Launching the Elephants and Bees Project HEC Center Construction in Mwakoma Village, Segalla Mountain


by Carley Miller, International Intern

Date Published

Week 1: Get Ready, Get Set, GO!!
Planning, Meeting, Marking, Clearing & Construction

Mon, Dec 9th Day 1: Elephants and Bees Project Team PLANNING Session

At 9:00am, the project team fully assembled for the first time in the STE Karen office. Leading the team is Dr. Lucy King, Project Leader for the Elephants and Bees Project.  With her she brought John Zak to drive the 2nd project vehicle, affectionately deemed the “war horse” for its years of faithful service shuttling equipment and interns from project to project. Also in attendance is Wilson Lelukumani who has worked with STE for 12 years as both a part of the MIKE surveillance team and a field assistant with the Elephants and Bees Project. The other members of the team include 4 interns selected particularly for this community-based project. Returning interns include Njambi Maingi, from Karen, Kenya and Carley Miller from North Carolina, USA.  The new interns include Tara Easter from Portland, USA and Imran Khan, Pakistani by blood, Kenyan by birth and currently pursuing an environmental master’s degree in England. After a quick round of introductions, the team got down to discussing and planning the upcoming project. After 4 hours of explanation and collaboration, the hungry team headed into Karen for lunch and supply shopping before separating and heading home to prepare for an EARLY morning departure.

Tues, Dec 10th Day 2: Travel and Executive Committee MEETING

The trek to Tsavo began early! The team left Nairobi area before 6:00am to get a jump on the traffic. Even still, they had to battle the congested Mombasa road before reaching the town of Voi and quickly unloading the cars at the roadside lodge we would call home for the next 4 days. After a hasty lunch, we headed to the Kileva Primary School in Mwakoma Village to meet with the Executive Committee about the project specifics and the community’s ideas and involvement. In attendance was the sub-chief of the region, Mr. Alex Mwambingu as well as the headmaster and deputy headmistress of the primary school, several community representatives and the on-site Elephants and Bees Project field assistant, Nzumu.  Dr. Lucy began the meeting by thanking the committee and the community as a whole for welcoming the project into their lives and explained that construction could begin immediately!  Thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of the Rufford Foundation, this project received most of it’s funding just two weeks after the concept was dreamed up by the community and Dr. Lucy! During this meeting we finalized the building layout, discussed community involvement and both parties signed an official Memorandum of Understanding to official launch the project! With a cup of tea in hand (the official drink of all important gatherings in Kenya), Mr. Alex spoke of “Ngula” a Taita word meaning to gather people to work together for a common purpose, often followed by communal eating and a time of fellowship. He also detailed some of the amazing potential opportunities this center will offer the community, including the hope of village-wide food security!

Wed, Dec 11th Day 3: Boundary Definition and Land MARKING

We began our day at Nzumu’s farm, with a short visit to his beehive fence. Due to all the wonderful rain, the farmers are seeing lots of bees occupying their beehive fences. Nzumu’s fence has 8 of 12 hives occupied already! He has also successfully grown some sunflowers in his farm: big beautiful yellow flowers that draw in foraging bees! After a quick look around we headed to our allocated acre of land and began marking off the boundaries. The bush was thick all the way through the plot, so Nzumu and John lead the team with pangas, hacking a small path through the thick growth. Wilson and Imran followed with a tape measure to define the proper length and width of the plot. Tara followed them with bright red and white tape to mark a clear visual boundary.  Meanwhile, Dr. Lucy and Carley set off into the thick growth to tie bright red ribbon around beautiful trees and plants that should be saved during the land-clearing process.  It was a fun, yet exhausting and slightly painful process. Due to the evolution of protection mechanisms, many African bushes and trees have thorns – big long thorns and small hooks; both equally willing to scratch, stab and embed themselves in any exposed skin! A beautiful baobab marks the top right corner of the plot and Carley managed to climb high up into its branches and take a picture of the entire plot. From a bird’s eye view, the land looks almost like a lush rainforest, green and thick with vegetation from this season’s quenching rains.

Thu, Dec 12th Day 4: Bush CLEARING with the Community

At 8:00am, the team met with 30+ community members at the project sight. As discussed in Tuesday’s meeting, the community members wanted to donate their time and energy to help clear the land.  Wielding pangas, jembes, and spades, both women and men tenaciously cut through designated vegetation and roots to clear land for a road, the center, several campsites, a tool shed, a loo and a kitchen. They completed ALL this clearing in just one morning!! The strength and determination of these people is inspiring! Again, Carley scaled the baobab tree hoping for a comparative picture of the now semi-cleared land. Instead, she was still met with endlessly leafy foliage. Due to the selective clearing and the intensity of the remaining bushes, she could hardly tell a difference! After a morning of hard labor, everyone walked 7 minutes the primary school for a generous lunch of tea (of course) and rice, beans and onions. After everyone had eaten their fill, we all gathered in a large classroom to discuss the next day’s work, which would begin the days of paid labor. One of the project’s aims is to employ local people where possible during construction in order to provide the community with job opportunities and income that will strengthen the local economy. Dr. Lucy explained the types of jobs and workers needed for the following day: constructing a tool shed, preparing the center’s foundation, and digging a pit latrine.  When, she detailed the number of workers needed for the various tasks, an amazing thing happened.  The people began signing up for paid work, a precious and somewhat scarce opportunity in the village, when an elder spoke from the back of the group.  He reminded the group that a few men who would be great workers and whose families would really benefit from the income were not present at today’s meeting. Almost immediately, the people decided to reserve 5 jobs for the missing men. They would be told of this work opportunity by their neighbors and if they couldn’t come the next day, someone else could fill-in for them. It was a truly remarkable thing to witness: these people who are hungry for opportunity and income selflessly sacrificed their own chance in order to offer their spot to a friend who might need the income more then they do. Dr. Lucy told her team that this village is very special that way; that when she built her first beehive fences in this community, the farmers quickly selected the 10 farms who needed protection from elephants the most rather than trying to selfishly argue for a fence around their own farm.

Fri, Dec 13th: CONSTRUCTION begins!

A team of 5 people, including John and Wilson, began and miraculously completed a 4m by 2m tool shed in just one morning. They measured the land, dug post holes, erected six 7 foot posts, created a wooden skeleton, braced the roof with timber, nailed up mabati sheets and added a door complete with hinges and a lock! That night we were able to store pangas, diggers, wires and wheelbarrow in our brand new tool shed.
Tara, Carley and Imran worked on fully clearing and marking the campsites – the team aims to be camping on site at the start of the New Year. While they may be bush-clearing beginners, the interns started to get the hang of using pangas and jembes!
Another team of people, under the direction of skilled Nzumu, set about measuring and marking the foundation for the main building. Using basic tools and skilled knowledge, Nzumu was able to mark off perfectly square corners and straight lines. Once the dimensions were set, the team began digging a trench. They worked in pairs; with one man working furiously to break up the earth with jembe and then resting while his partner shoveled away the loose earth. Back in forth they went, working with bursts of intensity interspersed by strength-restoring breaks.
A third team of three men was commissioned for the pit latrine. As they dug, they slowly disappeared from view. With each shovel of red-dirt, the pit grew deeper and the surrounding piles of dirt grew taller and taller. By the end of the day, they had plowed 15 feet into the soil! To get in and out of the pit, the men scaled he walls of the pit via a series of cleverly placed hand and foot holds. A coat of red dust covered their bodies, reminiscent of the bright red Tsavo elephants!
The final work crew labored on perfecting the road into the project site. It had been roughly cleared the previous day, but now the crew set about widening the entrance, uprooting any tire-popping tree stumps, and leveling the dirt to create a smooth, flat driveway that meanders through a bushy Tsavo ecosystem before reaching the currently-under-construction project site.

Sat, Dec 14th: Construction continues and Camping commences

Today, the team checked out of their accommodation in Voi and moved into several empty classrooms in the primary school. Because all the students and teachers are away for break, Chief Alex and the school headmaster had generously offered the empty classrooms as a cheap alternative to accommodation in Voi and a dry, safe alternative to camping at the incomplete construction site.  Dr. Lucy and Tara spent the morning driving between Voi and the project site, delivering construction materials and tools as well as transferring all the various bags and living equipment to the primary school.  Imran painted the finished tool shed a dark green that blends in fantastically with the surrounding trees. John and the work crews continued working on the pit latrine and digging the foundation. Two skilled fundis, who oversaw the quick construction of the toolshed, built a shade and security structure for the first cleared campsite along with Wilson’s help.  Carley oversaw the delivery of hundreds of buckets of sand. Instead of paying a truck to truck in sand from elsewhere, we employed several women from Mwakoma who loaded up sacks, buckets and wheelbarrows with sand harvested from the surrounding area and delivered it to the project site to be used when creating the foundation.  Two of the women enlisted the help of their strapping young sons.   While both boys were equally hard workers and unflinchingly dedicated to the task, one was clearly enjoying being involved in the project, and the other clearly wanted to be off doing whatever fun things 11-year-old boys do during the school holidays!  After work was finished for the day, the project team head to the primary school to set up their new campsite.  One large classroom was selected to house the three men and the communal kitchen. Funnily enough, none of the men had ever camped before and it was up to Tara and Carley to help them pitch their tents! After the girls set themselves up in another classroom and the whole team set about cooking a thick stew on the camping cook stoves in the glow of a small light plugged into the battery of Dr. Lucy’s research vehicle. Exhausted from the busy day, the team was in bed by 8:30pm, each member enjoying their cozy tent that offered protected from mosquitoes inside the classrooms that offered protection from the rains that poured sporadically throughout the night.

Sun, Dec 15th: Delivery Mayhem

Typically, Sunday is a day of rest for the community, but the men were excited to work so we kept at it! A massive delivery truck with 9 tonnes of material arrived from Voi around 8:30am.  And that’s when the real fun began – immediately the truck got completely and hopelessly stuck in the sandy, water-soaked roadside ditch while trying to turn into the construction site. Our workers had to begin transporting stones and other materials from the truck, up the drive to the construction site. Meanwhile, the driver and a cohort of curious people were trying to free the bogged truck.  A 5,000 liter tank waited on the truck to take its place next to the building site, so Tara, Carley and John got busy preparing a tank stand. They used stones, red dirt, sand and 9 concrete slabs to create a sturdy base. Being a group of perfectionists, they used a leveler in every direction across the concrete slabs to make sure it was perfectly flat. Within 2 minutes of declaring the job done, the truck managed to pull free of the ditch and roar into the construction site. The final materials were unloaded and 3 hours after its disastrous arrival, the truck pulled away empty. The workers then redirected their efforts to the foundation of the center. They carefully continued digging a trench into the red soil, about 2.5 feet deep and 2 feet wide – and they managed to finish it late that afternoon! In under 2 days, the team of 10 men dug the 2.5 x 2 foot trench that stretched 160 feet to create the perimeter of the center’s main building. That evening, the team returns to camp in the primary school. We were joined by 3 new four-legged friends! Some skinny yet sweet villages dogs came to investigate our presence in their territory and luckily we earned their approval.  We did bribe them a bit by offering them our leftovers from dinner, but we consider it scraps well spent!

Click here for some photos on the project building in Tsavo