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Melissa Markstrom '09

Community-Based Action in Kenya

As Melissa Markstrom watched children as young as three years old herd goats through the bush in Kenya’s Maasailand this summer, she knew they were teaching her a valuable cultural lesson.

For the pastoral Maasai people, “you have an intense responsibility to your community from the time you can walk,” she said. Land is held communally, and group members depend on each other for survival. Contrast this with the United States, where communities can seem isolated, and culture tends to elevate the individual. In Africa, Melissa quickly found herself pitching in with the community.

“That’s really scary to put yourself out there that way,” she says, although she adds that sometimes all it takes is a little faith to accomplish things you never thought possible. “Trust yourself and other people will trust you.”

Melissa, a writing major, traveled to Kenya by way of a program through Prescott College, one of GMC’s EcoLeague exchange partners. Every year, the Arizona college sends a group to work on a project identified by Maasai leaders. For Melissa’s group, the task merged politics and organizing: The community wanted to challenge the government to return one of the many pieces of land stolen during colonialism.

It was a huge undertaking – the 15 students spent countless hours transcribing letters from landowners and correspondence between government officials found in the National Archives. They interviewed community members, and in the end created a 55-page report, essentially a “history that had never been written” regarding the Maasai people’s experience during colonial rule and their connection to the land.

With two computers for the group, and solar panels powering the machines, the project was a lesson in patience. But days before the group returned home, they presented their findings to government officials. Melissa says the situation “looks promising,” with the Kenyan vice-president voicing support for the return of the land.

“I learned a lot about what community-based action can look like,” she said. “It was a really humbling experience.” Melissa plans to continue her work on this project here in the United States, and will give a presentation at GMC sharing her experience. Not only did the work cement her commitment to the social justice field after college, it stands to have a ripple effect for other communities.

“This could be precedent-setting, not only in Kenya but in all of Africa,” she says. “If that land gets returned to them, it could be repeated again and again.”

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