I thought, well then, I'll walk

Lion researcher ran away from home so he could go to school

By Frank Provoost

When Tuqa Jirmo Huqa (43) was nine, he ran away from home – because he wanted to go to school, hundred kilometres away. Last week, he was awarded his doctorate in Leiden for his work
on lion behaviour.

“I’m the youngest of ten. We lived in a remote region in the north of Kenya; we kept cattle and lived as nomads, always looking for water and new pastures for our livestock. That’s how I grew up: roaming from place to place, following the herd.

“When I was about nine, we ended up somewhere new, about a hundred kilometres from our native region. We discovered a school: Nazareth School had been founded by missionaries. When they announced that every child was welcome to attend classes there, I thought, this is my chance.

“I suddenly found myself among children of my own age: we all did our best, we drew pictures together, we learned to read together and of course we all laughed and made friends. It was a completely different life to herding cattle all day long – and much more fun.

“It lasted until my parents decided to return to our native region. I protested, but obviously, I had to go with them. As soon as we arrived home, I wanted to go back. When I try and remember what on earth I was thinking, I can’t really say. I did not stop to think about my family for a moment – I had to get back to school, even though it was a hundred kilometres away.

“One morning I thought, well then, I’ll walk. Even though I was quite used to walking long distances, this was very, very far away. Perhaps I could have done it in one day, but it took me two.

“I was scared when night fell: I would be easy prey in the dark of course. I climbed a tree to pass the night and when I heard predators, I climbed even higher, right to the top, and waited until dawn came.

“I think luck guided me that day. The teacher could hardly believe his eyes. He welcomed me, but kept stressing all the risks I had taken. And of course, I had a problem: I knew no one except him and the children in my class. It wasn’t a boarding school, there were no facilities or anything where I could stay. It was a simple building with muddy walls.

“For the first three weeks, I stayed with a family who took me in, then a missionary helped me out. He put me in contact with a Dutch family, with whom I remained for four years until I went to secondary school.

“Meanwhile, my parents were sick with worry. They had only noticed I was missing in the evening when I didn’t come home. First they tried looking for me, but soon they discovered that my school books were missing too and realised what had happened.

“They accepted it in the end. They had never been to school or experienced the luxury of education. After a time, I visited them to try and explain my actions. It was difficult, but I eventually managed to convince them and since then, I’ve had their support.

“When I left secondary school, I was offered a job as a ranger with the Kenya Wildlife Service. But I wanted more and received several grants, including one from the World Wide Fund for Nature, to study at the University of Nairobi. When I had finished my Master’s degree in Biological Conservation, I went to Leiden on a Nuffic exchange programme for my doctorate.

“For my research, I followed a group of lions in the Amboseli National Park for six years. We had to stun three males and seven females so we could fit them with collars equipped with GPS devices so we could track them.
“It was precisely during that period that the area was struck by a long drought and that meant I could study exactly how the lions responded to it. Which routes did they travel? How far did they travel? How did they adapt their diet? And what was the effect on the local population?

“When the zebras and wildebeests, their most important prey, died in huge numbers because of the drought, the lions were forced to search for other food, which varied between large animals like giraffes and buffaloes to small boars and gazelles.

“Don’t forget, my father has lost cows to lion attacks. It’s very hard for the community to see the value of predators who threaten them and their livestock. I still own cattle. If one were to be attacked by a lion, I would leave it at that but the traditional cattle farmers don’t see it that way. Besides, killing lions is part of a long Maasai tradition; they prefer the males, for their claws and long manes. My research confirms that more males than females are killed. We are still working on projects to demonstrate the ecological importance of lions to the population. It’s hard at times, but we’re slowly getting there. As well as educating and informing the farmers, we are also trying to raise money so we can compensate them, when they lose their livestock.

“I’m heading back to Kenya, two days after being awarded my doctorate. Now I’m the senior park manager at Amboseli and I’m involved in caring for all the animals instead of just lions. My position is better than when I first came to Leiden. There’s more baggage and our instruments have improved; I know much more now and I have better managerial skills. But perhaps I’ll keep on going till I reach the top: the Kenyan government.

“I would like to encourage the whole world: keep believing in a better life. Even though it might seem as if you’ll never have a break, it doesn’t mean it stops there. Follow your dreams, even if you’re a pastoralist who’s never been to school. Besides, you can get help. I had lots and lots of help from everyone around me, as well as the grants.

“I would never have dared to dream of this when I was a boy. I’m a grateful and happy man with four children of my own now. Of course, they go to school and I hope they’ll all grow up to be doctors or professors.”

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