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.

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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.
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