World Elephant Day celebration in Samburu National Reserve with 91 children from Kenya’s poor neighbourhoods, slums and rural areas was probably the most moving experience of my life.
The children experienced a real safari, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They camped for the first time in their lives, and they met wild wild animals in the wilderness. But it was also a first for my team of staff, interns and volunteers who put on an ambitious three-day program – something we have never done before. In our first planning meeting the group of 20 enthusiasts created a trip of discovery, play and learning for the children. My instruction was that it must be the same for all the staff too.
It was not hard to notice how every child came to life during the trip. Tiny 8-year-old Anita sat on my lap to colour in the lions in her activity book as we drove around on one of the many game drives. Ibrahim, a 10-year-old, commandeered my camera from the start, and after a bit of training he became a trainer and taught others how to use it.
Movin, from the Kibera School for girls, somehow knew the names of all the endangered species and won every quiz! While Junior, a shy 11-year-old, shone through with his gift of expression through art — nobody could believe his pencil drawings of an elephant on his canvas bag.
In the group were singers from the slum called Dandora. They made it onto the trip after showing me a video of their song, Save our Elephants. These kids had never ever seen elephants! This week they perform in Sweden – proof that music and elephants have become an escape from a life of poverty.
Then there was Alvin. He struggled to talk, but when it came to dance nobody could match him.
These kids and all the others expressed such extraordinary individuality that touched and moved me and everyone in the team so profoundly.
One of our major donors was the U.S. Embassy, and Ambassador Godec, affectionately known as Balozi Ndovu (Elephant Ambassador) came along too — and slept under the stars with us. It was his idea to extend our celebration of Elephant Day to three days – but even that, we all agreed, was really not enough.
It is amazing that we think we are doing something important for others, only to discover it is us who gain the most. The laughter, fun and play was a tonic; I rediscovered my youth, saw wildlife for the first time again through innocent eyes. Dik diks, zebra, impala were no longer common, but extraordinary and delicate. Meeting elephants was heart-stopping when one giant bull named Anwar walked right up to my car, and then proceeded to nudge it. All my senses said this bull was not acting aggressively, but my car was rocking and his trunk and tusks were just inches away from the Ambassador. Anwar is a car-loving jumbo!
The children met a beautiful elephant family named Artists, and stayed with them for an hour. One of the young cows had a radio collar which led to tens of questions during our visit to the Save the Elephants camp.
We saw lions at a kill, leopard stalking tiny antelopes, and so many different animals and birds.
But it wasn’t just the animals — children met Samburu elders and listened to folk tales around the camp fire. Through a telescope they discovered that the moon isn’t smooth but pocked with craters. They met warriors from Ewaso Lions Project (which is run by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shivani Bhalla) and experts who use high-tech tools to monitor elephant movements. They listened to rangers and wardens tell about their lives and being inspired by nature. They also and learned from Richard Turere, famous Kenyan teen inventor of Lion Lights, a device that keeps lions from killing cattle.
But it was meeting one another that really brought out the play and discovery in these children who came from many different tribes and locations. The taught each other songs and dances and they worked together to win prizes for their teams.
Samburu is a particularly spectacular spot on Earth to take children to visit. You can’t help feeling small under the big starry skies. The landscapes are colourful, the horizons are of stunning layers of mountains, the valleys are in hues of magical colours. And then there are powerful scents of herbs and trees, fresh morning air, and the unforgettable aroma of meals cooked on a campfire.
To get there was an 8-hour drive for the 37 children we brought from Nairobi’s slums. They came from Ngong, Kibra, Dandora and Mathare, places I have been to but cannot imagine living in. There is virtually nothing green in our slums; the ground, paths, streams, buildings, are all one uniform colour, brown. They call it chocolate city; but that is too kind. Noisy bars operate 24/7, and every vice imaginable (and likely also can’t imagine) is just a step away. People who live there seem to have a numbed life, oblivious of the noise, smells and piles of trash everywhere. There is no escape from danger; people are just surviving.
The Power of Nature
I can’t imagine how a trip to Samburu to meet wild elephants and lions must have felt for these children. Camping was such a terrifying novelty for some at first. But they were so upset to leave after only 3 days. So were my team, who had also come to life. That is the power of nature.
Poor Kenyans live in filthy noisy slums, separated from rich Kenyans in leafy safe suburbs. Our national parks and reserves are the ultimate equalizer, a peaceful space for all to share. But we are losing this heritage even before we have gotten to know it. Kenya is developing mega-infrastructure at lightning speed at the cost of wildlife, wild areas and endangered species. The public, even conservationists and experts, watch helplessly as the parks collapse under pressure from livestock, roads, railways, pipelines and powerlines.
Now, more than ever before, is the time for Kenyans to come together to save our wildlife heritage.
Thank you to the Perfect World Foundation, the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Royal African Safaris, Bruce Ludwig Family Foundation, Save the Elephants, Ewaso Lions, Samburu National Reserve and all the participating schools.
All the photos were made by Andrew Kahumbu.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of Kenyan Conservation NGO WildlifeDirect and is leading the hard-hitting Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta. Hands Off Our Elephants is a campaign to restore Kenyan leadership in elephant conservation through behaviour change at all levels of society, from rural communities, to business leaders and political decision makers.
She is a Kenyan conservationist with a PhD from Princeton University where she studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and conducted her field research on elephants in Kenya
In addition to running WildlifeDirect Paula lectures undergraduate community conservation at Princeton during an annual field course in Kenya.
Paula is the winner of the Whitley Award 2014, Brand Kenya Ambassador (2013), Presidential award Order of the Grand Warrior (2013), winner of the National Geographic/Howard Buffet Conservation Leader for Africa (2011) and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2011).
She formerly worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service and ran the CITES office and headed the Kenyan delegation. In 2005 she joined Bamburi Cement and ran Lafarge Eco Systems, a company that specializes in forest restoration of limestone quarries.
Paula is also an accomplished writer and she has co-authored a global best selling children’s book on a true story about a hippopotamus and a tortoise called Owen and Mzee: the true story of a remarkable friendship, it’s sequel Owen and Mzee: the language of Friendships, and Looking for Miza a story about an orphaned mountain gorilla in Democratic Republic of Congo in the same series.