In conversation: Lemayian Kennedy, a young conservationist
Interview with Lemayian Kennedy by Madi Schiller-Chan
Coming from a university all the way from Queensland, Australia, it is easy to see how my perspective of wildlife conservation in Africa is somewhat misguided compared to the perspectives of people here on the ground. After having a few lunch-time discussions with my colleague and friend, Lemayian Kennedy, I realized how important it is to recognize, and thus enhance the local voice in implementing conservation measures. To execute the most effective form of wildlife and environmental conservation it needs to be ensured the local voice is empowered and represented.
Hi Kennedy, so tell us about yourself, where do you come from?
Okay! My name is Lemayian Kennedy. I am from Samburu, a placed called Kisimaa, in Samburu West. I was born in Samburu, raised in Samburu. I studied in Naivasha, Nakuru county. I’m currently working with Save The Elephants at the Elephants and Bees Research Centre, here in Sagalla.
Cool! So, what are some major beliefs of the Samburu tribe?
We have many, many beliefs. We have a couple of stories about elephants. The Samburu culture is known to have strong attachments to elephants and nature.
Samburu once believed that humans and jumbos (elephants) shared one boma (homestead) together. Yet one day a woman had an argument with an elephant over firewood and it supposedly caused the elephant to run away. But even after that they are considered fellow tribes men. Hence why the jumbos and humans no longer share a boma.
Another story is: long ago, there was a man who needed to marry. He went and visited one of the families that had beautiful women. As per tradition, he asked for a lady’s hand in marriage from her father. The father gladly approved of the union. So, the guy came for the girl he was going to marry. The dad gave his daughter one word of advice, “please my daughter as you leave don’t look back, because you will now go spend your life with your husband. Go start your life with your husband.” So, the guy came and picked up the lady and they left. Unfortunately, as they left, the lady couldn’t resist looking back. She decided to give her home a last glance. In our tradition, it is so bad to go against the word of the elders. Any word spoken by the elders should be respected. So, this lady knew she made a mistake, but she didn’t know the punishment that would befall her. She went to her new home and continued to live life normally. As time went by, the man noticed his wife begin to transform, becoming bigger and bigger. Ultimately, she turned into an elephant and walked off into the bush. And that’s how elephants came to be.
We also have a clan that believes elephants came from humans, and have a supernatural hold over elephants, enabling them to handle conflict in some way. It’s like the clan members and elephants are brothers and sisters; the clan therefore can tell them stuff like, “my brother, my sister, please do not come into homes”. And the elephant will walk out and not turn back. Someone from the elephant clan can ‘send’ an elephant to trample on an enemy. This sounds absurd, but it has happened before. The person will tell the enemy that he/she is going to send his brother (elephant) to kill them.
Because of these traditional beliefs and cultures, sometimes when you see a Samburu come across an elephant carcass, you see them bringing fresh twigs, putting them on the head, saying “rest in peace my brother”, “rest in peace my sister”.
The use of elephant dung moidei is also used during various ceremonies. By burning it around the opening of a new house or during a marriage ceremony, it is believed to repel evil spirits. Samburu also depend on an elephants’ knowledge to find water tables on dry riverbeds.
So amazing! So, what is your role here at Elephants and Bees?
I’m working in education, as a School Programs and Education Officer.
So, from your personal experiences so far, what do you think the general attitude is from local people towards wildlife conservation? From your tribe? From here in Sagalla?
I think most people generally love wildlife. But, it depends with the kind of wildlife one meets and one’s livelihood. Comparing the community of Sagalla to Samburu community, they have totally different interactions with wildlife.
The community here loves wildlife. It’s just sometimes wildlife doesn’t know what is right and what is wrong, so the people have had bad interactions with the wildlife, like crop-raiding. From talking with local members of the community, you find them blaming the elephants for their low-income livelihood, because as soon as they’re ready to harvest and receive an income, the elephants come and destroy it all. But, with projects like this one, which is totally into helping the community by helping them create a safe yet money-generating incentive to keep the elephants out of cultivated land, you see them change their perspective and attitudes towards wildlife and elephants.
I see, so when you were growing up, and now that you’re teaching a lot of young children, what are your experiences with how young people view towards wildlife and environmental conservation?
With the younger ones, most of them do not seem to be interested about wildlife conservation. It’s sort of a neutral response. The reason why it is neutral, is because they haven’t been actively engaged. They think ‘it’s not my part’, ‘it’s not my duty’, ‘it’s not my thing to think about’, that it is up to the institutions that have taken on the mandate.
Most kids will tell you that the last time they went to a park was many, many years ago. You ask them why they haven’t gone again, and they’ll tell you there’s nothing they haven’t seen. “I’ve seen a lion, attacking my donkey”, “I’ve seen an elephant, eating my crops”. Why should I spend money to go into a park to see an animal that’s been causing harm?
But strangely, sometimes we have local people sitting by the dams in the community about 6:30pm, just to watch elephants peacefully play in the mud, smiling at them. Later at 7pm, you’ll see them fighting against them as the elephants are now coming into their farms.
One problem in Samburu with conservation is that they don’t see past their local circle. For instance, not understanding when other people say, “there are no more lions”, as they see their cows constantly attacked by lions. They don’t understand what is happening in the world, or where this news is coming from.
“Everyone should be involved, and everyone should have a role to play towards conservation.”
~ Lemayian Kennedy
In such a situation, it is clearly of importance to engage the community and help them understand why, despite having 200 or 300 lions within their space, their absence or rapid loss in other places of the world makes them an endangered species in the larger picture. It is critical for all conservation bodies to integrate the communities in every action plan and those with the means to facilitate the various incentives geared towards sustainable and harmonious living with the wild. Everyone should be involved, and everyone should have a role to play towards conservation.
So why did you get involved in conservation?
Growing up as a Samburu in my daily life, interacting with nature, herding my family’s livestock. Every time I was in the bush, I found it to be a pleasing place. While schooling in Naivasha and Nairobi, I thought these places were just a bit messy, somewhat out of control. There’s no tree for miles, there are few birds, it’s a city, it’s all concrete and too much waste in some parts. After doing some research I came upon conservation courses, and I thought following this path would lead me back to the wild.
To add on to that, being a community warrior meant chasing or hunting animals. Personally, I looked at this and thought we were probably doing wrong. That maybe if we all continued with such practices, and no one standing up against them, then we might as well be having empty bushes, we will construct cities and forget about animals. I just felt there was something in me that needed to protect these animals.
Tying everything together, it kind of seems like, to get the community involved and to ensure everyone is involved, education is an important part of that and is that why you went down the path of education?
I do think education is the way to go, it is the sure way to reach out to the critical masses. Education has changed so many things. I believe through education we may create wildlife ambassadors. Through education, the community will begin to understand what is happening around Africa and the world, and it may change their perception and hopefully live in harmony with nature.
So, what are your intentions for the future, even if it’s next week, next year?
In terms of the education program, we’ve just completed the present curriculum. Before, we had no structured way of approaching and engaging the kids to talk about wildlife, about conservation and a way of assessing our work or what impact we are making. Now we do and from previous surveys I can say we are having a successful impact. My plans in the education sector is to expand it to other schools out here. Just to touch more lives, just to share with them the importance of animals and our environment, not forgetting sustainable farming or bee friendly farming, to achieve maximum productivity in small spaces. Thank you.