Parting Ways

Two weeks have come to an end, and consequently, the first group of Earthwatch volunteers has left camp.

Upon completing the first portion of the project, the group celebrated their achievement by exploring Tsavo East National Park. After a full day of enjoying the local wildlife, we enjoyed a final dinner together which was punctuated by music, laughter, and storytelling. Eventually, the volunteers returned to their rooms to pack for their journey home.

Morning brought with it another wonderful breakfast, muddled only by the sense of finality. The mood, however, was hopeful, as we shared many fond farewells and promises to stay in touch.

Though we were all strangers just two weeks ago, together we have shared an incredible and enriching experience, and, well, you know what they say: an elephant never forgets.

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Achievements

After many hours of hard work, the first Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture Earthwatch team completed the first section of the project!

For the past two weeks, our mornings have consisted of a 7am breakfast, followed by about four or five hours of working in the fields, where we have been setting up different deterrents to experimentally determine which method is more successful in keeping elephants out of the local farmers’ crops.

Although these hours in the fields are certainly the most demanding, they are also the most fulfilling, as they have allowed the team to contribute by asking questions, suggesting improvements to the methodology, and, perhaps most importantly, by investing in the success of the project.

Every day in the fields we are reminded that the work we are doing will hopefully improve the relationship between the local communities and the elephants with which they live, and, therefore, result in a higher quality of life for both human and animal.

 

 

Meeting the People

“Mkienda mtukumbuke.” That is the chant-song that the Rukanga basket weavers left with us. “Remember us.”

For the past few mornings, the project crew has been working the fields, called Sesenyi, where the human-elephant conflict experiment is taking place. The afternoons are spent in many ways, such as ecology and biodiversity lessons, camera trap experiments, biodiversity transects, and game drives.

Because everyone has been working so hard, we took a day off to explore our surroundings and meet the local people. Our first stop was Buguta, the village closest to our experiment fields and the homes of Wildlife Work employees, Chimanga and Nzangi, who have been helping us with the project. We met with some local craftswomen who are talented basket weavers and stuffed-animal makers. Sadly, their animals were out of stock, but they showed us their hand-woven baskets, which sometimes take four days or more to make. We were impressed by their work, and after some friendly bartering and pictures with the artists, we said our goodbyes and thank yous and were on our way.

Next we visited Rukanga, which is Simon’s, one of our project leaders, home when he’s not working with us. After a quick bathroom break, we arrived at the meeting place of the Rukanga basket weavers, an organization of 60 women who use their craft as a tribute to tradition, as well as a primary source of income. We were welcomed with singing, dancing, and many smiling faces.

The singing and dancing seemed to never end, and in the best of ways. They brought us into the dancing circle, and soon our faces were sore from smiling as we tried to mimic the dance moves of the Rukanga women. After the dancing, Hanah, the chairwoman of the group, expressed to us her thanks for our coming and explained how the organization works. According to Hanah, the organization came together after a few women realized that by teaching the craft of basket weaving to others, they could carry on the tradition of their culture while also providing for their families. To further support each other and promote a sense of community, the women pool the profits from their wares to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from their work. Touched by the closeness of the community, the friendliness of the women, and the craftsmanship of the baskets, I, along with the other volunteers, was honored to meet the women and share a meal with them.

Following lunch, we departed to the Wildlife Works headquarters and factory. To improve relations between the locals and the organization’s conservation efforts, Wildlife Works has hired over 200 women from the local community to make T-shirts, bags, and other products that support the organization’s work. After browsing the products made by these women, the Earthwatch team headed back to camp where we ate dinner and retired to bed after a long and adventurous day.

Although Earthwatch projects are founded in scientific research, it is important to also understand the local communities surrounding projects, as well as the impact that a project may have on them. By visiting with these villages, our team was reminded of the significance of community and the importance of establishing positive bonds with those for whom the research is intended to help.

 

Introductions

Following a good night’s rest, which was only interrupted by the call of a hyena, the first Earthwatch team gathered at the dining boma for their first breakfast at Kivuli Camp. Because we had already forgotten each other’s names, we spent some time reintroducing ourselves….

Kim is a former zookeeper, employee of Earthwatch, and mother of two. Though she will not be with us for the duration of the project to share her knowledge, we are glad to share her company for the first week! Next is Julie, a science teacher from California. Julie is the one to go to if you are in need of a species guidebook, and her curiosity is incurably contagious. Sharon and Marilyn are high school classmates from Michigan who reunited after many years so that they may travel the world together. They are determined to learn and explore, carving out new trails if they must. Rachael, the only Brit among us, calls Birmingham home. Her youthful independence paired with her passion for sustainability led her to us, and we are certainly happy to have her. Carol brings to the table her knowledge of schooling, particularly with tribal people such as the Navajo Indians. Her experience with education has already taught us so much, solving many a dilemma. Kat is no stranger to elephants, as she has worked alongside them for nearly a decade in Texas. Her experience is invaluable, and her sense of humor keeps us laughing. Last, but certainly not least, are Jamie and Monika, the mother-daughter duo from Colorado. Jamie’s wit alongside Monika’s quiet charm makes for great company, and their compassion and penchant for problem-solving remind us to work together to reach our goals.

There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset shared with friends, both new and old. The nine Earthwatch volunteers discovered this on their first full day together in the African savanna. After a day of getting to know each other, from watching elephants together to supporting each other through travel adjustments, the group sensed that a bond had already been cemented – we could see it in the bright orange of the sunset, the froth in our Tuskers, and especially in the eyes of the elephants.

As far as my role in this journey, well, that is something I am still discovering. On pen and paper, I am the eighteen year-old student, photographer, blogger, and musician from Kentucky – descriptors of which I am proud. But this trip, particularly the time spent interacting with and observing this first group of volunteers, has taught me to appreciate people who live different lifestyles than my own. It is encouraging to be around those who are putting themselves into new situations, regardless of anything that might be holding them back. They have taught me to acknowledge my trepidations and enjoy myself anyway, which has been the most rewarding lesson so far.

Though this group is only together for a short while, we are sharing an opportunity in which many people never get to take part. In the years to come, I am sure that we will never forget these two short weeks in the enduring and unforgettable Kenya.

Arrival

After nearly 2 day of traveling from our Kentucky home…

After nearly 2 days of traveling from our Kentucky home, my father and biologist Dr. Bruce Schulte and I arrived at our destination – Kivuli Camp near Tsavo National Park in Kenya.

Though the trip was long, we are simply happy to be alive and well. This simplistic attitude – that all one needs in life is life itself – is a lesson that Africa always teaches, and though Kenya offers a very different lifestyle than the one I live at home, it is nice to be somewhere where the stars are bright, the sun is hot, the days are filled with adventure and, above all, life is full of simple pleasures.

The coming days will bring with them many of these joys, and I hope to soon be full of stories to tell.