Where do I start?
Maybe the monkeys on the roof, waking me up in Nairobi? Or the vast herds of elephant I followed across the lush grassy plains of Amboseli National Park with Norah and Katito who monitor the elephants, learning each one has a name and each a unique personality.
It could be the lioness who walked through my garden two nights running. Or, teaching the irrepressibly lively schoolchildren of Olmito Primary School how to draw elephants. The stunningly wild beauty of Kenya. The Lion Guardians’ permanent tented camp in the very middle of the bush. The magnificently ever-changing Mount Kilimanjaro, catching dawn’s early light. The knowing appraisals and hard bargaining at the Maasai cattle market in Kimana. Trying to capture a baboon’s questioning expression as I draw it from the top of a Land Rover. Watching a pair of lions behind long grass who are watching a warthog getting closer, closer, ever fatally closer. Seeing the effectiveness of predator-proof bomas encircling Maasai dwellings, and meeting the communities whose lives have improved as a consequence of them.
Tracking lions by following their paw prints in the dusty red earth. The many stories of Martin who drives for Born Free. The large poisonous snake we were certain we saw slithering into our Land Rover while we were having our lunch... and then having to drive immediately afterwards, expecting it to strike at any moment. A train journey from the Hay Festival which was the start of the conversation. Or perhaps meeting Virginia McKenna OBE and talking about Born Free, artists in residence and how they might create a new story together.
I’ve been in Kenya for a couple of weeks already, researching, painting and writing. Gathering material for a book, a visual travelogue that will show the natural wonders I see, the dangers faced by them and the different ways organisations and charities like Born Free are trying to protect them.
The richness of nature here is overwhelming. There’s so much to take in. Everywhere I look, I see something truly incredible. Life here feels abundant. Of course, it’s not... it’s fragile. A friend of mine who knows Kenya well said to me ‘Breathe it in, because it’s not going to last.’
Think of these two figures. There are 20,000 lions left living in the wild in Africa and, in the last decade, 10,000 lions have died through poaching or hunting. Put those figures together and you see how precarious their existence is. Which is to speak of one species only.
What can an artist in residence achieve in a conversation about conservation? I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books for children for 15 years. In that time, I’ve learnt how foundational a good children’s book can be. When children love a book, the message it tells is driven in deeply and stays, sometimes all their lives. If I can create a book that engenders a love of nature in children along with an understanding of the threats to it’s survival, perhaps, when they’re grown and assuming positions of responsibility, they will want to be better stewards of the natural world than we have been. Drawing and painting are ways of communicating a message that can’t always be achieved with words, ways of expressing how we see and experience the beauty of the world. A way that children respond to naturally.
We live in an increasingly urbanised world, ever more detached from nature and its rhythms. The more disconnected we become, the less we understand what animals need in order to survive us. Their wild habitat is encroached by us in all places. Do we make allowances for nature as we expand our world into theirs? How does an elephant travel from one range to another in the modern world, when now there are roads, villages and farmers’ fields crossing their ancient routes? What do we do when a subsistence farmer, whose crops and livelihood have been trampled, spears an elephant in retaliation for this destruction?
I’m not a conservation expert, but, working with Born Free, I have the chance, at first hand, to witness nature as lived in the wild and to learn from those at the top of their field who are trying to solve the human-wildlife conflict cycle. My journey of discovery into Kenya’s wild beautiful places, will be shared by all who read the book we publish, in libraries, schools and at home with their parents. I hope its message will go in deeply. Children marched last week trying to urge us to finally take action to protect the natural world. I hope, when they’re in charge, they’ll be able to do much more than we have done. We can help by sharing with them the knowledge they’ll need to make a difference.
I’ll be publishing this book with Born Free in the next year. In the meantime, I’ll be updating the progress of the residency on Born Free’s website, and on my Twitter and Instagram feeds. I hope you’d like to share this journey too.