Weeping for Kenya

04/03/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

Today, I weep not only for Kenya, but all of humanity. A senseless attack has left 147 -- maybe more -- people dead, and the innocence of countless others shattered. I interact with college age students every day, and sometimes even wonder if a school shooting could happen on our campus. But who could envision the magnitude of the barbaric act carried out at Garissa University. As I watched my students in lab this afternoon, I wanted to weep for them. They innocently carried out their experiment, oblivious to the fact that some of their peers half-way around the world are no longer able to fret about tests or grades. Sadly, my students will soon leave campus to enter a world where hatred and intolerance lead people to slaughter bright young people, students who might just have been the ones to solve some of the world's most challenging problems. In Kenya, families will be burying their children.

My fascination with the continent of Africa began at an early age. This made no sense for a relatively sheltered blonde Finnish kid from a region where the population was 99 percent or more white and few people left their home county, much less dreamed of going to another continent. But when I was in second grade, I declared to my mother that I was going to join the Peace Corps, go to Africa and find a cure for cancer. I didn't join the Peace Corps; I did cancer research for awhile, but didn't find a cure. But I have had the good fortunate to travel to Africa three times. My brother is really the lucky one. He lived in Ghana for a full year, toured much of Western Africa, and even got married in Timbuktu.

I don't know what triggered my early interest in Africa, but I think it might have been cheetahs. And I can still hum the music of Born Free. But the allure for me has become the stories of the continent and the people. Oh to have the experiences of Elspeth Huxley as told in The Flame Trees of Thika, which is quite a different portrayal of life on the continent than that of Karen von Blixen-Finecke in Out of Africa. Many girls my age daydreamed about following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall. But I am equally captivated by the tragic stories. Oh how I cried watching Hotel Rwanda, Out of Africa and Blood Diamond. Or while reading Desmond Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness, about the truth and reconciliation trials, and Lisa Shannon's A Thousand Sisters, about the atrocities women suffer in the Congo. I have seen the quarry at Robben Island, and stood at the door of cell #4, prison B, peered down the Rift Valley, and explored the Great Pyramids. Those are experiences that connect you to all of humanity in ways that are difficult to put into words. Perhaps that is why I feel such loss, even though I did not personally know today's victims.

I have friends from Kenya: Ray Ray who is studying at the School of Forestry at Yale, Samwel, a Maasai I met through the U.N. climate meetings, and dear Christine -- one of my students when I was a new faculty member. I still remember her arriving in northeastern PA with no prior experience with cold and snow. We have remained close for two decades. Today, I weep with them, for them, for their homeland.

In one of my classes, I have students read Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. The author, Christian Parenti, argues that we are witnessing the first of the climate wars. He overlays the impacts of climate change in regions that have a long history of conflict and the result is banditry, violence and state failure. The book begins with the question of "Who killed Ekaru Loruman?" Ekaru was a pastoralist from northwestern Kenya brutally murdered as he tried to defend his few head of cattle. Samwel has told me that cattle are not only a measure of wealth, but also of how much of a man one is.

When you think of all the conflicts we have -- whether those conflicts are local, whether they are regional or global -- these conflicts are often over the management, the distribution of resources. If these resources are very valuable, if these resources are scarce, if these resources are degraded, there is going to be competition. Wangari Maathai

Does any of this explain the violence of the day? Can there be any explanation?

I dislike the overuse of the term "hero", but one woman from Kenya is a hero and inspiration to me -- Wangari Maathai. If you don't know the story of this Nobel Peace Prize winner, you should. I had the good fortune to get to know her a little in 2009; but cancer took her too soon after. So many of her words seem relevant at this moment:

I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.

All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.

If that last statement is true, how then can we take the lives of others? How can we harbor so much hatred and violence? If Wangari was still with us, a woman whose life was transformed by the chance for a college education in the U.S., she too would be crying today.