So, What’s Your Thesis About?

The most important and frequent question that you will ever get asked about any research project is: “so, what’s it about?” It’s a question that I particularly struggle with, not because I don’t know, but because I struggle to actually know how to say it. My Asperger’s brain hasn’t quite figured out where that bridge between ‘thoughts’ and ‘speech’ is, so what tends to come out of my mouth is far less coherent or elegant than what is happening in my head. Sometimes I genuinely worry that I sound far too generalising, and perhaps less intelligent, than what I actually am because of this major issue in expressing myself. Lately, I feel even my writing has been failing to hit the mark.

How exactly do I get these things in my head out, the way they are inside??

Thankfully, my Asperger’s support group have been super helpful with this lately. Every day, someone from the group asks me: what’s your project about? In response, I have to write a fresh answer each time, no ‘copy & paste’ allowed! Tonight, I made two attempts, the second of which I finally feel I might be happy with.

So without further ado, here is a summary (at last) of what my thesis is actually about, before I bombard my blog with complicated, confounded ramblings!

“That’s not a very good explanation of it sorry. Let me try again please.

My thesis is a shared project between myself and a Tanzanian man who started a school for young adults out in the bush. He trains them to be safari guides, but there is something special happening at the school, because many of the students go from just seeking jobs to being environmentalists in their spare time as well. Some have even started projects like community clean up days and an environment club for children. My idea is that because the school is Tanzanian owned instead of being based on foreign ownership and values, the ideas generated there are more relevant. We forget that African cultures are different to our own, and sometimes for things to be successful they need to be done in a way that is relevant to the people and places they are for. So together, we are going to investigate how living and learning at the school affects the environmental values and ethics of students, and why. We will then investigate if this is connected to a specifically Tanzanian way of seeing the world, and if so, we will consider what conservation efforts might be able to learn from this in order to encourage greater success.

Most importantly, my project will give voice to ‘the little guys’ who don’t get heard much against the big conservation organisations. I want to show that they too are doing inspiring things for the future, and deserve recognition and perhaps some additional, practical support to make their efforts reach further. But support, not control. I think that’s an important difference to be clear on: support shouldn’t mean unreasonable influence, requests, demands, expectations, or conditions. That’s exploitation for personal gain or agendas, and Mkuyu is not about that. Mkuyu has such a powerful spirit of sharing and working together…that’s the kind of support they welcome and offer.”

The Thesis Begins In Earnest…

*Featured image: Mkuyu Guiding School.

The building of the project that will very soon constitute my thesis has been a lengthy process steeped in meaningful relationships with people who I feel as ‘family’, and a place that I increasingly recognise as ‘home’. It has always been undertaken with love, excitement, enthusiasm, and friendship, with goals and hopes attached to it from all sides. But at some point when undertaking research, things quietly shift from conceptual into phenomenal, sometimes in such subtle ways that it happens unnoticed. Twice now, in the past week or so, I have been hit by the gravity of realisation around this shift.

What can I tell you about Mkuyu Guiding School? Sometimes I feel that my descriptions are so lacking – they never seem to express the fullness of the reality. I will attempt to write a separate post, because here it would simply be far too lengthy and take away from the experience I need to record now, in this moment.

All I can say now is that the humble determination, the cheerful resilience, the love and care that stretches through time, the visions for the future, the persistence against the odds, the deep sense of responsibility and the nourishment of acting on it…make Mkuyu a deeply felt place. For me, for those who know Mkuyu as their home, and for those whose lives have been enriched and nourished by what is generated at and by Mkuyu. And there are many – both human and more-than-human.

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Left to right: Leonard, myself, Abel, Innocent, Jema, Moses.

I just made a draft of my literature review for the research project with Mkuyu. I started to cry, looking at the headings and what we hope to achieve together. I feel so much about this project, and about the African continent, people and ecosystems…I have wanted to contribute something meaningful, just, empowering and responsible for so, so long. When I look at this project and see it beginning to take shape, so many thoughts and feelings flood in. I recall the photos that were just sent to me yesterday via WhatsApp showing the guide students teaching children about the environment, sharing their incredible, experience-based knowledge and passion, being inspiring role models for future generations. I recall conversations with Mkuyu teachers that have blown my mind and filled me with excitement and hope for the future.

But I also think of the challenges and opposition we have faced, the doubt and dismissal – because Mkuyu is not a Western registered organisation overseen by Western conservationists. It is Tanzanian. Humble, and largely unknown. But it is Tanzanian, and that is so unbelievably important. Anyone with an honest eye on conservation in Africa – and anywhere, really – ought to be able to recognise that importance. We care for what is our own; we love what is part of who we are. It is Tanzanian, and it is successful and working, and it is achieving incredible, tangible, practical things for an ecological Tanzanian future.

And they are doing it so damn well, it moves me to tears!

I am just so humbled and so honoured to be witness to it. I am slow working on this project most days, because there is such a huge responsibility to give Mkuyu the position they deserve. Every word is so delicate, so important…this project needs to be loved, nurtured. I feel that together, we have planted a seed that we are now caring for and encouraging to grow. In which case, like the growing of a tree, it is a sacred task we have ahead of us…one that calls for both responsibility and often overwhelming joy. The growers grow with what is grown.

The Social Construction of Africa’s ‘Lion Kings’

Like most Western kids growing up in the 90’s, I experienced the cinematic glory of the Disney film The Lion King when it was released onto the big screen in 1994. Breath-taking wilderness scenes overflowing with magnificent, vibrant wildlife – the full grandeur of this mysterious continent, synonymous with the very best nature documentaries, laid out against a powerful Zulu call and the epic soundtrack of ‘The Circle of Life’. And of course, the lions! The god-like, benevolent rulers of this magnificent nature who were surely loved and admired by all. This was ‘Africa’!

There was just one problem. Amongst all the glory of Africa beautifully captured by the opening scenes of The Lion King and throughout the film, there isn’t a single African person to be seen! The film omits any representation of human presence within this grand landscape (Giddings, 1999, Roth, 2005, Zimmerman, 2014), despite many character names and terms coming from the Kiswahili and Zulu languages of some of the East and South African peoples that commonly – and traditionally – share these landscapes with the animals (Cerniglia and Lynch, 2011, Neumann, 1995).

Imagine my dismay when my first real-life encounter with the majestic lion kings were two animals that had been shot dead by frightened villagers living in sheer terror for months after a young boy and several heads of livestock had been killed by their pride. It wasn’t an isolated event. Man-eating lions and loss of livestock livelihoods are an all-too-common story in Africa (Ikanda, 2009, Kushnir et al., 2010, Packer et al., 2005, Patterson et al., 2004, Yamazaki and Bwalya, 1999, Pickrell, 2004), a story that conflicted heavily with my own social construction of what nature in Africa is.

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Image Source: Click Here

The Lion King is a stark example of social constructionism applied to nature and wildlife in Africa. We imagine that the grandeur of Africa’s wild places and animals is somehow separate to the similarly socially constructed perception of the human tragedy associated with the continent (Zimmerman, 2014, Wainaina, 2006). We have decided that indigenous African people are “incompatible with nature”, intensifying agriculture in small tracts around national parks that – prior to colonisation – were rotationally grazed alongside wildlife without causing significant harm (Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Nelson, 2012). We separate ‘unspoilt’ wilderness scenes from the reality of humble grass-roof huts and shanty villages that represent ‘home’ to Africa’s bush and rural dwelling people. We separate people from lions. Social constructivism of nature suggests that the meanings we attach to words like ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘wilderness’, or even ‘lion’ are more relative to our societies and cultures than they are to the reality of what is actually ‘out there’ (Rolston, 1997, Cronon, 1996, Demeritt, 2001). In other words, my truth about lions may be very different to a Maasai pastoralist or a Kalahari bushman, because we are perceiving them through our individual cultural filters. This is important to recognise, because it influences the decisions we make about the natural world – and the people living within it.

In the West, our conceptual construction of lions are as iconic symbols of courage, the kings of the jungle. As a material construction, lions are apex predators, designed to hunt, kill and eat other animal organisms, and thus are part of a complex ecological cycle of predator-prey relationships characteristic of a ‘pristine’ African wilderness. We construct the nature of the lion this way because it suits us as outside observers to do so, it appeals to us and all our culture has taught us about these magnificent animals. But we, as Westerners, don’t have to live alongside this predatory powerhouse, nor do we have to consider that we ourselves may be inclusive with the ‘animal organisms’ upon which the lion feeds.

For the people who do live in this very different, participatory context with lions, the enforcement of Western social constructions of African wildlife can be deeply marginalising (Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Hazzah et al., 2009, Maasai Warriors, 2000, Nelson, 2012, Neumann, 1995). From the Western social construction, retaliation killing of lions by villagers is condemned. But from the African social construction, the same action is deeply legitimised by lived experience of the ‘out there’ and tangible benefits to the safety, welfare, and livelihood of human villages whose pastoral practices have come into greater conflict with lions as a result of Western colonialism (AWF, 2009, Hazzah et al., 2009, Fratkin and Sher-Mei-Wu, 1997, Nelson, 2012, Maasai Warriors, 2000).

Many studies on the realities of living with lions have been conducted in the Rufiji district of southern Tanzania. One such study is discussed in this video and the full paper can be found here.

Understanding social constructions of nature opens up pathways to examine how considering our perspectives through different cultural filters may assist in guiding our approaches to conservation in a more mutually beneficial way to all involved. By adopting a more sympathetic approach to the social constructions of nature held by African people – who really do live amongst the African bush and wildlife, even if it wasn’t shown in The Lion King – we may be able to direct conservation and wildlife conflict mitigation from a more compassionate and collaborative perspective with the communities directly impacted.

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*NOTE: Thankfully, I have had the wonderful opportunity to encounter a lion that was very much alive! This stunning young boy and his companion demonstrated both the majesty that their species is renowned for, as well as their ferocity. The lions had killed a juvenile elephant…a stark reminder of their role in the ecosystem as both king and predator.

 

REFERENCES:
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CRONON, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History, 1, 7-28.
DEMERITT, D. 2001. Being Constructive about Nature. In: CASTREE, N. & BRAUN, B. (eds.) Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Oxford.
FRATKIN, E. M. & SHER-MEI-WU, T. 1997. Maasai and Barabaig herders struggle for land rights in Kenya and Tanzania. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 21, 55-61.
GIDDINGS, S. 1999. The circle of life: Nature and representation in Disney’s the lion king. Third Text, 13, 83-92.
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PICKRELL, J. 2004. Man-Eating Lions Not Aberrant, Experts Say. National Geographic News [Online], 12. Available: https://www.killeenisd.org/teacherDocs/c7/e1605/documents/LionsofTsavo-162853.pdf [Accessed 14th March 2016].
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