De-Stressing in Laikipia

The moment I realised I had to do something about my stress levels came on a beautiful weekend in London. My friends and I were sitting outside in the sun, enjoying a lazy brunch opposite the town hall. As we tucked in to our delicious, though probably overpriced, food, we watched all the wedding parties going in and out of the town hall. This was a pretty good show as the town hall in Islington plays host to some pretty stylish weddings. Particular mention must go to the stunning bride in the gold dress, very chic. Her 1920s inspired gown shimmered all over with sequins; she looked like a devastatingly stylish goldfish. Wedding guests decked out in their finest were traipsing about, many of them popping over to our side of the road to get a coffee from one of Upper Street’s many cafes. Then I saw him crossing the road: a tall, skinny ginger man, with the llama haircut that is de rigueur for a certain genre of London hipster, and the tight, blue suit that often goes with it. A rustic button hole sprang jauntily from his chest, his socks were a startling mustard yellow, and in his hand he was clutching…. Oh my lord! He was clutching a knife! This man, holding a flick knife tightly to his torso, was walking right towards us. At that moment I was sure I was going to die. I felt as if I was about to faint, blood was pounding in my ears, and I struggled to breathe. A second or two later, everything became clear. The hot hipster was holding a folded-up program, which, to be perfectly honest, looked nothing at all like a knife. My panic-induced cloud disappeared, and I mentioned it to my friends, isn’t it funny that I thought that hot hipster was carrying a knife? Also, isn’t it hilarious that I was convinced I was going to die, and the only thing I could think of was that I hadn’t even finished my PhD thesis? To be honest, they didn’t think it was particularly funny, and my pale clammy face was testament to the fact that I didn’t really either. They suggested that I might be feeling a little highly strung.

Of course they were right. Like most people in the final stages of a PhD I was feeling the pressure and was so stressed that work related anxiety had spilled over into the rest of my life, and, as Hipster-gate proved, I was also losing touch with reality. Something had to give: my health was bad, my skin was positively adolescent, my work was suffering as a consequence (making me more stressed), and I couldn’t even enjoy an overpriced brunch in the heart of hipster town. I decided a change of scene might help, so as soon as I could, I booked a flight to go and stay with my brother, who works on a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. I realise that I was incredibly lucky to have this option, but it was exactly the change I needed. Almost as soon as I arrived at the beautiful Mugie Conservancy I felt physically relaxed, as if someone had released a catch somewhere in my upper back. I no longer had a constant headache and painful shoulders, and my work was insanely productive. I finished my thesis and felt not only refreshed, but utterly transformed. I felt as if I’d come back to life. The image of Hermione’s statue sprung to mind. Hermione in The Winter’s Tale died due to her husband’s tyrannical mistreatment and, then, sixteen years later, her statue miraculously springs into life in the final scene of the play. The Winter’s Tale, tells the story of King Leontes, who becomes insanely jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione, and he is convinced she is having an affair with his friend Polyxenes. He imagines things that aren’t there, and interprets everything as evidence of her guilt. His paranoia leads him to plot to murder his friend who flees the country. I’m not being funny but has anyone seriously considered the idea that Leontes was finishing a PhD? It would explain a lot. Leontes puts Hermione on trial, but there is nothing fair about this process, and she is found guilty. When Hermione’s baby is born Leontes refuses to believe it is his and orders it to be taken away and killed. In a typically obscure, Shakespearean manner, Leontes’ mistreatment of his wife kills both Hermione, and their son, Mamillius. Luckily the baby is not killed, but raised by shepherds in Polyxenes’ country. It’s a long story, but eventually Perdita (the baby’s name) grows up and marries Polyxenes’ son. The two of them end up in Leontes’ court, with Polyxenes too, and the repentant Leontes accepts her as his daughter. At this point Paulina, Hermione’s servant, rocks up and says she has a statue of Hermione and they should all go and see it. The statue comes to life, and the rest is history… well, literature at least. Am I saying my PhD was like a tyrannical husband? No: the parallel doesn’t really fit, but I’d certainly been treating myself pretty badly. Finishing a PhD can get ugly. And, it’s both common knowledge and scientific fact that living in close proximity to one another, surrounded by buildings and cars is more stressful for humans than living in rural areas with lots of space. At Mugie Conservancy, instead of cars, buildings, and chaos, I was surrounded by the most beautiful countryside you can imagine. My morning commute changed from anxiously waiting in a traffic jam, hoping I could get a parking space at the University Library, to a brief but extraordinary journey through wide open plains, filled with zebra, elephant, and gazelle. The office, where I was given a space to work, is also home to several orphan animals, so I was greeted every morning by a very friendly young giraffe named Tala.

Elephants on Mugie

At this moment Mugie seems like a paradise. Yesterday afternoon we went on a drive and when we reached grassy plain, we were totally surrounded by herds of zebra, including the rare and endangered Grevy’s zebra, who are only found in Laikipia. Later we saw a large herd of elephant, including some absolutely tiny babies, grazing and browsing amongst the luxurious grasses. Everywhere we went we saw the most extraordinary birds, including a secretary bird, a Kori bustard, a breeding pair of Augur buzzards, and my personal favourites, the long-tailed widowbirds. However, this lush, green landscape, teeming with peacefully grazing animals has recently had its own transformation, that has far more in common with Hermione’s transformation than mine. Just seven months ago, all 49000 acres of the conservancy were covered in cattle. As you might have read in the news, late 2016 and 2017 saw conservancies and farms across Laikipia invaded and systematically destroyed by pastoralists. Convinced by unscrupulous politicians that this was the only way to survive drought, pastoralists from neighbouring counties, some from over 200km away, drove their herds into Laikipia’s conservancies, cutting down fences, killing wildlife, burning trees for fuel, burning down homes and lodges, and shooting the people who got in their way. Many people suspected that this might be an intended land grab, under the disguise of drought. It wasn’t just the big conservancies that were hit. Small holdings and family farms were also destroyed. By February 2017 Mugie was overrun by more than 130,000 head of cattle, and the wildlife that the conservancy exists to protect, suffered the consequences. Many elephant, buffalo, and impala died during the invasion. “There was no grass,” recalls Henry Bailey, Operations Manager, “Just dust everywhere. It just looked like the end of the world. First of all the whole place smelled like cows. There were cows everywhere. Cows, and people with guns, doing whatever they wanted to. Later on, when the grass was gone and the majority moved on, everywhere smelled of death and rotting carcasses. There wasn’t a place on the entire farm when you couldn’t smell death.” The contrast to how the conservancy looks now could not be greater.

Henry Bailey, Operations Manager talks about desertification.

 Looking at Mugie today, with its lush greenery, and baby elephants, it is as if it has been reborn, like Hermione. Earlier this week a large game drive vehicle, full of tourists from the US came for a safari. They left elated, having sighted more wildlife than they had seen on their entire holiday, including a pride of lionesses with their cubs, cheetahs, elephant, zebra, and more. But the recovery of Mugie was no miracle, and it is the product of a lot of ongoing hard work. Overgrazed soil needs time to recover. If the young grasses are immediately eaten again, this will cause desertification (degradation of the soil that takes decades to recover from and prevents new growth), as it already has in some patches of Mugie. Increased security operations run by Mugie, more recently supported by local Police, are still working behind the scenes to defend the wildlife and their habitat.  Alongside this security effort Mugie is working hard to make the local community become more invested in the conservancy, so that they will help resist invasions and the unsustainable destruction of grazing land.

A young Dikdik, orphaned during the invasions

Hermione’s miraculous transformation signals forgiveness and a new start, but despite the theatrical shock of the statue scene, her recovery didn’t happen overnight either. The recent, stunning Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale made Hermione’s reanimation seem miraculous. The moment when the statue came to life was theatre magic, and, at least for me, there was no question in my mind that Hermione had been dead, and this was a statue come to life. Some productions make it clear that Hermione was never dead, just in hiding, like Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, until her name was cleared. In a patriarchal society, some people believed a woman whose reputation was lost was as good as dead. Shakespeare’s text leaves room for both options, as he mentions the statue is aged to look as Hermione would have looked if she had lived. Paulina excuses the difference: “So much the more our carver's excellence; / Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her / As she lived now.” People also comment upon the time Paulina has invested in the statue, “I thought she had some great matter there in hand; for she hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house.” There is a clear possibility that Hermione was living in this house, biding her time. Perhaps Paulina’s visits were to take care of her friend, who had lost two children and been horribly abused by her husband.

Whether magical or illusory, Hermione’s return is sixteen years in the making, and, like the rebuilding of Mugie, has taken a lot of hard work, either in the form of a magical sculptor’s work, or in Paulina’s gentle care. The play ends with Hermione’s reincarnation, but what if it continued? What would happen? Would Leontes learn from his mistakes, or would he fall back into his previous pattern and kill a second Hermione? While it is, once again, the perfect tourist destination, the trouble in Laikipia isn’t over, but the rebuilding has already begun, and what happens next is key. And what about my stress levels? While I’d love to, I can’t stay at Mugie forever; I have a job to go to, and besides, as hospitable as they are, I don’t think they’d have me. I think the solution lies in Mugie’s smart, sustainable grazing plans. I’ll have to learn to stop using up my own resources before they’ve had time to replenish. Oh, and just between you and me, I won’t be doing a second PhD!

The cool camels of Mugie

To find out more about Mugie Conservancy, visit their website.


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