For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fifth and final post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.
Today was Community Day! Following a wrap-up of the ecological monitoring projects and our last group discussion on balancing human land use and conservation in the morning, the afternoon brought us a special treat. Students from various local schools were transported to Lale’enok Resource Centre for a cultural day. Other community members, including Maasai elders and members of the Women’s Group, came to partake in the festivities as well. The students presented on the theme of “Water is Life” in the form of traditional song, dance, poetry and debate. They even invited us to join them in some of the dancing.
I had prepared the Earth Expeditions group that they might want to come up with a presentation of their own. In years past, groups ended up singing silly songs like the Hokey Pokey. This year, one of the students, Jen, brought the idea of doing the BioBlitz Dance. The Bioblitz Dance was originally created for National Geographic’s Bioblitz Event and is a celebration of the outdoors, human diversity and biodiversity, and national parks. I’m not sure it was any less silly than the Hokey Pokey, but at least it had a connection to people and wildlife. The best thing it did was break down barriers between the local community and our students, make everyone laugh and smile, and allowed us to do something in return.
Later that afternoon once the students had departed, we had the chance to mingle and have small group conversations with the community members. No topic was off limits, and they were just as curious about us and our culture as we were about theirs. We talked about marriage, family and more. Everyone was so open and friendly.
Soon, we all moved to the campfire for a traditional Maasai dinner featuring fire-roasted goat. There was much more conversation, singing, dancing and star gazing before heading to our tents for the night.
Our last full day in the South Rift began with an early morning walk just after sunrise to a ravine overlooking the river. We walked down to the riverbank and spent some time hanging out and reflecting on all the wonderful experiences we’d had so far. On the way back, a lone hyena burst out of the bush just ahead of us and booked it across the dirt road. Amazing!
We finished up the last of our coursework with a discussion about what the students planned to do for their Inquiry Action Projects once we returned home and how it fit into their Master Plans for those in the graduate program.
Then it was time to shop! Another way we can support the community and their conservation efforts is to support their livelihoods. As a group, we had the chance to purchase a variety of hand-crafted jewelry, belts, shukas (colorful cloths) and more directly from the women who made them.
At the Zoo, we have created a Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets program. More than 200 local Maasai women showed up to sell us bracelets made in a particular design to symbolize the coexistence of people and wildlife. Each color represents an integral component: red stands for lions, black for the Maasai people, blue for peace and white for clarity. Guests can then purchase these bracelets back at the Zoo. Revenue goes back to the Olkirimatian Women’s Group to provide tuition for local school girls and contribute to the operation of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.
We spent our last evening having a sundowner with the Lale’enok staff on top of a hill overlooking the South Rift and Mount Shompole. There were plenty of laughs, hugs and pictures as we said our farewells. It was a fantastic, life-changing expedition that no one will soon forget.