Drawing Upon Community in Tanzania

Maasai homestead, Living Walls acrylic by alison Nicholls, Alison Nicholls teaching art.

left to right: Maasai homestead © APW/DLeowinata; Living Walls acrylic; Alison Nicholls teaching art at APW.

My 2nd Conservation Sketching Expedition involved 3 visits to the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW) between July 2011 and June 2014. APW works with rural communities on the Maasai Steppe in northern Tanzania, helping both adults and children develop their skills, to allow them to manage their natural resources for the mutual benefit of people & wildlife. During my 2-week visits I created many field sketches, taught art classes for local school children and learned about the wide variety of APW community and conservation programs. My field sketches, studio paintings and information about APW became part of my traveling exhibition, titled Lions, Livestock & Living Walls: an Artistic Study of Community & Conservation in Tanzania. The exhibition has visited 8 venues so far, in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, with a % of sale proceeds being donated to APW. As of January 2015, donations to APW have reached US$10,000 and the exhibition continues on to new venues.

Living Wall newly planted, wire for Living Walls, Living Wall in wet season, photos by Alison Nicholls

left to right: newly planted Living Wall, wire for Living Walls, wet season Living Wall.

Living Walls
A major focus of my expedition was to learn about APW’s work preventing human-wildlife conflict. Many members of the local communities are Maasai and own considerable herds of livestock, which are the basis of a family’s wealth and their means of survival. If livestock are killed by predators (who roam inside and outside the unfenced national parks and village lands) there are often retaliatory killings of predators by people. Predator numbers all over Africa are on the decline, so protecting these free-roaming lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs and smaller predators is vital to their long term survival.

Maasai Boma and Leaving the Boma, field sketches by Alison Nicholls

left to right: Maasai Boma; Leaving the Boma; field sketches by Alison Nicholls

One way APW works to reduce human-wildlife conflict is with the construction of Living Walls, bomas (corrals) used to hold livestock at night.  Traditional bomas are created by cutting and piling up thorny acacia branches, but these need to be replaced every few months and cutting the trees leads to deforestation. Living Walls, as the name suggests, are built from living fence posts from the Commiphora tree species (cutting even thick branches does not kill the tree), combined with wire chain link fencing. APW contracts with individual families to install a Living Wall, focusing first on homesteads where levels of livestock depredation have been high in the past. The family pay 25% of the cost of the wire, and cut the Commiphora posts then APW provides instruction on the installation, although the family provide the labor.

Depredation events (the killing of livestock by predators) in and around Loibor Siret were reduced by 60% when only 30% of bomas were Living Walls, but new installations mean that as of spring 2015 there are more than 400 Living Walls in place, protecting 75 000 head of livestock, and they have been 99.9% effective in preventing depredation events at bomas (the .01% ineffective was due to boma gates not being correctly closed or animals not being placed in the boma). There have been no incidents of retaliatory attacks on carnivores by people who have Living Wall bomas. The walls reduce habitat destruction because they do not require repeated cutting of thorn bushes like traditional bomas, and they reduce the burden on women, because they require no maintenance. Significantly, they also found that the reduction in depredation events due to construction of fortified bomas, did not increase the number of carnivore attacks on non-fortified bomas or on livestock at pasture. Had this been the case, they could have been reducing depredation at the boma, only to increase it elsewhere. Instead, the evaluation of long-term data showed that Living Walls are an effective conservation tool and should be considered by communities elsewhere aiming to reduce human-carnivore conflict.

Alison Nicholls being dressed in shukas, with Joyce Ndakaru and Dr Lichtenfeld, at the village exhibit, painting the school wall

left to right: Alison Nicholls at Loibor Siret school; Joyce Ndakaru, Alison and Dr Lichtenfeld; Alison talks about her art at the village exhibit; painting the school wall. Photos © APW/DLeowinata

Village Exhibit
My June 2014 visit was a whirlwind of activity. I helped design and paint classrooms and a mural for the end wall of the Loibor Siret school, I was invited to be guest of honor at the official end of school session, and I organized a Village Exhibit. The exhibit consisted of laminated copies of all the sketches I created during my visits to the area, plus large poster copies of studio paintings, including several of my conservation-themed artworks. These were hung around the school, along with artwork by the children I taught during my visits. The sketches were given away as prizes to children from the Noloholo Simba Club (school wildlife club set up by APW) during a quiz in which the children were asked questions about their environment or about Tanzania. The posters were given to APW to use in the decoration of the Noloholo Environmental Center (APW’s headquarters) and the Loibor Siret library. The idea behind the village exhibit was to allow children to see an art exhibition showing the beauty of their homes, the people who live there and the wildlife which shares the land.

Rangeland & Water Seminars
In the dry season immigrants escaping drought in the north often bring their livestock to Loibor Siret and surrounding communities to find water and grazing. They cut trees to build temporary bomas & their animals graze and trample pasture, causing seasonal rainfall to run-off rather than replenish the water table. APW’s Geographic Information Systems mapping showed that immigrants were being directed to take their livestock into an area which is the watershed for the Loibor Siret stream, the only water source for the village, even though the flow of the stream has been declining each year. Concern within the community about the health of their pasture and water source prompted the Reto-o Reto committee (‘interdependence’ in KiMaasai) to approach APW and request Rangelands and Water Management Seminars. The seminars, jointly funded by APW and The Nature Conservancy, resulted in the creation of the Girigiri Watershed Conservation Area to protect the watershed by removing permanent settlements or farms, and ensuring that only goats and calves (not full grown cattle) can be grazed there. Ongoing drought will test the exclusion of cattle but this is a wonderful first step in the conservation of pasture and water, for the benefit of all.


APW Children’s Summer Camp
My July 2011 visit to APW was scheduled to coincide with the 2nd Children’s Summer Camp of 2011. 24 children from 2 local primary schools stayed, free of charge, at the Noloholo Environmental Center for a week, to learn about a wide range of topics associated with the conservation of their local environment. I taught sketching classes during the Summer Camp and watched the infectious enthusiasm of the children as they soaked up all the lessons, outings and educational games. Many of these children pass on the lessons to their parents and younger siblings and they even arrange their own village clean-ups and have attended the local Monday market to explain to adults why it is important to look after natural resources.

Alison Nicholls sketching among the Maasai in Tanzania © African People & Wildlife Fund / Deirdre Leowinata

left to right: Alison Nicholls sketching at a Maasai celebration; sketching among the moran at a wedding. Photos © APW/DLeowinata

Sketching among the Maasai
APW works closely with the local community, many of whom are Maasai. I knew it would be wonderful to sketch some of the large cattle herds and the Maasai in their colorful shukas (robes), however I am always careful to ask for permission and not offend anyone in any way. But the great thing about having a sketchbook is that people can come up and look over your shoulder at your sketches. I found that most people were interested in what I was doing and the Maasai enjoyed seeing me sketching their prized possession – cattle. I always send laminated copies of sketches back to the people who appear in them, and it was wonderful to see the reaction of many in the community who welcomed me back on subsequent visits.


APW recognizes that the future of African peoples and the future of African wildlife are inextricably linked because it is virtually impossible to conserve wildlife while people nearby live in poverty. The most effective conservation programs are usually those which are made by local communities and which also benefit local communities. Through education and empowerment programs, APW believes that local communities can achieve increased income and opportunities by conserving their own unique natural heritage.

Conservation-themed paintings based on my visit to APW. Click on the images to read more about these paintings.

Maize Maze by Alison Nicholls

Maize Maze

Living Walls, acrylic on canvas 29x29" by Alison Nicholls

Living Walls

Elephant! © Alison Nicholls 2013

Elephant! Tembo!

Alison Nicholls' new Book featuring Art from Tanzania

Art Inspired by Africa Book: Tanzania

See my African Field Sketches.
Learn more about the African People & Wildlife Fund.