The ACESS team had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Fisheries, Dr. Otuma Nyongesa, and his staff this morning. The Minister outlined the agency’s primary goals, which include improving nutrition and food security, enhancing rural economies, and reducing pressure on Lake Victoria. Over a two-hour period, we discussed how we could collaborate to identify and implement solutions surrounding aquiculture. The most significant challenge has been supplying fingerlings or fry to the farmers who are unable to do the breeding themselves.
Our students had their first opportunity to witness the challenges associated with Kenyan protocol. We waited for an hour in the conference room before our meeting so that we could greet guests in order of the significance of their governmental positions. Because this is the norm, it is very difficult to develop and keep to a schedule of meetings. In the rural areas, protocol involves meeting with chiefs, district commissioners, and members of Parliament before being able to go out into the field. When it comes time to meet with villagers, if we are meeting with a group of thirty individuals at 10 o’clock, several may arrive at that time, others an hour later, and some will come two and half hours later. Their timeliness depends upon whether their planting and harvesting is done. Since there are no roads in most of the villages in which we are working, it can take up to two hours for people to walk or ride a bicycle to meet with us. One reason our days in the field are so long is because we will not disappoint someone who is waiting for us. So, if the 10 o’clock meeting gets underway at 1 o’clock, our next meeting, which was scheduled for 1, gets pushed to 3. We will take as much time as necessary to keep our appointments, but that often means returning after 18-hour days without eating or taking any break.
The Minister and his staff were extremely gracious and supportive in providing the climate data we need to analyze the results of our soil tests. We are scheduled to have a follow-up meeting on Saturday morning with the Director of Fisheries to map out action steps for installing fish farms in our project areas. As we were heading to our next meeting, a blockade was set up in the road for President Kibaki’s motorcade to pass by. His escort includes 18 Mercedes, and whenever he travels, the roads are completely shut down, creating havoc in an already nightmarish traffic situation. Interestingly, we learned that his meeting in Parliament was to announce a reshuffling of the ministries. The Minister of Fisheries was removed from his post two hours after our meeting and was appointed to the post of Minister of Youth!
Our second meeting of the day was with the chair and CEO of the Sameer Group, Naushad Merali. Mr. Merali is a fourth-generation Kenyan whose family came from India. He has grown his company into a consortium of forty different business that include banking, tire manufacturing, construction, and coffee and tea production and distribution. Mr. Merali is deeply committed to corporate social responsibility and has agreed to partner with us to establish microbusinesses for women.
While Clarice, John, Lou, Masood and I made our presentation to the Sameer Group, the others went to the Kibera slums to study the use of biogases and examine the business models that were being used there. Though Marcia and the students were there to work with the residents, I felt a sense of uneasiness about their presence in the community. Last semester, VP of Development Charlie Haight and I attended a meeting at the University of Hartford, organized by Bob Forrester, CEO of Newman’s Own. Bob gathered a dozen individuals who were working on human rights initiatives in Kenya. One of the presenters was Kennedy Odede, a student from Wesleyan, who started a school for girls through his organization, Shining Hope for Communities. Kennedy wrote a compelling op-ed for the New York Times last week on “Slumdog Tourism.” In it, he describes his feelings as a resident of Kibera, where there is a growing trend toward poverty as entertainment. Tourists pay guides to travel through the slums and see “how the other half lives.” Kennedy suggests that these tourists consider bearing witness to such poverty as sufficient payment to the poor. From his perspective, this type of voyeurism robs residents of their dignity. In our work in Kibera, and indeed in all of the work that we do, I worry about crossing the line between service and exploitation. This worry is not unfamiliar. I had the same concern every time I brought my students to work in prisons when I was in Rhode Island, for the vulnerability of the populations is much the same. In carrying out our work here, each of us is mindful of our ethical responsibilities, and we are committed to partnering with residents to effect social change.
The dinner that followed the day’s activities was at Carnivore–a restaurant that is as much about the experience as the food. Massive amounts of all types of meat are brought around by carvers who serve diners until they throw down a flag of surrender. As a life-long vegetarian, my experience was qualitatively different from that of the meat-eaters but still enjoyable. They have a wide range of vegetarian options. The best part of the evening was connecting a local student from Mount Holyoke, Giathri Raman '12 and her family, and with Stephanie Shanler ‘91, who works in Child Protection for UNICEF in the United Nations. Stephanie has done extraordinary work in Africa, Europe, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and other places around the world to safeguard children.
Tomorrow the team is meeting with local artisans in Nairobi. Potters for Peace has funded part of our project, and we are trying to recruit local craftspeople. Later this afternoon, we head to Kisumu to begin our field work.
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