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