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“Are We Going to Go Walking Again?”

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

I have spent most of the morning flipping through online grant applications—the 2018 year is approaching and my stomach squelches with anxiety as I try to find enough funding to keep Amani up and running. Njiloti, an 8-year-old Maasai girl, pops her head in the office door.

Tutatembea leo?” she asks. We’re going walking today? I take off my glasses and rub my eyes.

“Not yet–we’ll go when everyone finishes church.”

At lunch she finds me again, this time flanked by Lucy and Asha. “Tutatembea lini?When are we going to go walking? I spoon lumps of boiled corn onto my tin plate.

“Soon.”

I have never seen kids so excited to go for a walk. I, on the other hand, am exhausted. I’ve just gotten back from spending some time in the U.S. I haven’t slept more than four hours a night this week; they say jetlag is the worst flying East.

When I emerge from stocking books in the library, they are waiting. “Twendi? Twendi saa hivi?Are we going now? How about now? I am sweaty and dust-smeared. I wipe my hands on my jeans and go to get the binoculars hoping some of their energy will rub off on me.

The kids don’t get to leave the campus often apart from the walk to and from school. When I announced last night that we would go looking for birds Sunday afternoon, I was not expecting this much enthusiasm. I was actually worried they wouldn’t be very excited by the idea of a neighborhood stroll.

Instead, they are ecstatic. By the time I walk from the office to the dining hall all the kids are ready and waiting, swinging their legs and watching with expectant faces. Gideon and I pass out the binoculars and show the kids how to use them, tell them that good scientists take care of their scientific equipment and talk in whispers to not scare away the birds. We start off on our mini-hike.

The kids immediately start looking for footprints and find rabbit tracks, dogs and goats, and cows. I’m thrilled that they are using the nature detective skills we taught them yesterday. Baraka points to a triad of prints in the sand.

Ona! Ona! Hii ni za nane?” Look! Look! What animal is this? he asks. I notice Happy wiping the dust from three of her fingertips and laugh.

“That’s a wild Happy” I reply as I catch other kids making finger-footprints in the dust. We near the dry-stream bed where the trees are clustered most densely. For a minute, we all close our eyes and listen to the bird calls around us.

“Why do you think there are so many birds here but fewer in the open area?” I ask.

“Trees!” A kid shouts and is hushed by his friends.

“Many birds like to build their homes in the trees” I point to a nest a few meters away. The kids gaze up with their binoculars. Behind me is a burnt Acacia stump, logs of smooth yellow wood stacked beside it. “What do you think happens when we cut down the trees?”

“The birds leave.”

“This is bad for a number of reasons. Some birds are like little farmers; they eat seeds and when the poop” –- I’m interrupted by giggles as Gideon translates – “they plant new seeds. So, the trees give the birds a place to live and the birds in turn help plant new trees. When we cut down the trees we break this relationship.” We walk on to a spot where someone has stacked stones in a lumpy pile beneath the canopy. These rock piles are how people mark their plot and save up building materials until they can afford to start construction on their house.

“When someone starts building here,” Gideon says “They will cut down all these trees in order to make space for the new house. What will happen then?”

Ndege watakimbia” Sharifu answers. The birds will run away.

We walk for another half hour, binoculars primed. The kids are good at spotting birds. Small, excited fingers point and trace the birds’ paths as they hop through the branches and arc through the sky. When we turn to walk home, Lucy starts dragging her feet.

Sitaki kurudi,” she pouts. I don’t want to go back yet.

Tutatembea tena?” asks Simon. Are we going to go walking again?

We can do this every week after church, I reply. I’m surprised by the cheers. So are the birds, who take off from the telephone poles above us and dart off swiftly into the air.

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