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Still Keen On Kenya

Still Keen On Kenya
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Has the Westgate Mall attack given a new image to Kenya? Will breath taking images of Serengeti now get juxtaposed replaced with those of collapsing shopping mall with fireworks of a diffrent sort ? Will video clips of stampede of hundreds of migrating wildebeest and zebra trying to escape from predators get interspersed with those of frantic people stampeding similarly out of shopping mall as they try to avoid terrorist bullets? Will people living or visiting Kenya now have to endure stressful times ahead of them alternating between fear and hope? Perhaps it’s time to step back and take a hard look at this amazing country and its people as again we begin our search for answers.
To start with, Kenya has never been just another run-of-the-mill nation. Kenya brings to mind pictures of  the land of Masai Mara “with its endless lush green of stretched out plains, that gradually become golden waves of tall dry grass as the seasons change to finally get parted gently by herds of visiting wildebeest to clear the canvas for another painting”. However, Kenya is so much more than the plains, its coastal region is covered with coconut trees and mangrove swamps, and its highland mostly have dense forests. Yet there are other parts of country that are just bare earth, where nothing grows. What’s missing? Mountains? Don’t forget Mount Kenya, the second highest peak of Africa, with its beautiful glacial peak, dormant volcanoes and snow, in addition to being an important source of water for the country.

Populating such a unique landscape is wildlife that’s unrivaled by any other country, both in numbers and variety, even though the main attraction continues to be the greatest wonder of the world: the wildebeest migration.  No wonder then, that the word “Kenya” has its origin in words like Kininyaga, Kirenyaa, and Kiinyaa (all from local languages) meaning “God’s resting place”!

So what kind of people has God created for his “resting place”? One example can be found by visiting the Great Rift Valley, home of the Kalenjin tribe. The undulating landscape with its many hills and dales is peppered with huts no different from other such tribes of Africa. However there is something very special about this one.  Even though they make up less than 15% of Kenya’s population of 42 million, the Kalenjin tribe dominate the world of long distance running events, winning most of Olympic gold medals and marathon events every year. Experts from all over the world are always arriving here to find an explanation. Number of theories have been put forth. The Kalenjins are generally tall, skinny people whose cattle-herding background might have a role to play. For centuries, they say, most successful members of this tribe were those who could round up most cows, hence creating a population that is used to bare feet running. Nowadays as well, every day kids milk cows, run to school, run back home for lunch, back to school, back home to tend the cows, then of course time to play a bit by run around ! Note all this running is done up and down the hill building stamina, especially since high altitudes reduces lung capacity and make running more difficult. Problem is, all this does not satisfactorily explain the astonishing athletic feats ( feet ?) since, as we know, there are very many tribes around the world living similarly in high altitude, going about their lives using their feet all day (the Nepalese, for example). The difference, experts conclude, is in the way this tribe has channeled their desire to escape poverty into something as simple as running. It’s their attitude of sheer hard work and perseverance that sets them apart.  Today, every village has its star runners, someone who has gone off to win a world title or marathon, and returned with enough money to buy a plot of land, a cow and a big car. These are the kind of role models found here. Hence children here  look around them and say, when I grow up, I want to be a runner like him (compare this with Indian kids, especially from Kerala, who grow up with a similar dream to come out of poverty, not by running, but finding jobs in a foreign country).

Thanks to all such special people, Kenya has been one of the rising stars of Africa.  Post Westgate attack however, with security becoming stricter and daily lives more  difficult, the story of Kalenjin tribe becomes an inspiring one to remember. However the positivity doesn’t last long with the local newspaper  daily headlines of politician’s bickering and machination, makes you wonder if anything will ever change. Yes it can and all it needs sometimes is one person with extraordinary zeal. Kenya has had a recent example of a deputy environment minister – Wangari Mathai. She showed a rare courage of conviction for a cause as simple as planting trees across Kenya in order to fight erosion and create firewood for fuel and jobs for women. Her story is one of overcoming the suffering she had to endure from her marriage and her government to eventually gain recognition and become the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Most of us have a mental disconnect when thinking of Westgate Mall attack amidst our day to day urban living, and find it difficult to correlate it all with animals and plants – the way Wangari Mathai was able to. Truth is, keeping an eye on the animals in Kenya can even help predict a forthcoming terrorist attack. The illegal killing of an African elephant for its ivory is known to be a major source of finance for terrorists. The tusk of every elephant is sold for about US$ 7000 in the illegal trade, and the spine-chilling truth is that it takes ivory from only 5 elephants to finance a Westgate Mall type attack.

Born into the Samburu tribe, Tom Lalampaa could have ended up following the traditional pastoralist lifestyle of his people—had his brother made a different choice. When Tom was a child, his father called his sons to him and said “I’d like one of you to go to school and the other to remain here and help look after the cattle.” The decision fell on Tom’s brother, as the eldest. He opted for the cattle, and so Tom was sent to school and then on to University with the support of his entire community. In turn, after completing his education, he gave back to his community by joining a local organization that focused on conservation. Soon he became a key player in creating and implementing unique programs that had amazing success.  To explain briefly, Northern Kenya and its porous borders with southern Somalia ( home of Al-Shabab) is abound with wildlife.  Deep seated poverty and tribal conflict resulted in the large scale culling of animals for years, making animals like Grevy’s zebra, Hirola antelope and, of course, the African elephant on the verge of becoming extinct. Tom spearheaded a unique movement that is based on getting various tribes to resolve their conflicts and come together to participate in innovative animal conservation programs that benefited the tribes economically. A marked improvement can now be seen in this region.

And so, we see Kenya has answers to all it’s problems. Difficulty is when in Kenya, it is easy to begin thinking in terms of tribes and start limiting ourselves. Fortunately, inspiration is not restricted to any one tribe, hence if Olympic gold medallists are of Kalenjin tribe, Tom Lalampaa’s hails from Samburu tribe while Wangari Mathai belongs to Kikuyu, Kenya’s most populous ethnic group. In addition, Kenya has also been enriched by an influx of large number of foreigners, with the Indian community being one of the larger ones. Indians were originally brought to Kenya by the British to build railways. When their job contracts got over, the fertile soil of this place allowed them to develop roots and prosper as only Indians know how to.  There are far too many stories of entrepreneurial success of Indian business men to list them here. Instead I make a brief mention of Jyoti Mukherjee, a housewife who accompanied her husband to Kenya in 1980′s and started a small printing supplies shop. Today her company, Software Technologies Limited (STL), is one of Africa’s leading software distribution companies, making Jyoti Mukherjee one of the very few women who started and built a major technology firm in this continent.  In 2007 she was recognized as the Top ICT Businesswoman in Africa.

Does Westgate attack has what it takes to jolt us out of our complacency ? Raise the level of our consciousness to recognize the bit of Wangari Mathai, Tom Lalampaa and Jyoti Mukherjee that resides within each of us.  To quote Wangari Mathai  “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” May the Westgate attack be just that watershed moment. A defining moment that will bring a well deserved peace in God’s resting place.

Still Keen On Kenya
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About Mohan Nair

An engineer who evolved to become a corporate executive, evolved again to become a self made businessman , and then again to become an education activist and finally someone with a passion to make a difference in the lives of Indians with interest in Africa.

One comment

  1. i liked the article.

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