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

Monday, March 4, 2013

P.s. Owww!

Also, during these hot still conditions, a lot jellyfish and other stinging things bloom in the water. Today I got a Portuguese man-of-war wrapped around my neck. For the two hours or agony afterwards I think the world should know! :-P

Winds of Change

Normally a Monday morning means waking up and going to a meeting with all the A Rocha staff, but today that was not the case. The elections for the fourth president since independence were taking place today, so everyone got a bank holiday to go and vote. Of course I couldn't vote and rather than stay at home, I decided to carry on with some field-work out in the ocean.
The morning was thick and hot, like most days in March. This time of year the hot dry north-east monsoon (kaskazi) is replaced by the cooler wet south-east monsoon (kusi), and in the time between the two the weather is like a pressure cooker. Hot, still and very moist. Days this time of year are sometimes referred to as glass days, because the sea is flat calm like a mirror. The conditions are beautiful for photography, but a nightmare to endure for many days on end.
On this particular still calm glass day it felt even more eerily quiet and liable to shatter, as the many people stayed at home all day, only venturing out to cast their votes. No one was to be seen on the streets, no shops were open and not even the sound of radios or lively chatter was to be heard. No one wants to take chances and risk being caught in violence or conflicts that occurred during the last election, where a close call election was claimed by both presidential candidates and then fought with violence between their two main supporting ethnic groups.
Many have talked about this election being a make or break situation, where Kenya will either triumph as a modern nation capable of holding free and fair elections, a growing economy and an increasingly educated and influential population or it will collapse and become another Rwanda or Congo or numerous other examples from this most turbulent continent. In reality I don't think either will happen.
I think its quite possible that the dominant Kikuyu tribe, being championed by Uhuru Kenyatta and ruled by fellow Kikuyu President Kibaki for the last ten years, will win this election because at least in part by their enormous financial influence. I think many people will be unhappy by this result, but the majority will not want to revert to the fear and violence experienced last time around and will buckle down and get on with life as they ever have, for 10 years now under Kibaki and 24 under his even worse predecessor Moi. That's what Kenyans do, they get on and make the best of a bad situation.
However, even if Odinga, the main contester and previous runner up in the controversial 2007 elections, does win, it will not be shining light of a new era that people are trying to convince themselves. Raila Odinga's father, like Uhuru Kenyatta's, was part of the first ever independent Kenyan government after the British left in 1963. Both are from highly influential political families and hence also are both stinking rich. The money and property they have acquired is enormous, and in stark contrast to the many in this country who struggle to feed themselves. The wealth divide in this country is terrible and in many ways I think this is worse  poverty than overall statistics about how many people live on less than $1 a day or however one wants to define wealth. Will Odinga really change this? Will any politicians think beyond self enrichment, to the needs of their people? I do hope Odinga will win and bring a change in politics to this country, but I think it will be a while before corruption, wealth divide and tribal politics are a thing of the past.
In the afternoon, on the empty blistering white beach I felt a breeze begin and strengthen from the South-East  and rain clouds appear on the horizon. Change is coming, but it is a long way off yet.

A typical "glass day" with rain clouds building with the pressure and heat.

Reflections of floating seaweed from underwater