A world of firsts
Report written by Kenyan intern Ruth Chelimo
When I finally secured an internship to work on the Elephants and Bees Project, I couldn’t shut up about it at home. My dream of working with elephants was finally coming true. I had never seen an elephant up close before. My closest brush with elephants was on a drive home from the wilderness and our goal was to make it home alive so driving towards the elephants was out of the question. I merely got a glimpse of its silhouette and that was enough to ignite a fire in me. Fast forward to three-four years later and I could finally work with these magnificent creatures. I also got to board the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) for the first time, which I was excited about. I had never visited Voi before, so this marked yet another first for me. When I arrived in Voi, Lydia (the research and science manager) was waiting to pick me at the train station and introduced me to Ewan (the research center logistician), who had also travelled from Nairobi by train.
As we drove to the camp, I had no idea to expect, despite all the photos I had seen on the internet. After that, everything happened so fast. In between the introductions, the orientation and settling in, I had to take a moment to let it all sink in. ‘This is it,’ I thought as I lay in bed that day, ‘the adventure begins’. I couldn’t remember the last time I was that excited about something.
The next day had me accompany Emanuel (the beehive fence officer) and Justin (an international intern) to the farms in neighbouring Mwakoma village to monitor the beehive fences. I had been briefed about the project the day before but nothing could have prepared me for the actual field work. Seeing the project components in real life and interacting with the farmers was thrilling. I was also able to visit the farmers in Mwambiti village during that week. I had so many questions to ask, and one question that I made a point to ask all the farmers were the impacts of the project in their lives. I did that for all the farmers I was introduced to and they all agreed it had greatly affected their quality of life. Not only is it an elephant deterrent, but an income earner due to honey and wax production.
This brings me to another unique aspect of the project, honey processing. The farmers sell unprocessed honey to the project, which in turn processes the honey, packages and brands it for sale. The wax produced is used to make candles and lip balm. This is all done in a simple but efficient honey processing room in the research center.
On Sunday, the whole team made their way to the Voi Wildlife Lodge where I was promised a great view of the elephants. There is a watering hole that elephants drink from giving the visitors a great view of the immaculate creatures. I was working on my laptop while constantly, almost obsessively looking out for the elephants. When they finally decided to grace us with their presence, I was at a loss for words. It was one of the most emotional moments of life. I could hug them at that moment. It was hard to believe that anyone could see them and see dollar signs. I couldn’t imagine anyone trying to hurt them and I made a vow at that moment to protect them at all costs for as long as I live. We’d go back to the Lodge every Sunday and every sighting was as emotional as the first.
The women from Mwakoma village, through the Elephant and Bees Project, have been linked to the Hadithi Group, a project under Wildlife Works that empowers women by teaching them basket weaving and finding markets for them to sell in. The women from Mwakoma call themselves the Mlambeni Group and meet two to three times a week in a hall within the research center. The hall is made available for the community to facilitate meetings and workshops. The Mlambeni Group is still in its early stages but the women I’ve talked to are very excited about the project and some have already sold their baskets. I believe when we empower a woman, we empower a nation and I’m keen to watch the progress these lovely women make.
During the course of my stay here, I’ve made weekly visits to both the Mwakoma and Mwambiti farms and no two days were ever the same. I still look forward to my chats with the farmers. Their stories about interactions with elephants, albeit laced with humour, spoke of a bitter rivalry and decades of conflict with elephants. One farmer spoke of the night elephants took down the wall of her house to access the sacks of maize she had stored in the room. Another spoke of the day elephants went as far as raiding the kitchen and running off with a sufuria (cooking pot) filled with ugali. With destruction totalling hundreds of thousands of shillings over the years, it’s hard to expect the community to think of elephants as anything other than their foe, let alone changing their minds on the subject. However, by keeping the elephants away from the farms, the farmers don’t have to stay up nights on end protecting their land. With the project’s success rate of 80%, farmers can finally breathe easy knowing what they have to look forward to come harvest season. Some farmers have been farming for the past decade with nothing to show for it thanks to the timely elephant raids.
That said, I had the pleasure of working with a remarkable and diverse team. Esther (the beehive fence training and database officer) and Gloria (the Tsavo Geographic Information System [GIS] Officer) – both of whom have recently left to pursue their masters in the UK under a Save The Elephants scholarship – pushed me to be my absolute best and their presence in the camp will be missed. Kennedy, the school and education program officer, will also pursue his undergraduate studies under an STE scholarship come next year and I plan on making the best of my time with him. Being from a different cultural background from me, I am always asking about the iconic and colourful Samburu tribe. I’d like to thank Emanuel and Nzumu (research center officer) for the support and guidance they’ve shown me as well Lydia, Ewan and George (a Ph.D. research student). For Grace, thank you for ensuring cleanliness around camp. Many thanks to Joy, the communications and grants officer for your support and great laughs. For Dr. Lucy king, I couldn’t ask for a better mentor and boss.
I first read her Ph.D. thesis that would soon morph into the Elephants and Bees Project when was doing my undergraduate project on the role of human participation in ending elephant human. I’d like to think it was destined that we meet. I am grateful for the chance to work with such an incredible community in a project that I have always felt connected to. Saving best for last, the camp dogs, Tsavo, Winkie and Socks. Your company and presence around camp makes the world of a difference. I will miss you three trouble makers once my internship comes to an end.