|After ten years at CSUB, Prof. Jim Meriwether is spending the academic year at the University of Nairobi in Kenya on a Fulbright Fellowship before he takes up a new position at CSU Channel Islands next fall. Below he shares some reflections on his experience in Kenya.
While I intended to let the department newsletter move forward without news of former professors far afield, Professor Vivian has a remarkable ability to cajole across vast distances. So, for those interested in some news from Kenya, read on.
In early August my family and I arrived in Nairobi to begin my year-long Fulbright fellowship at the University of Nairobi. We arrived in time for our youngest daughter to start the new school year at the International School of Kenya, and because the university term didn't start until late September, this also allowed some time for settling in -- a rather intensive job when moving a family to a different city in a different country with just two suitcases each.
When the university term started, it took weeks for students to start attending class. One hears a range of reasons for this, but mostly people just accept that as the way it is. Only in the third week did students start trickling in, trickle being the key word. The history department here has fallen on hard times, with few majors and barely any more minors. As of this writing, my class has stabilized at ... three students. Only classes with zero students get dropped (the case with a different professor's class); believe it or not, my class is about average in size.
While this is most unfortunate, and helping to remedy this has become an unexpected part of my time here, it has allowed for time to research and write, time much harder to find when teaching a full load. My Fulbright Fellowship is for lecturing and research, so I have time to work on some articles and my next book (on the U.S. and the decolonization of Africa).
It also leaves time for other activities, such as traveling to different parts of Kenya -- the country ranges from equatorial beaches to snow-capped Mt. Kenya -- and exploring Nairobi a bit. Some of our most interesting, and difficult, outings are into the slums of Nairobi. Through a circuitous connection we found ourselves helping the Hari Krsnas, who every day of the week cook up large vats of food -- typically rice and beans -- and take it to a different designated place. Wednesdays, for example, are always Kibera (the largest and hence most well-known of the slums); Sunday is always the industrial slum. The hot food is put in large containers (think Gatorade dispensers at football games), loaded onto a truck, and driven to the distribution site, where the rice and beans are ladled out.
The feeding program has been structured to target children, I'd say mostly between ages 3 to 9 (95% or so). With the exception of a couple of vagrants, there was not an adult in sight. The first time we made the trip when we arrived the children were waiting at the corner where the truck turns onto the street where the distribution takes place, and when they caught sight of the truck they started cheering and running to meet and then follow the truck. You would have thought it was something concocted in the movies, but it wasn't.
The children line up with whatever container they might have. I think that broke my heart more than the tattered clothes and dirty bodies. Most children had nothing but a cruddy plastic bag, no more substantial than the one you might put your apples into at the supermarket, to hold out for the rice and beans. Some had small containers (think bottom of a large butter/margarine tub); a few had something more substantial. The children are allowed to go through the line up to three times: to eat once, to eat seconds, and to take home some food for others in the family or, if they have no family, for themselves later (it was entirely unclear to me how many of these kids were orphans and/or living on the streets, but my impression was that a large proportion are). The "extra" food may be why older kids and adults don't crash the distribution, but I'm not sure. All told, I'd say 400-500 children were fed. It took 30-40 minutes to ladle out the food, load the truck, and head back to the Hari Krishna temple. As my wife said afterwards, think what you might about the Hari Krsnas, with this they are doing something good and meaningful.
I'm always reluctant to dwell on negative images of Africa, for that is mostly what we get in the Western media. My guess is that there has been little coverage of Kenya's impending presidential elections (to be held on December 27), with three leading contenders battling it out. Perhaps there's just no room for such news when the U.S. presidential elections is only . . . eleven months away! (In fairness, I suppose that the lack of interest is somewhat reciprocated here: little interest in the U.S. elections, even less interest in the Iraq war, and forget American football.)
I know there is next to nothing in the news about the warmth of the people, and their willingness to drop most everything to help you sort out a problem, which brings me to a final episode in our time here. Less than two weeks after arriving, while driving through a dark and unfamiliar neighborhood late on a Saturday night, we had a flat tire. No less than a dozen people came to help us -- some to help find the appropriate size of "spanner," some to help change the "tyre," others to watch over the "wazungus" new to their country. These are the types of stories that don't easily translate, and yet to me define much of what is good about Africa, where there is a humanity and connectedness that doesn't always come out as strong in the West. While there very clearly is not the same level of Western-style efficiency here, the general ethos puts other people, not one's work and efficiency, on a higher plane. Those who might dismiss Africa as a mess run the risk of dismissing all the good that one witnesses in daily life here. Indeed, one then risks many of the valuable lessons the people here unknowingly teach as they go about their daily lives.