I And Love And Dogs

Before we go any further, let me just say that the title of this post is a reference to the song ‘I And Love And You’ by The Avett Brothers, which I recommend listening to. This summer, Christina has really been broadening my musical horizons, so watch out future house parties – there is a new DJ in town (who specializes in chill indie vibes and sad love songs)!

Last week, in the ‘Good Things That Happened’ column on the left-hand side of my day planner this is what I wrote:

  • I-CAN screening went really well!
  • Moiko here
  • Survived elephant invasion
  • Ella is my soulmate ❤

These are quite accurate points of departure, I think, so let me expand on each to get you caught up. Last week, Christina and I – with the help of our dear friend Albert – successfully organized a film screening of “Land Use and Challenges in Olkiramatian”, a short film that was made by community members here last January in collaboration with the I-CAN project, through a workshop run by Nicolas Barber, a friend and colleague. Watching the film with a group of 25 community elders and members present resulted in a very positive discussion about the issues presented in the film and how the community can move forward to address many of the challenges that they are still facing. Afterwards, we feasted on mbuzi (goat), mchele (rice), and mboga (vegetables) together, very happy with the happenings of the day. I’ve already mentioned that my former professor, Stephen Moiko, arrived and it was a delight having him around for five days. He should be returning today or tomorrow to follow up with the enumerators for the livestock value chain surveys that he and Clare wrote last week.

In the wee hours of last Thursday morning, after dog-sitting Guy’s three pups all evening, the camp was visited by at least one tusked colossus. Yes, I am talking about an elephant. I was woken up by many crunching and gurgling noises and lay in bed assuming ‘the worst’, which in my mind at that moment was lions. In reality, lions have absolutely no interest in tents nor the smelly humans inside them, but I was not in control of my wildly thumping heart at that moment. The worst moment was when I heard something very akin to what I imagined was a low feline growl. A few minutes later, while Christina was trying to calm me down (“Come to my bed” – “I can’t, I am paralyzed with fear”), we say Guy walk along a path with a torch and so I yelled out to him “Guy! There may be predators here. Be careful!” He proceeded to get into his truck and drive around camp, so we assumed he must have already known that there was wildlife nearby.

Let us fast forward four hours to when the blessed sun slowly crept into the sky. Things we learned: Lauren had called Guy in a panic after hearing noises right outside her tent and he had gone to check on her, there had been lions nearby, but only elephants had trudged through camp (this explained why we could actually hear the grass and foliage crunching loudly…lions aren’t really into being conspicuous), when elephant stomachs gurgle they sound like low growls. Good things to know. It was hilarious to recount the events of the night with everyone at breakfast, and mildly embarrassing to admit how petrified I had been.

The last point on my list may very well be the most important. Ella is Guy’s sister’s four year old Springer Spaniel, whose entire being is most accurately described by Christina’s favourite Swahili phrase, kwa sababu hukuna sababu (because there is no reason). Neurotic, spastic, uncontrollable, untamed, ungroomed, and #YOLO are some other ways to describe this tremendous canine. I shared a bed (let me clarify: my bed) with Ella for two nights, which consisted of her taking up the whole mattress with her rotund, sausage-like body, and me contorting to fit around her. She was also covered in burrs and other bits and pieces of nature. I tried to resist the comparisons that were made between Ella and myself, but in the end it is true that we both exert copious amounts of energy for no reason, like Frisbees, and have low hygiene standards. I love this dog.


Me and Ella, sharing my bed.

Beyond that, we’ve done a decent amount of relaxing, reading, and work. With almost nobody in camp this week, Christina, Lauren, and I have been treating ourselves to riverside sun-bathing, tea parties on the porch, and movie watching (The Darjeeling Limited, The Constant Gardner, The Danish Girl). Time has been moving in a weird way as we approach the two week (until departure) mark, but I do feel ready to be home and get myself organized for a fall term that is bound to be hectic. I’ve finalized the beadwork order with the Reto Women so will be returning to McGill with 200 pieces of incredible Maasai craftwork – stay tuned for some great Daraja events that will be happening!


Getting dolled up for no reason.

PS: Both my cousin, Tessa, and friend, Vanessa, got married last Saturday! Happiest of happinesses to you and your partners my dears! You were in my thoughts all week.


Birthdays, Beads, and Being Content

It is now mid-July. Pause. Digest that fact. Exhale. Carry on.

This month has been a busy one for myself and the rest of the SORALO/Lale’enok team, with Earth Expeditions here July 2nd-7th, my friend Dave visiting the 5th-8th, an Oxford undergraduate researcher named Lauren arriving, and a group of seven Irish high school students getting in last Saturday (9th). On top of that we’ve had one Earth Expedition student – Marlena – return for 24 hours to help out with some SORALO-related filming, and my old professor from CFSIA, Stephen Moiko, arrived just yesterday with a researcher named Clare to study livestock value chains and climate change. The constant flux of people is a testament to the dynamism of Lale’enok, its programs, and the amazing work being done here on a variety of levels, and makes every day unique.

One of my favorite days thus far was July 3rd, which was Sam and John Kamanga’s birthday (talk about #astrotwins, eh?), and Community Day whereby all the students in the area came with their teachers and performed songs, poems, and dances around a common theme: “The Land is Our Culture”. In classic ‘Kathstina’ fashion (it’s just easier to combine our names at this point), party hats were brought out at breakfast, birthday cards were written, and Oloimpia made a special chocolate cake that the school children presented to Sam (John had disappeared at this point) in front of a cheering crowd! After an amazing morning of dancing, laughter, and sharing, we had a celebratory ‘sun down’ on a beach by the river with the whole gang: Sam, Dave, Samantha (Dave’s daughter), Shasta, Guy, Pete, Kathstina, Lauren, Taru, and Seyia. By this point in the day, perhaps unsurprisingly, I had two temporary scorpion tattoos on my face.

As I may have mentioned before, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens (of which Dave is COO) is a huge supporter of Lale’enok and SORALO, placing an annual order of 1,000 beaded bracelets and necklaces to the Reto Women’s Group. All of these items are picked up while Earth Expeditions is here, so I was fortunate enough to see how the whole process of exchanging beadwork for money worked. A tedious process indeed, as each piece of jewelry – made by different women – had to be checked by hand for quality and durability. I stuck around for 30 minutes of the 4+ hour procedure, gleefully snapping photos of hands and beads. This mass order is part of the Zoo’s ‘Lions and Livelihoods’ initiative based at the Africa Exhibit (which, by the way, was inspired by Lale’enok and the surrounding area), the proceeds of which support SORALO’s women’s enterprise and conservation programs. The beads are so beautiful that I’m already planning a road trip to the Zoo at some point this year to purchase some – very open to travel buddies for those interested!

Another fun happening this month was a visit from our good friend Dave who’s been in Tsavo doing his MSc fieldwork on Caecilians (worth a Google)! It was a real treat to have him here and catch up after over a year of not seeing one another. Our time with him consisted of a lot of river-ing, chatting about the future of humanity, and other related topics. I also managed to succumb to heatstroke again while he was here, so I felt like an awful hostess while I lay like a sad overheated puddle of a human. Four doses of rehydration salts just about did the trick so I was operational after 24 hours of rest. We waved him off in the wee hours of Friday morning as he boarded the bus to Nairobi, Ethiopia-bound later that day!

Between work, socializing, and solidifying personal and professional relationships, all I can say is that I am utterly content being here. I love being scared of the lions roaring at night, and always shaking my shoes before foot insertion for fear of stinger’d insects; I love that I am surrounded by community, family, dogs, and passionate hearts and minds; I love being challenged by the complexities of issues related to land, conservation, pastoralism, identity, knowledge, history, culture, and so much more. The ‘muchness’ of this place, and the people I’ve met, fills me to the brim with contentment and gratitude. I think for now I will leave it at that for mushy self-reflections and focus on living presently over the next few weeks. So. Time to go talk to some canine friends and find a midday snack.

A hodgepodge of photos

Here is a collection of photos that add a bit of color and context to my other posts. View at your leisure!

A summary of many days ft. a handful of hours in Lamu

I have never sent, nor been copied on, so many emails in my whole academic career (thus far, it’s been 19 years if we’re counting kindergarten) than I have in the last month. A number of our McGill colleagues arrived in Nairobi two weeks ago and ‘summoned the troops’ for an I-CAN meeting, which obviously necessitated a multitude of logistical emails. Christina and I decided that we ought to leave Lale’enok for Nairobi on Sunday instead of Monday (the day of the meeting) just to avoid any number of complications on the road. We woke up at 4:40am on Sunday morning thinking that the bus might be driving by the Center around 5:30am. In hindsight, it should not have surprised us when the bus came rattling down the road at 8am, 30 minutes after we concluded that it must not be coming today. For the stellar price of 400 shillings we rode in relative comfort all the way to Kiserian, just south of Nairobi. Relative is an important word in that sentence as Christina spent the entire ride feeling queasy and maintaining a horizontal position. Thankfully she did not end up requiring my pencil case as a barf receptacle, and was overjoyed when we arrived at our destination 4.5 hours later.

The I-CAN meeting went very smoothly, and we not only had the chance to share with everyone the projects we were working on, but also learn more about what the other interns, partner organizations, PhD students, affiliates, and so forth were contributing to the project. It was soooo fantastic to catch up with Carla, Sally, Henry, and Meghan (#goonsafari1), and to see my colleagues and friends from McGill in a different setting. The meeting was followed by one hour of Nairobi traffic and then a group meal at Habesha restaurant (a personal favorite), where a copious amount of injera was consumed. Christina and I found ourselves tucked in a corner with Prof Nico Kosoy, an ecological economist from the McGill School of Environment who I had met at an I-CAN reading club in April. Nico is one of the most radical and animated people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and I was grateful to speak with and learn from him over the course of dinner. Excitingly, we may be collaborating together in the future, but those details have not yet been hammered out so I’ll leave it at that. After dinner we (the interns) made our way back to Siye’s, where we were staying, and communally WiFi’d and chatted until bedtime. The next day Christina and I had to say goodbye to the others as Henry and Meghan were going to accompany Carla and Sally back to Nanyuki for a visit! An open invitation to Lale’enok has been extended…perchance someone will take us up on it?

Our time in Nairobi flew by and then all of a sudden we found ourselves at Terminal 2 in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport boarding a plane to Lamu, via Malindi! And now for quite possibly one of the silliest experiences of the summer. Prepare yourselves. We arrived at the airport on Manda Island, took a boat across the water to Lamu, and walked across the sand to Dudu Villas, our home for the next six days. On the boat ride we were told by our new friend Ziwa (“The Chief”) that due to Ramadan, the entire island population – most of whom are Muslim – was in prayer all day until 6:30pm. This had obvious implications for our food accessibility, as most shops, hotels, and establishments were already closed due it being the ‘low season’ for tourism. As such, we faced a number of barriers within the first few hours of being in Lamu, whereby food (if we were lucky) was a 30 minute walk away through scorching heat and there were very few humans out to direct us places or to befriend. Sigh. To make a long story short, it eventually became clear to us that we wanted to get on a plane to Nairobi immediately, and just like that we were on a flight for 11am the next morning! Or so we thought. In reality, our flight was pushed back to 4:30pm, we made friends with two people in the same position as us, took a boat back to Lamu, drank two pombes (beers), and then one last boat back to Manda Island for our flight. The utter hilarity of those ~30 hours in Lamu made Christina and I laugh so hard that we cried, multiple times.

Luckily for us, the morning after we arrived in Nairobi, we were able to catch a ride back to Lale’enok. Oh! I forgot to mention that I did indeed finish ONE. COMPLETE. BOOK. After Wangari Maathai’s powerful memoir, Unbowed, I’ve moved on to Henry’s copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which is a sizeable tome. Good luck to me. Anywho, on Saturday we arrived back ‘home’ to Lale’enok and met some wonderful humans from the Cincinnati Zoo who were here for a few days before collecting their Earth Expedition cohort (really neat MA program offered through Miami University – will provide more detail and links in a later post) from Nairobi. As fate would have it, Christina and I did get to have a mini holiday as we tagged along with Dave, Samantha, and Shasta on a sundown barbeque, and a visit to Shompole Wilderness to do some kayaking and tubing down the river (among other things)! Twas a blissful three days with our new friends. Since they left on Tuesday, we’ve been getting back into the swing of work. I’ve tasked myself with digitizing 600+ pages of court documents so that they can be more easily shared and referred to; I’ve got around 200 pages left for tomorrow. We’ve also moved into a new tent that – to our complete wonderment – has a BEDSIDE TABLE in it. I have never appreciated an elevated surface so much in my entire life! Weeks of living with all your possessions sharing the ground with geckos, spiders, scorpions, and other critters really puts tables into perspective.

Beyond that, life is pretty darn swell. I learned a new Swahili phrase – “Ini nini?” – that means “What’s this?” It’s really fun to say aloud over and over. Also, here’s a pre-emptive Happy Canada Day/Happy Birthday Dora for tomorrow!

PS: I didn’t take a single photo on my camera in Lamu, and Christina and I ate an entire veggie plate and injera in 8 minutes flat upon arrival back in Nairobi. Just FYI.

Students, swahili, and getting down to business

So much has occured since I last posted that I think I need to write a list of some of the happenings that I won’t have time to expand on:

  1. Our friends Maina and Nyakundi from the Bunduz treated us to beers in town.
  2. We found a bird trapped and dying in honey wax, which ended up dying in our hands.
  3. Our friends and colleagues Jennie and Nick got engaged, which excited us to no end.
  4. We attended Oloimpia’s brother’s wedding at his boma.
  5. We played Frisbee with the students at Patterson Secondary School (the girls were very keen to learn the rules).
  6. A group of students from the University of New England (UNE) arrived with the Bunduz.
  7. Many of my friends convocated from McGill (huzzah!).
  8. I learned how to harvest honey, and how angry bees get when you are trying to steal their delicious gooey excrement!

Eight seems like a decent number of points on a list, so I shall leave it at that. In the last eleven days, Christina and I have really started ‘kicking it into gear’ work-wise, largely due to the arrival of the UNE group as we needed to gather footage of them participating in all the Lale’enok programs for the website. We shadowed the group through all their activities, including a game drive, boma visit, and community elder discussion, which was a real treat for us, but also required waking up at 5:30am to accompany them all on a baboon walk one morning. On their last full day here, the Olkiramatian Reto Women’s group – who both own and run the Center – came to sell their beadwork and crafts. Despite telling myself I would only indulge in one small bracelet, I went away with a shuka, a scarf, two necklaces and two beaded cuffs. I blame consumerism! More important than my purchases, though, was the time spent trying out all my Swahili words with the women (“Ninaitwa Kathleen, mimi ni mwanafunzi. Ninaishi hapa mwezi mbili” – I honestly don’t know if this makes total sense) and making them giggle when I started exclaiming “Tosha!” (“Enough!”) with a playful grin on my face. Luckily, when I find myself coming up against language barriers, my naturally expressive body language and facial expressions seem to go a long way.

It should also be mentioned that Christina and I have taken on a new project, which is to help start a website where the Reto Women’s Group can sell their beads, as well as come up with a marketing strategy to get their incredible products sold within and outside Kenya. I personally will be returning to McGill in the fall with a bag full of beadwork that I hope to sell through the CFSIA alumni group, Daraja (look us up on Facebook if you feel like it!). What these women do for their community is incredible. Let me qualify that statement: the women receive camping fees from all visitors to the Center and also rotate employment opportunities such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry services when guests are here; with these revenues, and the profits from their honey-selling (did I mention they keep bees?), they provide bursaries for education to young girls in the community who would otherwise have no way of affording school. I’m not simply talking about a lump sum of money, but rather financial support from primary school all the way through secondary school. I hope the gravity of all this is hitting you, because to hear the former and current chairladies describe their initiatives and dreams is beyond inspiring.

Since Friday, only Christina, myself, and Guy (heads the Rebuilding the Pride team, in his third year of his PhD at Oxford, let’s just call him “lion man”) have been in camp as everyone else scuttled off to Nairobi. I’ve enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere and we’ve learned a lot about SORALO, Lale’enok, Maasai culture, and giraffe necks from Guy. I’ve also been trying to work on my Swahili at least 30 minutes a day – easier said than done, but I have hope! Among many obscure phrases I now know is “Tunaenda kupakua asali!” or, we are going to harvest honey! Very useful stuff.

After a reasonably relaxed weekend, we’re recharged and ready to tackle our weekly goals (I won’t list them to you, for I fear they may be unrealistic). A week from today, I-CAN is having a little ‘gathering of the minds’ in Nairobi, with all interns, colleagues, and researchers coming in to touch base and give updates. After that, Christina and I have decided to treat ourselves to six days in Lamu, which is tremendously exciting! As of yet I’ve not read one complete book while being here, so that is the goal for Lamu. ONE. COMPLETE. BOOK.

I forgot to mention one important event of the weekend! An insect crawled into my ear whilst I was dreaming (read: I was asleep) and I still don’t know if it’s out. We’ve flushed a good amount of water up and down the canal but as of yet, we are uncertain if the critter has vacated the area. Will keep you updated.

An early departure and high body temperatures

Christina and I ended up catching an earlier ride to Nguruman (on Monday instead of Wednesday) which caused me a mere moment of anxiety, followed by a rush of relief as we were finally field-bound! Almost more importantly, though, our friends Henry and Meghan (both of whom Christina had not yet met) informed us on Friday that they were coming from Narok to Nairobi! Meghan had made an acquaintance who was working with the UN and wanted to follow a lead to potential employment, so on Friday evening they arrived. Meghan stayed at Siye’s house, where coincidentally the three ELIMU interns (Johanne, Trixie, and Sherry) were also staying. Henry arrived at Wildebeest in good form after a long day of travel, and we (myself, Christina, Henry, our new friends Justin, Jason, Kristen, and Andres) had a few libations and played a card game called ‘Phase 10’. Early on, I handed my cards to Henry and took on a supportive role, which was beneficial to everyone.

On Saturday, Wildebeest was ‘invaded’ by 80 sixteen year old Swedish students. It was overwhelming. Judgement. Hormones. Much blonde hair. We pretty much kept to ourselves while they were around.

It was delightful to see Henry and Meghan and to have a relatively lazy weekend before heading to the field.

Early on Monday morning, after saying goodbye to Henry, Christina and I checked out of Wildebeest and made our way to the ACC. We had a meeting with John Kamanga (of SORALO) to go over the court cases we will be working to document this summer, and get a little more information on how the summer was going to unfold. By 2:30pm, with our new friend Stephen at the wheel, we set out for Nguruman! Due to a number of stops en route, we only got in to our new home – the Lale’enok Resource Center – around 8:30pm, and found Sam (our pseudo-boss) waiting up with dinner ready. Adjusting to the pitch black darkness, insects, and baboon screams that first night was a little difficult, but we’ve since adjusted. Now I look up to the expansive, star-dotted night sky, welcome the cobwebs that string themselves across my path at face level, and enjoy the ‘bedtime symphony’ of animal-related noises.

It’s now Thursday, and we’ve met many wonderful people who work at Lale’enok (see blog: https://laleenok.wordpress.com/), organized our tasks and goals for the summer, learned how to sieve fresh honey, and gone out with the Rebuilding the Pride team to track  some lions! Christina even made a short film called ‘Making Chapati’ featuring our talented chef Oloimpia! You see, as part of the documentation process we’ve decided to teach ourselves how to use Adobe Premiere Elements 14 (video editing software) so that we can produce little promotional snippets for SORALO and Lale’enok or have interviews documented in video form. It turns out that either (1) we are really fast learners, (2) the software is pretty user-friendly, or (3) a combination of both. That being said, we are not yet experts by any means! In the past four days, I have also learned what it feels like to be truly dehydrated. I won’t go into detail (just imagine retaining 0% water), but after lots of wonderful tips from Sam and care from Christina et al., I am feeling much more myself. My hope is that by tomorrow, my body will remain at a constant temperature and I will be able to function without wet cloths adorning me.

Anywho! We are both excited to be here, surrounded by lots of wildlife and knowledge, and can’t wait for the next two months to unfold! Kwaheri ya kuonana!

I never thought I’d have ‘old haunts’ in Nairobi

Bright and early on Monday morning, Christina and I met with John and Samantha of SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners, http://soralo.org/) to discuss how we might be of some assistance to the organization. A good number of details were sorted out, that excited us both tremendously: Nguruman, Lale’enok Resource Centre, fundraising, writing website content, court cases, interviews, video equipment were a few buzz words mentioned! I think the most exciting takeaway from the meeting was that we get to LEAVE NAIROBI SOON! Not to say that I dislike the city, but it has been an expensive few weeks and I am itching to be in the field and learning less about which café chain is my favorite and more about the experiences of pastoralists in the South Rift in relation to conservation and land-grabbing issues.

With more of a concrete plan of the coming days, we decided to move back to the Wildebeest Eco Lodge to be closer to the SORALO office, which is housed in the ACC (African Conservation Centre) main office, in Karen. We also had to leave Siye’s, as we had stayed there four nights longer than we had booked and she had many incoming guests. So on Tuesday morning, once again I found myself in the gated oasis that is the Wildebeest – my ‘old haunt’ of weeks past. Also on Tuesday, something happened that I never dreamed would: I had a Skype call with my 97 year old grandmother! It was quite a treat to converse with her over what was her breakfast and my pre-dinner snack. We concluded our day by watching the first episode of ‘The Night Manager’, a British TV show that Henry recommended to me – we are hooked. In other entertainment-related news, we have been watching ‘Community’ religiously in our down time, and I find myself cackling/hooting/snorting with laughter every episode.

On Wednesday and today, we did some errands around the Karen area. After going to the ACC and meeting some delightful folk in the SORALO office, we stumbled upon our new favorite food spot, called Century. Greens and chapati for KSH 100! What a deal! Today, we also went to a few organizations in the area to find out what work they do. Specifically, we went to the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA). We learned a lot during our visits, and the KWCA is definitely a group I would like to stay in touch with, seeing as many of my interests center on conservancies. I came away from that second visit feeling invigorated and inspired. Unfortunately, on our way to the third and final destination (which was going to be the African Wildlife Foundation, AWF) we (1) went in the complete opposite direction for a decent number of kilometers, and (2) popped a tire, twice. I was able to find the humor in these occurrences, and enjoyed the chai ya rangi that I drank while waiting for the tire to get patched up. Life, eh?

PS: the photographs are mostly taken by Christina and are not in perfect chronological order because I couldn’t figure out how to move them.