Nairobi, Oct 9 –There is much (and indeed much more) that can be done in terms of collaboration between the Church and the conservation cause.

In the particular case of the Roman Catholic Church, this potential partnership is enhanced and made even easier by that Church’s declared concern for the environment, which has become increasingly patent in recent times.

The 2015 Encyclical of Pope Francis entitled Laudato Si’ – in which the pontiff urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet — offers an ample platform for such collaboration insofar as it places in the limelight the issue of the conservation of “our common home” — compared by the pope to a sister. Furthermore, when he visited Kenya in 2015 the pope made it clear that the protection of the ecosystem and what he called a “human ecology” is and ought to be one of the church’s priorities.

At the micro level, I would like to offer here two recent examples of fruitful collaboration along the aforementioned lines.

First, there is the idea of bringing the sacraments of the Catholic Church and the services of other churches to national parks and private conservancies — an idea not altogether different from what the missionaries of old did in remote parts of the world, including Africa. It always struck me as unfair that the staff in some of those reserves and natural sanctuaries is typically deprived of the possibility of participating in religious services, as a result of isolation and great distances.

I thought I would run an experiment in the Masai Mara. With the crucial help of Basecamp Explorer, and the decisive support of the parish priest of Lemek (in Narok County), I managed to organise Mass for the staff of two of the lodges owned by Basecamp in Kenya.

One of those lodges, Basecamp Masai Mara, has a staff of 60, some of whom were away when I visited. Forty of them (only a bunch of whom were actually Catholics) made it to the Mass at the lodge’s restaurant, where an improvised (but very respectable) altar was erected by the employees themselves. Several of them had an active participation in the ceremony, reading the Holy Scripture and petitioning for their own intentions. That day the Catholic Church was marking the feast of St Martha of Bethany. Father Patrick, the celebrant gave a sermon on hospitality, stressing how in the Gospels Martha had efficiently served Jesus Christ at the home she shared in with her siblings Lazarus and Mary.

After the Holy Communion, the priest blessed with holy water several buildings, including the manager’s office. To manager, Muslim, this blessing was a very nice interreligious token, which he welcomed warmly.

Later the same day, Basecamp Explorer made it possible for Father Patrick to travel to Mara Naboisho Conservancy, where staff awaited his arrival. There, precisely at Eagle View, a beautiful but smaller lodge in this conservancy adjacent to the National Reserve, the priest celebrated another Mass with 20 members of staff in attendance.

This celebration also had an ecumenical touch. Moses Kaelo (an intern who is studying at the Koyaki Guiding School in Naboisho and who is also a Protestant pastor and the brother of Dickson Ole Kaelo, CEO of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA), stressed a key idea. On his return to his community in Lamek, he would speak about conservation not only as someone who had received training in a proper school, but as one of them. This highlights a difference with the way the law and the government “speak about conservation” as I will try to explain next.

Archers Post

A few weeks before the above happened in the south of the country, I had witnessed another promising event in northern Kenya. I was at the Samburu National Reserve during a break from my teaching responsibilities in Nairobi, courtesy of the Samburu Game Lodge. On a Sunday morning, I decided to attend Mass at the Catholic Parish in Archers Post, the village closest to the National Reserve. The days preceding that Sunday had been problematic in Archers. Several elephants had invaded by night, breaking fences and scaring people, who responded by trying to frighten away the animals by blaring the horns of motorbikes.

In that context, Daniel Leitoye, a Kenyan who grew up in Archers and was there on a break, had asked Father Ambrose, the parish priest there, whether he could deliver a few words to the community after Mass to explain to them how to efficiently deal with human-wildlife conflict. He delivered the speech in his double capacity as an expert in conservation and parishioner.

In the speech, in Kiswahili, Leitoye started by explaining the likely reason the animals were trespassing: While the several reserves that surround the village (mainly Buffalo Springs, Samburu, Shaba, Kalama and Sera — the former three national reserves and the others   community conservancies) had seen severe drought, Archers Post had become like a small island where of late it had rained quite a bit. This accounted for the elephants approaching the village more than in normal times. Not that the beasts had anything against the people; rather, the speaker added, the elephants were perfectly innocent creatures, in search of water and food.

It must be said that as Leitoye was uttering the latter clarification to the audience, I could observe the evident skepticism of many in attendance, some of them even protested emphatically, in a loud voice, when the speaker tried to acquit the elephants.

Father Ambrose’s calm demeanor, which seemed to approve the gist of the speech, came to the aid of the speaker-parishioner, who was able to proceed with the speech. He offered advice to the villagers on what to do if and when the elephants returned. While part of the audience continued to be apparently doubtful, one could observe at the same time that several people nodded in agreement. At least it was a beginning. Perhaps with future speeches and additional explanations those less convinced might come to buy the idea that human-wildlife conflict can be prevented without irreversible harm to any of the parties involved.

What happened that Sunday morning in the middle of nowhere is but another example of what could become a potentially fruitful and practical partnership between the Church (indeed the churches) and those of us who want to spread the urgently needed word about conservation in Kenya.

While law and government have an unquestionable role to play when it comes to handling human-wildlife conflict, dialogue and conversation tend to be more effective, especially with regard to prevention.

In this respect churches are aptly equipped. Parishioners usually will pay attention to a priest or a fellow church goer (be it Catholic, Protestant, etc.), and the odds are that many times the message will be better delivered in the absence of coercive threats and in the presence of opportunities for questions and answers.

This is why I see a promising avenue in experiences like the ones related here. Hopefully they will be multiplied all around Kenya! If that were to happen only good results would come out of it… for the benefit of our sister earth… for the benefit of ourselves, too.

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