Almost 40 hours after beginning my journey from Victoria to Nairobi, I arrived in this ancient land. Travelling to East Africa from the West Coast of British Columbia, it is pretty much equidistant to go in either direction…I travelled east to west, traversing all of Canada, heading into Europe and then flying south. It’s like time travel; although the whole Earth is the same age, I tend to think of the age of the land from the parochial perspective of human development and migration, thus North America is an infant, Europe is an adolescent and Africa is an old man.

Lake Turkana in Kenya, a long finger-like, salt water lake borne originally of the Nile river and now cut off due to a rift in the earth’s crust, is considered to be one of the pockets of origin of humans. With a history dating back 3.5 million years BC, many hominid species have claimed that region as home over millions of years as evidenced by the fossil remains, because of the source of water and thus survival found there. Reaching temperatures of 50C during the day in the summer in this region, water, even though its salt, allows for life to continue there. Indigenous nomadic tribes still live in this region using the land and lake as their only source of survival.

I find I have to take pause for a moment when I reflect on Europe’s affect on Africa – the adolescent’s lack of respect for the wisdom of its elders, from the first arrival of the Portuguese in the early 1500’s, to expansion of the slave trade from the Arab occupiers in the 1800’s when Great Britain and Germany outlined their “sphere of influence” claiming large areas of land, further enslaving Africans and colonizing regions. Mankind came from this land… How can one claim that their industrial modernization and all things that come along with that to be superior to this land and its people – ignorance and ethnocentric belief.

In 2013, descending into Nairobi at night I was struck by the darkness of the city. There were very few rows of lights on the ground delineating roadways and other human activity that would reflect a city of 3 million. No patterns of development claiming the land that are characteristic of cities all over the world and I thought for a moment that maybe I was going to be truly honoured to have the opportunity to come here before they “catch up” or “destroy” depending on your perspective, what is Africa. Nairobi has the dubious honour of being the most dangerous city in Africa beating out some heavy competition found in cities such as Johannesburg, their crime stats are not for the weak of heart – there is virtually no middle class in Kenya, there are the “haves” and the “have-nots” and there is all the local challenges that come with that product of development.

By contrast to Kenya, I visited China in April of this year and I was struck there by the fury of development. I remarked at one point, that whoever owns the crane companies whose metal towers above every city, is making a tremendous amount of money, because regardless of where we went in that country, there were dozens to hundreds of cranes stretching up into the sky marking “progress” with 24 hour shifts of workers. Gone were the bicycles, the pajamas, the “old culture” of China, family units had been separated and millennia of familial support of one generation to another…maybe I’d made it to Kenya in time to witness some remnant of the “old man”.

Then I had one more moment of pause, I’m coming to Africa from Canada to teach…am I coming to change the old man? Does coming from Canada to Africa to teach families and staff about Autism bolster the old man? For humans, I think regardless of where or when a parent has a child; they have that child with the “hope” of happiness and a “good life”. I’m not sure what life was like for persons with developmental disabilities over the millions of years of development in Africa. Did our hominid ancestors care for them? Is it only the adolescent that came to devalue things that were different? I am coming as part of the Global Autism Project to develop capacity within the country, to help families support and teach their children, to help families develop a “good life” for their child within their culture, I am not coming to impose mine. We are coming to build strength in community, to build understanding, to foster value in all persons: I don’t think the old man would object.

Liz Sparling, BCBA®

SkillCorps Kenya Team Member

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