There are some good models in Kenya for integrating the efforts to preserve the wildlife and the local culture and to advance the cause of social justice, which as I pointed out in the last blog are not always on the same page. Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt movement, which is restoring the native forest ravaged by clearcutting and cotton-planting during colonialism, and is empowering women to return to their ancient central roles as caretakers of the forest and its sacred springs, wood-gatherers, and tenders of the hearth. Kenya is a pretty chauvinistic society. I went with Wangari to the parliament in Nairobi. She stood out in the sea of suits in the garden where some trees were being planted in memory of some colleagues who died in a plane crash, on there way to mediate sone etnbic conflict in the north. Another model is Anthony Russell’s ecolodge at Shompole group ranch, down in the rift valley right on the Tanzania border, where the lake that gets hundreds of thousands of migrating flamingos is. The Shompole Maasai are partners in the business, they staff the lodge and their former top poacher is now the top wildlife guide for the tourists, the animals are protected by the Shompole because they understand a lion for whose skin they can only get a hundred bucks is worth $20,000 in tourist dollars if they keep it alive. With the profits from the lodge, Anthony has been able to get running water to every hut. Before that, the women had to walk two hours each way to get water and bring it back to their huts in plastic gerrycans. So this has freed the women, been a huge emancipation from their daily grind, so much so that the men are feeling are little threatened. It’s a rare win win win situation. But I hear the Maasai, some of whom can be very money-minded, are suing Anthony because they feel he is ripping them off and not giving them enough of the profit. This knowing Anthony I very much doubt. It is more likely that the profits are way down because of the tribal genocide in Kenya a few years ago, which destroyed tourism throughout the country, just as it was finally recovering from the hotel bombing in Mombassa, and was then followed by the global economic crash. There is undoubtedly less income to go around.
Coming from modern Western society, which had been destroying the natural world and native people for centuries, I had a reverence for traditional cultures and an attraction to the Other, American blacks, Brazilians, that looking back on it was a bit romantic and naive. It was transformative to meet and spend time Amazon Indians, pygmies, and Bushmen who were still hunting and gathering and acutely attuned to the flora and fauna they were surrounded by and depended on. Who could identify 18 species of bee on the wing. To learn about the Navajo belief system, in which every creature and natural force has its way, which must be respected. But as V.S.Naipaul wryly observed, the Western white people who went off to see the world had their return plane tickets in their back pocket. The more time I spent in other cultures, the more I saw that they were just people. The traditional cultures had severe limitations. Visiting them was one thing, but having to spend your life in them, they being your social arena, would have worn thin pretty quickly. But for many years, being so open and receptive to everything, particularly new things, I only saw the good side. It wasn’t until I had a gun pointed to my head by a robber in Cabo Frio, ten years into my adoration of all things Brazilian, that I realized there was a nasty, violent side to the culture, too, and the violence often had a perverse, sadistic extra twist.
As far as the native people go, it’s tragic that there are only 300 Bushman who are still living traditionally, hunting and gathering in the desert, trance-dancing as they have for the last 75,000 years, the way humans have for most of our history. They are lovely, gentle people, their society is egalitarian, the women have as much power and freedom as the men, and get everything they need in four hours and have the greatest amount of leisure time of any society. But they can’t be kept in zoos. And inevitably they are going to want Western goods. The pygmies who were naked in l983 when I first visited them were all wearing t-shirts in 2000. Most of the Bushmen, like the Australian aborigines, are working on ranches. They have been sucked into the money cultures and marginalized, stuck on the lowest peon rung, are being abused and exploited.
The Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall calls the romantic primitivism of young white Europeans who go to the aborigines, the Navajo, the pygmies, the Amazon Indians, “designer tribalism.” But some of these honkies, bazungu, bilagaana, and all the other words for white intruders, are on a genuine quest for an alternative to the rapacious soul-less modern materialistic culture, and because I am one I will now switch to we. It is only natural that we Rousseauesque, luddite Other Questers would seek out the last remote societies whose people are still highly attuned and connected to the animals and plants in their ecosystems, and be captivated by them, as I was and still am. Relative to where we are now, and where we have to go, it would be a good idea for all of us to look at these hunter-gatherers and herders and see how they have framed what we are doing here and understand what is going on. Maybe there are some things that could be adapted that would help get us back in line. Maybe they have the therapy for the new modern syndrome, nature deficit disorder.