Spotlight Kenya: From the hearts and hands of babes

Hundreds of elephant tusks are piled up in a burning heap at one of the national parks in Africa as a group of people gathered, watching with their heads slightly bowed as if in mourning. The smoke rises into the skies and therein is an illusion of elephants. Probably unbeknown to the people, these elephants are stumping their feet, seemingly in jubilation and joy. Having lost their lives to poacher’s guns and arrows, their tusks have finally been put beyond use as opposed to being sold in the markets which would drive the demand for ivory, eventually ending up killing their surviving relatives.

That’s an artwork received from 14 year old Ben, one of the participants in the 2011-2012 Animal Action Education calendar design competition. The theme is apt - Elephants Never Forget.

For 12 years now, I have received thousands of artworks, painstakingly drawn or painted by children and the youth for the art competition. And despite having covered some themes twice now, I still get awed and surprised by the expressions from the hearts and hands of these children. 

Click here to view the "Art for Elephants" gallery.

Simple, colourful, creative and refreshingly deep in interpretation are the entries.

The elephants, tigers, whales, seals, dogs and cats, and other animals in these artworks cry and laugh, speak and get angry, mourn and smile, play, make phone calls, you name it. Their bodies are just as colourfully varied, sometimes covered with flowers, stripes, dots, blocks, smiley faces. Over the past decade, we have asked them in this open competition for children between five and eighteen years to design different items on paper or any other material – they have designed posters, T-shirts, calendars, stickers and bookmarks. In the few instances we have requested for calendar artworks, a few students have submitted full calendars, spiral bound complete with fly cover sheets. They use different media too – paper, cloth, cotton wool, pencils, paints, crayons, sand, glitter, thread, the list is endless.  

Beyond the splash of colours and media used, there is the profound interpretation of the themes. Simple yet deep and touching to the core. It matters not what the children’s background is or whether or not they have seen such an animal in real life – there is a meeting point in heart and mind. You can feel the pain of a tiger in captivity, an elephant calf crying over her mother’s body after being killed by poachers; the joy of dog owners giving their pet a bath or whale enthusiasts during a whale-watching expedition where whales breach; the sadness of a child having seen a seal killed so cruelly or an antelope being butchered by poachers. 

These competition participants make life very difficult for the panel of judges who have to assess the artistic gems. For some six hours, the judges discuss, get amused, argue, agree, disagree, go silent in thought, take short breaks to refresh before picking the best. All winners get lovely gifts for their efforts, for which I am privileged to be a part of the presentations, and where I watch the glee and joy while listening to the animated chats between the children and their teachers or parents.

However, what we, in IFAW, receive from them is priceless. These children and many others remind us of what we ought to do right for the environment, in our shared world, for a common destiny.  Like Aaryan, who shows that the survival of elephants is in our hands and we should give it our all. The least we can do is to ensure that their hopes and dreams for an inter-connected world of man and animals remains a reality.    

- EW

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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