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Dateline Kenya: Pictures at an Exhibition

How successfully is Kenya moving forward — while still maintaining its traditional culture?

July 16, 2007

How successfully is Kenya moving forward — while still maintaining its traditional culture?

My wife and I recently returned from three weeks in Kenya. At long last, that country is really moving forward. Unlike only two years ago, when I last visited and the city was littered with trash — especially lots of plastic bags — Nairobi’s streets are now remarkably clean.

Thanks in large part to Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s “Tree Woman” — who won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for her environmental efforts — trees are being planted throughout the city.

One thing that is striking in Kenya, as in most other low-income countries, is the proliferation of non-profit organizations (known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs). Besides local branches of well-known international NGOs such as CARE and OXFAM, a great many local NGOs are active in a multitude of sectors.

The “Directory & Profiles NGOs Eastern Africa 2006/07” lists about 4,000 such organizations officially registered in Kenya alone. For example, page 21 lists, among others, the Baptist Aids Response Agency (BARA), the Bar Hostesses Empowerment Support Program, Bright Poor Students and Old Age Programs.

Some of these nonprofit organizations are innovating in intriguing ways. Portable devices linked to satellites process fingerprint and banking information and spit out ATM-like receipts. These “one-person bank branches” offer credit, savings accounts and even disaster and health insurance to clients in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums.

Another organization installs solar-powered computers in remote villages, which enable communities to see DVDs about health and hygiene. Yet another organization set up an ingenious franchise network of rural clinics each run by a nurse.

After sunset and before sunrise, Masai guards escort guests from the lodge to their tents and back, armed with spears, bows and arrows. “What do you recommend I do,” I ask one of them, “should I run into a hippo?” “You must flash your torch on and off, clap your hands and tap the ground with your feet.”

Our guides are smart, funny and interesting — all zoological, botanical and environmental experts. They know every detail about dik-diks, obscure wild cucumbers, tree frogs and other creatures. They love the bush with a passion.

One of them explains, “I grew up on a farm, so I got used to living with animals.” He smiles, looking at the immense plain. “Now I have the biggest office in the world.”

Swahili, East Africa’s lingua franca, is strangely similar to Japanese. Kenyans find it relatively easy to learn Japanese and vice-versa. Utumishi House, a Nairobi office building, has nothing to do with Japan.

Nakuru, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Meru and Ruiru are all names of places in Kenya.

During President Moi’s corrupt reign, poachers almost wiped out some species. Not only is Somalia next door, where even children carry weapons, but a vast abutting swath of Kenya became a virtual no-man’s-land for poachers. Even now, park rangers die in battles with well-armed poachers.

Over the last ten years, wildlife herds have been increasing — but are far from their pre-Moi levels. Relentless population pressure around wildlife parks spells watershed deforestation, and ever-growing cattle herds compete for grazing.

The Kenyan Wildlife Service and private organizations are doing what they can, but the search for balance between communities and wildlife remains elusive.

Orphaned elephants are taken care of at Tsavo’s stockade. The goal is to prepare their return to the wilderness. Young orphans need human love, but dependence on humans undermines chances of return to a herd.

Older wild elephants do not accept orphans, but after some time the herds’ young find out that orphans make good playmates and so they are eventually adopted. Emily is old enough to return to the wild, but she knows she has a job to finish.

For years she has been escorting young elephants to the wild. Sometimes she is gone for months, then she returns. She won’t leave for good herself until all the little elephants have been adopted.

African Grey Parrots are remarkably intelligent and among the oldest birds known to mankind. They can be mischievous. As a Nairobi party hits its stride, cell phones start ringing and guests run out into the hall to take their calls.

Koko and Namira are superb at mimicking the fanciest ring tones. They also squeal on the housekeeper using the phone while their owner is out, greeting her enthusiastically when she returns from work: “HELLO, HELLO, this is Gladys speaking. How are things in Detroit?” Koko greeted an elderly bishop invited to dinner, murmuring, “I LOVE you, darling, I do!”