Culture shock is usually used to convey a negative comparison that a person feels when plunked into a social milieu much different than his or her own. And it usually smacks of ethnocentrism: “mine is much better than this…..”
There certainly were some “shocking” things for me when I got to Matangwe – drinking water and lousy, terrible roads stand out. But….there were so many positive, wonderful actually, things that made me more than a little ashamed of the culture I had just come from. In Matangwe the kids actually talk to each other, and share (no matter how little they have) and play with each other (all the time – and without adult organization or supervision…can you believe it!?) and help each other and work hard and show respect for the older folks in their community. There was none of the social isolation that we see in the western world with kids glued to an electronic device, unaware of everything around them….even their “friends”. And for some strange reason we label this as “advanced”. You know, sometimes I just don’t get it.
And Kenyan kids really know their environment – they’re integrally involved in it every day. They’re not buffered from the weather or animals or insects or birds. This became VERY evident quickly – on my second day I had a group of kids out in a field teaching them how to use binoculars. One raced off and returned shortly thereafter holding a female weaver – he had caught it with a small snare. Interestingly, he carried it, naturally, in the “bander’s grip”. So it was no surprise to me that these kids were excellent right from the beginning at extracting birds from the nets. They weren’t afraid of the birds at all (even the biiters) and knew almost intuitively what side of the net the bird had gone in on and how to clear it of the strands easily. Here I find that many kids are afraid of the birds and if one should get a little nip well forget it……avoidance, maybe even tears…sometimes copious tears. So I avoid teaching extracting to students at Ruthven generally and, when I do, only to those that I feel have real promise. And that’s not many – they’re just too tentative around anything wild. That’s sad….and shocking.
My prime “project” in Matangwe was to teach the students about their birds. I had a couple of reasons for doing this: general appreciation of their wildlife; awareness of the region’s various habitats and how they relate to bird populations; identification skills for their own injoyment but also for possible future work as tourist guides and/or field assistants; use of nets and traps for banding with a view to the possible establishment of a banding program for research into African birds and for the development of an eco-tourism destination (this would be a long-term goal).
But before any of this could happen, I had to teach them how to use a field guide and binoculars. The guide is daunting: 124 colour plates and 250+ pages of texts for 1080 species!! The first thing I did was help them break these down to the 360 or so species that the maps showed as living in their immediate area. And we generated a checklist of these species (which you can access for a small fee $3.00 + shipping from Kenn Otieno – firstname.lastname@example.org; all proceeds will go to support the Matangwe Bird Club).
Next I taught them how to use binoculars. This was a wondrous event….for them but especially for me. No one there, student OR ADULT, had ever used a pair of binoculars!!!! It was like being present after an operation that allowed a blind person to see. Truly wondrous. And all of you folks and clubs and land trusts (and of course Roger at Camtech) that made this financially possible should feel just wonderful about it – I’m just sorry you couldn’t have been there to see it. Even knowing what end to look through had to be taught. And focusing…..that was tough….but very helpful in the long run.
And then of course, we had to put the two skills together: field guide coupled with binoculars. Now the classes are big (e.g., 60 students in grade 6) so they had to work in 12 small groups (corresponding to the number of guide books). And here’s where their upbringing – knowing how to interact positively and helpfully with each other – was a real advantage.
And remember: up until this point, birds were primarily thought of as a food source. To highlight this, there are over 30 species of Weavers at least 10 of which occur in their area. But they had just one name for them: Osogos. Not Jackson’s Golden-backed Weaver or Yellow-backed Weaver or Spectacled Weaver or Black-headed Weaver….just Osogo. Sort of like beef rather than Angus or Hereford or Holstein or Ayrshire. Once they “got” the concept of species they were away to the races….but that took awhile.
The one activity that jump-started this process was banding. It’s so much easier to work through an identification, pointing out discriminating field marks, when the bird is in the hand rather than fumbling with the focus dial while your teammates hurriedly leaf through the field guide. And they were like kids anywhere: holding a bird is a wonderful thing. And the interest and joy in their faces was palpable.
The students did a great job clearing net lanes. Many of the boys carry machetes or pangas just as a matter of course and they are experts at wielding them (as are many of the girls). They were great at extraction and completely unafraid. And they were very very keen to learn how to band. They watched and listened intently and then fought over each other to have the next turn or to scribe or to release a bird. Their excitement was energizing – and I recognized that I had become somewhat jaded with the North American experience (except for a few exceptional individuals).
Of course it is one thing to initiate a “program” and an altogether different thing to keep it going. I needed to find an adult, preferably two, who not only were interested but would make an investment in developing the project. In this I was very lucky. Two teachers, Kenn Otieno (vice principal) and Bernard Omondi (grade 3), put themselves forward. They came up with some great ideas – starting a “bird club” and developing a small reforestation project that would be “bird friendly”. Before I left, the first bird club outing, on a Saturday, took place (involving 20 kids) and a compound for growing trees and shrubs that would be moved for replanting in identified sites had been built (complete with barbed wire and wire mesh fencing to exclude goats).
Also important, especially if one wanted to promote eco-tourism for the whole area, was that the population, people of all ages, got on board. I was concerned about how I would get the word out. As it turned out my concern was completely unwarranted. Not much goes on in Matangwe that doesn’t quickly become public knowledge. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had inadvertantly set up my nets and banding kit next to a major pathway. So people started to become aware of what I was doing. At first, they were almost afraid or, at least, healthily skeptical – walking by quickly with a sideways glimpse. But then the word got out (I’m sure from their children at school) about what I was doing. Then I got people slowing down to take a look; and then stop and ask questions; and then hold a bird (and getting their picture taken with one was magic!); and then let me know that a bird was in the net. After a couple of weeks I had 3 guys that were plowing a field – guys I had never seen before – ask how many birds I had caught today. And then a mother who lives a kilometre from the banding site made a point of finding me to tell me she had seena bird with a band on it around her shamba. This was progress!
A big problem for Kenya is the lack of employment, especially for young males. Before too long some of these young men, boda boda (motorbike/taxi) drivers and guys waiting to go to high school and college (trying to accrue enough money to pay their way) began to show up. I was a little nervous at first but when they became readily involved this dissipated and I found them to be just as eager to learn as the public school students…and just as helpful.
So….it’s off to a good start. A very good start. (In this regard I have to thank Titus Imboma at the National Museum in Nairobi and Colin Jackson of a Rocha Kenya for facilitating the banding element). I am going to go back next year, for a longer period. The bird study potential is huge, I just scratched the surface. But in terms of this project – improving the lives of the local people, providing jobs, an influx of revenue…..wouldn’t it be nice if folks that visit the Ruthven banding program decided to spend a week, maybe even two, banding in Matangwe and travelling around to bird other local hot spots? Now that would make a difference. My job as I see it is to pave the way….and it’s well under way.