by Mark Downey -- August 25th, 2014
The dark green Suzuki that everyone refers to as ‘hedgehog car’ quivers to a stop on the grass beside the Pastor’s house. The Maasai in the car, Ken, steps out into the sunshine and strolls casually over to the brightly clad figures reclining under the shade a nearby tree. The rest of us, who are not Maasai, sit patiently in the car and watch as Ken exchanges the requisite pleasantries with his tribesmen and effectively asks permission for us to enter the compound.
This particular settlement happens to be an un-walled collection of mud huts with thatched roofs, I note as we wait. Peeking out from behind one of the buildings are children, and I can’t decide if they’re interested, scared, or upset at the sight of strangers. When I look back, Ken is returning, walking alongside the beaming pastor. They beckon the team to exit the car.
There are three more of us crammed into the hedgehog car, with boxes of tools and nails and water and a spare tire. It’s not quite a clown car situation, but it’s close. Once we unfold ourselves from the vehicle, we shake hands with the Pastor as if we are old friends reunited after years apart. The kids, I notice, have sneaked much closer and are certainly interested, if shy. One wave from me and they scatter giggling, and disappear.
The Pastor takes us over to the boma where he keeps his goats. It’s the main focus of our visit: a circular palisade about fifteen feet in diameter with a thatched roof. The wall posts are mostly strong, and the wire the Pastor had gotten from the Anne K. Taylor Fund back in 2009 is in good shape though suspended on trembling, rotten poles that lean wildly in the breeze. He says about one hundred goats live there, but at the moment they’re all out grazing. This is mostly true: when we open the door to take a look inside, three lambs — only days old — tumble out as if they’d been leaning on the door and very comically skitter away on wobbly legs.
All in all, not the worst boma I’ve seen out here. Especially considering its age and the fact that those early years of AKTF boma fortifications used a triage approach: getting as much chain-link out there as possible to stop herders’ devastating revenge on predators that ate livestock, without the luxury of time to oversee the fences’ proper installation. With recently renewed support through National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative, the goal now is to revisit all of those early bomas and do what we can to keep them functioning as wildlife-saving structures.
Here it makes sense to mention that the other two people we’ve brought are Kenyan carpenters AKTF employs to handle the repairs of old bomas and the construction of new ones. After our quick tour of the situation, they head back to the hedgehog car for their tools. The plan is to take down the wire and replace the weak posts with fresh, thick posts; this means digging a lot of post holes, trenching a foot deep to prevent honey badgers from scrabbling under the wire, and finally securing the wire to the structure. A good half-day’s work.
As the carpenters and I tear down the wire, the Pastor and his wife haul ten-foot posts from the other side of the compound and lay them around the boma. Ken sips tea with the resident old men, talking about the weather, the cows, the local gossip, and here and there collecting the crucial pieces of data we need in order to demonstrate that these bomas are in fact alleviating pressure on predator populations.
The work goes sweaty but smoothly, only occasionally interrupted by tea breaks and rough sections of trenching through the bedrock’s decomposing, metamorphic crust. Once the posts have been tamped in, the wire is strung and pulled and nailed securely in place, its bottom buried in the trench. The final step is patching the door. As anyone who has studied castles knows, the most vulnerable element of a fortification is the entrance – which means that it must also be the strongest element. This boma is a goat castle, and to secure its entrance, the carpenters completely retool the door. They take it down off its hinges, replace the doorframe, add fresh planks, and craft a more solid locking mechanism. Not to mention sinking giant rocks beneath the bottom of the door like an anti-welcome mat for the digging claws of honey badgers and hyenas.
We finish by lunchtime. Normally, we would have prepared our own ugali, but the pastor’s wife insists on cooking for us. She even adds some veggies on top of the thick cornmeal porridge. There is also, of course, tea. After the meal, we spend a few minutes helping the family fix another door that was giving them problems, and then load our gear up into the hedgehog car and head off to the next boma.