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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Playing Scrabble With the Samburu



Kenya, from Moyale south to Marsabit, is rife with bad roads and broken down vehicles. We broke down only twice. One time the power steering went out. The other time a tire exploded leaving 200 feet of rubber guts on the one-lane corrugated and potholed track. The good thing about having a break down in Northern Kenya is that the fantastically attired, spear bearing Samburu people come out of nowhere to watch you repair your vehicle.


The Afar people of Ethiopia Samburu are even more creatively decked out. One woman had a tin pot perched on her head and another wore a clear plastic bag fastened to her ears with strings made of bark. The Samburu clad themselves in bright red or pink fabric and colorful beaded necklaces and bracelets. Most carry a cell phone. The only other thing they carry is a spear. Everything they wear somehow looks brand new. Even the multi colored pipe cleaners or plastic rose buds they add to an already elaborately decorated headdresses looks like it has never been used. They are vain but they deserve to be. They’re gorgeous.


In some ways, Marsabit reminded me of Timbuktu in Mali. The streets were covered in sand and it had an “out in the boondocks” feel to it. I loved it!


We shopped for dinner in the open air market and bought the same produce we had bought all the way from Cairo to Nairobi; carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, garlic, chilies, and sometimes bell pepper was available. A pod of children, who could barely walk, followed us through the market smiling, waving, and shouting hello about a hundred times. Samburu women dressed in vibrant fabric brightened the town when they came in to either buy or sell carrots, onions, tomatoes, and cabbage.



On the outskirts of town, Scott and I viewed the gravestones of African soldiers who fought in The King’s African Rifles, The East African Military Labour Service, and The African Pioneer Corps in a meticulously maintained World War II cemetery. We walked up into the hills surrounding Marsabit to visit a Catholic church run by Bantu nuns, and followed women carrying empty five gallon plastic containers to the famed “singing wells” although no one is singing much these days when they dip their buckets deep into the last remaining well.


Drought has hit Marsabit hard. For several years, they haven’t had any rain to speak of and most of the water is delivered to town by truck. Even the water holes (old volcanic craters) at Marsabit National Park have all but dried up so wildlife, except for a few elephant and baboon, are scarce. Still, Marsabit Park is hilly and beautifully dense with foliage so we all piled into three game drive vehicles and made our way into the park to enjoy nature and see what we could see. After a few hours we stopped to stretch our legs and those of our group in the pickup truck all said, “We have the worst driver! He slows down at odd times and then speeds when going uphill. He’s awful!” We found out just why his driving was so unpredictable when our vehicle came upon the empty pickup stalled out on the upslope side of the road bogged in soft dirt. Our African Trails driver Karl heard about the incompetence of the pickup driver and got behind the wheel to rescue the truck and drive it up the hill. He gunned it and the stuck tire was suddenly freed. But instead of going forward up the hill, the truck careened out of control backwards at a terrifying speed coming to rest halfway up a steep bank, t-boned into the hillside.


“There’s no brakes!” shouted Karl. “Yes, no brakes”, said the driver of the pickup with succinct simplicity. It explained why it was that he sped up hills and drove seemingly out of control downhill. “You should have told me!” yelled a shaken Karl. The all wheel drive on the truck was also kaput so Scott, Chris, and Phil had to bounce up and down on the back of the vehicle while the driver floored it to dislodge the truck from the hill. While the drivers stood around discussing how they would get everyone back to Marsabit town safely, some of us walked back to a lodge overlooking a dry waterhole to drink warm beer and wait for the handful of elephants that were rumored to show up at 4 o’clock each afternoon. It became the day known as: No brakes, no cold beer, and no elephants. But that was okay because while I knew while we probably wouldn’t be getting cold beer anytime soon, we would be seeing scads of elephants in Samburu National Park the next day.

We camped near Archer’s Post in a Samburu village located just outside the park gates. I picked out the perfect spot for our tent in a dry riverbed, which, from the fresh dung and tracks present, was on a well-used elephant trail. But the tribesmen nixed my choice saying it was too dangerous. Each night the warriors fed the campfire and kept watch over our camp to drive any wild animals away. Darn.


The Samburu invited us into their huts, let us carry their super adorable and cuddly children around camp, invited us to dance with the Samburu women, “Shake your business!” they all said.


After preparing a goat feast for us, the Samburu men taught us all about their culture. When I asked why every warrior we met had all four front teeth missing -two top, two bottom - they explained that teeth were pulled at age 14 so that if ever a warrior is unable to ingest the daily staple of blood and milk from a cow it can be poured in through the gap. It is taboo for a warrior to die with an empty stomach. We asked about cow stealing, an old Masai and Samburu tradition. They said their cows were never stolen because they have “tight security.” Tight security consists of a few warriors guarding the kraal surrounding the cows armed with spears.


When two Samburu warriors accompanied us on a game drive the next day they seemed to know where the animals would be at any given time and could predict their behavior. Within a few hours we had already seen a pride of lions with cubs, giraffe, elephant, and impala. Before lunch we stopped near an Acacia tree that was occupied by a leopard. Within five minutes, one of the Samburu said to me, “Please tell everyone to be quiet now. The leopard is about to HUNT! Her ears are FORWARD!” He accompanied “hunt” and “forward” with the most descriptive hand gestures and facial expressions I have ever seen. He actually looked like a real leopard on the hunt. Sure enough, not 100 feet away, we watched the leopard, her ears intently forward, remain frozen in place while a male impala passed beneath her. A baby impala and the mother were not far behind. The leopard let the baby pass just seven feet below her then in one motion she leapt directly onto the mother and clenched her jaws around the impala’s throat to strangle her. It was an incredible sight. After a few minutes, exactly when the Samburu said she would, the leopard dragged her kill up into another tree. It was one of the most thrilling game drives I have been on in all of East Africa. Even the Samburu were spent after all the excitement and they both fell into a deep sleep on the way back to the village.



I marveled at how the Samburu could predict the behaviors of the animals that day but the Samburu are nothing if not observant. After watching us play scrabble for a few minutes that evening they completely took over the game, borrowing tiles from opponent’s trays when they needed a letter and making words out of turn. The Samburu are intelligent, enthusiastic, and energetic not to mention physically striking. Just when I was thinking about The White Masai a book written by a culturally ignorant and self-absorbed Swiss woman on vacation who falls for a Samburu warrior, marries him, has his baby and basically ruins his life before taking his baby back to Switzerland, the Samburu warrior sitting next to me asked, "Have you ever read The White Masai?" I have read it but I want my brother to read it. If possible would you send it to me?”
I was surprised not only that he had read it but that he would want his brother to read such a book. “What did you think of the story?” I asked. He hesitated before saying, “There are a lot of bad things in there…. If my wife took my baby away, I would just kill myself.”


We said goodbye to the Samburu people with a promise to send photos and drove to the base of Mt. Kenya where the motto at Mt. Kenya university is “Scaling The Heights of Education!” Over several days we explored the slopes if not the summit of Mt. Kenya and, since the trip would be coming to end a few days later in Nairobi, we did a thorough spring-clean of the overland truck. We hiked to the Mau-Mau caves where the anti-colonial rebels hid out until independence. I stayed outside making sandwiches because after reading The Hot Zone, I never, ever go into a cave where bats reside.


We arrived in Nairobi a few days later. Well not Nairobi but in Karen a suburb 15 kilometers away named for Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa. You can tour her house and coffee operation at the foot of the Ngong hills but the main reason to stay in Karen is so you can visit the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. We first went to the orphanage 5 years ago when there were only eight of us there to see the elephants. One baby orphan ran up to me, sniffed my toes, wrapped his trunk firmly around my arm, and stuck my hand in it’s mouth and used it like a pacifier. This time, there were around 150 people there and it was hard to get close to the elephants. But one still managed several times to back in amongst the hoards where we were standing because he loved to have his rear end scratched. On the way back to camp we drove around not one but two stay lefties. Stay lefties is the term given by the locals to roundabouts built by the British. The name came about because the sign on them says, “Stay Left” so that is what they called them. Just beyond the second stay lefty we stopped at another sanctuary to hand feed giraffe.


It was hard saying goodbye to Kenya with it’s quintessential African skies and all our new friends that we had traveled with for 9 weeks up the Nile from Cairo to Nairobi but we had an appointment with a village that needs us to help them build a bridge in Zambia.


See photos of Kenya at http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtris/KenyaUpdate
Scott and Tris
Nairobi Kenya

Next: Avoiding Arrest on Drug Trafficking Charges in Zambia: We’re Not a Gang. We’re a Club!

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