Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Interview with Kenyan Wildlife Service Educator Carol Mwebia

While at Lake Nakuru National Park I had the opportunity to ask Carol Mwebia, education director for the park, a few questions. My hope is that this interview can be used to spark learning for students at home and around the world.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Remembrance Day - Student Questions Answered

When our students at Wallenpaupack heard that I was going to have a full-day stopover in Amsterdam on my way to Kenya, and that it would be Remembrance Day, they had questions.  After reading a few articles on the holiday, they brainstormed a list of questions that they wanted answered.

Thanks to my Dutch friend Marjolein Hoekstra, we were able to help them learn the answers to those questions.  Prior to my stopover, Marjolein put together a OneNote notebook for the students with answers and reference material. The hope is that the students will now continue to expand this resource with new questions and answers so that it can become more comprehensive and be used as a learning tool for students around the world who are looking for this information.

In addition, Marjolein met me during my stopover to show me around the city and to record a short interview with me in which many of the students' questions were answered.  You can see that interview below.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 11 - Kwaheri, Kenya

I'm through secuturity at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport waiting for my flight to Paris that will connect with my flight to New York. I had thought that my last day was going to be relaxing and quiet, but like every other day on this trip, it was filled with pretty special moments.

We started by waking at 5:30, taking tea early, packing the van, and heading out on a game drive at 6:30.  The plan was to see as many animals as we could on the way out of the park while the morning light made for good pictures, and then hit the road for Nairobi.  Since it's only about a 2 1/2 hour drive, I had figured that we'd be in Nairobi by 10 or so.  Silly.  I should have learned by now that everything in Kenya takes at least twice as long as you anticipate. Pole Pole.

The game drive was amazing. We saw a few hyenas with a freshly killed ostrich carcass, and a baby rhino that was literally hours old.  We could still see the afterbirth hanging from the mother. A big gross, but very, very cool.  We saw lots of baboons, buffalo, zebra, and giraffes as well.  We didn't have any luck finding a leapard.

We passed out of the park gates around 8:30 and headed back to Nairobi.  About an hour into the drive, we stopped for a car wash since the van was filthy from driving on the paths in the park. Kenyan car washes are different than American car washes.  The car still ends up clean, but it's done by hand by guys with rags, and it took about 45 minutes.  We grabbed a quick snack and more tea before getting back on the road.

Jackson told me that he needed to stop to pick up potatoes for the Havilla school at a market on the way. When we stopped, we were immediately surrounded by a dozen or more vendors shaking their produce at us and banging on the windows. It took Jackson a while to figure out who had the best potatoes at the best price with everyone surrounding him like vultures. This is how it's done in Kenya. He, Livingstone, and I discussed the differences in the American produce purchasing experience when we got on the road 25 minutes later.

At the Great Rift Valley overlook we stopped for 2 minutes for a picture.  There were also a few souvineer shops there.  20 minutes later I was back on the road a few hundred Shillings lighter and loaded with some wood carvings I'm sure I don't need. The Shillings won't do much much more good than a zebra letter opener back home, so no harm done. Jackson got a free soda out of the deal for being the driver who stopped there while the Mzungu spent some money.

We hit a little traffic, and we finally go to the Cheery school around 1PM. When I walked into the school grounds, I was greeted with shouts of "Teacher Mike!" once again, and a few kids came running up to hug me.  That's a little humbling. I chatted with Director Jairus for a few minutes about ways we can continue our partnership in the future, and how the work I've done here over the past few weeks can be leveraged to help these children have the opportunity to overcome the abject poverty in which they are living.

After our chat, the older classes performed a few songs for me, and made me tear up by presenting me with Kenyan bracelets for my wife, my children, and me. I have mine on right now. It is a special memento of the time I had with these children.  Two students also wrote me letters of thanks that I will hold on to and cherish.

When it was time for me to leave, six or seven students held my hands, arms, shorts, and shirt as I walked down the rubbish, mud, and waste filled path to the van.  They didn't want to let me leave.  When I got in the van, several of them climbed into the back.  They wanted to come with me. It pained me to have to make them get out. With a sad heart, we drove away as I waved and blew them kisses.

From there, we drove to Havilla. I stopped into the classes I had worked with and asked them what they had learned this week.  They were also very happy to see me and to show off thier new knowledge.  The first graders told me about the English weather words they had learned in English class, and the second graders showed me the addition they were working on.  Before leaving, the school also sang me a song, the second grade performed a poem about the importance of education, and Head Teacher Domitilla presented me with a traditional Kenyan shirt.

When I left Havilla at 3PM I figured that I had a few hours to charge my electronics, take a shower, and relax before heading to the airport for my 11PM flight.  I chatted with Tracy and Ross from NGGE to catch up on the happenings of the week, and around 5PM I went on what was supposed to be a short walk with Ross.  He took me to an appartment building a few blocks away that overlooked the Kibera Slum, and then to a garden on the edge of the Slum.

At the garden we met Peter, a Kibera resident who is empowering the youth of the slum by teaching them gardening, catfish raising, and other trades.  With the products they sell, young Kiberans are able to make some money while learning important skills and improving the community. We chatted for as long as I could, and then he walked back with Ross and I to Barnabas's house telling us about his passions. He agreed to connect with our students back home to tell them about his work via Skype, and I told him that I would have Livingstone connect with him to show him how to offer learning sessions through Skype in the Classroom.  He is the kind of passionate do-gooder that is perfect for inspiring youth to get involved in service projects.

At 7, I said my goodbyes and loaded into the van with Jackson to head to the airport.  We picked up Livingstone on the way (he had walked home to shower earlier), and set off.  Of course, we hit a traffic jam, and the ride that should have taken 30 minutes took 90. The traffic lights in town were turned off, at every intersection there was gridlock, and there were a few cars stopped in the road. Kenya.

And so now, with both great sadness at leaving and great anticipation at seeing my family, I wait for my plane.  In typical Kenyan fashion, it took forever to get to my gate.  I had to pass through 4 security checkpoints where I my bags were either checked by hand or scanned though a machine.  I'm very sure this is going to be a safe flight.

I'll try and get some sleep on the plane to Paris.  Over the next few days and weeks, I'll be posting some of the many (60+) videos I took during the trip as they get uploaded.

Kwaheri, Kenya.  I leave a little piece of my heart with you and take much more than souvineers with me as I leave.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 10 - Distance Learning in Lake Nakuru NP

We woke up at 5:30 in order to get in a sunrise game drive.  We took tea and breakfast as the sun was coming up through the mist on the front porch.

Although many of the animals in the park are the same as those found in Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru National Park is a very different experience. The scenery and vegitation are different, so there are many more trees and bushes in which animals can hide.  We saw lots of giraffe, buffalo, zebra, and different deer during the drive.  We also saw the flamingoes for which the park is famous, many baboons with their newborn babies, a lion who had just killed a buffalo and was going back to alert her pride, and hyenas feasting on an animal carcass in a water hole.

Our Safari Van

Jackson Kanga, our driver, tour guide, and all-around good guy

Look, a lake!

The game drive ended at the park office where we met Milka, a Kenyan Wildlife Service employee who had helped us set up our stay at the Naishi Guest House, and also arranged for someone to give a recorded interview for students around the world about the park.  She introduced us to Carolyne, the park's education director, who drove with us down to the shore of the lake for the interview.

Using the GoPro camera, we recorded a great interview where Carolyne described the park's animals, the challenges faced by the park such as invasive species of plants and poaching, and how children around the world can get involved in conservation efforts.  I will post that interview on YouTube when I get home and have better upload speeds.

After the interview, we drove into the town of Nakuru to get supplies for dinner. Jackson and the two Livingstones told me that they wanted to get chicken for dinner. We picked up Groundskeeper Livingstone's friend in town and she and Teacher Livingstone went off to purchase chicken from a local market while Jackson, Groundskeeper Livingstone and I went to the supermarket for a few other things.  While we waited for them to return, we also went into a local shop and I picked up a few souvineers to bring home.


When I finished, we all piled back into the car in search of a quick lunch.  While driving to a place that sold chips (French Fries), I heard a clucking noise coming from under my seat which nearly made me jump out of the window because it was so unexpected.  Apparently, we bought a live chicken that Groundskeeper Livingstone was going to slaughter for dinner. I guess you can't get any fresher than that.

After a quick lunch back at the house, we set off for a second game drive equipped with equipment to connect with students in multiple locations around the world.  First, we found a nice location with many buffalo in the background to do a Google Hangout with multiple schools that got recorded directly to YouTube.  You can see that recording at the end of this post. The Cheery Children's Education Centre from the Kibera Slum, some students from my hometown in Pennsylvania, Beth Heidemann's kindergarteners from Maine, and Dyane Smokorowki from Kansas participated in the call.  First we talked a little about the park for the kids, and then we took as many questions as we could until an incoming storm kicked us off the internet.

The storm passed fairly quickly, and we continued with our game drive.  Every time we came to a big animal and had internet, we found a school to Skype with live to share what we were seeing and to answer questions.  During a period of about 2 hours we showed giraffes, rhino, and buffalo to a few sets of kids in Massachusetts and zebra to Tanya Cunningham's kids in Pennsylvania. Sharing our experiences with kids so far away made it even more special.



When you travel, and do it with an open mind and open heart, you grow as a person.  You take the best parts of the culture and location in which you are immersed and add them to yourself to make you better.  I've tried throughout this trip to do that for myself, and to share the best parts of the trip with others around the world as much as possible so that they can grow with me.  The calls on this last game drive felt like one more opportunity to do that.

When we got back to the house I actually sat and relaxed for the first time on the trip.  Teacher Livingstone and I sat on the front porch of the house, with water buffalo and zebra walking 20 yards away, chatting about the trip, teaching, and the importance of the work we are doing. This Naishi Guest House seems to be made for relaxing in an amazing setting. It was nice to reflect, and I feel both great sadness to be leaving tomorrow as well as a great longing to see my wife and kids again.

Look carefully, those are zebra in the front yard

For dinner, Jackson cooked up a traditional Western Kenyan meal of Ugali kwa kuku masala na spinach (Ugali with masala chicken and spinach).  He cooked the whole chicken.  Literally.  Other than feathers, there was nothing that didn't go into that pot. Teacher Livingstone explained to us that the key to good eyesight was not carrots, but rather eating eyeballs as he gobbled one down. Dinner was very good, though, and I went for second helpings of ugali with the sauce from the chicken.
As dinner was being made, Teacher Livingstone put on some music from my iPad.  Here's what I learned - He likes Michael Jackson, found out that the Beasty Boys are awesome, and said that Simon and Garfunkel are very nice on the ears.  He didn't know most of the music on my playlists, and had never heard of Janet, even though he was familiar with Michael.

After dinner, we sat around a nice fire in the fireplace that Groundskeeper Livingstone had lit for us. The house is so beautiful, relaxing and quiet, and like every other place I've been on this trip, I wish I had more time here.


Tomorrow, we get up early for a morning game drive out of the park, and then back to Nairobi where I will visit both Cheery and Havilla to say goodbye to the kids, and then off to the airport for a 11PM flight home.  I can't wait to see Lori, Abby, and Michael.

Here is the recording of the Google Hangout session mentioned above: