As part of my studies abroad at the University of Leicester, I had the opportunity to do a field course in sustainability in Kenya. Six students, including myself and another two students also on exchange from my home institution, ended up signing on for the course, which would involve camping at a conservation site and working with the local community on implementing sustainable living practices based on sound research and scientific principles.
The six of us, along with a grad student mentor, would live for two weeks in a camp at the Lake Bogoria conservation area in the rift valley zone of western Kenya. The Lake Bogoria area is settled by members of the Tugen tribe, and our camp was located adjacent to a small Tugen village. Bogoria is a very special lake: being located within the rift valley meant that it was a terminal lake and does not drain into the ocean. The result is that any salt and minerals that ended up in Lake Bogoria stayed there, making the water extremely salty and alkaline, so much so that nothing lived in the lake other than a few hardy microorganisms – one of which was at the centre of my project in Kenya. My project focused on nutrition in the Lake Bogoria community, and, in conjunction with the other two exchange students, I aimed to determine whether there was a nutritional deficit in the community and investigated alternative sustainable food sources. Central to my project was Arthrospira fusiformis, a blue-green algae that thrived in the extreme environment of Lake Bogoria. Widely known as Spirulina, A. fusiformis has seen widespread use as a high-quality nutritional supplement in both the communities in the developing world and the markets of the industrialised Western nations. The Tugen people of Lake Bogoria, having only recently settled on a permanent basis in the area after giving up a traditional nomadic lifestyle, did not have any cultural knowledge of Spirulina and have never harvested Spirulina as a food source. Therefore, the aim of my project was to explore the feasibility of harvesting Spirulina as a sustainable food source at Lake Bogoria.
For many, it would have been the opportunity of a lifetime but I initially had my misgivings. It wasn’t that I was concerned about my personal safety or comfort: the university had been running this course for many years without incident and I’m usually the first person to volunteer to sacrifice comfort if it meant being able to do something meaningful and worthwhile. No, I wasn’t concerned about either of those things, but what I was concerned about was whether I had the proper aptitude, knowledge and training to do something like this. To make it clear, what I understood about the nature of the course was that students were expected to analyse the culture and practices of the Kenyan community we would be living amongst and essentially develop a project that was to affect change in the way the community went about its daily life and improve the community’s living sustainability. But here I was just a student with no real life experience, and I was expected to help advise an entire community about how to improve theirs? Are you mad? How was I supposed to do that?
But beyond trying to grasp how to go about changing the traditional practices of an entire community of people, I was terrified of unknowingly providing poor guidance and further worsening the lives of a community already struggling with crushing poverty and severe environmental degradation. I was no developmental worker, I had no idea how to structure a realistic and implementable program in a developing third-world community. I was petrified because, for the first time, the work I would be doing could have a direct and immediately tangible effect on people’s daily lives, for better or for worse. For an academic whose previous work only dealt with the theoretical, it seemed a daunting task.
So what made me change my mind? I’m sorry to say that truthfully it was that I really wanted to have the chance to see a bit of Africa and decided to take a optimistic view of my project. But my doubts remained and they didn’t fully recede until I actually started working with the community and started to get to know the people a bit better. What really made me feel confident about my work was the realisation, once I had actually talked to some of the people and leaders of the community, that I would be really working in partnership with a community of people that were conscious of the challenges they faced and recognised what would and wouldn’t work for them. Where before I had taken the paternalistic mindset that I was supposed to go into the community and impose change, I came to realise that really I would be acting in cooperation with the community to do what was best for the people there, and that how the project evolved depended on the inputs of both myself and the community. In a sense all I was doing was providing the community the knowledge and means to better itself. With that realisation, I became much more relaxed and confident about my work and things ran smoothly for the two weeks I was there. The community as a whole were interested in learning about the benefits of Spirulina and we are now making slow but steady progress towards establishing a community-run harvesting operation.
In retrospect, I believe that my struggles in some ways reflect the challenges and problems with developmental and humanitarian work in developing nations as a whole. It really is a challenge for organisations and people seeking to do developmental work in developing countries to delineate between helping a community and imposing a foreign set of values on the community. In Kenya I saw firsthand the lingering influence of British imperialism: the wealthy resorts and hotels essentially inaccessible to many, the privilege afforded to people with lighter skin and, ultimately, the separation between the native population and wealthy visitors. While Kenya has been independent since 1957, the mark imperialism has made on the country still remains, and now with the influx of foreign investment, a new form of cultural imperialism has taken hold, with Kenya and other developing nations under pressure to adopt the economic and social practices of the dominant world powers. In this milieu of change, it is crucial that developmental agencies remain committed to working with the people they intend to help, rather than dictate terms of living from above.
Kenya is beginning to industrialise. It’s people are eagerly seizing opportunities to educate and better themselves so that they may better their families, communities and country. But will Kenya lose its tradition and culture along the way? What I saw at Lake Bogoria gives me hope that this will not be the case. The people of Lake Bogoria have impressed me with their ability to not only survive but thrive in the toughest of environments. I was stuck the simple joy that each member of the community seemed to possess, a joy derived perhaps from the deep sense of community that permeated through the village and the satisfaction of living lives largely free of the material need that seems to grip those of us who are more “civilised”. Whatever the case may be, I am confident that the people of Lake Bogoria, and Kenyans in general, will be up for the challenges that the future may promise. I am grateful for the opportunity to have the time to live and work alongside them, however short that time may have been.
Along the way, I got to visit a few really cool places, including a wildlife safari, an elephant orphanage and a giraffe sanctuary. Below are some photos documenting my trip: