For 35 years, public relations executive Colin Church had a successful career in media and communications in Kenya. Then at the age of 60, he reinvented himself into a conservationist.
In his recently released memoir, Mel-el-Lek’s Mountain, Church opens up about his great passion for the natural world and his time leading one of Kenya’s most prominent conservation bodies.
Rather than a chronological review of events, Church’s story opens with a fictional character called Mel-el-Lek, the eponymous hero. He is from the Wandorobo community of hunter-gatherers found in Kenya and Tanzania. Mel-el-Lek’s people live in the forests of the Aberdare Mountain Range of central Kenya and it is through his eyes that we journey through the region, from pre-independence Kenya into modern times.
Chapters begin with scenes of the slim-legged, clear-eyed Mel-el-Lek crossing virgin landscapes or smiling contentedly at wildlife in almost idyllic fashion. The tales of this hunter and honey collector bring an indigenous perspective to a narrative often viewed from the experiences of European explorers, colonial communities and descendants of British settlers.
One of the longest chapters is devoted to the Mau Mau freedom struggle which played out strongly in the Aberdare Mountain. Church, the son of an English missionary, presents nothing new to the reflections many white Africans reviewing this period with an undertone of denial. Rebellion against British rule is blamed on oathing ceremonies that turned progressive minded Africans “abruptly into killers” and the global rise of extreme ideologies such as Nazism and Communism.
However, the most absorbing parts of the book cover Church’s 12 years at the helm of Rhino Ark, a Kenyan conservation body that spearheaded the fortification of the Aberdare Mountain. It is a key national water catchment that was under threat from forest degradation. Mel-el Lek’s Mountain is eye-opening for unfolding the events that changed the fortunes of the vital ecosystem.
Church had little experience in natural resource administration but lots of interest and vast public relations expertise. “The perception remained that wildlife was for foreigners to ogle at and click on camera,” writes Church, a Kenyan who grew up near Mt Kenya.
He takes us behind the scenes, explaining the difficulties facing a cash-tight, fledgling organisation with an enormous mandate. He talks about the constant challenge of raising enough funds to keep projects alive, interference by politically connected individuals pushing personal agendas and addressing the needs of thousands forest-edge communities at the frontline of human-wildlife conflict.
During Church’s tenure Rhino Ark completed the construction of a 400km protective electric fence in 2009. It is the longest conservation fence in the Africa.
In 2017 Church was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by UK’s Queen Elizabeth II for “services to conservation, the environment and communities” in Kenya.
The book is written in smooth flowing speech and perhaps because Church not a scientist by profession, the language is uncomplicated. As a home grown conservationist, Church brings a hands-on assessment of what has worked and not worked in environmental management. He makes a strong case for wilderness management that benefits people such as controlled cropping of excess wildlife populations, consumptive use of game animals by landowners or managing state forest through schemes that promote self-sufficiency by smallholder farmers.
He also gives interesting anecdotes from yesteryear that directly or indirectly influenced Rhino Ark. The Safari Rally motor event, from the 1950s to the 1990s, inspired Rhino Charge, the popular off-road race that has been the signature fundraising event for Rhino Ark since 1989. A helicopter crash in the Aberdare in 2004 almost ended the lives of Church and three of Kenya’s top CEOs. The day after Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, a strong proponent of indigenous forests, quit her ministerial job she commissioned a new section of the Rhino Ark fence.
Now 80-years-old, Church is on the board of several conservation organisations and is actively working with communities to protect the Mau Eburu forest. “We need to balance and protect such special assets. They will bring benefits far beyond some of the more obvious and fashionable ways of generating development income,” says Church.