Into the heart of Africa

Eli Weiss

After six weeks of traveling through some of the most remote regions of Kenya and Tanzania, I arrived back home in the middle of the Aspen winter, both exhausted and exhilarated ” and heartened and heartbroken.

As the founder of the WildiZe Foundation, my twice-a-year trips to sub-Saharan Africa are focused on the conservation of wildlife and habitat ” as well as helping rural indigenous cultures with economic sustainability. Over the years, I’ve found the two missions to be inextricably linked; in order to protect wildlife, the first step is all about people.

On my last trip, my best guess is that we drove 3,000 miles. Perhaps the best way to explain these treks is to imagine emptying the Roaring Fork River, leaning it up against a hill and driving over it, all day, every day.

At times the landscapes are astoundingly stark, with constant wind and unrelenting heat. The rocks literally bake, and you can feel the heat coming off them in waves, from the earth below and the sun above. There is rarely any shade. The long drives are the only way to reach the rural tribes, the only way to create the one-on-one contact that we need to talk about complex problems and work toward solutions.

During my trips to Africa, the high points are truly wonderful, and when I return to Woody Creek those heartening experiences keep my energy up as I plan my next trip. To see a group of young men and women in Kenya using our grant funding to create a tree nursery that helps feed people, provide sustainable income and replace indigenous trees was just one of the many high points of my last trip.

But the lows can be devastating. To follow along on an antipoaching sweep in Tsavo National Park and see skinned animals hanging from trees was profoundly disturbing. And to see the bowed legs of children in Kenya who have been drinking contaminated water was heartbreaking.

I’m not sure whether it’s the heartening experiences or the heartbreaking sights that make me work harder, but since 2000 WildiZe has granted funds to 26 organizations in Africa, either to purchase equipment, operate programs or offer general support. My next trip is scheduled for the fall of 2004.

On my most recent trip we covered so much territory ” both on the ground and in our discussions at each stop ” that I kept a log that I occasionally e-mailed home to family and friends.

We went through so many different kinds of landscape yesterday, and since the rains have come to certain areas, so much was very green, unlike I’ve ever seen it before ” the goats, donkeys and sheep are looking healthy. But as we move farther and farther north, we see less and less wildlife, the heat grows more intense, and the environment more arid. But we did see gerenuk and the white-tailed mongoose, the meanest, baddest one of them all ” they eat cobras!! There were many white-bellied go-away birds, and evidently the Whalberg eagles were migrating ” we saw at least a hundred of them; huge birds, perched and flying and walking along the ground, like something out of a Hitchcock movie.

As we approached Mount Kulal, we were waiting for our first view of Lake Turkana, and, finally, sure enough, there it was. You would not believe this landscape: lava rock, big and black ” red earth, sand and heat, then the shimmering Jade Sea ” just stunning. The car was so hot we could have easily fried an egg on it. The sun was roasting us inside: It was too hot to sweat, we were simply desiccating in our seats.

We started seeing lots of camels and more goats and few sheep ” we were passing through what seemed a deserted landscape, and you wouldn’t believe anything could live there, and suddenly, literally, kids come running from every direction, hands held out, wanting “tamu, tamu” (sweets), and we gave away bananas while they lasted.

So we finally arrived in Loiyangalani (samburu for “place of many trees”) ” an oasis here in a land of black lava and golden sand, set against the backdrop of the lake. The winds never stop blowing, and they are hot winds …

When we pulled up to the Oasis Lodge, I called out to Santayo ” she looked at me like, “What muzungu (white person) is calling out my name?” She finally realized who it was, and we laughed and laughed. Then Nomerisho and Sabina ran up ” such a greeting I have hardly ever received. Just picture it: two little old ladies in their kangas (cloth clothing) and tons of beads around their necks, faces and head wraps, running up to see me with their arms outstretched and the biggest smiles I have ever seen … it was wonderful. Evidently no one knew I was coming, as no message had arrived, so it was a grand entrance. We met this morning with all the women, plus the other four groups we will be meeting with while here: El Mosaretu, Kifaru, the Jade Sea Men’s Group, El Molo Gurapau and the Health Clinic.

The El Molo Gurapau is a tribe with only about 300 surviving members; they live outside the village of Loiyangalani on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. After testing the lake’s water in August 2001 and February 2002, we found an extremely high fluoride content, along with heavy minerals and other pollutants. The water is not fit for human consumption, and the children’s legs are actually bowed because their bones are so soft from the fluoride.

With the help of our local interpreter, we spread the word about the polluted water and began organizing an effort to switch the tribe’s water supply from Lake Turkana to two nearby springs.

Next summer, we plan to return with a water filtration system ” about the size of a small vending machine ” making it possible for the tribe to purify the water from Lake Turkana and use the lake and streams as a safe and potable water source. In the meantime, the El Molo Gurapau is using a meeting house funded by WildiZe as a place to sell indigenous artwork made of fish bones, beads and palm leaves, and the semiprecious stones that occur naturally in the region.

Seeing everyone in Loiyangalani and checking up on the progress of our programs was quite an experience ” I must follow the protocol of saying hello to everyone and catching up on the news of what has happened since we last saw each other. They were all concerned because rumors had spread that because of the terrorists and the bombs in the U.S., I must certainly have perished, so you can imagine how glad they were to see me!

After the greetings, we discussed their accomplishments since my last visit and talked about present problems and future needs. Next there were some thank-yous to WildiZe for our concern, help and hearing them, followed by song and dance and a generally fun time. Then … shopping.

Shopping for curios supports the small tourist economy, but it’s also an art form ” one which I have gotten very good at since my first visit to an African tribal market, oh those many years ago! It requires a skilled eye, a shrewd countenance, political correctness and intense bargaining powers. Suffice it to say that you must purchase from all the “important” people in the group ” if you should happen to skip over their mat, whew, look out, it’s a serious breach of etiquette.

El Mosaretu have created a tourist camp and cultural center with our last grant, and when we arrived they had two mtali (tourists) staying there, which was great news. The tourist fees have enabled them to build more huts and sheds.

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In Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, located at an oasis amid the vast Chalbi desert, is the small community of Kalacha, where we work with a variety of groups. The Poverty Youth Action Group had made amazing progress. Members of the group are young men and women between the ages of 18 and 25.

There’s been a lot of work on the WildiZe-funded tree nursery, and the youth group has planted Nim trees (“the tree of 40 uses” ” medicinal trees that are known to help prevent malaria). They had also planted fast-growing trees that can be used for wood burning ” and seedlings for replacing many of the slow-growing indigenous trees that had been cut down for charcoal.

They had also planted papaya trees for food. So in addition to taking steps that help the environment, now the Kalacha Poverty Youth Action Group has a source of food and medicine, and the ability to sell seedlings to other groups, which will be an ongoing economic benefit.

The next WildiZe project in Kalacha is to raise funding for a well and pump to provide water for the tree nursery and to bring forestry experts to the village for further education.

When we pulled into Kalacha, it was a great welcome home. I saw all my friends as we drove down through “town” (a collection of palm thatch or mud daub huts and cement buildings). We caught up quickly on all the news and headed to the bandas (rooms) for pumzika (relaxation). Kula and Alex sent over kuku (chicken) and mboga (veggies) for us to eat later.

As of tomorrow, we’ll begin meetings with four other groups and distribute the school textbooks to the Kalacha Nomadic Girls School, donated by the Glenwood Springs Rotary Club.

The days talking with the program groups are highly energetic, completely fulfilling and totally exhausting. Just the constant noise of so many people talking at one time in two or three different languages tires me out.

It is cool and quiet here in the main banda; the camels are settled down for the late day, and the sun is lowering in the sky. The winds are blowing through the murara (palms), and they sound like waves.

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When we arrived in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southern Kenya, we met with local team leaders of the A.K. Taylor Fund to focus on a joint antipoaching effort in the reserve, which is owned and run by Maasai councils.

The Maasai rely on funds generated by tourists, as well as concessionaires who operate outside the reserve, which is populated with the full range of African wildlife ” both predators and prey species such as zebra, wildebeest, elephants, lions and leopards.

The antipoaching campaign is focused on building strong lines of communication with the Maasai people, so the local Maasai will inform antipoaching teams when poachers are in the area and where snares are located.

The Maasai are extremely friendly and amenable to other people, and, unfortunately, that includes poachers. The pastoral Maasai raise cattle and generally don’t eat or kill wildlife, so they don’t always realize that poachers who kill the wildlife or cut trees are damaging the overall livelihood of the reserve and its buffer zones.

In the afternoon, the A.K. Taylor Fund Antipoaching/Desnaring Team leaders arrived from Nairobi. The eight-man teams are accompanied by two armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, and they walk the transects of the Trans Mara and other boundary areas looking for poachers’ camps and snares, and working on community relations ” getting information from locals about newcomers in the area, known poachers, snare settings and the bush-meat trade for two weeks at a time. During this time, the teams camp out near one of the gates to the reserve, leaving early in the mornings for the transect walks ” and in the afternoons they go to various villages. The next morning we walked with them.

It was quite an experience walking the trails, peering into bushes for snares, watching your footing for spring traps or spike holes. All the while knowing at any time we could meet up with a dangerous lion, elephant or buffalo! We learned just how the poachers go about setting their snares and traps, where and why ” it’s a very clever and vile operation.

As part of our joint education campaign, we showed a film produced by one of WildiZe’s grantees, the African Environmental Film Foundation , titled “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” We showed the film nine times in five days to more than 500 Maasai ” no easy task in a region with no electricity.

In one village, we parked the car outside a mud block building and ran an electrical cord from the car battery through the passenger window and into the computer, which was set up on a rickety wooden school desk, with 100 Maasai crowded around it. In four of the villages we visited, the people had never seen a computer or a film. Many of the council and community elders were watching, and before each showing we began with the question: “Do you want your elephants and wildlife dead or alive?” By the end of each showing, the answer was overwhelmingly, “Alive!!” Now they just need some additional assistance to make the antipoaching benefits a reality.

I said tutaonana tena (see you again) to the Antipoaching/Desnaring Team last night around 11 and proceeded to gather and begin packing gear to head out this morning for a final day-long game drive through Olooloolo area and over to Sekanani Gate, then back to Nairobi. We saw three lions lying by the road, two males and a female ” the younger male evidently was the one in charge and was mating with the female. We got some video of growls, hisses and flashing teeth. Every time he’d lie down for a rest, she was up and demanding of him. We stayed for about an hour. We mostly saw antelope, and the rains move across the Eluai Plains and over the escarpments. We later got caught in a dust storm that was pushed forward by the winds and rain coming across the Paradise Plains.

The efforts of WildiZe are not confined solely to rural areas.

In Nairobi, WildiZe supports the work of Patrick Gacara, a Kikuyu who coaches the All Souls Football Teams, which are made up of orphans and children living in the street. This time, we provided shoes and medical kits.

WildiZe has now outfitted the All Souls Football Teams ” the girls team (ages 12-15) with shoes. They can now compete with confidence in the “away” games, which means the world to them. They always win ” and now they have shoes.

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The WildiZe Foundation can be reached by mail at P.O. Box 3078, Aspen, CO, 81612; by phone at 970-923-1795; toll-free at 877-351-4507; by fax at 970-923-1695; and by e-mail at For in-depth information, visit