A Land of Contradictions
Kenya is a place of extremes. From its tropical coastline to the glaciers of Mt. Kenya, the country seems to capture all possibilities within its borders.
Best known to Americans for its fleet-footed athletes and its diverse wildlife, Kenya’s democratic government has been praised as a model for the region. But the country has also struggled with poverty, illness, and malnutrition. Within the last few months, a disputed presidential election caused violent eruptions to threaten the stability Kenya has enjoyed for nearly half a century.
A partnership between Indiana University and Moi University in Western Kenya that began as collaboration in medical education now offers opportunity through IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs for addressing some of the political difficulties the country faces.
The relationship between IU and Moi dates back to 1989, when four IU School of Medicine faculty members forged a partnership to facilitate student and faculty exchanges between the two medical schools. Once AIDS began to ravage the country in the late ’90s, the focus shifted to treating the disease, leading to the continent’s largest and most comprehensive HIV control system, AMPATH (Academic Model for the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS).
The program gradually expanded to include not only screening and education but also nutritional provisions for patients’ entire families, care of orphaned children, and transitional employment programs for patients who are ostracized due to the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
With this expanded scope, the program needed scholarly support beyond the medical school. In November of 2006, IUPUI developed a Strategic Alliance tying the whole of the campus with all of Moi University, making resources from both institutions available for mutual benefit.
A social science conference in 2007 gave SPEA its opportunity to contribute. With researchers from both institutions coming together to discuss what was happening in the country’s communities and political systems, it became clear that SPEA expertise could support Moi researchers in developing the expertise needed to address the complex political and environmental challenges.
Accordingly, Greg Lindsey, SPEA Associate Dean at IUPUI, and himself part of several University contingents to Moi, invited Moi faculty member James Chaleng’a to IUPUI to continue his research into indigenous methods of conflict resolution, and to give IU students firsthand insight into the Kenyan government and tribal systems of ownership that dictate allocation of land.
It is this tension over land use that forms the basis of the country’s current political struggles, Chaleng’a explains.
“Twenty percent of the land is fertile, but eighty percent is semi-arid,” he says. “Everybody wants a bit of land. Even if you live in the city, you want a bit of land. Even if you are employed, you still want to supplement your income with farming. Most Kenyans live in villages, and people may go to the city to work, but they prefer to retire in the upcountry.”
At SPEA, Chaleng’a is able to make use of journals and electronic resources that are difficult, if not impossible, for him to access at home. He is also ab
le to benefit from the lack of distractions that is the hallmark of sabbatical study. But being away has not been easy for him, especially right now.
“It’s just unfortunate that I came when the situation in Kenya is not very good. Part of my mind is here and part of it is still in Kenya,” he says.
Images, from top to bottom: Kenyan horizon; school children passing roadshide hotel near Eldoret, Kenya; young Masai man at Keekorok Lodge, Masai Mara; "Build Kenya" mural; cheetahs.
Photos in this essay were taken by Josi Sprunger, Indianapolis, and Greg Lindsey, SPEA Associate Dean, IUPUI.