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.

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New Era

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Neighbour

Someone once asked me how helping the women of Kasigau was really going to make any difference in their livelihoods and meet my desired goal of conserving and preserving our national heritage of wildlife. Honestly speaking, I had the same question some time back. Some of you may actually be having the same question. How can 1000 shillings influence a generation? How can buying a basket change a life from one state of negativity and despair to one of hope and a realistic future? Let me explain with their lives.

Meet Hannah Manga

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For those who have used Kenya Airways in July, you may recognize the face.

She is the chairlady of the Kasigau Basket Weavers, and the chairlady of her village group. She was instrumental when I first made up my mind on how I was going to help the women in Kasigau. She has 4 kids; 3 girls and 1 boy, well, a young man. The oldest is married and has a family. She reached standard 8 and due to lack of fees, she didn’t continue and ended up getting married. The young man cleared secondary school/high school 2 years ago. The third born is in high school in Voi, the nearby town. The youngest is still in primary school. The last three kids have all been educated with money from basket weaving. Does she have a husband? She does, but he depends on casual labour, which in Kasigau is seasonal, especially in between the rainy seasons. Below are pictures of her houses; the old ones and the new one.

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The grass thatched house that acted as a kitchen and granary and one of the rooms used by her son.

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The “main house” that had her bedroom and the kids bedroom.

The new one has been built largely from basket money.

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The new house though it is not yet complete but she moved in with her family.

As a woman, she will be diligent about saving and using the little she has to educate her children and help build the house. The women end up bearing the same, if not a larger burden as the men. She has come to me more than once asking me to bail her out with money for fees. I do what I can by chipping an order for her that was meant for another group. Basketry has most definitely improved her life.

Meet Christine Makenga.

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Christine in 2011 when I first came to her group.

She is the secretary of the Bungule Mwamko Basket Weavers Group. Her group was the first to benefit from basket sales through orders from clients, most specifically Bee Friedmann and Amy Fleuriot’s From Afar Crafts and Hiro + Wolf in London, England. I have been working with her group to experiment new concepts of business and designs for the baskets. Her group wasn’t getting a lot of sales since they are far from the main town centre, Rukanga, and hence, would only get sales once in a while. Another reason I chose to work with her group was because her village gets a lot of elephant raids. That side of the hill borders the Rukinga Ranch, which is a migratory corridor for elephants as they move between both Tsavos and towards Mkomanzi reserve in Tanzania. She has 4 kids, the oldest being a 17 year old girl. The youngest boy is just over a year. Her husband works in Mombasa, so doesn’t really spend his whole time with his family. They have been able to educate the oldest through to a technical institute to become a tailor. When I asked her how the baskets have helped improve her life, this is what she had to say. “Without the baskets, I doubt I would have progressed as fast as I did. My husband was helping to pay the fees of my daughter, but if I had small needs in the family, I would either borrow my neighbour or do some other work. Casual labour was not enough. Now, however, I have been able to buy good clothes for my children, and if their shoes are worn out, I don’t have to wait for my husband to buy new sandals. I do it myself. I have even been able to buy some goats with the extra money.” On the part of new clothes, I can attest that when I began working with her group, the kids in primary school had tattered clothes, but now I rarely see tattered uniforms. She has bettered herself. Compare the images of 2011 and 2013.

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Christine last month

Physically, she seems to be “eating well”. Traditionally, a well-fed wife meant that the husband is taking good care of her.

Meet Christine Nyange.

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Christine explaining to me when she’ll be done with the handles for this particular basket.

She is the Chairlady of the other basket weaving group in Bungule village. I began working with her group recently. I went to visit her to learn more about her life and her family.

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Christine’s old house

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Her new unfinished house

She lives in a grass thatched house, but she intends to build her own house with corrugated iron sheets, which is an on-going project that she has been doing for the last year. She and her husband are both farmers and depend on their crops. The farm is sizeable and in a good year, they have a successful harvest and can sell the extra. In other times, let’s just say they have to make sure that they feed their kids first and have money to meet their day-to-day needs. As I was talking with her, she revealed that she and her husband were really burning charcoal to make a living, especially during those years the rainfall was poor or their farm had been invaded by elephants. She says she knew she was destroying the environment, but what was she to do if her daughter had been sent home to collect fees and she had nothing and there were trees around. She says she wasn’t earning much from charcoal burning, but it was better than nothing. She has a tree nursery from where she is hoping to sell the seedlings to Wildlife Works -Wildlife Works has a program of buying tree seedlings from the local community-. She has, however, been planting some of the seedlings on her own farm. I encouraged her with her replanting efforts.

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Her tree seedlings and nursery

I have bought baskets from her on short notice when I have friends asking, and my goodness, is she fast. Her basket quality is very good for someone who weaves that quickly. I have bought her baskets 3 times in as many weeks, and the income she has received from the baskets always brightens her up. She is diligent with her work and will make sure that I get what I need and what the client wants. She hopes the weaving business will give her enough income to educate her daughter, who is in high school, and enough for the siblings, who are in primary school.

In the same village of Bungule, where both Christines come from, a group of women formed their own basket weaving group. 2 weeks ago they invited me to visit and know them. I asked them why they formed the group and the reason was, they saw that baskets have money and they can make a living out of them. I was somehow happy and apprehensive at the same time. Happy because my efforts are slowly bearing fruit and apprehensive because I know the supply is outweighing the demand.

The money that comes from baskets goes mostly to school fees and other school-related requirements like uniforms and stationery. The money also helps by meeting the day-to-day needs of their lives. When I asked the groups what they’d want to do if they made enough income from the basket work, most said that the income would go to pay and offset school fees and then better their lives. To them, education is the key to getting out of their poverty/predicament. To be honest, there are a number of bursaries (Wildlife Works Carbon, Constituency Development Fund, Rotary Club, individuals) that go round in the schools, mostly the high school. These bursaries are mostly merit-based and in reality, even with that criterion, not everyone benefits. The bursaries do not cater to school supplies or primary level education. This is where I want us to meet that shortfall. In reality, being able to proceed to high school through college and get the various bursaries on offer, the children have to perform well in primary level. Children need to be in a conducive and encouraging environment, where they don’t have to be sent home to bring lunch money -used by the school to make lunch for the children and they don’t have to go home. The fees help especially during the seasons where the rains have failed-, PTA fees -money used to hire teachers from within the community, since there aren’t enough government teachers-  or to buy the basic and necessary learning materials. These all affect the quality of education and the impact of learning on students. By working with the mothers, I have a greater chance of aiding the families, helping the communities, and influencing a generation.

There is a story from the Bible about a man who was robbed and beaten and only one person came to his aid. The said helper was not from his community/people, and he even paid for the injured man’s recovery. The origin of this story was a question to Jesus; “Who is my neighbour?” The answer; anyone in need. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I have been privileged with a university education. I have the choice of getting those fancy jobs not related to my college education and making a good salary. I also have the choice of helping these women better themselves, helping the community to improve their lives and conserving our national heritage of wildlife. I have the choice of being a good neighbour to the women, to the coming generation, to our wildlife, and most notably, the elephant. We all have the choice to be a good neighbour.

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The Future

One of the things we were taught in college was that the greatest cause for degradation of the environment was man. The cutting down of trees, clearing of the land through slash and burn techniques and poaching are currently the main destroyers of the environment. I used to really get angry when I saw people burning charcoal and selling the bags and would wonder if they really don’t see the effects of their actions to the environment. I once read that the stretch to Kasigau from the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway used to be full of trees and thick bush to a point where one just couldn’t walk alone. The probability of being knocked down by a rhino or meeting a herd of elephants was high, that is if you didn’t meet lions along the stretch. To anyone who has been on this stretch, you’d be surprised if anything like that existed just 60 years ago. A single generation is all it has taken to wipe that all out. One generation. At times it makes me wonder if my kids will ever be able to see the wildlife in a park or if they will only see them in pictures and videos through my Facebook account. It is troubling to think about.

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A herd in the plains

As I said before, I used to get angry when I saw people degrading the environment. I used to. Now, I don’t. I am more understanding of their predicament but still don’t condone it.  For the last 3 weeks, I have been helping a Masters student who is doing her thesis on Human-Elephant Conflict and the effects a beehive fence has on farmer’s attitude towards elephants. The beehive fence project is located in a place called Sagalla, within the Tsavo Ecosystem. In every single homestead that we visit, one thing stands out; poverty. I can’t say that I come from a wealthy family, but I thank God for the environment I was born in. Among the many questions that we are asking, are -what do farmers do to meet the basic needs of the family. All are saying that they engage in farming but that is always affected by elephant raids or if the rains fail them. They say that they will work for 3 months and in one night, the jumbos come and wipe out everything. They use all forms of scare tactics to force the animals off their farms, but it ends being an all-night vigil as they always return. For some, spending the whole night awake is too much. The next day, they must be early in the fields to fend off baboons. The farmers say they feel they are there to feed the elephants but no one is feeding them. If a farmer hasn’t been lucky, they end up harvesting little or nothing. Then they have to start looking for money to feed the family instead of concentrating on looking for money to school their children. The one experience that is still etched in my mind is when an old man in his 70’s was describing to us how elephants ate his crops. He has to fend for his family and to look after his wife who was sick. I saw tears forming in his eyes and his voice was beginning to break, but he composed himself before his emotions were visible to us. There were harrowing tales of people witnessing their neighbours being killed by the elephants. To be honest, you’d expect them hate elephants with a passion. They don’t. They only have issues with the jumbos when they invade their farms, kill or maim. If they are in the bush and not in the farms, in their own words, “sina maneno na ndovu”, “I have no issues with the elephant”. Are they saying this because they don’t want to be seen as hating the elephant and while we are wearing T-shirts saying Save The Elephant? Maybe, but so far, all the comments have been genuine. To those of you who may not know this, the government, through Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), doesn’t compensate for destroyed property by wildlife. They might give monetary consolation. They do, however, compensate for life lost. It’s an outdated law that is currently under review by the present government. So what do they do if elephants have invaded their farms and/or the rainfall wasn’t enough? Some said they have to resort to burning charcoal. They do it not because they want to, but they have to live and they have to eat. They have children who need to go to school. They feel helpless because KWS doesn’t compensate them, and they always describe the elephants as “theirs”, meaning the wildlife belongs to the government through KWS. To be frank, every time I am hearing all this, my mind is on the women of Kasigau. They, too, go through a similar experience. The good thing about most of them is that they have 2 farms; one that borders the ranch and one that is close to their homesteads. The one near the ranch is the one that is normally raided by elephants during crop raiding season, but at least, for some, they have another farm they can depend on for food. But not all are like this. Some end up being like the families in Sagalla, where they have nothing to feed their families. It, therefore, is not a surprise that they will end up cutting down trees to get firewood, burn charcoal, buy cheap game meat and will be indifferent when they hear that elephants are being poached. Their main concerns are their immediate needs; food, school fees, shelter and clothing. The rest of what we may consider vital and important like conservation of the environment and protecting the elephant from extinction becomes secondary if not a tertiary concern. That’s where we come in. Their baskets are what they have during those moments. I always tell them that I am helping them source a market for their baskets because they have elephant problems. The basket business is to help alleviate the impacts of crop raids and unpredictable weather patterns that are prevalent in the coastal region. The raw material used to make the baskets is sisal. Sisal is a delicacy to the elephants. In some villages, they have lost all their sisal, while in others, some are still surviving. They, therefore, end up buying their sisal from surrounding villages. This, however, hasn’t deterred them from continuing their basket business. I haven’t done a survey to see what kind of attitudes they have towards the elephant. I want to make sure that the basket business has been going on for a while and that they are able to reap tangible benefits from the business before I prod for their attitudes towards the elephants. The indifference to the elephant is what worries me most. That indifference is so easily transferable to the next generation of kids living under their roofs. This basket business is not just a way to help the women get an alternative means of income. It’s my way of ensuring that my kids get to see herds of elephants in Tsavo from the roof of my car. It’s my way of ensuring that the African elephant gets to live another millennia in the Tsavo without their habitat being degraded through clearing of bush for farming. I can achieve that if the communities that are in constant contact with the elephant understand that their lives are being cushioned from losses. My desire would be they make enough money from baskets that they can cease large scale farming and just work on their small shambas outside their houses to meet their everyday vegetable needs. It may be a tall order, but if they see basketry as a profitable venture, there remains a possibility of that change happening. But that won’t happen without your support. I won’t ask for donations. I ask that you help sell the Kasigau baskets. You’ll be going a long way in saving the elephant, and that basket you buy will help change perceptions and attitudes for a generation to come.

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A farmer inspecting his beehive along the fence

DISCLAIMER: KWS is doing all that it can to mitigate Human-Wildlife Conflict. A day before writing this article, we were in their offices. They eagerly accept any help given to mitigate Human-Elephant Conflict. Save The Elephant’s Elephant and Bee Project in Sagalla, too, is helping to protect farms from elephant invasions through their bee hive fences. My hope is they will eventually be able to get enough funds to build similar bee hive fences in Kasigau for those women who don’t have two shambas but depend on one that is sadly affected by the elephant raids. For more information about the Elephant and Bee Project, here is the link: http://www.elephantsandbees.com

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Mafundisho (Training)

Education, enlightenment, knowledge. All these are required for a person to progress from one level to the next. We all go through this progression in life, but the motive for it varies from one individual to another. Not all, but most of the basket weaving women of Kasigau have had education. The most educated lady I have met so far has done a certificate course and is the manager of one of the bandas around Kasigau. There may be others who have gone beyond the certificate level, but I have never met them. A large percentage do not speak English, and if they do, it’s just the basics. A small percentage can understand the language but can’t speak it. In essence, most do not have the skills and knowledge necessary to make their basket weaving venture into a business. One of the things I have been doing is to expose them as much as possible to clients (buyers) when they come to Kasigau. If any of them understand and speak English, that person interprets for the rest. It’s always a joy to watch them try to get the wording or interpretation correct. It helps build their self-confidence about who they are and what they are trying to do for their families and communities.

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Julia Strong and Bee Friedmann being taught how the cook traditional foods

On the 4th of June, three JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency) representatives came to present a workshop. I had gathered at least two members of the executive committee from each group. The training was meant to help them understand some concepts in business, specifically two areas; bookkeeping and pricing.  The first was an area they really hadn’t entirely given themselves to. They have bookkeeping, but not on the level necessary for a professional business. The second area was pricing and was the most interesting part of the whole exercise. Most women usually priced their works based on what they thought the price should be. This proved a huge disadvantage to them when they would take their baskets to exhibitions in Mwatate and Voi. Until recently they didn’t understand that they are the producers in the chain of commerce. The chairperson for the Kasigau Basket Weavers, Hannah Mwakangalu, did a great job getting them to understand the business model link between producer and consumer.

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Me, Misako and Tomomi.

Once they were shown how to come up with the pricing based on a number of factors, you could actually see in their eyes the realization that they had been pricing their baskets too high. I also explained to them the importance of doing business over being helped. Business would empower them. Aid would only create pity. It was as though they woke up and realized they have more in them. They now knew they could get better deals if they were more involved and willing to go professionally where they hadn’t been before.

 

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One of the women working on the book keeping sheet and filling in from examples given.

By the time we were done, you could tell they were disoriented, for they had believed what they were doing was good business. I’m glad the “mafundisho” (training) challenged them to think outside the box and get out of their comfort zone. I’m hoping if the challenges keep coming, they will eventually get better and will adopt these business techniques as worthy. In order to make this a business worth pursuing, I have a task bigger than theirs. I have to convince potential clients that buying the baskets won’t only make them a profit, but will also help change lives in Kasigau. Potential buyers need to be aware that by buying the baskets, it conserves the environment and protects wildlife, especially the elephant. It’s a whole system of well-being promoted from each basket bought. The more baskets sold, the more the woman making the basket is empowered to change her life and change her attitudes about and towards elephants. I’m hoping to influence a whole generation of children about endangered African wildlife like elephants.

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This blog is about bringing the lives of the women to you; how far they have come, where they are now, and where they are headed. They currently have five buyers of their baskets, starting with the earliest and most frequent buyers to the latest with the in-charge and country they come from;

I) Western Kentucky University: Cheryl Kirby-Stokes (USA)
II) From Afar Crafts: Bee Friedmann (Britain) (www.fromafarcrafts.com)
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Bee Friedmann trying her hand at making sisal strands when she came for the first time in 2010. To the left is her friend Julia Strong
III) Hiro+Wolf: Bee Friedmann and Amy Fleuriot (Britain) (hiro-and-wolf.myshopify.com)
III) Far and Wide Collective: Hedvig Alexander (Canada) (www.farandwidecollective.com)
IV) Weaver Republic: Norma Pate (USA, California) (www.weaversrepublic.com)
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Norma Pate selecting selecting baskets she likes when she came for her fact finding mission of baskets in Kenya in May.

These buyers have been the main supporters of the basket weavers. However, because of the large number of basket weaving groups and individual members in each, even these buyers cannot provide consistent support for the continuous needs of these women and their families. By blogging about the women, I am hoping this buyers list will grow.

Where we stand today

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I came to Kasigau in the year 2009 as a student accompanying a research team from the University of Nairobi and Western Kentucky University. Having come from Nyeri, which is a completely urban area, I was astonished to learn that there still were communities that lacked piped water south of Nairobi. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t really gone beyond Nairobi. I only saw that on tv in the north of the country.  And to learn that elephants were a problem got my curiosity and interest aroused even further. As noted, I come from Nyeri and there we have the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya National Parks. They are fenced and before ’09, I had never seen an elephant “live”, as we normally put it. The notion that elephants are as frequent as cattle straying through the estates in Nyeri  was exciting to say the least. The elephants however were and are the main cause of conflict with the communities, according to them. Wildlife conflicts are common and elephants aren’t the only culprits but according to the locals, they are the main perpetrators.

Kasigau is located off the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway after Voi town. Image

It is located 33 kms into the western direction, with Mt. Kasigau rising from the horizon. It is part of the Greater Tsavo Ecosystem, surrounded by ranches that border the Tsavo West National Park.  At the foothills of the mountain, there are five villages namely Rukanga, which is the “headquarters”, Jora, Bungule, Makwasinyi and Kiteghe. Ngambenyi is a little bit further off to the west of the mountain. Most of the residents are subsistence farmers, largely depending on rainfall for agriculture. Agriculture however is not dependable as it suffers from Human-Wildlife Conlfict, but mostly from elephant invasions, and from the erratic rainfall, leading to huge losses if the rainfall isn’t adequate.  It is also the last town before you head off to the mining areas located some kilometres into the ranches and surrounding counties.  The main gemstones mined are ruby, garnets (green and red), tourmaline (black, green and yellow) and tsavorites. The residents however work in mines owned by companies not their own, or if they do have their own mines, they don’t get a good deal from the sales.

We did research for almost 2 weeks and in that time, I had a chance to be up and close with the community. The periods I visited the various homesteads while conducting research are always etched in my memory. You’d find kids running around in torn or heavily patched up clothes and I was wondering why the parents didn’t bother to buy them new cloths. That question would be answered as I got to know the community better. Probably I was judging them too harshly having come from a “better” background, but that mentality and attitude would change as I gradually fell in love with the place. Amidst all that they had or didn’t have, they (Taitas) are one of the most present and welcoming community I have ever meet. Everyone greets you with courtesy. Kids too left me awed at the amount of respect that they gave their seniors. The first time I heard “shikamoo”, a very very polite form of saying how are you, I barely was able to master a response as I was astonished and at the same time, trying to remember the response, having learnt the greetings way back in primary school, some 19 years earlier.

 And the scenery!! My!! The most astonishing I have ever seen, after Mt. Kenya, of course.  Mt. Kasigau, or Kasigau hill, is the northern most mountain of the Eastern Arc mountains in East Africa. It has bare rock faces shining with a light orange hue every evening as they reflect the rays of the setting sun. Image

The sun setting in the horizon

The mountain itself has a cloud forest, which houses some endangered  and endemic (can only be found in this location) species of birds (Taita White Eye, Taita apalis and Taita thrush) and the Angolan Pied Columbus Monkey. Being able to rise from a hot and dry tsavo plain, to a rainforest kinda environment, left me awed. The only time I had been to a dense forest was when I and a friend of mine sneaked through the Aberdares National Park’s fence and went into the forest, just for the heck of it. Entering into a “rain forest” legally and enjoy the wonders of it, was and still remains a huge kicker.  Long time ago, the residents used to live in the forest before their population increased and they had to descend to the foothills. The effects of their stay are still evident, but the forest has recovered.

As mentioned, they depend on subsistence farming which encounters so many problems. For an alternative to farming, most women engaged in basket weaving. It is a tradition that has been passed from mother to daughter or learnt with time. This however too faced and still does face, significant challenges.

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Elephants at a watering hole used by livestock

Elephants love the sisal. It’s like their sugarcane. They chew, sucking the juices and spitting out the fibres. Another common enemy to their sisal is baboons. They go for the inner core leaves and the shoots. That makes procuring sisal a problem. One thing that WKU did and still does, is to buy the baskets from them. They sell them in the States and the profits from the sale are used to cover the shipping costs for the next batch of baskets. This WKU-Kasigau Basket Weavers partnership has been going on for nearly ten years. And it has helped to improve their livelihoods. But with this blog, I want to make that change even more significant.

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One of the groups.

I hope to be telling the daily happenings in the lives of the women. Their struggles, their success, their joy, their pain. I want to bring their lives to you. One thing they need is a market for their products. I may be cynical but to an extent, am not a fan of aid. I believe in empowering a woman. Give her the skills to improve her life. Teach her how to fish. The efforts will be replicated into the family. It is said if you empower a woman, you have empowered a community. I live by that motto when interacting with the women.  I have a BSc. degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation. My background is conservation. My aim of helping them, apart from empowering them, is to alleviate the impacts of wildlife, most notably the elephant in their lives. A good elephant to them is one that doesn’t come to their farms. If death is the way for that to happen, they have no quelms. It’s my own “Save the Elephant” campaign. Source a market for their baskets and they will be busy. They will only have time for their shambas near the homesteads and not the ones that are near the ranch and park. The shambas near their homes are easier to defend and scare off the elephants using means that will not endanger their lives nor of the elephants.  This too will help change their attitudes towards the elephants and wildlife in general. If they have enough money from the basket sales, they will not be going for the poached meat which is easier to come by and helps during the dry seasons and when there is no food to harvest, either as a result of poor rains or elephant invasions.  And the farms near the ranches can be left to regenerate and improve the environment. That is the reason for doing this. That is the purpose of this blog.

The beginnings

Aside