Photo by Becky Timbers
OUR CLASSROOM FOR the day was the summit of a rocky foothill near Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our chairs were small round boulders and our desks were our own sunburned thighs.
We sat side by side, knee to knee, listening to our professor speak about conservation issues in Kenya and how modern technology and an increasing human population is negatively impacting wildlife by consuming their natural habitats.
A year and a half later, I can’t remember the specifics of the lecture or even which teacher was addressing us, but I can still see, as if it were yesterday, the stark, dry expanse of Kenyan soil as it stretched out to the horizon, united with the sloping wings of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Maasai Tribesmen and Marauding Elephants
I was a junior in college, studying abroad in Kenya through the School for Field Studies, an organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and the environment, and a proponent of working with locals to improve health, education, human rights and land management.
Our base camp was located just outside Amboseli National Park in the southern part of Kenya. Stepping out of our bandas in the morning, we were met with a radiant vista of Kilimanjaro topped with fresh snow. After breakfast, class was held in the open-air classroom.
After lunch we would put the classroom information to practical use by visiting the national parks or surrounding areas and finding examples of the issues we had previously discussed.
We examined the trunks and limbs of trees to assess the amount of damage done by marauding elephants, whose home ranges have been steadily decreasing due to privatization of land.
We visited the homes of countless Maasai tribesmen and asked them how the national parks have impacted their pastoral and nomadic lifestyles.
We counted the species of birds we saw in a day, the number of elephants in a herd and the number of gazelles in the park. We went on two two-week expeditions into the rugged interiors of lion country, where guards with loaded guns surrounded our circle of tents just in case a roaming pair of felines got curious and wanted a midnight snack.
To become more involved in the community, we taught English at a local school and helped pick up trash in a nearby town. The askari’s, or guards, at our base camp were all from the area and we employed local guides to help us with surveys and studies.
A First-Hand Perspective
As our society is propelled into international crises and environmental degradation, I believe it is vital for young scholars to take a year, or even a semester, to learn about the problems and dilemmas people and wildlife are facing throughout the world.
More often than not, university-taught classes do not generate the same profound effect that study abroad in a foreign country can instill. The emotion gained by ladling soup into a dented tin can for a malnourished child, or seeing a gazelle tangled up in the metal coils of a snare cannot be taught through lectures or pictures in a textbook.
The School for Field Studies Kenya Semester Program allowed me to immerse myself into the rich culture and diversity of East African heritage. Although strict and exasperating at times (they attribute their prudery to safety and liability issues), the Program was an amazing experience that I would recommend to any student wishing to throw themselves into a fascinating culture while learning about and helping to address conservation issues.
I not only met other students interested in similar ideas and concepts, but I also made lasting friendships with Kenyan natives and I gained a greater appreciation for East African culture.
New Matador member Robin Spanner felt the most immersed in a foreign culture when he was living in Kasigau in southern Kenya: “We lived on the highest point of the village on the side of a mountain!”