Lessons from Travelling: Reflections from Kenya

When two elephants fight, the grass is trampled.

                                                    —Swahili proverb

Article by Phoebe C. Godfrey

Recently I had the good fortune to travel to Kenya with others from UConn in preparation for taking 22 students there this summer. The focus of the two-week summer trip will be to give the students opportunities to learn about the impacts of climate change on different members of Kenyan society and to see what measures have been and are being taken to, if not directly address the causes (as those come mostly from us in the West), at least explore possible ways to mitigate the impacts. Of course, there is the irony of the impact of flying and all the expenses involved. But, having just spent a week there talking to faculty at the University of Nairobi, as well as to Maasai farmers, herders, teachers, medical personnel, and chiefs about climate change impacts, I can affirm that for me it was worth it.

What I learned by listening and talking to people there is that drought on the one hand and flooding on the other, as well as unseasonal weather variations, are having impacts far and wide on food security, medical services, gender/class inequalities, and other social factors. Farmers are losing crops; herders are seeking water for their animals; roads and bridges are washed out; food-, water-, and animal-borne illnesses are spreading; and many other linked crises are impacting people’s abilities to go about their daily lives. I also learned things—not necessarily related to climate change but holding aspects of solutions—from looking out the van window at the people and the land. 

Finally, from spending two days at the Maasai Mara game reserve witnessing the wonders of the animal inhabitants—who, despite everything that goes on in our human world to challenge their existence, still manage to reign supreme—I learned about the importance of preserving animal diversity. No matter how many images you have seen of elephants, hippos, or giraffes, or how many times you may have seen them in zoos, seeing them where they belong, in the right ecosystem and in the right relationship with each other, reveals their dignity and grandeur in a manner I found deeply moving. In fact, given my profession as an environmental sociologist who teaches about climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, such an experience was healing. 

This healing did not come just from the animals, although they played a large part, but also from the Kenyan landscape, and of course from the people we met, and from all the people I didn’t meet but fleetingly observed from the van window as we drove for hours on end. All these people were just living their lives but doing so in ways that were highly visible, social, and seemingly satisfying. And yet this constant public presence, in both rural and urban areas, is seen as evidence of “underdevelopment,” whereas in our culture we can drive around and see almost no one and that is seen as “development.” Of course, there are climatic differences that play a role, but even in our summer months it is rare to see people outside walking, talking, engaging in commerce, working, herding, drinking…or just being. There are times, such as Willimantic’s Third Thursdays, or at farmers markets, summer fairs, and festivals, where people gather, but overall, I would argue that as a culture we are socially and creativity starved. 

My claim for us being “socially starved” has been confirmed by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued a public advisory last year that we are in an “epidemic of loneliness,” which threatens people’s health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  However, my other claim of being “creativity starved” is not as common, and I use the term specifically to draw attention to how, in counties like Kenya and throughout the Global South, people can be seen everywhere doing the tasks of daily life and doing them in ways that are innovative, creative, and engaging. Of course, all such places that are deemed “underdeveloped” have over the modern age been brutally colonized, dehumanized, and gravely impacted by our extractivist economy and the impacts of climate change, and yet people have continued to survive and seemingly thrive. 

People in Kenya are farming, herding, building houses and furniture, fixing motorbikes and cars, selling fruits and vegetables, slaughtering animals, fetching water, walking to school or church, or just sitting under a tree, “being”…and so on and so on…in an endless stream made up of the varieties and colors of life. In the larger cities, of course, there are plenty of cars and all the trappings of modernity, but such “development” does not stop the stream of people on the streets. Again, I found all of this human interaction and engagement to be very healing, a reminder of what it means, or what it should mean, to be human, and that people need to be social and creative in ways that we in our culture have for the most part lost. We sit in our homes, befriending our screens, waiting for commodities to quickly arrive, or we drive along empty roads to big-box stores where we speak to no one, create nothing, and wonder why we feel so empty, bored, and depressed, even as we are convinced that the way we live here in the U.S. is the best. It is not. 

What we need more of in our culture are social and creative spaces, places, and encounters, not just with other humans but with other living beings. Such engagements are also key to addressing climate change, by feeding our souls and not just our pockets and our accumulation of commodities. The price for our so-called development has been to rob us of our need for the unknown, the unexpected, and the uncharted—in other words, all that is wild, in both us and in the life around us—and thus we rob ourselves of so much life, life that is wondrous and wonderful in its complexity, diversity, and creativity. For as the Swahili proverb goes, “When two elephants fight, the grass is trampled,” which I take to mean that life requires the making of messes that are not “messy” as we understand the word but are deeply rich and fulfilling. Thus, what we need throughout the world, and specifically for our culture, is not just for there to still be elephants but to find ways to get back to trampling the grass. 

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