Africa SOMA - Meeting of the Minds

An exchange programme gives kids from Nairobi's slums and Maasai children a chance to teach each other about the different ways of life within their own country.


In the overcrowded, dilapidated slums of Nairobi, Kenya, a local teenager is asked to predict what she'd be served for dinner if she were invited to the home of a Maasai family in the country's rural south. Without much hesitation, she writes down the following: meat, milk and blood. Just two hours south, in the sparsely populated bush land of Elangata Wuas, in the Kajiado district of Maasailand, a Maasai teenager of about the same age is asked to name a possible occupation of those living in the Nairobi slums. This teenager also doesn't hesitate and responds with the following: stealing from people who are rich.

"The Maasai think Nairobi is all about drugs and violence, and that the kids are undisciplined. Meanwhile, the Nairobi kids think of the Maasai as an ignorant community."

Nairobi and Elangata Wuas are only about 100 kilometres away from one another in distance. But the two places are a world apart, not only in terms of their ecological environments but also culturally and socially. And having little contact with one another—even within the same country—each community harbours misconceptions about the other.

"The Maasai think Nairobi is all about drugs and violence, and that the kids are undisciplined. Meanwhile, the Nairobi kids think of the Maasai as an ignorant community," explains Montreal native Caroline Archambault. A post-doctoral researcher in anthropology at McGill University, Archambault is co-director of the non-profit organization, Africa SOMA (a Swahili term meaning to learn, read and study). Founded by Archambault and her husband, Joost De Laat, an economics professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Africa SOMA is working to provide educational opportunities for African youth in both urban slums and remote regions of Kenya.

The pair became aware of the prevailing Kenyan stereotypes when they spent extensive periods of time in the country as part of their doctoral research. After two years of living and working in the communities, they both felt it was time to give back and to thank the residents for supporting their research efforts.

Africa SOMA's Inner-City Savannah Exchange programme is doing just that. The programme is giving children from the slums of Nairobi the chance to go to Maasailand. There, they spend four days with Maasai children from Elangata Wuas working on leadership training, confidence building, and perhaps most importantly, teaching each other about different ways of life within their own country. And this, according to Archambault, is key to breaking long-held stereotypes within the country.

The idea for the Inner-City Savannah Exchange actually came about by chance. In 2004, Archambault was helping her husband with his survey in the Nairobi slums. There, they employed a team of young research assistants. The team excelled at their jobs, and as a reward, Archambault and De Laat thought it would be a nice gesture to invite them out to Elangata Wuas for a three-day retreat.

"'There's no transportation, no hip clothing stores, no phone reception...' All of these things that he thought it would be impossible to live without."

"On our way to the community," Archambault remembers, "Bernard, one of the research team members, turned to me and said, 'Caroline, this place is hell!' I started laughing and asked why. He said, 'Look at these guys, the Maasai. They have to walk everywhere, fetch water from hours away. There's no transportation, no hip clothing stores, no phone reception…' All of these things that he thought it would be impossible to live without. For him, this was poverty at its max. And so I had a laugh, because I could also think of the reverse. I could imagine how the Maasai would view where he lived and where he came from."

And the misconceptions became even more apparent when the Nairobi guests arrived to the school. They sat on benches with their younger Elangata Wuas counterparts and told them about the Kenyan capital. "Nairobi is so poa [street Swahili for cool]," said one of the Nairobi guests. "It's got the latest fashion, the best music, you go out all the time…"

Archambault and De Laat looked on, not saying much at first. But throughout the visit, they started to notice certain biases being presented about Nairobi. So in an effort to level the playing field, the couple pulled out their laptop and showed the Elangata Wuas kids some images of the homes of their Nairobi guests. Archambault remembers, "They all gathered around the laptop and flipped through the pictures. There was a picture of a big heap of garbage and on the very far top of the pile stood a goat. And one of the Maasai kids blurted out 'is that a goat?' As we watched the slideshow, we could see that they were horrified by what they were seeing.

"From the Maasai perspective, the slums of Nairobi were hell. And that was poverty. To not have space and to not have clean air and to have your animals feed on sewage, it was unthinkable… so it really comes down to different measures of poverty."

This visit got Archambault and De Laat thinking about the possibility of formalizing an exchange programme. At the time, Africa SOMA didn't exist as a formal organization, but they were already running a number of initiatives informally, including an art exchange between a Maasai school and an American school. These would later become part of the basis for Africa SOMA's programmes.

Two years later, in 2006, with Africa SOMA now officially registered as a non-profit, Archambault and De Laat held a community forum in Elangata Wuas to discuss the possibility of the Inner-City Savannah Exchange. They invited local community members to voice their opinions; representatives from two Kenyan organizations, the National Organization of Peer Educators (NOPE) and the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), also sat in.

"I chaired the meeting," says Archambault. "But all I said to open up the meeting was 'if there was a possibility that you could have Nairobi kids from the slums come to spend a few days here in Maasailand, with Maasai of their age, what would be the advantages? What would you want to do with that? What do you think the kids would get out of it? Would it be a worthwhile thing to do and why?' I didn't give my own ideas, and I just let them build a curriculum based on what they thought would be the most important aspects."

Over a period of two days, the community members built a curriculum that was largely based on challenging cultural stereotypes; they thought it was a good opportunity for the kids to dispel some of their misconceptions and actually get to know each other. They also identified a number of issues that they thought were important to address, like HIV/AIDS, female circumcision and early pregnancy; they built a series of games that addressed these issues.

One week later, with the help of MYSA, which organized the transport, and the Elangata Wuas Eco-system Management Program (EWEMP), which arranged accommodation, some Nairobi kids arrived in Elangata Wuas for the official pilot programme.

Jessica Valentine, now a graduate of international development at McGill University, volunteered to help out on the programme. She says she noticed right away that there were cultural differences between the two groups. "The Maasai kids were so timid and quiet. They were all there in their school uniforms sitting and waiting politely at the table. The Nairobi kids arrived, and they were all decked out in their stylish clothes, bouncing off the walls and being loud and friendly."

Some Maasai kids later complained that they couldn't understand when the Nairobi kids were "speaking other languages," referring to the Nairobi children's use of Sheng—a street dialect of Swahili that incorporates English. But, despite some initial differences, Valentine says she was surprised at how quickly the children made themselves at home. "The Maasai kids were sitting in the dining hall area, and the Nairobi kids just came right out and walked around the table and gave everyone high fives," she recalls.

On one occasion, the girls went to change after dinner and emerged from their room wearing pants. "I looked up and knew something was a bit off," says Valentine. "I thought, isn't that one of our Elangata Wuas girls? It turns out that they went in and played dress-up, the Nairobi girls got the Maasai girls to wear pants. They had never worn pants before in their lives."

But perhaps the most valuable aspect, according to Valentine, is that kids from both communities had the opportunity to teach, and share their own knowledge and know-how with the kids from the other community.

At the end of the retreat, the Nairobi kids left their set of drums behind for the Maasai group as a gift. Valentine thought this was particularly special since the drums had proven to be such a popular medium of interaction throughout the programme. And after the retreat, the kids in Elangata Wuas started a club, called the Africa SOMA club, where they would get together and practice the songs and dances they learned, and to work through some of the issues addressed.

Since the first programme, Africa SOMA has been seeking feedback and working to make improvements. They have also decided to revisit the issues that the community originally set out to be addressed by the programme. Archambault was initially wary of some of the issues on the curriculum. And while she didn't want to voice her opinion prematurely, she felt that this was the time to step in.

Having spent a lot of time in the community, Archambault is familiar with the many NGO campaigns in the area that advocate against female circumcision, early or forced marriage and for the education of young girls. And, she argues, it's no coincidence that these are the issues the community chose to address in the Inner-City Savannah Exchange. "They ended up focusing on a lot of the issues that are typical NGO issues. It's very difficult to separate how much of that is genuinely what they want to focus on, and how much of that is what they think we want to focus on," explains Archambault.

Archambault argues that while many community members will agree with the NGOs' "party line" in public—as many of them have been taught repeatedly that certain Maasai traditions are inherently wrong—their private opinions often differ. She uses the case of female circumcision to make her point: "You hear them in public arenas speaking against it, but when you speak to women privately you realize there is a dissonance. When you speak to them more intimately, they'll confess to it being an important part of their notion of womanhood, or at least they acknowledge that it's an issue that is not so easily resolved."

And in the specific context of the Inner-City Savannah Exchange, Archambault also thinks it's unfair to put issues like female circumcision on the agenda, since it's only one side that practices it—the Maasai. "We don't want to deal with it in this context because the playing field is not level," she explains. Africa SOMA volunteers—six so far in 2007—are working with the community to shift the focus of the curriculum, placing more emphasis on culture and environment and less on reproductive health. Archambault says that the lack of environmental education is common to both the Nairobi kids and the Maasai.

Archambault has no reservations about stepping in and giving her input as they plan for future Inner-City Savannah Exchanges. In fact, she argues, this is what development work is all about. It's not about imposing your own ideas, nor is it about following the community blindly. Instead, it's about an exchange of ideas—letting everyone give their input, coming to a decision together and seeing what works best.

"Development has been so heavily critiqued for being top-down, but the alternative, the bottom-up theory, has been romanticized too," explains Archambault. "I think the dialogue is the most important thing, that the ideas go back and forth and it's not only driven in one direction.

And I think that's, in the end, what we represent most as an organization. When we talk about education initiatives, we're talking about giving kids information in its various forms, and that should come from everywhere… Ultimately it's about giving information, not about making choices for people."


Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).


Add this article to your reading list
Published in Volunteer Abroad
Andrea Gourgy

Originally from Montreal, Andrea has a hard time staying in one place. After gaining a BA from Western and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Southern California, Andrea hit the road and never looked back. She has worked professionally as a journalist in six different countries, and earned several travel writing awards in the process. Andrea joined the Verge team in 2006.

Join the Verge Community

Verge Magazine Membership

Join our community of savvy travellers and put nearly two decades of inspiring articles, authoritative information and expert advice to work for you.

Show me more > Login >


Travel Intelligence Bulletin


The latest openings overseas—direct to your inbox.

Subscriber Login


Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

Like what you see?

Follow us on social media