There is little to say about the first week back in Nairobi. As usual, it is spent largely inputting data, checking emails, and lounging about putting on weight. The only exception is a particular Saturday when Noreen and I take a Matatu to Parklands and spend the day at the indoor climbing gym to shed some of that excess energy. Since most of the field officers are on year-leave for the month, it is to be a quiet and uneventful month. Rather than spend my time unproductively, I contact Suzanne from the Maji Moto Cultural Camp (see my safari blog) and she tells me that Stephen – the Director of Medungi Conservation – has some seedbed and nursery projects I could help with.
On Tuesday, October 20th I depart for Narok by Matatu, escorted by Sarah to the station as the buses bound for Narok are in a different area of the
station than the dropoff area for our Matatu. Typical of local transportation stratagems, I wait for the Matatu to fill for 1 hour and finally file out at 11:30am. Traffic is light after extricating ourselves from overcrowded Matatu station, but, of course, the Matatu gets a flat tire along the road about 50km from Narok. I wait outside with other passengers for about 20 minutes while the spare tire is hooked up. I arrive in Narok by 2pm and I am picked up by Susan and Salaton. We arrive to Maji Moto in time for me to meet Sarah, a young American tourist, and walk through the bush with Rose and a warrior to Olpul.
I spend the night with Salaton, Susan, Sarah, Rose, and the Warriors for Olpul – with another taste of goat blood and fire-roasted meat (nyama
choma), ugali and spinach. There is singing and dancing around the fire over alcohol brewed from aloe and honey. It begins to rain as we settle in our sleeping bags, so we are forced to sleep in the tents – far less comfortable than the compha bush mattresses. I awake before dawn and resettle myself on the closest bush mattress for a more comfortable few hours. We awake with the sunrise for the usual blessing to Enkai and take the jeep back to camp in time for breakfast. Sarah, Susan, and Salaton leave for Maasai Mara by mid-afternoon, and I stay at the camp with Rose and Meeri for a relaxing day of lounging in the sun and reading. We cook ugali and spinach for dinner and retreat to bed with nightfall.
On Wednesday morning, around 10am, Stephen arrives from Naikara and we plan out the coming days over breakfast. We sort seeds as the girls prepare lunch. After lunch we gather materials in a wheelbarrow – two metal buckets, a shovel, hoe, and three-pronged rake, two pairs of rubber gloves, and a bag of seeds – and walk down to the tree nursery by the hot
springs. Stephen explains the role of the nursery in conservation, education, and community income, and discusses some of the native species planted including their cultural and medicinal benefits/value as we wait for the sun to drop enough to keep from scorching our backs. We select a site for the seed bed near the stream and begin breaking up and plowing a small area of soil and smooth the upturned soil into a rectangular flatbed about 1 meter by 5 feet. We then gather water from the hot springs in the buckets and gently hand splash it on the beds. We sow 12 parallel lines widthwise along the bed with 6 different seed species, with 2 rows for each species. When finished we sprinkle more earth and water over the seeds. We momentarily appreciate our handiwork and return to the camp for tea and conversation until dinner.
The following morning I help Meeri prepare morning chai and breakfast at 6am before Stephen arrives. We eat breakfast and depart for Narok by 7:30am. We take coffee at a coffee house and check emails, then go shopping for groceries before going to Naikara. The road out of Narok is one quarter Tarmac and the remainder rocky, dusty, uneven, butt-bumping dirt road which makes for a delightful 2 hour drive. As we approach the town, the landscape becomes more hilly and mountainous and wild, with woody green bush woodland bisecting flatter Maasailand plains. The Maasai here are more educated and “modernized,” with a generous proportion forsaking tradition and turning to sedentary agricultural livelihoods.
We arrive in Naikara under the first rains of the season, prompting Stephen to suggest a Maasai name for me – Nasha, which means “one who brings the rains.” The Naikara office is a modest site with two buildings housing several staff members and two offices. An outdoor kitchen flanks the boarding area. The site is used primarily to host meetings and gatherings of the local staff who work under KWS and deal with local human-wildlife conflict education and outreach or assist in research. We lunch late at 4pm and rest until 6:30. As night falls we gather around the first and talk while a few rangers at the field house prepare dinner of rice, boiled cabbage, and a delicious goat vegetable stew over the fire. We eat and I retreat back to the fire after dinner with Johnson and another officer for a light discussion until it begins to rain and we each retreat to our respective rooms/houses. The rain beats down hard and I feel a pang of sympathy for the Maasai traveling from Tanzania to sell their cattle at the market tomorrow overnighting in the bush.
The rain pounds on the aluminum sheet roof all night, and I sleep restlessly. We breakfast at 7:30am under dwindling rains and prepare to leave for a bush walk. Johnson, Sunati, and I put on camo-patterned ponchos supplied by Stephen, which seems to amuse the other Maasai
staff to no end. Many pictures are taken. We trudge up the hill past a few traditionally built manyattas and into the dense woody bush. Johnson explains the cultural and medicinal value of the surrounding plant life, stressing the role, benefits, and importance of all bush vegetation to the Maasai. We get a good view of the surrounding valley – developed for settlement, agriculture, and grazing land – at the top before descending back into the bush woodland on the other side of the hill. In the semi-dense woodland, we see a variety of birds including the fabulous Green Turaco and Paradise Flycatcher and a few bushbuck. We find buffalo tracks by a small stream. The land here is lush and green, and moist wet moss grows on the trees in wooded areas. I am once again impressed by Maasai knowledge of the bush – particularly Sunati’s – in how they are able to identify and follow tracks, discern the faint sounds of something in the bush, identify valuable vegetation, and associate particular bird calls with oncoming rain or presence of nearby wildlife.
We return to the office, break briefly with a cup of chai, and Johnson and I head to the Naikara Maasai market around 12:30pm. This is the largest weekly livestock market in the Mara region – an average of 4,000 heads of livestock are sold in a day, circulating between 12 and 15 million ksh. It is divided into the livestock and general market. We visit the livestock market first, where Maasai livestock owners, both local and arriving all
the way from Tanzania, sell select livestock to the Nairobi meat market for slaughter. Buyers arrive with large trucks (lorries) and buy from numerous sellers, pack their trucks with goats, sheep, and/or cattle, and drive them to Nairobi to sell to the slaughterhouses for a higher price to make a net profit as middlemen. Johnson explains to me the difference between the Tanzanian and Kenyan (local) sheep and goat breeds. The former are typically fatter and heavier, stouter and smaller in size, but typically healthier and sold more cheaply as the Tanzanian Maasai usually own very large herds (200-500 head per livestock owner) and are able to fatten their herds on larger expanses of non-demarcated land. These animals sell much more readily as buyers clearly get more meat for their money. Unfortunately, this has caused some tension with the Kenyan Maasai, who find themselves struggling to sell local breeds – on average lighter and less healthy – and make a livable profit.
We walk through the livestock market and shake a lot of hands and receive many hearty greetings of “sopa!” As tourists and mzungu are not common in the area – particularly not mzungu wearing shuka, carrying a walking stick, and greeting people in Maa – I get a lot of curious looks. We walk through the livestock selling area – a large wooden corral with barriers separating the areas for shoat sales, cow sales, and sold livestock. Most of the cattle have been sold or are currently being herded up by the time we wander through, but the large shoat market is still roaring. Herders circle their handful of livestock, which huddle together to be poked and prodded and dragged by one leg or both to someone’s lorry. A goat or sheep will go for at least 3,000 ksh, and a cow between 15,000 and 20,000, though prices may be negotiated and can vary with size, weight, breed, and quality of an individual. Across from the corral is a smaller fenced-off area where the quality breed sheep and goats are sold at a much higher price. A big prize bull of good breeding can go for up to 100,000 ksh!
A nearby group of men laugh as an eager (male) goat chases a female through the market, while a nearby ram successfully mounts a female. A single sheep manages to escape the corral and is chased down by several men, before being finally apprehended, mounted on the Maasai’s shoulders, and heaved back to the market. Several owners approach us and ask, in Maa, if we would like to buy a goat or sheep. I politely decline and we continue to the general market area.
The livestock market is occupied singularly by men, with the exception of a few women selling bananas and soda to the clientele. In contrast, the general market is made up of both male and female sellers but primarily female buyers. Nearly everything is available for sale, from mounds of cabbage, vegetables, maize, flour, tobacco, and rice, to Maasai cloths, beads, and sandals fashioned from old tire, to second-hand clothes and various trinkets imported from China including utensils, soap, locks, toys,
and more. The market is unbelievable colorful, most women garbed in their traditional Kamba cloths and jewelry. The women laugh at me for carrying a walking stick, as it is not something a respectable Maasai women carries. We tour the marketplace, Johnson ever helpfully narrating and explaining the secrets of the market system. Most of the sellers here buy their vegetables, maize, and materials from other markets or cities in bulk and then resell here for a higher market price to make a net profit. The market is a place where people of many tribes and regions are able to come together to exchange news, culture, and ideas, and so makes for an opportunistic social and commercial hub. Stephen hopes to host presentations and workshops on human-wildlife conflict and livestock protection at this market, which would be sure to reach a large and receptive target audience.
We return to the office in time for lunch, and I do a quick laundry wash. We rest and talk until dinner, reviewing blueprints and exchanging ideas about Stephen’s plan for a 50-100 acre restoration site and research center in the area. We also discuss water collection stratagems as the low rainfall in the area has put a strain on his plans for a nursery on his farm. After dinner, we huddle around the fire and chat until we each retreat to bed.
The following morning, we leave around 9:30am for Olderkesi, an area in the East Mara which includes the Sand River wildlife corridor, along a dirt road. We cross a dry riverbed and stop so Stephen can point out the severely damaged bridge to our left, a prime example of the detrimental effects of unmitigated sand harvesting not only on riverbank erosion but also on bridge integrity. At the peak of the wet season, when the river flows strongly, this area is near impassable even with vehicles.
We continue, snaking and bumping along the narrow road, stopping occasionally so Stephen can gesture to and discuss the borders and landmarks of the conservancy. We cross a still-intact bridge over the Sand River, which currently supports little more than a few pools of water. We see a herd of impala and a few dikdik, but little more. The landscape turns to dense brush and woodland dominated by whistling thorn acacia, and tall hills rise around us. We drive up one hill – passing a quarry-stone women’s collection project – and traverse flatlands to a pair of structures overseeing the valley. The two buildings – one fashioned simply from wood and iron sheeting, and the other from stone and cement and in the final stages of completion – are Stephen’s local primary school building project in the area, and will ideally accommodate 100+ local Maasai children. The closest other school is 6 km away, and requires traversing through a woody valley that harbors numerous dangerous wildlife including buffalo and lion, and is bisected by a river that may impede travel during the rains. A few local Maasai men approach us and greet Stephen enthusiastically, a small toddler waddling right up to stare at me with large eyes.
We drive back down the valley and return to Naikara for lunch. A few of the field officers, including the friendly pastor Charles, are fixing the base of the fence around the bone and skull museum area, where we will be setting up a small seedbed. We tie down the base of the chain link with wood and makeshift pickets, and lay large stones around the remaining gaps to keep goats and other grazing livestock out of the nursery. Around 3pm, Stephen returns from his farm with some tools and we break the ground where the seedbed will be. Charles breaks up the earth on a nearby mount and shovels it into a wheelbarrow, which is wheeled into the enclosure and dumped on the seedbed site. I rake and even out the pile of soil and we repeat this with several wheelbarrows of soil and a bag of sand until the bed is sufficiently elevated. Once flattened, Stephen and I flick some water over the bed, draw the seed lines, and sow the seeds – all native trees like Acacia senegalia, oloikipoi, and compha bush. We draw a crowd of locals half way through who ask a few questions and gape curiously at the farming mzungu.
After a short break for tea and a snack of mendazi (fried flour pastries), Stephen, Charles, and I gather the tools and walk to Stephen’s farm. It is an expansive and very well maintained property of around 7acres and includes a vegetable plot that currently grows beans, kale, and tomatoes as well as grazing and holding land for his livestock. The property is surrounded by a natural fence of dense vegetation and the livestock pens are securely built of impenetrable wood fencing. He had a cozy house for his family on the upper end of the farm. He has begun to build a dam which he hopes will fill with water diverted from a nearby stream and rainwater runoff. His cows and mature goats are typically grazed behind the farm on public grazing land, while the younger goats and sheep and pedigree sheep are grazed within his property and escorted by a few hired herders. Stephen aims to make his farm a successful, cost effective, and sustainable model for business and sustenance and set an example for others within the community.
The following morning, we leave for Maji Moto. We stumble on a stranded Matatu with a flat tire and we detour slightly to take one of the passengers and the bad tire to a local village’s tire shop for repair. Stephen drops me off at Maji Moto and returns to Naikara to attend to his feverish daughter whom he’d taken to a clinic earlier that morning. I lunch with Rose, Meeri, Salaton, and Koayla and spend most of the afternoon relaxing and reading.
Stephen has lent me a very interesting book – What I tell you three times is true by Ian Parker – written by a white Kenyan born in Nairobi who becomes a game warden. The book recounts the history, politics, and economics involved in the ivory trade and wildlife conservation in Kenya. It is a very enlightening read thus far, diving into the important historical role of ivory and ivory trade in shaping modern issues of development, conservation, tribal conflict, and poaching in East Africa, as well as early (and very shortsighted) wildlife management policies. I look forward to completing it during my time in Kenya, and recommend it to anyone seeking a first-hand account and better understanding of the complexities of poaching and wildlife management in Kenya.
By mid-afternoon, Suzanne returns and we sit in her house to discuss the summer conservation program for students we have been hoping to implement. The program we envision would be a 3 week “internship” for university students who would come to Kenya and have the opportunity to be involved in several conservation and community projects in the Maji Moto and Naikara areas, learn about and be immersed in Maasai cultural traditions and practices, tour a reserve for Safari, and more. I will be coordinating with Suzanne on the program itinerary and will help advertise it through my university, and have tentatively agreed to act as program leader/manager during the tour, guiding and managing the students on site. Between this and Steven’s offer to host and help coordinate my master’s research here in the future, I anticipate that I will soon be returning to Kenya and staying in close contact with everyone here.
Around 5:40pm, I go for a short hike behind the camp, equipped with a walking stick more for emergency anti-wildlife defense than any kind of walking assistance. I pass by the Widow’s Village and a few small children run up to me, yelling “What’s your name? What’s your name?” A dog growls at me and I brandish my stick at him. I hike to the top of the hill overlooking the valley – the same one I had climbed with Rose, Koayla, and my mother nearly a month before – and enjoy the stunning view and fresh air. Dark clouds gather to the west, bringing rain. As I clamber down the hill and reach the bushland again, and low droning from above suddenly catches my attention. I look up and see hundreds of fat-bodied dragonflies flying from the bush to the hills behind me, small birds swooping hungrily after them. Whether they are fleeing the rain or migrating to a communal nesting site for the night, I am not certain, but watch them pass with a curious fascination.
I reach the camp by nightfall and eat dinner with Suzanne and the girls before retreating to my little cabin and warm bed.
The next morning we leave early for Narok – Suzanne, Salaton, Rose, Masago (the driver) and I. Stephen lets me know that he is caught up at his office and to leave before him. We promise to meet sometime in Nairobi before o return to the US. We stop outside the KCB bank in Narok first for Suzanne to deposit some checks and withdraw cash for Rose to go grocery shopping. Suzanne warmly greets a middle aged man and two others who approach and I shake hands with a “sopa oleng”.
“Sopa,” the man, Joseph, says, shaking my hand firmly, then turns to Suzanne and asks, “How old is she?”
“She’s twelve,” Suzanne says jokingly.
“Ah!” Joseph exclaims and places his large hand briefly on my head, “then she must offer her head for I am her elder!” (This offering of the head is the traditional Maasai greeting for younger to elder, though as a mzungu I am often exempt of the custom.)
“I lied, she’s twenty two,” Suzanne admits, “but I thought I could get a better bride price if I said she was twelve!”
We laugh and Joseph goes his way. We conduct brief business at the bank and walk down to the Matatu station, where Suzanne drops me off.
Of course, not ten minutes out of Nairobi, we get stopped at the police checkpoint. The driver gets into an altercation with the officers, leaves the Matatu and returns a few minutes later. Finally, we depart, unimpeded. We pass through a large, agriculturally developed valley where endless acres of parched corn field have been chopped down to provide feed for livestock which are now grazing among the felled remains. This has been a very poor year for corn, which requires a certain amount of reliable water. Finally, I get off at my stop – which is on the way to the downtown station – and return home in time for the KWS Carnivore Conservation Conference which begins on October 27th!