By Sophie Daud [email protected]
This is the last in a series of articles by Algarve resident Sophie Daud, 19, who embarked on an adventure to Kenya in Africa. Sophie joined 15 other volunteers in a project supported by the Kenya government that aims to protect and preserve the country’s flora and fauna.
Humpback whales were declared an endangered species in 1966 and, 44 years on, I have been lucky enough to see two of them.
It had been an arduous day doing marine surveys, with our dedicated cetacean search proving fruitless, revealing nothing other than choppy waves in the Indian Ocean.
Meandering in the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park, we followed what had been an unusually large splash, for no reason other than to keep ourselves occupied.
Yet our suspicions were evoked when we glimpsed a two metre spray of water up ahead and then suddenly our greatest hopes were confirmed by the sighting of a dark humpback fin.
We were 20 metres from a gloriously huge whale and her newborn calf, who were surfacing and relaxing in the turbulent waters.
The staff on our boat leapt to the sides with high definition cameras to try and capture images of the fingerprint nicks and notches on their dorsal fins, which are used by biologists to identify cetaceans.
As we calmed down and balanced the boat, the magnitude of these incredible creatures became apparent. It took several seconds from the first emergence of her body for the mother’s dorsal fin to slice the water’s surface, suggesting her total body size was around 30m.
The calf, while obviously very young, was the size of our boat, and chose to give us plenty of opportunities to estimate his length as he breached and playfully jumped out of the water.
After two hours, they disappeared with a tail dive of such clarity that we felt they were bidding us goodbye.
For the rest of our second week on marine work, we were the envy of the rest of the expedition members, whose questions about every aspect of the sighting were tinged with jealousy. Indeed, we felt very privileged and felt sad to end our week searching the ocean in the beaming sun.
However, our final week in Kenya, spent working with the community, was satisfying in a vast number of ways.
School had just resumed after the August break and so our timetable was cram packed with various lessons and activities with the people of Mkwiro.
After a day of intensive training in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, we were given two classes to prepare for; mine were to be English on one day and Creative Writing the next. While the thought of keeping 30 children engaged for an hour and 10 minutes was a challenge I was prepared to rise to with creativity and enthusiasm, the moment I stood in front of their gazing faces I was filled with naked, unadulterated terror.
Yet the children were amicable and very willing to learn, and my first lesson produced some fantastic plays in which the students demonstrated their understanding of safety hazards and prepositions, while the second gave me a mountain of stories about love, loss and betrayal.
Seeing all of my hard work culminating in some fantastic pieces of drama and prose was so rewarding and heart warming that the memory of the fear coursing through my veins quickly faded.
The main source of incredulity for Jo and I was that the children brought such energy and happiness to the class despite not eating and drinking all day. We were so impressed we decided to try a day of fasting, and one of our students kindly invited us to break the fast with her and her 10 other siblings.
That evening, we were led to her house and after the call to prayer at 6.28pm, we were ushered to single sex mats where we were to eat. A bowl of coconut spaghetti, another bowl of ugali (boiled maize flour) and a solitary fish was placed in front of us and the other four females, before a plate of doughnuts was proudly presented to us as a special treat due to our presence. While the girls were inquisitive about our names, our lives, our ages, we, the teachers, emerged from that meal asking our own questions about the very philosophies of our lives.
While the food was absolutely fantastic – Swahili food generally is – it was the tiny quantity, which would not have sufficed as passable for a single person in a Western restaurant, and their huge generosity of it which astounded us.
This was to be their one meal of the day and, regardless, they refused to take no as an answer as they blatantly gave us much more than themselves.
After dinner, as one of the girls sang a traditional Swahili song in candlelight while the younger siblings clutched our hands and played with the hems of our shawls, Jo and I could not express the gratitude and appreciation of what they had done for us.
On August 10, a tarnished silver slice emerged from the silhouette of the moon and marked the final night of Ramadan and the beginning of three days of Eid, when Muslims dress in their best clothes for festivities and feasts. For Jo and I that same moon signalled the end of our time in Kenya and the start of our long journey home.
Whenever anyone asks me about my time in Africa, the first things I want to say are those which are marred by the artificial, sugary coating of clichés: life changing, eye opening, stunning. Even if I could recreate the flavour of my time out there, the culinary feat would be lost upon people whose senses are not able to detect it.
Soon, even I will lose the ability to do so and all I will have is a mild aftertaste hovering in my palate.
My trip to Kenya has been like getting into an icy swimming pool – cold and shocking as I first dipped my toe into their way of life, but as the weeks progressed, I began to love and habituate myself to their customs.
But at the end of five weeks, I pull myself out of the water and towel myself down, losing the damp, all encompassing touch of the memories as they evaporate in the warmth of electricity and luxury.
The thought of being cold and wet, and fully surrounded by a way of life is very different to the actual experience of it. So while I write to tell you how incredible the past five weeks have been, I don’t expect you to believe it, or understand it, as I most definitely won’t a few weeks from now.
All I can hope is that I can inspire you to dive into the clear, turquoise depths of Africa – you won’t regret getting your hair wet.