Kasigau History and Its Influence on Contemporary Life

Kasigau is a series of villages located on an elephant corridor that connects the Tsavo National parks of Kenya with the Mkomanzi Reserve in Tanzania. Land-use in this corridor is mainly made up of community ranches that are used by livestock herders, both local residents and migrant Somali herders. Livestock grazing supplements rain-fed agricultural production. Over the last few years, however, this area has experienced insufficient or delayed rainfall periods which have stressed crop and livestock production.

To preserve this celebrated wildlife corridor, various organisations, governmental and non-governmental, local and international, have developed projects offering alternative forms of livelihood that are less reliant on natural resources. Such projects included building guesthouses for tourism, bee-keeping projects, outdoor facilities, and activities for both corporate and private groups. Other projects have focused on giving the local community better access to education – building and refurbishing school buildings, building water harvesting and storage systems with related infrastructure, and working with local women’s and youth groups. Despite attracting interest from conservation and development agents, most conservation projects in Kasigau haven’t gone past the initial implementation stage, and if they have, projects teeter within the first few years and for some projects, dying off. Development-related projects, on the other hand, seem to fare much better.

Projects that deal with giving access to public goods are viewed more favourably compared to other types of projects. Kasigau is relatively isolated from major infrastructure like roads, and it wasn’t until the late 2000s that electricity came to this part of Taita. Network signal, too, is a recent addition. Due to its isolation, most primary schools within Kasigau were initially built to accommodate local residents. With the passage of time, the infrastructure, of primary schools became deplorable as population increased. With little surplus income among the residents, most of the capital was and continues to be dedicated towards providing uniforms and paying of fees for school going children. Also, due to the relative poor political capital the residents wielded in the greater coastal region, and coupled by their isolation, Kasigau lacked political patronage and it wasn’t until recently one of their own was in government. Such factors made residents compare themselves against their other Taita brothers and decry poor development in their region. Given this state, residents have a different attitude towards development projects. Projects that focus on schools: financial aid, school uniform, school infrastructure, and other social amenities tend to have more favourable perspectives and therefore lack the infightings that have led other conservation projects to fail.

From conversations I had with various conservation-implementing agencies, project staff perceive local political interference as the main reason for failure. Despite agreements with local leaders and communities, at some point during the life cycle of a given project, disagreements arise that escalate into battles of will and initial agreements about the project are rejected. In multiple instances, investors who required land to be sold or donated, had their land agreements trashed, and in one extreme case, the project organizer was literally chased by a mob of angry residents. This sudden turn of events, despite progress in negotiations, and following through all the recommended process in project implementation, has been the bane of the community, and intriguing research on the causes of such aggressive actions.

My research focused on understanding how a local history of colonial deportation in Kasigau continues to affect local perception of “outsiders.” The deportation event occurred during WWI, a direct consequence of German cross-border aggression from Tanganyika (present day Tanzania), to the British colony of Kenya. After being accused of aiding a German raid on a British military camp based in Kasigau, British troops forcefully removed Kasigau residents from their homeland. The community then spent 22 years in two different locations, with many community members dying from an alleged poisoning event by locals at Pumwani in Malindi, the site of their first relocation. After residing in Mwatate, the second location, the Wakasighau were eventually allowed to return home to Kasigau.

Pushing the piki around after it got stuck in sand

Pushing the piki around after it got stuck in sand

But some 89 years after resettling, the deportation narrative itself hasn’t remained static. From preliminary data, the differences occur in three categories; between generations; between villages and; within villages. Between generations, the first generation of those exiled have a more uniform version. The divergence becomes more pronounced as the narrative progresses down the second, third and fourth generations.  The lost details from the original narrative are then filled with what the narrator believes happened, based on contemporary events that have shaped/been shaping life in each respective village.

One of the ways that influence narrative evolution is what locals believe to be the cause of the deportation; ignorance and naivety. Most respondents believe had their forefathers been more inquisitive of the role of the British camp, understood the hostilities between the British and the Germans and, had been more inquisitive as to the aim of the Germans wanting to know the whereabouts of the British camp, they would never have gone to exile and suffered as they did, “losing 22 years’ worth of development opportunities”. This sense of vulnerability is one of the ways that have shaped their attitudes towards outsiders.

Working with the youth to map the route taken by their forefathers

Working with the youth to map the route taken by their forefathers

From this research, I aim to bring greater understanding as to why communities, like Kasigau, are seen as resistant to community projects. My interviews suggest that the resistance experienced in previous years is based on a widely held belief that any project requiring local commitment before receiving tangible results is reminiscent of the deportation of their forefathers. This is particularly so for projects that appear to place “their” natural resources, especially land, under joint or foreign/outsider management. One example of this is community leaders have refused to have their land adjudicated in order to get title deeds. The local leadership claims that the ranches that surround Kasigau belonged to their forefathers, but were lost while they were in exile. The leaders’ argument is based on the well-known fact that most of the registered ranch members of the surrounding ranches are in faraway parts of the district/County and in some cases, ranches are individually owned and hence said members/owners have “no claim” to land that was formerly under the Wakasighau before their deportation-Such claims are based on historical knowledge of settlements within the Tsavo dispersal areas which, originally, had been sparsely populated. The leaders will only allow land adjudication after Kasigau residents get their “original” land back. By understanding such claims by the Wakasighau, and investigating the fuel that drives these arguments, I aim to better understand how communities like Kasigau view themselves, how outsiders view them, and how such communities think they are perceived by outsiders.


Mount Kasigau – Behind The Scenes

A different view of the area, thanks to the Kenyan Camper.

The Kenyan Camper

Hello again, as a follow up to my recent article on the the beautiful area of Mount Kasigau, I thought i might give you a little behind-the-scenes look of some of the things i got up to there. There is usually so much more to the areas and people I write about, unfortunately not everything can make it into the articles, and if i told you everything there wouldn’t be any reason for you to visit now would there?

I’ll break it it down into 3 short stories; one is of a man struggling with a failed project, a group of women with mad skills and finally a keeper of a quickly fading history.


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Zoos, baskets, elephants and Yale

I walked into the zoo with nostalgia, hoping to see some exotic wildlife. The Lincoln Park Zoo, also known as Zoo lights during the festive season, was packed with a sea of humanity. Parents with kids, lovers and singletons (in my view anyway) moved irregularly from one building to the other, from one attraction to the next. Being Chicago in mid-December, the open area meant for big and small wild cats was too cold and therefore empty. My friend and I moved into the adjoining building that houses the wild cats. Inside, crowds thronged the front of each enclosure, and the large hall turned into a snaking corridor. Everyone was trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive cats. Someone exclaimed, pointing in the direction she thought she had spotted the grey back of a serval cat. Everybody excitedly turned towards the direction her finger was pointing in the hope of seeing it. As we walked out a bit disappointed, we found another crowd clustered around a window. After patiently waiting for the crowd to thin just enough to squeeze through, I took a look at the object in question. Behind the thick glass, a tiger lay with only the regular rising and falling of the chest betraying life. The cat was either dead asleep, or was aware of the crowds and iphone flashes behind it but didn’t let the disturbances bother him/her. This last thought caught me off guard. Had the tiger lost all its natural instinct for seclusion and accepted its fate in the zoo, or was the glass thick enough to filter out all the noise and window taps? I walked off wondering if the other animals in their enclosures felt the same way. The next stop was the small animal section. Most, if not all of the mammals and reptiles were active. The mongeese, moles, snakes and frogs were awake and aware of their surroundings. Walking behind a family, I noticed how excited the kids got when they’d spot an animal. The animated delight was palpable. I felt my spirit soar in hope. I hadn’t noticed I was becoming depressed. I was depressed at the sight of these animals behind enclosures, living their lives in a space that is infinitesimal in comparison to their natural habitat. Yet, for some, the opportunity to appreciate wildlife was only through zoos and other wild animal enclosures. During Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to visit the Natural Museum in New York. Taxidermies of various animals were a sight to behold. Yet, they represented animals that once lived and had roamed their ranges freely. And again, this was probably the only opportunity for some people to appreciate the wealth of life on this planet.

I have been in the States for the past four and a half months and in that period, I hadn’t really thought much about the work I did in Kasigau, nor had I kept in touch with the women. Over this period, the women in Kasigau have made sales and thankfully, have a new basket client and, sadly, one of the most open and honest weavers in one of the groups died from a suspected stroke.


Sylvia Kilongozi who sadly passed away in October, 2014.

Going to the zoo reminded me of the initial reason to work with the women; the conservation of elephants and their rangelands. I have been asked why I spend my energies on women and not elephants. As one of my entries highlighted, the women, their children and the communities they live in have a huge role in swinging the pendulum of conservation of not only elephants but, the national heritage Kenyans inherited from our fathers. With rhinos becoming ecologically extinct, and elephants still being poached, the zoo was a good reminder of what still needs to be done. If anyone has ever seen elephants roaming freely, lions lazing in the sun, giraffes in their awkward run or whichever wild animal in its element, zoos are an injustice to these animals but, a necessary tool for people to learn, appreciate and value the diversity of this beautiful planet. Though the task of conservation seems daunting at times, there is only so much one individual can do, yet, it takes only one drop for a cup to overflow. The women are my own way of making the cup overflow, albeit in one small corner of Kenya. The basket sales the women make not only affect their lives, but also impact households not found within the same geographical area. I am hoping to further expand this impact by taking advantage of my time here in school through the systems and support offered at the Yale School of Forestry.



I first came to Mwakoma when Dr. Lucy made a call for interns to join her at the Tsavo’s Elephants and Bees project site in June 2012. Since then, and prior to building the new research centre, I had been coming in and out of Mwakoma. In that period, I had never been within Mwakoma when elephants invaded the farms. I always got reports of how the elephants had entered the farms, ate this or that and, in rare circumstances, injured or killed residents within Mwakoma or, in the neighbouring villages. After the research centre was up and running, we had not heard anything to “excite” us. Things changed in June.

June wasn’t a good month for many late harvesting farmers in Mwakoma. The first elephant made more of a reconnaissance tour. It moved within the community, eating here and there. We were excited about this incursion by the lone elephant. We figured that would just be a rare event and we’d have to wait a few more months for anything significant. The very next day we had more visitors. More followed that week. Of particular interest to us as a team was the elephant movement within Mwakoma community. The elephants ALWAYS made a pass at a farm owned by Charity. The elephants left more than their footprints.They uprooted Charity’s cassava and, gleaned her pigeon peas. The said crops were outside her bee-hive fenced portion of the farm. From the footprints, the eles would deliberately avoid the fenced portion of her farm. We also observed how one of the elephants strayed from the herd and went to test the fence. A few meters from the fence, the ele stopped and turned to follow the herd. In one of the farms neighbouring to the west of Charity’s, and owned by Judah, had a visit from an elephant. He says he heard some noise outside his goat boma. There had been cases of hyenas crossing from the Tsavo East and coming into community land and, he thought the noise was being made by a hyena trying to break into his goat boma. He picked his panga/machete, and went outside to make sure “nothing was going to happen” (no hyena would steal his goats). It was pitch black and he says he heard something walking away from his farm. He was determined to finish off the “hyena”. A few meters from the object of his wrath, he says he heard a loud “scream”-trumpet-, and he froze. His “enemy” had grown in size. The elephant, having noticed Judah was trailing him, had turned and trumpeted at him. The elephant was now charging at Judah. Judah on realizing what he was up against, decided to run for his life. A few strides later, he fell. The elephant charged at the last spot he saw Judah, turning its rage on a small tree near where Judah had fallen. The elephant uprooted the tree with fury. Judah was still frozen lying on the ground as he saw the huge “mountain” furiously break and uproot the tree. The elephant left him lying on the ground. When Judah was narrating how he thought it was a hyena attempting to “steal” his goats and only to discover it was an elephant, he was jovial and making light of the situation. We were laughing too. Not at his ordeal but, how he was describing his ordeal. As we left Judah, I was thinking of the impact of this event and, Charity’s farm invasions, in our efforts to change the attitude of the community towards wildlife and, elephants in particular. There would be local residents who would see it as an added reason to hate elephants and demand they be “locked up” within the park. A farmer in a nearby village was killed by an elephant a few days after. This latter event wasn’t helping the situation.

How do you tell someone who lives in constant negative contact with elephants that wildlife should be conserved? “Conserved to benefit who?” This is a question the youth I interact once asked me. The community has to deal with inadequate rainfall and, subsequent little or no harvest. In most cases, elephants then invade their farms and take whatever little they have farmed. They say their Taita Taveta County is taken over by the Tsavo parks and yet, the benefits they hear wildlife accrues from tourism “doesn’t get to us”, a farmer once lamented to me. “Infact, this very wildlife is making life unbearable,” he said. From my own experience in Kasigau, these communities don’t want sympathy. They want someone to care for their plight with wildlife. I have had non bee-hive fence farmers describe me as “watu wa nyuki”-the bee-hive guys. Insomuch as the bee-hive fence isn’t in every farm, people see the little effort we put in the community a sign that we care about their plight. The kids love the film shows we take to them. The kids anxiously wait for the films every Friday afternoon. If I happen to meet up with the kids of Kileva Eastfield, they ask me if I’ll be showing them the films the following Friday. The kids are curious about and, intrigued by wildlife. They want to know more about wildlife and showing these films probably is the only way to begin making the kids appreciate wildlife. It probably is the only way to counter the negative attitudes that keep sprouting every time an elephant invades the farms of their parents. The bee-hive fence may not be in every farm but, it shows that we, as the environmentalists, do care about their plight.


We start small

The kids started streaming in at 2:30pm. As is cultural, they stretched out their hands to greet their seniors; me, and my colleague, Tara Easter. Tara, however, was overwhelmed with greeting almost 50 kids from the local primary school; Kileva Eastfield Primary School. We directed them into the newly constructed educational/training hall for the Elephant and Bees project. We had no chairs, and the kids had to sit on the floor, crowding at the front, where I had set up my laptop. The teachers finally arrived and the introductions begun. I was to play various animal sounds to the kids. Some of the sounds they had heard or they knew. For other sounds, they had no idea which animal they came from. As I played the very first animal sound of an elephant making the grumbling noise, I was having a déjà vu of myself many years back.

I was seven years old when my father brought home a wild kitten. I have no idea where he got it from, but I fell in love with it immediately. My older brother and I were inseparable from it. The cat ate what we ate, and even slept where we slept, something unheard of in the area we lived in. Culturally, and traditionally, cats were meant for taking care of mice and rats in and around the compound, but the cats slept outside every night. I thank God my parents had no objections with our interaction with the cat. My father, seeing our interest in the cat, encouraged it. During the annual agricultural society of Kenya’s (ASK) shows that took place for 4 days, my father would make sure we visited the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) stand. The queues used to be long, taking at times 2 hours just to get to the entrance of the stand. My father knew some KWS guys, and once we were at the entrance, he used to request them to allow me and my brother into their “staff only” section. Movies used to be played, and for most people, they just glanced at it, as the queue had to move forward. Not for me and my brother. We sat and watched the entire documentary to the end. After, we would be taken to the cages where the animals were kept. I remember seeing the hyena, the lion and a cheetah. In the evening, we would excitedly tell our mother what we saw and heard. What my father did in my younger years birthed a love in me that still stands to this day; a love and appreciation for wildlife and the environment. Fourteen years later, I joined the University of Nairobi for a BSc in Wildlife Management.


The kids trying to be the first to answer my questions

The exciting part about playing the animal sounds was seeing the reaction on the kids’ faces. They were intrigued, surprised and, excited about all the sounds I played. I even played the meow of a cat, but their heads were so stuck in thinking it was a wild animal, they didn’t recognise it. My surprise was the kind of guesswork they did, naming animals that aren’t even found in Kenya like the gorilla and the tiger. The kids had heard about such animals and their heads were exploring every animal sound I played, and trying to relate with what they knew or, thought they knew. At the end of our last meeting with the children, I asked them what they’d want to see the next time they came to the site. The majority wanted to know about gorillas, overriding those who wanted to know about hyenas, a sign of their curiosity. I am hoping that by showing them animal documentaries and clips, it will spur in them a desire to know wildlife, and in the long run, appreciate and conserve the natural environment. These kids live in Sagalla, a dispersal ground for elephants from the neighbouring Tsavo West. Every kid I asked said they had seen or heard about an elephant. But their perceptions about the elephant were all negative, and that negativity was slowly spreading to other forms of wildlife. My aim and desire is to change the perceptions of wildlife in these kids. My older brother is an engineer, and to this day, he appreciates wildlife and the environment. I am sure he will transfer the same appreciation to his children, when he has the children of course. Not every kid will take a career in conservation, but, if I begin early, they will appreciate wildlife and transfer the same passion to their children. The children might be a small group, but the potential of multiplication in the future, is enormous. That future is my target.



Yesterday, the 16th of April, I happened to go to Taveta, a border town near Tanzania. I had gone for the purpose of getting sisal for the women. Though I am happy that the number of baskets being ordered from the women has increased, it has caused another issue; sisal supply. The local sisal has run out, and the nearby source of sisal, Buguta, has reduced to a point that the sisal sellers have increased the sisal price: supply and demand dynamics. With the help of Cheryl Kirby-Stokes, we had agreed with the women that they plant the sisal along the fence of the local primary schools to supplement the sisal demands in the future. Well, the future has caught up sooner than we expected, and now I’m in Taveta.

I happened to stay with one of the daughters of the basket weavers in Makwasinyi, and I was able to use that as a base to go scout for cheap sisal sources. I also happened to go scouting for specific raw materials used to make reed baskets, and the only other source was way north in Lodwar. The hope was to reduce the travelling expense of going all the way to Lodwar. The very reeds Bee needed were being exported out to Tanzania. They did use some of the reed material to make baskets, but they were doing it as a past time, and not in a way that would empower them economically. One of the ladies I was discussing the reed baskets with said they needed something to keep them busy, to empower them economically, for despite her husband working at the sisal plantation, it was obvious they were in need of more financial help. We agreed they make the designs once I sent them the pictures of the kind of baskets Bee needed. The highlight of my visit, however, was my stay with the daughter of one of the basket weavers. She was asking how I do my work with the women and how it all begun. In the midst of our discussion, she said, “You are doing something wonderful for our mothers. Now, at the very least, they don’t depend on us to send them money. Robert, you know we have responsibilities of our own. Now, with what you are doing, we are becoming more free to build our own families.” It never hit me how much influence the baskets are having on not just the women in Kasigau, but to their sons and daughters who do not live within Kasigau. Traditionally, though not obligated, the children do support their parents, financially or however means the parent might be in need of. When she said how much relief she gets from actually helping her mother, I wondered how many other women’s children are relieved of such financial obligations from their parents by the very basket you buy in London, the States, Canada and hopefully, Australia.

A woman from Kisimenyi Women's Group

A woman from Kisimenyi Women’s Group

The chain effect is long, longer than I, and most probably you, ever thought of. I was tired yesterday, dog tired. However, the knowledge that I am doing more than I initially anticipated was worth all the fatigue and pain of travelling 3 hours standing on a bus with a swollen foot caused by two bee stings. It is worth having to figure out how the four large bails of sisal will be transported to Kasigau, despite the government’s directive of no luggage on matatu roofs. We are doing more than we initially anticipated. It might not seem much, but in essence, by buying a Kasigau basket, you are helping a family allocate more money to family development, money that may have been sent back to the women in Kasigau. We are doing something good for countless families not only in Kasigau, but pretty much all over Kenya.



This mid-October, I had taken Bee Friedmann, a major Kasigau basket buyer from Hiro+Wolf, to Lodwar. She had heard of the Lodwar basket, and she wanted to see if she could diversify her basket products.


Bee, with the ladies looking on, as she does the total sum for the baskets.

We were staying with a family in Lodwar. Over dinner, Bee and I would share experiences with the hosting family of both Lodwar and Kasigau. The night before the eve of my departure, one of their local friends came over for supper. He is Turkana and the most educated locally based Turkana the host family had met. He lived deep in Turkana land and came to town only once in a while. The following morning I had a chance to sit with him and talk. I had been told earlier by the host family how he had gone through his education in hardship but had still managed to clear high school. As we were talking that morning, he disclosed to me what he did to get money to study. His father had warned him that if he sought education, he would be disowned and he should never use his father’s name (Traditionally, boys are meant to herd the livestock and if a father is very conservative, herding is what most boys do). He said he went to live with his uncle, who encouraged him to study, but the uncle too, had no means to educate him. To educate himself, he used to close the border to Ethiopia and buy guns for Kshs. 2500 and sell them around the area and down country for Kshs. 30,000. This he did to get money for school fees and to cater for his living expenses. I asked him if he did not fear being arrested, and his response was, “I needed to read. I wanted to read. Education was my aim”. He then told me how he once crossed Lake Turkana and went eastwards to Sibiloi Reserve and killed 3 ostriches with the same guns. He said he was looking for feathers so that he could sell them to his tribes’ mates. He seems to regret the decision to kill those ostriches, for he says now he would rather farm the animals and get feathers without killing them. He already has a wife and kids. He values education to a point of asking me to help him sell baskets for his wife, who initially depended on fishing at the lake. Now the fish are fewer, and the business is not as profitable as would be expected.

I draw many similarities between this middle-aged man’s former and current lifestyle and, with the women in Kasigau. They would give anything to ensure their kids finish school, even if the means do not necessarily meet approval from conservationists. They know it’s wrong, but in a world that is ever changing, education is the only sure inheritance they know will propel their children to greater heights in life. I know women who come to me and tell me I am their only hope for their children since the baskets are the only source of income that can get them school fees. At times I wonder why I even bothered to begin in the first place. Reason? Expectations are high from the women. As I had pointed out earlier, the supply outstrips the demand. My older brother once told me, “Robert, you cannot save everyone.” That statement always comes to mind whenever pressure from the women’s expectations begins to mount.


Bee, together with Malissa Pina, selecting her baskets in Ngambenyi

I know I cannot save everyone, but if I can do something to make a difference, however small it is, I will do it. We all can make a difference in the lives of these women, their children, and their community. Baskets may not seem much, but they mean a lot. Buying a basket prevents the women from going into the nearby ranch, a dispersal range for migrating elephants between the Tsavos and Mkomanzi in Tanzania, and cutting more land for agriculture. The baskets prevent the women from buying cheap poached game meat. The baskets encourage and mould a generation of wildlife lovers, as explained in the last entry. The Kasigau basket you buy does have an impact in the lives of the weavers. It may not be much but always remember it is a life you are influencing. It is a life that you are changing. The Turkana man did not have an option when he needed school fees, but we can give the women that choice especially now it seems the short rains, the most reliable of the two rainy seasons, will fail. We can do something about this in a way that encourages them to continue working with what they have. Image

We all have the choice to make a difference.