May 2, 2013
Six of us rumbled along in a back-roads taxi, my four American study abroad classmates and our Maasai host crammed into the backseat, forming a tangled mess of overlapping limbs. We were about 30 miles outside of Nairobi, riding down a long, bumpy, dirt straightaway in the Rift Valley. En route to the rural settlement of Olosho-Oibor, Yazi, Steph, Ashley, Molly and I were going to stay a night in a Maasai homestead. Pictures will only do the route’s scenery half-justice, but about four or five miles to our left were rugged green-yellow mountains called Ngong Hills, and otherwise, the terrain was flat, arid,and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Green, flat-topped trees were spread out about every 40 feet. Their branches looked like long, wispy clouds, as though someone had ironed them from above. One type of tree naturally coated itself with a thick layer of bright yellow dust (found that out later by climbing it and then discovering I looked like a mac-and-cheese monster). Bushes with long, spiky thorns (one poked my foot through my boot!), lots of gnarly rocks and vacant dirt filled in the space between trees.
We pulled off the road and stepped out of the taxi into a 100 x 200 ft wooden enclosure with five small wood-and-tin dwellings, all shared by one extended family. Samson, the Maasai dude who had directed the taxi driver, told us his younger sister Monica would take care of us until evening and then rode off again. As 17-year-old Monica emerged from one house with her infant niece Santa Fe (no joke), we looked around the enclosure seeing two huge cows, a few goats, two grown dogs, and a puppy chilling in it. After treating us to hot chocolate with fresh cow’s milk, Monica offered to take us to find their herd of cows.
We meandered around the family’s vast landholdings in the valley for about an hour. We didn’t find the cows, but I got the impression Monica had stopped looking early on. “Do you want to see more of the Rift Valley?” she asked. Yeah we did. So she switched direction and took us some distance across the road, where the valley floor melted away and majestic rolling hills opened up in front of us. More than that, even though I’ve never been to Africa, the scene seemed familiar somehow.
There’s a theory about human evolution, Humans evolved in East Africa. The dry plains I was walking on are the same ones that greeted the first humans and, perhaps not coincidentally, rural Africa seems to supercharge my love of nature, adventure and running, more than the equally beautiful landscapes of Central America or the US. When I saw the rolling continuation of Ngong Hills, I reallllly wanted to start tearing across it.
When we returned to home, Monica told us her younger sisters would then accompany us to ‘the dam.’ with mini tour guides Sophia, Katy and Michelle leading the way, we took another hike through Maasailand ending in a descent to a gigantic man-made lake where about a hundred cows and goats were grazing and drinking. Ngong Hills towering over us on the other side of the lake, we spent two or three hours sitting by the lakeside, playing with the kids, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.
At least, my friends did. There were too many things to climb for me to stay put. Along the waterfront, I hoisted myself up a big, sprawling tree, from whose branches I had a conversation in Swahili with a neighbor of our hosts who was at a loss as to why a crazy mzungu was hanging 15 feet above his flock. Then I went back to check in with the group before checking out one of two giant piles of boulders that lay along the descent to the lake.
Carrying our tour guides on piggy back, we went back to the homestead after about an hour and offered to assist our hosts with dinner preparations, to no avail. We met the patriarch and matriarch of the family, who had come home in our absence both garbed in bright red traditional Maasai blankets. Simon (Monica and Samson’s middle-aged brother whom we’d contacted for the stay) and Sam (another brother) had a friendly dinner with us in our shack, after which Yazi, Ashley, Molly, Steph and I took turns milking a cow like champs. Then we went to sleep early. The entire trip was a great bonding experience for us Americans, but joking around before bed was especially fun. It was hard for most of us to sleep though. The wind was extremely loud the entire night. “I seriously thought the shack was going to come down,” Molly said the next morning.
After breakfast tea at about 7:30 am, Simon asked me if I wanted to help de-worm the sheep. I thought this might be my last opportunity to ever do that, so I hopped in the sheep’s pen as Sam and Dickson started grabbing sheep by a back leg and pulling them towards Simon, who funneled a nasty white paste into their mouths before letting them out of the gate.
Totally unexpectedly, seeing Simon and Sam interact with their animals gave me insight into some biblical passages (I’m an active Lutheran), which, equally unexpectedly, gave me insight into the gargantuan task of international development. On the one hand, the symbol of the shepherd as a caretaker became more meaningful. On the other, in the first-century Middle East, as today with the Maasai, most people made a living by raising livestock. Cattle was currency, and to please God, people would ritually sacrifice their animals. So when in the literature Jesus urges people not to make such sacrifices, I think he meant that rituals and religious rules are not important. I think even more fundamentally what he was saying is that it’s not about money. Giving involves so much more than resources and improved economic efficiency. Building unconditionally loving relationships is much more key.
Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing in my studies of development all along. With the proliferation of NGOs, international development alliances, World Bank plans and IMF loans, each with their stated mission, their goals to accomplish a certain amount of “growth” or “good” the world may well have turned “development” into a commodity. It’s a utility-based game focused on providing a given amount of “basic need,” “capability” or “help.” It makes “good” an economic good. Maybe the point of engaging with societies poorer than our own isn’t to give “help” at all, but to give ourselves in service.
Here’s what I mean. In development debates, the teach-a-man-to-fish proverb often makes an appearance. Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. I don’t like either of those options by themselves, and I credit my friend and old boss Jenn Crist with a brilliant twist to the analogy. How about we make international friends, go down to the beach, teach each other our different styles of casting, fish all day, catch some bass, then head back to the village to grill fish sticks and enjoy a cold beer? We’d both be better off. Now we’ve got both fish and a good time.
Friendship, true friendship, is what’s been missing from the first-third World dynamic ever since Europe started colonizing. In Kenya during the WWI era the British colonial government quarantined the Maasai onto reservations that overcrowded their cattle resources and taxed them more than they could earn. During the Cold War, the US only treated Kenyans respectfully when they played uncompromisingly capitalist. Today, inside their heads, a large part of the development community still operates ideologically “above” the people they are trying to “help,” and while that’s more well-intentioned than in the past, it’s still dangerous. Maybe it’s time to start not only giving folks money and technical know-how but also engaging in meaningful relationships with them (provided they want us to). Of course, given that we Westerners on average do have more resources than our Southern counterparts, and given that friends take care of each other, economic growth, adequate health care, infrastructure and the fulfilling of basic needs have to follow from these relationships, if they are done right. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that the relationships have to come first.
Before we left Olosho-Oibor, Samson, our first guide, took us to a village center where the Maasai gather to talk through and collectively make decisions, taking everyone’s needs into account .My hope is that the international community can follow their lead. As we piled into the taxi home, our hosts gave us a warm farewell with an invitation to return anytime. I felt satisfied as we left; they’d been so great to us.
At the end of the semester, I have a month-long research project with a 40-page paper to write. I don’t know how I’m going to test the value of friendship in development, but you can be sure that I will.