Karibu! Welcome!

Since 2004, EWB@ MSU's professional and student volunteers have worked with community members in Khwisero, Kenya to provide water and sanitation infrastructure at the district's 58 primary schools, making it easier for Khwisero's children to avoid waterborne disease and get an education.

In that time, the group has grown from a small club to one of MSU's premier student organizations, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund seven borehole wells, six composting latrines and a biogas latrine that serve thousands of community members.

Thank you for joining us as we continue to work hand-in-hand with local partners to make a difference in one small part of our world. As Western Kenya's limited internet access allows, we will update this blog while in-country with the successes, stories and lessons provided by our work.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Chief's Baraza

The other day, I found myself accidentally witnessing Khwisero's legal system in action. Along with Patrick, a local farmer and EWB volunteer who translates for our team members when we speak in public, I was attending the local Chief's weekly public meeting in the hope of being given a chance to speak about our distribution pipeline project.

Kenya's chiefs are something halfway between being a vestigal position from the region's tribal past and western-style government officials. As I understand it, Kenya during its colonial period was administered by the British through tribal chiefs, and the system was absorbed by the fledgling Kenyan government upon its independence in 1963. But whatever the history, parts of Kenya like Khwisero are in large part administrated by figures who have the duties of mayor, polic chief and judge.

The chiefs and their assistants work through the village elders, each of whom is responsible for a small area, where they keep tabs on any crime or domestic disturbances, and transmit information to and from the residents. Patrick had suggested one of our team members speak about our project at a Chief's baraza, where the elders and chief meet each week.

While waiting for my chance, however, I unwittingly found myself part of the audience at what I'm pretty sure was a Kenyan trial. A young man who, near as I could tell from Patrick's whispered translations of the meeting's Swahili, was accused of mugging a schoolboy out after dark, was sat down on the grass in front of the Chief and given a stern tongue-lashing.

The assembled group then spent the next two hours trying to determine the guilt or innocence of several of the accused's friends, a process that seemed to revolve primarily around accusations of guilt-by-association and hearsay, as well as tearful testimony of good character delivered by at least one grandmother.

In hindsight, a couple things stand out. The first was the noticeable absence of police officers--despite years of western influence on Khwisero, it seemed like the Chief's authority alone was enough to keep the accused more-or-less in line without the use of physical restraint. I also can't help wondering how much the process was like the frontier justice delivered by Montana's pioneer founders.

In any case, Patrick and I ended up departing before the trial's close (the Chief decided to use a break in the proceedings as an opportunity for us to deliever our public service announcement). So, once again, I found myself with a too-brief glimpse into the inner workings of the culture EWB-MSU has spent the last half-decade learning to work with.

One of the most important lessons I've learned in Khwisero is how complicated its society is. When I first arrived here, I had a sort of idealized "huts in a circle" vision of the community, only to discover a region with at least the complexity and diversity of Bozeman. Which is why, even living through experiences like the Chief's baraza day after day, I still can't say I truly understand this place where we're trying to make a difference.


1 comment:

Tracy Ellig said...

A fascinating account of the culture you're working in. Thanks for the insight.