Friday, 22 November 2013


Sometimes life swiftly pushes you on to new challenges while you’you've only beginning to get bored with whatever routine you’re in.

The change might be a welcomed and long-awaited one, like a Master’s student of the University of Nairobi getting a scholarship to immediately go and finish his studies in Europe. Or it might be more of a surprise task you’re able and available but not prepared to do.

Now, this is a research station of the University of Helsinki in Kenya. The foreign ministry of Finland is naturally interested in using that station as a tool also for development cooperation in addition to research, Kenya being one of the long-term partnering countries of Finnish development cooperation. The Kenyan government has for many reasons great interest in the management of forest resources and Finns, if anyone, have expertise in this with the Uni. of Helsinki in particular having expertise in using GPS-receivers, satellite images, computer software and what not (all in all called Geographical Information Systems or GIS) within the management of forests.

So let the GIS people of the University of Helsinki do some training of the forest people of the Kenyan government! The former one takes the form of a PhD student from Helsinki and the latter one the form of a group of personnel from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). A course is organized, with the practical fieldwork taking place where else but in the Taita Hills and based in the research station.

Only that the guy from Uni. of Nairobi, a Master’s Student, who was supposed to be an instructor on the course, has received a scholarship and skittered off the Europe to finish his degree. But hey, there’s this guy hanging around Taita Hills who has done some GIS during his studies, he will have to do! Now these poor participants will have to do with me as a struggling assisting instructor; a teacher of some kind. It’s not like I could have refusez after having had so much support for being here in the first place. And yes, there are other benefits in it for me.

The fieldwork
And so I find myself leading (That’s really not the right word… Herding? Following? Participating?) a group of six ‘students’ and a taxonomist (A guy I otherwise call a friend and research assistant) on fieldwork in someone’s maize field, looking for and identifying different tree species indigenous to the Taita Hills. Someone might be able to picture me there and especially my overflowing confidence in doing this.

The work
After hiking to, finding, identifying and marking down coordinates of indigenous trees around, we’re in for three long and intense days staring at the screen. They ask: What can we actually do with what we know and what we’ve gathered on the field, and how? And so we enter the dark world of computer software.

Even with ten participants and two instructors, it’s proper job helping out people who are not very familiar with the software, using programs that don’t always work as they should (my subjective view), given a certain degree of a language barrier.

Still, after this week these guys and gals should be able to do their work in protecting Kenya’s forests more effectively by using an extra eye up in the sky (satellite images), their own  eyes and knowledge with appropriate (Free for downloading!) software. Are they? At least I am now: If you need to learn how to really use a program, try teaching it to someone else!

The class
It’s been great not only to actually see how a western research station in practice tries to have an impact on lives in its developing country setting but also to be a part of it, if only a small one. If any research needs to put an overemphasis on its positive results for communities, it’s that done by ‘good’ western research institutions in the ‘third world’.

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