by Melissa Dice
Restless after a year in London, where I had been working perhaps somewhat misguidedly in fashion photography, I came to my senses and flew to Africa on a Raleigh International expedition. After 2 months spent taking groups up Mount Kenya and 1 month leading a conservation project up at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda I was determined to stay.
After the expedition I spent an extra few weeks up at Murchison Falls doing aerial photography and game-counting – and realising how much the animal population was decimated during the Amin era. It was still a wonderful experience to fly over the Falls where the whole force of the Nile is channelled through a 12 ft gap; seeing elephants bathing in the river below. There were also hundreds of black buffalo whose backs were superimposed with the white of cattle egrets (it’s a healthy symbiotic relationship – they feed off the ticks on the buffalo’s backs). As we flew over the buffalo stampeded dislodging all but the most tenacious egrets.
I then returned to Kenya and started work with RAE – the Rehabilitation of Arid Environments Charitable Trust in Baringo in Northern Kenya. Baringo District has become a semi-arid wasteland. This unproductive, eroded land can no longer support its diverse peoples and wildlife. RAE works with local communities to transform drylands into sustainable rangelands where livestock can graze. For over a decade RAE and the agropastoralists of the Rift Valley have developed land reclamation techniques and community–based strategies for the long-term management of drylands.
Working with the Tugen, Njemps and Pokot peoples, RAE has so far successfully reclaimed 4000 acres. Local people request RAE’s assistance with the rehabilitation of their denuded sites and contribute to all stages of the process. Communal and private wasteland is fenced, prepared with rain-fed water-harvesting systems and planted with indigenous, drought resistant trees and grasses.
RAE espouses the belief that the foremost resource of community development is the community itself. Income generating activities, such as rearing local sheep on reclaimed fields, enhances the community capacity to manage and utilise improved natural resources on a sustainable basis.
I was particularly involved with the sheep-rearing programme and I soon became practised at weighing, dipping, worming - even castrating sheep. Driving the sheep the 5 bone-shaking hours down to Nairobi in the back of a pickup was always an adventure while getting stuck in the mud with 20 sheep in the back was no joke.
One of the joys of living in Baringo was having a house on the edge of the lake. Starting each day with a swim at dawn was the way to wake up – especially with the knowledge that a bit further round the lake in shallower waters hippos wallowed and crocodiles lurked. Betty Roberts is the indomitable mother of 4 sons and 1 daughter whom she brought up single-handedly in the middle of the bush after her husband died tragically young. Her garden always has a few crocs basking in the sun and she has often been chased across the lawn by hippos in the evenings when they come out to graze. Her eldest son, Murray runs RAE with Dr Elizabeth Meyerhoff, a social anthropologist who, before marrying Murray, spent several years living with the Pokot, learning about their way of life.
As a child living in Kenya I always loved walking in the bush, never quite knowing what you would see or find. In Baringo, because of the denuded land, wildlife was quite scarce with the most common animals being ostrich and dik dik. However snakes are in abundance. Baringo is not a place to live if you dislike snakes. A puff adder delighted in exiling me from my loo that was down a path behind my house. A spitting cobra took up residence for a while under the steps into the office; deadlines sometimes suffered when we were refused entry by the deadly doorkeeper.
So – provided you’re not too freaked out by snakes – Baringo is a fascinating place and a positive example of local communities overcoming the harsh climate and developing sustainable livelihoods.
For more information please contact Melissa Dice at firstname.lastname@example.org