October 23, 2002

Kenya Kaleidoscope

The best thing about travel is that things are never quite what you expect. Even if the itinerary goes precisely as planned, what you imagine is nothing like actually being there. For me this was never more true than when I went to Africa.

I'm not sure what I expected when I went to Kenya. I wasn't conscious of having any preconceptions. Though I had never been to Africa, images of it were entangled with my earliest memories. Its legendary animals: lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, rhinos and gorillas, permeate our culture as symbols. Nowhere else does wildlife exist in the monumental proportions of the great beasts of Africa. They stir deep collective memories of a lost earth, a prehistoric and untamed world.

As symbols the animals are larger than life, resonating in fables and stories of childhood, adventure movies, paintings, figurines, stuffed animals, and charms on bracelets. When we grow out of childhood fables, we experience them only in zoos or circuses, imprisoned and disgraced. We see them diminished, robbed of their freedom and volition, removed from the imperatives of survival, minus the qualities of life that inspire awe when you see them in their natural environments. I wasn't ready for what I would see in Africa. I didn't know what I had missed.

Because my knowledge of the animals was so limited, I was not a wildlife enthusiast. When traveling, my interests usually draw me towards cities and human culture. When I planned the trip to Africa, I had only vague notions of what I was going for. In a word, it was adventure. Africa towered in my imagination as the most exotic place on Earth, the great mysterious continent where human life is said to have begun. I wanted to experience the African culture that had had such a profound influence on American culture.

In the 21st century, the African influence has so completely permeated American culture as to be ubiquitous and invisible. Tempered by the cruelest hardships, the slave culture survived and gradually infused and altered that of the oppressors. It not only became the most vital component of American musical style, it left its mark on every aspect of what has become American culture. Today the descendants of the Euro-American colonists walk a walk and talk a talk that is more than a little African. For me, seeing Africa first hand was essential to understanding what it means to be an American.

All these things were in my mind when I went to Africa. And I got all I bargained for and much more. So much more that I must fall back on an ancient cliche: the experience is beyond words.

Misconceptions

My flimsy preconceptions exploded in collision with the real thing when I arrived in Kenya. Itís not so much that it was so different from what I expected. Most of it was entirely new to me. I had a lot of misconceptions, but mostly it was a blank. Only when I got there did I realize how little I really knew about Africa.

Since the equator runs through Kenya I expected it to be very hot. But Nairobi and the game parks are much higher in elevation than Denver, and it was jacket weather most of the time. It was July, which is the coldest month of the year, but the seasonal pattern is very different from North America.

I also had a vague expectation that I was going to see the jungle. But the land in Kenya is not jungle, but plains. For me it was uncannily reminiscent of the plains in Kansas, where I grew up. When we arrived in Amboseli National Park, and I stashed my luggage in my cabin at Ol Tukai Lodge and walked outside, the smells in the air transported me powerfully back to my grandfatherís farm. The dry grass under my feet was the same variety as we had in my yard as a kid. The dusty smells of hay and dry grass were deeply familiar. The zebras and wildebeests that ran and played only a few yards from my window smelled very much like the horses and cattle at my grandfather's farm. It was a private joke that the most exotic destination would be so similar to the midwest I had fled so many years ago. But it also made me feel at home.

Nairobi

Our itinerary took us first to Nairobi. With a population of 2 million, Nairobi shares many of the features common to major cities around the world. While Nairobi is very different from an American city, it is quite possible to visit the city and never leave the cultural context you inhabit back in the States. You can stay in an international chain hotel and watch CNN and HBO, do some shopping, even do a city tour and not be jarred out of your routines, if you are so inclined. On the first day after traveling, you are not likely to be energetic enough to break very far out of your inertia. We took a city tour and got a feel for the lay of the land. We visited the Karen Blixen estate, where the author of Out of Africa lived. At the Giraffe Centre, we fed the giraffes from our hands on specially built platforms. Interacting with them, seeing the incredible mass of their bodies, their powerful shoulders and necks, and their long black tongues, was our first taste of the mind-bending experiences to follow in the bush.

In the Bush

The real impact of the trip began on the second day when we flew south to Amboseli National Park. We landed on an airstrip in view of Mount Kilimanjaro. The giant mountain was many miles across the border in Tanzania, but was huge on the horizon. I recognized the flat top I had read about it the Hemingway short story as I walked down the stairs to the runway and practically broke into tears. It was a sight of overwhelming power. It made me feel that I was in the presence of a god, or of a very old, wise consciousness. Kilimanjaro was a silent presence, a principle part of every landscape during the entire time we were in Amboseli.

On our first game drive I saw for the first time real life in the wilderness. In the game reserves there is no human interference with the life of the animals. It was a glimpse of a natural society that included various species and individuals that interact with each other in ways that are not always in conformity with our cut-and-dried scientific laws. It was absolutely riveting. The fact that life and death were happening right before my eyes, that there was no fence, no cage, no gamekeeper, no filmmaker framing the image, was electrifying to me. Anything could happen, it seemed. It was larger than life, hyperreal.

When a predator appeared in the midst of the grazers, they all became very alert. Ears twitched, all turned an eye to the invader. I wondered why they didn't turn and flee. Surely they know that one of them would soon die. Yet they maintain a state of composure, of grace. They seem to participate willingly in the game of life and death that plays out every day on the plains.

Over the next few days on game drives in Amboseli and the Maasai Mara we saw a fantastic panorama of life. The biggest attraction is the lions, who rise from sleep to feed only occasionally. Their bearing is unmistakably royal. They are lazy and sensuous. It is beneath them to show effort. They regard humans with no more concern than if they were flies.

The cheetahs too are regal, but smaller and sleeker . One morning shortly after dawn we came upon a family of three feasting on a freshly killed antelope. The loud crack of a cheetahís teeth on the bone of the furry skull sent a chill through me.

Wildebeests, which I had regarded as stupid herd animals, were endearing in real life, displaying great joy of life as they ran and played in the fields, and a bravado I hadn't suspected. I saw one turn and charge a hyena that was stalking it. Another danced up to a lion, taunting him, playing at the very jaws of death.

Kansas nostalgia

The impacts began to come quickly now, and with every one I felt as though another layer of my cultural conditioning fell away and my mind opened to a wider reality. We were installed in the Ol Tukai Lodge, where the rooms were in duplex cabins. When I dropped my bags in the room and surveyed my surroundings I saw that I could actually see galloping wildebeests and zebras from my cabin window. My mind was being stretched with every previously impossible sensation.

I strolled out onto the lawn between the cabin and the barbed wire fence that separated the lodge from the field where the animals graze. I was suddenly hit with a complex of sensory impressions that had a strangely nostalgic effect on me. The most nostalgic sense is smell and the combination of smells was throwing me back to my youth in Kansas. The tough, prickly grass was identical to the kind we had in my yard in Topeka, we called it Bermuda grass. The dusty smell of hay in the air, mixed with the smells of the wildebeests and zebras reminded me of the smell on my grandfather's farm, where the cows and horses were cousins of these animals.

I had traveled to many countries and continents and had never had such a rush of Kansas nostalgia. It was a supreme irony to me that the place I had imagined as the most remote, exotic destination would be so strangely akin to the land I grew up on. I felt as though the gods were having a laugh at my expense and I chuckled with them, but at the same time I felt at home. I had discovered a primal affinity to the land. If the paleo-anthropologists are right that humankind began in what is now Kenya, perhaps that kinship I felt is universal.

The People

The people of Kenya were also fascinating. Of over 40 tribes that comprise the nation, one of the most fascinating is the Maasai. We met with Ben Kipeno, a Maasai elder. Ben had walked 25 miles to meet us that day. But that is nothing for a Maasai. They are cattlemen. They walk great distances with their cattle. They still wear brightly colored traditional garb. They are practically the only people who can walk across the plains unprotected. With only a spear for a weapon, they are safe because the lions and other animals know their scent. Predators do not attack the Maasai, because they know the Maasai will fight.

Ben was one of few in his tribe who had received a European education. He had gone to college and then returned to his tribe. He was very articulate. He told how the Maasai culture was having to change its ways to adapt to a changing world. The boys traditionally kill a lion and make a headdress from it as a rite of passage into manhood. Now they cannot legally do that because the lions are a protected species.

We also stopped at a small public school, and it was a revelation. From a Western point of view, the institution was appallingly under-equipped. The building was a shack. The children were barefoot. But they crowded around us with big beaming smiles on their faces. They radiated happiness and vivacity. One of the Africans we met said that Westerners are very puzzled when they see that the children who appear to have nothing seem so much happier than their counterparts in the industrialized countries.

For Americans, Africa is a revelation, something that has to be experienced first hand to be appreciated. To a people who have learned to see everything through a lens of materialism, it is a great education. It allows us to perceive a tangible reality that was formerly invisible to us, a world before and beyond ours.

-- By David Cogswell

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