Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kenyan Memory

One day it was announced that we were going far out on Kuku Game Ranch to visit some people in a small boma. We were going to bring them gifts and the women there were going to teach us how to bead the Maasai way.

Though Kuku was the adjacent group ranch (we were on Kimana) there was no easy way to get there. You had to trek to Kimana, a three mile drive on terrible roads, then off-road until you got to the edge of the electric fence. Once you crossed over the border into Kuku, you kind of drove aimlessly for an hour. There weren't really car tracks, because no one has a car out there, and the only visitors who go out there have to know the way without a road to guide them. It's so dusty that your car is instantly filled with red cattle and game dung-smelling dust, and it's pointless to close the windows in the land cruiser because they don't close all the way and the dust permeates every crevice of the vehicle. Sometimes on the way to Kuku, we'd just ride with our eyes shut and noses covered with t-shirts or bandanas, which was hard for us because there was always something to see out the window, cattle, maybe a giraffe or two, a kori bustard, or maybe some herdboys with their goats or a Maasai man on his bicycle riding with his staff in hand. Sometimes we would drive for what seemed like miles, but was probably ony 1 or 2, and not see a soul, and then on an outcropping we'd see Maasai men walking their property, or boxes strung in the branches of a tree for collecting honey, or a child walking home from school.

I had been out to Kuku before this occasion, but it was for research. We had done an intense yet fruitful bird survey through there. I remember that day vividly, better than I remember most days in Africa. hen we arrived on Kuku, we saw some great wood hoopoes, then identified an unusual vagrant cuckoo. We trekked through a marsh with fresh hippo tracks, and Kristy and I clung to each other with ecstatic fear, listening to hippos calling each other through the reeds the whole time we walked across the swamp, fitting our hiking boots in each hippo footprint to compare the sizes of our feet. I also remember identifying one of those "african lbj" birds (little brown job). These birds are incredibly hard to identify without extensive study, but luckily we found one that had some unusual behavior characteristic, and after an intent search in my field guide, I found the small thrush making all the racket in the swamp. My teacher was so elated I remember him clapping me on the back, hard. Usually an extremely reserved man, I recall soaking up his praise. Later in the afternoon, we climed a tree overlooking a tributary of a larger river and watched hippo babies wallowing alongside their mothers.

We returned to Kuku not to survey the wildlife, but to learn things from the Maasai mamas living out in the bush. We planned to haul some water for them, beading, and talking about life in the boma. We knew that we were heading to a boma that was fairly poor, so we planned to trade goods for our education. We went into Oloitokitok on market day and bought huge plastic tubs in an assortment of bright colors. We filled them with flour, sugar, rice, beans, cocoa, cornmeal, tea, beads, thread and other staples. The tubs themselves were huge assets and could be used for everything from hauling water to bathing babies, feeding livestock, cooking and storing food. We hoped the staples would last the families a bit too. I remember that I had to contribute less than 500 KSh to buy the supplies, less than $6.00. I was always amazed how far my money would go in Kenya, and how little the Kenyans had to spend on groceries while I didn't think twice about spending a couple hundred shillings on some tea or cookies.

The trek to Kuku was long and dusty, and since we were going to a remote location, we had to drive past our old bird survey site and past some of the more local settlements we had visited before. When we finally arrived at the boma, women and children made the long trek out to the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. There's a part in one of my favorite movies, A Town Like Alice, where Jean Paget arrives in Willstown, Australia and realizes she is nowhere, nowhere, nowhere. In the movie, the camera pans out with each beat of the music to emphasize the nothingness. That's exactly how I felt. Nothing. Nothing. Nowhere.

That's probably why visitors were welcomed, especially ones bearing gifts as we were, and looking back I am guessing the gifts weren't welcome because the people were destitute or starving or anything severe and extreme like that, but because it was such a damn nuisance to get supplies that this saved a lot of women a long, dusty walk. The beads we had purchased were put to use immediately as the Masai mammas tried to teach us how to bead. Little kids and babies wandered around the boma. The kids did sweet things, like walk up to you shyly and touch your face. The mammas laughed at those who were not crafty and had trouble beading. My mamma loved me because I could bead, and while she could not speak english, she would pat me on the back, a smile cracking her wrinkled face. I wondered how old she was. Sometimes it was hard to discern who was 50 and who was 100.

We hauled water later. We had to walk up a hill to a tap, and then carry a five gallon bucked strapped to our head with a piece of leather. It was heavy and hurt my neck. Again there was much laughter as we stumbled and spilled our way down the hill. I hoped we had saved the women some time and effort, but I doubt we were anywhere near as efficient as the Masai ladies. At the end of the day, we bought their beadwork, though a fight started when I didn't have any change, but we worked it out in the end through an interpreter.

One day I was telling someone, who had traveled with indigenous tribes in Guyana, about my experiences in Kenya. He waved me off "Africa," he said "is so tourist-oriented. Everything is manicured and artificial and choreographed, every dance, every costume. The authenticity is totally gone." This irritated me immensely. In addition to being mostly untrue (of course there are 'tourist traps' as there should be) why would you invalidate my experience before I even had a chance to explain it? There was nothing inauthentic about this settlement - no one did dances or sang songs or had on "costumes."

I think about that boma often. I can't believe it's been seven years since I visited there (I am finishing this post in 2010, after it lay dormant for years). I wonder about those kids toddling around. Are they big? Did they survive to adolescence? Is the boma even still there? How I wish I could go back and visit...but I know I'd never find it again.

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