Finding Community in Kenya

by Luke Chávez

Kilimanjaro Biodiversity Center, Kimana, Kenya. Image by Luke Chávez

Sun has given way to gray clouds as I peer over the roof of a Land Cruiser. What seems like endless herds of zebra and cape buffalo graze right in front of me, framed by the epic plains and acacia trees of Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. The other students in the car jump as thunder cracks. We are the last holdouts–the other students have all gone home, and fair enough–we’re already ten hours into the day’s game drive. 

An instant later, rain begins to pelt down around us. The raised roof of the jeep is no match for African downpours, and within seconds, we’re drenched. Everyone ducks back into the car, shutting the windows as I yank the roof down. The inside of the car is soaked, too. The herds, feet away only a moment ago, are now invisible, shrouded by the onslaught of rain. 

“Sawa?” our driver asks. “Twende!” we reply. We are by no means fluent in Swahili, but we communicate the basics (in this case, “ready? let’s go”). We pull away, getting stuck in the mud only a couple of times. By the time we manage to turn around and drive off, the sun is out again, leaving an epic cloud formation over the vast savannah. Such is the nature of Kenya, a country in which you can see the tallest mountain in Africa, the world’s largest mammals, and beautiful cultures all in the same day. 

Located a few hours south of Nairobi, Kimana is home to the Kilimanjaro Biodiversity Center, the main campus of the SFS Kenya: Endangered Species Conservation program. It is staffed exclusively by Kenyans, almost all of whom hail from the local Maasai community, excluding the main faculty. On campus, you can see vervets from the window of your bunk (or “banda” as it’s called here), or you can stare at Kilimanjaro while you brush your teeth in the morning. 

We take our meals and our classes in the main building (the “chumba”). There’s something powerful about sharing all your meals with your classmates and staff (everyone has come to love ugali–made from corn flour, it’s Kenya’s staple). We spend a lot of time in the gated campus, but this is broken up by near-daily trips into the field, whether it’s to speak with local communities or do game drives in Amboseli. 

Male lion in Maasai Mara National Reserve. Image by Luke Chávez

I came to Kenya to achieve my goal of photographing African wildlife, and it’s been everything I could have hoped for. It’s also been so much more. Coming from New York, living in a community like the one in Kimana has been an eye-opening experience. Everything I know about conservation has been challenged and changed. Community is central to just about everything we learn here in Kenya.

After a month of studying in Kimana, we set out on our month-long expedition. We camped on the epic landscapes of Maasai Mara and its lion families. We then moved north to the lush hills of the Mt. Kenya region, visiting the last two Northern White rhinos in Ol Pejeta.

Silverback gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Image by Luke Chávez

From there we flew to Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills. In Volcanoes National Park, I spent one life-altering hour face-to-face with mountain gorillas —they can’t survive in captivity and can therefore only be found in the mountains Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo. We then spent a week learning from the world’s leading gorilla researchers at the beautiful Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund campus. The trip to Rwanda gave me a much deeper and nuanced understanding of conservation in East Africa, providing new perspectives to complement and contrast what I’ve learned in Kenya. 

The final month of the program is dedicated to Directed Research–there are three projects proposed by faculty which students can work on. I’m sure that it will be a valuable and exciting experience to conduct real fieldwork which will be presented to and hopefully utilized by local conservationists. 

Kenya has afforded me life-changing wildlife viewings I would never have been able to have otherwise and has given me cultural connections other travelers don’t get to experience. It has been a privilege to see and learn about this incredible part of the world. I can’t wait to share my stories and photos with everyone when I get back to campus. Until then, kwaheri (goodbye)!