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The Kenya Connection


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The Kenya Connection

Amanda Pearson
Kenya Semester Program (KSP) fall ’90
204 Lakeview Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138

An Experience that Lasts a Lifetime
This issue’s column is provided by Kathleen Fitzgerald ’92, a participant in the spring 1991 KSP. She is the executive director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, based in Montpelier, Vt.

My eyes burn from the smoke. The fire roars and the wind fans the dry wood and coals. I sit on a faded green campstool under the African sky among 20 students participating on the Kenya Semester Program (KSP). The moon casts a shadow across the acacia trees and stars are simply brilliant. The warm breeze circulates the flames, anointing each of us with smoke. We focus our attention on the storytellers, absorbed by their gestures as much as their words.

We are camping in the Yaida Valley in northern Tanzania with the Hadza, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes that remain in Africa. The Hadza are a nomadic people—like the wildlife with which they share this valley, they leave nothing when they move. They waste little, collect little, and live without excess.
The storytellers are wrapped in red Maasai blankets. The lead storyteller begins the tale in his native tongue—a clicking language. He speaks softly and energetically into the ear of another Hadza, who translates the words into Swahili, the national language in Tanzania. Our guide, Mike Peterson, is perched on the ground beside the storytellers, and he then translates from Swahili into English. The two Hadza are vividly animated in their storytelling. They pause for dramatic effect, and chuckle at hearing their words translated into an unfamiliar language. These stories connect the Hazda to their land and people. We are captured by the tales of hunting and wild places, and feel privileged to participate in this ancient ritual.

Eleven years had passed since I was a student with the KSP. This year, my friend Amanda Pearson ’92 (KSP fall ’90) and I joined KSP students for their two-week field course in Tanzania.

Beryl Markham wrote in her book West with the Night, “Africa is never the same to anyone who leaves it and returns again.” How true. But while Africa has changed and I have changed, certain things at first glance appeared to be the same: the bright colors of the Maasai clothing; seeing elephants drink from a water hole; the indescribable feeling when first hearing a hyena whoop; the busy hum of the marketplace; and the sweet taste of chai (African tea). I realized that the experiences I had enjoyed as a student were embedded in me, and likely always would be.

The first afternoon we arrived in the Yaida Valley, the students split into small groups of five or six to hunt with the Hadza men. Simon, a Hadza man in his early 20s, led my group. His hair was braided and adorned with colorful disks, and a bandana kept his braids from falling into his eyes. He wore sandals made from car tires, a practical tread for shoes that will last endless miles. He balanced an axe on his shoulder and carried his hand-crafted bow and a collection of arrows with tips that were decorated with colorful bird feathers.

When he sensed that the group was ready to hunt, Simon darted into the scrub brush. We followed in single file. We watched, listened and walked with purpose. We moved quietly through the tall grass. When he stopped, we stopped. When he moved, we moved.

We climbed to the top of a rock pile to gain a better view of the landscape. Several rock hyrax, small marmot-like mammals, lingered on the outcrop as Simon scanned the horizon. We were all silent. We eventually climbed down the rock pile and Simon chopped into a tree branch to collect some honey, which he shared with us.

As a naturalist living in Vermont, I felt humbled walking through the savannah with Simon. This was his landscape. He knew its rhythm, sounds, movements and colors. Walking further, he spotted a dik dik, a small antelope native to Africa. I was still straining my eyes to locate the animal when Simon handed me his axe. He crouched stealthily and made his way toward the antelope. We watched intently and held our breaths. In one seamless movement Simon drew his bow and took quick muted leaps toward the animal, but the dik dik darted away. For many of the students, this was their first hunting experience. For some, it was the first time they walked in purposeful silence.

Since leaving St. Lawrence I have worked in the conservation field. Much of my focus revolves around animal extinction and, now, even ecosystem extinction. Many in the conservation community also discuss the “extinction of experience.” In our high-tech, computerized, motorized, automated society, we are losing simple experiences. Instead of walking to a local store to shop, we purchase from catalogs or the Internet. Instead of growing seasonal vegetables in a garden, we drive to massive grocery stores that provide year-round produce from across the globe. Some of the most basic experiences that tie us to each other and to the land are becoming extinct.

One of the greatest strengths of the KSP is its incorporation of experiential learning. Reading about Maasai age group rituals from the Internet does not compare to meeting a group of newly-circumcised morani warriors with faces painted white to signify their entrance into manhood. Learning about animal behavior from a textbook does not compare to witnessing animals hunting in the Serengeti. It is not as memorable to study geography from a topographic map as it is to stand atop an active volcano and watch lava ooze out of a volcanic cone.

The students on the KSP will continue to learn from these experiences long after the moments themselves have faded. They are fortunate. Over the course of four months, KSP students engage in an ecological, personal and cultural journey. The semester solidified my commitment to the conservation field. It has had a profound impact on hundreds of students like me, and will continue to do so in the future. This gives me hope.

Trustee (and regular “Kenya Connection” writer) Amanda Pearson ’90, left and Kathleen H. Fitzgerald ’92 in Tanangire National Park, where KSP Students spend a day on safari.