I left calves grazing, now I look after lions

The conditions into which Dr Tuqa Jirmo (above) was born into were less than ideal for academic success, but that did not stop him. “Where I was born and brought up we had no school and we would move around with livestock in search of pasture and water,” begins Jirmo who is now 48 and holds a doctorate degree in conservation.

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At one point, he ran away and had to endure a two-day trek to school, and only his passion for education and, maybe, sheer luck, saw him through, with his family terrified that something bad might have happened to him. This was back in Sololo, Moyale, where the ninth born lived a nomadic life with his family.

When he was eight, his family moved away from Sololo and settled in Golole, an area about 100 kilometres from their original home.

People from different places had settled in the area and a Catholic organisation set up a school in the area under a tree and children were enrolled – Jirmo was one of them.

He says: “Our parents were called and told about religion, health and education. Education struck a chord with my dad and he allowed only me to go to school.”

Young Jirmo developed a lot of interest and the family stayed in the area for about a year until the school closed for the December holidays. It so happened that back in their home, the rains had come and the family had to relocate.

“I, however, kept the opening date in mind and kept reminding my dad even after we had gone back to Sololo but he seemingly did not take the matter seriously,” narrates Jirmo.

With a just a week to schools reopening, Jirmo kept pestering his father until the day that schools reopened, but the dad never took it seriously. Realising that his father would never take him back to school, Jirmo hatched a plan.

He recounts: “We would be left to look after the calves when the older children took the cattle to graze. I took this opportunity to escape from home and go back to school.”

Without sharing his plan, Jirmo woke up like other children and as usual took the calves out. But on this day, he carried his books as well. He left the children in the field and started the long walk back to school.

“I instructed the other children that they should take the calves back before darkness set in and set off on my journey in the quest for education,” says Jirmo.

Being a child, Jirmo had underestimated the distance between his home and the school and thought he would just run and get there. He, however, ran and walked but had not reached the school by the time the sun was setting.

He says: “When darkness fell, I climbed an acacia tree and spent the night. All I could hear were hyenas and other wild animals howling in the darkness.”
The following morning, Jirmo continued with his journey, which took him the whole day that by the time he arrived in Golole it was evening. He was exhausted from the two-day trek with nothing to eat.

Jirmo’s teacher Gulicha Guyo was shocked to see a famished boy, whose home he knew was over 100km away, arrive just before the school day ended.“Mr Guyo took me to his house, gave me two cups of milk which I gulped in quick succession as I was starving before I went to class to join other children,” adds Jirmo.

But there was a hiccup, the school day ended and the boy had no place to spend the night so the teacher took him to the village where his sub-clan was traced and Jirmo was placed under foster care in one of the families.

After three days, Jirmo’s older siblings arrived in Golole with little hope of finding him; they had lost hope thinking that he had been killed somewhere along the way. The decision to trace him back to school was made after they failed to find his books on the day he disappeared. He says: “My elder brothers’ plan was to take me back home but I refused and I remained in school. Catholic Relief Services initiated a project and I lived with one of the missionaries until the project ended by the time I was completing Class Three.”

When he went back home, Jirmo was enrolled at Sololo Primary School in Class Four and he boarded at the school. In 1987 he completed primary education and joined Marsabit Boys Secondary School where he sat or KCSE exams in 1991.

“I was employed as a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger in 1992 and trained at Manyani for nine months, after which I was posted to different areas as part of the anti-poaching squad,” Jirmo says.

Jirmo was chosen for mid-level career training due to his performance and went to Tanzania College of African Wildlife Management in Moshi. On coming back, he was worked in Malindi Marine Park, Meru National Park and Samburu.

“In 2001, I went back to Tanzania for an advanced diploma in wildlife management after which I was given a study leave to pursue a bachelor in wildlife management at Moi University and as posted to Amboseli National Park as deputy senior warden in 2006.” He narrates.

When the senior warden retired Jirmo took over but was transferred to Tsavo East National Park in 2008 as deputy senior warden and then to Masai Mara as a senior warden.

In 2009, at the height of Mau Forest restoration project, Jirmo was picked to head the multi-sectoral team to secure the forest in which illegal activities within the forest were stopped in six months. He adds: “The same year, I was proposed for a scholarship to study for a masters (degree) but due to the work in Mau, I could not be granted leave. I had to forego the opportunity but enrolled at the University of Nairobi in 2010.”

Jirmo went back the Mau after completing his masters but landed a scholarship again to study for a PhD at the Leiden University in The Netherlands. He studied conservation biology and did his project in Amboseli focusing on human-wildlife conflict.

In 2016, Jirmo became the first uniformed KWS officer to earn a doctorate in conservation. He was posted to Meru National Park as the senior warden.

The father of three daughters and one son is now the chief operating officer at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

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