Have you ever been below the freeway overpass in San Francisco’s SOMA district and noticed the rows of homeless tents? How likely is it that any of the grandchildren of those unfortunate people will become President of the United States?
Let’s be honest, it’s probably not going to happen.
Yet, as of 2016, I’m still not sure American culture has fully internalized the incredible fact that the 44th President of the United States is a man whose father was born in a mud hut.
Let me repeat that.
The President’s father was born in a mud hut!
Raised in a small village near Kenya’s Lake Victoria, as a boy Barack Obama Sr. walked five miles barefoot each day to get to school, but eventually, through what must have been undeniable intellectual ability and ambition, walked his way to Harvard University, where he pursued a PhD in economics.
In the summer of 1988, his son, 26-year old Barack Obama Jr., visited K’Ogelo Kanyadhiang, Kenya for the first time as a way to engage with his heritage and learn more of his father, who had died in a Nairobi car accident six years earlier.
It turns out his father’s brilliance was short lived. He had become a broken man, a bitter alcoholic who beat his wife and showed no love or concern for any of his children. But the trip proved a seminal moment for the future President, who had then been working as a community organizer.
“The work I was doing was directly connected to my own family and their own struggles,” he later wrote. “It helped to unify my outward self with my inward self in an important way.”
At the same time, and about 250 miles to the southeast, 21-year old Joni Binder was also on a path of discovery, but with an origin of quite a different nature.
A fourth generation Californian who grew up in sunny Venice Beach, she was among the second class of women ever admitted to Columbia University, and was studying photography at California Institute of the Arts when she decided to take a semester off and study in Kenya. After learning Swahili, her interest in the Maasai people led her to actually live with a traditional Maasai family for several weeks.
“I’m 21 years old. I have traveled three continents to be where I am now, preparing to live with the Maasai. I have my camera, empty journals, a couple t-shirts, a pair of old flip-flops, and a bottle of red hair dye,” she wrote at the time.
“My destination, an unnamed village in the south of Kenya. It can only be found by looking for the Mile 46 marker in the dry red dirt of Maasailand. I will be difficult to find here. There are no phones. There is no electricity to power any lights through the very dark nights.”
What she found during her visit was something she held with her for the rest of her life, and now brings to us all in her important new book documenting the experience, “Mile 46: Face to Face in Maasailand” (which is being released March 8th at Amazon, followed by a national roll-out on April 5th).
While observing and being respectful of the Maasai lifestyle, she witnessed a dark aspect to their culture, including domestic violence, female circumcision, and arranged marriages. Even today, though it’s illegal, more than one in four Kenyan girls are subjected to genital mutilation, which can lead to death, or lifelong problems with urination, infections, infertility, and birth complications.
Binder’s beautiful photos in Mile 46 depict the daily lives of her Maasai hosts and their community, interspersed with her journal entries from the time and her observations nearly three decades later. She tries to reconcile her respect for their cultural and spiritual practices with her own convictions as a liberated Western woman.
An early reader of the book, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, sees it as a call to action for all of us to challenge ideologies throughout the world that enable oppression. She says the book “reveals how the unique struggles of one community and one culture are not separate from the common plight of all humanity’s women and girls.”
It’s a challenge Binder’s contemporaneous traveler has recently drawn attention to as well.
Visiting Kenya seven months ago for the first time since becoming President, Barack Obama told an approving crowd of 4,500 that “Treating women as second-class citizens is a bad tradition: it holds you back. There’s no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence, there’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation, there’s no place in a civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children.”
He said, “These traditions may go back centuries– they have no place in the 21st century.”
Traditions. How disparate they appear yet how intertwined. A girl is born in a mud hut, poorly educated, forced into marriage, and spends the rest of her life in domestic servitude. A boy is also born in a mud hut, goes to college, his son becomes leader of the world’s greatest nation, and that man returns to the land of his father to speak out against the plight of its girls and women. One tradition can change another.
There is a belief among the Maasai that “Morning brings good news.”
It takes time. It takes people who care, people who report and act, people like Joni Binder. But day after day, morning after morning, positive change can happen.
Mile 46: Face to Face in Maasailand is available for pre-order at amazon.com