Into Africa: Day Six: Anything Can Happen

Wednesday, September 15

Today was about people. Still it’s impossible to be here — not far from the edge of the Mara River that feeds Lake Victoria, and ultimately the Nile, experience severe weather — and see nature showing off without comment.

Last night, the elephants were back and though I could feel and hear them, I have yet to see them. That’s a strategy that served me well growing up in The Bronx with some sketchy neighbors, and I aim to keep it here. A few minutes ago, I was showering off the dirt from a windstorm and outside the shower, the canvas of the tent moved as the elephants passed. Hey, I still had to condition.

Today started before 6. Some of the usual — hundreds of wildebeests as far as you can see. Jackals bound by and gazelles really are that graceful. Of course there is nothing usual about a wildebeest, and I am hardly lackadaisical. A couple of lionesses had just killed a wildebeest and were checking it out.  We watch the lionesses from about a city block away.

This morning, we drove by nine holes, which hyenas burrow in and are connected underground. The guides and those who talk with us are devout conservationists. In the Maasai Mara there were 34 cheetahs three years ago. Now there are 20. The news is grim throughout Africa, and this is a protected zone.

Though the animals and vistas are breathtaking, today I met many Kenyans.  “Jambo” is hello and everyone greets you with “Jambo!” Some I hope to know forever, and will explain in a later post. Others are part of the travel; I ask questions, they tell me about their incredible land and we keep going.

Joash the guide

Joash“The Maasai Mara is not how it was 10 years ago,” guide Joash says, “People are encroaching the area. Humans are coming and coming. The climate used to be rainy and the Maasai Mara used to be green.”

Much of the land covered today was brown.

“We have to watch,” Joash warns. “It could disappear.”

Joash used to be a police officer then went to guide school in Nairobi. He’s 48, and became a guide 16 years ago. As animals dart in front of the jeep, I ask him if he’s ever lost anyone, this being the wilderness and us trespassing on wild beasts’ territory.

“Anything can happen,” he says.

I expect a laugh that doesn’t come.

“Two years ago, somebody was doing a walk, a tourist was killed by an elephant,” Joash says. “Accidents happen. When you come, you don’t what the character of the animal is. Sometimes they charge and maybe the mother will protect the baby.”

Conservationists worry about a major road coming in Tanzania.

“It will cut short the animals doing the migration circle,” he says.

His jeep once got stuck in the mud (the roads are tricky and rutted) and a pride of 30 lions surrounded him.

“That’s the time I was so much afraid because my radio could not reach anywhere, he says. He survived because of “God’s intervention.”

Maasai Tribe

We head north across the savannah from the Maasai Mara into Maasai Land. Sheep and goats graze. Two men, who speak English, greet us. They are lean, willowy and bedecked.

Were a man to wear what amounts to a dress, bracelets, beaded belts and a shawl in the United States, he needs to be prepared to fight. These men are; they’re warriors and one would have to be a fool to cross them.

The door to the village is a bundle of thorny branches; it keeps the cows in at night. The huts, which the women make from cow dung patted over sticks, are arranged in a circle. They have plenty of raw materials to harvest.

The women line up, many with babies slung into cloth carriers on the backs. Their hair is shorn so short, it appears shaved, and they too wear bright colors, intricate beaded earrings and many are missing a tooth — on purpose.

Lockjaw had come to a tribe of Maasai in the 1920S, and tribesmen’s tongues were going back in their heads, choking them, says Dereck Joubert, the Botswana conservationist who is a resident explorer at National Geographic Channel. (You learn a lot when you’re waiting for wildebeest to cross a river and this was a tidbit from the day before.)

So a stick was inserted to hold down the tongue. Since, a tooth has been knocked out to ensure easy access for a stick, should mouths need to be pried open and tongues held down.

Maasai Welcome

Women line up facing the band of journalists and sing a welcome song. Then the men do a competition of dancing with the male journalists. They jump straight up and high. Incidentally, it’s not just a movie title — white men can’t jump.

The Maasai are lean because they eat only food from the cow. This is not like Morgan Spurlock’s experiment; nothing is fried. They eat only milk, blood and occasionally meat. They do not farm. Their outfits vary and one wears a hat made form a lion mane, though they no longer hunt lions.

I’ve given up treading carefully as cow manure is everywhere and my only goal is to not fall. A woman and I smile and say “Jambo!” Her name is Lalutesha and we are probably as culturally opposite as any two people  sharing a planet. But we both think that her son is beautiful, and peek-a-boo makes babies coo in any culture.

Lalutesha & Jacqueline

The men have multiple wives, and marry when they are older. Many of the women are pregnant, with another baby on their backs. Roosters, cats and dogs amble about, seeking shade. The day that had started cool is now hot.

Inside their homes, it is very dark, and extremely small. The ceiling is maybe 5-feet high and the hut is divided into three areas: a room for the cows to rest at night and the main area, which is then subdivided. This makes a Japanese hotel room or a Greenwich Village studio look like a palace.

The room has two small beds, made from cow hide. One is for the father, one for the mother. Children sleep with the parents. A fire burns in the middle.

I ask if they have stuff — instruments, utensils. I don’t expect an X-box and hot curlers, or other possessions from the west.

“I have a stick and a sword,” Benjamin says. Nothing else.”

Photos courtesy Doan Nguyen and Jacqueline Cutler