The Smartest Man I Know


The Smartest Man I Know

Foreword to “The Smartest Man I Know”


Rutendo Urenje

Managing Editor

African Peace Journal


Karim and I first met when I was doing my high school at Arundel Girls School in Harare, Zimbabwe, almost fifteen years ago.

Karim was working closely with my dad, Shepherd Urenje, who was the Geography teacher at my school, and I met Karim when my dad invited Karim over to our home in Harare for a family meal and a working session. He was in Zimbabwe for field research on African educational and humanitarian social enterprise, as part of his Doctoral Thesis research at Harvard University.

I observed my dad and Karim working closely at a ‘shanty town’ or ‘slum’, outside Harare, on a hunger relief program they initiated, for disabled children and their mothers, who were sadly shunned from the cruel social discrimination of the oppressive dictatorship government under which we lived in Zimbabwe.

I should mention that since that time over ten years ago, our family were accepted as immigrant refugees to Sweden, where I studied Law at Lund University and am now a Human Rights lawyer.

At that early stage, when I was still a teenager in high school in Zimbabwe, I recognized that Karim had a keen sense of social justice, combined with a very savvy and perceptive way in which to implement humanitarian programs with an ethic of personal responsibility and a framework of always providing “A Hand Up and not a Hand Out”.

That was certainly true of the project that my dad and Karim worked on in the slum village outside Harare, where the disabled children and their mothers, who had been abandoned by their husbands, lived on subsistence and were on the brink of starvation.

My dad and Karim created a thriving artisan paper making business for the slum village, which allowed for local village women to not only purchase maize meal and fresh vegetables for their children, but also books and equipment such as wheelchairs, in order to sustain not only their bodies but also their dignity as human beings.

All of this initiative occurred because my dad and Karim first began by quietly and patiently listening to the needs and concerns of the women and children in the slum village.

They listened and they learned. They listened and they understood.

My dad and Karim built trust and community, and from this strength of common understanding, they built a pragmatic social enterprise of an artisan business that was managed by the women and children in the slum village. This enterprise also had an ecological component since it the paper was made of environmentally recycled foodstuffs such as cornhusks and banana leaves.

Karim’s keen business sense ensured that he found an international market for this beautiful artisan paper through his business connections.

A year after the project was launched in the slum in Harare, Karim became a Headmaster (school principal) of a charter middle school in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA.

The first thing Karim did when he moved to Cape Cod to accept his new job, was to find a high-end art store in Hyannis Port, which agreed to import the artisan paper from the slum village in Harare nearby my high school.

In this piece entitled ‘The Smartest Man I Know’, Karim describes ‘What is Smart’ through five principles that he saw reflected in the life of his friend James, a Samburu tribesman in the arid region of Northern Kenya. Karim describes ‘What is Smart’ by asking the following questions:

  1. Is it smart to listen?
  2. Is it smart to be grateful?
  3. Is it smart to be loyal?
  4. Is it smart to care?
  5. Is it smart to serve?

The questions that Karim asks, requires one to introspect and ask the question to self and then reconcile the introspection with the example of James’ life. This is much like Karim’s teaching soul, guiding us to ask ourselves important questions before he gives the answer and providing an example in his own experience to evaluate what we think smart looks like.

It is such a privilege for me to know someone like Karim, who is able to share the wisdom of what it means to be smart in such an easy way to understand and challenge one’s own perspective.

This piece encourages growth of perception and demands that one expands the way one lives and learns to listen, to be grateful, to be loyal, to care, and to serve.


The Smartest Man I Know


Karim Ajania

October 30, 2015


The Samburu Pencil Maker knew many things.

He knew of the mythology of his tribe. He knew of the tribe’s elder wisdom and their peacemaking practices.

Of goat and cattle herding and grazing; on survival methods in extreme weather conditions from torrential rains to driest drought; on the medicinal and healing properties of plants and herbs; on behavioral patterns of safari ants, termites, birds, wildflowers, roots, bulbs, shrubs, trees…

… On forestry, botany, zoology, biology, agrostology, agronomy, helminthology, palaeoecology, isopterology, myrmecology, entomology, ethnology, ethology, ecology.

(Click here for the story of The Samburu Pencil Maker)

BlogKarim 3

James is the smartest man I know

Although my friend James Lekadaa, who lives in the Samburu in Kenya, dropped out of school in fifth grade to become a goat herder and help support his family, he is the smartest man I know.

James is smart in so many profound and insightful ways that educated people might be less smart.

Is it smart to listen ?

Having studied or taught Political Economy at Oxford, Harvard and MIT, I would summarize that one of the characteristics of educated people, particularly political economists, is that they are far more eager to tell people in developing countries what they know than they are to listen to them.

Sometimes, it might be smarter for these very knowledgeable people to learn to listen.

I have discussed my friend James in the Samburu with Sir Partha Dasgupta, an eminent economist at Cambridge University in England and an advisor to prime ministers and heads of state.

Prof Dasgupta

Sir Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge University

(Click here to read Karim’s interview with Sir Partha)

Economists and environmentalists need to listen, and listen very carefully, to men like James Lekadaa in the Samburu.

— Sir Partha, Professor of Economics, Cambridge University

There is a story that political economists know well about the Samburu:

Years ago, experts, very smart people, from the best universities in America, such as Princeton and Stanford, conducted a feasibility study in the Samburu. These smart people wanted to see if it was viable to build a housing development in the lush green pastures that received plenty of water in the Samburu rainy season. The smart experts from top universities concluded that since the Samburu tribe did not graze their goats and cattle in the lush pastures in the rainy season, housing development could be approved there, and thus houses were consequently built there.


Dr. Peter Gleick, President of The Pacific Institute

(Click here to read Karim’s interview with Peter)

The worst ‘crisis’ around freshwater in Africa is our failure to meet basic human needs for so many people in Africa.

— Peter Gleick, President, Pacific Institute, Oakland, California

It is true that the nomadic Samburu, as the smart people from Princeton and Stanford had observed, did not graze their goats and cattle in the lush pastures in the rainy season.

However, that is because they wanted their goats and cattle to graze on the remaining clumps of grass in the arid regions. Then, when the dry season arrived, the Samburu would take their animals to the lush green pastures. Samburu practiced this ecological balance for centuries.

That is because the Samburu were smart.

Smart, in that the Samburu listened to the rhythms of the land and of the earth.

The Samburu intuitively understood that being frugal with the lush pastures in the rainy season gave their animals an insurance, so when it was the dry season, or even a severe drought, they could simply herd their animals to the lush pastures and the animals would not go hungry.


Presidential Economist Jeffery Frankel

(Click here to read Karim’s interview with Jeff)

What defines good leadership in African Development?

Even Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where I teach, finds it hard to come up with an answer. 

— Professor Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard University

That was until the educated and smart experts from Princeton and Stanford signed off on putting up a housing development. Now, the Samburu could no longer graze their goats and cattle in the lush pastures during the dry and drought season, when there was nowhere else to graze.

Their goats and cattle now went hungry. Their elegant and beautiful ecological cycle of grazing with respect to the rhythms of the earth for centuries was now broken. Permanently destroyed.

This happened when smart ‘experts’ thought they were too smart to listen to the wise Samburu.


Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

(Click here to read Karim’s interview with Paul)

Africa’s soils and her forests are rapidly being depleted and its carrying capacity for human beings will be lower in the future.

— Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University


Homes like this in Samburu cost less than 5 dollars in US currency

(Click here to learn more about real estate prices in Samburu)

Is it smart to be grateful ?

Often, it appears that the idea of being a ‘success’ is defined by being greedy rather than grateful.

Yet, one of the smartest qualities of James is his complete and sincere sense of gratitude.

I always think a lot about my friend James during this particular time of year, as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, because I am in such tremendous awe of his resilient gratitude and his sunny disposition, often in the midst of the most demanding and severe circumstances.

If gratitude were an Art, then James would be a Rembrandt and if gratitude were part of Music, James would be Mozart.

— Karim, about his friend James Lekadaa in the Samburu

Although my friend James and his wife and his three children live in a home that costs less than five US dollars, he is very happy. This is because James does not feel that he needs “stuff”.

James does not define his ‘success’ by how much “stuff” he owns. James defines his success by how caring he is toward his family, his community, the domestic animals and the wild animals in the Samburu, and how faithful he is as a caring steward of the environment in the Samburu.


Colin Yoon, CEO of Unscramble for Africa

(Click here to read Karim’s interview with Colin)

James is a very inspirational person that provides insight into the life of some African people. He lives a simple life but is happy and cares for the land. These days many people aren’t as connected to the land and don’t think of it as a gift, but as a resource. 

Samburu people truly care about the earth and are its stewards.

— Colin Yoon, CEO of Unscramble for Africa

Is it smart to be loyal ?

Quite often, it appears in our fast paced modern world that the idea of being a ‘success’ is defined by always putting yourself first, and others second. Or, even last. James is completely the opposite. He always puts others first and finds great joy in ensuring that others are taken care of.

James puts others first and himself last.


Charlotte, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Pencils for Africa

I love skyping with James because he is always so happy. Although his tribe is in a drought, they never lose hope.

— Charlotte, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Pencils for Africa

One early morning, when the sun was rising at dawn in the Samburu, James and I were sitting on a patch of grass and resting our gaze on the vast open horizon. In this pensive and reflective atmosphere, James thoughtfully opened up to me about how he viewed the idea of ‘progress’.

He said he exercised restraint and discipline in ensuring that he and his family are not enticed by modern consumer culture. His gratitude and his reverence for the landscape and the Samburu culture, was also his protection from the shallowness of modern consumerism. His depth of gratitude was his armor and his defense against a shallow life of frivolity and superficiality.


Lucia, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Pencils for Africa

When James’ face popped up the room lit up. His whole being was just so HAPPY! This beautiful man was waving from Africa!

It was like a sunburst when he said, “Hi Lucia!”

This is a happy man. Having the opportunity to ask questions about James’ life in Samburu was eye opening and jaw dropping.

— Lucia, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Pencils for Africa

Is it smart to care ?

James did not think that real ‘progress’ meant acquiring more and more “stuff” which was manufactured in factories and advertised in the media. James felt that ‘progress’ for the Samburu community, would involve a revival of their rich arts and crafts culture, of creativity, and of educating the young children in traditional Samburu values of respect and gratitude.

It deeply concerned James that the trees and the environment were being depleted.

It deeply concerned James that his community was running out of drinking water.

As I listened to James, speaking from a heart so full of care, not only for the Samburu, but for Africa, I felt that his voice resonated with kindred spirits throughout history, whose ambition and aspiration was always selfless. His expansive thought rippled out far beyond his community, to his country, to his continent, and to all humanity. He spoke from the depths of his soul.

James and I were sitting here in the Samburu as he fixed his gaze on the vast African landscape.


Charlie, Assistant Editor, Pencils for Africa

Children in the Samburu community worry about digging a well to survive, while here in the US, we worry about school and sports.

If we could learn from the Samburu how to be happy even in hard times, we would be altogether better people.

— Charlie, Assistant Editor, Pencils for Africa

It was the closest feeling I imagined to what it must be like to sit next to Henry David Thoreau, some 200 years earlier, fixing his gaze upon Walden Pond and questioning humanities’ slide into consumerism and away from Nature, in a manner that disconnected humanity from itself.


Shannon, Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table

Here, I am happy, getting a great education, with great friends, and surrounded by lots of technology.

There is James, who is happy, and in a wonderful community, helping the elephants, and with his wife and children.

— Shannon, Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table

James was lamenting the loss of the kind of heartfelt conversation which we were sharing, and of traditional storytelling that elucidated the morals and ethics of life lessons that could be passed down through the generations. He was lamenting that we did not stop to just take a breath.

He said we must take a breath and pause and think.

He thought often of pausing.

Pausing in this incredibly fast paced modern treadmill of the twenty first century.

And of stepping back.

Pausing and stepping back and then learning more about Nature.

Learning anew.

Learning to cherish the simple joys of life such as casting our gaze upon this magnificent landscape in a manner that was truly reverential and filled with a sense of awe for Creation.


Carly, CEO of Portfolio PFA

James and the Samburu value family – they respect their elders and view them as the leaders of the village. 

James and the Pencils for Africa community share something in common – we are both in a drought. We have other options to get water, the Samburu have to dig wells to keep a supply of water.

It amazed me that even though they were in a serious drought, James was upbeat and laughing!

— Carly, CEO of Portfolio PFA

Is it smart to serve?

I think that James is smart because he serves.

He serves his family, his community, the wildlife and the land.

Hearing his conviction about the need to serve as the only true pathway to happiness, once again gave me pause. Once again I felt that the voice of James resonated with kindred spirits throughout history, such as the correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Count Leo Tolstoy.

In James, was that same heartfelt desire to find the best way to love your global neighbor.

My education, as extensive as it is, never felt whole until I encountered my friend James. In the gentlest and most unassuming manner he profoundly transformed my ideas about What is Smart.

That is why James Lekadaa is the smartest man I know.