Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On a positive note!

I realised that all my entries up to now have been quite negative and mostly about my coping mechanisms in the first month. However, of course, I’ve been doing some really fun things here. My main project is working with a mzee (elder) called David Ngala, who is a self-appointed guardian of the forest. Arabuko-sokoke is 420km² of a forest which once stretched from Somalia to Mozambique and is the only significant chunk left. It is one of Myer’s 25 hotspots for biodiversity and endemicity with 500 plant species, 270 birds and 52 mammals. Even this last chunk is threatened by illegal extraction of bushmeat and trees, most of which is for subsistence by the extremely poor communities around the forest.
                David and I go into the forest looking for evidence of these illegal activities, recording information about stumps or traps we find in order to build up a picture of what’s going on. Once we even met someone carrying building poles out of the forest. David just said that he was guiding me on a bird hike through the forest!
                We see a lot of logged trees, many of which only a small portion is taken and the rest left. It can be really sad to see, but it’s good to remember that at least in Kenya the park has a boundary, some legal status and protection. That’s a lot better than most African countries! We see some traps, but not too many, so thankfully the poverty doesn’t quite stretch to this level of need to provide food from the forest. Also unlike in Western and Southern Africa there is no cultural attachment or prestige about bushmeat, hence there is no illegal trade. What does exist is the insatiable hunger for wood, for building, fuel, charcoal and the carvings sold on the coast.
                We spend all day in the forest. It’s a real privilege to work with him. He’s a wealth of knowledge about the woods and animals and even traditional medicine. No day is complete without some casual racism about wazungu! For example, “why does a mzungu only half fill his cup of tea? So he doesn’t burn his long nose!” lots of funny nasal accent of wazungu speaking Swahili too. Aiesh! He calls me his son, which perhaps is his way of rationalising that he has a mzungu for an assistant. I do everything for him from writing his blog, data entry and report writing. It’s really good.
                Two weeks ago I took a half-way holiday to Lamu for the Maulide festival. Lamu is an ancient Swahili port on an island near Somalia. Maulide is to celebrate the Prophet’s birth and seems to be an extended and very disorganised party. There are people from all around the world, you see Swahilis from everywhere, Somalis, West Africans, Arabs etc. all in their traditional dress. It was nice not to stand out for once! There were donkey races, dhow races, swimming races and lots of singing and drumming. It was quite a spectacle. The one day I walked up to Shella on the north part of the island. In the morning I trekked through the dunes. It was really beautiful; lots of birds, no people and the first natural beauty I had just seen without having to pay or report to the office why I wasn’t paying. That afternoon I just lay on the empty beach at the back  of the island; very indulgent! The day after I went out on a dhow with local fishermen. We set off at 3am in the dark of a moonless night, the phosphorescence in the water was spectacular, The sun rose as we headed out to open water. It was a really basic narrow dugout with two outriggers to give stability. We used single lines and bait to catch predominantly triggerfish and white snapper. We finally got back at 1pm and I was quite sea-sick, sunburnt and tired! It was a good experience though, especially because it was just some local guys. Lamu was amazing, but I paid for it when I got back. After packing a lot into 3 days I got a really bad fever. I was wiped out for the rest of next week!

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