Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

New course puts students face to face with the challenges facing people and animals

A new University of Denver travel-abroad course — Social Work in Kenya: Context, Empowerment, and Sustainability — introduced graduate students to the complexities facing conservation efforts for the protection of animals and people living in economic poverty, though rich in cultural heritage, last quarter.

The course, inaugurated by DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, was born of a desire to put into action a core concept of conservation social work called “person in environment.”

Jos Ngonyo, director of the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), teamed up with David Gies, GSSW adjunct faculty and Philip Tedeschi, a GSSW clinical associate professor, to develop the service-learning course to expand the school’s international social work and human/animal connection curriculum.

The syllabus informs the participant that the course is not “cultural voyeurism or academic tourism,” but rather as Tedeschi says, “a way of letting students be in the setting and see the resiliency and how the people cope, help foster solutions and learn to be global citizens.”

As part of the class, Kenya became 14 DU students’ classroom. The students camped in tents, ate local food and worked with communities to help establish sustainable solutions to problems that these communities face.

“The fact is you can’t begin to help until you thoroughly understand the environment and culture where help is needed,” Tedeschi says.

“Yes, the idea is to actually walk the paths between villages to realize, touch and experience the circumstances of people seeking ways to balance their needs with resources — including the wildlife surrounding them,” says Gies, who also serves as executive director of the Animal Assistance Foundation and board president of ANAW’s U.S. chapter.

Students found themselves in the middle of difficult environments. Early in the course, they spent time learning about micro-finance projects and innovative education programs in Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. Designated an illegal settlement, Kibera is home to nearly two million people. Those people live on a plot of land the size of New York’s Central Park without running water, sanitation, schools or medical care.

Another challenging day included traveling the 30,000-acre Kipiti ranch on foot
undertaking animal welfare de-snaring operations to help combat poaching and the bush meat trade.

The 14 social work graduate students, GSSW faculty and ANAW staff took part in a de-snaring exercise that successfully removed 289 wire snares, identified 12 fresh carcasses and two animals — a hartebeest and a Wildebeest — were live released.

“Working to release the Wildebeest gave me one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had,” says Donovan Webb, one of the students in the course. The close encounter with animal rescue helped students learn that the welfare of animals and people are inextricably linked. Wildebeest may disappear because up to 100,000 are killed annually by poachers desperate for food.

Tedeschi describes the issues as “very complex” because local communities are frequently the home for poachers who may rely on their catch for food or income. To better understand the poachers’ lives, students again experienced “person in environment” when staying with and working alongside families who may snare animals but whose daily lives include farming fields, walking a half-mile to get water, cooking and finding wood to burn to make charcoal. Then they discussed with residents alternatives to the bush meat trade and environmental conservation.

Part of the solution lies in strategic economics: One of the efforts promoted by ANAW is the “swords to ploughshare” program — a Biblical reference toward peace among people and stewardship towards animals. Ngonyo promotes retrieving snare wire and giving it to local artisans who fashion the wire into art that depicts the animals they might otherwise trap.

Gies and ANAW staffers have spearheaded another thriving project that involves helping a group of women basket weavers sell their hand-made baskets. DU has donated a brick-making machine that helps local people avoid burning wood, which reduces stress on animal habitat. The bricks are then sold with the proceeds going toward community development efforts.

Webb says he’ll never forget the trip. After Webb helped a local woman build a new house — with bricks from the donated brick-making machine — he listened as the woman and her family and friends expressed their gratitude by singing to him and his fellow volunteers.

“It hit me so hard and it was so beautiful, I had to splash water on my face to hide my tears,” Webb says. “To me, as an African-American, it felt like a welcome home.”

The long trip home was filled with time to think. The experience provided indelible lessons leaving students permanently changed and fostering ideas, solutions and new friendships.

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