When I first landed on the scraped dirt airstrip in the Serengeti, giraffes plucked leaves off the canopies of Acacia trees that bordered the runway. A baboon troupe skittered across the road as the single engine plane came to a halt near an unpainted cement block structure that was the airport. The scene looked made up. The animals weren’t really that close were they? I didn’t dare reach out my hand to find out. Was that really an ostrich sprinting across the yellow plains? Did a lion just look me in the eye? This wasn’t a zoo or a green-screen backdrop. I was gobsmacked to see zebras and wildebeests and gazelles and warthogs and hippos all loitering within mere feet of one another, and me. I was later reminded just how real this feral wilderness was when I watched a leopard drag its kill up into a tree and dangle the lifeless, limp-limbed carcass of some antlered animal over a branch. The leopard gnawed and ripped at the decaying flesh for days while trucks of tourists snapped photos from a few meters away.
I’d heard it before. Africa burrows into your system and it doesn’t go away; it's a deep, concentrated amalgam of love and longing; of heartache and wonder. Yes, I’d heard this about Africa.
In the early 2000s I was living in Florida and I met a young student from South Africa who’d come to work for a local family as an au pair. Her name escapes me now, but what I do remember about her is that she was homesick for “her continent.”
“I miss the rains. I miss the sky. I miss my people and my continent,” she’d say when we’d meet at the playground.
Sometimes she'd cry.
It struck me as odd to miss a whole continent. I am a Californian who has moved around a lot, so I missed my friend, my state, and maybe even my city at times. But all of North America? I couldn’t relate. I shrugged and patted her on the back, and assumed someday I’d understand.
Someday arrived 15 years later when my family and I went to Tanzania.
The trip was a generous gift from my husband’s company, a “thank you” for his 23 years of employment. We opted to go with a company called &Beyond, not only because of their stellar locations around Tanzania, where we planned to focus, and their flawless reputation, but also because of their commitment to conservation and support of local rural villages, which remain in desperate need of attention.
In the Serengeti we slept in tents. Thick canvas structures I could stand up in, with beds and an “Out of Africa” vibe (sans Robert Redford), but we were not immune to the stagnant midday heat or the biting-and-multi-legged insects. We took bucket showers outside, the mosquitoes nipping at our ankles and the heated water lugged over 1,000 feet to us each evening by a skinny boy named Simon who never arrived without a smile and a friendly “jambo.”
Melau, our game guide for three days in the Serengeti, is Maasai, a Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic people inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. We’d later visit a Maasai village, called a boma, and step into one of their dirt floor huts barely bigger than a garden shed, with walls and ceilings made of sticks, dirt, and cow dung. A rock fire pit was both the home’s source of heat and the stove.
"Doesn't it get smokey in here?" my daughter asked.
We were seated on one of two wooden bed platforms that occupied half the space.
"It keeps the mosquitoes away," was the Maasai man's response.
The bomas are surrounded by thorny trees to keep the lions from attacking the cattle, the lifeblood of the Maasai people. The cows live in the center of the boma, inside another circular enclosure, and are tended to by the males of the tribe.
The villagers invited us to dance and jump alongside them while they sang in their native language. We laughed. They laughed with us, or maybe at us, but it didn't matter. Their enthusiasm married us for a few minutes. I admired their sincere smiles and bright clothing, and I hoped the look on my face and my questions reflected a genuine curiosity rather than judgment of their unadorned way of life, which, I admit, pecked at me just a little. I was unable to ripple my body in the fluid way these women could that moved the giant disc necklace up and down on their shoulders. I was too stiff; or too inhibited. Before we left, we bought a few hand-beaded bracelets to bring home to family; the money, we were told, would go to their school and would be used to buy cornmeal for the boma.
As Melau Land-cruised us around the Serengeti, he rattled off encyclopedic knowledge of animals and their behavior, their habits, their movements. He mimicked the hippo's grumpy, get-off-my-lawn grunt as they wallowed in the river outside our windows, and pointed out the flapping and prancing mating ritual of the ostrich couple we passed each morning. As fascinating to me as these facts were, it was the tales of his childhood in his boma that engrossed me. Chasing lions, being chased by buffalo, trapping guinea fowl so he could sell them for the equivalent of $0.25 ---the usual kid stuff, right? A little different than my upbringing in Los Angeles where I had my own, carpeted room and a record player spinning the latest disco albums; where I chased boys and popularity; and where I sold plastic cups of lemon-aide on the curb for the same price as Melau's guinea fowl.
“You’ve never slaughtered a chicken?” Melau asked me. He was sincerely dumbfounded when I shook my head.
"No. No I never have."
The Serengeti girl in me felt somehow deprived of this life skill. I suppressed the city girl privilege that pictured my chicken wrapped neatly in cellophane at my well-stocked, neighborhood grocery store. The first time I ever saw a whole, dead chicken was as a young woman at a market in France. By its pale feet it hung, eyes glazed, its partially opened beak pointing south. Its skin was plucked bare, save for the few downy stragglers that shimmied in the breeze. I stared at it for a few minutes wondering what on earth I’d ever do with a whole dead chicken. Of course I knew where my sanitized grocery store version came from but, like most, I preferred to deny acknowledgment of meat’s earthly forms.
Every now and then Melau would stop the vehicle, turn the engine off, and listen. Like a tuning fork to the wild he’d grab binoculars and scan 180 degrees along the hazy heat line where the grass seeped into the sky. Sometimes he’d see something. Maybe the flick of a tail or the twitch of an ear; or an interloping bright color in the drape of uniformed neutrality that was the Serengeti landscape. Another time he stopped to observe a herd of gazelle and declared,
“They don’t look relaxed."
I hadn't noticed, but now that he mentioned it---what were they worried about? My eyes darted around the plains like an unsettled beast, and I watched for something. Or was something watching me? I suddenly felt like the hunted.
Later he stopped the truck, slammed it into reverse, and slowly rewound our trajectory while sniffing the air until he found the precise spot.
He inhaled the warm and dusty wind into his flared nostrils.
“That. It’s the smell of broken Acacia tree. There are elephants near.”
A pungent whiff of an unfamiliar African incense drifted up my nose. It was green and wet and musky. Melau was right, there was an elephant nearby. Once we found it, we watched it break branches for 15 minutes before it bored of us and disappeared deeper into the African thicket.
We left the Serengeti and bush-planed it to Lake Manyara, a lush and verdant national park and lake, home to over 1-million flamingoes that, from a distance, looked like a ribbon of rose petals scattered atop a glassy bath.
I visited the village of Mayorka to see first hand the community work &Beyond was doing. Through their foundation, they had built a couple of primary school buildings and a medical facility I'd wanted to see. As we walked the village's dirt road lined with corn fields and huts with our 20-year-old local guide Salu, barefooted children with brilliant teeth and ill-fitted clothing ran to us and waved. "Jambo! Jambo!" Women hung laundry on ropes strung between trees, and one boy stood straight as spear in a faded green Boston Celtics t-shirt smiled and said, “Good evening. How are you?” in perfect English, which made me smile back and instinctively answer, "Great, how are you?"
He didn't respond.
One of the school buildings had the words "Lust for Ivory" painted on the outside, a remnant of colonial times when the space was used to store harvested elephant tusks, Salu told us. Another room had wooden desks, each painted with the words "Donated by Vanessa and Brian," or whatever the name of the benefactor. There were dozens. A chalk board at the front of the room displayed simple math equations. On the back wall was taped a piece of white, lined paper labeled "English Marks" with a list of names and corresponding grades. I wondered which belonged to that boy in the Celtic's t-shirt and hoped he'd passed with flying colors.
I asked another boy lingering about the school if I could snap his photo. He struck a pose in a classroom doorway aiming his piercing eyes into my lens. I smiled thinking of the dozens of other travelers who’d probably gone through this same routine, and then I showed him the image on my digital camera screen. He smiled when he saw himself.
“Asante,” he said. Thank you. A priceless souvenir from the expensive ‘thank you’ trip I was on.
The medical clinic was sobering. There had been no electricity since the solar panels broke months earlier, and wasps the size of humming birds hovered, their nests clinging like barnacles to the corners of the paint-chipped examination rooms. Any desire for an aseptic environment left out the open, screenless windows. Placards posted on the walls listed the symptoms of malaria. Ten dollars, we were told, was all it cost for a good mosquito net. Much less money than I paid for battalion of pills I was taking to ward off the disease. The village doctor, about 28-years-old, showed us the birthing room with its small table and familiar metal stirrups. He said at night he’d use the light of a cell phone to deliver a baby. Pain-killers and clean linen, he added, were hard to come by. I thought about the day my daughter was born. Equipment beeping rhythmically, hooked up to my heart and belly indicating all was okay with me and my baby; medicine keeping the pain at bay; a pride of doctors and nurses pushing and twisting knobs, caressing and gently urging my baby girl into the brightly lit world, before wrapping her in a clean blanket and taking her for a bath while I ate breakfast and watched TV in my birthing room.
We later sat on the shores of Lake Manyara and watched a group children play soccer. A bit of normalcy mixed with the illusory. Our &Beyond guide Stephen joined in. He said the &Beyond staff regularly organize soccer tournaments with the kids. A few times a year they bring the children in to Lake Manyara National Park. Despite the close proximity, many of the children have never seen the animals that I had just flown 5,000 miles across the world to view.
A friend of mine once told me that Africa made her feel like a tiny speck in a greater world. Up until my visit, I thought she meant physically smaller, but there were times when my perspective turned inside out and I felt less than small. Irrelevant. Frivolous. Each night under the vast ceiling of the continent, I was engulfed on all sides. Like those silky parachutes we'd shake and billow, then duck under as kids, it appeared close enough to touch. At sunset when the fiery, engorged orb sank toward the horizon, silhouetting the flat-topped Acacia trees and smearing the land and sky in staggering streaks of red and orange, I knew of nothing more beautiful. When the sky darkened and I saw the kite-like outline of the Southern Cross for the first time, I wondered if Melau or those village kids ever took such exquisiteness for granted. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d watched the sunset or stargazed back in California.
It rained. I could smell it in the earth and air before the drops pelted the ground in a tune that sounded like stones hitting cardboard. It tamped down the dust on the corrugated, teeth-chattering trails we were following and turned the dirt from oatmeal hued to rusty reddish brown. It raised the streams and filled the watering holes; it greened the already verdant new grass, and softened the earth where birds beaked for their dinner. I stuck my hand out of the car to capture the drops on my finger then put them in my mouth to taste the African tears on my tongue. It tasted different falling from unpolluted skies. Innocent. Pure. Hopeful. In camp that night we watched puffy clouds flicker like depleting lightbulbs. The thunder cried over the plains.
“It’s not enough to just see Africa,” Melau had said, referring to his continent, not just to the Serengeti where we stood at dusk atop a hill overlooking miles and miles of incalculable vastness.
“You must hear and smell and touch it too. Africa is to be felt.”
Some places, like some people, are felt deeper than others. I've known them. I've met them. They tunnel inside your bones and swim in your blood. They cling to your soul and awaken you from an obtuse slumber.
I now understand the yearning of that young au pair I met years ago. I miss her continent. And sometimes I cry too.
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