Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Swahili Coast

Hello from the Coast province! We have been here at the Mwamba Bird Observatory & Field Station/A Rocha Kenya for about ten days now – everyone is working hard on their independent research projects while also learning about the myriad environmental and social issues pertaining to sustainability here on the coast. After passing through Mombasa for a quick overnight visit, we headed north a few hours to our current location. Our days have been filled with group and individual activities – including two days spent catching birds and insects in the nearby Arabuko-Sokoke Forest reserve (the largest last remnant of a much larger coastal forest stretching from Ethiopia to Mozambique, and home to more than half a dozen endangered bird species), visits to the Gede Ruins monument (once a thriving Swahili community in the 1500s) and the local Bio-Ken Snake farm, and engaging in various activities with Watamu Turtle Watch, a conservation group sponsored by the Local Ocean Trust that focuses on rehabilitation of injured/sick sea turtles as well as releasing turtles caught in fishing nets back to the sea. We’ve also been taking advantage of our proximity to the Indian Ocean – swimming, snorkeling, and walking on the beach at night under the starry East African sky have become part of the routine. We have a few more days here before heading east again as we begin our long journey back to Nairobi and onward to the U.S…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Crossing the equator!!

Hello from Lang'ata! We have crossed the equator twice in the past week - today we made the long trek back south to the Nairobi area from the Samburu region, crossing the equator again just outside of Nanyuki. We wrapped up our week in Wamba (Samburu) with some insect sorting work, a visit to a local home in Wamba, and a game drive today through the Samburu National Park. We had some van trouble on the way home, so arrived back in Lang'ata later than planned this evening - tomorrow we have another long day, as we'll head west to Mombasa. More later...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hello from Wamba!!
We are here in the northern Kenyan region of Samburu, where we are spending this week at the Earthwatch Kenya Drylands Research Field station in the small town of Wamba. We are into our third day here, after a long 6+ hour drive north from Lang’ata – the last hour or so of which was across a dusty sand track. The landscape here is dotted with ancient volcanic cinder cones, and is scrubby and arid, with water conservation and quality central to many environmental and social concerns.
The station here has been the site of many community-based environmental research projects conducted by Earthwatch Institute over the past several years. Before we left Lang’ata, Dr. Nick Oguge (Director of Eathwatch Kenya, and President of the Ecological Society for East Africa) visited us and gave us an overview of the various research projects that have been conducted here. These include an ethnobotany investigation into the efficacy of various local plants as medicinal cures, and a project focusing on the conservation of an endangered zebra species. This species, the Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), numbers fewer than 3000 in the wild now. Once widespread throughout East Africa, it has been driven to extinction in all but Kenya and Ethiopia, with most of the dwindling population residing in the Samburu region where we are staying. Our first morning here, in fact, we set out into the bush to look for Grevy’s zebras – and were able to find a small population within an hour or two! We also stopped at a local regional market afterwards and wandered among the stalls of vendors from far and wide selling their wares.
The last few days have been spent doing fieldwork – including an 8km hike in the watershed up in the mountains behind the station (part of the Matthews range) to take water samples from the river running down into the village (to test for pH., conductivity, and bacteria as measures of water quality), and a visit to some nearby subsistence farms to collect data on herbivory and insect biological diversity. We’ll do some more water quality testing and some insect sorting and identification over the next few days – then we’ll head back south to Nairobi and out to the coast!

Message from Alysen:
Hamjambo! The Samburu region is absolutely gorgeous. We went up into the hills yesterday, taking water samples to test for quality, pH, and e. coli. The hike was beautiful: a clear day, trekking alongside the river stream, gazing up at the mountains and crevices. Overall, I have fallen in love in Kenya; the flora and fauna are unbelievable, the people are friendly, and the food is fantastic. Today, we studied insects at two of the local farms and on the way back accumulated a gaggle of children – holding our hands and walking besides us. They walked us all the way back to the Earthwatch compound where we are staying. Tomorrow we continue our work with both the water quality tests and the insect population. Then, the coast! Where’ll I get to play (I mean work) with sea turtles. Kwa heri!

From Taya: The Samburu and Masai morans have awesome outfits. They are brothers with very similar cultures. I’ve been thinking a lot about possible research directions. Talking with every local person I’ve met has helped me gather some information about the lore and attitudes toward wildlife and resource usage. I believe in community-based approach and community involvement, so I’m trying to warm up for possible future projects. I guess two things I need to work on that I’ve discovered so far are: 1. My sense of direction. 2. Crossing the water by foot. There are more.

From Latif:
We have spent the last days testing the water and setting traps for insects. I’ve never done this kind of thing before so its kind of interesting. Yesterday we got some samples and did some meter readings of the water. Today we placed some cups at ground level to catch insects. For the most part we have down time for leisure activities and to pick up on swahili. Its very dry here but not too hot and it’s peaceful.

From Charlene:
Humjambo! Everywhere we go, it’s new all over again, and I love it immediately. Here in Wamba, we tried some termites on our hike, as some of us were getting hungry : ) they taste like dirt. That’s all for now!

From Mayeli:
Hello Everyone! I am having a wonderful time, but do miss you all. I could get used to living here, the people are great, and I love the climate. We have been taking some samples of water a looking at farming practices. The safaris we have been on so far have yielded awesome sights, Can’t wait to show you all pics. Only a couple more weeks…I think it will go by quickly which is both nice, and sad since I do want to get home to my family but I enjoy what we are doing here. Ciao for now.

From Terri:
Sopa! Every new town or village we visit has their own variation of Kiswhali, and the locals laugh at me when I try to repeat their words. Of course mimi poa with getting laughed at – it helps me grow and I’m happy to brighten anyone’s day in this way. This country is even more beautiful than Washington – the tropical vegetation is immense, and in contrast with the bright colors of the Samburu and Maasai people, mesmerizing. We have to be careful of taking photographs of the locals though, and so images we can share will be rare. The simplicity of life here is a glaring reminder of the wastefulness of our culture – I will have a hard time readjusting to all the “stuff” back home. Finally, it is true what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder - but only of the ones you truly love. Love to my family, friends, and my one and only, forever yours… Terri

From Brenda:
Sopa rafiki wangu! I’m in love with the landscape of Wamba and the Samburu region in general. The geology and flora are exactly what I used to imagine Kenya to be like. The towering hills of volcanic rock dotted among the valleys of acacia (all rooted in red soil) are absolutely breathtaking. I loved our short hike upland to take water samples; the day made me miss my hiking friends very much. Love to you guys… The insects here are fantastic! I’ve seen and handled so many new species, my mind reels with all of the diversity. As our days wind on and the sun goes down I find myself meditating on the brilliance of this country and all of the culture we are finding here. I miss you, friends and family, in the quiet hours. Love love love.

From Chelsie:
Hamjambo rafiki na familia kipenzi wangu! Ninapenda sana Kenya na watu wa Kenya ni warembo, lakini ninakosa wewe! (Translated: Hello friends and darling family! I love Kenya very much and the people of Kenya are beautiful, but I miss you!)
Before coming to Samburu we visited Maasai Mara, where I fell in love with the land and the people. Lucky for me, Samburu people are ‘brothers’ to the Maasai and their land is of almost equal beauty (if you are reading a slight bias in that sentence, you would be correct). J While we were visiting Maasai Mara, Isaac (our fantastic driver) arranged a visit to a Maasai village near Talek where the Maasai Maron (warriors) danced for us and gave us a tour of their village.
At this moment I am sitting in a lodge at the Samburu Earthwatch station. To my right Jim, Charlene, Alysen and Taya are counting e-coli colonies present on the test strips from our visit to the river yesterday. To my left Mayeli, Brenda, and our native guide and conservationist Jeremiah are discussing the many different ways to say elephant in Kiswahili: tembo, jumbo, ndovu. All the while, I am sitting here writing to you and drinking a Tusker beer. Life could be worse.
Until next time, rest assured that all is well. The food is fantastic, the people most kind, and the landscape absolutely breathtaking! My next address shall be Kenya. You can quote me on that.
Love you! Chelsie

From Mwalimu Jim:
What a big difference here in Samburu! This is acacia filled, thorny, dry scrubland dominated by the Samburu people, relatives of the Maasai and the Turkana. They eat almost exclusively milk, blood and meat from their cows, goats and sheep which they herd long distances during the dry season to find water and forage. This is much more rural than anywhere else we have been and so the 12 of us get a lot of attention whenever we go anywhere! Today we picked up an entourage of kids as we returned from collecting data at two farms (pretty much the only vegetables growing locally). Then as we were relaxing on the porch 4 of the cutest little girls came by carrying loads of wood on tumplines on their heads. They yelled hello and we answered and that started a whole back and forth exchange and then dancing and singing!!! We had a great time and we told the girls we would see them tomorrow.
We hiked up the nearby watershed yesterday (with elephant poop piles all along the trail) with a Kenya Forest Service ranger along for safety (from the elephants and hyenas). We were there to collect water samples for basic water quality indicators and bacterial contamination. We “incubated” them in the equatorial sun (pretty close to 35C) and counted them today (gotta love improvising in the field!). Definitely seeing the numbers of E. coli increasing downstream, and the staff here are very interested to see what we come up with. I’m hoping that the student work might help inform the community on good places to draw drinking water.
I’m having a great time with the wanafunzi and I am looking forward to our next adventures in Kenya!!!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chuka village stay and Maasai Mara safari!

Hello from Lang'ata!
We have just finished up a week with the Green Belt Movement, and are back at their center in Lang'ata, on the outskirts of Nairobi. This week we spent a few days in a Chuka community (one of nine Meru tribes) near Mt. Kenya, enjoying time in homestays and working with the women in the local Kiang'ondu network of the Green Belt Movement. In addition to learning about seed harvesting, planting, and forest restoration, we all had a chance to help with daily chores such as milking the cows, cutting up arrowroot and other vegetables for meal preparation, and even learning how to pick tea!

From the Chuka village visit, we headed southwest across the Great Rift Valley to the plains. Today we wrapped up a two-day safari in the Maasai Mara reserve in western Kenya - saw plenty of wildlife (elephants, lions, giraffes, cheetahs, warthogs, topi, gazelles, etc.) and are now resting up back at the Lang'ata GBM centre outside of Nairobi - tomorrow morning we depart early for the northern region of Samburu!

Message from Latif: Hello. We are in Kenya and having a great time. It’s been a busy week for us here. I finally get some idea about where my lineage might be from, better than having no idea. We went out to the chuka community. There we met the chuka people where they welcomed us with open arms. We helped with chores and planting trees. We also did a safari where we saw a number of animals to include lions, elephants,zebras etc.

Message from Charlene: Hey friends and family! I am healthy and happy. So, no worries; Hakuna matata! Just in the first week, this trip has been more than I ever dreamed of! …And I’ve dreamt of this for a very long time! It’s been so stimulating and so amazing. Great landscape, great food and spectacular people. : )

Message from Mayeli: Hello everyone. First let me start by telling my two boys that I love and miss them very much and a special thank you to my husband, and the rest of my family who have been a great support, and made this trip possible through their support. It’s been a very busy week, and we just finished a long safari, before that we spent a couple of days in Chuka with our host families, and have had a blast, everyone has been very welcoming. My favorite part so far has been the predation we got to witness on safari. (Brad: Don’t you realize that I’ve had….since Easters!)

Message from Brenda: Hujambo rafiki na familia! I don’t know where to start because so many amazing things have happened in this past week. I have been attempting to absorb every sight and sound, usually to the detriment of my sleep pattern. So far my most cherished moments have been in Chuka dancing and singing with the community members. They have named me Makena, meaning joyful/always laughing, and I will be forever grateful for their hospitality and warmth.

Messge from Terri: Jambo! I can’t believe I have only been here one week because I have experienced so much already. Some of the highlights have been most recently, the Maasai warriors, their village and the songs they sang with us. We each wore the lions head which was killed by the chief’s son while we danced. Of course the safari was most excellent as we saw most everything you can imagine, however only three of the big five! We were just 15 feet from both a pride of lions and a cheetah! Ok, back to the highlights: The Chuka village was probably my favorite part so far. We each stayed with a Chuka family and became part of their family. My family named me Gacieri which means a seeker – for knowledge. I milked their cow, harvested tea, and helped cook meals. We each planted a tree and harvested seedlings as the Chuka community is part and parcel of the Green Belt Movement – the focus of this first part of our journey. We have been treated very well, are drinking lots of water and learning a ton. I can’t wait to share all my photos. Thank you Blake for all your love and support, and my family and friends for checking in on me. I am very blessed.

Message from Taya: I’ve been constantly thinking about the plausibility of me doing research on lions in Kenya. Challenges are great and many in every single aspect and as soon as I’ve stepped off the plane I’ve been trying to assess them and work them out. So my guilty pleasure here is keeping a wishlist of things I want to buy from here and constantly updating it.

Message from Mwalimu Jim: We had a great stay in Chuka! The women running the shamba (farm) were wonderful, and the men (Kiriungi and Njoka) taught Latif and me how to cut fodder for the cattle, how to pick tea, how to make arrows, how to chop wood and how to carve. I tried to offer help in cooking but the women just giggled and sent me away. We ate like kings although it was their own simple fresh food (cabbage, potatoes, rice, ugali, githeri, fruit, millet porridge, chai, etc.) and Kiriungi gave us lessons in the Chuka language and culture. I felt like part of the family and very welcomed!!! We also learned the dance of love!!!