Urchins live upside down. Their bottoms bright orange and googly as if watching us as we swim past trying to find a spot for the camera. Des looks towards the beach for a landmark and says he’ll find it on the way back. He’s so at home in this marine park, which he set aside as a conservation area in 2003 with local fisherman Dickson.
Six kilometres out to sea and twelve kilometres along the coral reef, in pockets of wildlife safety zones, is a nursery for the sea’s biodiversity. “Fish know where they are safe” Des tells me. They hang around here as long as they can before going out through the milangos or doors into the deep, wider waters of the Indian ocean.
There are plans for octopus fisheries, that would guarantee higher survival rates of baby octopuses. They have short, precarious lives, the male dies soon after mating and the female after their eggs hatch. Des tells me somewhat ruefully, that octopuses greet familiar faces, are aggressive to intruders they don’t like, they play, have three hearts and a brain in every tentacle.
A naked boy runs for his shirt spread out on a bush before us. There’s a group of fishermen from Pemba camped on the beach. The fishing is good here for five months of the year before the sea gets too rough, when they will return to Pemba for the rest of the year. This has been tradition but their methods are not always legal. Poaching and harmful fishing are the biggest threat to the marine parks.
On one of the landing areas of which there are six, a training facility is built of mud, wattle and bricked with man-made materials. The man in charge is reformed poacher, John. His job is to coach and ensure marine boundaries are respected. Des tells me that the move from subsistence harpooning to commercial fishing and an increasing population means alternative employment needs to be found.
Members of the fishing community’s self governing sacco or cooperative under the Kuruwitu Conservancy pay fifty shillings a month and receive a dividend from fish sold to restaurants in Nairobi. Just outside the hut, a pile of plastic rubbish awaits collection, it will go to a recycling plant to be turned into pellets and then fence posts and other useful things.
At the volunteers’ house, kitted out for gap year students, Benji is turning an arid bit of land into a food forest. His herbs trail from trees and deep compost beds are raised with timber surrounds. They will eventually expand around into the walkways between them where the hay mulch will also turn into a rich soil from the constant battering of footfalls. He’s a spiritual fellow telling me how every creature has a role and the key to living with nature is not to eliminate pests but to control them. Earthworms release nutrients into soil and feed on aphid eggs and aphids are also fed on by ladybird beetles. He also elaborates how a mosquito can travel for miles with you focused on a bite as soon as movement stagnates. There’s no need to kill them he says, just confuse them with several scents known to repel them. And that immediately reminds me of Bill Bryson’s book in which he tells us we should love bats because they eat a lot of mosquitoes, something like six hundred per hour.
I try not to put my hand down on urchin spikes, I’ve had them in my feet before, years ago before this coral reef was decimated by weather, aquarium collectors and over fishing. But here they are again amidst the electric colours of fish and young living coral. Making this turnaround the model for marine conservation won the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association the Equator prize from the United Nations Development Programme last year. Kuruwitu was cited as ‘an outstanding example of nature-based local solutions to sustainable development.’ From 1000 applicants, there were 50 winners and Kuruwitu topped the list. They danced towards the prize, wearing Mijikenda costumes in New York.
The project is not yet self sustaining. Donor money continues to be a requirement and at present only the European Union provides foreign cash, the rest is obtained locally.
At the heart of the organisation are buildings made of shipping containers under makuti or palm thatch roofs. A woman cuts a dress pattern on the floor whilst her baby sleeps on a mattress beside her. There are two sewing machines for seamstresses. And a tank supplying fresh water. In the office, a young medic from Kwale University is doing some research on family planning and tells us he is here for the WiFi. Des tells him that’s exactly what the facilities are for. Further out there’s a carpenter’s workshop, from where furniture from old dhows is made.
This bringing together of community has made proud people. As we drive along the length of a now fallen wall I’m told that all this land still belongs to the Sultan of Oman. It remains unsettled and common. But someone tried to grab it and built the wall. The locals who have been using this land since the 1800s came together and tore the illegal structure down.
And as Vipingo develops, it will become known for more than just it’s beautiful golf course on the ridge. It is the only Professional Golf Association rated course in East Africa. Down below the ridge, women harvest sisal leaves on their heads. Along with marine askaris and scouts, the plantations, renovations and construction will continue to create alternative employment to fisherfolk. What will define this place however, is the conservancy’s ethos which brings honour to the community and that you can jump into the resident marine park from the beach bar. Where, you’ll see sea stars, lobster’s whiskers, long, puffer and butterfly fish at the very least.
Des Bowden is the chairman of the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association.