Hey whoa, here we are. We made it. The OG animal kingdom.
I imagine that to look from far and above, the African savannah is an endless canvas at the hands of an impressionist painter. An interminable, borderless expanse that is a melt of broad brush strokes of golden tones and muted pastels. From this vantage point, shape and color are defined solely by how the sunlight strikes its land. I can feel an easy quiet, an almost tangible stillness and calm. This canvas’ shift in hue that parallels the slow revolve of the sun is our only mark of time. We float, both no where and everywhere at once, far removed from the immediacy of the present. And secretly, I’m happy to be a few feet closer to my goal of dancing on Saturn’s rings.
But from our place here, we freefall. We descend into the savannah. With each passing second, this once blurred muted wash becomes a strict geometry of shape and defined color. Guys, we’ve fallen into the most majestic pop-up storybook that there ever was. Quite literally nothing can prepare you for this other worldly experience. We are surrounded by thousands of gentle giants as far as the eye can see – giraffe, elephants, zebra, hippos, crocodiles, lions, rhino, buffalo – co-existing, seemingly harmoniously. And as we navigate this storybook in our 4x4, we come to find that this is an ever-evolving narrative. The savannah is the pinnacle of wild, and with that, it is unpredictable. No page is the same, we can’t skip ahead and surely cannot return to the page before. We are here and we are present.
And so, our safari throughout Kenya and Tanzania begins. We wake up well before sunrise and gain our ground with a fresh brew of local coffee. Just before the skies pink with the waking sun, we pile into our well-explored Landcruiser. I’m talking two hundred thousand miles under this vehicle’s belt, but instead of worry for an inevitable breakdown, I trust in the wisdom of its miles.
We pass through bountiful Acacia trees, bounce over potholes, ride through the red soils, uncovering new corners and unbridling constant surprises. A parade of mama elephants and their young ones walk next to us, just feet away. At any given moment, you can find yourself between thousands of galloping zebra or pausing next to a pack of lion siesta-ing with their cubs. Hippos splash while crocs hide in the slow meandering rivers. Surreal in every way. A.n.o.t.h.e.r. W.o.r.l.d.
And what is most illuminated here, is the freedom that these lands hold, answering only to earth’s natural rhythm and order. A decline of one species equates to the rise in another. We are at the epicenter of evolution and witness the yield of natural selection. These lands and life do not seek to control or claim and are not shaped by want. They, simply, exist, persist and thrive. Every relationship here gives way to this trust in this natural balance, and from here, life moves forward. And where touched by man, we see the unnatural shift and shake in these lands. Flora and fauna try to regain footing, an oftentimes uphill battle to find their flow again.
And with each return at night to our camp, I find myself wanting to sit alone, just outside my tent or perhaps on a nearby boulder, and I am simply listening. It is an orchestra of sorts, a symphony. Waves of sounds from the wildlife bounce off one another, meld together and then pull apart, creating a unique string of music at each given moment. You feel at peace to listen, lucky to have this forever evolving private dialogue. And somehow my mind floats to a thought. I imagine an old man coming to sit next to me, wise and wrinkled with age. We don’t share the same language and our lived experiences are disparate from one another, so we find ourselves in a silence. But the beauty is, somehow looking out over the edge into the savannah, we both kinda get it. We get what these lands show us, and within that, we get each other. We get that to be filled is actually to be stripped. To be full is to simply be present. To let go is to be okay, and actually happy, with an unpromised return. He smiles and we connect in the comfortable silence of this universal language. I gesture to say so long old bud and with that, I retire to my tent.
Morning comes and here we are again, the eight of us jostling around this Landcruiser in the ever pursuit of discovery and experience. As we trapeze the savannah, my arm is out the window and I am here and no where else, dancing my hands in the flow of the wind. My white converse are one thousand percent no longer white. My freckles are darkened by the sun. My hair is knotted by the same winds my hands dance in and my cheeks are lightly coated in a red dust kicked up by the roar of our 4x4. Ooooof. Happy.
I pop up onto the roof of the Landcruiser and join our guide, Joseph, who calls the roof of the car ‘his office.’ A beautiful office at that. I watch him in his element. Though he does this day in and day out, he is so genuinely in awe of his surroundings and it is a pleasure watching him experience life. Joseph is kind as he is gentle as he is eager. He is passionate about his profession, taking care to explain all of the intricacies of the savannah’s wildlife to us. He is a treasure trove of information that my family cannot get enough of. And in moments where he thinks no one is watching, I am, and I see him smiling, looking ahead to experience the next page in our storybook.
It is then, in a rare moment of lull, I ask him about his family. And with this simple question, the floodgates of insight in to a country’s past, present and future fall. I couldn’t know what my simple question would propel me to uncover but I know now, and I am shook to the core.
To get to know a country, is to get to know the stories of its people. And over the course of a few days, we came to know Joseph’s story. The root of his story is not uncommon from most Kenyans, but the way he chose to deliberately write a new narrative for himself and his family, illuminates the grave realities for much of Kenya, and Africa at large.
Before I begin to retell Joseph’s story, it is important to understand his surrounding context. As the majority of Kenya’s population is pastoral, meaning they live by herding livestock around open areas of land according to seasons and the changing availability of water and pasture, the root of survival is based on this livestock. They sustain life on three things – the milk, blood, and meat of their herd. Money is often not exchanged, but instead, an exchange of livestock serves as their economy. Therefore, to have an abundant herd is to be wealthy. These pastoral communities are also tribal. Kenya is comprised of hundreds of tribes, the largest being the Maasai. Each tribe have their own cultural practices and beliefs but do find common intersections with other tribes as well. Because the majority of the population exists off of livestock, they place less weight on education and though changing, much of the population will go uneducated. More often than not, the government pays only for the salaries of teachers and does not subsidize, or outright pay, for the cost of being a student that families will bear. Therefore, again, education is regularly unattainable. Instead, men are raised to care for the herd and women are raised to marry at a young age and produce. A family that has multiple young girls is deemed ‘wealthy’ because as a cultural practice, young girls are essentially sold for marriage – a family will exchange their young girl, oftentimes as young as nine, for livestock as a dowry. The foundation to much of the human experience in Kenya, and of other African countries, is not one of choice or access to opportunity but it is one of survival.
So, with that, this is Joseph’s story.
Joseph was born into a pastoral tribe. At the age of five, his father was murdered by a member of a different tribe. He was murdered over livestock. The life of his father taken and his family’s livelihood, their herd, stolen. He and his other young siblings were forced to flee their home and found refuge in another part of Kenya. Joseph’s mother was young, uneducated, and now without a herd and therefore, an inability to provide. Joseph explained that she did everything in her power to feed, shelter, and clothe him and his siblings. And because she struggled as there was little ability for her to obtain economic independence, she instilled in her children the importance of gaining access to opportunity. Therefore, what she chose to instill in them, was the power of education.
Because of Joseph’s mother trailblazing a new narrative for her children, he and his siblings received an education. Joseph graduated in the National school system, which takes the top – and very small - percentage of students based on high ranking test scores. His siblings too, graduated.
Fast forward to Joseph now. He is young, somewhere in his early thirties. He is married and is incredibly in love with his wife. Joseph met her in elementary school. She was his first love and his only love. They went to separate universities and as love sometimes has it, they ended up getting pregnant very young. They were not married and came from different tribes. Marriage to someone outside of your tribe is, more often than not, prohibited but he knew he wanted to take her hand in marriage. Knowing that her family may not accept him because he was not part of her tribe, he asked his mother for advice. He asked her what he should do in this situation. Her response to him was a question. She asked, ‘You are in love with her?’ to which he responded, ‘Entirely.’ She told him because of this, he shouldn’t worry, for they will see that he is a good man and that he will take care of their daughter in full. Because of his mother again daring to live differently, instilling in him that ‘love is love,’ just nine months later not only was he a married man but his daughter was born. They named her ‘Blessing.’ Blessing is now one of four, and Joseph feels like the luckiest man on the planet.
But that’s not where Joseph’s story stops, because much of his story unfolds with that of his wife’s, years prior to them ever meeting.
When his wife was just twelve, she was deemed suitable for marriage by her family and by her tribe. What this means, in practice, is that her family was to receive livestock in exchange for a much older man’s hand in marriage. In order for this ‘marriage’ to occur, young girls must go through circumcision – or female mutilation. This cultural practice is responsible for the deaths of thousands of young girls across Africa every year, as ‘procedures’ are unsanitary and incredibly dangerous. Young girls are not given a choice in their future, but instead, they are brutalized and then bought and sold. Their innocence shattered.
Therefore, at the age of twelve, Joseph’s wife and her three friends were faced with a choice. To flee their families and seek refuge or to go through with marriage. They chose to flee but were ultimately captured, and one of her friends lost her life to this practice. Deeply traumatized, Joseph’s wife made it her life’s work to end this.
As I am having this conversation with Joseph, there are five young girls in his home who are seeking refuge from mutilation. Him and his wife have set up a non-profit that supports the young girls who flee, providing them a home and an education. Through the spread of word of mouth by young girls, Joseph’s home has become known as a safe place and a second chance at life. And of course this means at any given moment, Joseph and his wife are risking their lives for the chance to better the future of these children.
It is an out of body experience to be having this conversation with Joseph. It pains me to think of all the singular events he so neatly envelopes in ‘I lost my father when I was five,’ when really, his father was murdered. Or when he says, ‘I want to leave Kenya better than when I entered it’ when really, he means, at any given moment, he is transforming the life of his country’s children.
It is deeply inspiring to watch a man tell his story with fortitude and grace, and humbling to witness this balance between bravery and fear. Joseph tells us that sometimes he is afraid. But somehow it’s as if he finds the strength to harden this fear into a cinderblock to stand on, allowing him to stand taller and more resilient against his fight. He tells us love is love, and that his sons and daughters will live within that. That education is the lifeblood of opportunity, and choices will not be made for his children but instead, they will create their own. He tells us that his daughters’ value is gained from within, and not from the periphery. That her life will not be bought and sold, therefore her opportunity at life, not mishandled. Joseph and his wife are mavericks for change.
There is no playbook in how to meet the eyes of a man who tells you this. No playbook in how to grapple with your own emotion, knowing simply, you will never know this exact fear firsthand. It’s a mix of guilt but moreover extreme gratitude and empathy for his story, and that of millions of others. But of course, the moment is not about me and we aren’t in this moment even for him really. It transcends that, and instead, exposes a country’s devastation.
I am grateful to find ourselves here, stripped of pretense, on a red soiled patch of earth. Joseph and my family partake in a traditional sundowner, essentially a cocktail at sunset, and we swap tales of experience. Illuminated by conversation, invisible bridges between our worlds become visible, we see that we are fighting for the same things, the same human fundamentals that thread us all.
So when he meets my eyes and says love is love, it is all I know to do is to agree and repeat, love is love. Or when I talk with the head schoolmaster at the only school in Kenya to educate children with disabilities and that is trying to change the national conversation around educating these children, I can see that again, it all boils back to the fundamental desire of access to opportunity, and with that, choice. Or when I walk by a United Nations plane that will deliver aid to thousands across the continent, I see borders dissolving and instead nations coming together and humans providing humans a hand up. And for this, I am forever grateful.
- 1 night in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania || Stay: Kili Villa
- 2 nights in Lake Manyara National Park (Ngorongoro Crater) Tanzania || Stay: Acacia Farm Lodge
- 3 nights in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania || Stay: Mkombe's House Lamai
- 3 nights in Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya || Stay: Little Govenors Camp
- 2 nights in Laikpia Plateau, Kenya || Stay: Ekorian Mugie Camp
- 1 night in Nairobi, Kenya || Stay: Hemingways
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