‘Change is coming,’ to Kenya

An engaging and inspiring speaker, Fort Lewis College alumnus Ledama Olekina visited recently from his native Kenya. He talked to FLC professor Neil McHugh’s Survey of African History class and others during his stay. Olekina, a member of the Maasai tribe, is running for governor. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

An engaging and inspiring speaker, Fort Lewis College alumnus Ledama Olekina visited recently from his native Kenya. He talked to FLC professor Neil McHugh’s Survey of African History class and others during his stay. Olekina, a member of the Maasai tribe, is running for governor.

Durango is playing a big role in the upcoming election.

No, no. Not in Tuesday’s U.S. election. We’re talking about Kenya’s national election March 4, and the aspirations of a Fort Lewis College graduate who considers Durango his second home.

While the United States has its problems, Africa’s politics are even more dysfunctional. But here’s a reason for hope:

If Ledama Olekina is elected the first-ever governor of the Kenyan county of Narok, and others who are inclined to bring fairness and economic stability are also voted into power, the country will be in good hands.

A pie-in-the-sky dream, or potential reality? Olekina, a Maasai brought up in a mud hut, hardly hesitated when considering the question.

“Do I believe change is coming? Do I believe this world will be a better place?

“Absolutely.”

As a Fort Lewis student he often donned his traditional Maasai clothing. Late last month, sitting in the lobby of the Strater Hotel, the 37-year-old made an impressive figure in a blue shirt and tie and a black suit coat. He was visiting his old stomping grounds of Durango to drum up support for his cause and to present opportunities to local businesses.

Olekina certainly made his mark at the school. And he raised attention when he walked from Durango to Phoenix, then continued the trek from Boston to Chicago. He graduated in 2001 with degrees in political science and journalism.

During his FLC days, Olekina established a nonprofit organization that he says has helped 20,000 Maasai girls get an education. He continues to champion that cause, as well as battling to help the Maasai get back land they have lost and to improve living conditions. He now makes a living by farming with a greenhouse and helping others build them.

Seeing their former student’s effort to bring morality to Kenya’s government is rewarding to his FLC professors.

“I think his heart is in absolutely the right place,” said Rick Loether, a former psychology department professor who played a key role in bringing Olekina to Fort Lewis in the 1990s.

The money in Kenya needs to flow back to the people, and not to tribal-dominated and political interests, said Loether, who annually brought student research classes to East Africa, where he met Olekina. “I think it will if Ledama is elected. ... He’s certainly up against an entrenched system.”

Olekina kept busy during his quick stay here last month, speaking to FLC classes, talking at the Strater to the business community and even having lunch with FLC President Dene Kay Thomas.

In front of 25 students in professor Neil McHugh’s “Survey of African History” class, Olekina was in his element as he gave a primer on Kenyan political history and the creation of a new constitution, approved by voters in 2010.

The constitution decentralized power. Money now theoretically flows to the 47 counties rather than being distributed wholly by the federal government.

Narok is a county, or state, of 850,000 residents in the southwest part of the country. It includes the famed Maasai Mara Reserve that borders the Serengeti of Tanzania.

At present, the money generated at Maasai Mara does not end up proportionally in Narok, Olekina says. The county’s roads, schools and other infrastructure are in dire need of help.

What fuels your passion, one student asked.

“I came to America with one purpose – to get an education, go back and the change the life of our people.”

Kenyan voters in March will pick a new president, as well as governors of all 47 newly created counties, plus national representatives. The last election, in 2007, ended in widespread violence.

Even with its freshly printed constitution, not everyone’s bullish on Kenya.

“It needs young people like us to really make it happen,” Olekina said. “If we rely on these people who have robbed the country of millions and millions of dollars, and they come singing and dancing with their dollars back to us ... then we’re not going far.”

When you’re sitting there listening to him, it’s easy to catch his enthusiasm, to believe in Olekina’s vision of a bright future for Kenya. Right here in Durango, he says, is where he learned how the world works, and that “one step can really change the world.”

“It’s all about trying to change people’s life. That’s what I’m all about,” he said. “If I die today, if you ever hear about Ledama, I want you to hear about him as someone who had a big impact on this world.”

johnp@durangoherald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story