I remember the awe and inspiration I felt as a child being outside and experiencing nature through all of my senses. As a child, I thought the world was so big, time passed much more slowly and my interest in asking “why?” fueled me. I’d watch the way the leaves danced in the trees, curiously observing the ants as they paused in their lines to communicate with one another. Growing up in a place where the seasons changed, I felt them deeply and was able to appreciate the vivid colors and altering backdrops. I was fortunate enough to jump into lakes, canoe down rivers, traipse through forests, roll with ocean tides, hear crickets sing me to sleep and slip grains of sand through my fingers. Visiting Africa and meeting children across rural and urban landscapes, I realize how much opportunity I have had to enjoy our shared world.

Mathare is a neighborhood within Nairobi in Kenya. The streets are not paved, with stones and rubble littering the walkways. Wooden fruit stands are hammered in place, produce spilling out of buckets and onto tarps in the sidewalks. Chickens strut and peck at any measly piece of food they can identify, clucking loudly and fluttering haphazardly as cars drive by. The buildings are single story, made of brick or cement. Some don’t have windows, while others are small cut-outs with men hanging out of them, chewing on sugar cane and watching you as you drive past. Buildings are close together and fences are topped with wire or broken glass. Anyone entering unwelcomed does so at their own risk.

The school in this neighborhood provides pre-kindergarten up to eighth grade education. There are no more than five rooms that hold over 235 students. The desks are long benches, where three to five kids sit, elbows touching, sharing books and stuffing their backpacks underneath them. And all of the students wear uniforms. Their shoes may have holes in the soles, their sweaters torn at the shoulder, or pants handed down from older siblings. Still, they are here, wanting to learn.

One classroom holds grades 1 through 4, no walls dividing the classes, teachers are yelling over each other to gain the attention of their students as they become distracted or lethargic without breakfast. One teacher teaches two classes, assigning one group work while she teaches the other class new theories. There are those that are eager, raising their hands and penciling in answers in their notebooks. There is value in education, overcoming the challenges presented in their environment, so that they can succeed and go to university.

Spending time with the students, we ask them questions so that we can learn more about them. I engage, curious about their lives and what their thoughts are about wildlife. “What’s your favorite animal?” I get sighs, eye rolls, and some students who don’t want me to notice them so as not to be called upon. “Do you like animals?” The response is “yes” though they have reiterated the same with the four other questions I have asked them about liking school, their classes, their education and whether or not they want to go to college.

So I ask again, “What is your favorite animal?” Jokingly, a boy blurts out “chicken!” We laugh and I say I like chickens, too. Then it hits me. “Have you ever seen animals in the wild?” They look around and for the first time, they say “No.”

With wildlife so close, with animals within 100 miles of them, I find it quite incredible that these students haven’t even gone to Nairobi National Park or that their families haven’t taken them to see this natural beauty in their backyard. Understanding that families may not have the resources, one would figure that the school and the government would pay for them to experience these places. After all, eco-tourism is a main driver of revenue in the country and these children will be the ones taking care of it in the future.

But then, the question I have to ask myself gets larger: will they have anything to protect? They are learning English, math, social studies and Swahili. Are they learning biology and about Kenyan wildlife? How can we expect them to care about their landscapes and their animals when they struggle to get one filling meal a day? When they are sharing one room houses and beds with several family members, brothers and sisters? Why should they care about whether or not they are eating cow for dinner or if it is giraffe, so long as they are able to fill their hungry stomachs?

Westerners are thousands of miles away, seeing animals in zoos and in documentaries, and valuing their magnificence. It is easier for us to care about the extinction crisis when we aren’t battling for our livelihoods. We don’t have to deal with elephants raiding our family’s crops, finishing off an entire field that was meant to provide for six individuals for one year. We aren’t concerned with lions eating our cows, the sign of wealth and prosperity in rural regions.

Conservation cannot be separated from the communities in which these animals live. These lands must be able to provide resources for the wildlife and for the communities sharing the space. This means giving families an opportunity to work with and best utilize these landscapes to prosper, whether that is beehives and honey, sustainable farming, or working as rangers or in hospitality at the lodges. To take care of the landscapes and not deplete the resources, people who are living within these areas must also be taken care of. Their needs are also our needs: access to fresh drinking water, fresh foods, clothes and shoes to protect us from the elements, electricity and light, as well as a safe place to lay our heads at night. When we have these things in place, our worlds become larger. The childish wonder and curiosity can again be sparked. We want to ask questions, we want to see colors vividly, and we feel motivated to protect something bigger than ourselves. While it is important to value the elephant and contribute to projects that support the sustaining of the species, we must also look to the communities and the children, living with the elephants, and support projects that bolster their health, their education and their prosperity.

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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