Published: September 2008
Bush Wısdom
Old school + new school = one woman’s formula for conservation.
Text by Sveva Gallmann

Sveva Gallmann knows there’s no place like home. Especially if home happens to be Ol ari Nyiro, a 100,000-acre private wildlife reserve in northern Kenya. For Gallmann, 28, daughter of environmentalist and best-selling author Kuki Gallmann, childhood in this wilderness was like an advanced seminar in conservation. Now she’s turned her backyard into an outdoor academy where the traditions of her Kikuyu, Turkana, Samburu, Nandi, and Kalenjin neighbors form the core of her eco-curriculum.

"We’ve bemoaned the loss of biodiversity for years," she says. "But ethnic diversity is eroding much faster. The people I grew up with are dropping their own traditions in exchange for a mediocre version of Western culture."

To stem this surge of globalization, Gallmann established the Four Generations Project, whose mission is to preserve the songs, stories, and rituals of indigenous peoples and to connect schoolchildren with their heritage. "Kids go off to formal schools for education and aren’t learning what their elders have to pass down," she says. "This is about getting them to see that their cultures still have great value, even in today’s Western paradigm."

In 2003 she began hosting tribal youngsters at Ol ari Nyiro. Traditional herbalists led nature walks; local farmers fielded questions. Village elders explained ancient ways of predicting rain, followed by a local schoolteacher’s meteorology lesson. Lending scientific credence to ancestral knowledge, Gallmann says, gave the kids added respect for their cultures.

With funding from the Ford Foundation and others, Four Generations is launching similar projects in Romania and Guatemala. "It’s often the scientists and policymakers who are called upon to preserve big tracts of land and wildlife," Gallmann says, "but without the locals on board, you don’t stand a chance. They have such an intricate, encyclopedic knowledge of their ecosystem—far superior to that of any outside expert—even if they do describe things in terms of sacred places and river spirits rather than scientifically. Their lyricism and poetry bring the land to life. And, ultimately, I think, it’s our emotional connection to the environment that’s going to save it."