Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2018 issue.
I catch myself staring at the long, curved, white objects positioned over the doorway from the foyer into the dining room of our friend’s home. My eyes wander around the ornate, colorful walls, the private alter replete with intricate tapestries, small statuettes and figurines of Indian deities adorn the walls and shelves. I recognize Ganesh, Shiva and a handful of others. I smile back at his mother and grandmother as they welcome us into their home, third and fourth generation Kenyans, daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, young and luminous in appearance. I look back at the objects above the entryway, my mind registering that “these should not be here” and at the same time acknowledging that I might not know what I do not know, that there may be something older at play, a deeper cultural phenomenon perhaps.
We chatter over breakfast, dal and momos, colorful pastries laced with small talk. I sip coffee from delicate china as my friend’s mother insists on more cream, more sugar. Her’s is a dutiful demeanor, not overly doting but born from an obligation, without fail, to a guest in her home. I am struck by the feeling of foundation, of deep roots, a family that has thrived in a city I had never visited, in a country I had never seen, on a continent I had only ever traced with my thumb on a cardboard globe.
Later that week, as we drive through the city, I reflect on that morning: the piercing intellect in our hosts’ eyes even as we tiptoed around mundane, formal delicacy. The big, black Rottweiler tethered to the run in the backyard, conspicuously positioned between the nine-foot tall cinder block walls that form the perimeter of the property and the back door. Finally, back to the lustrous ivory crescents that hang proudly above the floor. My head swims. Sitting next to me in the back seat, our friend Jakob adjusts his robes as he peers commandingly from the car into the swarming mass of pedestrians in downtown Nairobi.
I am still processing this confluence of culture and impossibility in the fifth largest city in Africa as he calls out to a slender man dressed in street clothes hawking his wares on the corner.
I wonder how he knows that this man is Masai too, how he can pick him out from the other tribes that have come to the city, the allure of money and opportunity a beacon for the rural masses. They click and clatter amiably, Jakob in his colorful shuka, row upon row of bracelets shimmering on his wrists as he traces the air with long fingers. We drive past the footprint of the flat mass of Kibera on the way to a small airport. Kibera is the city within the city, the slum that is home to a sixth of the population of Nairobi, by some estimates a million people. Tin roofs and tar paper walls blur past our windows as we take turns wondering about the daily lives of its inhabitants.
This is the juxtaposition of poor urban planning yes, but also a voice to the power of the people that call it home. I am not at all sure that most of its citizens despise it, that they may in fact find comfort in its aura and permanence.
From the airfield, our small plane traces a line out of the city over the creeping tendrils of suburbs that stretch into the green farmlands that line the Great Rift, the abrupt geological steppe that opens into a massive valley that comprises the Mara, the Northern portion of the famous savannah of the Serengeti. We bounce from one tiny landing strip to another until, cruising over the fleeing haunches of a herd of zebra, we land. And then we are alone, sitting at a picnic table next to an army green shack from whence a radio antenna protrudes, bouncing gently in the calm, warm air. I wish I had a cigarette, something I can roll and light and kill the passing minutes. In the distance an arboreal silhouette strides interminable steps, yards at a time, the distance making the motion surreal. Even from a mile away, the giraffe seems enormous. Our guide arrives in the ubiquitous Land Rover, all smiles as he loads our bags into the truck and we roar toward the camp nestled in the bend of the river where countless hippos frolic and thunder nearby.
A quick tour of our tented home for the next week reveals classic colonial effects: linen drapes open to a corridor through the jungle to the river below, yellow weaver birds flit industriously in and out of view. Clean white sheets on a big bed, a nightstand with a handheld radio, an exotic hardwood desk where some Hemingway-esque figure might have written correspondence in an earlier time. Outside, a gleaming, stand alone porcelain tub on a platform beckons. We meet one of the camp guards, a Masai, who carries a long bamboo stick. For hippos, he says. What happens if we see a hippo? Every man for himself, he laughs.
We drive out to animals that night, just before dusk. As we crest the apex of a gradual slope overlooking the valley below, our driver stops and kills the engine. The air is still and quiet as the tall golden grass glows in the twilight. We take a collective breath as our eyes adjust to the fading light. Then a slight rustle and a shape appears in our periphery, followed by other shapes. Muscular forms cruise like ships in the night, a flotilla of deadly grace, a pride of lions intent and ghostly as they pass. Lips curl gently to the night air, an occasional glance in our direction, and then they are feet from the truck. Most striking perhaps, is that the entire pride, fourteen cats, flows in unison. No step out of place, muscles elongate powerfully, forms low and casual, confident in command of their dominion. And then they are gone, as quickly as they appeared.
Dinner could be award-winning, here in the bush of all places, French in execution and impeccable. I wonder if I have traversed into aristocracy, and the thought bothers me. At night, a lion lows in the distance, a deep guttural statement that echoes through the river valley, almost too close for canvas walls. I cannot sleep, the sounds and the smells permeate a fever brain with excitement for tomorrow’s safari. In the morning our Masai sentinel walks us to breakfast, pointing out flattened vegetation where big animals crashed through the underbrush as we rested.
The next day brings once-in-a-lifetime sightings, the beauty and cruelty of nature on full display at every turn: A cyclone of buzzards wheeling overhead directs us to a fresh lion kill, since abandoned and then reclaimed by a healthy, spotted hyena neck deep in the body cavity of a fallen topi. We watch him work until he prances proudly away with the still intact heart in his powerful jaws. We ponder a lone bull elephant as he searches for shade in the hot afternoon sun, a leviathan upon the horizon. Hippos the size of propane storage tanks loll in the marshes. Leopards stalk gazelle. A cheetah intently lines up an antelope for a high speed chase, accelerates in a blink, dust flies, only to be thwarted at the last second when a large topi charges from a dirt mound and interrupts her trajectory.
Every instant is a relic of pre-human natural history, in stark contrast to the steel towers, cell phones and teeming masses of the nearest cities. These occurrences, the ones we read about in children’s books and watched on documentaries, are mere clips in the lives of the most iconic mammals yet laden with consequence. They happen exactly as I imagined they would. This is, after all, one of the last places on earth where the vast migrations, the nail-biting predator-upon-prey dynamic, the breathtaking majesty of great creatures still exists on its own terms.
Photos by Jay Rush.