By Scott Condon, Aspen Times Staff Writer (reprinted from The Aspen Times, July 13, 2001)
It’s not every day you think of barbed wire as a great gift to give someone. Then again, it’s not every day you visit people who have wildebeests running through their gardens or gnus gnawing their vegetables.
There is a school in the Maasai Mara region of southern Kenya that can protect its gardens from various large mammals today thanks to the contributions of the Aspen-based Friends of Africa International.
A group of 16 Aspenites traveled to Kenya last month to check out the fruits of their efforts over the last 13 years since their organization’s founding. In between sightseeing safaris at three of the reserves and parks of Kenya, they took time out to help fill the wish list of items needed at an isolated school.
They presented the kids and administrators with chalk, textbooks, pencils, pads of paper, soccer balls, garden implements and, yes, barbed wire.
In return, the Aspen contingent was treated to native dancing, poetry, speeches and gifts of beads from roughly 75 schoolchildren and their headmaster.
“They’re very festive. They make a big deal out of the event,” said Scarlett Adams, co-founder and president of Friends of Africa. “They plan this for weeks.”
The Aspenites purchased about $1,500 worth of items that the school needed. The expenditure came from a fund maintained by Friends of Africa’s ongoing efforts to help the people and animals of the Dark Continent.
Adams and Bonnie Bishop started Friends of Africa International in 1988 to raise awareness of issues facing Africa and to provide insight into its culture. It made a splash a year later when then-Pitkin County Commissioner and Friends of Africa member Jim True spoke of the evils of the ivory trade and its decimation of elephants.
Since then, the organization has quietly collected funds from donors throughout the United States and channeled the money to organizations like Ian Douglas-Hamilton’s Save the Elephants Research Camp.
“Throughout the years we’ve been associated with a number of projects in Africa in wildlife protection and education,” said Adams. “I’m interested in helping because I think Africa is the forgotten corner of the world for many people.”
Adams has been to Africa five times, but some members of the organization never had the opportunity.
“I’ve been involved with this group for 12 years and never been to the continent before,” said True, vice president of Friends of Africa. He made this trip along with his 13-year-old son, James, who is entering eighth grade at Aspen Middle School.
True said his son kept track of the number of lions they saw on safari and came up with about 25, including a pride of 13 that had two or three cubs. The Aspen group was guided through the Amboseli National Park and the Samburu and Maasai Mara national reserves by vehicle. Their Land Rovers were allowed to roam among the wildlife as long as they stayed on the roads.
Sometimes the vehicles were able to drive right up to a lion pride, among foraging elephants and, in one fortuitous instance, alongside a cheetah that chased a hare.
True said the abundance and accessibility of wildlife were amazing. “I’ve now seen a lot more lions and cheetahs that I have seen mountain lions in Colorado,” he said.
Wildlife aside, one of the most inspiring parts of the trip was a visit to a research center recently built by Save the Elephants in the Samburu Reserve. The building was constructed in large part from donations made by Aspenite John McBride, True noted. The high-tech center is helping the organization with projects such as studying major migration routes of elephants between protected and unsafe areas.
The group visited three schools on the trip, including one that Adams assisted on a trip to Africa about nine years ago. She said it was moving to see the saplings she had planted with school kids now matured into towering trees.
True said the most memorable part of the trip was the presentation to the school. Despite the hardships the Kenyans face, they are a happy, gracious people.
“You saw how the children were all friendly and upbeat,” he said.
Adams said she keeps returning to Africa because of its people. They are appreciative of what they have, they respect their elders and their families remain important.
“There’s tremendous poverty in Africa if we apply our standards,” she said. But in many other ways, African people like the Maasai are a rich people because of their lifestyle, Adams said.
She felt it was important for members of the Aspen organization to experience the continent firsthand, so Adams was able to arrange a good group price for the trip.
The Aspenites learned about two causes that they may become involved in.
Members were awed by the work performed by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Its work to reintroduce orphaned baby elephants back into the wild was particularly impressive, said True.
Friends of Africa International, a tax-exempt organization, is negotiating a relationship where it would collect donations in the U.S. for the wildlife trust.
The group also visited tribal elders in an extremely secluded village near the Kenya border with Tanzania. Friends of Africa member Gayle Johnson, who works at The Aspen Times, said about 25 elders came out to make a pitch for help building a school and clinic for the village. The women and children kept their distance.
The scene was like something from the Old West, with Native Americans cautiously seeking assistance from the white men, Johnson said. Hopefully this relationship will work out better. Friends of Africa will explore raising funds for those facilities.
Johnson said she was inspired to join Friends of Africa after her first trip to the continent in 1990. She believes this trip will re-energize all members of the local organization.
And on a personal level, Johnson said she was so impressed again that she would like to take another trip to Africa.
“You think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when you’re there you say, ‘Oh, I hope I can come back,'” she said.