The area the Kim people occupy today is pristine and relatively uninhabited. To Westerners much of the area seems as unspoiled as a wildlife sanctuary. Fish and birds feeding on the fish and other swamp life abound in the swampy areas: storks, herons, ibis, ducks, geese, etc., are everywhere! One border of the Kim area is the Atlantic Ocean and from the ocean fishermen bring back sizeable specimens of such fish as the ladyfish and large versions of such shellfish as lobsters and crabs. Deer and other small mammals are found in the drier areas, and people catch and eat various reptiles and amphibians.
On the most detailed map available (Claussen 2001), most of the Kim area appears as an uninhabited swamp! Population centers are inconsistently represented: many towns are not shown and many other hamlets (less than ten houses) have been vaulted into international prominence on the map. Benduma, the Kwamebai Chiefdom headquarters, on sizeable Lake Baima (shown on the map), does not appear. The political unit of “chiefdom” is one level below that of “district”, and in Sierra Leone there are fourteen districts; both Kwamebai and Bom Chiefdoms are in Bonthe District. Other political centers do not appear.
Bodies of water and waterways are also shown inaccurately on maps. Some of this is due to seasonal variation; during the rainy season the lakes fill up and many rivers once again become navigable by dugout canoe. Even the Google maps based on satellite pictures are imprecise because they are patchworks of pictures taken at different times of the year.
The Kim area has the Atlantic Ocean on one side. Proceeding inland one finds the Waanje River and its associated floodplain. The Waanje ends in a broad tidal estuary some sixty miles northwest of where it bends inland from the coast, and for that entire distance it is separated from the sea by what becomes Turner’s Peninsula at its mouth. In several places the distance between the Waanje and the sea is as little as two miles. In the town of Tei on the Waanje one can hear the waves as they crash on the shore and the engines of the (likely pirate) fishing trawlers.
The low-lying level land extends well inland becoming grassy swamps during the alta agua and is traversed by sandy ridges paralleling the coast. The high water season is roughly July to October, lagging slightly behind the rainy season since the rise is caused not by local precipitation but by rains in the interior far upstream. The rainy season on the coast can begin as early as May and can last until November. Rains are heavy in the Kim area, at the high end of the range for this part of West Africa, estimated between 3,500 mm/160 inches and 4,000 mm/180 inches per annum (British Broadcasting Corporation 2009). The rains are typically accompanied by strong winds.
With all the water movement (the Waanje is tidal as it parallels the sea), the landscape has changed even during historical times. Towards the end of the slaving period in the early 19th century, the Waanje River is reported as entering the sea near Lake Mape (Jones 1983), well upstream and southeast along the coast from its present day entry near Bonthe Island. Ten miles inland from the coast begin the lateritic soils found throughout West Africa.
Once the waters have receded at the end of the high-water season (October-November) , the network of shallow waterways is replaced by a network of narrow paths through grasslands that can be traversed on foot. Two parts part of the historical Kim area have been advanced as potential nature sanctuaries or “Marine Protected Area”, namely, the “Sewa-Waanje Game Reserve MPA” in the northern part of the area and the “Lake Mape and Lake Mabesi MPA” in the south.
There are, however, hints of trouble in paradise. There is the prospect of overfishing both on the ocean and on the inland rivers and swamps. Spanish and Portuguese trawlers scoop up vast quantities of fish offshore and local fishermen have been told by Europeans not to catch the lobsters and crabs found along the coast, presumably because the shellfish are the object of their mission as well.
Furthermore, officials representing the Ministry of Fisheries in Sierra Leone have visited the major towns in the area on several occasions during the research period (2006-09). Their purpose at all times was to warn the locals of overfishing. They would tell the locals that fishing with a small bore fishing net (“two fingers”) was no longer allowed and that fisherman using such nets would be jailed. (The warning had little effect.)
Finally, the grassy floodplain of the Waanje is one of the last areas of refuge for the African dugong or sea cow. During the research period two dugongs were caught, both of which, we were told, were not fully grown. Old people in the town of Tei, site of the DKB headquarters, tell of seeing larger African dugongs when they were young. Because dugongs reach sexual maturity at 9-17 years of age and reproduce at the best of times at a rate of only 5% per year, prospects for their survival are not strong.
Most of the larger towns are beside lakes or other waterways, and dugout canoes are used for fishing on both the ocean and fresh waters. They also form the main means of transportation as the heavy dugouts are poled through the heavy grass. There is a set of launches that ply the Waanje all the way from Bonthe upriver to Gbundapi carrying goods to the Gbundapi market on Tuesday and Wednesday.