Student Field Trip to Western Kenya

The 3rd year environmental studies students traditionally take an extended field trip touring the western part of Kenya including the northern Rift Valley, Lake Victoria, Kakamega Forest, and Lake Bogorio. I was invited to tag along on this year’s trip. We started our journey at lunchtime on Monday, after the students had completed their last final exam for the term. The 105 students and 3 faculty members (Mr. Chege, Mr. Abwao, and me) boarded three university buses and set out for our first stop, Lake Nakuru National Park.

It is the rainy season and an afternoon downpour slowed our travel a bit. We arrived at Lake Nakuru in time for a brief bus tour of the park. One of the buses got a punctured tire on the highway, so we all fit into two buses while the other was repaired. The late afternoon showers brought many hippos out of the water to graze on the shore. We also saw gazelle, impala, zebra, Cape buffalo, and a lone jackal. Unfortunately we did not see any of the park’s resident rhinos or lions. We did have a close encounter with a baboon. While most of the students had alighted the bus to enjoy a scenic overlook, a brazen baboon boarded the bus in search of snacks. There were two students in the back of the bus who called for help from the window. A brave student jumped in the bus and chased the baboon away before it caused any damage. We spent the night in Nakuru town.

In the morning our bus driver informed us that another bus had a broken wiper mechanism. Being the rainy season, we could not risk traveling with a broken wiper. A local mechanic was able to repair it, but it delayed our departure for Kisumu and Lake Victoria by a few hours. We traveled west out of the Rift Valley, climbing out along the Mau Escarpment and on to the cool, wet tea-growing region of Kericho. From there we descended to the city of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. We stopped in Kisumu town for lunch of fried, whole tilapia, straight from Lake Victoria. Mr. Chege and Mr. Abwao showed me the proper way to eat it – with your fingers, just pinching off pieces of the flaky white meat. It was delicious. Fed and rested, we traveled to Dunga Beach and its environmental education center. It’s also an active fish landing site. We learned about some of the major challenges facing Lake Victoria: the Nile perch and water hyacinth. The Nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria in the 1950s as a commercial fish. Unfortunately the successful Nile perch fishery is decimating the lake’s native fish populations. The water hyacinth is an invasive aquatic plant that forms large floating mats. As the wind blows them around, they can block access to docks or fishing areas. The large expanse also shades out native aquatic plants, which in turn affects the fishery. We took a short boat ride to get a first-hand look at the water hyacinths and then we were off to dinner (what else – fish!) and our lodgings in the town of Kondele.

The main activity for Wednesday was visiting the Dominion rice farm. Dominion (an American company) is in the process of developing its 17,000 acres of leased land in the Yala Swamp – a 50,000 acre wetland that drains into the Yala River and Lake Victoria. It is a huge commercial enterprise that integrates rice farming with tilapia aquaculture and when operating at full capacity will produce enough rice for much of Western Kenya. The project, however, has not been free from controversy. Some local residents and NGOs have expressed concerns about the environmental and social impacts about a wetland reclamation project of this scale. Dominion for its part has cooperated with the permitting agencies and is investing in community development projects such as local employment, schools, and health centers. A recent master’s thesis suggested that public participation in the project has improved over time, though perhaps may still be insufficient. All of the facility managers are now Kenyans, though most are not from the local area. The students were particularly aghast when they learned of how the grain-eating quelea bird is controlled – targeted spraying of roosting colonies with a species-specific toxin. The bird is known as “the feathered locust” and moves in flocks of millions. This bird and its control (which is the standard approach) were new to me and most of the students. The tour was very informative and gave the students a picture of how one company is trying to balance large scale agriculture and economic development with social responsibility.

Our bus did get stuck in the mud of a rural road exiting the Dominion farm. We all had to get out and push the bus out of the mud. Note to Dominion: for your next community development project, you might consider road improvement.

The Dominion farm is located in Siaya County which is the hometown of President Obama’s father. His grandmother “Mama Obama” still lives in the village of Kogelo. Unfortunately we did not have time to pay Mama Obama a visit.

We drove on to the town of Kakamega which is famous for two things: its remnant equatorial rainforest and delicious chicken dinners. We arrived late on Wednesday evening so the forest tour had to wait until Thursday morning. Kakamega’s famous dish, however, did not disappoint. The Kakamega Forest Reserve is managed by the Kenya Forest Service. Representatives from the Forest Service and community resource managers gave us a brief lesson about the forest ecosystem and how the communities at the forest edge are partners in its management. The forest is an “island” separated from the expansive equatorial rainforest of central Africa. It does not have chimpanzees or gorillas, but does have many species endemic to equatorial rainforests elsewhere. The forest is home to hundreds of species of butterflies and birds, a few of which we saw on a brief forest hike. We split into small groups but I think our large numbers scared away most of the birds. We did see many butterflies and several black and white colobus monkeys. Our guide told us about the many edible and medicinal plants in the forest. We even tasted a bite of a low-growing fruit. It was similar in taste and texture to a passion fruit and is reported to relieve impotence and STDs. It tasted pretty good, mostly small crunchy seeds, and none of us had any ill effects. I can’t attest to its medicinal qualities though.

Our stay at Kakamega Forest was too short, but we needed to move on. We had hoped to make a stop at Lake Bogoria, a Rift Valley lake with hot springs and geysers, but the drive took too long. We traveled through Eldoret and Iten, the self-described home of Kenya’s running champions. We passed the Kip Keino school and the High Altitude Training Center run by Lornah Kiplagat. The center is located at 8000 feet above sea level overlooking the Rift Valley – a setting both inspiring and physically challenging. We wound down the switchback road along the western edge of the Rift Valley dodging cows, goats, and one vervet monkey that ambled along the road edge. One of the buses had a mechanical problem and a mechanic came out to fix it roadside. During the brief stop, the students alighted from the bus and entertained us with some great songs. We finally arrived back on campus at about 1:00 AM.

It was an amazing field trip to Western Kenya. Most of the students have never been to these places so this field trip (and the 4th year trip to the coast) is an important part of the Environmental Studies and Community Development curriculum. For me, it was a great opportunity to get to know the students better in an informal setting. It was a trip I will never forget.

Many thanks to the students whose enthusiasm was infectious, to my colleagues Mr. Chege, Mr. Abwao, and Mr. Kurauka for organizing the trip, and to the drivers who safely navigated the narrow Kenyan roads.

Click on any of the photos below to see the full-size image. If anyone wants a high-resolution copies, just ask and I’ll send them.

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