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Fear & Awe at One Hundred Meters

6 Dec

With trunks in the air, searching for our scent, a herd of twenty-seven elephants halts their procession through the forest. The mothers encircled the young, sensing possible danger.

“Are you ready to run if we need to?” “Nope.”

It wasn’t only fear that paralyzed me but their sheer awe of being so close to such majestic animals and knowing that they controlled my fate as much as I controlled theirs. Without a looming threat, the elephants began to relax and forage in the woodland as we watched. I could have sat there all day.

All of my coursework in Africa has been for one purpose: preparation for directed research. I had learned about the ecology and management of the wildlife. Finally, it was time to put my skills to work. I spent eight days hiking through six wildlife sanctuaries in the Amboseli Ecosystem. I collected data on animal movement, counts and the habitats they live within. Five days later, I have produced a thirty-six pages research paper that I am very proud of. Tomorrow, I will present my findings to the community. I will recommend ways for them to better the sanctuaries for the wildlife that uses them. It’s amazing to know that as much as Africa has impacted me, I will make it a better place in return through the field work and analysis that I’ve done.

As my days in Kenya come to a close, I’ve been taking time to think about what this experience has meant to me. It’s not the research paper that I will remember. It’s the interactions I’ve had with the wildlife and the people I’ve met here. I will forever cherish the memories of walking with giraffe, eating lunch with zebra and getting the pee scared out of me by a speeding warthog. I will not forget the friendships I’ve formed or the kindness shown by the locals here. I’ve been touched on such a personal level and I’m a different person than I was three months ago. Oh Africa, you’ve done a number on me. How will anything else ever compare?

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Boma La Tumaini-The House of Hope

29 Nov

In 1985, the first instance of HIV was reported in Kenya. By the year 2009, 6.3% of Kenya’s population was living with HIV/AIDS. Of those affected, 760,000 of them are women over the age of 15. With quiet and sometimes ashamed voices, most women keep the story of their disease to themselves. I was lucky enough to spend time with three women and listen to the struggles and triumphs of their HIV positive lives.  I am going to be their voice; I’m going to let the world know their stories.

Sarah

            Sarah was diagnosed with HIV in 1996. She found out when her husband got sick and was emitted into the local hospital. After diagnosis, both she and her spouse lost the will to live; they thought HIV was an automatic death sentence. They sold all of there things, moved to a farm plot in Loitoktok, Kenya and they waited to die.  To their surprised, death did not come.  After becoming more educated on her sickness and with access to treatment, Sarah realized that she had something to live for: her two, uninfected, children. She is thankful every day that her boys were not infected during her pregnancy.

Ann

Like most women in Kenya, in the beginning Ann did not know that she had contracted HIV and it was causing her ill-health. Her weight dropped to 67 lbs and she lay in a hospital bed for 3 months. She didn’t know then that she had HIV. She was discharged but then readmitted again for the same symptoms. Ann’s viral HIV blood count was 22, 000.

Her misfortune did not stop there. When her family found out she was HIV positive, they sectioned off a room of their home for her to stay in. They left food by the door. “They treated me like I was a stray animal; didn’t care if I ate or not.”  She knew the atmosphere wasn’t good for her health anymore. With a combination of antiretroviral drugs, a better living environment and nutrition, her count has been brought down to 22.

Monica

Monica is a Maasai momma, who is one of the many wives of her husband. She was diagnosed with both Tuberculosis and HIV, diseases that often accompany one another in Africa, seven years ago. The other women in her boma are also HIV positive. She is the mother of two children, one being mentally handicapped. With proper treatment, Monica says she is as healthy as she’s ever been.

All seemed to be going well until her disabled son starting showing the same symptoms she had in previous years. Upon testing, she found out that her son also was HIV positive, although he was newly infected because neither he nor his sibling had the disease at birth. With the impossibility of the infected son being sexually active, Monica had to look for another reason. The answer came in the form of her cultural practices. Maasai peoples buzz their hair very short. Monica made the mistake of using the blade she used for her own head on that of her son, thus allowing the disease to spread.

These women all have one thing in common: Boma La Tumaini. The boma was established in 2004, as a resource to the community to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in the Loitoktok region of southern Kenya. With a hospital that offers low-cost and free antiretroviral medications to HIV positive patients near the compound, the Boma is a key to the survival of those living with the disease. The compound has several buildings, which houses families of those infected and provides a constant food source to the community. Counselors at the boma offer a support group and are active in the surrounding areas in hope to promote and reinforce HIV/AIDS awareness. Also, there is an on-site testing facility, which is free to anyone concerned with his or her status. Both male and female contraceptives are available upon request and family planning seminars are given.

I visited this boma two days ago and it has been weighing on my heart and mind ever since. I knew that HIV/AIDS was an epidemic but it was so easy to brush off when I wasn’t directly affected. These women shared their lives with me and I feel like I owe them something. I’m starting out with voicing their stories; showing their strength, perseverance and their determination to not let their disease rule the rest of their lives.  By sharing their stories, I hope that I can elicit the support they need from the rest of the world. People are dying, infection is rampant and the outlook may be dim but if everyone acknowledges the existence of the disease and works towards its elimination, we could see an HIV free planet.

More information for the Boma La Tumaini can be found at: http://medicalmissionsisters-uk.org/Loitokitok.html

Being Maasai

17 Nov

This week, I went to my second homestay with a local family. but this time, I went to a Maasai Boma. There were definite differences between my experience with the Iraqw family in Tanzania and the Maasai at the Boma in Kenya. A boma is an enclosed area with multiple family and houses. Although these families aren’t related, they are bonded by one common factor, the husband. The boma that I visited had 2 mommas who shared the same man. When I was in Tanzania, we passed by a huge establishment-that boma had a man, his ten wives and all his children. Polygamy is a very hard concept for me to wrap by head around.

This homestay really gave me a new perspective on how hard women work in rural Africa. Each day, the women walk miles to fetch water and collect firewood. I was lucky enough to take part in these activities. We went to the river and filled 20 liter jerricans with water. To transport them back, we wrapped scarves around the handle and then put the loop onto our foreheads with the can resting on our backs. We carried the water jugs up and down the hilly landscape. The trip took us 20 minutes to get home.

Gathering firewood was another daunting task. Using machetes, we hacked at thorny yellow barked acacia branches. Some of the thorns were as long as my palm and man does it hurt when you get stuck with one! I wasn’t very good with the accuracy of my swings but my sister for the day chopped the branches like a champ. Once the wood was collected, we carried to back to the boma in the same manner.

I only spent 6 hours with my Maasai family and was so physically drained. These women raise children, build their homes, cook meals and walk miles to collect firewood and water every day. They don’t complain, they just do their job as a wife and a mother. Every day, we as Americans think that we have hardships. This experience has taught me to appreciate the luxuries I have. Also, it has shown me how strong a person can truly be.

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya: A Glorified Zoo

4 Nov

I have just returned from a camping trip to Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya/ Lake Nakuru is a protected region that covers an area of 140 km2 land and 40 km2 water. The entire park is surrounded by a fence that was built in the 1970s, making it unlike many of the other national parks found East Africa. It is literally like a free ranging zoo atmosphere. My experience at Lake Nakuru have allowed me to compare its wildlife management techniques to other national parks I’ve visited and has also brought to my attention the different challenges it faces.

A common challenge that wildlife conservationists must tackle is human-wildlife conflict. The most pressing of these conflicts is poaching; another being crop or property destruction. Lake Nakuru presents a unique ecosystem that is not affected by these practices.  The fence successfully keeps poachers out of the park while keeping the animals inside and away out of harm’s way. The animals cannot disperse into the growing suburban cities thus keeping alleviating the damage normally experienced in other parks of East Africa.

Lake Nakuru was the first white rhino sanctuary in East Africa. The imported rhino have become successful breeders and allow for exportation to other national parks throughout Africa. Also, the park holds the largest population of Rothchild’s giraffe. I actually witnessed a herd of over 25 giraffe walking across the landscape. In other parks I’ve been to, such as Serengeti National Park, I’ve only been lucky enough to see family groups of 3-4 giraffe at a time. Also, this was my first time seeing that specific species of giraffe. Likewise, LN provided me my first sighting of a leopard. The animal was probably less than 100 ft away in a tree. We watched it climb higher before it decided to lounge on a branch. It was truly breathtaking to see such an elusive creature so close up.

In some cases, the fence provides positive impacts on wildlife populations but it can be detrimental to the biodiversity found there. Animals that normally disperse throughout the East African landscape, such as the cape buffalo, zebra and gazelle species, are confined to the park. This has lead to instances of inbreeding within populations. Without the varied gene pool, natural selection is impeded. Species such as the common warthog and waterbuck have all but disappeared from the region.

Because LN is such a unique protected area, it is a heavily trafficked tourist attraction. This constant flow of visitors has changed the behavior of some of its wild inhabitants. For example, two baboon troops were our constant companions at our camp site. These baboons have adapted to raiding the trash pic located inside the compound fence. These animals can become highly aggressive and have been known to bite and attack humans that they see holding food. They’re normal foraging patterns have decreased and they have become dependent on human foods for nourishment. Although their presence was kind of scary, we made a game out of it. The rest of the student and I had fun chasing the baboons out of camp. This helps to reenforce that they should be scared of humans and encourages them to find food elsewhere.

Lake Nakuru has lush vegetation that is ideal for herbivore species. Unfortunately, the herbivore populations are growing too rapidly and they are starting to overgraze the land. If these populations were able to disperse, the land would be able to recover in its natural cycle. How long can the ecosystem of LN last under the pressure of constant animal populations?

This program in East Africa has given me opportunity to compare the management strategies of many national parks, such as Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and Lake Nakuru. Each ecosystem has its strengths and weaknesses. The key to wildlife conservation is finding the best balance between biodiversity preservation and human development. I feel like I have been given the necessary tools and knowledge to lead conservation approaches with the goal of bettering the future of wildlife and the humans they coexist with.

Life Lessons Learned in the Serengeti

25 Oct

I just got back from an amazing camping excursion in Serengeti National Park (SNP), Tz. Our days were filled with traveling lectures, game drives and relaxing in the wilderness of Africa. My experience in Serengeti has taught me a lot of life lessons, some I already knew and others were brought to a new perspective.

Life: It’s a bumpy road and you always need a good support system.

The roads into and inside of SNP were the bumpiest I’ve ever encountered. Our bodies were constant being jostled around and it left us feeling sore and stiff the next day. Also, I wish I had brought a decent sports bra. It was much-needed!

In life, few things are truly within your control. You cope with what comes your way. At times, it gets to hard and this is exactly the time that you lean of the supportive people in your life.

Someone Always Has Your Back

Our campsite was literally in the middle of SNP. At night, it was not uncommon for hyena, buffalo and lion to walk through camp but I was never afraid or uncomfortable because we had the best protection ever: Askari (guard) Bura. Bura is the funniest man I have ever met and his carefree personality is contagious. This is not to say that he doesn’t take his job seriously. He always joked about “hyena bash bash” but one night in the Serengeti, he actually hit a hyena that he felt was a danger to the unsuspecting sleepers. He is courageous and caring. No better combination.

Sometimes, you may feel like it’s you against the world but there is always someone who has your back, even if you don’t know they’re there.

Don’t Let Anyone Ruin Your Good Time; Find a Redeeming Quality They May Have

The drive to Serengeti took about six hours and I was stuck in a car with a girl I cannot stand. I was also with her three more times during the trip. There is just something about her voice…but I didn’t let that ruin my experience. I coped with her tendencies and actually enjoyed some of the funny things she said.

I can’t imagine the life I would have if I let all the bad moments and annoying people get to me. You have to find the best in every situation; otherwise you’ll end up miserable!

Sometimes You Have to Give in to Your Inner Child and Throw Your Hands in the Air

Game drives have become my favorite part of being in Africa. We go to the national parks, pop the tops off the trucks and stand on our seats. It’s the best feeling to be driving fast, with your hands in the air and feel the wind brush over your skin.

Sometimes we take for granted the things we did when we were kids. Stick you hand out the window and ride the wind. It’s still just as cool as it was when you were 7.

Sometimes, You Feel Like a Superhero

One day, we were driving so fast in our trucks that we were able to lean forward with our arms outstretched. Each of us decided what superhero we were going to be. I was “The Animal Avenger”, the poacher ass kicker.

As silly as my experience was, I do feel like I can be a superhero someday. I came to Africa to learn about wildlife and the management practice that conservation entails. I will be able to apply the skills and knowledge I’ve gathered to better the world for both people and animals.

Commit Everything to Memory

You should take a second out of your day, your week, your month, to just think about what you’ve done and how it has affected you. Tanzania has provided me with the most unique experiences ever. There hasn’t been a single thing that isn’t worth remembering. Tomorrow, I will be switching to the Kenya camp. I’m excited for new scenery and more treasured moments.

5 ft to Duma and a Greener World

7 Oct

Tanzania still amazes me with every breath I take. This week, we went to Ngorongoro Crater, “the eighth wonder of the world”, on safari. Inside this crater, which was created by a volcano that exploded and collapsed into itself, exists an ecosystem so pure that’s it also been called “Africa’s Eden”.  It is home to over 25,000 animals, including an extensive population of lion prides.

I was impressed by all the animals I saw that day, nothing left me as awestruck as our encounter with duma (Swahili for cheetah).  All day, our truck drove around, seeing the same wildlife as all the other national parks we’ve attend and when we were getting ready to ascend out of the crater, we came upon a cheetah. Initially, we thought that a fellow truck had hit the animal because it appeared to be under the wheel of the vehicle. With a better view, we saw that she just wanted to get out of the African sun after eating her tasty meal of a Thomson’s Gazelle fawn. We were less than 5 ft from the cat and we could hear her ragged breathe when all the gathered trucks were shut off. Africa provided me with yet another unique experience.

It was interesting to me how the wildlife is affected by the environmental changes humans cause. The cheetah was seeking shade from the relentless heat and changed her instinctual behavior and approached a mass of trucks for relief. All around the world, green practices are being practiced in hopes of halting the degradation of the Earth. I have never seen such an effort than by those people of Tanzania.

Yesterday, we embarked on a traveling lecture, visiting various places in the Karatu district. Our focus for the day was environmental conservation. First, we visited a secondary school and learned about the Environmental Conservation Committee’s plans for their school. This student led club had various ways to lessen their impact on the environment.

Many areas functions without electricity and this school was no different. Water is usually taken from surrounding areas, such as Lake Manyara National Park and this leads to depletion of water resources for the animals. They constructed a gutter and tank system to collect rainwater to alleviate their dependency on imported water. The 10,000 L tank can be filled in two days of heavy rain. That amount of water will last the school for a month’s time. In addition, they grow seedling trees to plant on school grounds, as well as, for students to take home to better their village.  Because deforestation and exploitation of wood sources is a key issue in much of Africa, their tree project is highly impactful.

The world is so mindful of our influence on the environment but Africans are doing so much more than all else. They produce much less waster than the US does naturally, and with their combined environmentally friendly habits, they are doing the world a great service. Again, it just shows me that we, as an industrialized world, have drifted too far from the resources of nature. We use too much energy, energy that we probably don’t need and energy that is swiftly disappearing.

Africa is teaching me life lessons everyday and I am eager to learn.

You are no longer a tourist, this is your home now

26 Sep

I am starting to feel less like a tourist and more like someone who belongs to the culture of Tanzania. Lately, our group has really been immersing ourselves in to the local lifestyle. We have gone to both a cultural Iraqw and Masaai boma, learned how to fight with sticks from one of our Masaai staff members, bartered more at the market places, volunteered at the orphanage and spent time with the teenagers at the secondary school. These aren’t experiences that a normal foreigner seeks out and I am so glad that these opportunities have been presented to me.

By spending time with the locals here, I have had the opportunity to compare the Masaai and Iraqw culture to that of the US. People aren’t materialistic here. They work hard for the essentials, make what they don’t have and are happy just to be alive. I was told by a friend who previously spent time here, “Nothing in the US will be good enough for you when you get back.” How could that be? We have everything in the US: cars, money, mansions, free schooling, hospitals. I’ve only been here for 3 weeks but I’m slowly starting to see that statement to be true. The US is too processed. There is little sense of togetherness. When was the last time you walked down the street and had a child run up to you for a hug? Or have been greeted by every person you passed? That doesn’t often happen in the US.  Many advert their eyes and turn away from those that need help most.

The best experience I’ve had so far was going to the local orphanage. About 30 children resided there, ranging in age from 1-9 years old. Their parents have all passed away from HIV/AIDS. Thankfully, the children of the orphanage are HIV free but over one million Tanzanians aren’t as lucky. Of those affected, 140.000 are children and only about 8% are receiving treatment. The children of that orphanage don’t know the reality they will grow up in but they do know that you’re there to play ball with them, or to push them on the swing. For our community service project, we bought paint and painted their rooms. It was  fun for us but something that really needed to be done for them. I also contributed by paying ~$25 for a painting that I could have bought for $3 in the market place. I asked how the money will be spent and they told me the money I donated would feed a lot of the children for over a month!

Another eye opener was the Diego Day Secondary School. This school is for those children who have families that can afford to send them past primary school. In a society where manpower comes from family members, not people you hire, it is a hard decision to put money towards a future goal that may cause you to struggle in the present.

Since I have been here, I have let go of what values I thought I had, opened my mind and heart to new experiences and really let myself be in Africa. I hope that other people have the chance to come to the awareness that I have. Become a member of the country you’re in, not just a tourist. It’s nice to know that I really do have a home away from home.