The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michele-Lau­ren Hack­shaw

Liv­ing in Nairobi, Kenya and trav­el­ing through ru­ral ar­eas was an ex­pe­ri­ence I shall al­ways re­mem­ber. Some who’ve never had the op­por­tu­nity may think of Nairobi, Africa on the whole, as an epit­ome of back­ward­ness. I went there at age thirteen, not know­ing what to ex­pect. As it turned out, I was stunned on ar­rival. I never ex­pected to see malls far larger than those here in Saint Lu­cia, huge man­sions and wide streets bustling with ac­tiv­ity. The nightlife was noth­ing short of a teenager’s fantasy. That is not to say the cap­i­tal of Kenya has ev­ery­thing. Re­mem­ber it is still a de­vel­op­ing coun­try. As for the peo­ple, I found them very friendly, laid back and nearly al­ways help­ful.

Go­ing to the ru­ral ar­eas was a ma­jor eye-opener. I was shocked at the life­style, so dif­fer­ent from what I saw in the cap­i­tal. I en­joyed learn­ing about how the peo­ple prized their cat­tle, their goats and sheep. So many dif­fer­ent tribes, too, all with their own unique cus­toms. Try to imag­ine the liv­ing quar­ters: homes made of mud and cow dung, beds con­structed from bits of wood. And then there is the area in each home re­served for the an­i­mals. Some of the quar­ters were barely large enough to ac­com­mo­date a reg­u­lar fam­ily of seven but the an­i­mals were given their own space. All light­ing was nat­u­ral. Dur­ing the day it came from the sun; at night from open fires.

I went on th­ese trips with my mother; she started an or­ga­ni­za­tion to help fam­i­lies in th­ese ar­eas. Here is an­other thing I will long re­mem­ber: the way the kids loved go­ing to classes. They held ed­u­ca­tion in high re­gard. Few of them ever cut classes with­out good rea­son. Un­for­tu­nately many were left with no choice; ei­ther their par­ents could not af­ford to send them to school or the chil­dren were needed at home to help their par­ents earn an in­come suf­fi­cient to feed their large fam­i­lies. Many stu­dents could not at­tend school be­cause one of their cows had strayed or had been stolen. Or for a num­ber of girls, their men­strual cy­cle got in the way. Par­ents of­ten did not have the money to pay for san­i­tary nap­kins.

As for the schools, they were usu­ally short of pen­cils, note­books, ex­er­cise books, text­books, black­boards and chalk. Classes were of­ten held in the open air. You may ask: with­out sta­tionery how did they write? They wrote in the dirt with their fore­fin­ger! Of course, the writ­ing didn’t stay very long vis­i­ble; it got blown away by the wind or was wiped out by rain. Stu­dents needed an un­com­mon sense of re­call.

Ar­ranged mar­riages are com­mon­place among the tribes. Mar­riages are based on how much cat­tle a suitor can af­ford. In some com­mu­ni­ties tod­dlers wear tribal neck­laces to in­di­cate they have been taken. The num­ber of neck­laces around the necks of young girls tells when they are old enough to get mar­ried, usu­ally to much older men. The girls have no say in the mat­ter.

I started out say­ing how ad­vanced was the cap­i­tal of Kenya but re­ally it’s no heaven. Hustlers are ev­ery­where try­ing to sell pi­rated DVDs, flow­ers, fruit, hand-carved crafts, an­i­mal feed, even rab­bits, kit­tens and pup­pies in boxes. The items don’t be­long to the ven­dors. Rather they be­long to peo­ple who are the equal of slave own­ers. If a ven­dor falls short of his or her sales quota, there is usu­ally a heavy price to pay: in some cases bro­ken limbs. Many of th­ese dis­abled for­mer ven­dors are aban­doned to beg on the streets for sur­vival, usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by a poor rel­a­tive still able to see.

I will al­ways cher­ish the time I lived in Nairobi. I learned there to be grate­ful for things most peo­ple might take for granted. I learned to do with­out. At a young age I was priv­i­leged to wit­ness how hard life can be. I feel sorry for peo­ple who have a hun­dred times as much as the tribes­men I met in Kenya yet have no idea what­so­ever how lucky they are.

Their cat­tle, sheep and goats are held in high re­gard by Nairobi’s Ma­sai tribe.

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