Sunday, June 1, 2008

Out of the City, Into the Unknown

Well, we had quite a productive week in Nairobi, and by the end of it, my head was practically bursting with knowledge. Fortunately, we are now headed out into the field, to finally meet this beautiful river which has called me half way around the world, and I think some time spent with her should help the thoughts filter properly through my brain. But first, a short recap…

Sometime after I wrote last, we had a very lovely coffee date at the Muthaiga Country Club, an old “Out of Africa”-esque establishment built in the early 1900’s and just every bit as swanky as it sounds. In fact, Chris and I got in trouble there THREE TIMES, once for working on a computer in the study, once for using a cell phone near the lobby and once because members only are allowed! We certainly felt a bit out of our league. But we had a wonderful meeting with a colleague who has lived in Africa for forty years and had a wealth of information and ideas to share with us, including a generous offer to rent a car from him during our stay. If I thought I could make it out of Nairobi alive, I would have already snatched it up…but I have to say, I have been really missing my great old Toyota seeing all these hearty field vehicles around.

That afternoon we headed out of the city for another wonderful visit at Jomo Kenyatta University, a rather new school built in the 1980’s, but growing rapidly in terms of students, branches and research funding. We met with a young and enthusiastic professor there whose research on hydrology in the region holds great promise for people living there. Just seeing the beautiful and modern facilities, walking amongst the busy campus and talking with this bright, energetic researcher gave me great hope for Kenya’s future.

By Friday, we were pretty exhausted. I had one final meeting, albeit with my primary contact in the region, so I was excited and a bit nervous to meet this woman with whom I have been corresponding for around 8 months now. Fortunately, she was just as gracious and friendly and lovely as every other person we had met. She had a vivacious energy about her, and you could feel her deep love for the rivers of southeastern Africa as she talked. As we walked home, I felt just ready to collapse, when suddenly, I got an unexpected phone call. My submitted letter had made its way, remarkably quickly, to one of the highest ranking officials at the Ministry of Water, and he wanted to meet with me in person… NOW!

I rushed to his office, cramming on information and statistics about GLOWS on the way. I confessed to my driver that I was bit nervous about this meeting, but he gamely reminded me that he’s just a person like everyone else. I tried to remember that as I walked into the long, wood-paneled expanse of his office and sat in front of his desk. “So, what is all of this about?” he asked, flipping through a packet that seemed to have accidentally landed upon his desk. Well, basically, we wanted his support and his authority to continue working in the basin, and after some discussion, he willingly granted it, which was quite a relief to me. He then proceeded to question me about American politics… “So,” he said, looking at me across his imposing desk, “you look like a Hillary supporter.” I laughed, and countered with my support for his countryman and obvious favorite, Obama, and that led into a long and friendly banter. Guess he is just a person after all!

Well, despite the success of our city adventures, we were very ready to leave it all behind for the adventures in the field when our ride came this morning. Chris and I loaded into a minivan equipped for safaris, complete with a raise-up roof and padded seats and walls to ease the bumpiness of the road and, after an express shopping trip to sustain the team for a week of fieldwork, we were off!

We rolled out of town, windows open, cool air blowing across us, watching the city turn into markets into villages into farms into land, just land. Africa is beautiful, and it really is just as you picture it would be, from all the images you have seen your whole life… you just have to remind yourself you’re now watching it through a window and not a television screen. As we rolled on, we came up to what appeared to be some mountains in the distance and suddenly, we crested over an escarpment and there, rolling out below us, was the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cradle of humanity. And as I looked over her broad, flat plains, dotted by acacias and blanketed by green grass, surrounded by impressive walls and old volcanoes, I believed it. It felt like this landscape had seen the beginning of our human time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

We pulled over for pictures at one of the many curios shops hawking Maasai crafts, including leather shields, sheepskin rugs and hats, and red, plaid blankets, before winding our way down to her floor. As the land became flat, it also started to feel familiar to me. It is semi-arid shrub and grassland, and there are acacias and large tress that appear to be cacti. With the potholed road and the landscape, I began to have visions of Baja California, or the Gran Chaco in Boliva, these semi-equatorial regions I had visited and known before. I started to feel comfortable then, seeing the dirt and the grass and the trees and the birds, and thinking, this is all the same earth that I already know, that I have spent my life knowing. And then I saw my first Maasai shepherd, wrapped in bright red blankets and walking along with a staff, tending his cattle. And then I saw an antelope. And then I saw a herd of zebra. And then I thought, no, this is all new.

This afternoon, as shadows were getting long, we rolled into the very dusty, very eclectic little village of Narok. This feels like a true frontier town to me, absolutely crammed full of tiny little stalls with folks selling every thing imaginable. This is the central place where the Maasai come to sell their crops, and the stepping off point for safaris into the Maasai Mara. It is loud and animated and there is a mosque in the center, often ringing the Muslim call to prayer. There are also cows ambling along, seemingly on the own adventure into town, women braiding hair, Maasai women in their brightly colored wraps and beautiful beaded jewelry, men roasting corn and making shoes out of tires, lots of trash scattered everywhere and small winding roads and paths leading you around all kinds of hidden corners. It is what I imagine the frontier towns looked like back in the Wild West, with a bit of a different flavor. I love it.

Tomorrow we head into the Maasai Mara National Reserve to sample some sites along the Mara. We are fortunate to be able to stay in a field station inside the park, eliminating the need to pay several hundred dollars for a room at one of the several upscale tourist lodges in the area. Also, I just like field stations. They are what field work is supposed to include, cooking your own pasta with tasteless sauce, tired from a long day of work, going to bed in simple surroundings, awakening with the sun. I am completely thrilled to be headed out for some field work, and I just can’t believe I will be in such a remarkable place.

We may be out of touch during our stay there, but I look forward to sending out an update as soon as we return. We should have quite a bit of wildlife photos to share with you all then, as well as some interesting stories, I am sure. I wish I could bring you all with me, but I’ll try to bring a piece of it back to share…

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