The Water Promise – A story told on the banks of Lake Jipe
Field Report by Intern Heliabel Bomstein, Elephants and Bees Project
Manolo is 40 years old, marked wrinkles all over his face, a pierced right ear and peaceful dark eyes. He’s one of the veterans of the area. When asked, people will tell you that his community always lived there and that he has been around for many long years.
Manolo lives with his peers, a small group of about 15 individuals, up north of the fishing village of Mikocheni, on the banks of Lake Jipe. In this small region south of Kenya, a lot of the activities revolve around the lake, located right at the border of Tanzania. Just like the fishermen of the Jipe area, Manolo and his friends depend on the lake. Every day around 7am, they cross Mikocheni to access it. And every afternoon, around 4pm they cross back to get home. On the way, they often walk by small groups of children playing football and boda boda riders. They usually wander in the bush land close to the primary school, cross the main road and disappear far from the village, till the next morning.
In the Jipe area, people are used to see Manolo and its friends. When they come out from the tall grasses encircling the lake, wet and tired of their day, the kids playing close by barely pay attention to them. Yet, villagers don’t really like having them around. In some places, people will even tell you they don’t like Manolo’s group, and feel threatened by it. The fishermen are reluctant to share the use of the lake with them and, when they are in town, students fear walking down the road to go to school. With reason, Manolo does not live in the exact same world as the people of Jipe. His feet step on the same ground but his head lies well above humans ones: Manolo is an elephant.
Somehow, Manolo and the villagers’ story is one of many. It is the millennium story of coexistence, of species that are sharing the same space without sharing the same language. Wherever you are, it is also your story: you have probably encountered species that seem to consider the place you call home as theirs. Spiders in “your” house, red deer in “your” garden, rats in “your” kitchen or bats in hollows. The sole difference, maybe, is that Manolo’s physical presence cannot be waved aside or easily restricted to margins. When it comes to elephants, humans have to cope with sharing space. And as human pressure on land develops, in Kenya and all over the planet, these are the kind of stories we’ll probably increasingly hear about.
Hence, the main question is no longer to decide who has the right to use the land (i.e rise fences to keep Manolo and his friends away from Mikocheni, or relocate the villagers in another area), but rather to understand what are the conditions of peaceful coexistence. That means asking ourselves other sets of questions such as: what does each species need and rely on to live? How can these attachments be protected and secured? Under which conditions?
As hinted in the paper “Local attitudes and perceived threats of human-elephant conflict: a case study at Lake Jipe, Kenya” (Kinyanjui & al., 2020), we might discover that the elephant and humans struggle hides a much more complex situation, involving other actors (such as Kenyan Wildlife Service – KWS) and necessities (such as securing a reliable source of income in times of declining fish yields). That villagers’ needs might be met more easily through support and acknowledgement of their situation by entitled authorities, as well as by the provision of safe means for students to go to school, rather than by the proper disappearance of Manolo’s group. The core of the problem might, in the end, lie beyond the presence of elephants.
Understanding people’s attachments and needs is not an easy journey. Understanding elephants’ ones even a harder mission. But in times where human-animals conflicts are an increasing reality, we have to go beyond the approach dedicating a territory to the single use of one species (too often the human one) and move towards more diverse, more sensitive and less Manichean coexistence models, framing a space for the Lake Jipe’s people and Manolo’s groups of today and tomorrow to live together
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