Working for a marine conservation project in Kenya

by Tilda Bowden on 28 September 2017


When I arrive at Kuruwitu, Kenya, I immediately feel at home. It is not my home, but has become a place which I know and where I am known. Is this the nature of home? I wonder. Arriving in New York is the opposite. It is an assault of difference with a weird twist of filmic familiarity. Strangely, my time in the village of Kuruwitu – a rural area on Kenya's north coast, has brought me to New York. Kuruwitu is a subsistence fishing community who live in mud huts. Their issues bear little resemblance to the big city problems of New Yorkers.

In 2003, the impact of an increase in fisherfolk and an upsurge of illegal aquarium fishing created an alarming drop in fish stocks and the catches the villagers depended on. My husband, Des Bowden, started talking to local fishers about how they could unite to stop the destruction.

A grassroots association was formed; the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association (KCWA), and a marine protected area was established. Within 18-months a 400% increase in fish biomass in the area was reported. Visitors began flocking to the area to see first-hand if the rumours of 'best snorkelling in Kenya' were true.

Livelihoods at Kuruwitu have been transformed with over 20 people employed by the KCWA directly and new jobs being created in the many sustainable income businesses the KCWA has been busy setting up.

Key to the success of the KCWA is a balance of the needs of both the welfare of the community and of the environment. And clearly, both are flourishing.

Fifteen years later, and the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association has been recognised by the UNDP and awarded the 2017 Equator Prize as 'an outstanding example of sustainable community development.'

Over the last few months since the announcement of the award was made, we have been busy with preparing for the prize-giving event on 17 September in New York. As well as preparing press releases, giving interviews and making a short film to be shown at the prestigious UNDP event (see it on YouTube under 'Empty to Plenty'), we have been working hard to get two Kuruwitu villagers, Katana and Shida, passports, visas and tickets to attend.

They arrive tomorrow. As a seasoned traveller, my bewilderment on arrival at Newark airport made me worry about their first experiences of America. Neither have travelled out of Kenya before, or been on an airplane. I wonder how two villagers, used to knowing everyone, and being known by everyone at home, will respond to being strangers in a strange land. Katana and Shida have over twenty hours of travel to contemplate America and the adventure ahead of them in New York. They arrive tired and overwhelmed but Katana says, 'I have come here to be noticed.' Pretty impressive in the face of New York's famous insouciance.

There is a drinks party before the prize-giving. A huge room of people talking loudly. Everyone looks confident and seem, at first glance, to know each other. I head for my group, resplendent in native dress. My own dress, a copy of a Kenzo dress made from Kenyan fabric, seems about right for my role. We agree to forgo the comfort of familiarity for the possible rewards of networking. Everyone wants to hear about the Kenyan project and we find we are giving out and receiving business cards with the pace of a Las Vegas dealer!

After the speed-networking session, we move to New York's Town Hall for the award ceremony. The 17-year old MC introduces each of UNDP's Equator Prize winners with passion and gusto. Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association is announced near the end, when the routine of hand-shakes and speeches has become slightly dull. Our representative, Katana Ngala, storms the stage and performs a traditional dance of triumph and celebration from the Giriama tribe. The audience of over 1,000 certainly noticed Katana; his mission for his trip spectacularly accomplished.

The much anticipated and planned for event is suddenly over and our trip to New York ends abruptly. A fistful of business cards will hopefully translate into some dollars for the project and the prestigious award will look great hanging in the community's office.

To find out more about the KCWA and the volunteer programmes visit www.kuruwitu.org

Photo: Des Bowden, Katana Ngala, Shida Shoka, and me (Tilda Bowden) at the prize giving in New York.