Summer 2018 Blog


Updates from Mpala's Undergraduate Interns from
Princeton and Oxford Universities


The Field

October 27
By Joanna Zhang

Joanna Zhang recently finished collecting field data for her senior thesis at Princeton. Her research focused on how ranching management practices impact wildlife, cattle on the environment. Previously she spent time at Mpala for a Semester in the Filed Program. Below details both of those experiences and what it felt like to return to Mpala.

Above, Joanna observing cattle in one of the bomas on Mpala.

At first, the Hamad International Airport had been stunning. As we walked along its glossy halls, we passed by rows of palm trees and even a waterfall cascading from a balcony to the floor below. Eight hours into our layover later, the airport had lost some of its charm and we were ready to take off. It was fifteen minutes before boarding our flight to Nairobi when Maia, a student studying Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University, pulled out her earbuds and asked if the rest of us had seen the email. I tapped the mail icon on my phone and as I waited for my inbox to update, I listened to Maia read the beginning of the email, “As the students leave Doha and head to Kenya, I wanted to update students, parents and administrators on what is happening in Kenya before they arrive at Kenyatta airport and why we are making some changes to the way the field semester will be taught.”

“At the moment Kenya is experiencing a severe drought. Normally this means that wise stewardship of the grasslands in Laikipia - the county where Mpala is located - where rangelands are moderately healthy attracts the interest of the pastoralist herders from the north and west where pastoralist overgrazing leads to desertified landscapes during droughts. Such walk-ons are normal, but this year is an election year and the number of cows is excessive. As a result, the government is not deterring the walk-ons and the impact on the landscape has been great. Some conflict has resulted. Initially this was far from Mpala, but in the last few days tourist lodges near Mpala have been burned and looted. To date no violence has occurred on Mpala and it is unlikely that any will since our rapport with our pastoral neighbors is good and our security is strong.”

            The rest of the email described the contingency plan for our Semester in the Field Program, which would entail a change in venue but the same curriculum. Rather than being based at Mpala Research Centre, we would be adopting a semi-nomadic lifestyle for the semester, traveling between conservancies in the savannas of central Kenya, Amboseli National Park, Kakamega Forest, and the shores of Lake Victoria. It was written to us by Dan Rubenstein, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, who would go on to become my thesis adviser for a project embedded in the very social context described in his email.

The news was distressing on multiple levels. People tend to get upset when things aren’t going as they expect, and we were no exception. Prior to leaving, I had carefully reviewed the documents provided to us by Princeton to prepare us for the semester. The packing list was preceded by a brief note, “Working in the field in Africa means being in a state of perpetual dirtiness.” The note went on to provide reassurance that there would be warm showers and laundry would be done on a five-day cycle, assuaging us that the dirtiness would not be unbearable. The sudden change in plans fueled frenzied speculation as we prepared to disappear into the solitude of our respective seats on the plane. Looking back, I wonder at how in the midst of preparing to enter an area affected by a severe drought, one that sparked violence and ended up requiring relief assistance, we fretted over how our laundry was going to get done.

            Although the academic rigor of our field program was unquestionable, the type of learning that I valued the most took place while looking out the window as we drove across the country, never staying anywhere for longer than twelve consecutive days over the course of the semester. Most of the rainfall that Kenya receives occurs over the course of two rainy seasons: the long rains in March, April, and May, and the short rains in October, November, and December. In this semi-arid region, life is dependent on these periods of renewal, but in 2016, both rainy seasons failed to deliver the necessary water for sustainment. The myriad effects of climate change include the increasing incidence of extreme weather events, where once-in-a-century type deviations have begun to occur with regularity. Watering holes were drying up and crop yields were in decline, and inflation was creating unrest as many families had to settle for one meal a day. We arrived at the beginning of February 2017, a period of waiting. When would the rains arrive? Would they come at all?

            Without any moisture to hold the soil down, clouds of dirt were constantly blowing across the landscape, coating everything in a thick layer of dust. I was reminded of Tatooine, homeworld of the Skywalkers, found in the Outer Rim and orbited by two suns. The fictional planet had no flora to speak of. Although the case in Kenya was not so extreme, the grasslands were stiff and lifeless, and the woody vegetation was barren of leaves. Several times, we saw elephants eating bark off of trees and shrubs. Their spinal cords formed a series of rolling hills across the tops of their massive backs, and their skin seemed a size too large for their skeletal frames. It was deeply unsettling to look across such a monochromatic landscape. The need for rain was palpable, and I spent many long car rides daydreaming about massive cumulonimbus clouds rolling across the sky.

Art was something else I contemplated during those countless hours spent looking out of the window. Studio art had been a major part of my life until I went to Princeton. My dedication to making time to draw and paint amidst the busyness of campus was fickle at best, but I took the hours in the middle of the day when it was too hot to do field work as an opportunity to sketch. I watched children who seemed to defy the laws of physics by hefting immense loads of firewood across their small backs, and women who maintained the poise of dancers as they balanced gallons of water and baskets of goods atop their heads. (It occurred to me that I had not been using my head to its fullest potential.) Speeding by in a vehicle, I could not witness where they had come from or where they were headed. I could only wish them safety, and imagine the moment when they would arrive at their destination and set their down their loads. I watched cattle whose every rib was evident search for sustenance, nibbling on stems here and there. As I watched the infinite panorama of the landscape around me, a question that kept coming to mind was what place does art have here? My initial thought, prejudiced by false assumptions, was that art could only be pursued by those whose lives were defined by stability, by those who were not directly subject to the whims of changing climatic patterns. As the kilometers passed by, I considered the intricate beadwork and carvings on display at stalls along the roads, and the ululating calls and elegant movements of dancers whose performances I had the privilege to watch, and I could only wonder at my ignorance.

We eventually made it to Mpala Research Centre around spring break. We stayed there briefly before we left for our courses that would take place in southern and western Kenya. The rainy season had yet to arrive. Dino, the director of Mpala, told us that the research center would be unrecognizable by the time we came back. By then, it would be the end of April, and it was unthinkable that the long rains would not have started. I recalled watching the petals of flowers unfurl and young shoots of grass reach toward the sky in time lapses on television, and I wondered what it would be like to see the transformation for myself.

It was not until I returned to Mpala Research Centre a year later that I was able to observe the savannas of central Kenya in their full splendor. This time, I had come to conduct field research for my senior thesis, and rather than a countryside made dull by desiccation, I thought that I finally understood what was meant by the word “verdant”. We were delayed in our arrival at the research center because the roads had become a landscape of rivers and lakes in miniature. Some part of myself must have remained on edge all this time, as I was overwhelmed by a sense of relief when we neared the research center. As Dino had promised, the look of the landscape from a year before was nearly unrecognizable in its flourishing state.

I was glad to be back, not only out of excitement to carry out my first independent research project, but because I had left Kenya last time when it was in the height of social and political turmoil over the election and the drought, and some part of me was seeking resolution. It was a naive hope, and one that was only possible through the lens of my status as a visitor. Whatever perspectives that I was privy to during my stays in Kenya were only snapshots in time, much like the glimpses I caught of people going about their daily business as I looked out the window. Long after I was gone, their stories would continue to unfold. More rainy seasons would come and go, as would droughts, and it was foolish to hope to replace my last memories of Kenya with a mental image of the savannas bursting with life so I could walk away without looking over my shoulder this time.

Like the sudden change of plans to our program last year, every day of fieldwork was filled with the unexpected, and nothing ever seemed to go as I had envisioned. For the first couple of weeks of my field season, I was constantly overwhelmed, convinced that my thesis project was never going to come to fruition. After a while, I realized that it was simply the nature of field research to be unpredictable.

I had come to study the livestock management practices of private ranchers and local pastoralists in their effects on the landscape, and how those landscape differences affected the wildlife. I was working with two local field assistants, James and Adoro, and a Princeton Environmental Institute intern, Maggie, and their collaboration was the reason I made it through the summer with my sanity about as intact as it ever is. We would lose GPS trackers, the cattle we were studying would be attacked by lions, and fieldwork would be rained out by torrential downpours. Then there was Bertha, our beloved vehicle that carried us to and from the field each day. She was a Toyota pop top van, and had nearly 600,000 kilometers on her odometer when we were handed the keys at the beginning of the summer. We planned to have a birthday party of sorts for her if she reached that landmark under our care. It was only in the silence of driving on a tarmac road that I would realize the magnitude of the constant din that was part of the experience of riding in Bertha. Every part of her rattled, and we joked about leaving pieces behind when we bottomed out on rocky sections of the road until it actually happened one day. I’ve always found the feeling of being out of control rather disconcerting, as most people do, but it became unsustainable to hold onto the expectations I had going into each day. Of course, I needed to come away from the summer with enough data to write a thesis, but my field season in Kenya left me with a different way of viewing my work, and reminded me why I had opted for this project in the first place.

When I first met with Professor Dan Rubenstein to discuss the possibility of working with him on a thesis project, I walked away with a loose plan to conduct a behavioral study of wild horses on a barrier island off of the coast of North Carolina. Several weeks went by, and I came to realize that for all of the appeal of that project, it wasn’t for me. I wrote an email to Dan around midnight detailing the revelation, and explained that I wanted my thesis to address a social and environmental challenge such as the question of food security and unrest that I had observed in Kenya the previous year. In response, Dan asked me to come to his office, and in that meeting, he suggested that I work within that very social context. I was drawn to study Ecology and Evolutionary Biology because of its foundation in principles of interconnectedness, and the ways in which it reveals that the lines drawn between natural and social sciences are nothing more than artificial designations. As I prepare to analyze the data I collected in Kenya, I have been thinking about expressions around the field: “going to the field” or “carrying out fieldwork”. Where is the field? How do we define it? And how does that impact the way scientists view the relationship between themselves and the places where they work?


Daraja Academy Intern Reflections

September 28th

By Grace Cheptoo, Irene Lamai, Barbara Muthoni Siwa, & Caroline Masakwi

Grace, Irene, Barbara & Caroline, all graduates from Daraja Academy, joined Mpala for the summer as interns with the Ungulate Herbivory Under Rainfall Uncertainty Project (UHURU). They reflect on this opportunity as well as the knowledge and experiences they gained.

Grace Cheptoo, below.

I am a student at Moi University studying for a BA in Geography and specializing in GIS. Pursuing Geography has made me more cautious in environmental conservation and using GIS as a tool to solve environmental problems. Mpala’s good reputation has made me always want to work here. I’ve always applied for internships and eventually the need for data entry assistants presented the opportunity to work at Mpala. Data entry has improved my Microsoft Excel skills and made me more prepared for post-graduation life,  as dealing with data is vital. Going to the field and collecting data using a drone was the best experience. Drone technology is the next big thing and I want to learn more about it. The UHURU Project has opened my mind in terms of projects as well as understanding how ungulates affect ecosystems due to their herbivory activities and also increased my sense in conservation in understanding measures to be put in place.

Thanks Mpala & Robert Pringle for the opportunity, I appreciate it all!

Caroline Masakwi, below.

Working at Mpala has been one of the most exciting moments which came after I had just finished my college, pursuing a diploma in Tourism management. After Beatrice, the human resource manager at Mpala, contacted our transition coordinator requesting four people who can help out in the administration work at Mpala Research Centre. After the application I got a chance as to work with the research center and coming to Mpala has been a really great working experience, getting to work with experts in their respective fields.

Being a tourism student it relates much more with working in close contact with the environment to ensure the survival of wildlife than data entry which mostly entailed data entry on trees, that are at Mpala. It was a very wonderful experience because I got to learn more about trees which I was so much interested in after doing field guide practice back in school which entailed tree identification and mammals and birds.

The other great experience was going out to the field with specialist who helped us with collection of shrubs, grass and later came to analyze them in the lab. Working with Tosca, Sam, Ali, John, Buas and Peter was such a pleasure as they are experts in their field. I got to identify some tree species like 20 of them and added to my college list. I would really love to work with them more so as I can be in a position to identify the trees, herbs, shrubs, and grass by their appearance, leaves barks and even the scent.

To Rob Pringle, you’re such an amazing soul and I so much appreciate you for giving me the chance and for you appreciating my love for trees and allowing Ekeno to help me out with the tree identification, am so grateful. To our supervisor Tosca, you helped me learn a lot and I appreciate your help during our data entry. Thank you so much Beatrice, Rob, Ciara, Tosca and Mpala Research Center at large. This has been a nice working experience forever grateful for this opportunity.

Much gratitude, Masakwi Caroline
Irene Lamai

“Hello girls, there is an internship opportunity at Mpala for the month of August. It entails assisting researchers in administrative duties mainly. Only 4 chances available” This was a post on Daraja Alumni Whatsapp platform by our Transition Coordinator, Ms. Caroline Mwangi on July 23, 2018. On seeing this, I texted back Ms. Caroline enquiring whether I could apply for the internship though inside me, I knew that I was going to apply for internship in the wrong field since I am not doing any science related course.

I am a student at Moi University in Eldoret, awaiting to join 4th year beginning September 3, 2018. I pursue Bachelor’s degree in Education (Guidance and counselling), English Literature. This means that I am training to be a teacher counsellor of English Literature. Being in a public university and out of school for almost a year has made me learn a lot about life outside school. This propelled me to apply for an internship at Mpala.

I was finally shortlisted to be among the 4 girls who would be at Mpala for the month of August. I reported to Mpala on 2nd of August. I have a feeling that I was out of place since everyone I met had done a science related course unlike me, but a voice inside me kept on telling me that I belonged  here! I have had a passion in environmental science but only that Kenya Universities and colleges central placement service (KUCCPS) kinda decided my fate. We were assigned to do data entry for tree census on UHURU project under Rob Pringle, a person I admired from the descriptions I heard from my colleagues. Doing data entry for 2 weeks increased my passion and opened up my mind. I got to learn the names of different species of trees theoretically. I was able to exercise my computer skills.

My final 2 weeks at Mpala were the best. Going out in the field to collect trees and shrubs species for sampling at the lab to identify the relationship between them and herbivores, and getting to know the tree species that we had been working on theoretically, increased my passion for wanting to learn more about trees.

I am now going back to school a better person than I was. I have found my passion. I have found what I love doing. Were it not for school, I would stay and get to learn more about trees and shrubs, animals, conservation and everything that Mpala offers.

Many thanks to Rob Pringle for offering us the opportunity to work for him and his provisions. Thanks for Sam, Tosca, Ekeno, Boaz, Ali, Peter and the entire Mpala fraternity for their continued support. May god bless you and expand your territories. I am looking forward to coming back!
Above, Cheptoo Grace, Barbara Muthoni Siwa, and Irene Lamai headed to the field to collect plant samples for functional trait analysis.

Barbara Muthoni Siwa

Mpala is such a wonderful place to be. I have gained so much experience working for the UHURU project. The project deals mainly with trees and grass. Within a span of one month, I have known so many trees and grass species by their scientific names. This is so great!

I am currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Environmental studies and community development. Mpala is really the best place for me to better my skills and enlighten me with more details related to my course. I got to know about this internship opportunity through Madam Beatrice Wacuka who is the  Human Resources Manager here at Mpala. I am very impressed by all the kind people I have gotten to know for the time that I have been here. Working with Sam, Ekeno, Boaz, Peter an Ali was so much fun especially during our field work. They were always ready to help and share their knowledge with us. These guys really are knowledgeable. Hanging out with them is fantastic and full of excitement and fun. I now have field experience which is really essential in the course that am pursuing in school.

Tosca who has been our supervisor is really cool and oftenly drove us around when we were tired of data entry. She made sure I had a celebration on the night of my birthday. That was really sweet of you Tosca! I will never forget you. Mpala environment is really good for research purposes and I got to see a lot of animals that I had not seen before. Rob Pringle, though he was around for only a few days really inspired me and made it possible for my friends and I to get internships here at Mpala. Thank you Rob!

The food here is really good. Being at Mpala has broadened my thoughts. Through talks with Sam, Ekeno and Ali, I have gotten a wider view of cool activities that I can engage in school and the kind of jobs that are suitable. Patrick Moding’ who works with the the Grevy Zebra project always showed us around and made sure that we never got bored during weekends.

Thank you all for this wonderful opportunity and for allowing me to be part of the UHURU Project.


A Reflection on the Classroom

June 11
By Sarah Varghese

Sarah Varghese and Akash Kushwaha are interns supported by the Office of Religious Life at Princeton. While at Mpala, they are working on education initiatives with Mpala Academy Primary School and Daraja Academy High School.

Above, Sarah, Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames, Associate Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel at Princeton University, and Akash at Mpala.

Kamares, kamares, kamares (x2)
Ana Sarah wasikuhizi
Wanapenda kujiringa …

I didn’t quite know what any of the words meant but I knew what was expected of me. I stepped forward into the centre of the circle we were in and did the little dance that the kids who were called out before me had done. 

Akash and I spend our Mondays and Fridays at Mpala Academy - a primary school for children living in Mpala, children of Mpala’s employees. As my limited knowledge of Swahili struggles to keep up with the excited pace of all that the children are saying and doing, I’ve grown to understand and appreciate communication beyond just words. So when a little hand nudges me as my name is mentioned within a string of words I don’t recognise, as was the case above - I know its my time to dance. 

Our day at the school starts at 8:20 am with their first class. We shuffle between Math, English and occasionally PE classes, assisting the teachers in whatever they need. As teaching assistants, we read out loud to the class, work on problems with the students, teach vocabulary, and play games with the younger classes (many of which involve dancing). 

AboveSarah and Akash join other summer interns at Mpala to play with students from Mpala Primary School.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we’re at Daraja - a secondary boarding school for girls. At Daraja, we work on different projects with the girls, ranging from researching diseases in the area to dramatising a book from their syllabus to organising dance and movement workshops. We spend time shadowing the girls, being in classes with them, eating with them, and hanging out with them at different points during the day. 

Working with older kids means that conversations are able to reach markedly different levels of complexity and intimacy. On the walk back from a field trip for example, our conversation shifted within minutes from Bollywood actors and songs to archaic misogynistic practices in our respective countries and cultures - dowry, female genital mutilation, sati and forced marriages. The unstructured time between activities where we can just hang out and be with each other is honestly what I enjoy and cherish the most.

While I’m able to describe what we do at the schools each day, it’s difficult for me to articulate what exactly I’m doing here and what my purpose is for these six weeks. In a way, my purpose is to spend time answering those very questions. As I do so, I’m exploring different ways of learning and knowing - be that as a computer scientist amongst ecologists, a visitor amongst people who have lived, worked and grown with Mpala, as a teaching assistant in an unfamiliar education system or as a friend to those who have welcomed me into their communities. I’m learning that knowledge can be found in many different forms, even if it comes without citations.

After all, its the Daraja girls that helped me recall, translate and spell out the song I danced to with the kids at Mpala.

… Ana kamares kamares (x2)
Ana dunda dunda na dunda dunda
Na dis

I circle my hips twice with each “dunda”, kick in with the “dis” and join the circle again.