Friday, October 21, 2011

What I Learned on Safari

On Saturday, I returned from a vacation to Kenya. My first visit to Africa was unforgettable, the game parks were lovely and the safari rides thrilling. But, I am haunted by the images of the cities, villages, and reservations we passed through on our way to the game parks.

Like many tourists, we visited a Masai village. We sat in a mud and cow dung constructed hut, little bigger than the office I am writing in now, that housed 10 people in two beds. We watched mothers nursing newborn babies, covered with flies. We were told about teenagers, both boys and girls, going through circumcisions and women having babies attended only by their mothers-in-law. When I asked, I was told that “only” about one in ten women in the village die in childbirth. The cities outside of Nairobi we drove through on barely passable roads were filled with children begging when our 4 by 4 vehicles stopped for traffic, with corrugated aluminum tiny homes dotting the roads.

These so-called optional tourist excursions broke my heart and brought home the reality of the need to address poverty, maternal mortality, and access to family planning. It provided me with a renewed commitment to the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative to engage religious leaders and faith communities in working for U.S. support to reach the Millennium Goals worldwide.

I know that Kenya is not the poorest country in Africa, and compared with its neighbors, it is relatively peaceful. But, still, one in 38 Kenyan women will die in childbirth, 26% of women will marry before adulthood, and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced.
The average woman in Kenya has six children, while her desired family size is four, although in the Masai village I visited fertility was much higher -- yet this marks substantial progress from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s). Fewer than half of Kenyan couples use contraceptives (46%), although that marks a significant increase compared to the 39 per cent reported in a 2003 study. According to the CIA World Factbook, the urban population in Kenya is “growing at an alarming rate as many Kenyans migrate from their rural homes to urban centers,” which has led to a scarcity of jobs and opportunities.

World population growth stops being an abstract idea when confronted with individuals and whole communities suffering without enough food, shelter, sanitation, health care, and economic opportunities. At the end of this month, the world's population will reach 7 billion. It was 4 billion when I first started working thirty five years ago.

The Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth and caretakers of our neighbors. I hope you’ll join us in rededicating ourselves to living out our faith through renewed action on behalf of all the people of the world.

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