Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Elephant's Way to Kilimanjaro

Our first day out into the fields for our directed research... and we find ourselves packed into a Land Cruiser.  There were six of us students (one of our group is sick), along with three guides to help us in our interview process.  We drove for an hour off the road, towards the slopes of Kilimanjaro, into the vast farmlands ahead. The road was bumpy and rough, hardly something to be named "road" at all.  As we jumped and bounced around in our seats our mouths were flying a mile-a-minute, all of us excited for the prospects of the new day.  It was our first try at interviewing, our questionnaire, and inherently our research collection.  We were ready to begin.
   Along the way we spotted several giraffes, their heads towering above the acacia trees.  There were also elephants, gazelle, as well as local animals of the livestock variety (cows, donkeys, goats...).  I stated absently that seeing these majestic animals was a good omen.  My friends nodded their heads in agreement.
   Our first group of two students + one guide was dropped.  Then another.  And then it was time that I found myself, along with my partner Dana and our guide, Benson, at our destination.  We were the farthest out, the last dropped off, which meant that we were closest to the mountain.  I could never have asked for a better place to spend several hours walking.  We were designated to spend the next eight hours trekking as many kilometers as it took to interview over ten local farmers/pastoralists, and we’d be doing it in Kilimanjaro’s backyard.  We had found ourselves only a ½ kilometer from the Tanzanian border, the edge at which the mountain perched.  Every breeze that whipped through me came careening down from its snowy peak, and even with the random clouds floating about we could clearly see the mountain at all times.
The majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro.
     In Kenya and Tanzania, it is common practice for best friends to hold hands.  Whether they be little girls, or grown adult men, friendship is shown by the ease of clasping one’s palm to another. Our guide, Benson, must’ve considered us to be good friends of his, because often we were traipsing through corn-stalks while holding onto his hand.  There were times he grabbed me up in a head-lock, laughing at something I had just said, and then abruptly letting me go in favor of grabbing up a juicy red tomato to snack on.  If ever I could showcase the physical embodiment of the ease of which I fell into a friendship, it was within the short time I was with Benson.  Helping us to translate our questions for those we were speaking to, he was quick to respond efficiently.  There were several times that he helped us to greet folks politely, whether they be cheeky bibis (grandmothers), small children, or flirtatious young men (don’t worry, Dad, we were sure to abstain from any coy behaviors ourselves).  It was along the way that we were able to hear stories of elephants frequently making their way through the crops, and we could see their large footprints clearly in the dusty, fertile ground. 
Local farmland.  Look at these gorgeous clouds!
   It occurred to me then: we were treading the same paths that elephants walked every day.  Granted, this was not good news for the farmers (as a single elephant can destroy a few acres of crops on its own in a night), but what a thought!  It was here that elephants made their way up onto the escarpments of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and back again, stopping at random to snack on some corn or tomatoes. 
   It also occurred to me, during our research process, how much I enjoyed engaging with the locals.  I love talking (I’m a regular chatter-box, no one will deny), but in this I am developing a penchant to listen.  I’ve learned much about not only human-wildlife conflict, but the overall impacts on opinions of animals and conservation in the area.  It’s a heady feeling knowing that you’re discussing a topic that is both important and personal to every individual in the area, especially in the case that I have no concerns close to theirs… but this is a topic for a later post.
Maasai tire shoes, hand carved and nailed together. Super comfy!
   In any case, at the end of the day I had won a new friend in Benson, aching muscles from walking across uneven turf, and a set of pink sun-kissed cheeks.  Nothing, however, has been able to wipe the exaggerated, goofy grin from my face since my first glance at Kilimanjaro up close.  

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