Hi everyone! Sorry I haven’t been able to update over the past 10 days – as I mentioned in my last post we’ve been on a whirlwind tour of conservation areas in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, and internet access has been lacking. I could write a two page piece for every single one of the 10 days we were away, but I know most of you don’t have the time or energy to read all that, so I’m going to try and condense the big things into this one post. I’ll also be uploading hundreds of pictures soon and telling some of the stories via captions. Wish me luck.
Our primary purpose for the trip was to learn about and try to evaluate the effectiveness of different conservation areas (national parks, community reserves, & private conservancies) and their management strategies. We spent four days at Lake Baringo / Lake Bogoria, explored the Kimochoch Forest in the Tugen hills, and spent the end of the week at the Soysambu conservancy near Lake Nakuru. Along the way we interviewed park managers, business owners and community members, as well as did a bit of touristing. Here are the highlights:
William Kimosop, Lake Bogoria, & Community Conservation: After leaving Mpala on our first day we stopped at the town of Nakuru to pick up a man named William Kimosop, Senior Warden of the Lake Bogoria National Reserve and our personal guide for our four day stay. A native of the Bogoria area, William is a friendly, brilliant and outgoing man with an infectious enthusiasm for conservation, an unbelievable track record, and big dreams for the Great Rift Valley. What makes the Lake Bogoria National Reserve so special is not its flamingos, kudu, hyrax or impala, its beautiful hot springs or its majestic hills, but something much easier to miss as a casual tourist. Unlike most other national parks or reserves, Bogoria is unfenced and wildlife freely wander outside of its boundaries without fear of poaching or harassment by bordering communities. Tireless years of community meetings and consensus building through all of the villages in the surrounding area (all driven by William) has led to large-scale community acceptance and participation in wildlife conservation, greatly extending the range of protection. On the other side of the coin communities have a direct say in park management, and are allowed to use the park for sustainable resource extraction such as salt gathering or dry-season cattle grazing. As human populations grow and expand and national parks become even more tightly squeezed, this kind of cooperation between wildlife protection and human habitation is becoming more and more essential.
William’s current project is to organize and coordinate the tourism projects in the Great Rift Valley. He is constructing an equator tourism center which will consolidate all the opportunities into one easy-access spot for tourists. He’s working with local communities to help them develop attractions and support services (lodging, food, etc.) for tourists, and is engaging with local schools to get children to act as paid tour guides for visitors. He’s also re-establishing a centuries old 140km trail in the area which visitors will be able to walk, either in pieces or in full. Along the way they will stop at communities, spend money on traditional artwork and services and meet the local people. It’s an enormous project, but it’s progressing fairly well, and if there’s anyone who can do it I think it’s William.
Sandai the Ostrich: Before leaving the Bogoria region (and William), we stopped by William’s house to pick up an additional passenger for our trip – an orphaned baby ostrich named Sandai who is probably the most adorable thing you have ever seen (see album at right). This ostrich was one of four found wandering around the hillside abandoned by its mother. In times of drought (such as now) ostriches often abandon their young as they are too much of a burden. Sandai sat in the car with us on the way down, chirping and poking his head out of his towel bed. When we got to Soysambu we gave him to our hosts, who were going to raise him to adulthood. Things looked good for a while, as we managed to get Sandai to eat food, but by the second day his condition was deteriorating. On the fourth day of our trip Sandai passed away. It was very sad. His body is currently being preserved, and (I believe) is going to be donated to a Kenyan museum.
Getting to know Kenya: One of the most exciting parts of this trip was being able to leave Mpala and get to know Kenya a lot better. From the long discussions of Kenyan politics we had with our professor (it made me really appreciate that our biggest problem in the US is “partisan bickering”), to the Kenyan university students we had a chance to spend a day with, to the interviews we conducted with local tribes, to just seeing more of Kenya’s landscapes and communities I felt as if I was finally having the cultural part of the study abroad experience.
Our interactions with traditional tribes were particularly interesting. While at Soysambu we interviewed women from three different communities – two Maasai villages and one Turkana village. The first village we spoke with was our first interaction with the worst of poverty in Kenya. The village was located on bare, rocky dirt, and the villagers were legally squatters on land that had been bought by a political party (though they had been living there for years prior). The men from the village had left to find grass to feed their cattle, and would probably be gone for a month or more. They left the women and children with almost nothing to feed themselves and no money. To fetch water for the community women had to wake up before dawn and walk more than 10km to a stream in the hills, then carry two 20L jugs all the way back, arriving in the afternoon. The conservancy had been forbidden from bringing them water by the landowner, who doesn’t want to encourage the tribe to stay on his land. Of the 20-30 kids we saw, only 3 were enrolled in school – though primary school is free, the rest had been forbidden by their fathers from attending. Girls especially were prevented from receiving an education, since it would preclude them from being sold as wives (at ages which have migrated down to 9 years old). The women, only of one of whom spoke Swahili herself, said that without education they would be nothing. The one ray of hope in this whole mess was that the nearby ecotourism lodge (an expensive luxurious tourist resort) has sponsored six children from the community – four girls and two boys – to attend a boarding school, an offer which is much harder for fathers to refuse.
Our second interaction with tribal Maasai group was a bit more uplifting, and revealed more about their proud traditions and cultural identity. We met with two groups, a Maasai women’s group and a Turkana women’s group, to ask them questions about Soysambu. They knew we were coming, and had prepared by dressing up in their finest ceremonial garb (pictures in “Soysambu”) and even carrying a couch out to our meeting point under a tree. These groups were not in quite as bad shape as the first community we had visited, but problems with water (far away), school (too small to fit all of their kids) and employment (not enough) still loomed large. After interviews the women wanted to show us more about their culture, so the Maasai began a traditional song and dance, eventually pulling us in to join them. Not to be outdone, the Turkana responded with their own dance. The dance-off went back and forth 3 or 4 times with the three of us being passed from group to group – it was quite an experience. By the end of it, the two groups were dancing together on each others songs. After all the singing and dancing, we had the opportunity to buy some of the beautiful beaded jewelry that the women were dressed head-to-toe in. It was really a magical experience.
Other things: In short list form: We boiled eggs in the hot springs of Lake Bogoria, saw thousands of flamingos, got within 10 feet of two rhinoceroses, almost wandered upon a hippo in the night, went boating and talked to a fisherman in a tiny traditional balsa boat, watched a baboon doing some very unpublishable things, held snakes and baby tortoises, saw terrible eroded gulleys, talked with a land restoration group, learned about hay farming, met with a communal honey-harvesting initiative, saw the left ear of a lion, talked to University students from Kenya, passed the equator (multiple times), stayed up all night working on a presentation, made campfires, wandered through forests, ate medicinal seeds, bought Barack Obama cangas, and saw more beautiful climbable cliffs than I could count.