Discovering Kenya and Jainism

Sukhmani Sethi

What happens when two non vegetarians are clubbed with one vegetarian to form a team representing an organization? Not an unusual occurrence in India. Add to this fact that the vegetarian is a strict vegetarian – a Jain vegetarian. This may not sound unreasonable either – till you mention the little detail that this team is set to go to Kenya!
Let me take a moment here to describe the purpose of this visit. Three countries in East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya) had asked for assistance in training as they set out to replicate a model of assessment known as the Annual Status of Education Report, which is implemented by Pratham in India.


Given this, a team of three Research Associates (including me) were invited to Kenya. Kenya was a land of many ‘firsts’ for me. This was the first time I was going unescorted to a place outside India and that too for an official purpose; my first stint of being a ‘foreigner’ (the last time it was Lahore, so one could argue that that didn’t count!) and the most important one of them all… it was my first trip to Africa!

We reached Nairobi at night and were to leave the next morning for the training centre at Voi. So it was only in the morning that we saw Nairobi. Our first reaction – awestruck! It was such a clean and green city!! Hadn’t we learnt somewhere that India was an economically more prosperous country? Then why were the streets cleaner in Kenya? Why were people better dressed? Why wasn’t there litter, not even around the smaller shops?!We drove past Nairobi with these questions in mind, determined that we would see the ‘real country’ in some of the places we were due to visit.

Voi Safari Inn- Abode for the week-long training

Yes! That’s exactly where the training in Voi held…A SAFARI INN!!!Its thatched roof and wooden structure made it a welcoming home to a few whirlwinds but kept us well protected against straying lions (Repeat: straying LIONS!). No guesses for how well this worked in ensuring that participants did not wander about at night and willingly tucked themselves into bed after supper.

The group consisting of 55 people, represented different districts in Kenya and worked on astrict 7 day training schedule. The aim was to understand Uwezo and its features and then pilot the tools that had been adapted from ASER. The composition of the participants quite unlike their Indian counterparts: many were experts in education and were either professors or researchers or teachers; there were others who came from NGOs and a few independent candidates were present as well. One common feature across the group was that the participants had applied to be a part of this initiative and not the other way round. This training was also the first time all these people were meeting each other. Final partnewere to be selected from among those at this training. So the group was motivated and spent its time and energy on the details of the survey and not in complaining about long working hours.

As with all ASER-Pratham trainings , the theoretical sessions were followed by three days of field visits. The bright sun, hot sand, and wide spread villages put more than just the tools and procedure to the test! It seemed like a strategic way of executing Darwin’s theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’. The field visits were spent ‘panting-testing-huffing-panting-testing’. Voi being a semi arid area the villages were sparsely populated and spread over large areas. To cover 20 households with the 5th household rule as well as the left hand rule proved to be a herculean task because at some places the houses were at least a kilometre away from each other! The only respite were the welcoming families and the sweet little innocent faces which we had to dupe into testing (and we looked…we really looked looked for dirty by lanes..and open drains..and carelessly strewn garbage..but were hugely could India be dirtier?) 

And to ensure that we did not forget we were in Kenya: Our village, along with a few others in the vicinity, was the target of a herd of wild elephants on the rampage that had been coming every night in search of water. They left enough evidence of their visit by trampling over a few farms, knocking down trees and breaking into all the stored water at schools and within the village. Hence, to avoid chance encounters with elephants, all field visits had to be wound up by 4.30 each day lest you met the elephants on way! 

Now to come back to Snigdha Jain – the Jain who accompanied us to Kenya and who was the other source of learning for me while away from my country. Kenya, if I may put it this way, is a land of meat eaters. You get to eat meat (various kinds, shapes and in various curries) for all three meals. There is often one vegetarian dish which served with each meal (either beans, or spinach). Jains, as you might know, do not eat anything grown underground. Their list of ‘inedible food’ includes: potatoes, onions, garlic, and some of them abstain from cauliflower, egg plant as well. Our dear Snigdha Jain did not eat any of them!! Result: she survived on boiled cucumber, tomato soup with rice, tomato paste with spaghetti etc. 

That’s not all. Living with a Jain reveals more than just his/her dietary habits. Two things every visitor is cautious about when travelling in Kenya is of the drinking water and mosquitoes. Most hotels provide mosquito nets along with the beds. Our rooms had them too. But the mosquitoes being a resilient lot never missed a try. Instinct tells you to kill the mosquito that’s bothering you..but wait! The Jain instincts are different. So there I was, troubled by this one mosquito trapped inside my net and was all ready to go for the kill…when I was stopped abruptly. Frown. That’s the only expression with which I watched her as she followed the mosquito so that she could catch it gently in her palms and release it OUTSIDE THE ROOM! Logic –They might just forget their way back in?! It did not end at the mosquitoes. There were the ants and other small insects which were given a similar royal treatment and ushered outside the room! 
So as it turned out, I was not only learning about differences in another country but also learning about how different we are within our own country. And in that, Kenya certainly did prove to be a big ‘learning’ experience.

And so the week long training came to an end. We learnt a lesson or two about how there was no direct correlation between poverty and hygiene (I still need to figure out why places are so dirty in India), how Kenyans are as friendly and warm and gushy as Indians, and above all – how people in both countries love to eat ‘chapattis’ (yes they eat ‘chapattis’ too!)