By: Professor of Religion Rev. Derek Nelson
On Tuesday (March 8, 2022), the Wabash class on Religion in Africa did something even most Kenyans have never done: we ventured far, far into the rural areas to meet with and learn from the Masai, the famous tribe of cattle herders spread throughout parts of Kenya and northern Tanzania.
It was an unforgettable experience. Vast expanses of a million shades of green, speckled with cattle and herdsmen, opened for miles in every direction. The acacias grow just an inch or two per year, so the lovely shrubbery you see represents decades of fought-for height. The Masai are people like that too, wrestling a humble prosperity out of the land and prioritizing beauty. Their traditional costumes and particularly the jewelry were breathtaking.
We were greeted by the “Smart Hills” school in a village in Kajiado county. Many of the adults and most of the school children had never seen white-skinned people before. They taught us their greetings and social structure (old men must be addressed first, then the widows, then the chief, then everyone else). We learned of their incredible efforts at peace through the Damietta Peace Initiative (DPI). Damietta is the name of the town in Egypt where, 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi met the Muslim Ottoman Sultan to try to negotiate an end to a crusade. The DPI seeks to mediate local disputes before violence breaks out. If a grievance is made known, the Masai mediators negotiate a settlement before 7:00 the next day (because we’re so near the equator, that’s nearly always sunset).
The last custom we learned about was the tastiest. The chief killed a goat for us in the morning and cooked it all day to share with his visitors, as their traditions require. They think that visitors are a blessing, not to be taken for granted. A bone broth flavored with herbs and “ugali,” the staple of Kenya which is a kind of cornmeal mush, were also served. It was a joy to take this in with our hosts. I grew up on a cattle farm, and loved to talk with chief Moses’ brother about their cattle. They name each one, and say the name aloud when they eat it!
Today (March 9) was as urban as yesterday was rural. We went to Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, with probably half a million residents. The students visited Udungu Family of Hope. This is a community center run by a social worker who has lived in Kibera his whole life and tries to help young people survive and make something of themselves. He helped each Wabash student meet and spend hours with young people from Kibera. Kenny Coleman ’22 and Davionne Garrett ’22 were impressed by Silver G, a rapper, dancer and self-taught magician. They and James Despain ’22 are planning ways they can support Silver G’s career even after returning to Wabash. Camden Chadd ’22 met a high school-aged boy who is worried about violence in the upcoming election. There have been times when one tribe won’t accept the results of an election and stir up violence.
A boy named Jonathan told one of our students that he hoped to finish secondary school and university and become an engineer. It was hard for our guys to wrap their heads around being in so destitute a place, yet to have such aspiration and dreams. Will Hamilton ’22 was speaking with Vani. “How old are you?” “I’m 14. How old are you?” “I’m 22,” Will replied. “Whoa – you are an old man in Kibera!” Most of these children will probably not have long lives, to say nothing of healthy or productive ones. But as social worker Edwin said, pointing to the dilapidated shacks of Kibera, “Just because you have a rusty roof doesn’t mean you have a rusty mind.”
There is an equality of talent evenly distributed throughout the world, I firmly believe. And the needs of the present day are so challenging and dire that we need the brilliant minds and hard workers from all continents and countries. We wont make it, otherwise. But, it is painfully obvious to say, there is not an even distribution of opportunity. Places like Udungu Family of Hope, and Kennedy Odede’s SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), which we’ll visit tomorrow, are helping lift up the talent in Kenya, keeping chances alive for at least a while longer.