Survival. Kenya has recently survived the filming of the CBS television series “Survivor.”
Some Kenyans, however, were not thrilled that this staged realism was acted out on their soil. There was the usual argument about who benefits from lucrative fees paid by the producer for the use of this corner of wilderness known as Shaba in Samburu district of Northern Kenya.
Some environmentalists were worried that the wilderness area and wildlife would be damaged. Others were incensed that Kenya, itself suffering from the effects of insecurity and a battered economy, would allow military resources to be used for patrolling the airspace and park boundaries in order to insure the safety and secrecy of the actors and crew.
Still others thought it a mockery that participants in a controlled environment would know anything about survival in this harsh environment.
Only last year, not 50 miles from where the filming took place, we and others were engaged in famine relief after the worst drought in living memory. The Samburu community lost up to 80 percent of its livestock on which it depends for survival.
Such programming may simply reinforce old stereotypes of Africa as merely “savage wilderness” and the playground of the elite. There is, of course, the possibility that the series will spawn a wave of tourism to Shaba National Reserve, thereby creating wealth for the country and eventually for the local communities.
Nevertheless, consider this story from the Samburu people who live where “Survivor” was filmed. It tells of a different kind of reality, a different kind of survival.
The Samburu people are nomadic pastoralists and accustomed to harsh conditions. In times of extreme drought, they migrate to certain mountains and forests in their regions where they attempt to preserve what cattle they have remaining by careful utilization of ancient watering points and glades.
During one such period some years ago, I was fortunate to accompany a group of Samburu up Mt. Nyiru in the Northern reaches of Samburu territory.
I wandered on foot through the mountain forest with them for two weeks, learning how they cope in such conditions. One late evening around the fire, I listened to an ancient myth of Samburu survival.
It seems that there was the most terrible drought that threatened the very survival of the Samburu. They found themselves with only one cow left and a handful of elders, warriors and women. All children had perished.
One morning, after squeezing a cupful of milk from the wizened udder of the cow, the cow keeled over and died—a nightmare for the Samburu. Some suggested the strongest warrior should drink the remaining milk and set off into the wilderness alone to survive, leaving the rest to perish.
After some consideration, one elder remarked that there was no such thing as survival alone. All agreed and decided that they must press on together.
They each pulled out their muswaki (a particular kind of indigenous twig used as a toothbrush), dipped it in the milk, sucked these precious, final drops of nourishment and moved on. And they survived. Together.
At this juncture in history, there seems no more appropriate global, cultural philosophy than that espoused by Africa, namely, “We are, therefore I am.”
This stands in stark contrast to the “survivor” mentality of the day—a mentality favoring solo accomplishment.
Might we once again, at the doorstep of war and holocaust, heed this ancient wisdom? Might we be led by the Spirit to the place of still waters where God has prepared a table? Might we dine once more together, not ignoring our differences or sins, but remembering that God is creator and provider of all and for all?
May we truly survive … together.
Sam Harrell is a missionary in Nairobi, Kenya. He and his wife, Melody, are CBF missionaries in Kenya through Africa Exchange.
Associate Coordinator for Global Missions with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A long-time advocate of environmental stewardship, Harrell leads “Kutana Kenya,” an immersion experience for graduate and seminary students that CBF hosts in partnership with Africa Exchange, a non profit founded by the Harrells and operating in Kenya.