Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kenya Calling – Going Wild with Born Free

I fully agree the above title is rather on the face, as I am already in a wild place, looking for wild things and going even wilder than I was intended to become, but even then this is the best I could come up with. I am deliberately skipping the first day at Kenya since it was spent at Swara Plains Ranch, where I shall return soon and would get to experience it in a more leisurely manner. For now, let’s dive right into the wild wagon and swing free like a chimpanzee straight into Born Free office Nairobi.

Even before I had arrived I had done some amount of digging into Born Free, a UK based NGO that is proactively working towards wildlife conservation. They have a huge presence in Kenya and are doing commendable work across all fields of conservation and related community outreach programs. Born Free Kenya had graciously offered me a field trip with their country manager, Iregi Mwenja, into the far flung reaches of Samburu Region in the Northern Highlands.

Sandy drove me to Born Free office in the outskirts of Nairobi. It resembled an office less and a verdant amusement park more. After a brief tete-a-tete with Victor, the Programs manager, who is one of most soft spoken persons I have ever come across, I hopped into a Born Free Land Rover and sped across the beautiful country side heading due North.

Crossing several townships, including Nanyuki, Timau and Isiolo, and the looming dark hulk of Mt Kenya to my right, we left the main tarmac road at a junction and took to real dirt roads. No sooner had we turned into the dirt road my eyes were immediately drawn to a majestic table-land reposing to the right under the setting sun. The thick jungle at its feet around 1/3rd way up succumbs to the granite walls above that falls steeply from the table top. Another cliff to my left vies attention. Then more and more as we drive deeper into the jungles. The place is virtually littered with boulders and rock walls that can keep a rock climber happy and climbing endlessly.

It is said that in nature, magic happen at certain places, only most often there are no one around to witness. But then someone comes along at exactly the precise spot where all the tangents of time, space and continuum meet and he becomes the forbearer of the magic. For me it happened likewise on this dirt road to nowhere. The land rover at its breakneck speed careened over a sharp bend and if I hadn’t kept my eyes open I would have completely missed the tree harboring several bird nests. It’s a common sight all over this jungle, but what made this tree unique was the way it stood out in sharp relief to the blue sky dotted with cottony clouds. It seemed to be my tree, waiting for me for centuries. I went up to it, caressed its trunk and took few pictures. Soon enough we chanced upon the extremely shy dik-dik, a tiny fragile mammal of deer species. They are very difficult to photograph, but a pair suddenly after having run a few paces away, turned around and the younger one still chewing a leave at its mouth gaped at me with equal amazement. My Nikon did the rest.

After another hour of back breaking journey we reached Wamba, a small town perched at the foothills of the Mathew Range of mountains in Samburu Region. Amazingly my mobile phone came alive and so did the USB data card for internet. Mwenja greeted me at the guest house with a huge smile and so did his field assistant Natalie, along with the driver. A quick shower and shave and we drove off to witness what exactly Born Free was doing in this remote region.

As Mwenja explained, in conservation it is about educating people, human beings who are doing the damage to wildlife. The wildlife, being wild and natural, needs no education or conservation per se. In a unique initiative Born Free had produced several films to spread awareness and sensitize the local inhabitants about the need for wild life conservation and why should they stop killing bush meat for food, etc. For tonight, Mwenja is going to screen two films, one showing the harmful effects of consuming bush meat and why bush life must be preserved to safeguard the humans and the other film showing various initiatives to prevent lions and other predators attacking cattle, which leads to direct man-beast conflict. For lions, leopards, etc goats and cows found within human habitation is easy prey and those that grow old often stray into the settlements and kill livestock. Obviously this infuriates the villagers who then go out in large numbers with spears and knives and kills any lion they find on the way. This is purely an act of vengeance. This is the biggest cause for reduction in lion population.

A screen along with audio visuals had been set up in a clearing and a substantial number of crowds had gathered. The movies was first shown in Swahili and then in Masai. Spectators seemed to be in good humor since they would break into laughter intermittently and seemed to grasp the underlying message well. As Mwenja explained the idea through such movies was to stigmatize bush meat eating to a level where no one would do it, or would be ostracized by their people if anyone did so. His aim was to leave the right message with the people. Born Free had also recruited and cultivated local volunteers who were sympathetic to the cause and could take the message and idea deeper into their own people.

The next day, we stuffed the Land Rover to the bursting point and left for lands that were the purview of only the very intrepid, which suited me just fine. We were heading into the very end of some of these dirt roads, deep into Samburu Region. As we penetrated deeper into the region my eyes feasted on the rock faces, boulders and the seemingly endless chain of green mountains, undulating wave after wave like an ocean. The road (if it could still be called one) dipped and curved, disappeared and broke and over all such terrains growled and gripped the Land Rover. Soon it had earned my respects. We came to a major river crossing, where we had to deplane and then the empty vehicle drove across but couldn’t climb up the sandy bank on the other side. Several attempts later, belching black smoke and burning tyres, it finally groaned its way up. Conservation had its own adventures as I could see. Soon we came to a small manyata (family settlement) and stopped to pick up our lunch. Which in our case consisted of one live chicken and a bag of potato.

We got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. I looked for birds to shoot (with my camera) and anything else that came my way. While others spread around. Typically, soon we had a group of people around us. The chicken lady offered us a ripe papaya on the house. Even before I could reach for my Swiss knife, out swung a machete the size of my right arm from one of the onlookers and suddenly the innocent papaya looked distinctly vulnerable. Few well aimed swings and I had one piece of succulent papaya in hand. It tasted divine. The chicken now nicely trussed, we took leave.

If the road was bad till now, what lay ahead suddenly made our earlier journey seem like the smoothest highway in the world. The angles at which the land rover descended and climbed defied gravity and all sense of logic. Soon I was sweating not only for reasons of tropical heat. The vehicle was moving and the occupants along with our belongings moved like being inside a mixie. Somehow amidst all such bedlam, our lunch snored its way through. Perhaps it knew that this would be its last sleep of this life so enjoyed it fully. Not only hats off but full standing ovation to our driver Martin who got us finally atop a hill beneath an Acacia tree next to a dilapidated brick house where the cinema would be screened. Out came tents and our paraphernalia.

Being blown away while trying to grapple with the massive tent that could easily house a Samburu family, we were soon surrounded by kids and adult Samburu’s alike, all laughing at our futile efforts. We smiled back and sweated under the cheering crowd’s adulations. Finally lunch came around. The chicken when inside felt nothing like the bird I knew back in India, but food out here in this remote and hostile land was solely a means to survive so I forced the morsel down my throat. Lest I was offered the local delicacy of cow’s blood, freshly drawn and warm too.

Post lunch, Mwenja, our local guide Linda (a man, how I wish it wasn’t), Natalie and I went off for an adventure that involved nocturnal forays into such places where very few outsiders had ever gone before. What transpired thereafter would be covered in a separate post as it was a once in a life time experience for me under the watchful eyes of Mwenja. As for this post, I would recommence from the time we reunited with our driver Martin and local boy James, who had by the next morning had packed off all the movie gear back into the land rover and were ready to go.

Martin told us that they had started the screening right under the tree with the screen tied up to the vehicle and with only one spectator. But slowly others gathered around and finally it was a group of around 30, which going by the remoteness of the area and the reluctance of the Samburu people to come out in the open, wasn’t bad at all. So all said and done our trip seemed to have been fairly successful, more so since it was Born Free’s first trip here.

We drove out from the dirt road back on to the tarmac and headed once again up North. The road was under construction at many places and full of potholes, etc. We again left the tarmac (kind of) road at a point and making a curve headed for the distant hills. Under Martin’s sorcery at the wheel, ground disappeared beneath us like magic and we arrived at the very remote village of Ndoinya Wasin just as the sun was preparing to set behind the distant clouds. It seemed like a market day and many people were gathered around a house and some were carrying huge bags of grain and other household stuff away. Even before I could jump out of the cramped vehicle a little tiny kid simply wriggled through on to my lap and would refuse to budge thereafter. He sat on my lap sucking his thumb and openly laughing at me. His father (or whoever) carrying a nasty looking spear and machete stared at me with a look that I would prefer to forget as of now.

I had absolutely no idea what to do with the situation and even if it was one in reality. I tried to pet and cuddle the kid caked with mud and black as the belly of a hippo. He laughed and cuddled back but the father’s stare did not change its intensity. Eventually someone took the kid away and the village chief (dressed in military fatigue and carrying a very crooked looking Chinese Army gun) welcomed us with beer. Mwenja and gang swung into action while I swung out with my camera. Post the movie show, we were stacked inside a school room that had like a billion buffalo sized insects all over. We ate and slept under serious aerial threats. At night the moon came out in full glory and the sky looked brilliant and serene as ever. I counted about a dozen constellations and then went back inside the dark room to the accompaniment of Martin and James’ snoring and sought refuge under the sleeping bag.

Next day we did a bit of detour and pursued further north reaching the dirty little township of Merili (named after a dry river that runs by), which is predominantly Islamic in culture and belief. It was a typical shanty town that one would find all over Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt etc. We hadn’t much to do there and we just hung around like discarded packets of empty matchboxes. I observed the people around going around their daily chores, which wasn’t much in reality. No one seemed to be doing anything at all.

At a certain time, we turned South and headed for the township of Serio-Lipi where Born Free would be screening its final films for this trip. We put up in a ramshackle lodge that in the name of lodging offered us a small tiny room with one window, full of flies and vermin of all sorts. Surprisingly the fun-loving owner (what else he could be!) had named each room by the name of a city / nation without any logic whatsoever. So a room named Cairo was neighbored to Australia. While my destined room was named Chile (which was fine with me) sandwiched between New York and Beijing. I was astonished to be living in a boundary less world so deep inside the heart of Kenya’s Northern Wilderness.

Evening came and out came our juke boxes, screen, generator, etc and the village turned up in large numbers to justify this sojourn totally. There was absolutely nothing to eat there so we all slept off empty stomach, with perhaps bits and bites of a biscuit or dry bread. I was quickly learning that conservation community outreach efforts of Born Free had its ups and very low downs as well. It wasn’t an easy task they had embarked upon. And I was glad to be a part of this very special core group having the opportunity to see their work and ethos and drive from the inside.

The following morning, Mwenja and the entire team, I included were smiling our biggest smile for now we were headed home. While for me that wasn’t Nairobi yet completely true. That’s another adventure that would come as a separate post. For now I would like to conclude by saying that on our way back, we saw some spectacular sun rise across the Havana plains of Kenya, and when Mwenja dropped me at a pre-determined location for something specific I had in mind, nearly 250 km short of Nairobi, I just felt that in the last few days I had gained a dear friend and an experience to last a lifetime.

I could conclude with Hakuna Matata, but that wouldn’t mean a thing. So let’s say Jumbo Habari and Seinti.


  1. this post is the next best thing to be being there with u :-)
    the heading suits u well - wild and born free!

    thirsty for more, so fill me up! <3

  2. Thanks for this, truly detailed and helps readers understand the work conservationists are involved in. Wishing you well as you enjoy the Kenya and her people.

  3. Great pictures and u look as one of them only. Enjoy ur stay and we will enjoy reading ur posts...........

  4. Awesome pics Satyabrata

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