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Goodbye and good luck to Kakuta Hamisi

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications

Many of you have met Kakuta Hamisi, and if you have, you won’t forget him or his incredible, inspirational stories. In his 12 years as cultural interpreter at the zoo, Kakuta has shared his stories of his life experiences growing up and engaging in conservation work in rural Kenya with nearly 100,000 zoo visitors!

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

You’ve probably taken a tour with him through our African Savanna exhibit, or heard him talking out by the hippo exhibit about his work restoring waterholes in his native Kenya.

And if you have met Kakuta and been inspired by his experiences, you’ll understand why it’s now so hard for us to say goodbye as he prepares to head back to Kenya for a major new step in his life—running for the Minister of Parliament position for the newly created Kajiado East Constituency that stretches from Chyulu Hills National Park to the outskirts of Nairobi City. The constituency has an estimated population of 124,000 Maasai pastoralists, and the position would allow Kakuta to grow as a leader in community building and conservation, the same passions that he has shared with us all of these years.

Kakuta, with a firm foothold in two different worlds, has had an enormous impact on the lives of those of us who have come to know him, making the world smaller for us and giving us and our visitors an increased awareness that our actions here have global consequences.

Woodland Park Zoo’s connection with Kakuta straddled both worlds as well. When he was not here in Seattle acting as our lead cultural interpreter, he was back in his homeland, where the zoo helped support conservation and community building efforts. Woodland Park Zoo and our strong base of volunteers and community supporters have helped make many things possible through this partnership: building a new well in the Merrueshi region; new schoolrooms serving 250 additional Maasai children and the Waterholes Restorations project in the Merrueshi valley.

Courtesy of Waterholes Restoration Project.

The Waterholes Restoration Project began in 2007 with just 6 waterholes—today they have 28 completed waterholes and will be finishing off that program with a final four waterholes this year—bringing the grand total to 32. These restored waterholes are functioning and attracting even more wildlife, including oryx, which had not been seen in the area in recent years because of drought conditions.

Before he leaves us at the end of this month to return home, we asked Kakuta to share some of his highlights from his years working with you all and the zoo.

What do you think is the true value of the cultural interpreter program you helped found at the zoo?

Kakuta: The cultural interpreter program brings a unique perspective from the people who share the savanna with wildlife. This program compliments Woodland Park Zoo conservation efforts beyond Seattle. The cultural interpreter program also authenticates the experience such as the African safari program around the zoo’s African Savanna. For example, human and wildlife conflict is a daily problem in the savannas of Africa and a cultural interpreter from Kenya can help the zoo’s visitors understand the issues and solutions faced with people and wildlife in Africa.

How has your partnership with the zoo impacted your village in Kenya?

Kakuta: Impact from Woodland Park Zoo to my village has been tremendous. With the zoo’s support we have been able to build two classrooms at our local school and restored over 30 waterholes shared by Maasai pastoralists and wildlife. This program has helped to improve human and wildlife conflict in the area. More cattlemen are becoming tolerant to wildlife simply because of the waterhole conservation project. The number of wildlife has increased in the area because of this project. We have been able to establish a wildlife club in our schools because of the waterhole project.

What is your favorite memory of working at the zoo?

Kakuta: The heartwarming support I received from my coworkers. The support I have received from my coworkers, zoo volunteers and Woodland Park Zoo management made me feel at home away from my village in Kenya.

What do you hope to accomplish for your community in the Minister of Parliament position you are pursuing?

Kakuta: If I get elected I’ll be able to do more than build schools and water systems. I’ll be a member of a legislative body that creates and enacts laws, policies and socio-economic development projects for the Maasai. Most importantly, the new position will allow me to advance my efforts in wildlife and habitat conservation beyond the Merrueshi area.

From my experience in Africa people are willing to tolerate and protect wildlife and habitat when they receive benefits from it.  It is my hope that Woodland Park Zoo will continue its strong commitment for habitat and wildlife conservation effort beyond the northwest. Direct investment to local communities, living side by side with wildlife, will yield excellent results for habitat and wildlife conservation.

It’s hard to say goodbye, but we know all of our zoo fans will join us in wishing Kakuta and his community all the best! Kakuta will be around at the zoo this Friday and Saturday, July 27-28, giving his well-loved presentations out at the African Savanna exhibit, so stop by to say goodbye and good luck!