Thursday, October 22, 2015

Benjo in Kenya at last!

Watamu is a pretty insignificant place in the grand scheme of things. I mean anywhere is if you think about it. Why should one particular place mean anything in the grand scheme of the planet and all its people and places? However, because of whatever forces of fate I ended up here for 3 years of my early 20s. It was where I learnt many of the secrets of coral reefs, its where my perspective of the world and my place in it was drastically altered, and it’s a place full of friends and memories. After 18 months of being back in the UK, I’ve come back to Watamu for a brief few weeks to finish up some aspects of my research and PhD work. While here the past, present and future have all sort of blended together and given me a birds eye view of my life at the moment, which I needed to get down on paper.
            Arriving in Watamu initially was a little underwhelming, because obviously I recognised everything and I guess I just slipped back into looking around like I had never left. It was absolutely great getting to Mwamba and receiving this joyous reception of familiar faces of my old work colleagues and friends, but again this funny feeling of never having really left. After my first swim at the beach I stopped by the little fire shelter in the dunes and then it sort of hit me; all of the past experiences, memories and significant life steps I had taken within this area. It was like reconnecting with a side of myself I had almost forgotten in the UK. Over the coming days I met so many people, on the road, on the beach, that took me back to those times and that feeling of never really having left allowed me to almost touch my younger self and remember vividly where I have come from.
My PhD supervisor David on the left, colleague and fellow fish nerd Melita, and fellow PhD student Juliet on the right, out on fieldwork with me.
            A couple of days later I did my first workshop with local Kenya Wildlife Services personnel and other people in Watamu doing marine conservation work. In the build up to it I was really struggling to force myself to prepare the presentation and remember why I was out here in Kenya, when I should definitely be at home working on my PhD. However, during the presentation and the response I got from people afterwards it hit me that things had come full circle. All those plans and all the legwork we had put in from 2011 and onwards were now bearing fruit. People at the presentation congratulated Peter and I on the ‘amazing findings’ we had made through our research, which I guess in the long labourious process of finding, had escaped me a bit. Presenting the work back to people reminded me why I had started this whole crazy process in the first place and I think has probably given me a great little burst of enthusiasm to get through the final stages.
Presenting in Watamu
            So being back has crystallised a bit of my recent past, and through that has also helped me see where I am now. For one, I realise how completely burnt out I am with the PhD now. I am so so so so so ready to finish! But no major news there; I think this feeling is pretty standard at this stage in the process. I also realise actually how happy I am in Oxford. Quite a lot of people I’ve bumped into have asked me would I be coming back. On the one hand I am reminded by some of things I do not miss since leaving Kenya. Since being back getting a tummy bug, struggling to arrange meetings, organising transport etc. reminded me how tired I was with Watamu by the time I left and no amount of tropical sunshine and crystal clear water could cure. However being able to pop out for a quick lunchtime snorkel, while you are at work is not to be snubbed at! 

                But where does that lead me now? On my last day in Kenya, Peter and I were presenting to the heads of departments at Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters in Nairobi. A row of very important men in sharp suits surveyed us as we began our presentation, and I was struck by the fact that somehow I had ended up presenting my work to the highest level of governmental wildlife conservation in the country and also how young and under-dressed I felt! The presentations went down well, and these top guys congratulated us on our good work.  When I hand in my thesis in a couple of month’s time, I will be a qualified marine scientist, ready to start my career. This trip has helped me see that I can actually do this thing and that all the leg-work has been worth it. Exactly what that means for the future though I have no idea yet! For now I am just looking forward to seeing people back home and getting my teeth stuck into my last chapter.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Benjo not in Kenya

Mysteriously last weekend the UK government's foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) included most of the Kenyan coast as an area to be avoided by British citizens. The strip included Watamu, my previous home and where I was planning to travel just after Easter. Initially I, and friends in Watamu, were confused. Surely this was something political, nothing ever happens in Watamu, right? Indeed since 2012, when the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab began operating in Kenya, we never saw a single attack or even threat any closer than Mombasa, 100km to the south. Feeling frustrated at the sloppy nature of international relations and the extra admin this change had created, I nevertheless continued planning my trip.
In the early hours of Thursday morning as students were waking up for the new day, Al-Shabaab gun-men attacked their university in Garissa, killing 148 people and marking that day as the worst terrorist attack Kenya has seen since the Al-Qaeda attack on the US embassy in 1998. Turns out Al-Shabaab had leaked a fairly horrifying letter to the Kenyan public some days before and the FCO had responded accordingly. I am angry. I am so angry I could barely sit through Easter service this morning, where we are supposed to sing joyfully and celebrate the resurrected Christ. Like me you may be infuriated by the loss of life and the barbaric attitude of the organisation that caused it. However, in this blog I want to focus on what this might mean for Watamu, and think about what instability really is. 
In news coverage of such events, the focus is on the immediate victims, the perpetrators, and the wider context for the world and the west. Then it is forgotten. Our lives are unaffected, and why should they be? The only reason I see beyond the headlines in this case is because I lived there and the lives of my friends will be affected. Living in the UK it can be difficult to understand the true consequences of instability or uncertainty because so much of our lives is controlled and sheltered.
The first victim of instability is always business. Economies are fundamentally fragile and can have the rug pulled from under them even in highly regulated countries. Watamu, like much of the coast, relies heavily on tourism. With hotels empty, bars and restaurants will close, souvenir shops will cease to exist and the entire local cash flow will dry up. Some people will move on and find new work, others will have lost a life-time's achievement in an uncontrollable act of fate. 
Next will come the frustration. Lack of money, lack of alternative opportunities and everyone fighting over an ever dwindling pie. In such situations of acute stress and misery, people don't necessarily club together as we would like to believe, but rather become bitter. In Kenya, like most places, this is often expressed through racism; think of post-depression Germany, or even post-recession UK (i.e. right now!). 'That person is stealing my meagre ration in this world and I will not stand for it!' And we have gone full circle. Al-Shabaab and other militant groups around the world prey on disaffected, frustrated young men who have all the energy and potential in the world, but no way to express it. 
Instability is relative. Kenya is doing better than many countries in Africa, but the corruption, food insecurity and crime certainly makes most Brits reflect differently on our own experience back home. I am feeling particularly worried for the marine park in Watamu and for my old charity A Rocha. A Rocha relied heavily on eco-tourism, both for its own income and in its practical conservation programmes. We worked with communities to protect their forests and reefs and help them to recognise the alternative livelihood tourism provides. With no tourism to the area, I fear for our projects and even for the continued existence of the beautiful habitats I was lucky enough to work in for all those years. 
Somalia is the most extreme example of instability and anarchy on the planet, without a functional government or national unity in over 2 decades. What little I understand about the situation, perhaps it is no surprise a group such as Al-Shabaab should form. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling each of us has a choice of how to act when we are hurt. In Jesus' first address, his famous sermon on the mount, he said

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"

I recognise that religion is one of the easiest battle lines to draw and don't put this up as a religious stand point. Personally I read this and feel it may be the only genuine solution to violence, anger and instability in our world. Choosing day by day to live for peace.