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Harris 1While participating and being actively involved in development work, a bilateral exchange usually occurs whereby the Westerner learns more from the community than aid or help is actually given. During these bilateral experiences, people use clichés such as, “enlightening, life altering and change.”  This idealism, and “do-good spirit,” quickly transforms, when one actually sees the harsh reality facing the developing world. As an African American, I was completely ignorant about Africa before coming to Kenya. My knowledge consisted of a romanticized view of old culture and ancient wisdom. Before arriving, I promised myself to fully throw my being into the culture and the ways of the people in Kenya. I knew I wanted to work in human rights; as a lawyer in the States, rights are coveted, and we are trained to zealously defend people’s rights. Once I arrived at my host family’s home, visions of Africa were streaming into my mind; some of the images were stereotypical but there were also colors, bright ones, with mamas selling sweet breads and fruits. There were men with the arduous task of pushing carts of produce, with the fierce sun blessing their skin, along with graceful Swahili women wearing bui bui and hijabs.  I completely emerged myself into my family life; I gave up my vegetarian diet and I dedicated myself to learning Swahili. For me, Kenya started to change from the stereotypical picture of Africa being a dirty place, corrugated iron roofs, and idle men, into a burgeoning culturally complex country with a lot to offer the world. My volunteer experience truly started at F.I.D.A (Federation of Women Lawyers) office in Mombasa. F.I.D.A is an international well-funded organization that promotes equality and due process of law for women.

Kenya is a country fighting its colonial history and present day social and economic problems.  Many of the economic calamities facing sub-Sahara Africa are rooted in cultural, social, economic and legal upheaval that occurred during the colonial era. Many of the citizens in Kenya believe corruption is rife and that ethnic tensions are thwarting economic and infrastructure development. All of these issues came to head during the 2008 elections with full-scale ethnic violence and the creation of the Grand Coalition Government.

Currently, the citizens are growing weary of the Grand Coalition government. The citizens want more transparency and accountability. Food prices have surged and the local newspapers are inundated with stories alleging corruption by government officials.  Local organizations and NGOs are actively engaging in dialogue and addressing issues pertaining to human rights and good governance. In fact, G10, a prominent women’s group, urged fellow female citizens to boycott sex to pressure the government to act more responsible and accountable to the citizens. Many citizens are discouraged. The resonating theme of doom and self-destruction is all too common as Kenyans discuss their plight. Speculations of extra-judicial killing and assassinations are troubling to the citizens and the human rights activists’ community.

Harris 2Constructive dialogue is the precursor for ideological and paradigm shifts in society. Sustainable development has to be rooted in fostering and creating safe spaces for dialogue, in order for true change to take place. My work with F.I.D.A is inextricably link with empowering the local citizenry, primarily women. Kenya, like some other African societies, is patriarchal. Therefore, certain cultural customs can at times violate Kenyan law and Western perceptions of fundamental rights.  As a western trained lawyer, it is difficult to juggle cultural autonomy and fundamental rights. Many women are solely supported by their husbands, which can place them in a precarious situation if their rights are violated by their spouses. F.I.D.A offers an avenue of legal advocacy and a safe space to foster dialogue to empower women.  It is an awesome experience to actively advocate for women to take ownership of their lives and watch them challenge their spouses in court by exercising their legal rights. A voice, an avenue, a safe space to challenge and debate is essential in equalizing society and addressing the imbalance of power in Kenyan society.

F.I.D.A concentrates on women’s right, but women’s rights are not exclusive, nor does the topic operate in a vacuum, but in a civil society, everyone must have equal protection under the law. F.I.D.A , at times, is viewed as an agitator or “un-Africa,” but the dialogue and discussion the organization fosters concerning human rights is vital. Mombasa, Kenya is perfectly blended with various cultures, ethnic groups and religions. Discussions about rights can easily be muddle with discussions about cultural sensitivity and religious freedom.  Well, the issue of human rights is not an easy discussion and answers will not be black or white but with dialogue and constructive debate cultural sustainable answers can be reached to address the legal ills facing Kenyan society. During the historical Obama presidential campaign, I witnessed Kenya come together under the umbrella of pride for the son of a fellow statesman, such zeal and energy was magical. I firmly believe that same energy can be used to transform society. And with organizations such as F.I.D.A , the dialogues about empowering women and women’s rights are opening doors and challenging the status quo. Granted, F.I.D.A’s work is just a small piece, but that little piece will fit in the large piece of creating a society that can adequately provide shelter, clothing, food, health care and sanitation to its citizens, while ensuring that people live with dignity.

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My Work Plan : A Summary

June 23, 2009
Silverman 1First of all, let me just say that I cannot believe that I have already been in Kakamega for over a month. Talk about how time flies! Even scarier, however, is the thought that I only have one month left to accomplish any of my goals at work. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent a lot of time during weeks 2 and 3 formulating my work plan. How could I have a sustainable impact on KES and the Kakamega community? This was a really difficult question to answer, and after hours of deliberation I decided not to focus on just one idea, but instead to work on a series of small projects that cold improve the cooperative’s effectiveness in Kakamega.

My first objective is to facilitate the involvement of current members and the recruitment of new members. KES has over 400 members, but suffers from a very high monthly default rate due to their “goodwill” debt collection procedures in which members are expected to pay monthly without any staff or loan officers to guide them. This high rate of default is detrimental to the cooperative’s growth and I believe it needs to be addressed as soon as possible if the SACCO is to reach its goal of being fully operational by 2012. My first idea is to create a quarterly newsletter, targeted specifically at members who have been dormant for more than two months. This newsletter (only 4 pages long) is almost complete and will be ready for KES’ Annual General Meeting scheduled to occur on June 27th. In addition, I am hoping to implement new incentive programs to encourage continuous payment of loans and member recruitment. Specifically, a member who makes loan payments every month for a year (a rarity in the current records) will receive the last month’s interest free, a member who pays his shares every month for a year will get the opportunity to take out a loan at a lower interest rate (.8% monthly instead of 1%), and members who recruit new members will receive a certain amount of money for every member they bring in. Finally, I have agreed to help the SACCO design a sign to help advertise their location on the main road of the town. These are all very simple ideas, but I hope that in combination they will give KES a boost in member recruitment and involvement.

My second objective is to update their accounting systems. Currently, the bookkeeper uses Microsoft Excel for all accounts, but none of her spreadsheets are dynamic. In other words, she adds everything up with a calculator (and occasionally makes mistakes along the way) instead of using formulas (as simple as auto sum) that could calculate everything automatically. I have already worked out a good system, but my goal is not to just teach the bookkeeper to use the system that I have created. Instead, I am trying to teacher her how to create general dynamic spreadsheets – that way after I am gone she will be able to design efficient systems of data management using excel as the need arises.

Thirdly, I am working with KES’ microfinance sector to jumpstart a new group of boda boda drivers. This is probably the part of my project that I am most excited about. A boda boda is essentially a bicycle taxi, who shuttles people around all day for about 15 cents per trip on average. Most of the drivers (there are hundreds of them) have no other way of making a living – many have even finished high school or university but just don’t have any other career options. Our goal is to get a group of 15 boda bodas to start saving monthly for four months, after which they will have the opportunity to take out a small business loan. After this loan is paid back, they will eventually take out a bigger loan and will thus be given the opportunity to work their way up out of poverty.

At first I was unsure that we would be able to get a group of bodas interested in this kind of project – as a matter of fact KES tried to implement this kind of project with an FSD intern last year and the project was ultimately unsuccessful – but last week I was happy to find that my fears were unfounded. I met with the bodas for the first time on Friday, and it was probably the most powerful experience I have had since coming to Kenya. We met for about an hour in a small hot room, with someone translating what I was saying sentence by sentence into Kiswahili and then translating their questions back into English. After their skepticism had been assuaged (many Kenyan workers have been victims of fraudulent pyramid schemes), I could sense the excitement and nervousness in their tone of voice. Nobody had ever before put their faith in the hands of these boda drivers, and I believe they saw in this newfound trust an opportunity to change their lives. Contrary to my expectations, they were very proactive about organizing their next meeting time and even asked if they could bring new members. At the next meeting (July 3rd) we will go over/amend the group constitution, and elect officers (chairman, treasurer, secretary).

My final project involves evaluating the KES Strategic Management Plan that was created in 2007. In the SMP, KES has set specific goals for each year from 2008 to 2012 (ie. number of members, amount of capital etc.) and I plan to go through their records and make a report detailing their progress.

In the end, I hope that some if not all of my projects will be sustainable, and will help KES to reach the goals outlined in their SMP.

Rural Discoveries, Religious Experiences

August 3, 2009
Silverman 2Around the 4th or 5th weekend I was in Kenya, I ventured into an extremely rural area on the outskirts of Kakamega. Actually the way that this trip came about was kind of funny – my host mom mentioned that her nephew was coming over and that I would go for a walk with him (people in Kenya don’t really ask questions in English – they just give polite commands). Apparently “go for a walk” meant get into a matatu for half an hour and drive out to his house where I would be staying for the night. You can imagine that came as somewhat of a shock but after the initial panic I just rolled with it. As we drove, paved roads turned into dirt roads, and eventually even the dirt roads disappeared until we were driving on just grass.

My host cousin’s name was Simon and he was in his mid 20’s. He took me to his house where I met his family and stayed with him for the night. The house was on a compound, which is the most common familial structure in rural parts of Kenya. The compounds generally contain 4 or 5 houses with members of both the immediate and extended family living there. For example: one house might be for the grandfather and grandmother, and the others for each of their sons and their respective families. In the morning Simon led me through the thick fields surrounding his house. While almost all of the crops I had seen in Kenya previously consisted of maize (corn), this field was filled with sugar cane. Sugar cane plants are huge, probably eight to ten feet tall, and once you are in the middle of a big field there is really no way to tell which way is out (unless you know where you are going). Simon ripped a smaller piece of cane out of the ground, and bit off the ends revealing the woody, sugary innards of the plant that cane sugar is made out of and that people commonly chew on. I took a piece to chew and it was delicious, although it was so sweet that I actually got a little bit light headed. I tried to bite the wood off a piece of sugar cane myself to get to the sugar on the inside and I swear I almost broke my jaw – to make me feel better Simon claimed that Kenyans have very strong teeth. My favorite conversation of that weekend (and possibly of the trip) went as follows:

Simon: I like to travel very much.
Me: Oh really? Where have you been?
Simon: Throughout Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Me: Cool! If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?
Simon: America!
Me: Which state? (expecting New York or California – the most common answers)
Simon: Texas.
Me: Really? Why Texas? (surprised)
Simon: Chuck Norris.

No further explanation necessary.

The next weekend, I went to a church in Amalemba with my family. This was also one of the most interesting experiences of the trip. As you may know, I normally wouldn’t be the first in line to attend a church service, but it seemed like a great cultural experience and I figured I had to go at least once while I was there. I was surprised when I first arrived in Kakamega to discover how Christian most people there are. When you walk down the street on a Sunday morning, you see can see and hear a church service at almost every corner. One Sunday I even tried to go running at the track, but decided not to because there was a service in the stadium!

From my experiences, however, I found that the church service in Kenya is very different from the average American church service. While I imagine most services in America being more subdued, Kenyan church services are adorned with extremely loud music, and intense preaching and singing (and dancing of course). No matter how dilapidated the structure of a church may have been, I don’t think I ever saw one that was lacking a sound system equipped for a movie theater.

The church service I attended with my host family was somewhat small. While the structure probably could have fit about 200 people, I would estimate that there were about 30 people in attendance. At the front was an altar, and to the side a keyboard player who was essentially the church DJ, playing quiet, eerie music during solemn speeches, and slowly transitioning to uplifting music (fully equipped with keyboard driven techno beats) when appropriate. Upon entering the church I realized that there seemed to be some excitement among the congregants. I wasn’t sure why, but I thought maybe there was some kind of special event going on that day. It turns out that there was – me.

Before I walked in, three very old ladies approached me – they could not speak English or even Swahili, only the mother tongue of the Luhya tribe, Kiluhya. After some difficulty in their attempts to communicate with me, someone translated that they were very excited to have me at their church and wished they could express that to me in my language. That was a really moving moment.

After being welcomed into the church, I was asked to introduce myself to the congregation at the front of the room with a microphone. This was definitely a little bit nerve racking (and surprising), but I was happy to give it a shot. I used whatever Swahili I knew to say my name, where I was from, and why I was in Kakamega. The crowd seemed very grateful and applauded for me when I was done speaking.

Most of the service was in Swahili so it was difficult to understand, although I am aware that I was in some way part of the sermon because I kept hearing the word “mzungu” interspersed throughout the pastor’s speech. The best part of the service for me, however, was definitely the upbeat music and dancing. They also had a 4-part choir that sang gospel songs that were really cool. Also unlike in America, instead of passing around a collection plate, there is a period in the service when the collection plate is at the front of the room and each row approaches the plate, while singing a specific song, and makes a donation. I thought this was a really interesting ritual.

At the end of the service, everyone went outside and we stood in a large circle holding hands. Prayers were said for everyone in the community, announcements were made, and then we dispersed. Many different groups gathered – men’s groups, youth groups, women’s group etc. and began to talk about whatever other activities they had planned for the coming week. This made me realize that the church, more than any other institution, really was the center of the community for my host family and the other congregants. Besides the religious aspect, it gave them an outlet to talk about their community, their experiences and their individual lives.

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MAY 27th

Arjun 1RECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up really early because I fell asleep at 9:30 yesterday night, had a fight in the dark with my mosquito net (I’m still not sure how it got tangled the way it did), got up, got ready, off to work, met Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bomji, discussed ideas, sat in with him seeing patients, Peter stopped by to check in, a lot of medical procedures that I won’t go into for the sake of your stomach, learned a ton about medical diagnoses of tropical diseases, Dr. Bomji gave me a CD of requirements by the Ministry of Health for Iguhu, he drove me home, started working, spent thirty minutes trying to figure out why the background on my blog wasn’t changing, Shide is amazed at computer, I offer to teach him how to use one, dinner while typing, more work, work, work, sleep.

REFLECTION: I spoke to Dr. Bomji this morning. His name is spelled correctly for the first time in my notes, incidentally, because discerning the difference between spoken “m’s” and “n’s” or “j’s” and “ch’s” are near-impossible here; I rotated among calling him Dr. Bomchi, Dr. Bonchi, Dr. Bomji, and Dr. Bonji in the hopes that the average might be recognizable to his colleagues, and no one seemed to mind. I assumed the right to do so because the variety of pronunciations of my own name here is astounding – you would think, wouldn’t you, that among the multitude of Indians in Kenya at least one of them is named Arjun and has taken it upon himself to correct pronunciation of his admittedly difficult name? In any case, I thought it fitting to return the favor to Dr. Bomji, though in the spirit of professionalism I read the correct name off of his badge this morning and will refer to him appropriately: Dr. K. K. Bomji. Case closed.

Regardless, I spoke to him this morning and, as Mama Joyce had vehemently indicated previously – the phrase “vehemently indicated” is redundant in her case, as she is a very spirited and excited woman who says virtually everything vehemently – Dr. Bomji is a very motivated, caring, selfless, intelligent, and optimistic man. With an immortal smile that I did not see falter the entire day, he discussed his visions for the health center-turned-district hospital, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of his visions coincided with my own. Beautification, landscaping, and large, published charters for the hospital and each of its departments were on the top of his list.

I sat in his office the entire day. Aside from learning a lot about diagnostic sciences – especially in the absence of a lot of technology – he kept feeding me things that he would like to see changed in or added to the hospital. A customer care desk, he mentioned, would be valuable in directing patients around the hospital and informing them of available services and corresponding prices. He often discussed the shortage of staff at the hospital, which became increasingly glaring as the line of the line outside his office lengthened; at one point, upon inquiry, if discovered that a woman who required no more than five minutes of attention had showed up almost two hours previously. Even more frustrating was the fact that she was then directed to get a blood test done and then (if positive) would be directed to collect quinine treatment for her child’s malaria. A five minute examination, twenty minute blood test, and a five minute visit to the pharmacy would take her the entire day.

Peter came by to ask how I was doing; we spoke about potential projects, sustainable ideas, and the meeting on Saturday. He also explained that our batch of interns would not be allowed to apply for additional grand funding because the duration of our stay was too short, though we would be allowed to fundraise on our own if we found that we needed additional funding. I am sure that I will.

MAY 30th

Arjun 2RECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up early, blasted music while getting ready, flagged down a matatu to go to Kakamega (paid 50 bob), got there, bought a mango from Mama Rosa, started eating it the Indian way, walked to Kamadep hospital, met with everyone, talked about the past week, saw Emily (the fainting one), she has poison ivy on her face, her lips are swollen, she looks generally hilarious, she’s being a really good sport about me and Guillaume making constant fun of her (which is the only reason why I’m posting this), we meet with Angie, we talk about grant proposals, it turns out we will be allowed to write grants, we review three example grants, talk, Angie cooks us lunch, Nate makes a plan for all of us to go the Kakamega forest tomorrow and Monday (Monday is a holiday), we go to withdraw money for the trip, we have Angie’s Mac and Cheese, she randomly added mustard to the sauce, we were all starving, we dispersed, I got a matatu home, I handed him 50 bob, he said it was 70, I said that I had come here for only 50, he said that coming and going were different prices, everyone in the matatu started laughing, I said no, and he was silenced, arrived home, Mama Joyce’s sister and nephews/nieces were there, Mama Patropa (a special-ed teacher), kid named Patience (daughter), husband returned from Nairobi, I try to help wash my own clothes for the week, everyone laughs and starts doing it for me, I start boiling water for the excursion we are about to go on tomorrow, I clean my room, dinner, work, sleep.

REFLECTION

Meeting everyone today was fun and interesting in that I learned about the (often wild) variety of experiences that others are enjoying (or, in some cases, barely enduring). Urban life and rural life are, evidently, very different. While I enjoy beautiful scenery, clean air, and spaciousness, urbanites are treated to cramped spaces, lots of annoying children, and overbearing parents. At the same time, while seeing another muzungu face causes me unbelievable nostalgia, urbanites bump into each other all the time and have the luxury of nearby shopping marts, stores, and the undying hum of city life. (It is interesting, is it not, for me to have so quickly transformed my definition of what a “city” is? Only two weeks earlier, Kakamega was a “town” at best.)

I also noted that, reaffirmed by Guillaume after the meeting, some people are taking the idea of “cultural sensitivity” far too seriously. Some are so afraid of violating unwritten cultural rules that they have seemingly suspended the assertiveness for which they were selected to come to Kakamega. It hinders the work that we do, for example, if interns are so hesitant to discuss their ideas and visions of their projects with their supervisors that they must depend on the site team to do it for them. It is almost as if they come to our meetings prepared with pad and pen only to script out their conversations with host families and organizations as to ensure purity of communication.

I say two things to future interns. First, whatever impression you might get from the site team as to how to go about communicating with locals, ponder sincerely what the term “cultural sensitivity” actually means. It absolutely does not mean that you are to be perfectly versed in cultural nuances before interacting with the local community. Part of the cultural experience is learning the local culture by way of trial-and-error, and often times, the “error” parts are far more important and noteworthy. You should be ready to laugh off your mistakes, as should your host family and organization. You can either attempt to be culturally perfect and make things very awkward for locals around you, who might be led to expect you to truly know cultural nuances and be that much more upset when you violate them, or you can be more outgoing and admit freely that you are trying to learn (which you should be). You are not trying to impress anyone here; you are immersing yourself in a unique culture and trying to appreciate and live it.

Second, when you do end up upsetting someone (notice that I choose “when,” not “if”), remember that it is in no way your fault that the other person is upset. In fact, I would argue that it is their fault. It will be blatantly obvious to all those around you that you are not a local; if not from the color of your skin, then from your accent and mannerisms, people will know. Put yourself in their shoes – if a foreign exchange student accidentally offended you by violating a “cultural rule,” would you get upset at the person or would you laughingly correct their mistake? You cannot be expected to fit perfectly in. Anyone around you who expects so is unrealistic and is not worth you losing sleep over.

That is not to say, however, that you should make no effort whatsoever. If you know how to say a greeting in Kiswahili, you by all means should! The locals will no doubt get a kick out of it. When they spring into a line of Kiswahili in return, widen your eyes and shake your head. They will understand. After you admit to someone that you do not know their culture, you should be quick to add that you want to learn about it.

We are going into the Kakamega Rainforest tomorrow and Monday for hiking and hanging out because Monday is a holiday! I will no doubt return with fabulous pictures and comical stories.

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BlackwellJI had no idea what to expect during my 9 weeks spent in Kenya. I decided it would be best to keep an open mind in order to best handle any situations and experiences that lay ahead of me. All that was certain was that I would be working at MIMA, the micro-finance arm of an organization called LICODEP in a town called Likoni. Shortly after my arrival, I was inundated with a wave of new sights, sounds and emotions. Everywhere I looked it seemed to be chaos with poverty sprinkled in between. As I began to get settled with my host family and MIMA, I saw Kenya for what it truly is: a quickly developing country with positive change all around.

Kenya has a long history of corruption that is embedded deep into its culture; from the elected officials in government to the community run Non Government Organizations (NGOs) that are in place to take over where the government fails. There are many different causes of the deep rooted corruption, but the reason it is allowed to continue is the lack of empowerment of the people.

Immediately upon my arrival in the country locals inform me on how fed up they are with this corruption. They tell me that the only way to rid their society of this corruption is to have individuals begin to organize and speak out. Soon enough I began to see this type of activism by a shocking move at the federal government level. Justice Minister Martha Karua resigned her position citing her frustration with the government’s inability to enact change due to corruption. This shook Kenya as it was one of the most bold and controversial moves by an outspoken female official.

This type of activism is the catalyst for change, but development at the macro level is not possible without empowering the people of the community. My work with LICODEP’s micro-finance program is directly related to empowering people of the community. The majority of MIMA’s clients are female entrepreneurs. Because Kenya has a male dominated society, it is important for MIMA to focus on females in order to balance the power between the two sexes by providing these women with financial opportunities. As I continue to work with these women I have been amazed by their natural business sense. Having seen this first hand it just further confirms that all that is needed is someone to lend a helping hand and provide the opportunity.

While the primary goal of MIMA is to provide credit to promote growth and reduce poverty, the larger goal is to provide people with the confidence and means to promote change. Kenya is a country that is ready to take the next step in development. This next step will be made possible by NGOs such as LICODEP and their work within their community.

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paulm-1When I first arrived at Likoni Community Development Program (LICODEP) I was not sure which direction my internship would take. Located just south of Mombasa, Likoni is a bustling community with a rich culture and a diverse set of development issues. LICODEP is the flagship community development organization in the area and they work on issues ranging from advocacy to public health to microfinance. After several weeks of observing and trying to find my niche, I decided the way in which I could have the biggest impact on the community’s development was to help develop a small business management class with LICODEP’s fledgling microloan program, Mikopo Ni Maendeleo (MIMA), which means “Credit is Progress”. I was impressed by MIMA’s staff and clients, all of whom have come to entrepreneurship for different reasons and had to overcome serious obstacles.

Having started just a year ago through the work of another FSD intern, the program has been serving its clients very well. It started with just 50 clients last September and has over doubled its clients since. The clients join MIMA in solidarity groups of five, usually consisting of friends, neighbors, and sometimes family members. They meet each week with a MIMA staff to contribute their mandatory savings and discuss the status of their loans as well as who will be next to apply for the loans. In addition these groups serve as support for one another on various business issues.

This program serves a wide range of clients, most of whom are women running microenterprises with in the Likoni. After conducting a survey of clients, we found entrepreneurship is one of the only viable options for many individuals, especially women. Unemployment in the area is estimated to be as high as 48%, according to Action Aid Kenya. The jobs that are available often require higher degrees or specialized training, options which are out of reach for the poorest individuals in the community. It was only five years ago when primary education became free in Kenya, so MIMA clients grew up in families unable to afford education for their children. Over half of MIMA’s clients only completed primary school and less than one quarter completed secondary school, thus inhibiting their abilities to compete for the few jobs available.

Because of the lack of education, the sheer numbers of people who turn to business ownership, and the status of the economy, running an efficient and profitable business can be very difficult. When asked how MIMA could serve them better, clients responded overwhelmingly that they needed some small business training classes to help them run their businesses. In an interview with Hope Nyali, a MMA member and small shop owner, she said “I opened this business to cater my life and the life of my family. It is my hope that they will help me to run my business better. I want be a smart business lady.”

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perakisj-1-with-caption1Western Kenya is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world, putting tremendous pressure on natural resources in the region. In Kakamega district, agricultural expansion, cattle grazing, fuel wood collection, and logging have reduced the once mighty indigenous rainforest to only 240 square kilometers. This trend is likely to continue, it seems, despite efforts by government and non-government agencies to combat forest destruction.

For almost one year now, I have been working with a local environmental conservation group in the southern part of the Kakamega Rainforest. Despite the unfortunate political conflict earlier this year, I was able to work with my organization to research and develop programs that address deforestation and simultaneously address the needs of the community. In particular, we developed a fuel briquette initiative to reduce the demand for firewood that is collected from the forest. Fuel briquettes are made from everyday commercial and agricultural residues and can be used as a replacement for traditional sources of energy. The system has been successfully implemented in other parts of East Africa and will certainly benefit the communities living in and around the Kakamega Rainforest. In July, we held a comprehensive workshop to train community members to make and use fuel briquettes. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support for the project.

That same month, however, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was expanding its rural electrification program to include the communities living around the lower half of the forest. In less than three weeks, and without much warning, a major section of the forest had been cleared to make way for telephone poles and overhead electric wires. Acres of indigenous forest were lost, forming small forest islands that are unable to maintain a significant level of biodiversity. In one instance, where there was a choice between indigenous land and plantation land, the indigenous land was cleared while the plantation land remained unaffected for no apparent reason other than shear convenience. The most devastating part of this all was the fact that only a handful of people raised any voice of concern, and only after the trees had been felled. I think everybody was happy to have open access to firewood and timber and even I myself was excited at the prospect of electricity. But all of this made me reflect on my own work in the forest and the value of small-scale environmental conservation programs in the face of larger-scale development issues. The immediate needs of the community seem to be more numerous and more varied than could be addressed by any one strategy for forest protection. Moreover, the pace of development in the region, in terms of infrastructural improvements and changing land-use patterns, seems to be too rapid to sustainably coexist with the forest. Though what we saw with the rural electrification program in the Kakamega forest represents unnecessary destruction caused by a hasty, careless, and close-minded approach to development. The desire to bring electricity to the region overwhelmed the need for careful sustainable planning to implement the project. In order for environmental conservation to work, we need to take time and create innovative strategies which allow for human development, but which also protect our natural resources. But who are we to deny electricity to people who have waited so long to reap the benefits of industrialization? Similarly we might ask, who are we to deny agricultural land to those who choose a subsistence lifestyle? These are not question to which I, or anybody else for that matter, have complete and unarguable answers. Finding creative ways to combat deforestation caused by fuelwood extraction is part of the solution, but without a comprehensive approach to environmental management, it appears the fate of the forest is uncertain.

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Upon arriving at my new home, my supervisor and I were taken by my host father to inspect the field. Though I could not understand all that was being said, I caught his motioning to the distance, pointing to bare patches of earth surrounded by maize, and the word “Ndovu” – Elephant. The subject of my internship was self evident that day, and is still an all too common occurrence. That is, the human-elephant conflict.

My host father still sleeps outside at night, as well as many farmers in the community, watching for elephants. This despite the establishment of the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary in 1994, aimed at reducing the conflict and increasing revenue to the community through tourism. Coupled with the post election violence that has caused a sharp decrease in tourism throughout the country, Mwaluganje is facing difficulty in both its primary goals. It has been my hope while I am here I can help to help alleviate these difficulties.

I first identified that Elephant Dung Paper Project could be enhanced as a way to raise revenue and awareness of the sanctuary. To accomplish this, I have worked on improving the quality of the paper, arranged for the art club of the local primary school to decorate the notebook covers, and have made an informative stamp to go along with the products. I hope then to market the paper products to tourist shops and hotels around Mombasa.

A project to address the more pressing issue of stopping the crop raids by elephants is also under development. As has been done in Southern Africa, chili peppers can be used to ward off elephants. By informing and assisting farmers in how to grow and use chili peppers, we hope to create a project sustained for and by the local farmers. An additional benefit to this is the prospect of developing the peppers into a cash crop for additional income.

One farmer, Hassan, tells his story, common to so many others in the community. While he sees the importance of the elephants, it is difficult for him to value them himself. He, as well, spends his nights in his field, keeping watch for elephants, hoping to scare them away before any destruction of his maize, and livelihood. When presented with the chili pepper proposal, he is very receptive and hopes it can one day benefit him.

I am glad to say that we have been finding similar support throughout the community and surrounding areas. We have been able to recruit the aid of the district’s agriculture technicians, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Camp Kenya, and Laikipia (a wildlife reserve in central Kenya who initiated their own chili pepper project a few years ago). We have also recruited five willing farmers to participate in the trial phase of the project, who are eager to plant their own peppers and try the various ways to use them to ward off elephants.

And may one day the farmers of Mwaluganje get a good night’s sleep.

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