Remember your first school trip? The excitement you felt and how, as the days drew closer, you prayed harder that nothing would happen to derail it or have it postponed? For any outdoor activity, the prayer would be that the weather remains calm and cool.
That is how our trip to the A Rocha Dakatcha Reserve with the wildlife club from Kirosa Primary school felt for both the environmental education team and the kids. As the clouds gathered and we heard the forecast for heavy rains starting the day before the trip, we felt our hopes dwindle. We went back and forth between asking God to hold the rains and thanking Him for the blessings. Thankfully He heard our silent prayers!
On the 11th of October, we made our first trip with a group of 16 children and two teachers eager to learn and experience their local forest in a new way. Our aims were to help the children learn some natural science and to understand how everything in the forest relies on each other.
To make sure that they stayed keen, we encouraged the children to be on the lookout for birds, insects, animal droppings, flowers, seeds, tree stumps and animal footprints during the drive and within the nature trail. All they had to do was use their senses of sight and hearing and stay keen to their surroundings.
The drive was quite interesting, with the children easily spotting birds and naming them in their local language. Some of the birds we heard or saw include Barn Swallow (Katsungwirizi), Tropical Boubou (Kubo-nyango) and Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike (Kikokoi). Dakatcha research assistant Samson Katisho, who has a wide knowledge of the local birds, kept challenging the children to identify the birds and name them in English. They could easily consult the “Birds of Dakatcha Woodland Important Bird Area” book the wildlife club had received earlier in the year.
Once on the trail, we set out to explore biodiversity by paying attention to the trees, the soil, the leaves and the deadwood. To ensure that we missed nothing, every learner had a scavenger hunt list of things to look for, and they made notes on the scientific names for species very familiar to them as we walked. The forest became our classroom, except we had no walls or desks to sit on, just our senses – and the use of each others’ backs for steadier writing surfaces!
A tree full of life
One tree became central to the experience. In school before the trip, the children read a simple story about one of the trees within the nature trail, the Newtonia hildebrandtii. Once in the forest reserve, they went to find the tree they had heard described in the story. They easily recognised and found the tree they know as the Mkami, and so we made a stop under it to learn more.
From this one tree, we learned so much: how it ages, how fungi can grow and kill it, how beetles invade, how woodpeckers arrive looking for insects to feed on. We also looked at how dead branches that fall to the ground continue to support life for insects such as termites, and spiders. Looking at the branches, we also spotted the two mud wasp nests, which led to an interesting story about this type of caterpillar hunting wasp.
Looking at the upper parts of the tree, we saw butterflies all over its canopy. We talked about what it would mean for the birds and the mud wasps if there were no caterpillars to feed on. There was so much life to focus on just from this one tree.
This specific type of Newtonia is known by the local community as a good source of quality charcoal and has been logged for the same reason in most of the coastal region. We reflected on how much life depends on that one tree and how a decision to cut it for charcoal would disrupt life in the forest given how many creatures rely on that tree.
We were then treated to a rare sighting before leaving the reserve. Anyone might have dismissed it as a bunch of dry leaves left in one place, but the keen eye of a person who knows the forest could tell us we were looking at the rarely sighted fugu nest. The fugu is the local name for the Golden-Rumped Elephant Shrew, about which we have written here – endemic to the Kenyan coast. We were very lucky to see evidence of it in the reserve.
Finally, we reboarded our hired matatu to head back to school. We had enjoyed spending the trip with the driver and his conductor. They fit into the team so well, and they were very interested to learn and share what they knew. They pointed out that they had never taken or been engaged in a trip like this, focusing on the local forest, and they were happy to see the children get that opportunity.
We look forward to taking more children to the reserve through their Wildlife Club, especially the remaining nine schools that are part of our Environmental Education program within the Dakatcha Woodland community. Most of all we hope that the experience will not just be a fun trip they took, but one that reminds them of the abundance of nature and their role as stewards to ensure that that life is preserved.