Paula Fernandes - African Savannah Conservation in Kenya
After somehow finding myself with a month off during December in between a career break and the start of a new job I was looking for an adventure that would be challenging, liberating and fulfilling at the same time not to mention escaping the cold London weather.
I signed up to Projects Abroad and within a week, I was mobilized to Kenya to work on a combination of projects including provision of care at the Haven of Hope orphanage in Nakuru as well as assistance in the Conservation project at Kigio Reserve. I had just enough time to top up on the basic vaccinations and pack the essentials.
Arriving in Kenya
At the airport in Nairobi I was able to make my way through immigration with ease. I recall laughing to myself at the baggage claim where whilst I was waiting for my backpack, a local next to me was picking up a massive smoked piece of boned meat that was wrapped in cellophane delivered on the baggage rail. “Welcome to Kenya” is what I thought!
I was greeted at arrivals by Projects Abroad staff member, Stan Ngaruiya’s big smiley “Jambo”, the blast of dry scorching heat and yelling voices of all the locals trying to get your attention for a taxi. Within minutes of leaving the airport I shrieked in excitement as I saw a herd of zebras and giraffes roaming in the reserve alongside the highway.
As we arrived in the city center, we were surrounded with the hustle and bustle of local Kenyan life and we needed to wade through the traffic to get to the city center where we could catch the “Matatus” which is a term used to describe the local mini-vans. We grabbed a couple of cold and much needed pineapple flavored Fanta’s and hit the road for the 3 hour journey to Nakuru.
The route to Nakuru was extremely scenic and colorful passing local farms of corn, maize and vegetables. We also passed Lake Naivasha, Lake Elementeita, Mount Longonot and the famous Lake Nakuru. The views of the rift valley were simply amazing.
My Kenyan host family
A further set of big smiley faces eagerly anticipated my arrival at my host home only to provide me with the warmest welcome. I was lucky enough to be staying with two other volunteers, one from Denmark and the other from Switzerland and needless to say we became the best of friends almost overnight.
My fondest memories include:
- The delicious dinners – usually traditional Kenyan food of Ugali, Mukimo and Nyama Choma and then the constant supply of fresh mangos and passion fruit.
- Waking up every morning to the sound of the roosters and bright sunshine.
- Late night chats with our host mum sharing stories and laughing constantly.
- Washing my clothes in a bucket outside in the sun surrounded by my host pets including puppies and a tortoise.
- Returning home in a tuk-tuk to find the front gate surrounded by a herd of local goats and trying to slowly make my way through them much to my host brother's amusement.
My care placement at Haven of Hope
If you ever wanted to experience the joys and simplicity of being a kid again – this placement was it! I got to spend my days with almost 30 kids aged between 7 months and 13 years old trying to keep them occupied with different activities, especially the bigger kids who were on school vacation. I was forced to be creative engaging in arts and crafts, cutting things and sticking things together, showing them how to color in between the lines and attempting to draw some of the local African animals.
I also had to prove my fitness as they chased me around the playground constantly taking great pleasure in catching me! Highlights included singing and dancing with them to some of the favorite nursery rhymes, baking cakes out of sand with younger kids and painting around the house getting the kids to decorate their rooms.
The most amazing thing was that these kids all arrived at the orphanage with the saddest stories of abandonment yet they too had the biggest smiles I have ever seen and that happiness and energy was undoubtedly infectious.
My favorite memories at the orphanage include entering in the mornings to find a rush of kids running towards you to say ‘howareyou’ – yes it was one word to them and if there were two of us they would say ‘howareyous’, and listening to them yell out ‘see you tomollow’ when you left.
My second placement at Kigio Reserve
After being picked up on the side of the highway in a land cruiser and heading out to base camp, I surprisingly managed to quickly adjust to the limited electricity, limited hot clean water and bunk bed sleeping and embrace the absolute beauty and serenity of my new home within the wildlife reserve.
The daily activities were physical, educational and most importantly thoroughly enjoyable including researching and observing the endangered Rothschild giraffes, identifying the birdlife, taking records of biomass and vegetation around different plots in the reserve and also walking the boundaries to identify poaching activities. Downtime was spent mostly on the deck in the sun reading a book only being disturbed by the footsteps of zebras, giraffes, wild pigs and little antelope just meters away from you.
It was the kind of place where you started each day with a spectacular sunrise and ended each day around a fire looking up at the night sky catching the shooting stars.
Traveling around Kenya after my placement
Kenya is truly a beautiful country rich in wildlife and surrounded by some of the best national parks in Africa. Aside from traveling during my weekends whilst on the project with the other volunteers, I managed to sneak in a 10 day safari tour on my way home covering the base of Mount Kenya, Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara.
My experience included the sights of a million flamingos covering Lake Bogoria, boiling an egg in the hot springs, watching cheetahs stalk their prey, watching a lioness attempt to hunt a cheetah, finding cheetah and leopard cubs and seeing all the big five African animals on most of the days. I also spent a few days with the local Masai tribe learning about their culture and the land they occupy.
An adventure of a lifetime
I was told by someone wise that such a mission would be “scary before, mixed in between and loved in retrospect’’ and that’s absolutely how it went.