Wiki yangu na Kenya

My week spent in Kenya was amazing and profound, yet I find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe my time there.” I have been told that I am not a good storyteller. Details of the stories I tell that seem crucial to me turn out to be utterly unimportant to others, often causing them to lose interest and miss the significance of my experiences. Upon my return from a week-long study abroad trip to Kenya, I was asked all the predictable questions that one receives after a travel excursion: What did you do? How was it? Did you love it? Will you return? Can you tell me more about your trip? These are the questions that I cannot answer…how do I summarize a week’s worth of moments into interesting, well-constructed narratives that completely capture the beauty and wealth of knowledge I learned while away?

The truth is I can’t, so I don’t,  leaving both me and my friends unsatisfied. So when my professor who led the trip to Kenya reminded us of our living dictionary assignment, my plan began to take form. The Living Dictionary assignment was to select words in Swahili and translate them to English and turn in that list of words we had collected while there. Nelson, who started the camp and worked tirelessly to coordinate our trip and helped me translate the words for my Living Dictionary. This is not a commonly used phrase – in the United States or otherwise, so it took Nelson a minute to compose it. My mind starting whirling as to how I could take the assignment and make it into an art project. I realized that each day of my trip could be summarized into two Swahili words, and those words could tell the stories of my trip, along with accompanying the artwork.

While I was in Kenya, I chose nine words and phrases to tell the stories of my experience. Then I created images to accompany the words using different art mediums. These phrases and words were translated for me by the people I met while I was in Kenya. I found it liberating to express my experiences through creativity, and then use those art pieces to tell a story of my time abroad. Organizing my thoughts through the words and pictures ordered the information I shared. Reflecting on my week in Kenya, I knew there was some core knowledge I had observed while there that left an impact on me, I wanted to leave an impact with this art.

Kamuzu ambayo ni hai “Living Dictionary”

The watercolor is inspired specifically by an image from the safari we took; however, it also represents the vibrancy of color in the Kenyan landscape. We spent a majority of our time in Kenya out in the Maasai Mara, which is about four hours from Nairobi. There we stayed at Oldarpoi Camp, a sustainable tourism camp run by the community for the community. On the safari, I saw animals in their environment and on their own terms. The land and animals there are demonstrating an authentic ecosystem, something I have never seen firsthand before. My lion and elephant viewing could be confined to the zoo, but the safari was the antithesis of the zoo. There were no glass windows separating the animals from the observer, nor regularly scheduled feeding times. It was as if I stepped into a city where the skyscrapers were trees and sidewalks were flowers and bushes. Like any great city my presence did not interrupt its typical course, nor will my individual presence ever be remembered by the occupants. The natural beauty of this place never failed to leave an impression on me.

Moja & Billie (Mbili) “One” & “Two”

The image I chose to depict these words was inspired by all of the nights I spent looking out from the window above my bed. I could always see the milky way, and it was an unreal, magical sight that I have never been able to appreciate while in the States. Looking up at the universe I saw light and contrast that I cannot name or begin to understand. I could not tell you why stars burn in the night or the difference between celestial planets, but that does not mean I cannot appreciate it. I ended each day in Kenya grateful and full of love for all that I had seen and learned, even if I had not yet begun to process it. Like this trip, those evenings staring at the expanse was a singular experience The highlight of my evening was when I picked out Orion’s belt, a constellation made of three stars. It was so clear and easy to pick out that I wanted to add it into this piece.

On our first day in Kenya, as we were driving out to the Mara, we stopped on the side of the road at a shop. There, I met Joseph, who taught me how to count in Swahili. This is the first of many instances where my English ears did not hear or understand the nuances of the language. Two in Swahili is spelled “mbili,” but to my ears, it always sounded like “billie.” Language was an important tool to use when making a connection with others in Kenya. I often did not speak the same language as them, but something I have found to be true everywhere, in the United States and Kenya, was that others are eager to teach. Never once did I ask how to say or spell something in Swahili and the response was “No.” Each time, the person gleefully and patiently waited with me as I stumbled over sounds trying to repeat what they were teaching me. Not only did I learn Swahili words from this, but I learned the power of teaching and how it provides connection and bonds with humans.

Sawa Sawa & Twende “Ok? Ok!” & “Let’s go!”

During our trip, Sam and Joel not only drove us all over the country but also became our friends and guides. They fearlessly leading us all over the Mara through a safari. They knew so much about the creatures we were seeing. They knew where they would spend time and were able to find the best spots for viewing. Whenever we would stop to look at an animal, Sam would ask us, “Ok?” and we would all respond “Ok!” letting him know we were ready to move on. Sam was an expert driver and wild animal spotter as we witnessed many animals such as lions, giraffes, zebras, and warthogs in their natural habitat.

Much of the way people make money is through tourism, and often the safaris and the promise of animals is what brings the tourists. In order to see the animals up close, it is vital that you respect and understand their patterns and habits.

Sopa & Asanti (Asante)“Hi” “Hey” Hello” & “Thank you”

A majority of people that I met while in Kenya were able to speak three languages: English, Swahili, and their local dialect. We were staying in the Maasai lands where they speak Maa, which is that region’s local language. A common greeting for them is “Sopa” or hello. When we first arrived at the Oldarpoi camp, we were greeted by the people sharing their culture and traditions with us. They always warmly welcomed us with a friendly “Sopa”. When beginning to learn a new language it seems that some of the first phrases you pick up are how to welcome and how to be grateful. This made “Thank you” a vital phrase, and gratitude a universal concept, which is one of the most insightful realizations I had while in Kenya. I might not speak the same language as them, or fully understand their culture, but there are mutual understandings of humanity that persist across cultural boundaries. The sound of children laughing and playing is the same in any country. Friends teaching each other popular dances is the same in any country. Being grateful for life and connection is the same in any country. Asanti, or Asante as it is correctly spelled, was given freely and frequently during our time there. How could it not be? We had so much to be grateful for.

We we ni rafike yangu & Nakupenda“You are my friend” & “I love you”

On the first afternoon of our arrival in the Maasai Mara, we asked the warriors if they could show us around the camp. There was a village below where we stayed and as we were walking down the road the children were arriving home from school. We stopped and began to talk to these bright and inquisitive children. They drew their names in the dirt, as well as an outline of Kenya with a star where they lived. They wrote out long division problems with a stick to test my “college education”. The children giggled as they posed for photos and excitedly crowded the cameras. They opened their home, their lands, and their hearts to us without hesitation.

It was important to me that there was not a white savior mentality on this trip. I personally think that not only is the idea or concept of entering a foreign country and being a “savior” detrimental to the community, but also spreads this harmful to other Westerners considering trips to Africa. Dr. Stacy Moak and Dr. Tina Reuter, the professors who led this trip, ensured that we worked collaboratively with those in the community to provide them with the resources they needed. Change in a community does not come from a group of students visiting for one week. Members of the community are the true agents for change, and to have an opportunity to learn from them is an unforgettable experience. In many depictions of non-Western countries, the people are displayed in images of despair and poverty. This fuels the white savior complex but placing pity on these countries and the utmost need for a Westernized hero. Is there despair and poverty in Kenya? Yes. Is there despair and poverty in the United States? Yes. Regardless of where we are, considering what the photos you take and share are actually depicting is a measurable action you can take. Does the photo reflect the strength of the person? Does it treat humans in the photo as entertainment only? When someone is wanting to use imagery to advocate and empower for change, is the photo reflecting the true nature of its subject, or whatever sensationalized image will get the most emotional response?

I can’t speak to all the plights of the Kenyan people, nor can I summarize everyone who lives there within a week of being there; all I know is what I observed from my week-long trip: The people I met in Kenya are smart. They are curious. They are happy. They are resilient. Maybe if others had more opportunity to engage with non-Western worlds in an accurate and authentic way some of the negative mentalities and complexes surrounding how we view the rest of the world would begin to be transformed. I was fortunate to get physical proximity to the people of Kenya and the characteristics they exhibit, and hopefully, the visuals I shared will begin to give others a sort of pseudo-proximity to the humanity in all.

The Plastic Problem

A crushed water bottle lying on its side.
Crumpled. Source: Jesse Wagstaff, Creative Commons

The world is built to run on cycles.  The water-cycle.  The food-cycle.  The carbon-cycle.  The resources on Earth exist to be used and reused.  At some point, humanity lost sight of that, our eyes drawn to the concept of disposability.  Now we must face the consequences.

Think for a moment: when garbage day comes, how much trash have you collected?  If the millions of people who send their trash to landfills every week have as much as you, what does that look like?  It is important we remember that, after the garbage truck drives off into the distance, our bags of trash do not simply disappear from existence.  They must go somewhere, and they pile up.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  You have heard it before.  Place your plastic bottles and paper in the blue bin rather than the trash can.  Take shorter showers.  Unplug electronics when they are not being used.  This is often accepted as doing enough.  The sad truth is that this makes a very small dent in the pollution of our environment.

Background

Despite being aware of its impact on the planet, most of us cannot imagine day to day life without plastic.  However, the world has not always relied on plastic as we know it.  Though naturally derived plastics have been in use for ages, the first fully synthetic plastic was not developed until 1907.  In the 1930s, its use was common in aspects of the war such as military vehicles.  Since then, plastics have become increasingly commonplace and depended on in everyday life.  It is estimated that over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

Plastic does not decompose like other materials.  It is estimated that it takes at least 450 years to decompose but may never actually do so.  It shrinks and is often mistaken for food by animals or ends up in our water.  More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans due to litter and mismanaged trash that never even reaches a landfill.  According to the United Nations, it is possible that the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050 if something does not change.

We are constantly surrounded with promotions of the concept of “out with the old, in with the new.”  Replace clothes every time a new style gains popularity.  Replace technology as soon as newer models are released.  Perhaps this is why we are so comfortable with the concept of “disposable” products.  We have developed a frame of mind where the norm is to dispose and replace.  The results of this attitude have huge, negative impacts on the environment, and by extension, human beings.  In his TED talk, “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones sums it up perfectly: “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

Human Rights

The pollution of the environment is a human rights and public health issue.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 states that we have the right to a standard of living that supports our health and well-being.  The United Nations also recognizes many specific environmental rights.  For example, we have the right to “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.”  We also have the right to seek information regarding environmental issues and to “participate in public decision-making.” Plastic pollution is an increasing contributor to violations of the human rights of people all over the world; we have the right, as well as the responsibility, to be a part of the solution.

Landfills are a specific example of how plastic harms people.  Many items that end up there contain toxins that often leak in to water and soil and remain for years.  Problems can also be found when organic materials, such as food waste, are in landfills.  When they start to decompose in the middle of an enormous pile, they are deprived of oxygen and produce methane, a serious greenhouse gas that can become dangerously flammable.

Landfills also have a direct impact on the lives of entire communities.  As of 2003, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-represents the Ashurst/Bar Smith community (ABSCO) in a Title VI complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  ABSCO’s complaint is that the department has discriminated against the community, “by permitting the Stone’s Throw Landfill to open and expand its operations in their predominately (98%) Black community without conducting an assessment of the Landfill’s disparate and discriminatory social, economic, and health impacts on the majority-Black community.”  The landfill had been closed but was reopened in 2002.  Landfills are often placed near low-income, black communities, especially in Alabama.  Many members of the community can trace their family’s ownership of their land back many generations, such as Phyllis Gosa, whose great-grandparents bought the land as former slaves in the 1800s.  As decades have past, such families have been able to see the changes that have occurred since the start of the landfill.

The effects of Stone’s Throw Landfill reported by ABSCO include fear of toxic run-off polluting their water sources, health problems like cancer, respiratory problems, migraines, and dizziness, and gardens no longer producing food.  In the past, this community has been heavily self-reliant, using their own water sources and growing their food on their own land.  Due to the impacts of the landfill, they are now having pay significant costs to replace what their resources can no longer provide.  The EPA closed the complaint in 2017, but the problems continue.

This case is not unique.  Landfills pose daily threats to the health and well-being of people across the country, and yet they continue to grow.

A pile of old, worn down toothbrushes that have been thrown out.
Plastic Toothbrush Debris. Source: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program, Creative Commons

Legislation

The implementation of some large-scale efforts to decrease the use of plastics and their detriment to societies and the planet have increases as the world realizes the problem that plastic creates. China, who had been the world’s main destination for plastic recyclables until January, banned the import of plastic waste this year.  The European Commission has proposed a ban on nearly all single use plastics.  In 2016, France implemented of a “four-year phase out” of single use plastics such as cutlery and plates.  California banned single use plastic bags and began to require a ten-cent charge on recycled plastic bags in 2014, supporting the use of non-plastic bags for carrying purchases home from the store.  Nearly all of Hawaii’s highly populated cities have banned non-biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags that are made from less than 40% recycled material.

However, the United States as a whole has a lot of catching up to do.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we produced 258 million tons of solid waste, and 136 millions of those tons were sent to landfills.  Multiple states, including Michigan, have gone so far as to ban plastic bag bans.  They have prohibited the creation of legislation that regulates “the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.”  Supporters of this law often consider themselves to be protecting businesses from having to make changes that disturb regular operations.  The question is whether or not it is worth it.  Is it worth accepting the harm caused by plastic bags in order to prevent businesses from being inconvenienced?

What We Can Do

While the average person cannot do very much about the landfills that already exist, we can help by not adding to them and limiting our waste.  Half of all plastic that is produced is only meant to be used once.  This leads to an enormous amount of plastic destined for landfills, even if we disregard any that could potentially be recycled.  Cling wrap.  Candy bar wrappers.  Ziploc bags.  The list goes on.

A lot of it (if not all of it) is completely unnecessary.  Take it from Lauren Singer.  She has minimized her waste production to the point of being able to fit all the trash she could not compost or recycle from four years of her life into a single mason jar.  She promotes the “zero waste” lifestyle through many different media, such as her blog, Trash Is For Tossers.  According to Singer, being zero waste means to “…not produce any garbage.  No sending anything to the landfill, no throwing anything into a trash can…”

How does she do it?  Through her blog, Singer has offered a lot of information on how to work towards living a zero waste life.  For example, to replace plastic toothbrushes, she recommends opting for a bamboo one, which can be composted when the bristles are removed.  Instead of buying all-purpose household cleaner, she suggests making your own, which is often cheaper and healthier for you to use.  Additionally, single use menstrual hygiene products can be replaced with washable and reusable options, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.

Many people who are part of the zero waste community abide by the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.

The Five Rs

1) Refuse.  Do your best not to accept things that are unnecessary or that will end up being thrown away.  Before accepting that free pen, think twice about how much you actually need another one.

2) Reduce.  Try decreasing the amount of stuff you bring home, especially if you are only going to use it once.  Consider buying products that have multiple uses and/or can be bought in bulk.  This leads to less plastic and is often less expensive.

3) Reuse.  Buy items of higher quality that can be washed and reused repeatedly, such as a stainless-steel water bottle.  Bring your own cutlery instead of using plastic ones.

4) Rot.  Compost anything you can.  Here you can learn about how to start your own compost and about what can be composted.

5) Recycle.  While it is good to recycle anything you can, it is important to note that it is at the end of the list.  Strive to find the need to recycle as little as possible, especially when it comes to plastic.  It still involves buying more disposables that will most likely end up in a dump (or worse).

If you decide to try out being zero waste for yourself, please remember that it is not about being perfect.  It is about doing the most you can to maximize the positive impact you have on the world.

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.