21 06 2012

So, a pretty cool posting today. A few days ago I was able to join a group of Mpala researchers on an evening trip to Daraja Academy, a local girls’ secondary school. Daraja, which means “bridge” in Kiswahili, is entering its fourth year and, to say the least, I was utterly blown away by what I saw.

One of the Daraja classroom buildings

After the forty-minute drive down the dirt “road,” we arrived at Daraja around 6 PM. Within a minute of our van parking, a large group of high school-aged girls appeared and greeted us with huge smiles. The founders of the school Jenni and Jason were not far behind and were incredibly welcoming. After a slew of handshakes and “hellos” each girl grabbed a pair of visiting researchers and led us on a tour of the school. The school has around 100 students and every girl boards on site. My host’s name was Alice and she took my lab mate Sara and me around to each of the ten classrooms. Each classroom was described in detail and Alice gave a quick summary on the current lessons. Alice radiated pure joy in describing her lessons and telling me about her school. She showed some serious insight and intelligence! Within five minutes of meeting her, I knew she had incredible potential.

Alice and I

The classrooms were very impressive, with solid wooden desks, blackboards and posters covering the walls with inspirational quotes or informative facts. I could have been at a school in the US were it not for the view of the Rift Valley out the window. Of course, I was the most excited when we arrived in the science classroom. Lab benches were scattered about and biology terms and equations were scribbled all over the board. Alice burst into a description of the most current lab lesson: separating NaCl. Apparently, Alice’s favorite class is math… awesome.

Alice in the lab

After visiting all the of classrooms, where we ran into a number of girls trying to squeeze in some last minute studying, Alice took us out to the shamba, or field for growing crops. Wow. Wow. Wow. There were long lines of vibrant green cabbage, kale, spinach and herbs. Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, tomatoes, onions, large mango trees and papaya dressed the landscape with polychromatic splotches. Not only was it one of the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen, but Alice identified every single plant and told us how best to care for and harvest it. Unreal. The students have chores when not in class or studying including laundry and cleaning rooms. Alice, beaming, told us her chore was to work in the shamba.

Entry to the shamba

Papaya tree!

After the tour, the school provided us with a delicious dinner of chapati and bean stew. Yum. I really do need to learn how to make chapati. We were then directed into a larger room where a Mpala researcher Corinna gave a talk about her work on land restoration and conservation. The Daraja girls were quite engaged and you could just see the mental wheels turning. The talk and discussion lasted until about 8 PM and we headed back to Mpala after the girls said goodbye and headed off to do more studying. Personally, I was ready for bed.

Daraja Academy was founded by Jenni and Jason about four years ago and is, for the most part, privately funded. It was quite inspiring to hear about their dream of creating a school in East Africa and how they went about doing it. Like most things in life, running a school requires a large sum of money… if you’re interested in learning more about Daraja Academy, check out their website: http://daraja-academy.org/ and if possible, donate what you can to support these incredible young ladies.

These girls are going to be making big changes to Kenya.


The Return

18 06 2012

Full circle. After the ~16 hour flight and 4 hour, bumpy and dodgy drive, I have safely arrived at Mpala again. Well, that is I arrived on Wednesday… it’s the first opportunity I’ve had to free-write. The return to the place I called home for a year has been bittersweet. Sensory memories are pervasive and taking on new meaning on this second trip.  Mpala has changed in many ways, yet retains its mystique and beauty.

One of the many spectacular views found on Mpala

I’ll be staying at Mpala for about 1 month this summer, not as a Princeton-in-Africa Fellow, but as a Ph.D. candidate. Yay science! My research will be conducted both out in the field of the bush and in the lab. The perfect blend? I think so. Classes don’t start until August, but I had the chance to jet out to Kenya to conduct a few pilot studies before hitting the classroom. Needless to say, it wasn’t too hard to turn down a month in Kenya! My Ph.D. will be focusing on disease ecology…

What is disease ecology you ask? Well, imagine a population in the wild, let’s say a herd of buffalo. Now, these buffalo have a lot going on – they have certain behaviors and move around in a particular area. They have a social structure i.e. top dog all the way down to the runt. The buffalo are genetically related throughout the herd and are connected and disconnected by DNA. They come across all types of weather, predators and other types of environmental stressors and hazards. Now, imagine a parasite. Any kind you want – lots of legs, antennae, whatever. This parasite wants to make its home in the buffalo and get a free ride feeding off the buffalo’s essential nutrients. Disease ecologists want to know the how, what and why – it is the interdisciplinary field that studies this interaction. How hosts (buffalo) and pathogens (parasite) interact and how factors such as environment, genetics and behavior influence and facilitate this interaction. I plan to focus on factors that make individuals more susceptible to infection and disease… no need to get into the nitty gritty now – details will follow in future posts.

Grevy’s zebra: as beautiful as I remember

Now, the ways in which Mpala has changed: well, the most obvious is the presence of an electric fence around the research center including the labs, bandas, offices and dining area. Oh yea, and the ring road… remember the ~1 mile loop I ran around over and over and over while training for the Lewa Marathon? No need to check with the security guards about running now – elephants are a much smaller risk as they seem not to be fans of a sharp electric jolt. I’ve gone on a few runs over the past week and the fence seems to be doing its job. The downside: no elephants hanging out within 25 feet. Obviously, a bummer when it comes to posing in front of herds for brag-worthy photos.

Thankfully, there are quite a number of familiar faces which have been absolutely lovely to see again. Catching up and randomly running into old friends has been a highlight of the first few days. My good friends in the kitchen are still around – Eunice still making her awesome cakes and biscuits! Julius, the head of security, has continued to keep a watchful eye on the center and looks quite scary in his green camo uniform. Did I mention his green beret? Yup. The Mpala security force is here to stay. The many friends from the village are mostly around and we played a fun soccer match the other evening until nightfall. Nothing tops playing soccer on an escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley with a golden sunset.

My personal favorite – the Common beisa oryx

Besides the evening social activities, the first few days were anything but relaxed. Mornings were devoted to field work consisting of approximately ~5 hours of driving about the bush scoping out wildlife and collecting samples. I forgot how cold Mpala is in the early morning. I usually start out dressed in pants, sweatshirt and occasionally a wool hat. However, within 2 hours, the pants are changed to shorts and sweatshirts are swiftly removed as the temperature sharply rises. The equator sun is no joke. I’ve already obtained a darker tan, although my back and shoulders received a bit more sun than they should have… Afternoons (after a nice break at lunch) are spent in the lab, processing the samples collected in the field. It’s a busy lab and most of the work continues well into the evening.

So, for now, that’s the report from the bush. Another update soon to follow… including an account of Saturday in the field involving multiple vehicles stuck in the mud known as the black cotton. It made for a fun late morning. Enjoy the game drive pics!