After spending a couple of weeks traipsing throughout the astonishing wilderness of Kenya, what impressed and amazed me most was not the diverse vegetation, the awe-inspiring views, the profound ancient culture, nor the selection of exotic, wild animals.
Coming from a privileged lifestyle in North America, I was awestruck by coming face-to-face with, and re-discovering the value of, the planet's most valuable and precious, most natural and most fragile resource.
No, it's not water.
Not clean air.
Not the eco-system.
It's our children.
To explain, while in Africa, I had the chance to witness a rare Samburu Warrior coming-of-age ceremony, one that takes place once every 14 years or so. To get to it, we had to leave our camp--which was plonked somewhere in the middle of nowhere--and drive about 90 minutes even deeper into nowhere until we came to a makeshift, sticks-and-mud village smack dab in a desert.
In this village gathered about 750 people, many who walked hours just to get there. The newly-of-age warriors danced and jumped; the Samburu women undulated in time with the music and chanting, their heavy beaded necklaces bouncing in a rhythmic wave; the elders drank "Jungle Juice," ultra-potent homemade liquor; dogs and goats roamed free and a recently-slaughtered cow roasted over an open fire.
And in between all this ran about 50 kids ranging in age from about one to 10. None wore any shoes, many went without pants, and all sported dresses or t-shirts that were colorful, but bore the tell-tale signs of consecutive days of wear without change.
Every one of these kids was gorgeous, curious and entirely natural. Despite the obvious language barrier, we hit it off immediately. We imitated each other's walks and facial expressions. We played silly juvenile games like "peek-a-boo" and "I'm gonna get ya!" We laughed lots.
Most of these kids had never seen images of themselves, so when I pulled out my iPhone, it was as if I was an alien from another world (which, in essence, I was) with some sort of sci-fi magic in hand. The joy and glee at seeing themselves was palpable, and equally as astounding was how rapidly they learned the iPhone's swipe, pinch and double-tap functions as they enlarged and played with their digital likenesses (see photo above).
Despite the once-in-a-lifetime color and pageantry of the ceremony surrounding me, the kids were my entire focus that day (one of our guides overheard an elderly Samburu women commenting "I don't know who that white man is, but I hope he sticks around to take care of the kids during mealtime").
They were also my most valuable learning of my two-week trip.
And this is what they taught me:
Like water and air and greenery, kids are the same all over the world. No matter where they are--big city, small town or remote wilderness. They laugh at the same silliness. They stare at the same things in wonderment. They play the same goofy games. They are pure, innocent and unspoiled in their element...until they get older. Like water and air and forests, kids start out pristine, but get polluted and cut down fast. In fact, as a species, and this is so sad, but kids are universally tainted as they up.
So whether you need a bush plane and a Toyota Land Cruiser to find them in the African wilderness, or whether they're being pushed in a stroller through Central Park, remember:
The planet's children are
its most important and
valuable natural resource.
Do right by them, educate them properly, give them room to grow and eventually they'll clean the dirty water, scrub the polluted air and re-stock the vanishing forests.
And, best of all, maybe they'll hold onto the unique, unspoiled qualities of being children just a little bit longer...before passing it along to their own offspring.
P.S At least one more African lesson next week. Until then, here's the result of our photo-taking session above: