Sunday, December 1, 2013

Onwards and upwards

This blog has been the place where I’ve told stories and shared thoughts about living far from everything I grew up with. As the years have gone by new experiences and some times hard learning curves have left me radically changed. I am now back in Oxford writing up my 1st year PhD transfer report, so it’s not quite the end for Kenya, but it’s not far away. By May next year I will be back in England for the foreseeable future.
            I’ve been using the past few weeks, not only to ensure I don’t get kicked out the Uni, but also trying to think about what life might look like when I get back. Yes the city has the same buildings and even some of the people I knew are still there, but overwhelmingly I think this really feels like a new chapter. Not that I would have minded going back to the lifestyle of an undergrad in Oxford, but things are still moving forward and the adventure continues.
            Seeing things with my new African eyes and experiences is a big part of this of course. A greater consciousness of how the world works and how the ideas we bounce around in this beautiful bubble of dreaming spires actually work and apply in the wider and sometimes uglier world. I also feel I have clear vision of what I am doing and why.
            Already I can see how much I’m going to miss the sunshine and the reef, which I have come to know so well, but there’s so many experiences I am looking forward to by being back in the UK. Oxford is a fantastic place to live. There’s always something to do. Last weekend the St. Giles Christmas fayre took place, “We the citizens of Oxford have decided we want to shut down one of the main roads in and out of the city, so we might fill it with music and food and rides!” There’s so many distractions and chances to explore ideas, which is the biggest thing I am looking forward to.
I’m sure they’ll be a few more stories yet from Kenya, before I’m finished, but here’s to what the future holds. I’m excited.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Before you die

Ever read one of those lists of things to do before you die? Usually I don't bother, because the concept is somehow bizarre, like ticking boxes on a checklist or maybe assuming everyone should experience the same things. A really common one on the list is "Swim with dolphins", also quite bizarre. Why not any other wildlife encounter? What if you're terrified of water? However, last weekend this was one of those on the list of things "before you die" which I actually achieved. 
I went down to Kisite with the current marine volunteers for a snorkelling road trip along the coast all the way down to the Tanzanian border and on the Sunday we jumped off the boat into a pod of dolphins. There were no other boats around and these dolphins had no problems with us at all. The four of us swam and played with the dolphins for about an hour. It was certainly a unique experience, as they are really interested in you and want to play. In the moment I think I probably also said, "it's ok, now I can die, I got to swim with dolphins" Ha ha.
Later that day after a spectacular snorkel on the coral reef in this particular section of crystal clear warm Indian Ocean, we stopped by one of the uninhabited little islands of shore for a final dip before heading back to the mainland and our drive back to Watamu. I swam around the rocky cliffs at high tide with the jungle pouring down the sculpted limestone overhangs which are typical of the East African coastline. Small fish swam around the rocks and the occasional submerged rock pool was a treasure trove of interesting little things to look at. I sat on the beach of a tiny cove, listening to the silence and sparkling water hushing against the sand. 
It was one of those lovely completely contented moments where everything is right in life. No stress, no noise, no conflict or angst in your heart. It felt like I could have quite happily camped on that little island and swam around discovering all the secret little worlds in the sea there for ever. Its good to know what you like and what you don't. I really like the sea, and isolated natural beauty and exploring. Seems simple, but how often do people really find what makes them content through all the other noise and clamour? I think this is really what is most important to do before you die, find what makes you happy and try and do it as much as possible between all the other parts of living. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Grim up North?

You may have heard that Turkana in Northern Kenya, one of poorest and most desolate places in the world is sitting on not only oil, but now huge supplies of water as well. This is nothing less than revolutionary for this area, and one way or the other it will never be the same again. You may have also heard that resource wealth in Africa is rarely exploited or shared fairly amongst the people of the nation, remember "Blood Diamonds"? Anyway the certainty of big change to a unique area and the very real potential for there to be ugly incidents along the way, prompted me to think and try and write a small article here on what really might happen. Luckily the BBC got there first and saved me the trouble!
Check out this succinct and accurate article (Letter from Africa: Kenya, a Nation of Firsts)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Benjo in Indonesia

My first time to Asia and I was both excited and nervous before arriving. After a confusing and sleepy first night in Jakarta I flew to Sumatra the next day, following the Indian Ocean coastline and tracing the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra in my mind. I don’t know why but these islands have always held a mystical quality in my mind. Perhaps it was the thought of remote rainforests with tigers and orang-utans surrounded by super-diverse coral reefs.
In reality, the city of Bengkulu, which is the base from where I am working, is one of the most boring and ugly cities I have ever visited (up there with Derby). It is crowded, functional and without any unique features. Indonesia is quite developed and between the bright-strobe lights of the supermarkets to the fast-food restaurants I think I got a similar overload of modernity that I feel when I get back to the UK, where I just want to run away to somewhere wild and beautiful. Unfortunately there was a lot of planning to do with Bob and our local contact Sean, which meant working from the hotel (where the standard rooms have no windows!) and even when we were finally ready to start fieldwork and get out to the reef we were thwarted by bad weather.
There are two islands we are trying to investigate. One is Tikus, a small spit of sand 4 miles off-shore from Bengkulu with 2km long fringing reef around it. The other is 18mile long island called Enganno, 200 miles south in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We tried getting to Tikus, but bad weather prevented us getting out there. We set off to Enganno and sat for 3 hours in a very bumpy ferry (even I felt sea-sick) and then turned around, being told it was too risky. We tried one more time to get to Tikus and succeeded. It was great to be in the water and see a new reef in a new place, but when we tried to get back the next day to start fieldwork, after having decided on the study sites, the weather got in the way again! One stressful week had passed with no data, eating rice and prawn crackers three times a day and trying to navigate arrangements with no language or control over the situation. In addition I was actually quite ill with three different infections, which I had to blast with antibiotics. I was very stressed and fed-up.
Finally we attempted the ferry to Enganno again and succeeded! Our team included two students from Bengkulu university, Mukti and Dede, plus Bob and Sean. We arrived on the island at about 9am after leaving Bengkulu at 8pm the night before, and as I woke up and looked out the windows I saw a deserted tropical  coastline with coconut palms, white sands, rainforest behind and multi-shades of turquoise and blue hinting at the reefs below.  The island was much bigger than I had thought, but apparently there are only 6000 people on it, so most of it is uninhabited pristine rainforest. We were staying with a family the Mukti knew well and were shown into their simple, but very comfortable house, nestled between the mangroves and the rainforest right on the water’s edge. It was idyllic and all my pent up frustration disappeared in moments. Not many Westerners get to Bengkulu and even fewer to Enganno, which is evident from the lack of English from the majority of people and fascinated stares I get everywhere I go. I am probably the first person to have ever collected ecological data on the reefs there. I felt very privileged and excited to be working in this place.
So began four blissful days of diving in tropical paradise. The reefs were spectacular, the coastline was postcard perfect and the people we were working with were a delight.  I really had to pinch myself and remember that it was real and happening. It felt like a major mile-stone in my life. Here I was diving in one of the remotest more beautiful places I have ever seen and being paid to be there! The past few years of work, study and sometimes struggle in Kenya are paying off.
The little fishing boat we puttered around the coastline in was owned and driven by a guy known at Pat-Nur, from the sea faring Madurese people from the island of Madura in east Java. They are known for their quick tempers, sharp tongues and apparently their traditional dress is based on 17th century pirate outfit. I loved Pat-Nur. He knew the water around that island perfectly, telling me all the best spots for research. He understood what I wanted and didn’t mind taking detours and stopping the boat at random. Most people in Indonesia, like Kenya, are very indirect, withholding information so not to disappoint, not explaining plans and easily offended direct instructions or questions. Not with Pat-Nur I told him what I wanted (through a translator of course) and he told me straight if it wasn’t possible. He was a real character.
The reefs were in really good condition. I saw 16 species of butterflyfish in the 4 days of fieldwork there. In 2 years in Watamu I have only found 10. The remotest site we went to had a lot of groupers indicating little fishing pressure away from the small settlements. All the reefs had big fish, including the endangered Humpheaded Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), which I found in one spot. I only saw a small fraction of the under-sea wonderland there. I could have stayed and studied it for a few years.
It was with great sadness I left my happy host family and Pat-Nur and strong desire to come back one day to this special place. The thought of Bengkulu and all the stress of trying to organise boats and gear to do fieldwork at Tikus was too much. In the end Tikus also went well and the weather stayed reasonable. I enjoyed the dives, but the reef just wasn’t the same.
So in the end I’ve seen the mystical and the ugly side of Indonesia and I’m sure there are many more sides to see in this huge country. As ever, I hope that I can see more of the remote, untouched places and also really hope that they won’t disappear too soon.

My host-grandma cooking fish

Typical meal with the research team

Lunch in the jungle. Pat-Nur is on the right. Dive buddy Mukti on the left

Nemo says hi!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Diving Discoveries

The past couple of weeks since getting back from safari I have been doing lots of dives. At the moment I am working with a series of methods to understand more about "Reef Resilience" which is the ecological properties of particular reef to bounce back from large scale disturbances, and especially bleaching. It has been very intense, spending 3-4 hours on fieldwork a day and stretching our 200bar of pressure in the dive tank as far as it can go. However, while down we still have managed to see some amazing things. I've snorkelled and dived these reefs here Watamu for nearly 3 years now and I still find things that are new and awesome.
One of the best finds was a Mantis Shrimp. Not only is it one of the most decorated and stunning creatures on the planet, but it has some really really remarkable biology. I won't go into detail here, but rather suggest you read the following comic for more explanation. Seriously cool animal.
Another find was a really large Triton shell. This enormous shell must have been a very old individual and is a rare sight on reefs these days. These special shells are predators on starfish and especially the Crown of Thorns (COT) starfish, which has been made famous for destroying huge areas of reef in the Barrier Reef and other locations, when plague like proportions of them descend on the reef eating all live coral in sight. These shells are one of a very few animals which prey on the COT and help to regulate its population reaching these extreme levels. However, due to the souvenir shell trade they are much less common than before and indeed it has been thought that their absence may lead to increased reproductive success of the COT and hence the blooms which have wiped out areas of reef around the world. It is great to see this old timer still on our reef here and amazing to see such an enormous shell.
At the bottom I've attached a video of my dive buddy Tim performing a challenge on his 10th recorded dive since qualifying. I wanted to test his underwater skills and have some fun too. Enjoy :-D
One of my transects across a very pretty patch of coral
The Awesome Mantis Shrimp
My dive buddy Tim with a Triton shell bigger than his head

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who am I?

I've started this blog post without a title. By the end of the entry I'm sure it will have one, but currently the monologue you are reading is not sure which route it will take. Only a week ago I got back from an absolutely amazing two week safari with my brother and a friend to the four corners of Kenya, where we traversed rainforest, desert, high mountain peaks and deep coral reefs and everything in between. However, I don't feel particularly inspired to brag about my awesome holiday (even though it was awesome). Tonight I read the blog of a westerner studying Swahili in Dar es Salaam, and their post of African lateness. I presume this person must be quite new to the continent if they are needing to express their observations on lateness and its causes, as after a while it is best just not to think about it and get on with the African rhythm as an ordinary part of life. But the point is this; the person was expressing  something and was using that expression to help with an aspect of their life. I haven't done that in ages! Tonight I'm going to write about my situation and if you want to see safari photos, invite me around for coffee another time ;-).
I am a marine biologist. I am a Christian. I am a PhD student. I am an NGO worker. I am British. I am a foreigner. (Blog title decided here) My life currently seems to be a balance of contrasting and sometimes conflicting roles. Never before have I had to negotiate so many different facets to my life, especially in my work, where I have to balance very carefully where I invest time in PhD work and work for A Rocha. But it stretches to every aspect including social life. Not until I had the lovely, but surprising crash of worlds with my friends and brother visiting here, did I realise how I live with different personalities, one for Kenyans and A Rocha and one for the UK. Not that I'm being un-true to either world, but their almost entirely independent existence in my life means that I express and interact with things in different ways. 
This balancing act is sometimes quite stressful, but for most of the time now, I have figured out how to do it with not too much difficulty. I switch language, mannerisms, jokes without even having to think about it. Sometimes I realise mid-switch and I'm glad that I can dip in and out of different worlds. I don't think that the various strands of one's life necessarily come together and harmonise, but rather that you just learn how to hold all the strings at once. I don't think that much of the Scientific community I interact with and the Christian community I interact with would agree on certain points. Where do I sit? In both camps and in neither. Sometimes I feel pressure from one side or the other to confirm to that view, e.g. views on church, views on alcohol, views on data-sharing, views about the West etc. etc., and sometimes I become a chameleon if I feel too uncomfortable to stand my ground. Other times I don't know what my stance is and I just get on with it, like my ambivalence towards African time. 
A multi-faceted life can feel quite lonely at times. Very few people span the variety of experience and expression that you do, so it is a road you must walk alone. This has certainly been the experience in Kenya, where I have had to learn how balance and nurture my various roles fairly independently. Balancing roles doesn't always need to be difficult; a guy who likes fishing and golf can play golf one day and fish another, but the particularly contrasting and conflicting nature of some of the roles I assume is where the challenge lies. 
I think that currently I am really content in my roles and also quite content that not many other people necessarily understand them. The only puzzle remaining is this; how many other people go through the balancing act? I think it has taught me a lot of resilience and life skills trying to keep all the balls juggling, but is this a normal part of growing up or something unique to unusual situations like living and working abroad? If you're reading this and understand what on earth I am trying express leave a comment.
Anyway I might as well leave one sneaky photo to get you interested in the awesome safari.
Until next time.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Winter in the tropics

I saw on BBC weather today that London is basking in a rare spell of 30 degree heat. Here in Kenya it is technically winter. Yes even though we sit on the equator there is definitely a cooler, wetter, windier season, which corresponds to the Southern Hemisphere winter. Currently I am sitting right on the Equator in the lovely town of Nanyuki on the slopes of Mount Kenya, where it is very cold (for me at least) dropping down to 10 at night. However, even at the coast it has had a wintery feel to it, that I am experiencing for the first time, because in other years I went back to the UK during this time.
From May onwards the tourists all vacate Watamu and even many locals go to their home areas, to visit family and relax until the season picks up again. The beach is empty, there's no boats in the bay and the sea is dramatic. Its actually an incredibly beautiful time of the year to experience, with a completely different character to what I'm used to. The diving has been really difficult and has often felt like diving in a washing machine, but it has been worth staying to see the storms rolling in from the sea and explosion of green and flowers on land.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Birthday Abroad

I am 24! When I started this blog I was 21 and thought that I was just doing a 3 month stint on a gap year after my undergrad and now I am here still writing on how it is being here in Kenya. This year for the first time I have stayed through May and June also, which is the stormiest time of year and so not ideal for fieldwork. This year was therefore my first birthday I had away from the UK I think. 
There are a really awesome crowd of volunteers here at the moment and in addition my friend Emma is here doing here research project in the area, so it has been quite a fun time to be around anyway, but made my birthday extra special with all these people around. We started the day doing a rockpooling event for World Ocean's Day which has fallen on June the 8th since my 3rd birthday, where already at the World Summit in Rio they could see I was a budding marine biologist. After quite an intense, but super fun morning, I crashed out for a while and then spent the afternoon with Roni, Colin and Kai and getting things ready for the party at my house later on. 
See below the awesomeness that Robin and Benji prepared for their favourite marine researcher :-). 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

My little house down in the valley

For about 6 months now I have lived in a little house near Turtle Bay in a neighbourhood called Down Valley. This blog post is all about living in my little house named "Whale Island House", the first house I have ever really been responsible for (i.e. not rented from University or shared with several others) and the ways in which it has made my life here in Kenya all the better. Its maybe not as adventurous or unusual as some of my other posts, but it means a lot to me. 
One of the obvious benefits of living in a house is have some privacy and independence; at A Rocha it can be very exhausting living and working in the same space and especially because there is such a high turn over of guests and volunteers. Moving 3km down the road gives just the right amount of separation to switch off at the end of the day and also be able to control ones own space. I love being able to decorate, cook what I like and the commute along the beach is probably one of the best in the world!
Here in Kenya the place where you live is named after your nearest "shopping centre" or "duka's" (series of small shops selling essentials) and those shops become a form of social cohesion for the people living nearby. Now, after 6 months, I am known to most people in the shopping centre, who greet me as I walk home from work and chat with while I buy my bits and pieces. Obviously this doesn't seem like a major achievement and really is just normality for most people in UK or elsewhere, but anyone who has spent time in Africa or perhaps anywhere culturally distinct, will know how hard it is to achieve that level of normality. Every time I come home from work the numerous kids from Down Valley greet me by name, not just because I am novelty, but because they play in my garden and we chat and hang out at weekends. It is one of the best things since moving to the house, finally being able to feel that at least in one corner of this country, that I belong as part of the community. 
Below are a series of photos of my lovely house and I hope it will encourage some of you to come and visit. 

Front of the house

The living room

Desk space


Bathroom complete with a frog we have named Colgate who lives in the sink

Veranda with all important hammock

Benjo's boudoir

Flame tree in the garden with some of the cheeky monkeys who live nearby

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jammy luck!

Many people who know me well have commented about how I seem to have the most extraordinary luck in getting things or meeting people or doing things that just fall into my lap. This week has been a very good example of this unusual and very fortuitous phenomenon, but to a degree at which I can still not quite believe. 
Earlier on this year I was thinking about visiting Lamu, but wanted to connect it with my research somehow. There's a big port development going into Manda Bay very near to Lamu, to basically ship out South Sudanese oil, when they finally build the pipeline, and I thought I would advertise my marine biology skills to any conservation groups who might like some information. I tried WWF to no avail, and then through a contact in Watamu, who mentioned someone up here who I was told had a turtle conservation project. I called and they said that they would love to have me up here and could provide accommodation and a boat. However not until I got an email from them confirming details did I know that the person I had spoken to was also the owner of the Peponi hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Lamu! 
Paul (a visiting marine researcher at A Rocha) and I travelled up on the local coach, being bounced around in the back of the bus, and then across to Lamu town in a very dodgy bus boat which was insanely overloaded and then ran out of fuel with a rapid tide pulling us back in a mangrove swamp. When we finally did make it to shore the Peponi speed boat picked us up, delivered us to our stunning rooms and the whole world changed. Suddenly everything was clean and worked and people were answering to our every need. I felt like saying, "You don't need to do that, we're not paying, we're just scientists!". I really couldn't believe that we had genuinely arrived and were genuinely staying in the room where I am now writing this post from.
After a great moonlight party, that just so happened to occur on the night we arrived, we set off for the first of two reefs we visited during our time here in the super fast speed boat with its 150hp engine. We had a great day of fieldwork and I was really encouraged by a sense of confidence in my own ability as a scientist. People are starting to respect my knowledge and skills in the water, which I still  find a bit surprising and I often am afraid they will discover I am a fraud! 
After the fieldwork the two local guys we were with, who are both connected with the hotel and who we were going to help with their petitions for saving the reefs in that area, took us to a deserted island for lunch. We were asked to choose some food lunch in the morning, but I really wasn't expecting the full scale picnic that had been carried out there for us! These guys, who we had spent all morning hanging out with as equals and colleagues, then started serving us with great gusto, barbequeing fish, serving drinks, all around a lovely picnic table complete with a table cloth! The Peponi doesn't skimp on any detail or luxury. It actually started raining quite heavily during the meal and the four of us sat in the dripping wet, laughing a lot, while I contemplated what a weird and exciting life I lead.  
Our Boudoir
Stek flambe au Peponi
Stunning underwater scenes in Kinika rocks near Lamu