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Of Soul-homes, Sky-temples and Safaris: Part Two

Of Soul-homes, Sky-temples and Safaris: Part Two

Kenya

The warrior-guide (David, our safari driver) and his noble mount (super-bumpy Toyota Hi-Ace)
The warrior-guide (David, our safari driver) and his noble mount (super-bumpy Toyota Hi-Ace)
The Masai Mara National Game Reserve is situated 270 kilometers west of Nairobi, a distance you can cover by either jeep or plane. The Masai, a nomadic pastoral tribe indigenous to East Africa, have inhabited the plains of southwestern Kenya and northern Tanzania since 1500 A.D. During the colonial period, thousands of Masai people were pushed off their ancestral lands for the expansion of cities and railways, and resorted to extreme poaching (in collusion with white hunters) when their traditional means of subsistence (i.e., cattle-rearing) was denied to them.

The Masai Mara game reserve was inaugurated in 1961 to protect the animals in the deserted and wild country in which wildlife had become increasingly sparse by this indiscriminate poaching. The protection of this area favored re-population of the territory by the Masai, who were then incorporated into the economic picture and put in charge of the reserve’s management. Though land conflicts are still about, the chosen formula for preserving this natural space attempts to render some reward to the Masai by means of trade with tourists, both through campsite management, handicraft selling and visits to villages. All of it provides a permanent income source, albeit scarce and fluctuating, for these people who fight for preserving their traditions against progress.

We rented a jeep from the “Discover Kenya” safari agency to take us from Nairobi to Masai Mara, a large white 8-seater with a convertible roof and absolutely no shocks whatsoever (we discovered this later, of course!) Our driver was very tall, very lean, had close-cropped curly hair, yellow cheetah-eyes, and might’ve been a Zulu warrior if it weren’t for his ordinary pants-n-shirt ensemble, the fact that his name was David, and that he drove a Toyota Hi-Ace.

Another unlearning experience, by the way – the majority of Kenyans do not practice voodoo or any other primitive religion. I remember one of my friends asking me very excitedly to get him some “crazy voodoo beads” from Kenya. I was curious myself about the kind of beliefs they practiced, and wanted to learn all about their ancient myths and gods and goddesses (avid religions-person that I am). But it came as a short surprise when our Nairobi driver Agre looked positively offended when we innocuously asked him what religion he practiced – “I’m a Protestant, of course!” (in fact, he was a part-time priest, and delivered sermons at a local church on Sundays!) – forgetting that, when the British came, they not only brought a system of government, but a religion. “Before the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.” 66% of Kenya’s 32 million people are therefore Christian, around 20% Muslim (the Muslims were actually here much before the British, merchants from Arabia and the Middle-East in the 8th century, but they kept mostly to the coast, and were more interested in trade than proselytizing – more about that later when we go to Mombasa) and the rest followers of ancestral tribal beliefs, as well as some Hindus and Buddhists.

Cute Masai shepherd kid racing our van
Cute Masai shepherd kid racing our van
David, however, was more forthcoming when it came to talking about his people’s past, and we learnt many interesting things from him on the 5-hour journey to Masai Mara.

This is one journey I shall never forget! For one, we passed through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen – rolling pastures, woodsy valleys, sweeping plateaus, every bit of land so delightfully green it wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, it was a banquet, a 12-course meal, amply seasoned with zebras, gazelles, baboons, and even a pair of giraffes and ostriches thrown in for pudding (which we were rather lucky to see, according to David, considering we hadn’t even reached the actual game reserve yet!)

You see, zebras and gazelles roam around as freely in the Kenyan countryside as cows and goats do in Pakistan. It was most fascinating. We saw our share of Kenyan cows and goats too (which are rather different looking from our kind), shepherded by skinny-legged red-swathed kids who’d wave at us rather violently with the toothiest of grins each time we passed. These were Masai children, David told us, recognizable by their distinct red clothing, and we saw many of them on the way. The Masai wear only a single sheet of hand-woven woolen red cloth wrapped like an ehraam (the dress Muslim men wear for pilgrimage) around their bodies – be it rain or storm, sun or snow, they wear nothing else. We fascinatedly stared at their bare arms and legs teasing the wind as if it were high summer. How wonderful the human body is, really, how terrifically adaptable!

It reminded me of that Creation story, one of my absolute favorites, about when God sent the angel Azrael down to earth to collect soil to make man’s body with. Azrael scooped up handfuls of soil from all four corners of the earth, some red, some white, some black, some yellow, and out of these different colors were born the four races of man, each race perfectly suited and acclimatized to the land it had sprung from. And traveling through that wide, beautiful country, through its bustling towns and villages, its farms, it wildernesses, past the unmistakably African acacia trees, the laughing, shiny-faced people, I felt no longer like a foreigner. I wasn’t really a foreigner – for beyond race, beyond the shade of our skins and the mould of our features, we were all just children of one man and one woman. They were neither black, nor white, nor red, nor yellow – they were, simply, human.

And so were we.


Look at the sign! We’ve reached Masai Mara! How utterly beautiful!
Look at the sign! We've reached Masai Mara! How utterly beautiful!
The second reason why I shall never forget that 5-hour journey to Masai Mara, is because I realized, on that journey, how many bones there actually were in my body.

It sounds strange, but trust me, you would discover the same thing if you’d been put in a box and thrown down a mountain. A rocky mountain. Don’t think I’m complaining, though, about the roads – the roads were, of course, rather, rather, rather bad – or about the van – it was, of course, rather, rather bumpy. It was the most fitting way to start a safari, I’d say – but 5 hours of nonstop bouncing can rattle up your insides quite a bit, and turn you a more than a bit mad. It was the craziest, funniest madness ever. David tried ignoring our yelps and shrieks of tearful laughter, but I swear I saw him chuckle more than once in the rearview mirror. It was, altogether, a thoroughly insane trip, and we reached the Mara Simba lodge (where we were staying) thoroughly battered and blue, but giddy with excitement. And, as we were soon about to discover, every second of the trip was worth it.

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