Deborah Ross is one of America’s leading wildlife artists and working in Africa has always been one of her dreams. In 1987, she had the opportunity to live her dream working as an illustrator for a baboon project. Deborah says she loved being in Africa. So much so, that she bought a big car and stayed for nine months. Deborah has returned to Africa every year since.
Adjacent to the baboon project where she worked, was the local elementary school. Wanting to give back to the community that has supported her and her work for many years, Deborah formed a painting club at the school. The objective of this club was not simply to offer afterschool activities. The “club” Deborah launched at Il Polei Elementary school was the Olcani Project. Through this project, Deborah taught the children how to paint and document local plants and animals. The painting club began with indoor activities, but soon moved outside of the classroom. With paint, brushes and paper in hand, students began to document the world around them. At first they documented each other, their families and stories about Maasai culture as told to them by their elders. Then they turned their attention to plants.
Field trips into the bush to learn about local medicinal plants were led by herbalist, Siranga Naimando. While Siranga explained how each plant was used, students painted what they saw in the field. This collective effort is at the heart of the Olcani Project. In the Olcani booklet published about this project, Siranga explains that the Maa word for medicine is olcani, the same word used for plant.
The Olcani Project is mostly a self-financed labor of love. Funds for the project come from what Deborah has earned illustrating a series of children’s books for UNICEF in Madagascar. A full-color booklet about the project has been produced by Deborah and designer Melanie McElduff. The booklet is an illustrated guide to 12 species of medicinal plants found in the Mukogodo region of Kenya. Each species description includes a color photograph, a plant’s scientific name, a plant’s Maasai name, a description about how it is used for medicinal purposes, and an area for users to write down notes. Included in this 26-page guide are 25 plant portraits painted by students, plus photographs of 18 Il Polei students proudly displaying a sample of their work. Funding for the printing of this beautiful guide came from Ideas That Matter, the grant program established by Sappi Fine Paper North America.
When she is not in Africa, Deborah keeps in touch with the students by cell phone. She trained a young local man to continue the watercolor workshops and Deborah says he is doing a fantastic job. Deborah sends paints and brushes to the school through a scientist working in Kenya and she sends books to Kenya with scientists five times per year.
Deborah will continue her work in the region next summer, this time in Madagascar. She has received a grant to lead watercolor workshops in this island country off the coast of Africa.
Visit Deborah’s website to learn more about her and to view a gallery of her work.
The Olcani Project will soon have its own website at www.olcani.com. The website will include features about each artist that will include samples of their work and a short bio. Watch for news about its official launch.
To request a copy of Olcani: An Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Plants of Kenya, contact Deborah Ross. ($10, plus $5 shipping)
About the Mukogodo Region of Kenya
The Mukogodo region of Kenya has undergone rapid ecological and cultural degradation. A severe drought in 2009 all but eliminated the pastoralist community’s wealth (cattle and goats). The region’s indigenous knowledge is at risk of being lost as the region’s children face a different world than their parents knew. The need for conservation, conservation education and local empowerment in Kenya is extreme. The Mukogodo region is a focus point for the conservation work done by the African Conservation Fund.
The Olcani Project’s illustrated field guide to medicinal plants blends botanical art with traditional field guide-style pages.
Photos courtesy of Deborah Ross.