What does a new place feel like? What are the smells, the sounds, the tastes and the sights? It seems hard to imagine and pictures don’t always do a place justice, but there is a magic that comes on each time we step off the plane and into an unfamiliar world.

Africa has always seemed like a foreign, colorful place filled with heat, sunshine, and possibility spread spanning to the horizon. Truth is, there’s really no place like it that I’ve ever been to. Upon landing in Kenya, I was greeted by friendly salutations of “Jambo!” and an explosion of colors in clothing, patterns, and artwork. Landscapes of the capital, Nairobi, reached up to scrape the sky. Savannah landscapes right off of the road, necks of giraffes reaching up higher than the acacia trees they feed on.

Karibu! Welcome to Kenya.

The city is filled with hustle and bustle – two lane highways with three rows of cars, honking and beeping at one another as street sellers come by with electric fly swatters, packages of peanuts, and lollipops. The motorbikes zip past, weaving in and out of traffic, dressed in leather jackets and scuffed yellow helmets hanging off of handle bars. Black exhaust pounds the pavement, windows rolled down as sweat begins to form on the brow in the mid-morning sun. Even with the traffic, the medians are willed with fluorescent pink and purple bougainvillea, roses that blossom even in the dryness of the afternoon heat.

Leaving the city, the expansion is vast. Tracking the sun across the sky, shoulders dancing as the car bumps and slips along the rocky roads leading into the parks and rural communities. Small boys walk down the road, shepherding their brahma cows and goats across roads and through hills, the sweltering heat settling in for the day. Bushes and trees sprinkled across the landscape, where they rest as animals graze for food. Looking into the sky, we all wish for refuge from the rains or at least the solace of a cloud blowing through to block the sun, if only just for a minute.

There is beauty in the people who you meet – there is a compassion, a giving, and a hopefulness that matches the colors of their clothing and adornments. Necklaces that are intricately beaded with reds, greens and whites, swinging from necks, arms and ears. Women wrap themselves in patterned yellows, blues, and greens, tied around their waists and then across the shoulders with a hump in the back as they walk to their destination. Sometimes the wrap is filled with items, sometimes with a small child. The kindness of the people in the community grows on you. There is a simplicity and a slowness that makes you question for what’s the rush? Where are you going so quickly and why? While time is precious, there is meaning in the moment.

And then you feel the wild: zebras striped down to the hooves, elephants gray in mud, giraffes designed in patterns and buffalo speaking in grunts and curiosities. The lions, tanned fur, blend into the grasses as they sway in the hot breeze. Panting a little as they search for a bush to rest awhile until the sun begins its descent and hunger sets in. Nature becomes very real in those moments – the mothers of babies protecting them from the road, chasing them off, guarding them with a maternal nudge and watch. Giraffes slowly chewing leaves of acacia trees, bent over in a bow as if greeting the visitors, staring with a slight cock of the head as they continue to munch away on the green leaves. The elephants slowly and quietly plod along the dried earth, moving towards the watering hold to carefully pluck grass from the shallows and wet their bodies, splashing in the waters and drinking in deeply. Slow blinks, slow breaths, grateful for the marshes that provide an oasis in an otherwise challenging landscape.

This is life. We tend to be so far removed from the natural world in our urban lifestyles. We live so separately from the wild so often, only entering into those landscapes when we have time to escape from our screens and modern industrialization. We are, in fact, just as much a part of nature as the animals around us. While we may not living with elephants in our backyard, unfortunately eating our food or gazelle prancing alongside us as we drive to work, it is there, we just have to notice it: the morning birds that chirp outside of our bedroom windows, the rabbits that scurry across the road, the coyotes that howl at the passing trains. While it may seem that wildlife and the planet go on without us, we affect it greatly and it can in turn, affect us, too. It can teach us the importance of slowing down and spending time just observing. Just being present. It can teach us about appreciating what we have and conserving what little is left.

Humans, as we’ve grown in population, have pushed further and further into these habitats and ecosystems. The summers are getting hotter and the winters colder. Dry seasons are extending longer than ever before and the rains flood areas with little infrastructure or capacity to hold it. In order to protect and conserve, we have to understand these places and respect the intricacies. Every life and every specie have a role and play a part in the ecosystem. The elephant creates watering holes for other animals and clears paths for smaller creatures to traverse. Monkeys break open fruits and drop remains on the ground for other creatures to consume. Vultures scavenge remains of old carcasses to support decomposition. Biodiversity, the checks and balances, is a part of nature and ensures that populations don’t get out of hand.

The one balance that has not been established in nature is the human population. Humans use resources at an alarming rate, taking away the space and landscapes necessary for other life to thrive. It is our responsibility to self-regulate by taking what we need more often than what we want, to find moderation, and to see ourselves as a part of the animal chain rather than above it. It is important to connect to nature and recognize how our actions affect the world around us. This includes deciding to cook at home rather than ordering in with the single use plastics and containers food is shipped in. It could mean buying from the bulk bins or fixing our clothes rather than throwing them away and purchasing something new. It can also mean choosing to eat less meat or making better decisions about buying meat from sustainable sources. Each action makes a difference in protecting our landscape and doing less damage.

This post is written by Elephant Cooperation’s Program Manager, Kaela Osten, as a reflection on her first to Africa.  The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual. 

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