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!

Sunrise, Sunset…Sunrise

8 07 2010

Coming full circle, I’m writing my last “Destination Mpala” post as I sit at home in the States. While flipping through the memories in my mind’s eye, the Kenyan coffee I’m sipping kindly reminds my senses of the country I have recently left. Every once in a while, a certain aroma, sound, texture or taste flashes through me, bringing me back – just for a second – to Kenya.

Yesterday, I went driving for the first time. After swerving over to the right side as I approached an oncoming car head on (don’t worry… I was still in my neighborhood only going about 15 mph) and frantically trying to find the clutch with my left foot to switch gears (until I remembered I was driving an automatic) the ride was pleasantly uneventful. My grandfather called and asked that I please let him know when I am on the road so that he can stay off – funny guy. I can’t say I enjoy driving on smooth macadam with an automatic SUV any more than driving over dirt roads with jagged ridges, potholes, and giant rocks with a stick shift Land Rover… they’re like two different amusement rides. I’ve found it’s unreasonable to make comparisons between living in Kenya and living in the States – like the age old adage comparison of apples to oranges.

The last few days I spent in Kenya are some of the most memorable. At the Research Centre, students, professors and independent researchers had arrived from across the globe to conduct field work during the summer break – the place was buzzing with activity. The conversations held during meals and tea time were incredibly eye-opening and perceptive. All different views and biological knowledge were put out on the table and debated. Alright, it sounds a bit nerdy but let’s be real… we’re at a research centre. Not only was there stimulating discussion but we looked forward to viewing World Cup games each night with our projector and makeshift bedsheet screen. Even the less anticipated games were fun. After a long day in the field or office, a Tusker beer, good company and a football match was the perfect combination to end a day.

My last weekend in Kenya was spent traveling to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, camping and running a marathon. My friend and fellow long-term resident of Mpala Vicky and I drove the two hours from Mpala to Lewa on Friday afternoon in our Land Rover packed with camping gear, food and lots of water. We arrived early evening and set up camp amongst thousands of other runners and spectators. Over an enormous glade, the landscape was tranformed into a polychromatic city; colorful tents went up wherever there was space and people adorned in all sorts of clothing from Nike dri-fit t-shirts to DHL sponsored yellow team outfits to traditional Maasai red garbs and beaded jewelery roamed around. As the sun set, the night was met with the obnoxious echoes of Vivuzuelas. Having spread to the rest of the continent from South Africa,  the deep tone horns were heard across the Conservancy as tons of people prepared camp fires and met up with friends and new acquaintances. The cacophany of chatter, singing and music didn’t die down until late into the night. Though at first I was annoyed (I was taking the marathon pretty seriously and wanted some rest), the noise level wouldn’t have mattered: Vicky was up most of the night with a stomach bug and I was waking up almost every 20 minutes both nervous about the race and fearful that I had slept through the starting time. Around 5 am I sat up, having already been awake for about an hour, changed into my racing clothes and ate a PowerBar for some fuel. I think I spent the next hour or so stretching and warming up but to be honest, I don’t recall much from before the race – I suppose I was “in the zone.” However, I do remember a beautiful sunrise over the tops of the fever trees surrounding our camp as Vicky, who had kind of recovered, and I headed off amongst a thousand other runners to the starting line.

setting up camp

runners rising early at dawn

At 7:15 sharp the horn went off and the mob of 1,000 runners slowly shifted forward. Out of the 1,000 registered runners, 850 were participating in the half marathon and 150 were participating in the full marathon. It took about 5 km for the pack to spread out – I spent that time dodging elbows, darting through gaps and trying not to step on anyone’s feet. The 13.1 mile route wound through the rolling fields and up and down steep escarpments. The full marathoners had to circle around twice. On one hand it was the most stunning running path I have ever been on: wide open fields of long golden grass with zebras lazily grazing, clear blue mountain ranges were visible with a breathtaking view of Mt. Kenya and part of the path went along a bubbling creek and into a marsh filled with green cattails and an orchestra of frog calls. On the other hand… well, there’s a reason why it has been labeled as one of the top 10 most challenging marathons in the world. The entire path is made up of a sandy dirt hybrid which requires a bit more energy to push off on, the path ascends countless hills and almost vertical escarpments (on my second lap I feel like I would have been faster if I had been on my hands and knees climbing up) scattered with large rocks, the average altitude is 1800 m above sea level (less oxygen) and the temperature reaches well into the upper 90’s (Farenheit that is).

It was the perfect challenge and ending point to my year – the ideal combination of mental and physical tests while being immersed in the landscape and wildlife I had spent my life with for the past 12 months. I was the 17th female to cross the finish line and the 82nd out of all participants. Vicky finished the half marathon and was waiting for me at the finish line where she snapped a few photos of me on those last hundred meters – the most glorious hundred meters of my life – and crossing the white tape. We slowly walked back to the campsite, taking in all the ongoing festivities and cheer, relaxed for a bit, and then headed back to Mpala. I couldn’t have asked for a better first marathon experience.

the last 100 meters!

the finishers photo

post-race nap

That evening, all at Mpala gathered on one of the scenic gems of the ranch called Baculi Dam. Located on the top of an high escarpment, the spot looks out over the vast Laikipia landscape. We had a marathon celebration/farewell sundowners and dinner followed by a spectacular soccer ball cake baked and designed by my good friend Eunice. It was great to hang out with good friends, chat and eat hearty food over a camp fire while gazing at the setting sun. We then zoomed back to the Research Centre to watch the highly anticipated USA-Ghana match. The next day I spent packing, rearranging and repacking. However, around 4 pm, both proud of the US for their showing and excited for Ghana, the last remaining African team, we celebrated with a football match of our own. A number of researchers and Mpala staff played a competitive and incredibly fun game well over the official 90 minutes. The marathon soreness hadn’t kicked in yet so I was able to run and knock the ball around for the whole match; the whole evening definitely placed on my top ten favorite events at Mpala. Everyone was in high spirits from the players to the family members and friends lining the field. At the end of the game, I could feel the stiffness and soreness of my muscles setting in, but I couldn’t have cared less; I had a 17 hour flight ahead of me to relax!

Eunice and I with her masterpiece

The next morning was a whirlwind of goodbyes, cars breaking down, a nerve-racking ride into Nairobi and finally my flight check-in. It all happened so fast and before I knew it, I was at the arrivals terminal where my Dad was waiting to pick me up. My Mom, brother and grandfather were waiting outside the house when my Dad and I pulled up the drive.  It was wonderful to see my family again!

It wasn’t until a few days later, when I was alone, that I had time to reflect a bit. I have learned a good deal about myself and the world over the past year. Although I can’t pinpoint what has changed about me, I know much has. I can’t thank those enough who made the past year possible. You all know who you are, so asante sana.

And now, slowly adjusting back to life in the US, I have much work to do and plans to get rolling. However, when I’m caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, I’ll always have the lessons I learned in Kenya to regain balance.

I never said “goodbye” to Kenya…  I have a feeling I’ll be back.

World Cup Theatre

23 06 2010

After viewing almost two weeks of World Cup football, the emotions and alliances of all at Mpala have experienced an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. The opening matches of the world’s largest tournament were slapped with painful reviews pinning the matches as dull and critiquing the start of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as lifeless. Now, huge names like England and Germany are on the line as the top two places in groups C & D are completely dependent on the matches being played today. The atmosphere at Mpala is buzzing with continuous excitement. It doesn’t matter who is playing – each game is fervently talked about before, cheered on throughout, and analyzed after.

A week before the World Cup began, the researchers pooled together the funds to purchase satellite equipment and the sports channel subscription for the entire tournament. Reaching the goal of 20,000 KSh the day before the games began (phew!) the call was made to the satellite provider and soon a sparkling white satellite dish was situated on the roof of the dining hall. A white bedsheet was pinned and taped to the wall, a projector set up and within a few hours we had our own World Cup theatre.

Game 1 was quite an event. Without the Kenya national team making the tournament, the staff and families decided to cheer on their African neighbors. Whether it be Nigeria or South Africa, the audience at Mpala is louder than most rowdy bar crowds. Kenya is an hour ahead of South Africa so the games are played at 2:30, 5, and 9:30 p.m. After the day’s work is done, the 9:30 p.m games are perfectly timed. Every game has been packed with researchers, staff, family members and guests.

The England v. USA game was by far one of my most memorable events at Mpala. Everyone showed up to watch. When all the chairs were taken, people sat in front on the ground. When ground space filled up, standing room only was created in the back. The viewers’ support was split about 50/50 between the two teams so each goal was met with roaring cheers. However, I think the celebration after the US goal was a bit delayed – most were in shock.

Already at breakfast today the focus of conversation was on the US v. Algeria match being played at 5 pm. Algeria, proving to be a much more difficult obstacle than previously thought, has been the cause of concern for the many US fans. Predictions and player evaluations were made, bets set and then everyone dispersed to the offices and field to get as much work done before kick0ff.

It’s pretty awesome being in Africa for their first hosting of a World Cup. There is a definite sense of unity among the countries. I can only imagine how much more crazed it would be if Kenya had made the tournament… I’m pretty sure the country would have shut down.

The Mpala Theatre set-up at the dining hall


3 06 2010

It’s the month of countdowns.

4 days until… I conduct my final wildlife transect of Mpala. By far my favorite project, I’ll be sure to bring my camera along as we take down wildlife count estimates all across Mpala.

7 days until… World Cup 2010. All of Kenya is buzzing with World Cup fever – we’re trying to figure out a way to get a satellite here in the bush so we can watch the matches. If it ends up working out I don’t think much field work or data analysis will get done in the next month.

23 days until… the Lewa marathon. The long training runs are winding down as I gear up for the big day. All 1,000 running spots have been filled and apparently there’s a waiting list. It should be a pretty awesome event.

25 days until… my flight leaves Kenya and I head back to the States. Has it been a year already? The first thing I plan on doing when I get home: riding my bike around town without the threat of elephants. and probably buying myself a large, ice cold diet coke.

ready, set, go…

Coffee and Elephants

7 05 2010

Early morning and the Laikipia landscape

Crunch, crunch. It was early. Without moving to check the clock I could tell it was before 6. The sun wasn’t even up; just the orange golden glow slowly rising from the East penetrating the silky mist and cool blue of the magical morning hour. Crunch, crunch. There it was again. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I tried to focus my vision on the bedroom window to my right where the sound was originating from. Nothing. The window was completely dark. Too lazy to crawl out of bed and actually take a look, I laid my head back down and instantly drifted back to sleep.

Moments later. Crunch, crunch. My eyes shot open and suddenly the darkness of the window shifted. Wait, it moved? It definitely wasn’t the sky I was seeing, but still half asleep I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. And then a long trunk whipped around and I realized I was staring at a giant bull elephant’s behind. He was too busy chewing the long grass and scratching his tough skin against the acacia to realize he was being gawked at through the window. Not wanting to startle the large beast, I silently crawled out of bed. The bull was only two feet from me, but any thrill was nullified by the fact that we were separated by a stone wall. So to make things more interesting I grabbed my jacket and camera and crept out the back door.

The one responsible for my early morning

One, two, three, four… twenty-two. Instead of greeting one elephant, I happened upon an entire troop – all of whom were no more than ten feet away.  Now we’re talking! Getting as close as I dared (one more step and I could have touched them) I began snapping away with my camera getting some interesting close-ups. Pausing from their feeding every once in a while to glance up at me, they seemed indifferent to my presence. The younger ones were a bit more intrigued by this alien-looking creature but soon decided I was boring and moved on.

I hung out with the elephants for about a half hour until the whole group slowly migrated over the escarpment. I’ve been close to elephants, including riding a tamed one, but never this close and with so many. Maybe they’ll let me join in the Breakfast Club again sometime.

Some of the group with a clear Mt. Kenya in the background

Still in awe, I made some coffee and sat out on the veranda going through my photos. Soon I was joined by some Hornbill friends who noisily began chatting away, giving me the bird gossip.

Joining me for coffee

The Sight of the Night

20 04 2010

Two nights ago, an entirely new experience usurped the throne of ‘number one coolest moment at Mpala.’ Five of us decided to go on a night game drive, so after dinner we grabbed our torches, zipped up our warm coats, packed a few cold Tuskers into a cooler and piled into our Land Cruiser. The night air was crisp and the sky was sprayed with billions of blazing stars. The moon was also part of the party in a spooky  crescent lying on its back; an irridescent smile alone in the dark.

Immediately as we made our way up a steep escarpment onto a large glade we were met by sixty or so small dots of floating light – eyeshine. A herd of impala stampeded away in the darkness as our truck approached. It looked like a floating river of sparkling lights. Beautiful, but the best was yet to come.

We continued driving slowly along the main dirt road. Suddenly one torch’s light fell upon more eyeshine off to the distance on our left. Speculations began and were bounced back and forth between us: bat-eared fox, dik dik, genet, jackal… we couldn’t agree. So, we did what all curious biologist would do… we went off-roading. Making our way over a pile of rocks and dirt we edged closer and closer to the unidentified animal. “It’s a bat-eared fox!” someone whispered. “No it’s not, I think it’s a jackal,” replied another. Before a consensus could be reached the eyeshine reacted to our headlights and shot down a den hole. “Where did it go? Keep driving.” After a minute or so, we gave up and decided to head back to the road.

And that’s when it began.

“Hey, um guys? Do you see those lions?” Within a second every one of us had whipped around and popped our heads through the look-out hatches on the roof of the truck. No more than ten meters away were two lions illuminated by our torches – a male and female – pawing their way across the glade. They were huge: muscular and well-fed. The male had a full mane of thick brown-orange hair while the female’s coat looked almost silver in the moonlight.

For a full fifteen minutes we sat and watched them. They remained within twenty meters of our vehicle the entire time. Most likely, it was because they were too busy trying to mate to care we were there: the female was in full heat and the male mounted her several times. It never lasted long because they were both continuously distracted by another male lion’s growling a short distance away. Lion drama.

King of the wild

After several minutes of attempting to mate they decided just to watch us instead. The male lay down and yawned several times revealing his massive set of razor-sharp teeth. The female walked around getting (scarily) close to us and then began playfully pawing at a wiry branch of acacia, just like a house cat. Eventually the lions grew tired of us and, together, walked away – probably in search of some privacy…

A female pawing at the ground

Everyone in the truck just looked at each other in awe. “Wow. That was amazing,” was echoed by all. By chance we had happened across this incredible moment. It’s one thing to view wildlife in captivity, but when all that separates you and a creature in its natural habitat is a sheet of metal and tires you experience this mixture of emotions: excitement, fear, exhilaration, appreciation, and a hint of something like magic.

Thank you, Kenya.