the way you think. Love the photos, thanks for sharing.

  3. What a fabulous opportunity and trip, KO! Really looking forward to reading more of your goings-ons in Kenya. This post is such a great reminder that we don't need so much to be productive and peaceful in life. As you say, it's not that Kenyans are necessarily happy and content with things as they are all the time, but they have an incredible knack for simply living as they are.

    Family, community, love and respect are truly core values there, because in many cases it's all they have. They seem to value those things like we value money here in the States. And I wish we could be more like them in that regard.

  4. Sounds like it was a really incredible experience. I'm looking forward to hearing more about it!

  5. You have a knack as a mzunga. It's a gift to be able to plonk oneself--- even temporarily--- in an entirely new world and be able to just watch. Culture shock sets in like quicksand when people start to thrash, trying to blend in, and get seized by their own panic of the unfamiliar; internal panic, in this case, because they are the unfamiliar.

    You've got the gift, sista, and it's a blessing for your readers more than anyone because how often does anyone visit Kenya for this sort of research--- and find a way to talk about the scientific and the social findings with equal parts humility, appreciation, and understanding?

    Can't wait to hear more!

  6. This is amazing and so inspirational! Thanks for sharing this experience and the pictures. Looking forward to hearing more. :)

  7. Wow! This is incredible. Amazing. I'm so proud of you for doing this. And the paper bags?? It broke my heart a little.

  8. How amazing! Thanks so much for sharing this.

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  10. You had me at "sustainable agriculture". I cannot WAIT to read more about your time in Kenya and I'm really interested in learning about this seeder and thresher. :)

  11. Wow, Kat... I'm so glad you're sharing your trip with us. It looks like you had an amazing time and met so many fantastic people. How inspiring!

  12. I can't wait to hear more about your trip; it's so inpsiring to see you trying to make a real difference in the world!

  13. Thanks Joanne- and I so agree-- ingenuity is the word.

    Completely, Christine. It certainly changed the way I look at my own life.

    EJ, well said-- you always hit the nail right on the head.

    Thanks Ghenet, it was something special.

    Thanks Glenna, you know it helped to not be solo. I was with a group of 5, several who had been multiple times. That made it easy for me in a lot of ways. Thanks for your kind words. They mean so much.

    Yay Jaime, I'm so glad you're enjoying them.

    I hear you Christa. Maybe we can cook up a little Kindness Project outreach for fabric? I'll work on it.

    Thank you Marilyn, I appreciate it!

    Jess! I've missed you! Thanks for dropping by and for your words. You can always email me, too, for more info on the seeder and thresher-- sounds like you're knowledgeable in the ways of sustainable agriculture!

    Thanks Katy-- it was unbelievable. It was tough to be away from the family, but I'm so glad I went.

    Thank you Sophia- I try... and it's probably debatable whether I do or don't "make a real difference". But I try.

  14. Just seeing photos of you being there helps me get that little bit of space I've been seeking from my L.A. life. It's so awesome to go somewhere so different and especially if you can do good while you're there.

    1. Thanks, Sophia. It was an incredible experience.

  15. I love what you're doing. Living in the US makes us forget how lucky we are just to be able to go to a store and buy bread. Can't wait to read more about your adventure.

    1. thanks so much Eliza-- I feel lucky to have had this chance.


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