Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Analog Kenya

This past weekend, I went upcountry to see one of my favorite relatives, my Uncle Githaiga. In Kenya, when people say they are going to the rural areas where their ancestral village is, people say they are "going upcountry." People may also say that they are going to "Gichage" or shags.

My upcountry is in Othaya. My mother was from a small village called Karema. That land is now in the  hands of a male cousin. When I go to shags, I go to a place called Kihome, near the Aberdare Forest. That is where my uncle lives, and one of my cousins on that side.

That area in Kenya used to be completely analog. But now, analog and digital realities exist side by side. My uncle's place now has electricity. You can plug things into the wall, and they get charged which keeps your cell phone running. Electricity only came in the past five years. There is no Internet in the house, which is somehow a welcome relief. There is a small TV, which has about three channels.

I remember that not so long ago there was no electricity there. My uncle, who is very scientifically minded, figured out how to run the TV off of a car battery in those days. Some might mistake him for a simple teacher turned farmer, but my uncle personally built a biogas mechanism which converts cow manure into cooking gas that is piped into the house and connected to the stove. He uses artificial insemination to breed his cows, and picks the seeds best suited to his region.

Even now that some more modern conveniences exist, the main activities are walking to the forest, walking to the river, milking the cows, and picking tea. Conversation is a means of communication still very much used. As we stood in front of the store, an  mzee even older than my uncle spoke to my uncle about getting reparations for my uncle's time in detention during the Mau Mau period.

As my cousin Wacira and I walked through the town, we ran into a cousin of ours on Uncle Githaiga's side. We also ran into an mzee who taught Wacira how to drive. We shopped at Muiru butchery for our meat, because that is where my uncle shops. Carcasses of freshly slaughtered sides of beef and goat hung in the window. I told the butcher in Swahili that I wanted one half of a kilogram of beef, chopped small. He went to one of the sides, and carved off the appropriate piece, put it on his cutting board, and diced it for me.

We went to the Othaya green grocery market, and bought watermelons, kale, onions, tomatoes, and other foodstuffs, buying a few items from one vendor, and moving down the line, buying a few items from another vendor. The green grocery market was a project by the government, to bring the vendors inside into an orderly and clean place for selling their wares.

Othaya town has grown. The roads are now tarmacked throughout the town, an event which has occurred in the past five years. The town is much cleaner and more orderly with tarmacked roads. Even the road up to my uncle's house is mostly tarmacked. We rode up from town to my uncle's farm in a matatu, which had about four people in it.

The hills are green with tea, and coffee. The long rains came this year. The cows were grazing down by the small stream on the bottom of the property. We bought my uncle a hen and a rooster so he would not have to go to town to buy his eggs. The children played delightedly with the small mutt dog on the farm, who had no name. The children decided his name would be Scooby. They named the rooster Theodore, and the hen Sparkle.

It gets quite cold in the Aberdares. We had to bundle up in sweaters, and also we made a fire in the large fireplace in the sitting room. We drank hot tea, made with lots of fresh milk from the cows. For dinner, we made a chicken stew out of a chicken not as lucky as Sparkle. Our main seasonings were tomatoes, onions, green pepper and carrots. We ate the stew with brown chapati, an indian flatbread that has become a staple in Kenya. When it was time to sleep, we turned out all the lights, and bundled under layers of wool blankets to stay warm.

I am sure if I traveled to Turkana, that their place would be even more analog still. But there is no place that technology has not penetrated to some extent. Even in Turkana, you should expect to see a cell phone.  Somewhere in the town, there is likely at least one cyber cafe.

So how do we balance the beauty of our pastoral past with the rapid technological advances we experience? How do we integrate those issues? I like the perspective of Richard Sclove in his book Democracy and Technology. He suggests that we choose what technology we find appropriate. We should decide what technologies make our lives better. He argues that the general public should become involved in all phases of technological decision making. This model can work for Kenya, and for Africa too. We must not be hamstrung by nostalgia, nor should we blindly accept every technological change floated our way.


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