“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.