Mark standing next to a termite mound near Turkwel Gorge Dam, Kenya, March 3, 1996
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I first arrived in Kenya at the age of 27, three objectives were given to me by George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation: (1) Meet with two local conservation groups in the region around Saiwa Swamp National Park to see if their conservation work — and the location — were suitable for hosting a regional crane and wetland conservation workshop; (2) look for opportunities to promote and support crane and wetland conservation efforts in the local communities; and (3) deliver $1,000 cash to the leader of a local wetland conservation group who won a conservation grant from a U.S.-based organization.
Other than my directive from George, and 10 $100 bills folded up in a hidden pocket inside my belt, I had the names of two conservation group leaders, two pages of notes that I wrote during a phone conversation with a German scientist who had worked in the area, and a reservation to stay in a tent for a few months at Sirikwa Safaris, also known as Barnley’s Guest House. Where I was going, addresses were not helpful. My only hope was to make my way to the village, and then ask around until I found the people I hoped to meet. I packed field clothes, a water filter, a sleeping bag, hiking boots, mosquito netting, a guitar, the Lonely Planet Kenya (Travel Guide), and a copy of Blaine Harden’s Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.
I also carried a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions about Africa and Africans. Like so many Peace Corps volunteers and other aid workers before me, I arrived with the best intentions, but I was clueless. I had no idea what to expect or what the locals expected of me. During the long journey from Chicago–Miami–Johannesburg–Nairobi, I read most of Blaine’s book, which provided a glimmer of insight about what to expect in Africa. Thanks in part to Blaine, I didn’t arrive with the attitude of a great savior who had come to show the locals the errors of their ways. If anything, my thoughts upon touching down in Kenya were along the lines of, “How in the hell did I end up here?”
As I deplaned in Nairobi, I experienced the typical culture shock of any first-time visitor to Africa. After checking in at my basic hotel, I walked the streets in search of a bus terminal where I could purchase a ticket to Kitale for the next morning. The next day, I had my first taste of African roads. The 238-mile journey took over 12 hours to complete—and that was just to Kitale! Next, I had to track down the correct matatu in a chaotic sea of trucks, cars, and people. There were no signs or anything to put my mind at ease. As I climbed into the covered truck bed of an unmarked pickup truck, I had to rely on blind faith that the matatu directors understood where I was trying to go. My first matatu didn’t disappoint. It was a real eye-opener.
Finally, 14 hours after leaving the bus terminal in Nairobi, I was deposited with my luggage at the end of the long driveway that enters the little oasis of Sirikwa Safaris. It was a relief—not only because I had arrived at my destination but because I had not taken the opportunity to pee since I left Nairobi. (I was too afraid to separate from my luggage.) I was feeling ill by the time I climbed off the matatu. As soon as the truck pulled away, I found a bush and gave my bladder a chance to experience the feeling of heavenly bliss.
I gathered my belongings and lumbered down the road until I was greeted by the owner Jane Barnley, along with her three Jack Russell terriers—Pip, Wig, and Dick. After a few minutes of saying hello, I staggered to my tent and was out like a light.
There are many stories I could tell about my mishaps while trying to assess and implement conservation projects in rural Africa. One of the best examples of “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, can be found in Blaine Harden’s book.
Blaine describes a well-intentioned Norwegian project to construct a frozen-fish plant on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya to help the local Turkana people survive through the inevitable cycles of drought. The Turkana people primarily herd cattle, goats, sheep, and camels in an extremely hot and desolate semi-desert region. It’s a tough gig, particularly during periods of drought, which are common in the region.
The Norwegian plan was to take advantage of the natural resources within Lake Turkana and build a frozen-fish plant on its shore. The assumption was that a shift towards fishing would help the stressed soil and vegetation regenerate from excessive grazing, and the Turkana people would earn an income from the abundant perch and tilapia resources in the lake. This line of thinking was bolstered by a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ study that concluded, “No solution of the Turkana problem is possible by which all the people can continue their traditional way of life.” In other words, fish were the solution to the Turkana problem.
Since Norway was experienced in commercial fishing, the Kenyan government asked Norway to help the Turkana become fisherman. Norway’s development agency agreed, and volunteers started to arrive in Kenya in the early 1970s.
The Norwegians brought 20 fishing boats and a team of consultants to determine the best way to maximize fish profits. The consultant team concluded that the best option was to spend $2.2 million to build a facility on Lake Turkana, which would produce frozen-fish fillets that the Turkana people could sell in Kenya and abroad. The Norwegians built the facility and helped construct a $20.8 million road that connected the frozen-fish plant with Kenya’s highway system.
The project failed spectacularly for several reasons. First, the cost to chill the fish in the furnace-like heat of the region was higher than the value of the fish fillets. Second, there wasn’t enough clean water in the area to support the operation. And then there’s the minor detail that the Turkana don’t like fishing. For the Turkana, livestock are everything. They have a deep-rooted belief that they are born to tend livestock. The Turkana live off the blood, milk, and meat of cows, goats, camels, and donkeys. They don’t have a taste for fish. From the perspective of the Turkana, to become a fisherman is to become an outcast from the tribe.
Whoops. This kind of thing happens when modern Western thinking clashes with different perceptions held in remote corners of the world. Well-intentioned people from developed nations often carry an assumption that the locals in these remote areas are uneducated and don’t know what’s best for them. From my travels to remote parts of the world, I have learned again and again that “uneducated” does not mean “stupid.”
For the Lake Turkana project, the assumption was that the Turkana people would unwittingly destroy the rangelands they depend upon since they didn’t know any better. In addition, there was the incorrect assumption that, once fishing became a viable option, the locals would be eager to abandon the lowly, nomadic life of shepherding cattle. This perspective was incorrect.
After the failed fish-plant project, experts have come to recognize that livestock shepherds like the Turkana use sophisticated techniques to conserve their land. The nomadic Turkana quickly move to areas with fresh, green grass. As a result, studies found that African herdsmen can extract four times as much protein and six times as much food energy per hectare from dry rangelands compared to modern commercial ranches in places like the arid regions of Australia.
Rangeland practices aside, the most obvious failure was that the well-intentioned aid groups didn’t take enough time to understand and empathize with the people they were trying to help. After the failed project, the aid workers finally asked the Turkana what they knew and what they wanted. It quickly became clear that livestock were the key to survival for the Turkana people. The aid groups accepted that reality, switched gears, and came up with a new strategy to hire a livestock adviser and an arid-land forestry expert, and invest in initiatives to prevent animal disease. This was a much better approach. The hardscrabble life of a nomadic cattle shepherd may sound unappealing to most of us, but that’s the life the Turkana people wanted to pursue.
Having read this case study before I stepped off the plane in Nairobi, this lesson was firmly etched in my mind. I was ready to observe, listen, and learn from the local population before offering any suggestions about the best path forward for crane and wetland conservation in the region.
In practice, I was far from perfect in adhering to this philosophy. My experiences with myths about cameras and bleeding didn’t inspire my confidence in the levels of scientific and technical knowledge of the local community. But, when it came to farming and knowledge of the local environment, the local people were the experts and I was the student.
During that time, I made a conscious decision to “lead from the back.” This phrase comes from a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front.” There are times when it makes sense to lead from the front, and there are times when it makes sense to lead from the back. In this case, the others were already so far in front of me that leading from the back sounded like a darn good idea. I wasn’t completely worthless out there, but it sure felt like it at times.
I added value by creating formal project plans and proposals that caught the eye of Western donors, and I had a few helpful conservation ideas as well. But I always did my best to ensure that any proposed solution would come from the mouth of a local Kenyan and not my own. I also did my best to avoid implementing anything that would cut into the meager salary of the local population. Many of the people I met and worked with were subsistence farmers, scraping by on a salary of around $250 ... per year.
Towards the end of my stay in the boonies of Kenya, I had the unusual opportunity to visit a Turkana market that forms each month in the middle of nowhere on a desolate patch of ground in northwest Kenya. Jane Barnley wanted to show me the market since it was like going to a living museum. Pip, Wig, and Dick hopped in the back, and I hopped in the passenger seat for the three-hour journey (each way) to the site of the market, somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar.
Pip, Wig, and Dick are ready for a road trip to somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar
We drove through some of the most spectacularly desolate landscapes that I’ve ever seen. There were very few signs of life other than desert plants and massive termite mounds that towered over my head (see cover photo for this post). Occasionally a person or two would seemingly pop out of nowhere, such as children tending to their goats (pictured below). Here are a few photos of the region.
Eventually we made our way to the area where Jane believed the market would form, but we started to doubt ourselves given the lack of any signs of life. We continued down the road and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of people who looked as if they had just hopped off the pages of National Geographic magazine. This was the Turkana market. The Turkana people were dressed in traditional clothing and animal skins with lots of colorful beads, bracelets, and ear plugs. They carried spears, knives, bows and arrows, stools, woven baskets, and staves. I desperately wanted to take photos but felt uneasy about it. I wasn’t sure how the Turkana perceived photo-taking. To this day, it’s the #1 moment that I regret not capturing on film. But, given all of the visible weapons that were on display, I’m okay with my decision. Jane and I were the only mzungus in sight, and we received plenty of curious glances; there was no need to attract more attention.
The market formed in an area with no buildings or infrastructure other than the road. Jane explained that the market forms for a day or two, and then vanishes as the nomadic Turkana disappear back into the desert.
It was an amazing sight that I’ll never forget. As I scanned the area, I could see a lot of cattle and goats that the Turkana use for milk, blood, meat, and currency. There were no fishing poles or fish products in sight.
Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.