Time is an asset that all of humanity has been given. No one can complain that some have more time than others. With it, we can make significant impacts in the world, negative and positive, but some goals to be achieved require more time than others.
When I began working with the women, one question that was always on my mind was how I’d be able to make a contribution to wildlife conservation from the knowledge that I acquired in college. Coming to Kasigau made me realise that not all is nice and dandy as regards our heritage as a country. Before 2009, I had never seen an elephant with my own eyes, or as we say in Kenya, I had never seen an elephant “live live”. The closest I had ever seen an elephant was seeing dry dung. I remember I kept flipping it trying to find differences between it and cow dung. I was obviously amazed and excited to see tens if not hundreds in Tsavo East in 2009. I was astonished to learn that the excitement that I had for elephants wasn’t shared with the local community. Since they had such majestic creatures meters from their houses, (something that most people in Kenya will never be able to experience), I could not understand why they would not be excited. The confusion I had from their lack of excitement for the elephants made me wonder why they would go even a step further and have resentment and indifference to them. I realised that my desire and drive to conserve was in-born, part of me, and not some external force or drive. I realised that to be able to get the best results in my efforts to save the elephant and its habitat, the local community that lives with elephants on a daily basis needs to have the same internal drive as I do and not be compelled to conserve. The question was how to make that happen. I decided to concentrate on two villages, Bungule and Makwasinyi, which lie next to Rukinga ranch and is a migratory corridor for elephants between both Tsavos and Mkomanzi Game Reserve in Tanzania. These two communities have a great deal of elephant conflict.
My short-term goal, and the message that I give the basket buyers, is that by making a basket order, the women will not rely on charcoal or other activities that encourage degradation of the environment. With the money they receive from the basket sales, they will be able to buy legal “luxurious” meat and not the cheap poached game meat which is readily available in the area. Healthy basket sales will also hopefully discourage them from clearing more land for agriculture, which over the past few years has proved to be unsustainable. The message I have, and will keep drumming into the women, is they must stop charcoal burning and buying poached game meat due to the harmful impacts on the environment. There are, however, a number of lessons that I have learnt from the women. One lesson is I have no way of influencing them with my ideas if I am not helping them get out of their predicament. I cannot say that at present they will listen to everything I say as regards conservation, but at least I have gained an ear in the decision making processes they may have. I can now “plant” new ideas that may require patience before they produce the required fruit. The second thing I have learnt is I shouldn’t condemn and rebuke them for the degradation and their attitudes towards the environment in general. I was judgemental towards them in the past, but after spending most, if not all, of my post-college life here, my attitudes are different. In the last blog entry, I did mention how poverty and climatic change leaves them with little or no options of surviving. We could say they should stop having many children and this would put less strain on the natural environment, but as we say in Kiswahili, “maji yakimwagika, hayazoleki,” which means we can’t collect spilt water. We work with what we have. This brings me to my long-term goal.
I can’t say that the women are a lost cause in terms of changing negative attitudes, but rather they are a conduit to my long-term goal, which is to change the attitudes of the upcoming generation. The children have all-too-often been told or heard their mothers complain about the elephants invading the farms. This has instilled negative attitudes if not indifference, to the plight of elephants. If the contact with elephants can be reduced, if not totally removed, the negative stories will die off, leaving room for new positive “stories”. Around the end of October, beginning of November, I plan to show wildlife films to the primary schools in the villages near me. If funding comes through, they will also visit the Tsavo East and/or West parks. This will hopefully create awe and respect for wildlife rather than fear and indifference in their young minds. If these children can be moulded at an early age to love and respect wildlife and their natural habitat, there remains the possibility that they will be able to transfer that same respect to their children. I look forward to the day that a whole generation will be looking favourably at wildlife, but most notably the elephant, without compulsion from external sources, but from an internal drive. They will still be living with elephants/wildlife, but the overall aim is to give them alternatives to farming, which hasn’t been sustainable. My hope is to tie the alternatives to conservation issues. It may be hard to get them off their farms, but if the alternatives prove to be financially rewarding, hope remains.
I recognize that to successfully conserve our wildlife, the communities have to be involved and be cushioned from losses directly or indirectly caused by elephants/wildlife. To have the most impact, I need to involve the women. I once heard that to help a woman is to help a community. I want to change a whole generation, and the women are the key and my best bet in this endeavour. They are the ones who are more diligent in taking care of their families, and I realize the women are the individuals with whom I can have a meaningful impact. The natural resource “curse”, as I call it, is replicated in every corner of the country. The “curse” is that the resources are surrounded by poverty-stricken communities who do not benefit. If I can learn how to help Kasigau with its unique challenges, I will be in a better position to help other communities around the country. I want my children to inherit the natural heritage I inherited from my fathers, but at the rate with which we are degrading our legacy, I doubt there will be much left.