I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya for a work related project far different from the landscape and responsibilities I had at Alfalfa’s. I accepted a short term assignment with a London based organization, ActionAid, with the responsibility of directing the construction of a single classroom in rural Africa for two teams of volunteers from the UK. The original project was outside the beautiful coastal town of Malindi but recent terrorist activity by Al Shabab thwarted that project in the eleventh hour. Fortunately, we were able to find another classroom construction project with Maasi in the Masa Mara area. With the dramatic change in venue, I traded a comfortable 4 star hotel for a tented campsite in the bush but could not be happier. I think it will work out favorably as this is a unique opportunity to live amongst the Maasi and immerse myself totally in the bush and the culture that is the Maasi.
October 20. Nairobi, Kenya. 5:00 am.
We leave in the cool of the morning, the roads void of cars and people. Nairobi is known for massive gridlock and given our robust schedule an early departure is essential. I am traveling with four other colleagues in an ageing but comfortable Toyota Landcruiser, tricked out for the bush and unforgiving terrain. My companions are mostly local Kenyans with various connections and responsibilities to this project.
The light rain that masked our departure has lifted and the first sparks of sun unveil the African landscape that is a mixture of small towns and forested land. The main road out of Nairobi is new and smooth and when I remark on its quality, Patrick, the man driving this project and successful businessperson, explains that the Chinese have constructed many of the roads in the area but due to inferior materials, the roads will be useless in three to five years. I cringe with the news and see it as another example of outside intentions falling short in the long term prospects of Africa establishing a good infrastructure. True to his word and a short distance later we encounter a Chinese built road that is pock-marked and so severely impaired that the shoulders have become the preferred route.
We climb out of the valley and reach a promontory point with stunning views of The Great Rift Valley that stretch as far as the eye can see. Africa is still relatively young in terms of its discovery and settlement so it wasn’t too long ago the area below was teeming with wildlife. Even from a distance it holds a feeling of being untamed and raw, still immune to the encroachment of man and progress.
We arrive in Narok, now three hours removed from Nairobi, to stretch our legs, refuel, and take in the clear air that punctuates the landscape. This is the last outpost and we are keen to press on. A few miles from Narok we take an unmarked, deeply rutted road for the Masa Mara that beckons and tugs at our sense of adventure.
The temperature is pleasant, probably in the low 80’s so we drive with our windows down but are vulnerable to the sudden dust squalls that are without warning. When we encounter one, our vehicle is immediately engulfed with a fine layer of dust, leaving a brown coating on our skin, clothes, and food.
The road, in spite of its difficulty, offers wonderful surprises in the form of animal life that now dot the landscape and energize us. We have now transitioned from a human dominated environment to animal dominant. A 360 degree perspective yields wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, impala, and an occasional ostrich to break up the four legged dominance provided by “the Grazers” as my African friend Jez points out. There is much to learn about the Mara, or the Bush as Jez lovingly refers to it. Jez Bennett was born in Africa and except for schooling in England, has called Africa home his entire adult life. He currently lives in Zimbabwe and spends his free time in game parks of eastern Africa. He has become our unofficial tour guide and begins a running commentary on animals, raptors, and even the local flora, down to its Latin origins. His fascination and respect for the magnificent ecosystem is unwavering. With a voice dripping with enthusiasm, he points out a specific Acacia tree that harbors ants inside its pods. Should a strolling giraffe decide to dine on this tree, its tongue is soon met with the stinging ant bites and the giraffe moves on, with the tree and ant carrying on their symbiotic relationship.
Thirty dusty kilometers later we reach a beautiful, open glen ringed with several species of trees and a verdant carpet of lush grass, compliments of a natural spring hidden amongst the African copse. We encounter two Maasi tribesmen, their herd of scruffy goats bleating a commentary on the Mzungus they see before them. I ask Jez if the world is passing the Massi by or if their existence has changed in some fundamental way. He tells me their range of movement has been compromised and with the recent allocation of land from the Kenyan government, the Maasi in this region will actually settle down and relinquish their nomadic lifestyle. He also informs me the Maasi now venture into the Mara with cell phones and text each other on the movement of their herd or any problems they may encounter. I later test part of his theory by calling my London-based friends and the reception is crystal clear with nary a cell tower in sight. Jez recounts the time he phoned his partner in Zim from the summit of Kilimanjaro and never had a problem. Go figure.
The classroom site is about one mile away, a short trek through the bush. We follow our guide through undulating terrain with shrub, towering trees, and a slab of rock the size of a football field that seems alien and out of place. I am told it is a salt lick and is frequented by the animals that pass through this corridor as they migrate. I have also stumbled across some rather peculiar burrows, the end result of hungry and acutely attuned aardvarks seeking out the termites that live underground.
We eventually reach the classroom site, along with a welcoming party of a dozen elders from the local Maasi tribe. We exchange greetings and names, discuss the project, and answer their enthusiastic questions. In this particular part of the Mara, schooling has taken on a new importance and even the female population is encouraged to attend school. This fact is not lost upon any of us and we look forward to being a part of the change.
Remember you can always make a difference, whether near or far, be thankful for what you have and pass on the love. Until next time.
Marcus Christopher is a part time employee with a penchant for food, travel, and people. I’ve teamed with Alfalfa’s to share my travel experiences, create dialogue, exchange ideas, and perhaps learn something new that enriches our respective lives.