Holding the Fire: Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling

Deep Relationship to the Land with Sam Olando

November 07, 2023 Post Carbon Institute: Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling Episode 6
Holding the Fire: Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling
Deep Relationship to the Land with Sam Olando
Show Notes Transcript

Dahr Jamail speaks with Sam Olando about the challenges his people have faced, over generations, as governments and/or corporate projects displace increasing numbers of people from their ancestral lands. Sam also discusses Indigenous values, the importance of community, and the functional nature of reciprocity.

Sam Olando, a Luo man from Kenya, is a human rights defender and community organizer who is the executive director of Pamoja Trust, an NGO dedicated to promoting access to land, shelter, and basic services for the vulnerable.

Dahr Jamail  
Welcome to Holding the Fire, Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling. I'm your host, Dahr Jamail.

As the great unraveling unfolds, it is almost always the most vulnerable populations, those with the fewest resources who suffer the most, whether it be from climate impacts, collapsing economies, or dysfunctional governments. And no matter where we look in the world, we can find Indigenous people among those who have felt the most severe impacts. Sam Olando, from Kenya, spoke to an aspect of this vulnerability that many of us don't often think of:

Sam Olando  
In my community, land is sort of the basis of identity, which gives you identity and it gives you a home, but we connect land with our ancestors. If this is where I buried my forefathers, then I have got a social attachment to it. So that when you are doing compensation when you're doing major infrastructure development programs, then compensation can not only be in terms of monetary compensation, but also must pay attention to the social attachment that I have to my piece of land.

Dahr Jamail  
Sam is a human rights defender and community organizer who is the Executive Director of Pomoja Trust, an NGO dedicated to promoting access to land, shelter, and basic services for the vulnerable. He is all too familiar with the challenges his people have faced for generations now, as governments or corporate projects displace increasing numbers of people from their ancestral lands. In our conversation, he discusses Indigenous values, particularly the notion of helping the most vulnerable first, the critical importance of community, and the functional nature of reciprocity. I found our conversation full of information that can be applied to all of humanity at this point in history. Welcome to the podcast.

Dahr Jamail  
Sam, thank you very much for sharing some of your time with me today. It's really good to have you on the podcast.

Sam Olando  
Thank you very much for extending the invitation to me. I'll be very glad to share my perspectives on the subject.

Dahr Jamail  
Very good. So I think what I'd like to do, Sam, is before we get into some of the broader questions that I like to pursue on the podcast, I'd like to start with asking you to just talk about some of the basic values that were instilled within you when you were growing up. Some of the more Indigenous values, things like what you learned about kinship and reciprocity, respect, responsibility, etc.

Sam Olando  
I'd love to start with some of the values which includes reciprocity, that my community did instill in me. As a young person, I remember very well that when we were eating together, the weakest or the youngest should always be the last person to eat the last piece of meat remaining in the bowl, or a piece of chicken remaining in the bowl. As soon as you grow up, you seldom, you know, maxims of this, but now I appreciate very much, that perhaps it was a value that as a society, we need to take care of the weakest. We need to take care of the smallest by giving them an opportunity to grow and eat more actually. 

I also remember very well as a young person that when someone was constructing a home, then all of us from the village want to join and actually offer our support, which was not monetary, or in any way expecting something in return, but just to join, you know, with putting the mud wall jointly with my age mates, sharing experiences. And after that in the evenings, then you will again share a meal as a family, as a community as you go back to a homestead. 

I also remember very well, that was a young person we had values of honesty. That I was not expected to lie. And I find that it's very interesting that some of this has been inscribed in our constitution as a nation, where I come, from that is Kenya, that there are particular values and principles of governance, and honesty being one of them. That I'm not expected to lie, that I am not expected to take something that belongs to someone. And that the community, the responsibility of the community, it is not only my parents who are supposed to take care of me, but that I belong to the community that I come from, and that the service that I offer should be a service to the community, and should be a service to humanity. And that anything that I do that that takes away that, in most occasions, then the community will regard as that which clouds from the good deeds of the community should be normally, that in the family should be normal,

Dahr Jamail  
I appreciate that. Especially the last bit that you shared, because it really flies in the face of the valuelessness of the dominant culture. You know, this extractivist culture that's so pervasive across so much of the planet now, that's the root of these problems that we're facing. And we'll come to that in a little bit. But what you just shared of, it doesn't make sense to do anything unless it has value to the broader community, is really the antithesis of this. And so of these values that you shared, can you talk a little bit about how being raised within that culture, how that contributed to bringing you into the work that you're now doing with Pomoja Trust and talk a little bit about what you do with your work there.

Sam Olando  
I think for a great extent, my upbringing did, in a very large extent, inform the social justice work that I am currently engaged in with Pomoja Trust. When when I take time to reflect, some of the values that were instilled in me that were not exploitative, that were communitarian in their nature, that exposed elements of social justice, that have elements of the spread of power, and evolution of power, that did espouse the values of equity, that did espouse the values of equality, to a large extent, has really influenced how I perceive the work that I do, particularly with the low income earners, both in the urban informal settlements, but also in the arid and semi-arid lands, similar to areas where  they come from. 

You know, to a larger extent, development has always been skewed towards those who have got the resources, to those who have got the voice. And to a greater extent, to find that majority of those who live in the margins, because their voices are smaller, because in most locations their voices are fragmented, then they do not have the opportunity to bring their voices forth. So unless they organize, unless they have the requisite capacity, unless they engaged within these spaces, then they seldom find their voices as part of the table. And to a larger extent, the approaches that have been sought, have been those approaches that seek to represent their voices, not approaches that seek to bring their voices with them to the table. And that has been a major difference. 

So then, the theory of change of the work that I do, has been to organize communities to give them the political power, but also to give them the material power. And that the material power, I suppose, to give these communities an opportunity to challenge the dominant exploitative culture that has permeated our society in the recent past. And this is through building over federations--from community organizing, larger federations of people with similar challenges, be it socioeconomic challenges, be it the cultural alienation that they face and such, you know, and this then bring model innovations. For instance, how do communities change their values and access to credit facilities? For instance, we've got facilities that are exploitative in nature, where there are high interest rates, or they're unable to get the collateral that is demanded, sometimes they do not own. So how do they create their alternatives? That they'll appreciate social capital, as well as access to credit that's appreciated. I know social networks have to develop among themselves a value to access credit, that appreciate honesty, so that when I borrow from the community then I'll return it because they respect me. And that I'll also respect them. That appreciate that there may be those who among us are in the margins, that are very vulnerable. How do we hold their hand by acting as the collateral for them, so that then they also get an opportunity to push and come from the most vulnerable situation that they are in. 

So that then led me into thinking the extent to which this can inform policy. Some of the policies that I've been engaging with, informed by these particular values, include the approach of giving a meaning to land. That land is not only viewed from a capitalist perspective, but land as social meaning. because in my community, land is the basis of identity, it gives you an identity, and it gives you a home. But in my community, land is sort of the basis of identity, which gives you identity and it gives you a home, but we connect land with our ancestors. If this is where I buried my forefathers, then I have got a social attachment to it. So that when you are doing compensation when you're doing major infrastructure development programs, then compensation can not only be in terms of monetary compensation, but also must pay attention to the social attachment that I have to my piece of land. That when I do work around access to water, that water points were not only spaces of drawing water, but also spaces in which key community discussions will be passed. That it was also a space that was a meeting point, particularly for women who are feeling vulnerable, and who perhaps are being pushed to the margins that they will use water points or spaces, for having discussions and airing out their frustrations, and the community take an opportunity to rectify this. So then some of this, then now should be translated into policy documents and the various arms of government that we engage with, and how this then is advanced in terms of practice. And then the cycle then starts again, with community organizing. So this is the extent to which these particular values have informed my work in the social justice sector. And Pomoja Trust.

Dahr Jamail  
And in stark contrast to that beautiful description of the work that you do there, and the values upon which that work is based, one of the overarching questions that I ask my guests is: From your perspective, then when you look out at the state of the world today, with these multiple cascading crises, which are often at least over here in the United States, referred to as the polycrisis, that are resulting from colonialism, rampant industrial growth, capitalism, and this extractivist mindset. When you look out at this world from your perspective, what do you see?

Sam Olando  
It's frightening, to say the least, because an honest look at my village, my community. We never had fences. But I'll walk into a home or a sojourner will come to our place, he will ask for water. But I was taught that when traveller passes by the homes to ask for water, don't give them water, give them a cup of porridge. That when I am at home, and neighbor is yelling for help, I need to come out and, you know, be with them. That when someone loses a loved one, then we've got a number of days for mourning and being with the family. 

It's very frightening at the moment because when I look at my village, I noticed that there are several homes coming up that have got fences and gates. That when you do commercial farming nowadays, then unless you fence your farm there will be people who will want to come in and steal from me. That was unheard of. That when in the village, this child who is struggling, that no one cares anymore. But the majority of us were able to get education because the village members of the villages that we come from, were organizing a welfare system, and they will do fundraising for us, and they will pay fees -- that our school fees were paid by, you know, our parents taking a tin of maize to the school or corn to the school. That our fees were paid by our parents taking perhaps sacks of maize to school. 

But that is changing. Because it's turning out to be more exploitative, where you are required to pay money. A majority of the families are unable to raise the resources. So then ultimately you get very bright minds dropping out of school. That there is no formalization of the informal education that instill these values to us. That, you know, can no longer walk into a home with a tin and be given a bowl of cooking flour, with the hope that, you know, you will also give someone who lacks. That now, for you to access, you know, corn flour, you have to go to the shop and have money to be able to purchase and to be able to feed your family. So you look at it, and now it's changing the societies of the communities that we live in. I

t's frightening, and to a great extent it's my opinion, that is not sustainable, because we start noticing a lot of guns, in terms of organized criminal gangs. Imagine in the urban and the rural parts of the communities that I come from. And this is because there are unable to access the basics that as a young person I did access. That this is so exploitative, and so exclusive. Their parents are unable to pay for their school fees. They are unable to proceed to tertiary education. They are unable to, you know, get resources to be able to eat everyday. And it's because the model upon which our governments are hinged on are very exploitative, are not imagining how to turn this particular economic model to a model that is built around the welfare system, that the majority of us grew in. So I fear for the generation that is coming after us. And unfortunately, this has permeated our political system, our justice system, and it's quite sad.

Dahr Jamail  
Another thing that you do within your organization is grief work. You refer to it as grievance handling mechanisms. Can you talk a little bit about that work?

Sam Olando  
So grievance-handling mechanism is synonomous with our work on access to justice. And it is related to the constitutional shift that we did have in 2010. And you know, our judicial system was very much rooted in the colonial system of governance, which has been quite exploitative. So in our constitution we did acknowledge the presence of traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. And these traditional dispute resolution mechanisms are in the context of, you know, village elders solving a dispute in communities. You know, in the context of market committees, solving a dispute between the traders. It was in the context of, you know, chamas, we refer to them as chamas. But chamas are basically groupings of people doing savings so that they're able to access credit, solving disputes among themselves. So then what we have done is that we have expanded this within what is called Alternative Justice Systems Policy that is now being championed by the judiciary in Kenya, which is an arm of government. And what the judiciary are currently doing is that a case or a matter can come to court, regarding a dispute among siblings on succession, and the courts will refer this matter back to the traditional dispute resolution mechanism. And that when the parties agree, then this particular system will write a report that will be filed and will be adopted in court as part and parcel of proceedings and the determination of the court.

Dahr Jamail  
So it sounds like really, you've have so much experience yourself, but also within your community and what you're trying to do within your organization, is really using the alternative justice system, as an example, just setting up these different ways to get things done and better ways to live for people. Because that's happening against the backdrop of the colonial system, as well as things collapsing and just not working, starting to not work anymore, with the problems that exist becoming wider and bigger. But you're building these alternatives. Is that an accurate thing to say? And it sounds like it's pretty effective. Is that correct?

Sam Olando  
That's very correct, because we normally say, on most ocassions, that our judicial system is overwhelmed by cases that they need to handle. But from a survey that was done in 2017, we noticed that our judiciary is only handling 21% of the disputes. So meaning that the alternative justice system, the traditional justice systems, are handling over 70% of the disputes that arise. But they're not recognized within the formal system. So then that's a problem. Because our formal system was built on the colonial Kenya, which was geared towards, you know, pushing to the margins those who are already vulnerable. So then, to what extent do we then restitute and make the traditional as rational?

Dahr Jamail  
Hmm, okay. And these systems, would you say that there's alternate systems being set up, that are effective or beginning to become effective, in relation to helping those without have better access to food, water, healthcare, etc.?

Sam Olando  
Yes, there are, particularly in the water sector, what we call the limited water management model, where there's some space for access to water from a group or communities. And this allows community members to be able to organize, from a communitarian perspective, and be able to access water from a single point and be able to share the costs that come with this. 

We also have witnessed this within the health sector, particularly on access to insurance schemes for the health sector, but it's not been very progressive because it still relies quite a lot on the ability of someone to pay the premiums. But the group coming as a cover and providing the capital that is needed to cover a member of their community to access healthcare. Within the education sector, however, it's still a bit exploitative, but we are seeing communities organizing, and a lot of community schools coming up where the guarantee is given by communitarian perspective, with the committee supporting schools to come up and sustain themselves, and the Board of Management organized within the locality, or this particular schools. 

However, much of this sector has, I think, the appetite to monetize from a capitalist perspective is still very high, because communities will organize and seek to give this life, but then the government policies in most locations treat this with a lot of mischief. And in our politics, it's organized such that those who normally make these decisions end up to be the owners of the capital because they are able to campaign themselves into office and get into spaces for decision making. So that then ultimately, most occasions, you find the policies that they don't appreciate the organizing, that the vulnerable are taking within the these key sectors, that give human dignity, and that restate these values that these communities have lived in for a very long period of time.

Dahr Jamail  
Amidst the backdrop of all of these challenges that you face, and your community faces, when things get very dire and extremely challenging, and maybe when you feel dispirited or overwhelmed, what keeps you going, what gives you hope, or what helps you stay motivated to continue forward with your work?

Sam Olando  
One of the things that I'm noticing is that As the exploitation keeps becoming more and more entrenched, the generation that is coming out is more bold. And they're using technology and social media spaces to drive different conversations that they do not fit to chillin, those who express them. And that gives a real hope, that with war organizing, with more context setting, then we will a society that then will go back to their values that keep them quite. And this, you will notice from the focuses that we see with the students associations, this one, you'll see with the organizing that you see within the traders, the various markets. This one you will see with the organizing that you see around the communities that want to access credit for their small enterprises. This one you will see within communities that seek justice, particularly in the application of traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. And to a greater extent, this is changing the narrative. I remember this time that this community did attack some of these establishments on social media told them that we not need the loans. And if our leaders come to take the loans know very well, that they have not gotten the authority from us. And that to me, then the ring a bell, on the ES all the political class that unless you control that unless you listen, that unless the US systems are anchored on the values, so you know, honesty over simplicity, then, to a greater extent, you stand to lose. That is a matter of when not if so it needs a lot more of education, more conversation within the spaces that matter. So that then we have an opportunity to challenge the dominant. So I keep the hope alive. And I see it happening because I'm living in that moment. That is between the generation that did not do this account, but did attempt to challenge this, they were not successful under a generation that is not taking it lying down. So I remain very hopeful. And this keeps me going every day.

Dahr Jamail  
Thank you. And that is heartening. Sam, thank you very, very much for all of that. It's been an enlightening and an invigorating conversation with you, and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.

This podcast is hosted and produced by me Dahr Jamail, Melody Travers Allison, Asher Miller, and Rob Dietz. Theme music is Hold That Spirit by Raye Zaragoza. This is a program of the Post Carbon Institute. And you can learn more about this podcast along with other information on the Great Unraveling at resilience.org.

The birdsong you are hearing is the Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill, native to the area where Sam and his people are from. Thanks for listening to Holding the Fire: Indigenous Voices on the Great Unraveling. Please check out the next episode where I speak with Paty Gualinga, an Indigenous rights defender and foreign relations leader of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, an Indigenous community based in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

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