Into Africa: Day Three: Orphaned Elephant Refuge

Sunday, Sept. 12

KAREN, AFRICA — Outside of Kenya. Journalists from Italy, Poland, Germany, Romania and National Geographic staff pile into a small bus. The driver, Elias, stops for rolling paper so one of the Italians can roll her cigarettes. Downtown Nairobi on a Sunday morning is quiet as any city is on that day and time. The city is a little worn, a little gray and sad. Many skyscrapers, but many unfinished buildings; scaffolding is up and they look abandoned.

Some people wear Western dress, some women wear the bright African prints, and fabulously high headgear. We pass a Maasai walking his cattle on the side of the road. The government complex is impressive and we keep driving. It’s an uneasy relationship between commuters and vehicles and livestock. Shock absorbers don’t seem to be standard issue here.

The driver stops by a shantytown; corrugated tin roofs for as far as you can see. This is the biggest slum in Africa after Soweto, Elias says. In the Kibera Slum people make less than $1 a day. Two children stare at the bus as it chugs off, kicking more dust onto their already soiled clothes.

Baboons are by the side of the road; prehistoric looking birds of prey perch on scraggly trees. We arrive at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts and Orphan Project. Warthogs roam. I vow to not pet them. Don’t want to be a pushy American.

This is a refuge for orphaned elephants. Eight baby elephants are led out, fed milk from giant bottles as a thin rope separates them from onlookers. They come right up to people and seem to want to be petted. They’re bristly, very dry and red dust from the clay falls from them. There’s something incredibly sweet about petting an elephant.


They are led away and another small herd is brought out; these are a bit bigger than the others and they too, eat fast, spray water on themselves and check out the humans. Their mothers died and these elephants would perish without the aid of this society. They stay here for at least three years, part of a new family.

“Elephants need a lot of space,” one of the handlers says. They also tell us to stay away from the rhino, which is in a cage. Both of these sentences seem pretty self-evident, but who knows? I do have a son who burned himself eating ice cream so people get hurt in a variety of ways.

From there, we drive to the Giraffe Centre. I have never thought about shock absorbers this much in my life. I think I can feel my liver; maybe it’s my spleen. More baboons on the side of the road.

We’re allowed to feed the giraffes what looks like the sort of healthy breakfast cereal I buy but no one ever eats. The giraffe, about 17 feet tall, flicks out a gigantic black tongue. A girl in front of me holds the giraffe food on her tongue and the giraffe licks it off. I fight the mom instinct to tell her she could lose her tongue this way and will spend her life writing on slips of paper, explaining how she lost her ability to speak. The giraffes are impossibly adorable, and sweet. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this is somehow wrong. Should we be feeding them? Should people cuddle them?

From there back on the organ-grinding bus and to the Kazuri factory and store. Kazuri is Swahili for small and beautiful. Here they make beads from clay harvested from the base of Mount Kenya. The clay is mixed with water in industrial vats, then the water is compressed out by hand turning a metal wheel.

The clay is then cooked at 1,000-degrees for 10 hours overnight because it would be too hot to do so during the day. This small bead industry supports some 340 women. The women in my life are getting very beautiful beaded necklaces earrings and bracelets. I am wearing my new necklace.

Tonight, we gathered for a dinner. More journalists from around the world arrived, and I met one of the South Africans who will be our guide tomorrow.

Tomorrow we head into the bush.

Photo courtesy Jacqueline Cutler