When I was in middle school in Nairobi, Kenya, I was a member of the boy scouts, and our scout master would take us on field trips to remote rural areas in Kenya, so that we boys, who lived in the urban capital of Nairobi, would gain an insight into how rural African communities lived.
At the age of ten, I started to understand for the first time, that a ‘school’ is not always necessarily a building with classrooms that have desks and chairs and a blackboard. Sometimes, a school in a rural area in Kenya, just as with rural schools in the United States, is simply a one-room schoolhouse. Sometimes, as with the schools I witnessed on my boy scout excursions, a school is simply a large tree under the shade of which the schoolchildren and their teacher create a classroom learning atmosphere. Moreover, sometimes, as with many of the children my age that I saw in the rural areas, ten year old children do not have the opportunity to attend school, and instead, they herd goats, or help their parents in the ‘shamba’ (small cultivation farm plantations).
My friend Simon lived on a shamba with his family in the rural Rift Valley province of Kericho.
Simon was a good soccer player and that is how we first met – on the soccer field.
My scout master brought us to rural farm plantations and introduced us to a local community of Kenyan farmers not far from where my scout master himself had grown up. After receiving a warm welcome and delicious African snacks and mango juice from members of the entire community, from small children to grandparents; the dads in the community recommended that all of us boys play in a soccer match on the dusty red ochre soccer field near their thatched roofed hut homes.
The dads in the rural village organized the soccer match, and the local boys, and us city boys who were in the boy scouts, began to play. A few minutes into our soccer game, our scout master interrupted the match and summoned us boy scouts toward him. He asked us this question:
“Do you think this soccer playing field is a level playing field?”
All of us boy scouts were baffled at his question. We gazed at the very even soccer field and then responded unanimously to our scout master that yes, it was indeed a level playing field.
“No,” grimaced our scout master, “You are wrong boys. This is not at all a level playing field. But you can make it level, if you want to.”
“How?” we all asked our scout master eagerly.
“By taking off your shoes and socks,” he responded, “So that you can play soccer barefoot the same as these local boys in Kericho.”
It was a lesson that I shall never forget.
It is a lesson that I discuss regularly to this very day with the Pencils for Africa Team during our weekly meetings: How can we initiate and nurture a level playing field between students in California and students in Africa? How can we build open dialogue and real understanding on common ground? How can we authentically build a sense of global community and friendship?
I have happy memories spending many a weekend or summer holiday with Simon and his family in rural Kenya. Although Simon and his siblings could competently read and write, none of them had any formal education and did not attend regular school. Nevertheless, to me at least, Simon, just like James Lekaada, whom I have referred to as ‘The Smartest Man I Know“, and who the Pencils for Africa Editorial Team have Skyped with for over two years now, was very smart.
Simon cared deeply about environmental issues and was ecologically mindful, as he grew into manhood, to practice progressive farming methods in his local village. Although he had no formal schooling, he was a handy, self-taught veterinarian, zoologist, botanist and horticulturalist.
What I most cherish about spending time with Simon and his family, was their deep love of community, embodied in the African spirit of ‘Ubuntu’, or ‘oneness’. Simon and his family nurtured and cultivated their family and local community, as attentively as they nurtured and cultivated the fertile arable soil in their shamba. Having dinner with Simon and his family usually meant at least three hours of wonderful stories, as well as deep discussions about Nature and the Environment, thoughtful exchanges of ideas, profound insights of wisdom, and lots of spontaneous laughter.
Years later, as a young adult, when I revisited Simon and his family, they proudly discussed at dinnertime, the accomplishments of ‘one of their own’, environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
Not far from where Simon and his family lived, in the Rift Valley province of Nyeri, in the tiny village of Ihithe, a young girl called Wangari had grown up in a community very similar to Simon’s.
This young girl, Wangari, from this small shamba village in Kenya, went on to receive scholarships to a high school in Nairobi, the University of Nairobi and the University of Pittsburgh. Her love of the environment and her passion for the rights of African girls and women grew into a robust activism, embodied in founding the Green Belt Movement. In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”.
Today we face a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.
Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.
— Wangari Maathai
What sprouts up in rural communities like Wangari’s, and like Simon’s, sprouts up and blossoms throughout Kenya, and throughout the entire length and breath of the African continent.
It is the rich growth of community wealth creation. It is what we might term a ‘Wealth of Wisdom’.
We don’t always think of ‘wisdom’ as a precious resource or commodity of value, in the same way that we might think of knowledge, or technical skill, or industrialization. We tend to restrict what we consider to be ‘smart’ when viewing the African continent, to that which is economically valuable and profitable. However, if he opened up our minds to that which is viable, vital and vibrant in terms of a sense of understanding, a sense of ‘Ubuntu’ in communities, we might then receive an insight into the profound ‘Wealth of Wisdom’ with which the African continent is richly endowed.
Sometimes, that community Wealth of Wisdom sprouts and blossoms, and is clothed in a PhD, and in a professorship, and even goes on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, as with Wangari Maathai.
However, Wangari Maathai was always the very first to claim that hers was never an individual accomplishment but a community distinction. Wangari Maathai, in the very core of her African being, was a reflection of the magnificent tapestry of Ubuntu that shines resplendent throughout so many rural shamba communities in Africa, such as my friend Simon’s rural shamba community.
Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.
— Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
When I think of African communities such as Simon’s, I am reminded that his community’s Wealth of Wisdom, is yearned for in so many other communities around the world, including communities here in the United States. In his recent book, Tribe, the author Sebastian Junger describes qualities similar to African Ubuntu, such as the values ‘intrinsic to human happiness’ derived from a need to feel authentic and connected. Ubuntu also means authenticity and connectedness.
What I most admire about my friend Simon is that although he could easily have gone to school with this parents’ blessing and full support, Simon chose not to do so. Simon believed that it was necessary for him to sacrifice his educational opportunities in order to work hard as a member of his shamba family and community, in an era when the rural farming culture was losing too many Kenyan youth to the urban areas. His larger vision was to support the endangered values of Ubuntu and restorative rural community in his country. Simon’s deeply held sense of duty and sacrifice compelled him to become a farm apprentice as a young boy, and then to work the farmland throughout his manhood, to honor the long tradition of his Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.
I am very conscious of the fact that you can’t do it alone. It’s teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it.
— Wangari Maathai
It was important for Simon that his family, community and tribal farming traditions should not die out, but continue to live and to thrive. Simon put his family and community and country first.
Making such a noble and visionary sacrifice is, to me, what makes my friend Simon really smart.
How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
— Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging