The Small World Duka
Finding a place in the world
In the 1970s, the Small World Duka was what you would technically call a restaurant outside Nairobi. It amounted to some wooden picnic tables and a couple corrugated tin shacks plopped down on the wide expanse of the Kenyan plains. Farm animals—chickens, some goats, a few sad cattle—wondered around the place. There were no fences in sight and no apparent need for fences. The animals seemed to sense that they would fare better close to the Small World Duka than they would out in the wild world beyond. For the most part, they were right.
Brightening the scene was a giant Jacaranda tree that, when blossoming, would mark that drab spot on the plains with a shock of purple. In retrospect, I think the tree was the sole reason the Small World Duka was where it was. It threw shade over the picnic tables, giving patrons some relief from the sun while they ate.
Some of those patrons included my family and our African friends. We were living in Nairobi. My parents—a doctor and a nurse—were working in hospitals; my brother, Brion, and I were school kids, barefoot and feral much of the time, which, for us, was the beauty and whole point of being in Africa.
The little barbecue spot attracted Kenyans and ex-pats alike. My mom—much to my chagrin as a shy young boy—made friends with anyone and everyone she talked to. Put her in a room with a random sampling of society and she would come out friends with the one I was convinced was the axe murderer. So, our friends in Kenya cut across every distinction you could think of: tribal group—Luo, Maasai, Kikuyu—nationality, socio-economic status, age, and savoriness.
One hot afternoon we went to the Small World Duka with a couple of my parents’ friends that I liked a great deal: Astrid, a Danish woman and Paul Kamau, a gregarious Kenyan who managed the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, an iconic hangout for the colonial and post-colonial set.
With cold beers on a table in the shade, my parents, Kamau, and Astrid launched into the politics of Kenya’s fledgling independent state. None of it meant much to two young boys, so that was the cue for my brother and me to find something else to do.
We left the table and started wondering around the expanse of open land behind the tin shacks. The yard of the duka became savanna, stretching for all practical purposes forever. The field was littered with chickens and goats nibbling at the grass. Two little boys, younger than my brother and I, were chasing chickens, laughing as they ran. Brion and I joined them. One of the boys caught one at full sprint, then paid the price as the chicken gouged him on the hand with his beak. The boy threw the chicken up in the air, then sucked on the divot oozing blood from his hand. He and his friend exploded with laughter.
A few minutes later, two shirtless men wearing khaki shorts and sandals fashioned from tire treads walked out of the duka. They were speaking Kikuyu to each other. Goats and chickens scattered. They barked a few words to the boys we were playing with then spread out into the field, each with a long stick in hand. They singled out a goat—gray and skinny—and started herding it toward the boys. The boys, obviously skilled at this, moved to the flanks of the goat and ran alongside it as the two men behind flushed it forward. We followed the lot of them as they moved the goat into the back of one of the outbuildings.
It was not really a room as most would know one, just a space enclosed by three tin walls braced by tree branches. The dirt floor was hardened and shiny from use. A red sheet served as both the door and a fourth wall. There was some conversation in Kikuyu while the men fiddled with ropes. One of the men slipped a loop around the goat’s neck then flipped the tail of the rope up and over a cross beam above us.
Before Brion or I really understood what was happening, the man with the rope yanked on it, tightening around the goat’s neck. He heaved again and the goat lifted off the dirt floor. What sticks in my mind all these years later was the goat’s frantic braying and dull, marble-like eyes staring out at the empty space. All that ended when the other Kikuyu man brought a big machete up to the goat’s throat and cut it.
Kenya in 1970 was a wondrous place. Just a few years into its nascent independence, the country enjoyed the excitement and energy of a new democracy coupled with the infrastructure the British had left behind. There were schools and trains and commerce. The country was bursting with wildlife, occasional tourists, and a great deal of hope. Much of the country still lived an agrarian life, but it was an agrarian life in balance.
The upside of my mom befriending every questionable person we bumped into was that we came to know a lot of people. In addition to the ex-pats from Europe, we met Maasai elders, Kikuyu tribe members, Luo people, witch doctors, students, warriors, and duka owners. We were invited to a Maasai wedding and once a circumcision ceremony. They gave us celebratory drinks of cow’s blood and milk, fed us meat from freshly slaughtered cows. We camped in the bush, hunted, crisscrossed the game parks, and more times than I can remember got our Land Cruiser stuck in the mud in places where we suddenly became the hunted instead of the hunters.
There could be no better place for a young boy to live and experience a wild world.
When that goat died, I was 10 but felt quite a bit older when later that day we had plates of barbecue ribs and ugali—a maize dish—the big sun dropping behind an even bigger horizon.
It was the first time I really made the link between my self—the needs and wants of a 10-year-old—and the rest of the world. That that goat died so that a handful of us could eat a meal was a truth that settled in, then took root. It marked a shift: The world wasn’t just there for the taking, bounty provided by God—or some other facsimile—for us to gorge on. Actions had reactions; they did not just happen in a vacuum. My 10-year-old brain suddenly saw the world as a zero-sum game. My gain came with the goat’s loss. At the time, this was simply an observation as to the balance between life and death.
The concept reappeared in a different form later in life when I started studying science. In that setting, I came to know it as the law of the conservation of mass, which says in effect that in a closed system (our earth and sky) matter is neither created nor destroyed, but rather conserved. Matter can take different forms, but what we’ve got is what we’ve got. Ice can turn to water, which can turn to gas, but the world will always have the same number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms it has had since the beginning of time.
The same truism showed up later still while studying thermodynamics: energy is always conserved. It might transform from chemical energy (gasoline) to kinetic energy (moving car) to potential energy (car at the top of a hill), but the net amount is always constant.
It turned out that these two laws of nature were really the same thing. It took an Einstein—the actual one—to understand and illuminate the equivalence between matter and energy in the world’s most famous equation that everyone knows but has a shaky understanding of (E=mc2).
I bring this up not because people love to review high school physics but because the concept seems relevant to the trajectory of our lives. Like it or not, we are facing twin dilemmas: the world is heating up and the biodiversity of the earth is rapidly diminishing. Both are easily measured. And both, independently or together, can take us down.
What does the conservation of mass-energy have to do with the fate of the world?
Understanding and living by the principle of conservation precipitates a shift in perspective about our place in the world: from that of lording over a pantry of resources—separate and distinct from ecosystems—to one in which we are intimately connected to and dependent on the fate of other species and ecosystems. While over the course of evolution we have risen above all other species to dominate the earth, the fact remains that we need the rest of them to stay alive, let alone dominate.
Most hunters, farmers, ranchers and Indigenous people—anyone who truly lives off the land—knows and lives this reality. You can’t hunt if there is no habitat for what you hunt, can’t farm if you deplete your soil. Overfish the salmon and your tribe starves.
Basically, you’re doomed if you don’t take care of your land, your animals, the habitats that they need.
The specifics of how biodiversity determines our fate could be the subject of a dissertation, and probably is. But the basics are simple. A diversity of species is critical to ecosystem resilience—we’re talking about ecosystem or ecosystems on a grand scale—against perturbations, whether disease, dramatic climate shifts, or individual species extinctions.
Think of ecosystems as a game of Jenga. For the uninitiated, Jenga (derived from the Swahili word kujenga, to build) is a game developed in the early 1970s by a British woman living in Tanzania. Fifty-four wooden blocks, not all identical, are used to create a rectangular tower. Each player takes turns pulling one block out of the tower and placing it on top of the tower. Obviously, the tower can withstand a few missing blocks, but eventually it becomes unstable and collapses. Ecosystems behave the same way. There is stability—i.e., health—in numbers.
Healthy ecosystems represent much more than a tedious phrase you would find in a U.N. report. They generate the oxygen (through photosynthesis) and clean water (nitrogen uptake) and food (insect pollination—which generates one-third of the world’s food production) that we need to live. What’s more, a great many pharmaceuticals that keep us alive were first derived and continue to be harvested from natural sources.
We’ve been playing a big game of Jenga with the tower of species that keeps us alive. Since 1970 (right about when Jenga was developed), the population of vertebrates—mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles—has decreased by 68%. Invertebrates, the less charismatic creatures of the animal kingdom, are animals without a backbone—jellyfish, insects, parasites, fungi, corals, squids, among others. They comprise approximately 97% of all animals in the world, and their population has decreased by about 45% since 1980. The question is: At what percentage does the grand tower collapse?
As for climate, it is no great revelation to say that it is intertwined with our ecosystems. Mess with climate and you mess with a whole bunch of species at the same time and with unpredictable consequences.
The way I see it, the political fight over the cause of climate change—man made or natural—is a global waste of energy and time. What does matter is how greenhouse gases interact with solar radiation coming into our atmosphere and how they interact with the heat that leaves the earth (infrared radiation). The physics is thoroughly understood and demonstrable.
The second fact to note is that the amount of carbon and methane (the two worst greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since 1750 (we know this by analyzing air bubbles trapped in ice sheets over time). Does it matter whether those increases are a result of the Industrial Revolution or volcanoes? Fugitive gas leaks in coal and petroleum production or belching cows? Termites or concrete production?
We can argue about the past forever, but something we can control is the amount of carbon and methane we put in the atmosphere moving forward. We know that adding more exacerbates the problems we face; adding less reduces the problems we face. It’s a basic closed system conservation of mass situation. We want to rebalance the carbon in our world—get more of it in plants and trees and in the earth and less of it in the atmosphere.
If none of this makes sense, then there is still another way to look at it. And that is through the lens of humility. I’m not a religious person, but I do know that humility before God—or whatever you deem to be God—is a central tenet in most religions. As it is written in the Old Testament: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
I don’t know if humility will save humanity, but it’s seems like a good way to start. Humility engenders respect and respect binds the world together.
I often think about that skinny four-legged fellow that died one hot afternoon in Africa. He’s long gone now but, curiously, he sticks with me.
It’s always surprising what you can learn from a goat.