Sunday, February 21, 2010

Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

It's a peaceful Sunday morning here at Mwamba in Watamu – the Indian Ocean is calm & glassy as the sun starts to heat things up; birds are singing, and the Sykes monkeys are already scrambling through the trees, occasionally crashing noisily into the corrugated metal rooftops of the cabanas where we're staying. We've been in Watamu now for over a week; the last two days we made a few forays into nearby Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (ASF), setting up mist nets in order to capture some of the forest-dwelling bird species for which ASF is famous. Yesterday shortly after dawn we had a chance to see the birds we captured “up close & personal” while they were being measured (beak length, weight, etc.) and banded (or “ringed” - fitted with a small metal band to record when and where they have been caught); students had the chance to release them back into the forest after data collection was complete. Several of these birds (including some that we caught) are endangered or threatened because their populations are dwindling and/or they are only found in Arabuko-Sokoke forest – the last remaining large forest remnant on the East African coast. For one of the species (East Coast Akalat – a small Afrotropical thrush), we also collected some faecal pellets as part of the ongoing research that I (Buck) have been conducting in collaboration with the ornithologists here – we're trying to pinpoint more precisely what sort of arthropods comprise the diet of this insectivorous bird. We also took a walk inside the elephant roaming area (separated by an electrified fence that discourages elephants from straying out of the forest and running into conflict with the local villages surrounding ASF), where we saw evidence of elephant activity as well as a beautiful sand snake sunning itself on the path.
Today students begin their presentations on various aspects of sustainability (part of their final research projects for the course) – and we continue to work with Watamu Turtle Watch and Mwamba this week on turtle patrols and shore bird counts (Wednesday) in nearby mangrove habitat in Mida Creek, respectively.

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
It has been a busy time here in our first full week at the coast. The students are working on their initial research talks, which is a challenge as they had to try to plan in advance what they would need as references before leaving Washington at the beginning of the month. The reason for this is that the Internet connection here is very slow and sporadic so it takes 10-15 minutes to try to upload one article and inevitably the connection goes before it is done! You can usually hear the cries of frustration of this digitally-addicted group from well down the beach! Some of the students are really getting into their chosen topics. For example, Laura has been into Watamu to the HIV testing clinic to get info on HIV/AIDS in the region, Daniel has been to the marine science resource center to look for info there (latest papers are 2001 though), and some other students have been over to talk to the Watamu Turtle Watch staff about their projects as well. Besides preparing for their presentations we spent 5 hours catching and banding tropical birds in the threatened Arabuko-Sokoke Forest with our host from A Rocha, Colin Jackson, we have gotten to participate in the release of 6 sea turtles (green and hawksbill) caught in fishing nets, we have visited Swahili architectural ruins at Gede, we have held snakes at the well-respected Bio-Ken snake farm in Watamu (a wonderful source of anti-venom right in our neighborhood; Here snaky snaky!!!), and of course we have been working on our Kiswahili language. Whew!!! All we have left this last week is 2 more days of bird banding (including an all-nighter), more turtle patrols, snorkeling in the Marine Reserve, research talks, and a safari in Tsavo East!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gede ruins and Watamu Turtle Watch

We spent Monday morning exploring the Gede ruins, the remains of a Swahili city nestled in the forest just inland from where we're staying. Thriving for some thousand years as a trade center, Gede was mysteriously deserted around the 17th century (archaelogists speculate that a combination of disease, dwindling water resources, and attacks from neighboring cities did the population in). Inside the ruins monument we climbed up a tree platform that benefits the ASSETS program, which is a program that provides support for secondary school education for children of families surrounding the nearby Arabuko-Sokoke forest, as well as environmental education pertaining to sustainable use of forest resources.
We also spent some time in the past few days learning about the the Watamu Turtle Watch (WTW) programs administered by the Local Ocean Trust – we got a tour of their rehabilitation center (a short walk from our base here at Mwamba) Monday afternoon and learned about the problems facing sea turtle conservation in Kenya – as well as many solutions that WTW is pursuing. Afterwards we got a special treat – the chance to assist with the release of a small green sea turtle that had been caught in a fishing net back into the ocean here at the beach where we're staying! Tonight we begin the first of several nightly beach patrols to look for nesting turtles – a green sea turtle who laid a clutch of eggs two weeks ago nearby is expected to lay her second clutch in the next few days – so the class will be out patrolling the beach from 2:30am until 4am ithe next two nights n anticipation of her arrival. Tuesday we will also start collecting data on beach condition to help the Watamu Turtle Watch program better understand how nesting success correlates with beach erosion, vegtation cover, and other indicators of healthy beachfront. All of this important turtle conservation work is being done against a backdrop of continued beach development and disputes over land use along the coast – unfortunately a nearly universal challenge facing turtle conservation efforts worldwide. We're excited to play a small role in this local conservation endeavor, while also having some unforgettable experiences!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes from Watamu:
We have arrived in Watamu after a long drive from Nairobi to Mombasa, and an overnight stay in Mombasa! Staying in the heart of the city in Mombasa, we spent the next morning walking around the old town, visiting the marketplace and Ft. Jesus (built by the Portuguese in the 16th century) among other things. We also took a ride on the Linkoni ferry across to the south entrance to the city, which afforded us a terrific view of the port. We arrived at the Mwamba Bird Observatory & Field Centre (A Rocha Kenya) in Watamu in late afternoon and spent some time getting to know the staff and settling in to our new digs (and of course taking a dip in the Indian Ocean to cool down after a long hot drive!). Today everyone is reading up on ecotourism and doing research for their independent projects - tomorrow we'll start learning about local conservation efforts - and later in the week we'll be working out in the field with the local turtle conservation group (Watamu Turtle Watch)!

Message from: Laura
We jumped into the Indian Ocean first thing on our arrival yesterday—it was like bathwater!! Warm, green, with blindingly white sand. Headed down again last night for a view of the Milky Way, shooting stars, and my first glance at the Southern Cross---we don't have exact confirmation on which stars made up the cross, but I was assured I was looking at it. It is hot.... “Africa Hot”, but there is a lovely breeze off the ocean and we have fans in our rooms which (surprisingly) help a lot. I'm struck time and again at how incredibly spoiled we are in the States and how so many people do so much with far, far less. Mombasa was crazy hectic—minivans and trucks everywhere, honking, speeding and careening down the streets. It's not clear if people have the right of way, but it certainly doesn't appear to be the case. Would be nice to explore a bit without appearing to be so “American”. Can't quite figure out how to pull that off, though! I think it's going to be weird to go back to the States and, once again, be part of a society where most everyone looks like me.

Message from: Daniel
While sitting on the beach today with Maria and Meagan we watched a dorsal fin ride the waves right up to the shore. We chased it down the shore line trying to get a good view of it and my attempt to run up the shore and get in the water in front of it sounded great until I was in waist deep water with it riding a wave right at me. Were still not sure what it was for sure but our best guess is a small shark (4 ft approx.). I really look forward to snorkeling around the reef that is just off shore and seeing a whole lot more.

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
It's nice to finally have a down day! Buck has been conspiring with Colin from A Rocha and Nelly from Watamu Turtle Watch and we have been setting things up for our next 2 weeks, but otherwise it has been pretty relaxing. I am trying to figure out how to get the students to work on their Kiswahili and incorporate it into their time here, and I hope to set up a site visit with some local sustainability projects possibly through local Peace Corps volunteers. It's good to see many of the students are using at least part of the day to write in journals, catch up on reading, and think about their final papers. The climate here (hot and humid, but breezy in the afternoon) is conducive to sitting still and contemplating for sure!!! And if things get too relaxing you can watch the monkeys steal food from the kitchen!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Masai Mara safari

We're back from a few days at the western edge of Kenya, where we were on safari at Masai Mara, one of Kenya's most famous game reserves. Spread out over 1500 square kilometers and contiguous with the Serengeti in Tanzania, the park has vast expanses of grassland in which all manner of wildlife can be found – we were able to see lions, elephants, cheetahs, cape buffalo, giraffe, zebras, a leopard, and many varieties of antelope (and a tiny snake that found its way into Buck & Jim's cabin!). We're back at Lang'ata this evening to have our last dinner here, which we will share with Dr. Nick Oguge, a local scientist who is one of the founder members and president of the Ecological Society for East Africa (ESEA), who will talk with us about efforts by the Earthwatch Institute to integrate community sustainability and wildlife conservation in the Samburu region of Kenya. Next we're off to Mombasa and the coast!

Message from Ashley:
Hello from the sunshine!!!! The safari was absolutely amazing! I saw my favorite animal the warthog with a few little babies. It was so cute! The only problem was that all the girls, including me made the awwwww noise and made them run from us. Hopefully someone got a picture of them to share. I have never been so close to wild animals before. Our driver was the youngest and the fastest, thanks to Isaac! We got to see vultures, lions, hippos, yet no rhinos. I tried to keep calm with the amount of flying insects that were smacking me and Vicky in the face, I only screamed from them a MILLION times. I am finally losing my phobia here. (WINK WINK). Our roads were barely roads and extremely bumpy. They said it was a good Kenya massage! The second night was the best. We got to see the Masai dance for us after dinner at the resort, and then on Tuesday morning we stopped at the village and they danced again. Everyone kept rubbing on my tattoo thinking it would come off on their fingers. It was super funny. The men would jump and whoever jumps the highest gets more wives! It was really exciting to see the dance and interesting that many people spoke a few words of english. What an awesome experience! p.s. My name that my family gave me was Danu which means Happiness!

Message from Vicky:
Hi everybody! We went on safari the last few days and saw some awesome animals! I took tons of pictures (in between getting attacked by bugs lol) and it was lots of fun!

Message from Mwalimu Jim:
Well, it seems that I get end of using the health care facilities in Kenya more than in the US! I am feeling much better now although I am bummed I had to miss the homestays. I have had a great couple days in safari in Maasai Mara with the crew seeing the big cats, elephants, and much, much more. The rolling savannah is just beautiful in itself, and an amazingly intact landscape still although our stop in a local Maasai village outside the game reserve showed the increasing pressures from the human population. Kenya is definitely at a crossroads socially, politically and environmentally; they really are all integrally tied together! It is interesting to read of crackdowns on graft and corruption in the newspaper as we hear similar things from our hosts, but they are also very hopeful about constitutional changes in the works and the promise of the near future. Well, off to the coast today, to Mombasa and then Watumu on the northern coast! I was stationed on the coast 20 years ago in the Peace Corps so I am excited to see it again!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Homestay with the Green Belt Movement

Notes from Lang'ata:
After a day at Green Belt's Lang'ata Centre getting acclimated and attending introductory lectures from Green Belt Movement (GBM) staff and faculty from University of Nairobi, we set off for a two-day homestay in a GBM community a few hours east of Nairobi. The GBM network we visited is called Matatani, located near the town of Kangundo in an area inhabited by the Kamba tribe. After a warm welcome from the entire community, the class split up into several different family homes and enjoyed the hospitality of home-cooked meals and cultural exchange. This was a remarkable opportunity for all to experience life in a rural East African village without electricity or indoor plumbing, living with and working with women from Wangari Maathai's community-empowering movement. The second day was filled with hands-on experiences ranging from doing chores around the homestead to planting trees with the GBM women. Saturday morning we enjoyed a rousing send-off full of singing, dancing, and tears. Kwaheri Matatani!!!

Message from TraeAnna:
So, now after leaving the community, I can tell you that I feel like that's where I belong. The people were so nice and welcoming that it was very hard to leave them! They taught us songs, and dances. The welcoming party was so big and happy, I began to tear up as soon as we got there. I never dreamed I'd experience such a sensation in all my life. Of course, being black, they thought that I was Kenyan and a worker with the Greenbelt Movement! It wasn't until it was explained to them that I was like Obama, a black person from America, that they understood. I got a new name as well, Mbula. It's going to be hard to top this experience!!!! I can only hope that the days to come will be as fulfilling as Matatani was!!! =)

Message from Vicky:
Hi everybody! We went to the village the last three days and it was pretty awesome! I never thought I could survive with no running water or electricity.. and you probably didn't either haha. My “mother” was Rose and we stayed at her house the last 2 nights. Tomorrow we're going to the safari! OK miss you all talk to you later!

Message from Danielle:
Hello from Lang'ata! First of all, I think I cooked more in that village than I have in the rest of my life combined. :) The amount of work the women do every day blows my mind. The women of my home gave me the name Kaleche. It was so much fun singing and dancing with the local women and then their kids!! They were so adorable. We went to the local primary school and upwards of 350 kids sang us songs and treated us like celebrities. It meant so much to them just to get a high five or hear us say hello! I loved it. I can say, without a doubt, that I will remember the Matatani experience for the rest of my life.

Message from Maria:
We have been in Kenya for only four days, but it feels much longer. The kinship I felt with the women of the village will remain with me forever. The way that they opened their homes to us as if we were long lost relatives was amazing. Something that stuck me was the joy and sense of community shared by these people, who by our standards have so very little. They were eager to show us the way that they live, but also to learn from us. Leaving the village today was heart breaking and when I told them that I will return, I truly meant it.

Message from Heather:
I don't believe I will ever be greeted again with such excitement and joy in my life. The Kamba community seem to have an amazing aptitude for singing. Every song was met with a variation of a simple dance of shuffling your feet and shaking your shoulders and sometimes a hissing kind of noise. There is so much to learn from my host family that two days just didn't seem like enough. Though I was happy to see a regular toilet again! The farewell was an emotional one and I can only hope that I can take home the feeling of love and community that they shared with our group.

Monday, February 1, 2010

UWT Kenya: Sustainable development study abroad

Hello and welcome to the UWT fieldwork blog - we are a class of undergraduates, led by two faculty members, heading off to Kenya for the month of February to explore issues of sustainability at the interface of development and environmental conservation. We're heading off from Seattle - Amsterdam -Nairobi on February 1st - stay tuned for quasi-regular updates as we tour Kenya!