Swim, turtle, swim!

Posted on March, 09 2001

The women of Kiwayu in Kenya are making money from waste and benefiting the turtles, and that makes Julie Church very happy. She is managing a WWF project in the Kenya's Kiunga Reserve where her day-to-day work is as varied as it is busy.
Kiunga Reserve, Kenya: Still twenty more long and dangerous metres across the sandy beach. Will the little creature make it? There is an awful lot of garbage in the way and that takes time to negotiate. But there is only a little time. Crabs are lurking, birds are circling - waiting for their juicy prey. Suddenly a gentle hand reaches out for the tiny turtle baby and tenderly carries it to the ocean. It's Julie Church's hand. She smiles and waves farewell to her endangered charge.

If only everything was as easy as that. For three years the environmental scientist and geographer has led the WWF ocean project on Kenya's east coast.

The 250km2 Kiunga Reserve has been in existence for more than 20 years. Wonderful mangrove woods still skirt the winding bays and Kenya's best fishing ground bears testament to the richness of nature. But what appears to be paradise is threatened. In 1998 'El Nino' destroyed a large area of the corals on the widely branched reefs along the coast. And mangrove timber is in great demand as the only building and fuel supply. "There will be even more demand", says Julie Church. She is convinced of that. It's a battle against time - even here.

The petite Kenyan took over the WWF project in June 1997. "We are a team," she is keen to emphasise. This team consists of eight fulltime employees, and the project also relies on many people from the reserve who are offered paid employment on a temporary basis. Julie Church does not only bring along the much needed expertise to the project, she also speaks fluent Swahili. This is essential because communicating with the local population is a vital link for the project's success

"We support those who can come up with a good idea and a feasible plan. We are not a bottomless pit that can come up with donated cash at random. I demand a great deal of effort and hard work," she adds. It's what she demands of herself too. Her day-to-day work is as varied as it is busy. In the WWF office - fully equipped with computers and satellite phones - there is a great deal of work to do. Project and budget plans, personnel administration and work schedules all have to be dealt with. Is the boat ready to be launched? Has the jeep been repaired? Then off to the ocean. Diving for data recording, and again and again trips to the villages. Julie likes taking the 10-minute boat ride to the 10-km long Kiwayu Island where she always gets a warm welcome. Together the women here have managed to set up a very successful project.

"Polluted beaches gave the initial idea for the venture," Miss Church says, "It was not only a hygienic problem for the people, but also a great hurdle for the female turtles who come here to lay their eggs. It was even more of a problem for the freshly hatched turtles that have to reach the ocean. Thousands of plastic beach shoes are continually being washed ashore. The brilliant idea was to encourage children and fishermen to collect the shoes and take them to the women who in turn convert them into key rings, mobiles, serviette holders and fridge magnets, which are sold in hotels and markets. WWF-Switzerland has just placed a significant order.

For the first time the women of the village community (400 inhabitants) have their own money at their disposal. This recycling handiwork brings in up to 5,000 Kenyan shillings (US$65) a month. That's more than the men earn by fishing.

Many women in this part of Kenya bring up their children alone - often they are second or third wives. This new income therefore brings the women welcome independence. They are able to buy clothes, improve their households and educate their children. Currently there are about 80 children attending school in Kiwayu - almost half of them girls. "They all love coming here," says school principal Bohero. A few months ago he received the first school books from WWF. For Julie Church this is an important investment. "I would like to employ women in my project," she explains, "but most of them can neither read nor write; they marry young, bear children, and then they are left to do all the work."

Negotiating with the village chiefs is a great challenge for the WWF project leader. Although Julie Church is accepted as an authority, not everybody sees the sense or purpose behind WWF's work. "Why not extend hospitals and schools instead?" they ask. "People must first understand that an intact environment is their most essential resource" is Church's answer. For this reason she also includes environmental education in the project. An the heart of the WWF camp is the Education Centre. Haroun and Abdul, her two deputies, readily explain the consequences of over-fishing and of too intensive deforestation to the visitors to the reserve. This year, for the first time, WWF staff organized a "Day of the Environment" in five villages. Beaches and villages were cleared of rubbish and a proper waste disposal was organized.

Late in the evening Julie Church falls onto the couch in her airy house overlooking the ocean. She sometimes has pleasant dreams. But her busy life doesn't give her much chance for daydreaming. The following day's work has to be organized and she is already making plans for the future. How long will she carry on with this demanding job? She shrugs her shoulders. "It just needs time�"

Then she talks about the turtles that return to their place of origin to lay their eggs and hatch out their young - thirty years after they themselves, as tiny babies, had struggled over the sand to reach the water. Perhaps one day she will meet that tiny turtle again, the one she so gently carried to the ocean in the palm of her hand this morning.

(1,000 words)

To order a key-ring contact: WWF Panda SA, Hohlstrasse 110, 8010, Zurich Tel: +41 22 1 297 2323. Click on to the website in Related Links.

*Urs Spinner is a Communications Officer in WWF Switzerland, Zürich

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