Traveling to Africa is an adventure of the human spirit and an awakening of what we can do as people to make a difference in the lives and well-being of others. As most people remark, when in Africa, it is the natural light that envelops you and ultimately that makes you want to go back. From the time it comes up over the horizon, and lights up the skies, trees and land, you feel more alive and energized than you have in a while. You realize we live in a world filled with artificial light from the time we wake up in the morning to ultimately when we go to sleep at night. This is not true in Africa.
A few months ago, I was asked by First Peoples Worldwide (FPW), an organization based just outside of Washington D.C., to participate in an Indigenous Roundtable in Africa where participants from Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the United States, Canada and Asia would meet and discuss innovations in mapping, protection of lifestyles, and Indigenous community-driven models for management of lands and resources. The Roundtable would be the third one, and was sponsored by the World Bank, and co-ordinated by FPW. I was not sure at first if Africa was in my immediate horizon, but after the managing director, Neva Adamson, said it was important for people from developing nations to hear what could be achieved by Indigenous communities elsewhere, I agreed to go. It did not take me long to realize that it was a good decision.
It started with a seemingly endless amount of needles and medicines I needed to have before going in order to protect me against a number of diseases not present in our society but still life-threatening in Africa. You ask yourself, why is it that any diseases that are preventable or treatable are still life-threatening in any part of the world? So, when you pack, you bring extra medicines that are readily available in North America but might be difficult to acquire in Africa. You also bring extra clothes, hats and presents to give to people. You want to leave Africa with much lighter luggage than when you arrived.
We began our journey by arriving late at night with a long and not uneventful plane ride from London to Nairobi. From the airport, we quickly had our three-month visas stamped and were driven to the Methodist Guest House for the night. Most of the Kenyan people are of varying Christian faiths, so many denominations have their own facilities in order that members from around the world can come and do outreach work there. What was surprising was we had to drive through two security gates with guards to get into the guesthouse area. Because of the high level of poverty in this part of Africa, crime is a major concern throughout the country but even more so in large cities like Nairobi. It was also interesting that the day before we arrived, the United Nations and Amnesty International had issued reports on the corruption, violence and violations of human rights going on in Kenya for the last year and a half. In reality, it is like going to any developing nation, you must be aware of your surroundings at all times, but it should not stop you from going as there is so much it can teach you about the situation of others and about yourself.
At seven in the morning, we loaded up our bags on the top of the bus we would be taking a five-and-a-half-hour ride across Kenya to arrive at the Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve where our Roundtable meetings would take place. A good portion of our journey took us through the Rift Valley, which is also known as the cradle of civilization as it has some of the oldest known settlements and gatherings of people. The beauty is inescapable and the feeling of being somewhere special never leaves you. Although this is an area known for being one of the oldest parts of civilization, there is nothing that would make you think of what we know in North America as civilization. So, if there was more time for development to occur and a higher standard of living to evolve, why did it occur in our society and not theirs?
The journey across Kenya in a bus was essential to getting a perspective of the landscape of Africa and an understanding of the people. It was remarkable that each time we passed a child or an adult, whether they were in fields, along the road or in doorways, they would stop and wave with big smiles as we drove by. The generosity of spirit and acknowledgment of us the people displayed repeatedly throughout the trip was incredible. In our world, we might see their opportunities in life as extremely limited, and their life expectancy as not good, yet they took life in around them with this sense of happiness.
The meetings and discussions were eye-opening. It became apparent immediately that the groups present at the Roundtable were doing incredible things with little money. The average project was sponsored at a cost of between $1500-$2000. When you looked at the statistics to how much money is directed to Aide organizations in the world for operations, and how little supports Indigenous or community-based initiatives, it is incredible. So, the efforts of First Peoples Worldwide and the Locally Managed Marine Area (LLMA) Network effectively help fund many community-based and Indigenous groups to help to achieve local management of areas of importance whether marine or land based. Many of the groups they support do not have any funding sources so the money goes an incredibly long way to developing capacity, and this is coupled with the creation of a network of expertise for these communities to draw upon.
Some of the participants at the Roundtable have never been out of their forest so everything was new to them. An Elder had the most interesting sayings. When we were having with trouble with our bus, he said well maybe it is time to eat. In his culture, cows provide transportation so when one cannot go on then they gather and kill it and have a feast. So, in essence he was saying if the bus was not working then we needed to kill it, take what was good from inside and move on by foot. During the discussions, he would also say he needed time to digest the words we were feeding him as not all were sitting well yet in his stomach.
On the last day, FPW asked each of the African groups to make a presentation and then decide between themselves how to divide up an additional pot of money they had in the amount of $12,000. In the end, there were eight presentations made, and a series of discussions on as how to best allocate the money amongst themselves. A group from the Congo stated that when they killed an elephant that they would split all of the meat among the whole village, and since this was like an elephant of cash, they should do the same. In the end, they did split the money, and FPW raised the amount to $16,000 to make it even $2000 among all the participant groups.
The reaction to this news was incredible as each Indigenous group there then took turns singing and dancing to celebrate that they would return home to their people with something to make a difference in their lives. Peter Poole, who organized the logistics of the Roundtable from within Kenya, was able to get Rebecca Adamson, the founder of FPW, on the phone to listen to the celebration as they sang to her in thanks. It was a good end to days of discussions on projects and work done by all the participants. As a further bonus, when the groups requested FPW to establish a network to continue to raise funds for these groups in Africa, Neva Adamson stated that her organization would absolutely be a part of creating such a network.
The most profound realization during this trip was that it does not take much money to make a huge difference in Third World countries and in people’s lives there. The First Peoples Worldwide contributes a few $100,000 U.S. a year in grants to Indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America. If the Cree Nation were to engage in a global outreach initiative to other Indigenous groups in the world, it would not cost us much to make a huge impact in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America. Organizations like FPW and LLMA Network can share their knowledge to help establish similar foundations for grant programs like the ones that they run. While hundreds of millions of dollars may be spent each year in the Third World, most Indigenous groups have little to no access to these or other funds.
Besides the Roundtable, there were many other adventures associated with this trip to Africa. We went on safari, and had lions and other wild animals every night outside of our tents or accommodations. Most of us ended up getting sick at some point while on the trip. We waded across rivers when our bus could not cross with us, and would get drenched in monsoon rains in the late afternoons. Through all of this we would take the attitude that it was okay because “This is Africa”.