I have a master’s degree in anthropology from one of the most prestigious graduate programs in anthropology in the country. I don’t say that to brag, but simply to set the context for what I now believe about the notion of “human nature.” In anthropological academic circles, there is no such thing as human nature. Human behavior, language, thought and even moral and ethical standards of right and wrong are dependent on the cultural, economic, political, sociological and environmental conditions of a given people, at a given place, at a given point in time. That represents in a nutshell about 150 years of anthropological theory.
But I now think there may be a nature to being human, and if so, it’s called greed. Kenya is one of the “shining stars” of Africa because of its perceived prosperity. But here is what passes for prosperity: Seventy-seven percent of Kenyans live without electricity. Two percent of high school graduates in Kenya go to university (and that 2 percent is drawn from the roughly 10 percent of children who go to high school). Three quarters of the population make do on about 50 cents per day.
But members of Parliament here are the highest paid per capita elected officials in the world and make, at 1 million Kenyan shillings per month, 100 times more per month than the average secretary. When a tank of gas costs more than half of your monthly salary, its obvious why most secretaries don’t own vehicles here.
But I have never seen so many Mercedes, Land Cruisers and Prados — even after living in Steamboat Springs for 25 years — as I see any day of the week in Nairobi. I even saw a very new, very shiny BMW the other day with United Nations license plates. Seems to me the U.N. needs to look at its image here in this “developing country.” If it can’t cut out the high-end luxury cars and even the unnecessarily rugged vehicles for driving around in what, in spite of all its problems, is still the urban and paved Nairobi environment, the U.N. could, at the very least, require carpooling among its employees. I wonder if most of them are even aware of the real conditions of the people here in real Kenya.
Everyone wants to help; that’s for sure. But for most, confronting the actual living condition of the people they want to help, or in anthropological terms “going native,” is inconceivable. Now I understand why people at home often mistake that I’m on some kind of long-term holiday safari when I am in Kenya because “safari” is what most non-Kenyan people’s lives are like here.
This, while people with severe crippling disabilities and street children who eat from other people’s garbage get by on the few shillings, couple of bananas or small packet of milk that far too few passers-by are willing to give them. I read in an editorial the other day that infrastructure improvements in a country like Kenya go against the interests of the rich and powerful and that this is why they have little chance of implementation. The wealthy and influential have what they need. They have the vehicles needed so that deteriorating roads are simply an inconvenience and not a concrete barrier to their health and livelihood. They have generators to shield them from the ever-more-frequent blackouts. Their children can go to the finest Kenyan private schools or abroad in England or Canada, and they have storage tanks for purchased deliveries of clean water whenever they desire. But as one of the girls said to me once, “I don’t think God intended for people to sell water.”
Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safe house for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.