Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net
It was an opening day that resembled no other, with no official opening ceremony. Session one, day one, saw field visits for all science journalism practitioners who had gathered in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru in Kenya.
After a hurried breakfast, everybody boarded the buses to their pre-selected destinations. These included visits to HIV/AIDS community projects, Kenya Agriculture Research Institute projects in the region, and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate labs.
For me, none of these were particularly exciting. Instead, I chose to tour the Mau forest, the biggest and most critical ‘natural water tower’ in the East Africa region, which stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out during the dry months. I wanted to hear and see how a community of less than three thousand people had battled with the Kenyan government to restore this vital part of their ecosystem. As one of Africa’s smallest communities, they were determined to conserve this water tower using traditional knowledge.
So after no less than 50 miles, mostly along rough roads, we reached Marioshoni village where the Ogiek community lives. In contrast to their traditional roles as hunter-gatherers, they now lead a modern, unhappy life as farmers. 65-year-old Kipkinie Morish told us how their food, medicine and livelihoods depend on the honey, bark and roots from the forest.
For years, the Kenyan government plundered the Mau forest, ejecting villagers from their homes. They shared out over 26,000 hectares of land, not only to the Ogiek people but also to already wealthy, greedy local leaders. As one of the biggest water catchments in the country, this had devastating effects on rainfall patterns, causing the forest to dry up and plantations to fail. In 1996, this community attempted to sue the government, and since then have taken their grievances to every other international conservation forum.
Their wish is that the forest land be returned to them, so that they can abandon farming and let the vegetation grow back. For a community so poor in material terms and so far removed from ‘civilisation’, only their traditional way of life will save them from extinction.
As we learnt from elder Morish, this indigenous knowledge could save his beloved Marioshoni village from frequent dry spells and restore rainfall levels to those from his childhood in the 1960s.
The Africa Science Journalists Conference (ASJC) “officially” begins later tonight.
This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.