Big Animals and Even Bigger Ideas

July 20th, 2008

I get asked a lot of things. People ask me how I am, what my name is, if I’ll give them money, what my number is, if I can take them to America, if I’ll marry them, if I’m a missionary or if I’m here to “see the Big Five.”

That last question used to confuse me until I went on a safari last weekend. “Safari” technically means “travel” in Swahili but in Kenya it means a lot more than that. “Safaris” are the reason that a lot of people have been relocated from game parks and told that they can no longer hunt in their traditional manner. “Safari” also means tourists, one of Kenya’s main sources of income but a source of income that has been failing of late due to the post-election violence.

The reason for these safaris is to “see the Big Five.” The Big Five are the animals that tourists come to Kenya for: elephants, giraffes, lions and two other ones that I forget. Obviously, the “big five” was not the reason I chose to come to Kenya, in fact, while I enjoyed seeing the animals, my favorite part of the trip had nothing to do with the animals.

The safari was organized by Angie, the FSD Program Director as our midterm retreat. Usually, the FSD interns in Kakamega stay the weekend in the forest but since two interns, James and Joel, live in the forest, she decided to organize it to go somewhere else. She chose to go to Lake Naviasha, an area around 7 hours away by matatu. We stayed in a lake-side resort with lodging and food all paid for by FSD. The resort had hot showers and veggie burgers, both of which were ridiculously exciting as I hadn’t had either in around 2 months.

Friday we spent at Hell’s Gate National Park. For almost three hours we walked on a sandy road excitedly taking pictures of zebras, gazelles, ostriches and warthogs that looked back at us with plain disinterest. They were evidently used to muzungus with cameras, we however, were very much unused to seeing animals in anywhere but behind bars in a zoo. After a picnic lunch, we descended into the “hell” of Hell’s Gate; a deep canyon where hot water poured out from deep below the earth’s surface, forming hot springs that splashed us with hot water, giving us our second hot shower of the day. As fun as it is, hell is quite tiring; after we emerged from the canyon and completed the hike that our guide told us that we had just walked 12 miles. Needless to say, we slept really, really well.

On Saturday we took a boat over to Crater Lake National Park. This time, instead of walking through an arid savannah surrounded by cragged rocks, we were walking through a forest. There wasn’t any visible path but our guide wound in and out of the trees, stopping us ever so often to point out a herd of animals. We saw lots of different types of gazelles, including the biggest gazelle in Africa, whose name I really forget. But the coolest thing by far was running into a herd of giraffe.

We literally ran into the clearing after our guide, Moses, pointed out that the tall brown things ahead of us weren’t actually moving trees. Scrambling for our cameras, we jostled each other as we tried to fake stealth while going as fast as we could over crackling branches.

The giraffes were plainly thinking “oh no, not again” as they slowly arose from the ground on which many of them had been sitting and half-heartedly started to walk away from the ten eager tourists. I took picture after picture until I finally calmed down and realized that all my pictures were of the same thing; the giraffes weren’t doing much besides idly chewing as they watched us freak out.

Finally, our guide managed to persuade us to calm down and continue hiking so that we could be on time for lunch. That statement is ironic for two reasons. First, a group of 10 twenty-somethings is seldom calm and our group tends to be exceptionally loud. Second, lunch was 2 hours late. I think we probably arrived late (something to be expected in Kenya) but even though we ordered ahead we spent at least two hours waiting for our food.

This sort of tardiness to (comparatively) rich tourists is not to be expected in Kenya but is yet another problem that can be blamed on the post-election violence. Apparently, during the violence the owners of the restaurant had to flee for their lives as they were “of the wrong tribe.” This is a tragedy often told, Kenya’s countryside is still littered with Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps full of people who were made to leave everything and now are either too scared to return home or have no home to return to.

For us, this meant that the new owners had been financially unable to hire very many staff and so our simple tomato and onion sandwiches took their sweet (or rather savory) time. Stupidly, we complained to Angie, who told us the reason for our inconvenience, making us grimace in shame when we compared the inconvenience of waiting for food in a restaurant with the inconvenience of waiting for a place to live in a refugee camp.

Back at our lodge, over a wonderfully American dinner of salad and spaghetti, we began to talk of a different “Big Five.”

Inside a book that has become my bible, titled “The End of Poverty,” Jeffery Sachs writes that there should be more talk in Africa of five different development interventions that “would spell the difference between hunger, disease, and death and health and economic development.” (Sachs, 232)According to Sachs, there are 5 different things that donor countries should invest in and developing nations should promote:

  1. Agricultural Inputs

He argues that fertilizers and improved farming techniques are essential to allowing people to live more than a life of just basic subsistence. This is definitely true in Kenya where 80 % of the population is engaged in agriculture. One of the interns, Walker, received a grant to organize a workshop for HIV-positive farmers to learn from a local agriculture school. Once people can produce more food than they need just to feed themselves, they can engage in trade and start investing those profits in things like chickens that will further enrich them through eggs and perhaps even more trade.

  1. Investments in basic health

According to a recent news article I read, there are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than there are in the whole of Ethiopia. In Kenya, 90 per cent of the medical personnel migrate to the West every year. At the same time, Africa is spending $ 4 billion annually to employ 100,000 Western experts. The answer is simple: instead of hiring Western doctors, train community health workers. The training shouldn’t take more than a year to teach them basic health, enough so that they can serve their community but aren’t likely to migrate elsewhere.

  1. Investments in education.

In Kenya, primary and secondary education are free. However, parents still have to pay heavily for books and uniforms. Even more troubling, the children often don’t eat lunch as neither their parents nor the schools can feed them. Hungry kids don’t learn well, some aid should go to free school lunches.

  1. Power, transport and communications services

The biggest one here is roads. Most of the roads in Kenya remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, they are just as bumpy and traveling on them definitely makes me hang on for dear life. The roads aren’t just an inconvenience to muzungu tourists, they are also are a severe impediment to economic development. Think about it: goods are priced higher as a result of the incredibly high transport cost and in the rainy season commerce can literally stop if the roads become impassably muddy.

  1. Safe drinking water and sanitation

This is a duh. It’s the liquid of life!

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that as awesome as it was to see all those animals, I’m much more interested in seeing poor people attain a basic standard of living than I am in frantically taking pictures of a bored-looking giraffe.