Off the Clock: Connie Kirkland Follows Her Fancy to Africa

Posted: June 16, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Nick Walker

Most members of the Mason community know Connie Kirkland as the director of Sexual Assault Services. She is also a professor in Women’s Studies and Administration of Justice.

But what you might not know is that Kirkland has a fascination with Africa, where she has traveled several times.

“I have been interested in lions for a very long time and needed to see them up close and in person,” says Kirkland, who took her first trip in 1975 with her husband. The two traveled throughout Kenya and Tanzania with the help of a guide.

“One day, we saw 22 majestic lions on the Serengeti plain,” says Kirkland. “We saw wildebeests running over the river, and on another day we got chased by a rhino while in our Jeep driving in the bush country. Rhinos are one of the most dangerous animals over there since they are known to use their horns to pick up a Jeep and toss it into the air.”

Connie Kirkland in Africa
Connie Kirkland, director of Sexual Assault Services, on one of her trips to Africa

Kirkland continues, “At first, we didn’t see any leopards, but our guide started out one day saying, ‘today, we will find a leopard.’ And that was all he looked for, like a dog on a hunt. And he found one, up in a tree, simply napping. Everything about that first trip was wonderful – we stayed in huts and viewed zebras and buffalo right outside the windows.”

In 1998, Kirkland took another trip, this time one organized through Mason’s own Center for Global Education. Joining a group of students, Kirkland visited South Africa for three weeks. The group’s goal was to evaluate the South African education system post-apartheid.

“The education level was definitely rising, but there was still such a disconnect between the cities and suburbs. The suburbs, especially around Capetown, were crowded with poor black women and their children. Homes there had dirt floors and cardboard for walls and roofs. The cost of education was approximately $50 per year, however, most people could not afford even this small amount,” says Kirkland.

“But the spirit of these children from preschool to high school was just amazing. They all wore uniforms to school every day. I always wondered how the mothers kept the shirts so white,” continues Kirkland. “They had no running water and no washing machines, yet the children looked very clean and very proud every time I saw them.

“We took coloring books, puzzles and small games to give to an elementary school. We were able to talk to many of the children – all of them loved to sing, and enjoyed putting on little musical numbers for us. They seemed very happy and were very disciplined.”

Kirkland with African children
Kirkland with African children
Photos courtesy of Connie Kirkland

Kirkland’s latest trip came in the summer of 2006. Assisting Chicago researcher Bruce Patterson through an organization called Earthwatch, Kirkland studied the lions of the Tsavo area of southeastern Kenya, a few hours’ drive from the city of Mombasa.

Unlike most lion populations, the lions of Tsavo – a rural, sparsely populated area of Kenya – have a history of eating humans.

“I thought it would be great experience, so I joined the expedition quickly,” says Kirkland with a smile. “We went out in a Land Rover with a driver and a guide in the early morning from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., and again in the afternoons from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., which were the best times to see animals. There were four other volunteers, all women, and, in our camp, we also had a guide, a cook and a guard at night to keep the wild animals at bay.”

“I was there in late June, when it was 85 degrees by day and 35 by night – similar to a desert environment. Being in the southern hemisphere, the sky was totally different, and I enjoyed the Southern Cross each evening. Because we rarely had electricity in the camp and on our drives, the sky was perfectly black and we could see every single star clearly.”

“For our work, the five of us would be driven through the immense Taita Ranch to survey the animals. Two people were lookouts, one person would write these observations in a journal and one person would stand atop the Land Rover and slowly turn an antenna in different directions,” says Kirkland. “Five of the lions had been caught and collared, and we were trying to follow them to figure out and record their habits.”

During her time off from research, Kirkland was able to travel to different places.

“We visited a Maasai village, and it was absolutely amazing. There were 70 people living inside the boma (enclosure), all related, with the men wearing red robes and the women all in blue. We traded American T-shirts for hand-carved bowls and other items,” says Kirkland.

While stopping over in Nairobi on her way to Mombasa to begin her expedition, Kirkland met Albert Musando, the director of a Mombasa wildlife preserve. Musando’s park had recently acquired Owen, a young hippopotamus stranded after the 2004 tsunami. In what was a surprise to scientists, Owen bonded with a 140-year old tortoise named Mzee (which means “wise old man”) and followed Mzee everywhere.

Kirkland was able to visit the preserve to see Owen and Mzee for herself, and she still keeps in touch with Musando.

Asked if she would be taking another trip, Kirkland replies, “Hopefully, soon. Maybe next year.”

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