Week 1 – Nairobi (August 30 – September 11)

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Marabu storks nesting on the treetops in central Nairobi

On Sunday morning, my mother and I spend most of the morning purchasing our last souvenirs at the fair-trade market Utamaduni and a small curio shop near the lodge. My mother barely manages to fit all the souveniers in the bag, packing the sizeable wooden giraffe and goat-skin Maasai shield in a carry-on bag. We spend the afternoon in the Nairobi museum, which offers several impressive displays of human paleontology, African mammals, Kenyan history through colonization and independence, tribal accessories, and art. We then tour the museum’s snake house, housing numerous native (and exotic) snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodiles. Most displays are rather bare, with little more than a bed of pebbles for the reptiles to explore, but a roomy, shrubby enclosure of venomous snakes in the center makes for a more appealing display – the only thing preventing anyone from actually entering the open display is a sign warning onlookers about the presence of poisonous reptiles. The mamba and spitting cobras are colorful and impressive, and while the majority of Kenya’s reptiles are harmless, we left the exhibit rather more nervous than need be. We finish our visit by touring the garden of drought-resistant plants, largely succulents.

I call Brian, a native Kenyan but also a recent international graduate from my university and acquaintance by mutual friend, and we arrange to meet in town. Sunday evenings in Nairobi are exceedingly quiet, with nearly every store and restaurant closed, so we go for dinner at a local Java (something like a Kenyan Applebees). Brian is an enthusiastic and fast-talking host. Finally, I say my farewells to my mother, who is to be dropped off at the airport by our Safari driver Samwell, while Brian is to take me to the KWS office in Nairobi. After picking up a girl friend who knows the area I am supposed to stay at, Brian drives us up into a posh gated community of decently-sized houses and green lawns and drops me off. I finally meet Sarah, who welcomes me into the house, and Ginger, the enthusiastic elderly vizla-cattle dog mutt of the house.

The house is sparsely decorated but not as cluttered as one would expect of a researcher’s house. Cheetah portraits and masks make for the majority of the décor, and in my room I meet Mashariki, a colorful and attention-seeking young female cat. The room is not huge, but large enough to accommodate a bunk bed and single twin, the latter of which I occupy, a desk, two fur-covered chairs, a large chest with drawers, and a shelved armoire. It isn’t until I am nearly asleep in my room that I actually meet the second cat, Mama, a squat cream-colored cat curled up on the top bunk and snoring. I prop open the door with a shoe for her to come and go as she pleases, though I soon discover that she and Mashio (her son, actually) enter and leave the house largely through the open window of my room.

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Mash, one of two resident cats at the ACK house

I awake the following morning with Mashariki and Mama curled up on my side (not next to, on). The morning is spent discussing my research goals with Sarah and she in turn sharing the progress made in establishing walking transects at our two sites, Salama and Samburu. The field officers at both sites have begun, this month, to walk the transects and record prey densities including livestock, in combination with their usual weekly route patrols for predator tracks and conflict interviews. I also meet Santiago, an Ecuadorian master’s student looking into the effects of deterrent lights and human activity on frequency of human-wildlife conflict. Dr. Elena also joins us in the late afternoon, whom I had already met in the middle of the Maasai Mara. While she does not strictly work with ACK – a researcher, rather, for the Mara Meru Cheetah Project that focuses more on cheetah behavior – she occasionally stays at the base in Nairobi while taking a break from field work. The woman is as enthusiastic about her work as she is talkative, doting on the cats in Russian and spending most of the day in the bedroom working or skyping.

The following morning, Sarah and I plan to meet Frank, ACK’s associated GIS expert, to discuss the availability of topographic maps of elevation, vegetation, and local water holes at the two current sites for use in ArcGIS analysis (ArcGIS is a geographic software program used for visualizing and analyzing spatial data – basically, I can use it to make fancy maps).

We travel there via matatu, a rather new experience for me after being driven around in a safari vehicle for the past three weeks. We board a “city-bus” matatu – one of the larger 34 seaters – and are immediately bombarded with loud American hip-hop blasting through the van. The bus begins moving as soon as we enter the vehicle at the signal of the makanga (tout) pounding the open door three times. There is nowhere to sit for the first few minutes until the tout pounds the door – thud thud thud – and the bus pulls over and stops. A few people get off and I take a spot at the front while Sarah sits in the back. Three pounds of the door and we’re off again, the vehicle speakers blaring a local remix of Major Lazer’s Lean on. From a few rows down, Sarah mouths “I’ll pay.” The tout grins at me and tries at small talk, but is quickly distracted by another stop. I move to sit by Sarah as soon as the seat beside her clears. She pays our fare in coins, and a few stops later we get off in the Westland district.

We enter the mall and wait for Frank in a Java café, and order lemonade and iced coffee. The latter is the first decent coffee I have had the pleasure of enjoying since visiting the Tea and Coffee plantation on the Laikipia Plateau two weeks ago. We meet with Frank for about an hour to discuss the maps, and finish our drinks before heading back to the house once more by matatu. Our journey back takes much longer as we must wait for the matatu to fill before we leave the station, and the northbound traffic is congested.

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Sarah cooking chapati for dinner

The remainder of the week is relatively quiet. After catching up on emails and preparing my data and interview forms, submitting my IRB application, and making sure that my NaCoSTI research permit is well on its way to provision, I find that there is little else for me to do. I organize my safari photos in my spare time, send thank you emails to those who donated money to my Indiegogo campaign (fundraising for my research expenses), and begin typing up the blog posts of my safari adventures from my written travel diary. I begin to go stir-crazy, pent up in the house without access to a hiking trail or even a downtown walk (I don’t quite feel safe enough to wander around Nairobi on my own, and Santiago has already been stopped by the police and liberated of $300). Most mornings, I spend a half-hour exercising in the living room on my shuka, dishing out crunches and using the 9lb free weights I found lying around for lunges and arm work. I miss the boxing gym, but I don’t want to alarm our house-keeper Ken by shadowboxing in the front yard. I am allowed to walk Ginger around the block on the condition that I go in the morning or equip myself with a sizeable stick. The poor hound has had the previous misfortune of being attacked by several unleashed dogs during a walk. I go for a mid-morning run around the gated community without hitches, though Ginger has to slink past a group of leashed but exuberant puppies on the opposite side of the road.

One day we are visited by Noreen, a local student looking to conduct her PhD research with ACK as a large-scale cheetah occupancy project throughout Kenya. As my study is essentially going to act as a pilot study for hers, we discuss the logistics and details of our mutual projects. We are eventually joined at the table by Santiago, Sarah, and Elena for an insightful discussion of wildlife conservation, community-involvement, and conservation politics and policies. The rather international group – French-American, Russian, Ecuadorian, and Kenyan – provides a diversity of insights and ideas to the conversation. Already, I find myself excited for my research and work here, and can hardly wait to begin field work!

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