Sunday, August 21, 2011

East Africa Day 94 (Mon Aug 15): Coffee with Edith & Orphan Elephant Tuck In

My friend from San Francisco, Sowmya recently took graduate level courses in Austria and Costa Rica. As a result, she has friends all over the world. She had introduced me to her friend, Edith from Cameroon over email before I left the USA for East Africa, because Edith is in Nairobi for the summer. Edith and I finally met up today!

Edith is staying with her Aunt and Uncle this summer. They live in Nairobi and run A Global Healthcare Public Foundation, which they co-founded a number of years ago. Her aunt and uncle consult for medical labs in East Africa – training the lab technicians, etc - and then use the funds to support healthcare projects in several countries including Kenya. Edith is working for the Foundation in Public Relations. She is also conducting research for her thesis, for her graduate program where she met Sowmya. She is researching the relationship between Indian Kenyans and African Kenyans. I asked many questions and loved hearing about her aunt and uncle’s work, her family, job prospects in Cameroon (fortunately she found a great job in development, and starts in a matter of weeks!), and weddings in Cameroon. (She’s planning her wedding!) It was really, really nice to get to sit with her in the Foundation’s conference room, and to get to know her. I’m so thankful to Sowmya for the introduction!

I then took the bus (and then a matatu) over to Nairobi National Park’s David Sheldrick Trust to “tuck in” the orphan baby elephant that I’d signed up to sponsor for a year, when I visited the orphanage a few weeks ago. What an adventure that was. I first got off the bus at the wrong gate to the park, then jumped into a matatu full of Kenyan teenagers, where the guy collecting the cash tried to overcharge me but I wasn’t going to stand for that, then I got off at the wrong stop and wound up walking down the road, where I finally found the right gate to enter the park for the Trust, but then got lost once I entered the park. Two park employees driving a big Kenya Wildlife Agency truck pulled up, and offered me a ride to the Trust. They dropped me off in the parking lot, which was hilarious since the lot was full of private safari vehicles and a lot of wazungu American tourists. The only time I see American tourists is when I walk by the Fairmont Hotel in the early mornings and see Americans eating breakfast on the porch, or when I am at the Trust to see the orphan elephants.

There weren’t many people there – though I guess that’s because I had to pre-register for the event, and the Trust only allows a certain number of sponsors to come for the Tuck-In each night. I heard one woman talking about NYC, and asked her where she was from – Westchester County, on the opposite side of the Hudson River from my hometown. Last time I was at the Trust, the woman on line in front of me to sign up to sponsor an orphan baby elephant was from NYC. I did say that the Trust has a lot of American supporters:) Maybe I should be specific and say perhaps even many New Yorkers:)
However this evening I also met a really nice woman from Fort Collins, CO and some Europeans.

So we were escorted into the Trust grounds at about 5pm. We were first taken to the paddock where the blind rhino lives.

The Trust tried to re-introduce him to his mom who had rejected him because of his blindness, but she would not accept him. The Trust even tried to operate to restore his sight, but it was impossible to correct and he remains blind. So he lives in the paddock because it is too dangerous to let him out into Nairobi National Park during the day, alone. There is another orphaned rhino at the Trust though that the blind rhino adores, so he lives a happy life! As I mentioned in the last post where I recapped my initial visit to the Trust, the staff are wonderful, too.

As we stood looking at the rhino in the paddock, we turned around to watch the first of two groups of baby orphan elephants returning to the Trust property with their handlers, from their day spent in Nairobi National Park.

They walked in a line right by us, and right to their respective stalls.

photo: Mutara's stall is on the left.

We followed them, and got to watch as the handler in each stall fed his baby elephant mlik from the baby bottle, put a blanket over the elephant, and made sure that it had branches with leaves on them to feed on, and just generally supervised the elephant as it got ready for bed.

photo: Mutara getting her bedtime bottle.

We were welcomed to walk around the Trust property to visit the different stalls, and to talk with the handlers in each stall and observe the elephants.

I learned that each elephant has its own self-determined bed-time, and that it usually goes to bed at the same time each night. The little/youngest ones go to bed first because they are so tired from their days in the park. The handlers are with the elephants 24/7, so the handler sleeps in a bunk in their elephant’s stall.

After maybe 15 minutes, the second group of elephants returned from the park with their handlers and went into their stalls. I didn’t see this group walk up and into their stalls, but I found my sponsored elephant, Mutara soon after she entered her stall. I got to watch her drink her bottle of milk, and then the antics began. Oh, I love this elephant! First, her handler tried to put a blanket on her back. But she decided to pull it off, using her trunk and tried to dump it onto the ground in her stall (the floor is covered in straw, just like horses).

The handler grabbed it from her, and put it in a safe place on the side of the stall. Then she stuck herself underneath the handler’s bunk bed, and crossed both her front and rear legs, while scratching herself against the wall. She stuck her trunk up onto the bed, and it looked like she might be trying to cause some trouble because the handler kept trying to shoo her away from it.

One of the other handlers told me that the baby elephants, when they get hungry, will wake their handlers up at all hours by literally pulling the handlers off of their bunks and onto the floor. So maybe he was trying to discourage Mutara from getting any ideas, here:) She then came over to the stall door (the bottom half of which was closed, but the top half was open so that we could all watch). She opened her mouth and rubbed it against the top of the door, as if she was showing off her teeth.

She let the three of us who were watching her pet her, and scratch what we thought might be itchy. She generally put on a huge show for us. It was hilarious. Totally obvious that she was loving the attention! I couldn’t help but wonder how she’d like being in the wild, without human beings to tell her how pretty she is:) But she’s a wild elephant, and I will be glad the day that she leaves the Trust and is released in Tasvo National Park! I was so thankful that I got to spend this time with her – really, really sweet. I am so thankful for all that the Trust does, and that I decided to sponsor her.

photo: in front of Mutara's stall.

After leaving Mutara (who wasn’t anywhere near close to going to bed, from what I could tell), I walked around to some of the other stalls to observe the other elephants. At least two of the little ones were sound asleep, lying on their sides on the soft bedding on the floor, with their blankets over them. Their handlers and I spoke in whispers, so that we wouldn’t wake the babies up.

The Trust staff member who gave us the tour talked with me about the Trust as they were wrapping things up at 6pm. He said that he’s been working at the Trust for 8 years. The African Kenyans who first come to work for the Trust see it as demanding work because it’s a 24/7 job, but it’s a job. But he said that once they start working there, they get very attached to the elephants and the work that they do. That’s very obvious to anyone who sees the Disney film “Born to be Wild” or visits the Trust. It’s actually one of my favorite parts – if not my favorite part – of the Trust.

The same staff member called a taxi for me, and I got a ride home just as a heavy rain began to fall on Nairobi. What an amazing way to spend an evening. If anyone comes to Kenya then you must sponsor an elephant and visit for the Tuck-In!

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