Nicholas School Internship Blogs

A Real “Bush” Day
by -- June 14th, 2011

Nothing like off-roading through the bush with a car full of Maasai elders…

On Friday, we spent approximately 9 hours in a LandRover, filled with 12 people, off-roading through the bush.  ‘Why,’ you may ask – there is a boundary dispute between our village (Loibor Siret) and a neighboring village (Narakauwo).  Sam and I had access to a government-issued district map, and we used this to create a map of the ward (Loibor Siret and its 2 closest neighboring villages) based on ‘beacons’ with GPS points.  The goal of this exercise was to ground-truth Loibor Siret’s beacons with village elders and GPS units to determine where, in fact, the boundary is located.  The first thing I learned – GIS is actually a handy and applicable tool (something we are told but can be skeptical of).  The second thing I learned – LandRovers are indestructible.

To introduce you to the team, the car held Buddy, myself, Sam, our 4 village game scouts, and 5 Maasai elders.  The first beacon we went to was easily accessible by road.  Interestingly, the GPS point and traditional boundary were not quite in the same place.  The next beacon was nowhere near as easy.  We started off on an elephant trail, which is quite wide but definitely involved a fair amount of flinging oneself into the middle of the car to avoid branches and thorns. [The trees here are the angriest trees I have ever seen.  They are absolutely covered in thorns, but, I suppose, in a dry landscape full of megaherbivores, all a plant can do is hunker down and spike up].

While I later learned that there was an easy road we could have taken, Buddy and the elders were interested in trying some old roads.  Three hours, one tire, and countless thorns later, we ended up on said road…only about 20 minutes away from where we wanted to go.  Off-roading was definitely an awesome experience, though.  The elder sitting behind me was like my Maasai guardian angel – every time we neared a bush, he would put his arm out to protect me from thorns (he even found me a nice piece of grass to tie my hair up with when my hair tie broke!).  Once we reached the second beacon, it was on the top of a large hill, and the view from the top was spectacular.  Unfortunately, again, the government beacon and the traditional boundary were not quite in the same place.  This is definitely an issue we will have to look in to more.

On the way back, we stopped at a baobab tree, and some of our Maasai team threw sticks at the tree to knock down baobab fruits.  They fruits are quite large and light, and, when you break them open, they have black seeds coated in a chalky substance.  To eat them, you put a seed in your mouth, suck off all the chalky stuff (which is quite sour), and then spit out the seed.  They were REALLY tasty (though this may have also been a product of extreme hunger).  The sun soon went down and we had to navigate back by our parking lights and the moon – a pretty impressive feat in itself.

We sit only about 4 degrees south of the equator here, which makes for an incredibly interesting night sky.  We can see the Southern Cross, which is a Southern hemisphere constellation that helps one to navigate South (‘msalaba wa kusini’ in Kiswahili!).  Additionally, we can see the Big Dipper, a Northern hemisphere constellation.  Apparently, at some points of the year, you can also see Orion’s Belt here.  For those who know me know that I love star gazing, and the Southern Cross is my favorite constellation, so such as discovery totally made my day!

This post barely does the day justice – it was a LONG, but incredible day.  It was also the most amazing cultural experience I have ever had.  In the beginning, the elders were pretty skeptical of my GIS maps and our GPS units, but by the end, they were holding a GPS while we were driving and watching when we went in and out of their village boundary.  They know exactly where their boundaries and landmarks are in a 3-D world, but, for many, this was the first time they saw a 2-D representation of their land.  Seeing the light bulbs go on as they realized the mountain they see every day was a bump on the map (for example) was soooo cool!  We are going to go out with them again soon to visit the remaining beacons and to walk the conflict boundary between the villages – can’t wait!

2 Comments

  1. Sharon Benjamin
    Jun 14, 2011

    Emily, I’m so glad to hear all your hours in the lab are finally paying off in the field. And your writing is fun to read – your comment on the angriest trees had me laughing out loud. But my favorite part of this post, and your previous posts, is about getting to know the Maasai, and them getting to know you. I’ve read a little bit about creating GIS databases using local ecological and area knowledge, and it’s great to read about your Maasai contacts getting to see a GIS version of what they already know. Keep on writing please!

  2. Tawnee
    Jun 16, 2011

    Sounds like an AWESOME experience! It’s really satisfying to know that your labors to learn the theory and classroom applicability of a concept like GPS can actually make a different in the real world, too. Working with indigenous people, learning some of their knowledge, and sharing with them some of yours is what makes the experiences you’re having even more special! So glad you’re getting to have them.

    And I’m so JEALOUS you get to experience such a wonderful night sky! From one constellation admirer to another, I hope you soak it up for all it’s worth (it sounds like you are!).

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