Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ambient awareness

When an idea or concept has newly captured one’s attention, a seemingly uncanny phenomenon sometimes occurs in which that idea or concept suddenly “shows up” with increased frequency in the environment. I’ve experienced it with vocabulary, objects, and places; you probably have, too.

Such is the case with Kenya. Attending the Northwest Folklife Festival recently, Laurel Seid unexpectedly came upon a Kenyan Kitchen concession. In my daily review of independent school posts on Twitter in the past week, I noticed that a member of the communications team at an independent school in Minnesota (@lifeatblake) has been commenting about her students’ service trip in Kenya and their blog documenting the experience. In following The White House on Facebook, I happened to see a video of Jill Biden touring Kiberia, a Nairobi slum (June 9 post).

Then, the clincher: After reading a pile of books on Africa, I decided to take a respite by returning to my other current favorite genre: foodie books. I picked up Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame. Like the earlier title, this is a book of personal narrative -- narcissistic, edgy, and sometimes funny. This time, Powell tells the tale of her butcher apprenticeship. Imagine my surprise when, after nearly 200 pages, she veers off into a global food journey including a “cultural safari” to a Maasai settlement in Tanzania along the Kenyan border!

Mere coincidence? Serendipity? Increased awareness? Or, perhaps, evidence that Fate has a sense of humor.

Claudia Daggett

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Women helping women

It was hard not to be drawn to the picture of the beautiful woman in the headwrap on the cover of the New York Times Magazine that Sunday morning at the end of August. Ever since Miss Pat, one of my colleagues years ago from Macon, Georgia, told me, "Honey, people always think it's about the color of the skin; it's really about the hair," heads and hair fascinate me. Headwraps and adornments often tell a story about a woman's culture and her place in it.

The Burundi woman on the cover revealed little as she stared straight ahead, unsmiling. Inside, the feature essay, "The Women's Crusade," by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Random House, 2009), provides the shorter version of the message in their compelling book: it takes so little money in US dollar terms to enable a woman to have a decent life. As rich and full of research, facts and figures as this essay and book are (highly recommended), the essay which actually drew my attention was Lisa Belkin's, entitled "The Power of the Purse," about women helping women.

Wait a minute! A small group of women in my neighborhood has done the very thing she writes about. Many dots in my brain suddenly have connection. Prepare for shameless promotion: WMI, Women's Microfinance Initiative, has become the cause d'etre for the women I know and it all seemed to have started because one of the women had a vision, after meeting a group of women from a sister church in Uganda. The work of WMI now includes a project in Kenya, as well. According to WMI, it takes as little as $25 US to enable a woman to start a small business. These businesses enable women to sustain their lives, as other traditional ways of living become eroded and changed by politics and other shifting cultural factors. The hope and the real support provided by organizations like WMI enable women and their families to live with more dignity.

I marvel at it all: how little it takes to improve a life, how dreams become realities for all of the women involved, and how beautiful a global sisterhood can be. There are many ways to get involved should you desire to do so.

Laurel Seid

Video credit:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Naturally and unnaturally migrating people

Part of our work in Kenya will be connected to the Maasai, the traditionally nomadic people whose grazing land occupies parts of Kenya and Tanzania. Our host, Joseph Lekuton, wrote eloquently about his life as a young Maasai boy and student navigating between the life of his family and the life connected to his government school. At present, Joseph continues his work on behalf of the Maasai as a member of the Kenyan Parliament. The challenges facing peoples for whom the need to traverse great tracts of land is vital to their cultural sustainability seem well documented. I want to keep my heart and mind open to what we will experience when we are there.

Thinking about the impact of the restrictions on the migrations of the Maasai led me to contemplate another concept closely associated with Africa -- that of refugees or people who migrate unnaturally or against their will due to war and other civil unrest. The most well known situation now centers on Darfur in western Sudan with a current estimate of around 2.5 million displaced persons. The impact of the Darfur situation is felt by all surrounding countries, including Kenya. It will be interesting to know if we will come to a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the refugees when we travel to the north of Kenya.

As a teacher, my thoughts naturally turn to the effect on the children in these situations. How are they impacted? What will their future be? How can their stories be known and their voices heard? How do we tell their stories to the children in our schools for whom concepts of war, poverty, hunger and homelessness represent an otherness as to make them nearly unreal?

Recently I had the pleasure of viewing Brownstones to Red Dirt, a documentary about a project which connected children in an elementary public school in the Bronx with children living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone. Through a Canadian organization called Respect Refugees, the children in Bed-Stuy undertook both a pen pal project and a fund raising effort for the students in Salone, all beautifully chronicled throughout the year of their relationship in the film. It reminded me that it is possible for the stories to be told. Who better to do that than the children themselves! Across continents and across cultures, they shared stories and interests and ultimately broadened their understanding in real and relevant ways.

I remain ever hopeful that our journey to Kenya enables us to deepen our human understanding and think about the ways in which we can bring meaningful experiences back to our schools and our students. We hope you follow along with us on our blog!

Laurel Seid

Map credit:
Image credit:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reading (and films): The American perspective beyond the news media

Wangari Maathai, author, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and former member of Kenyan Parliament, writes of the European influence on Kenya’s development:

“The missionaries were followed by traders and administrators who introduced new methods of exploiting our rich natural resources: logging, clear-cutting native forests, establishing plantations of imported trees, hunting wildlife, and undertaking expansive agriculture…" -- Maathai, W. Unbowed: A Memoir. Anchor Books: New York, 2008, p. 17

As Americans, if we look beyond the news media, our view of Kenya is likely to be based primarily on stories from the perspective of those Europeans, many of them independently wealthy.

Karen Blixen and her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, left Denmark in the early 1900's and created a coffee plantation in the Ngong Hills of British East Africa (now Kenya). She wrote about this experience, her life there, and her relationship with big-game hunter Denis Finch Hatton in Out of Africa under the name Isak Dinesen, published originally in 1937 (Modern Library, 1992). Probably more familiar is the Oscar-winning Sydney Pollack movie by the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (1985). To its credit, the film shows beautiful scenes of Kenya and does not dodge the contradictions in the character’s lives. Having watched it recently, I’m still pondering the scene of Finch Hatton toting around large ivory tusks in an early segment of the film juxtaposed against his lament of man’s interference with the natural environment in a later monologue.

Italian socialite Kuki Gallmann, author of I Dreamed of Africa, developed a ranch near the Great Rift Valley of Kenya in the 1970’s before dedicating her life to conservation (see Gallmann Nature Conservancy). This memoir, too, has been produced as a film by the same name (2000). I give Roger Ebert a “thumbs up” on his review – which makes it clear that the film, starring Kim Basinger, is entirely missable. I was further disappointed to learn that much of the filming was done in South Africa rather than Kenya.

Less well known to Americans (probably because it hasn’t hit the big screen) is Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s My Kenya Days (Harper Collins, 1994). Thesiger, recognized by the BBC as one “one of the 20th century's greatest explorers,” writes of his early game-hunting treks in Kenya, a period as honorary game warden, and his settlement there in the last chapter of his life. The book reads more like a trail guide than a memoir, as Thesiger describes the setting, wildlife, and native people with what seems an anthropological air. I kept a detailed map of the country close at hand and found the book a good primer on geography, particularly of the Rift Valley and Northern Kenya. Throughout the reading of this book, I had a disquieted feeling that I could not fully articulate. And then, in doing a bit of research, I ran into this quotation from Michael Mewshaw of the New York Times:

“Wilfred Thesiger has long had a reputation as a legendary traveler, in his words ''perhaps the last explorer in the tradition of the past.'' But while his courage and resourcefulness are admirable, his autobiography indicates no awareness of how much his expeditions depended on poor, tractable people in dictatorships and colonial regimes. That this type of travel is no longer possible might strike some readers as less a tragedy than a cause for relief.” -- “Barbaric splendor suited him.” A review of Thesiger, W. The Life of My Choice in The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

Claudia Daggett

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kenyan Kitchen

When I saw this at the Northwest Folklife Festival, I took it as a good sign of wonderful things in our future. Get ready for piri-piri sauce!

Laurel Seid

(Photo: Laurel Seid)