Thursday, October 22, 2009


If you haven’t been to Africa, you haven’t been home

A degree or so south of the Equator, beside a road that wound its way around a green hill, sat a small café with a patio extending into the valley below. On the wooden floor boards of the patio was a low wood-and-wire pen, and in it roamed a flock of scraggly turkeys and guinea fowl, scratching the dry brown earth for whatever it is that these birds eat. Next to them on a wooden chair, by a wooden table, sat I, my fingers wrapped around a once cold glass of lemonade and my soul drifting away with my breath into that great brown valley below…

I had driven out of Nairobi airport a few hours ago. Sun-kissed and hot, the drive through the city reminded me of some cities back home. The ground was dry and dusty and a shade of brick red. Wide roads ran past factories and showrooms and narrowed into city streets. The guide pointed at a cluster of brown-with-rust roofs. Above the roofs, dirty plastic bags swirled in the wind. “Kibera!” said the guide. Kibera, the largest slum in Africa with more than 700,000 people sharing 10ft x10ft hovels with five others must be quite a morbid spectacle for his First world clients, but for an Indian it was just another familiar slice of Third world desperation trying to break out of its shackles. We drove out of the city, heading south towards the Mara river – our destination, the great plains that rose on its banks.

As a child, I was eternally fascinated by Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and movies like “The Ghost and The Darkness” and “Out of Africa”. I couldn’t wait to see the open savannah, the great herds of wildebeest and the great maned lions. I knew what to expect and wanted to see the Africa of my dreams. And yet even before I was halfway there, I found it difficult to tear myself away from that overhanging patio by the highway, for the valley that fell away under the floorboards under my feet and stretched away, for thousands of miles beyond the horizon was The Great Rift Valley. Bone dry and brown, this great vast valley was silent and bare, except for a lonely breeze that seemed lost and trapped in its awe-inspiring expanse.

“Looks empty today, but many years ago, in this very valley, perhaps in that small cave on your right, there lived and roamed some strange creatures. Almost human and yet not quite, these were the first hominids to walk the earth.” Thomas, my Kikuyu guide, seemed to have practiced these lines a lot. Of course when he said ‘many years ago’, he meant, many millions of years ago. Anyway, the thought that here might lie even today the bones of my ancestors, gave me goose bumps. The first humans evolved in this very land and though today we might have colonised the globe and changed shape, size and colour, one day it might be possible for us to trace our line back across time and space to our earliest ancestors. And when that day comes, it’ll bring us back to this valley in East Africa.

Thomas had to pull me way with reminders, “It’ll be dark soon. The next 100 kms aren’t really the safest you know…” That got my attention. I had heard terrible tales of carjackings in Kenya. One of them went like this – a white tourist was sitting in the rear seat of a car that was standing by the road. He was wearing an expensive watch, but aware of the reputation of these mean streets, he tucked his wrist inside and only had his left elbow poking out of the window. Two men walked past the car, stopped, turned back and in a flash one of them had grabbed his elbow and tried to pull out the watch. The tourist tried to resist and pull his hand into the car when the other brought a machete down on the poor chap’s arm a couple of times and having severed it, scampered off with the bleeding limb with the watch still around it and disappeared into the shadows. I was told by some that it’s only an urban legend while others swore that they knew it to be true. Anyway, I didn’t want to stick around and find out so Thomas and I got into the van and drove off.

The sun had drift ed westwards by now. The thick scrub and hillsides gave way to open grassland. The road was a patchwork of broken tarmac. From horizon to horizon, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The sky darkened and clouds rolled in. A bolt of lightning reached out through the heavens, singed the earth and was gone. And there I saw it, my first vignette of quintessential Africa… A lone acacia tree on the plains and under it, a zebra trying to shelter from the rain… ah, it was beautiful!

It was almost midnight when we reached the resort in the heart of the Masai Mara national park. My ‘room’ was a tent overlooking a stream and as I tucked myself in, I could hear laughter. I ignored it for a while, but soon others seemed to be joining in. I went outside. The aura of the tiny lamp by the tent couldn’t penetrate the inky blackness of the night. I strained to see or hear something… suddenly, a voice, “Jambo!” Startled, I jumped and did an about turn. It was a hotel attendant. “Jambo (hello)! Can I help, sir?” he said. “I heard laughter…” I pointed across the stream. “No one there sir, must’ve been some animal…” Almost on cue, the eerie laugh rent the stillness of the night again. I looked at the waiter. “Hyenas…!” he whispered. Just so you know, hyenas are about the size of a very large dog, and have the strongest jaws of all mammals, even stronger than those of a lion. “My village, nearby,” said the attendant. “There was a hyena pack living near the village. Many rains ago, we had a famine... when people and animals started dying, the hyenas started scavenging on the dead of humans as well as cattle and their pack grew in numbers. When the rains returned, everything was fine for a while until children started disappearing. It got really humid after the rains, so people oft en slept outside. Then, even grown-ups were being attacked in their sleep. In the quiet of the night, we would look up at the stars and talk till we fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, we would wake up to someone’s screams. By the time we’d reach that person, he’d be rolling in the dust in pain, his hands covering his face. Ohh.. such horrible wounds they had on their faces.

We are a little superstitious so we first thought it was some evil spirit. But then we saw the tracks, hyena tracks. We didn’t know if it was a real hyena or an evil spirit in a hyena’s body. We were so afraid, especially for our children. They would just disappear in the night and all we found were clothes and the tracks. We tried hunting the hyenas and chasing them away but they kept coming back. That laugh you just heard… I shiver so deep in my heart (a local expression of great fear, or perhaps it was his garbled English) whenever I hear that sound.”

Gosh, that was quite a great bedtime story. My tent was at the edge of the property where the resort met the grasslands and all that separated the hyenas and other creatures of the night was a shallow moat. For a moment, I too shivered so deep in my heart that… Never mind, I turned to the waiter and asked, “Hyenas, how far?” “Maybe 200 metres… but don’t worry... because of the light and that moat… they won’t… I mean they can’t come this way, sir. Please sleep peacefully. You are safe here. No animal can cause you any harm.” I nodded and turned towards my tent. “Good night sir!” I waved, distractedly and crawled under the covers. I couldn’t hear the hyena’s laugh now but I could hear another sound… it was a soft guttural sound at first but it grew louder and louder … the unmistakable roar of a lion proclaiming its territory. Thomas had mentioned that when the lion roars softly, it asks, nachi ya nani? (Whose is this land?) and then roars thrice, each louder than the other, declaring yangu! Yangu!! Yangu!!! (mine! Mine!! Mine!!!). I imagined what it might be like to have my face gnawed in my sleep, to wake in pain and see the powerful jaws of a predator eating me alive… no, no, no I was letting my imagination run away with me. ‘These resorts are designed to make us feel like we are in the heart of the wilderness and yet keep us safe from wild beasts, I reassured myself. ‘I’m sure the attendant was right. These properties couldn’t possibly operate if they were unsafe. I’m sure no animal could ever come over into the resort…’ and with those comforting thoughts, I rolled over and slept like a baby. But boy, was I wrong?


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