Friday, 30 September 2011

One week with the Maasai

Entering the mud hut, I stooped past the open fire and towards my corner. I removed my shuka Maasai blankets, and then loosed my belt and sword, dropping them to the floor.

“Stop!” hissed Shapash, my Maasai companion, “Don’t ever do that!”
Reaching to the floor, he took up the blade and fit it into a small slot in the wall.
“Never put your sword on the floor if all the cattle have returned safe,” he explained. “You put your sword down only if some of the herd have been lost that day.”

The Maasai, one of the many tribes of East Africa, have taken pride of place in capturing the beauty of Kenya’s pre-colonial past. They are a nomadic people, looking after sheep, goats and cows across the savannahs of Kenya and Tanzania. Their houses are temporary one-room structures built from dried cow dung, and their staple diet is the blood and milk from their herds. Large areas of Maasai land now form the world-famous national parks, such as the Serengeti and the Mara. The Maasai have been allowed to continue living in these parks but they do so at their own risk, for this is where some of the world’s deadliest predators roam free.

Armed with a spare change of clothes, some water and two packets of biscuits, I entered the Mara. I had the phone number of the chief of the village and was to call him when I reached the end of the bus route, five kilometres walk from his village. I was to live with the Maasai for a week, in obedience to what readers of this blog voted on. All has been in aid of the building of the Nyakahoja Secondary School for girls, which is now due to open in January.

Relaxing with vijana, the youth

I was met first of all by the chief. A tall and thin man of 76 years old, he still walks miles and miles through the wilderness to attend meetings with elders of other Maasai villages. We spoke in Swahili and his voice was slow and smooth.

“You will stay with Shapash. Do everything that he does. You will be called Ole Manyatta [one from the village].”

Stewarding a village of no more than 100 people, the chief was more a father-figure than a ruler. He would enter numerous houses each day to take tea and listen to people’s news, giving advice when needed. In his youth he had slain a lion in fulfilment for candidacy to marriage. Nowadays killing dangerous predators is illegal but still done by the Maasai (very rarely), in response to cattle or herders being attacked.

My new home was a tiny mud hut inhabited by a family of three. Together with my guide I slept in one corner, next to the young calves (but separated by a dung wall). In the centre of the house was the fire; the lack of any windows larger than the size of a fist meant the dwelling was filled with smoke every evening.

The mornings were always quiet and pleasant. Women left as the sun rose to milk cattle and lead them together in herds to pasture. Some of the children would walk to a school built nearby by a Danish philanthropist, and others would lead out the sheep. I fell under the category of unmarried male youth, which comprised of about 10 of us. In ages past we would be the warrior class, spending our time training and building up our strength, patrolling the forests, hunting and fighting wild animals or warriors of other villages. The lifestyle of the Maasai is accompanied by a library of dangers, and to the set can be added the competition between communities for wives because of the practice of polygamy.

Smoothing down a cow horn as a present
to my younger brother Eamonn
Breakfast usually consists of tea only but on my first day the chief allowed us to eat meat the whole day. This happens only twice a month and is a special occasion. The eating of meat is reserved for the male youth who are deemed most in need of building up their bodies. Walking through the herd of sheep, we decided upon a fat and old one, grabbed it from behind and then took it to the forest to slit its throat. After the blood was collected in a bucket, the sheep was skinned and then gutted. The cooking was done by the youth themselves in the forest alongside the chopping and gutting. They eat everything, from head to toe. It was among the tastiest meat I have ever had and I was relieved to hear that not even all of the Maasai youth drink fresh blood, so there was no obligation to have a go. For dessert there was some herbal medicine (fresh twigs split and then boiled in water).

Located next to the national park boundary (which has no fence), the village was often visited by tourists on safari. The interaction between tourist and Maasai is one of the most surreal gifts offered to us by the era of globalisation. My group of young males would be in charge of welcoming visitors and would often spend hours keeping an eye out in case a jeep stops by the village. I never joined them for their welcoming but they told me how it consisted of singing and dancing, some explaination of the village and Maasai tribe, and then a visit to the gift shop nearby, where one could buy Maasai jewellery and sculptures.

What surprised me was just how much money was involved. Compared to the costs of the items, the selling prices would sometimes be 20 or 30 times more. Visitors are often happy not to bargain too much because of the obvious poverty of the Maasai village, but appearances can be deceiving. The simplicity of the village is a way of life that will not be changed overnight by money. The influx of cash has led to some school attendance, a more balanced diet and the heavy use of mobile phones. Much of the income, however, has merely driven up the prices of the few luxury items available in the nearby town of Talek.

Walking through the plains of the Mara, one thing that set off my curiosity is the way children approach and bow their heads. They will wait until you place your palm over them and bless. In the evening, they will crowd around a visitor and, if the visitor is from the West, spend the time they wait for their meal stroking your arms and head to feel the hairs, as if you are a new and peculiar animal. The contemporary era has thrown the Maasai at a ferocious speed into the deep end of inter-cultural interaction. How the tribe will emerge from this is a question as open as the savannah.

Shepherd boys

The author would like to thank all those who donated towards the Nyakahoja Secondary School and so forced him to join the Maasai for a week.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Small Society

It was unfortunate. The one week I spent in the UK this year, my home town went up in flames. A protest against the police shooting of a young suspect turned violent, and then youths throughout the city capitalised on the inability of the police to crack down. Young people went on rampage, burning and smashing shops, stealing whatever they could. (We hope it is not repeated this week when the youths realise they stole the wrong sized trainers and need to get them changed.)

In the midst of the riots, attention turned towards the police and the need for a fast and firm response. Starting discussion on the deeper causes made people angry at first: there was no political agenda to the violence and nothing about it can be justified. When David Cameron was elected in 2010 he talked of the “big society”. Now all his talk is of the “sick society”.

But questions on the long term causes for this have to be raised.

Sipping tea with a Kenyan lady in a North London estate, she told me how ashamed she was. For her, the problem had been building for a while. Working night shifts as a nurse for the NHS, she was once walking through her estate when a group of children lifted a wire, causing her to trip and fall. She shouted at the children, telling them to watch out, and an answer came back at her from the window high above. “Watch out yourself!” screamed the mother of the children, angry that anyone dare reprimand her kids.

There are two ways we can measure how strong a society is and they both involve strangers. The first yardstick of a society’s strength is the amount of confidence you have in the help the stranger can give. The stranger is an interesting person because he or she is often trusted even though both parties know they will almost never see each other again. In the UK the stranger will be called upon to tell you directions, share their lighter, or even guard your laptop while you use the bathroom. The more you are able to trust your stranger, the stronger you can say your society is.

The second yardstick for measuring the strength of a society is by examining how confident you are at telling off the stranger. By confidence I do not mean how aggressive, but a mix between how prepared you are to speak out and how likely you think it is that the person or group will listen to you, given the fact that you are not in a position to physically force them to do anything. A whole gang of youths once pushed straight to the front of my Sainsbury’s queue and only one person was willing to complain (and was then completely ignored by the gang). If you take a moment to picture the people you would be confident telling off and the people you would not be, realise that the people you are not confident with do not belong to your society. We are not living in a sick society but in too many small societies. A comparison can help shed light.

The lady in North London has been living in the UK for about eight years. Her home town is Kiambu, less than an hour’s drive from Nairobi. Walking through her place of birth, I was struck by the strength of community that is evident all around. Entering an acquaintances’ house, I am immediately hugged by a young man of 17. His head is small and badly deformed and when he speaks to me he turns his head and looks out of the very corner of his eye. Sadly, when he was born he had water in his brain and so was taken to the near-by clinic. At the time, the doctor was on strike over a lack of pay. Someone unqualified tried to treat the problem instead by injecting a substance into the boy’s skull. It was the wrong medicine and that side of the boy’s head melted badly.

In Kiambu, there is very little state presence or public services, and no social security. What strikes me, however, is just how at ease the disabled and the old are, despite the lack of government help. They can go from house to house and always be welcomed as friends. There, strangers really are friends-in-waiting.

There are two things that need to change in the UK. The first is that we have to stop trying to solve every social problem with the state. There are only so many years you can force people to stay in education and only so many police you can put on the street. We hate the police state and yet every general election we vote for more of it because we are not prepared to face up to the fact that strong community is a citizen-duty not a state-responsibility. Secondly, we need to ditch our moral relativism. Constantly expressing how “this is just my opinion” is getting old. The next time a youth skips the queue I’m going to tell him I don’t like it even though I know he won’t jump there and then to the rear.

Leave not caring about the moral compass of citizens to the bankers, and say instead: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” (Weber 1919)

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Secret Challenge of Africa

Since the ambiguous effects of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation, the focus of donors has been on addressing corruption. The fight against corruption has been precisely that—a fight against—but the central problem of the continent is a lack of consensus over what to fight for. The secret challenge facing Africa is identifying morally good political conduct.

Apart from funding practical projects and electoral commissions, money to aid the democratic process has gone towards civil society groups. The underlying argument of promoting civil society’s leverage on governance rests on the political philosophy of the founding fathers of the US, where Lord Acton’s “power corrupts” hypothesis is avoided through the deployment of strong checks and balances. In Kenya, for example, this emphasis has been seen through the international support for the new constitution. Across the continent, young people who want to make positive change have followed the routes of civil society NGO work rather than direct participation in politics. The aim is to tame Leviathan.

The defect of this approach is that there is a great deal of knowledge in Africa about bad practice (e.g. the ratings of Transparency International) but no consensus on what constitutes good practice. Edmund Burke famously said that “evil occurs when good men do nothing” and so too, in Africa, we may say, evil occurs when good men only talk about evil.

The suddenness of the challenge of what exactly is good practice has been shied away from for two reasons. First, the continent is in a state of intellectual flux; we are in conflict as to whether understandings of goodness lie in ethnic history or the progressivism of modernity. This is seen in the conflict between group rights and human rights (e.g. the land debate in Kenya and Zimbabwe and the citizenship debate in Eastern DR Congo), and in the tension between systems of social security as based on extended family, and as based on the state. Secondly, there is wise reluctance amongst researchers and international commentators to push normative debate onto a people stained by the drama of colonial political theory. What was good used to be what was white, and now, suffering from the embarrassment of such idiocy, Western commentators are left saying that goodness is when you are not corrupt or, better still, please just avoid badness and you’ll be okay.

This reluctance to identify morally good political conduct is the key dilemma facing the political roots throughout the continent and, in turn, causing and maintaining a breakdown in governance.

The answer lies in sustained and considerable support for the study of history, anthropology, theology and philosophy amongst emerging young elites. This suggestion appears at first daft: to help fight poverty and stop corruption, should we really be paying African students to do PhDs on Plato and mud huts? The reason why it is of direct and urgent importance is that an understanding of goodness can never be cheaply purchased. A common conception of good behaviour is always the product of the full journey of a people. It is to travel far and to then have the courage to look back and to consider what we held in common those times we triumphed. The new who are entering the national stage need a supporting platform if they are to stand on the shoulders of their giants.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Labour of Love: Education in East Africa

Mwanza, second largest city of Tanzania. Nicknamed Rock City with good reason. As my bus rattled through the north of the country, the expanse of Lake Victoria to my right, majestic obelisks balance one on top of the other, years of erosion having reduced the soil around them until they are left to stand crutch-less. Across from one of these overweight ballerinas was the school I was to visit.

Straight ahead, a man mixing cement and then passing the filled pallet to his co-worker. They throw it one to another, up and up the scaffolding until it reaches the uppermost floor of the secondary school’s main block. This is Nyakahoja Secondary School: a school for girls being built by East African nuns. They do not have enough money to finish but know it will come somehow. The school will start before the complex is finished anyway, such is the need. And who cares if the authorities complain? The school is being built on their own farm anyway. 

The other side of Lake Victoria: Kenya. Kisumu, third biggest city of the country. A fishing city crippled by AIDs and abandoned by the government. Residents praise the new constitution voted for last year, which they hope will guarantee some devolution of government funds away from Nairobi. There I meet with a friend called William and take a car that feels older than the tarmac road beneath it. We hit an unseen road bump at speed and after the smash I realise that everything that could have dropped off the car had already fallen off years ago.

To left and right, farmers ploughing furiously to pre-empt the rain that gathers overhead. William’s work is different. He visits schools in the Siaya region to meet with the AIDs orphans sponsored by the NGO Teach A Child. He meets the students, encourages them, gives them books and calculators recently sent from Nairobi, and speaks with their teachers about their progress.

Nairobi, the heart of the nation. Across a well-kept sports field, Kenyans gather. Rows of seats stretch out beneath the shade of enormous trees; in the foreground, a beautifully arrayed altar. This is the 50th anniversary Mass of Strathmore, a school and university that continues to expand at an electrifying rate. Founded by members of Opus Dei, Strathmore has grown from the same seeds from which Netherhall grew, nourished by Kenya’s desire for education.

For education is a big thing in East Africa, conveying the hope of the people. The introductory rite into the larger world of opportunity. For Professor David Sperling, Netherhall alumnus, previous Principal of Strathmore and current senior lecturer of the University, education has been his labour of love for over half a century. His journey, he explained to me when I met him in Nairobi, has seen ups and downs.

How did you come to be here?

Well, I came to Kenya to teach, and I came specifically to work in setting up the sixth form college of Strathmore. You already had a group of members of Opus Dei who were in Kenya, who were planning the college. One key person who had taught at the Royal Technical College put together the Strathmore Educational Trust. Then they needed people to actually come and teach in Strathmore. So I came specifically to work in Strathmore College and to be there as the Principle.

Now at that time, the British government was paying all our salaries, so I was actually interviewed by the Director of Education here in Kenya because I was appointed under the Overseas Appointment Board in London. Strathmore got help right from the beginning from the colonial government, capital as well as paying all the salaries. I originally had a two year contract and then it was renewed, and then independence came and of course I stayed on.

So I think this gives you the formal, administrative dimension of why I came. The personal dimension was that I was asked by St Josemaría if I would like to go and work in Kenya, to do my professional work, leaving me completely free to come or not. There was a coincidence here because the work of Opus Dei was beginning in Kenya. People of Opus Dei who were already in Kenya had formulated a plan to start a college of some kind. So the implication was that if I came I would be able to work in the college, helping.

So I came, was interviewed and accepted. I took over the position of Principal. The college hadn't started: we had to get the teachers, we had to get the finance, we had to interview the students. Pre-beginnings, you might say. I came in July, 1960. 

Strathmore’s crest bares the lion of Kenya and the rose of Opus Dei. The three hearts represent the three races of Kenya which, when Strathmore started in 1961, were segregated in the colonial system of education. Strathmore was the first school to include all three.

For those who don't know how it works, how is it that you are now teaching in a university, if you came to teach in a school?

It works this way. I taught A-Levels at sixth form (we were a sixth form college, no Form 1 to 4). Then, in 1981, the Education Commission, chaired by a North American, recommended to the government that Kenya adopt the North American system. Big mistake, but it was adopted. The minute that was adopted, the Kenyan government announced they were phasing out Forms 5 and 6. We now have a North American system with eight years primary, four years secondary and a four year degree. The same total number of years but arranged in a different way.

At that point I had no interest in teaching Form 1, so I went to do my PhD – which is why I stayed in Netherhall. I was doing my PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) from the fall of 1984 until 1988, although I only spent one full academic year in SOAS and then came back to Africa to do fieldwork, taking visits to the UK to see my supervisor. SOAS required one year in residence so I stayed in Netherhall that year, from October 1984 up until May 1985.

When I finished my PhD in the end of 1988, I joined the University of Nairobi because I didn't want to teach Form 1 and there was no sixth form in Strathmore; it had now become a secondary school with additional accountancy training. The A-level had disappeared and Strathmore College had focused on accountancy. I worked at the governance level of the Strathmore Educational Trust and at a certain point I became the Chairman of the Governing Council of Strathmore College, though I was teaching at the University of Nairobi. So I kept a link with Strathmore at the level of trusteeship and governance.

Then we developed plans to begin university undergraduate courses in April 2001. So as soon as that plan was approved, and we had negotiated with the Commission of Higher Education and got approval for it, I decided to leave the University of Nairobi to come back to Strathmore, so to speak, to teach the undergraduate students who were enrolling in April 2001.

I was now employed by Strathmore College. Beginning to teach degrees, I couldn’t be the chairman of the council of the institution which employed me! So I resigned as chairman and came to work in Strathmore College in this campus. But it was a long process because it was a five year accreditation process, so we couldn’t change the name to Strathmore University until we got the charter in 2006. But this is how I kept my link with Strathmore through the years, at different capacities and levels, finally coming back to teach here.

This is a new campus. The land was given by the Kenyan government; the buildings funded with the help of a European Union grant. You’ll understand it just like that, but try to explain the process to an American! ‘What is this Sixth Form thing?’ ‘Accreditation?’

Difficult to explain to an American? Even though there was this conscious move towards an American system?

Yes, there was the move, but that was a disaster! We had fantastic forms 5 and 6; we had something like 250 schools in Kenya that had developed excellent form 5 and 6 classes. It was a tragedy for the Kenyan educational system. Just crazy. Daniel Arap Moi was President and he didn’t really know what he was doing. In fact, the director of education was a very close friend of mine and, literally, I had lunch with him a day after the announcement was made by the ministry to change to the North American system. The director of education told me he had told the president that we need at least a year to study the implications of this – the financial implications, the educational implications. But it was a political decision: the president just said no, we are going to do it. He never took any professional advice from the education commission or anybody. This was Moi rising to be a real dictator. The financial implications turned out to be disastrous: the one year in university cost more than the two years in A-Level. We’re still trying to recover from it.

There are a number of people who pass through Netherhall and who attend SOAS. How was your time in SOAS and what did you take from Netherhall?

Having completed that year in SOAS in residence – attending all the weekly African history seminars and all the stuff you have to do – I came back to do fieldwork in Kenya. When I would go back to London to see my supervisor I would stay in Netherhall. 

I don’t think I can praise the system in Netherhall enough. Just extraordinary – even from the point of view of other Kenyans I know who have gone there. You are moving into a community which is very British in many ways but at the same time combined with the commonwealth ethos. One of my closest friends – and that friendship came out of the one year I stayed in Netherhall – was Ben Thomas, who was from southern India and had come to do some medical studies. The interaction with the people from the different countries there is an experience, and is combined with a very British environment. So Netherhall has got its cricket team, it’s got its Peter Brown: it’s all very British and yet combined with this openness to other cultures and peoples.

You really feel at home, right from the first moment. You appreciate that you’re accepted as a non-Brit but you’ve got a culture that’s accepted, whether it’s Ghanaian, Kenyan, Indian, Hong Kong, you name it. This, for me, is supporting the idea of the commonwealth as a reality. It’s not just the commonwealth games once a year, it’s a reality. There’s a common denominator there that binds the people.

Netherhall: let’s call it a microcosm of the world of the commonwealth, together with a social environment that makes you feel very much at home.

Strathmore University is currently undergoing an enourmous ‘Phase 3’ expansion. In support the project, a 50th anniversary raffle is being held. To buy a ticket, please email the author at dominic.burbidge [at]

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Nyakahoja Secondary School, Tanzania

Dear All,

I am raising money for the Nyakahoja Secondary School, an expansion of the school I have previously volunteered for. Please donate to the building of the Nyakahoja Secondary School by clicking on the link below. This is a much needed project and would benefit enormously from any help you can provide. Additionally, please vote to your right on what I should do as sponsorship for this. All money raised will be given straight to the project. The fundraising goal is £1,000, so please get friends and family involved!

Raised so far: £1,116.08
[Be aware that there is a delay in the updating of this figure.]