reprinted from The Aspen Times, July 13, 2001
Trip to Dark Continent inspires Friends of Africa
By Scott Condon, Aspen Times Staff Writer
It's not every day you think of barbed wire as a great gift to give
someone. Then again, it's not every day you visit people who have
wildebeests running through their gardens or gnus gnawing their
There is a school in the Maasai Mara region of southern Kenya that can
protect its gardens from various large mammals today thanks to the
contributions of the Aspen-based Friends of Africa International.
A group of 16 Aspenites traveled to Kenya last month to check out the
fruits of their efforts over the last 13 years since their
organization's founding. In between sightseeing safaris at three of the
reserves and parks of Kenya, they took time out to help fill the wish
list of items needed at an isolated school.
They presented the kids and administrators with chalk, textbooks,
pencils, pads of paper, soccer balls, garden implements and, yes, barbed
In return, the Aspen contingent was treated to native dancing, poetry,
speeches and gifts of beads from roughly 75 schoolchildren and their
"They're very festive. They make a big deal out of the event," said
Scarlett Adams, co-founder and president of Friends of Africa. "They
plan this for weeks."
The Aspenites purchased about $1,500 worth of items that the school
needed. The expenditure came from a fund maintained by Friends of
Africa's ongoing efforts to help the people and animals of the Dark
Adams and Bonnie Bishop started Friends of Africa International in 1988
to raise awareness of issues facing Africa and to provide insight into
its culture. It made a splash a year later when then-Pitkin County
Commissioner and Friends of Africa member Jim True spoke of the evils of
the ivory trade and its decimation of elephants.
Since then, the organization has quietly collected funds from donors
throughout the United States and channeled the money to organizations
like Ian Douglas-Hamilton's Save the Elephants Research Camp.
"Throughout the years we've been associated with a number of projects in
Africa in wildlife protection and education," said Adams. "I'm
interested in helping because I think Africa is the forgotten corner of
the world for many people."
Adams has been to Africa five times, but some members of the organization never had the opportunity.
"I've been involved with this group for 12 years and never been to the
continent before," said True, vice president of Friends of Africa. He
made this trip along with his 13-year-old son, James, who is entering
eighth grade at Aspen Middle School.
True said his son kept track of the number of lions they saw on safari
and came up with about 25, including a pride of 13 that had two or three
cubs. The Aspen group was guided through the Amboseli National Park and
the Samburu and Maasai Mara national reserves by vehicle. Their Land
Rovers were allowed to roam among the wildlife as long as they stayed on
Sometimes the vehicles were able to drive right up to a lion pride,
among foraging elephants and, in one fortuitous instance, alongside a
cheetah that chased a hare.
True said the abundance and accessibility of wildlife were amazing.
"I've now seen a lot more lions and cheetahs that I have seen mountain
lions in Colorado," he said.
Wildlife aside, one of the most inspiring parts of the trip was a visit
to a research center recently built by Save the Elephants in the Samburu
Reserve. The building was constructed in large part from donations made
by Aspenite John McBride, True noted. The high-tech center is helping
the organization with projects such as studying major migration routes
of elephants between protected and unsafe areas.
The group visited three schools on the trip, including one that Adams
assisted on a trip to Africa about nine years ago. She said it was
moving to see the saplings she had planted with school kids now matured
into towering trees.
True said the most memorable part of the trip was the presentation to
the school. Despite the hardships the Kenyans face, they are a happy,
"You saw how the children were all friendly and upbeat," he said.
Adams said she keeps returning to Africa because of its people. They are
appreciative of what they have, they respect their elders and their
families remain important.
"There's tremendous poverty in Africa if we apply our standards," she
said. But in many other ways, African people like the Maasai are a rich
people because of their lifestyle, Adams said.
She felt it was important for members of the Aspen organization to
experience the continent firsthand, so Adams was able to arrange a good
group price for the trip.
The Aspenites learned about two causes that they may become involved in.
Members were awed by the work performed by the David Sheldrick Wildlife
Trust. Its work to reintroduce orphaned baby elephants back into the
wild was particularly impressive, said True.
Friends of Africa International, a tax-exempt organization, is
negotiating a relationship where it would collect donations in the U.S.
for the wildlife trust.
The group also visited tribal elders in an extremely secluded village
near the Kenya border with Tanzania. Friends of Africa member Gayle
Johnson, who works at The Aspen Times, said about 25 elders came out to
make a pitch for help building a school and clinic for the village. The
women and children kept their distance.
The scene was like something from the Old West, with Native Americans
cautiously seeking assistance from the white men, Johnson said.
Hopefully this relationship will work out better. Friends of Africa will
explore raising funds for those facilities.
Johnson said she was inspired to join Friends of Africa after her first
trip to the continent in 1990. She believes this trip will re-energize
all members of the local organization.
And on a personal level, Johnson said she was so impressed again that she would like to take another trip to Africa.
"You think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when you're there you say, 'Oh, I hope I can come back,'" she said.
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