Barnabas picked me up from the Marafiki house on a Monday evening, after I had picked up my new passport from the Nairobi embassy. Barnabas was the local coordinator for Global Crossroad with whom I had booked my next volunteer excursion. I was fortunate to have found them. My original plan had been to do a program at Victoria Falls, but due to my passport uncertainty, I had decided a few weeks before to stay in Kenya longer in case there were any issues with it.
Specifically, I was looking for a program that would allow me to be involved in African wildlife, and this Elephant and Wildlife Program fit the bill. I would be working near the Tsavo National Parks in southeastern Kenya. For those of you near Chicago, the Tsavo “man-eating” lions that terrorized railroad workers in this region over 100 years ago are on display at the Field Museum.
That first evening, Barnabas and his associate Jackson took me to Barnabas’s apartment where I had dinner with his family, along with two other volunteers from Portugal, Phillippe and Inesh. They had started out on a medical placement, but it had not worked out, so they were going to be working at a school that Barnabas supported in his home village.
Early the next morning, all of us piled into the car and drove out to the school, about an hour and a half out of Nairobi. Around mid-morning, we arrived at the small compound. The ruins of an old car sat out in front and the building was an “L” block around the yard, with a toilet building set on the corner opposite the school building. Barnabas introduced us to the principal, a few staff, and a couple of the other volunteers. Then, we were taken around to the classrooms.
The rooms were small and simple, as well as rather dark, only lit by light from the window. The walls were only decorated by hand-made posters, and the students sat at simple wooden desks and chairs. After we were introduced, the students were prompted to sing a song to welcome us, often softly and shyly. A bit later, during their lunch break, as we were preparing to leave, many of the students would wave at a distance, feeling more confident playing in a large group of their friends far away from us, than they were in the confines of their classroom. We stopped at Barnabas’s home in this village, where the girls would be staying while volunteering, to drop off their bags and have some food and tea. Then we dropped the girls back off at the school, and the rest of us returned to Nairobi.
Early the next morning, I packed up my things and Jackson took me to the bus station. I was going to take the bus towards Mombasa, but getting off at Voi, which is the main city near the Tsavo National Park. Later that afternoon, I had arrived at the Lumo Wildlife Conservancy, just outside of Tsavo West National Park (Tsavo is divided into East and West sections about an hour or so away from each other).
Upon arriving, I met some of the staff and other volunteers. As it turned out, some of them were planning on going out camping in the bush that night. I hadn’t really had a chance to get settled, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I did some quick transferring of stuff in and out of my small backpack, and soon I was in the back of a pickup driving down the dirt roads of the wildlife sanctuary in the fading twilight. Then, only a few hours after arriving in this part of Kenya, I was building a campfire in the middle of nowhere, under a dark sky.
When I woke up the next morning and walked out of the tent, I saw that there was just savannah as far as the eye could see, with no other sign of human life. As I became familiar with the area over the next couple of weeks, I learned that there were actually a few lodges not too far away, but they just happened to be out of sight from where we had camped.
Upon returning to the ranger and volunteer housing, we got ready to go on foot patrol with some of the rangers. Lumo is a wildlife sanctuary that was began and is run by the local community. While they work with Tsavo national park and the Kenya Wildlife Service, they do not get much financial assistance from them. As such, money is a scarce commodity, and they have limited resources. My first few days there were only foot patrols, because their only 4×4 vehicle was being repaired.
In my time at the conservancy, there were 3 rangers and a few trainees. During the patrols that us volunteers accompanied, we would be looking for any snares or other signs of poaching and any animals in distress. Additionally, the trainees would be recording animal sightings and locations, and we would pick up litter that visitors may have left along the trails. The normal routine was to go on two patrols each day, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, avoiding the heat of midday.
The patrols were an amazing experience, especially once we got the 4×4 back and could drive along the safari trails throughout the sanctuary instead of being limited to where we were able to reach on foot. But even the foot patrols were amazing, knowing that you were in the open along with elephants, African buffaloes, zebras, giraffes, impalas, and hartebeests at a distance but still with no barriers between us except for a few hundred meters or more of savannah.
While I was there, we never found any poaching or snares, although Elvis, the head ranger, had received word of poaching one day so we went to a specific area to look. Instead, we found a small illegal mine that someone had dug on their own. Another day, we came across some visitors that needed a hand. Their tire had gone flat, and when they had gotten the tire off, the jack had given out. Luckily, this was after we had gotten the 4×4 back and had the necessary tools to help them.
One bit of excitement during our patrol was when the rangers spotted hippo tracks. Hippos don’t live in the conservancy as there is not a good enough water hole for them to stay long term. So, it must have come out of Tsavo. We spent the next day looking around different water holes to try and find the hippo. The next morning, the rangers found fresh tracks around a water hole. They walked around the hole and were about to leave when Hanna, the other volunteer with us, noticed a little bit of movement in the water. We waited a bit longer and sure enough, we again saw just the tip of a hippo nose come out for air. The rangers then notified KWS and plans were made to hopefully tranquilize the hippo at the next opportunity to move it back to the park. Unfortunately, this did not occur. That night, the hippo moved again, and then came across and was aggressive towards some people, so the hippo had to be euthanized.
As mentioned earlier, Lumo is a community run organization. There are a couple of lodges and campgrounds in the area that work together with the rangers and the community. This has also helped to establish a local school. Previously, children in the area had to travel much further, usually almost an hour’s walk to go to school. We were able to meet the wife of one of the rangers, (he happened to be away at training while a I was there), and their two children who were extremely sweet. One afternoon, a couple of the volunteers and I went for a walk, and the family joined us. She led us to the school, about a 15-minute walk away, and told us a little bit more about the school and the community. The lodges also help to provide food for the children at the school. The school was like the other schools I had seen in Kenya, a simple building with simple classrooms and handmade décor. There was an outhouse for the toilets, and another out-building that served as a “kitchen, really not much more than a space for some pots and pans and a cooking fire. It is humbling to see children strive for an education in such basic conditions, while in the western world we too often take for granted all the technology and educational opportunities available.
Soon enough, my time was up at the conservancy. I took a bus back to Nairobi and spent my last day there doing some sight-seeing. While walking around a park, an older man and then a child came up to me to beg. Not that different from many other places around the world. But what made this different was that in both these cases, other locals chased them off. A similar thing had happened my first week in Kenya, but I hadn’t given it much thought. This time though, combined with other experiences from my time there, I realized how much pride the Kenyans have. They did not like seeing someone begging from a mzungu (someone of European descent) because it obviously looks bad on the nation. One night during dinner at Lumo, Dennis, one of the rangers, was passionate about Kenya’s stance against poaching and the ivory trade. He mentioned how some have criticized Kenya’s annual ivory burn as a waste. But he was adamant that it was the right thing to do, and that Kenya would lead the way. The conviction was clear in his words as he spoke, and it was inspiring to hear him say such things, with the sounds of the African savannah in the background.
After Kenya, I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa. I had hoped to do some short-term volunteering there, but it did not work out, and I was only there for a week. While I was unable to work there, it was still a humbling experience to be in Cape Town and visit places that have an almost sacredness to them because of their role in the struggle against the inhumanity of slavery and apartheid. It was moving to be in the District Six museum, the district where persons of color were forcibly removed in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for new development by the white government. It was surreal to be in a jazz club beneath St. George’s, the home church of Desmond Tutu, with a small apartheid gallery as you walk into the club, and then listening to a multi-racial band sing an incredible cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. And, of course, the historic weight of visiting Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his imprisonment, along with so many political prisoners, including seeing a small cave in the limestone mine which was used as the bathroom by the prisoners, and do to the heat and the smell was never visited by guards, so it was the only place these future national leaders could speak freely.
Of course, even though apartheid ended almost 30 years ago, there is still a staggering amount of economic inequality in the country. While going out a couple of nights in Cape Town, I realized that it was eerily similar to my nights out in Los Angeles. I went to “First Thursday” where many art galleries were free and open, and many bars displayed art and had live music all within walking distance, very similar to LA’s Downtown Art Walk. But beyond that, it was mostly a bunch of well-to-do white people, with attractive and well-dressed mostly white bartenders making craft cocktails, while the other serving work was done by native Africans. Substitute the native Africans with Latinos, and you basically have a night out in LA. Obviously, that is a far from perfect comparison, and I know there are vast amount of differences in both situations, but it was still another surreal experience.
Even though I didn’t do any work myself, learning more about South Africa personally, including some organizations still working to help the many people struggling economically, was an incredible experience. Between the inspiration of the incredible leaders of South Africa’s struggles and the proud self-reliant people of Kenya, I came away from Africa with such a heightened respect and role models that we could all be well-served to learn from.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu
Lumo Wildlife Conservancy The community wildlife sanctuary where I volunteered.
Global Crossroad The company I used to book my service trip
Agape Academy The school that I visited in Barnabas’s village.
The foundations of the two most famous leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, continuing to advocate for social justice and reconciliation: