Mzungu, How Are You?

In Swahili the word "mzungu" means a foreigner, usually a white person.  It can be used in a derogatory manner, but when I hear it from an adorable little girl in a purple dress, smiling and waving to me as our 4Wheel drive speeds by her hut on a dirt road, I am delighted to smile and wave back. She means no insult. The fact that she speaks English to me means she is reaching out, wanting to connect with a foreigner in her home. I am flattered and wonder, sincerely, how am I? It's been four months since I became the Executive Director of The Samburu Project (TSP) and I have been in high gear ever since. Volunteering for TSP had been my pet project and hobby for more than 5 years before it became my job. In between our Walk for Water, re-vamping our website and going through my first financial audit, I've been asked several times, what makes TSP different than other water charities? There are so many water charities as there is such a tremendous need around the world for clean water. We all know we aren't as big as Charity Water or but with 84 wells and providing water to more than 80,000 people, TSP has done some fantastic work in ten years.

In addition to providing clean water, eradicating death from water-borne diseases, and sending more girls to school, the fact that people around the world are connected through TSP is something of which I am particularly proud. As the director of an art gallery for so many years, one of the things I loved most about being in the art world was the people I met along the way. The artists, collectors, scholars, writers, who became friends and brought their gifts and talents into my world was something I absolutely LOVED about being a part of the art community. As the ED of TSP, I am finding a similar sense of community in our work.

Our interns and volunteers who are so young and passionate and want to change the world inspire me every day.  Kiki Swanson, my right hand and "gal Friday" has made the ED transition as smooth as silk.  Not only is she organized and capable of 101 things at once, because of her passion for all things African, she has connected her family and friends from all over the country to TSP.  Our staff in Kenya who know every bush, hill, tree, manyatta and family in Samburu impress me immeasurably. Lucas and Eric each speak Samburu, Swahili and English and probably more languages than that. They know how to survive in the bush and get the car moving when it's stuck or broken. They are diplomats in the community, engineers in well maintenance and are the face and voice of TSP in Kenya.  The donors are our lifeline. Without them, there would be no water, no sense of community, no TSP. The lives they lead as global citizens give us all purpose to do the work - and some of them are art collectors! The people I have met since becoming involved in TSP have already enriched my life in ways I couldn't have imagined.

Now, that I am in Kenya, in Samburu on my first official visit, I am meeting the people in village after village whose lives have been changed because of TSP, and that feeling of connecting is stronger than ever. When we roll up to a village in the TSP truck, people come to meet us to say "Ashe Oleng" (thank you in Samburu) and begin to sing and dance as is their way of saying thank you. I want to share that feeling of connectedness with everyone back in the states and UK. We are all connected through this small but mighty organization. As the Dalai Lama said in a lecture I attended before leaving LA to come to Kenya, "we must respect and love eachother, we are all inhabiting this small blue planet." Through TSP, I truly feel the power of that sentiment.

So when people ask me why TSP is different than the other water charities, I answer that we are a charity that truly connects people, connects them through water, around the globe, on our tiny blue planet. And in answer that that little Samburu girl in the purple dress, this "muzungu" is great, happy to be in this place, right here, right now.

I hope you will stay tuned and continue reading my "Samburu Stories" as I share my adventures in Kenya with all of our TSP friends and family.

Ashe Oleng


Members of the TSP team for this trip (left to right): Me, Eric Lekolii (TSP Kenya Team), Brendan Curran (Intern), Lucas Lekwale (TSP Project Manager, Kenya Team), Iris Schneider (Journalist and former Los Angeles Times photographer) and the members of the Lolgerdad well community near Archer's Post, Samburu County, Kenya.