Kenya paradox: Western technology, African tradition

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Of all Africans, Kenya's Masai tribesmen are among the few to put little faith in the process of modernization, industrialization, Westernization -- call it what you will.

This was brought home this week during a visit to the first geothermal plant in Africa, part of the anxious global search to find some alternative energy to oil.

The plant, at Olkaria near Kenya's Lake Naivasha, looks like a science-fiction movie set, all giant structures of stainless steel and concrete, tubes and pipes, cooling vats and turbines. Japanese technicians from Mitsubishi move purposefully about, there's the reek of sulphur, and jets of steam roar out of the earth with the shriek of rocket engines.

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Steam from reservoirs deep in the earth, where temperatures exceed 300 degrees C., is being harnessed to create 15 megawatts of power and in time, much more.

The plant was up on a high plateau and when you walked to the edge, you could look down over all Masailand. The tall extinct volcano of Longonot, whose still-fiery core provides the steam, rises over the desert scrub of Kenya's great Rift Valley. From our feet an eroded red cliff fell straight down 1,000 feet or so to the savannah grass.

There was a Masai manyata,m or encampment, there, with its thatched temporary huts and grazing cattle.

Then, far off among the bare thorn trees on the dry, burnt grass, you could just see a lone Masai moving with his spear, like a narrow black shadow. He was the only sign of human life in the whole immense scene.

Back in Nairobi, you sense this city of just under 1 million people is perhaps the most successful symbol in Africa of what Western technology can do. Nairobi, the business center of much of Africa, abounds with new skyscrapers, heavy traffic -- including the Mercedes-Benz cars of the Wabenzi, as rich Kenyan entrepreneurs are known, safari-bound tourists, an enormous number of Western experts on everything from charcoal braziers to recombinant DNA.

The air, at 6,000 feet, is bracing. Broad mimosa trees, hills green with tea and coffee, and the many parks and luxury hotels tend to obscure the squatter camps and shantytowns that spread like fungus on the outskirts. Nairobi is a vibrant city, people seem to walk faster, laugh louder. Yet there's an air of impermanence, too, a reminder there are few ruins of ancient cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Next Monday, Aug. 10, an expected 4,000 delegates from 154 countries will gather here for the two-week United Nations conference on new and renewable sources of energy. The setting, Nairobi's Kenyatta Conference Center with its 28-story circular tower, hanging gardens, and giant assembly hall shaped like a huge African thatched hut, is architecturally stunning.

But the real setting is Kenya itself, long the model of successful development in Africa but now caught in the classic third- world poverty trap of soaring oil costs and stagnant export earnings.

The purpose of the conference is to promote better understanding of the global energy transition from oil to such new sources as geothermal, solar, wind , ocean, and hydropower or energy from biomass, fuelwood, charcoal, peat, draught animals, oil shale, and tar sands.

Implicit is the challenge to the West to either come up with new energy technologies or more equitably share what resources can now be harnessed. Those of us who travel by jet, drive cars, heat or cool homes filled with appliances, and work in high-rise buildings perhaps consume 1,000 times more energy than the Masai tribesman who relies on animals, wind, water, sun, and his own muscles.

This gap has to close if population growth is to be checked. Kenya is also symbolic here, it has a 3.9 percent annual growth rate, probably the highest on earth.This could double the number of Kenyans in just 18 years.

Successive oil shocks since 1973 and soaring debts have not only put the world's economic system under great strain, but also in third-world countries like Kenya, have dangerously slowed technological advance. Nearly 100 of the 133 developing countries now depend on oil to meet 60 percent of their growing fuel and fertilizer needs, 80 percent of it imported. This cost them $67 billion last year and will go up to about $110 billion by 1990.

Trade deficits almost exactly equal oil import costs. External debts of over gives in foreign aid.

In Kenya hope lies in applying science to peasant agriculture; things like finding a vaccine to control the tsetse fly or east coast fever, which severely restrict livestock production, or breeding improved dryland crops. Now 86 precent of the 17 million Kenyans are crowded onto the 17.4 percent of the country's total land that is cool and rainy enough to grow crops.

After more than 20 years of feeding itself, Kenya in the mid-1970s began to face shortages of maize, wheat, rice, and milk.

Yet Kenya, like much of Africa, is a land of enormous agricultural potential.

For Kenya, and for Africa, natural and man-made disasters meant falling food production, and rising hunger and civil strife in the 1970s. The 1980s may show whether those Masai are wrong.

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