‘I see the rains down in Africa……,’ Toto’s famous song keeps playing in my memory as I step into this land which has both fascinated and scared me for years. Filled with stories of slavery, witchcraft, tribal warfare and apartheid and of course the wild beasts which roam the land which is home to natures spectacular vistas, I was both filled with apprehension and awe!
Would we be mugged, raped, tortured and killed or would we face starvation or be driven to primitive existence where creature comforts are a rarity ( yes the news reports and movies had influenced my thinking in a big way)… boy was I in for a surprise!!!
I prepared the children for the worst possible scenario as I took on the literal meaning of the saying, a ‘wild imagination!’ Yet as we landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at Nairobi, we were welcomed by the most spectacular sunrise and I felt a heady rush of adrenalin course through my veins as I knew we were in for a thrill ride-from the zebras who grazed on either side of the fenced road to colossal factories and other concrete structures, in addition to the rapid development of infrastructure, giving us a glimpse of what Kenya had to offer and that was a vast country on the road to a promising future.
With over a 47 million population, Kenya is a multi-ethnic country in the Great Lakes region of East Africa with Swahili and English being its primary languages and 42 dialects being spoken among the 42 ethnic groups which co-exist in harmony to a great degree except for sporadic instances of violence, especially during elections etc. 90% of the population are Christians, while the other religions are a mere handful, yet with all this diversity is an open and friendly culture with the Kenyans greeting each other with the term ‘jumbo’!
Directly from the airport, we were driven to the highlands of Kisii County, specifically to a village called Nyamarambe as we were part of a contingent of volunteer workers eager to help out the people of that area through the Raigumo Health and Wellness Project. Raigumo is situated a few kilometres from Nyamarambe and the reason they needed our assistance was mainly due to a dearth of proper knowledge in the consumption and nutritional value of food despite having an abundance of it and more such as scores of people who were ailing with high blood pressure, tumours, rickets and other defects which was mainly due to unawareness and the limited access to immediate solutions offered. Yet despite their ailments and daily hardships, they greeted us with a joyful song and thanksgiving. This, in turn, made us thank God for the comforts we enjoy at each moment.
During the next two weeks, we were treated to true Kenyan hospitality, from the home-cooked meals including the staple ‘Ugali’, ‘mandazi’, ‘chapatis’ and much more and the lengths they went to create a warmth which was inviting and pleasing to us. Another fact which crossed my mind was their innate enthusiasm for life and resilience in the face of adversity and their patriotism.
The highlight of our trip to Africa was the one day sojourn to the Masaai Maara…. It was epic! Something straight out of the movies. Since it was the first time for many of us, we could not fathom what we would encounter but the day dawned with a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise as we entered the………. Serengeti… the road to Masaai Maara from Narok was dotted with the flat-roofed, wattle and daub huts of the tribe who are primarily herdsman. It seemed surreal as these men, with their red shawls walking behind the herds of cattle, sheep and goats… if not for the vehicles and the electricity lines one would inadvertently think you’ve been transported to a bygone era. There were also the zebras and the gazelles which were in abundance. The entrance itself was a burst of colour as the womenfolk in their psychedelic attire sold their many wares; from the intricately carved jewellery to scarves, miniature tools and more. Our hearts thumped as this was the ‘real deal’… we were in the wild country at the mercy of nature and there was no turning back!
Our truck was an open one, exposed to all the elements and the guide cum driver maneuvered it to perfection with the ease of expert formula one champion. Yes, while the pictures speak a ‘thousand words, the experience itself cannot be contained into mere words as the landscape which seemed to have no end was alive with wildebeests, gazelles such as the ‘ blue jeans and yellow socked’ kind, antelopes, warthogs who ran to and fro only to forget after a moment what they were running from, broods of purple-hued peafowl, foxes, and the black and white zebras which were in plenty but the sight of the tall (understatement) giraffes craning their necks to look right at you was ‘outta this world’.. okay so you could discern the fact that this was our first sighting of a giraffe in the wild although we had seen them in our very own zoo. While some of them hid behind the trees when they realized there were intruders, a few were unperturbed by our gawking and clumsy efforts at taking selfies and photographs. We also stumbled upon four out the ‘great five’ which were the lions, leopards, cape buffalo elephants. While some of them were enjoying their siestas, camoflouged by the leaves on the trees or in the bushes, the others were wide awake… we had a heart-stopping face to face encounter with a lioness who was none too happy about our sudden arrival and roared and threatened to pounce and I just stood mesmerized while the driver who, thankfully had quicker reflexes drove away.
I would say that it was a bit too close for comfort, considering the fact that we were in their domain. Some of the paths were resembled and felt like we were on nature’s roller coasters with the vehicle veering to and fro with tires screeching to get past the mud but thankfully we never got stuck, yet stopped to assist another group who were. We also stumbled upon a ‘bevy’ of beautiful ostriches who seemed to walk on the ramp in model-like coordination and the male who displayed his skills with a dance to the beat of his very own drum. There were also herds of pachyderm with the matriarch at the fore leading them along the vast land to God-knows where. While we missed the famed migration we were privy to many wilder beasts and the famous or more aptly the notorious hyenas who roamed the Serengeti with fearless contempt. Yet what was surprising was the co-existence of all these wondrous animals and merely killed each other if only they were hungry and we never saw a ‘kill’ although like the great western movies of yore, we saw bone fragments and skulls of the unfortunate prey along the way which was a warning to never ever overstep our boundry in the animal kingdom, which is the reason it is called the wild. The hippos were submerged in the Maara River and the muddy banks provided a spa-like environment for these animals who clumsily made their way to the river beds at various times and made grunting sounds. I pictured ‘Gloria’ the hippo in the animated cartoon ‘Madagascar’ saying ‘this is the life!’ and it sure seemed like it, after all, we humans slogged and slaved away day and night while the animals enjoyed the ‘good life’ without a care in the world except to fulfill their hunger pangs.
The whole Maasai was bursting with life and it felt good to be part of it and appreciate the fact that we ourselves are an invaluable part of a wondrous creation. As the day wore on and dusk approached, much faster than we thought possible we left with a feeling of awe at being allowed to experience the sights and sounds of the wild and it was not easy to transition to the mundane tasks of everyday life but we had to and here we are many moons later feeling thankful to have been part of one of the world’s most reverberating continents… Africa!
By Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne