Before he died, one of the last things John whispered to me was, "Go back to Africa. Keep writing. Be happy again." Better than anyone, he knew of the powerful grip that Africa had on me, the spiritual connection I felt with the continent, and how happy, fulfilled and at peace I was when on her soil.
During the years of his illness and following his death, not a day went by when my mind didn't wander there. I longed for Africa each morning and took her dreams with me to bed each night. Perhaps more than anything, the determination and hope of someday returning sustained me throughout the most difficult moments. And there were many.
My first trip to Africa was with John in 1998. Along with two friends, we spent a glorious five weeks in South Africa. John was sick then, how ill we did not yet know but secretly, my gut told me he was terminal and I suppose I knew then, with John, I would never return to Africa.
Toward the end of our trip, John's energy waning, we spent an easy day exploring shops and museums around Durban. We slipped into a small bookshop and went our separate ways. The proprietor asked if he could help me find a book. I told him I wanted a non-fiction book about Africa. Without hesitation he said, "I think I know the book you'd like." He led me to a table toward the back of the shop that held a few copies of, I Dreamed of Africa, by Kuki Gallmann. "I think you should read this book," he said. He seemed very convincing but I was surprised that he was determined to sell me a book about Kenya. There were many books in his shop on South Africa, one of which I assumed he would recommend. Since he was so convinced I should read her book, I bought it.
That night, as John and our friends went out to dinner, I stayed back at the hotel and read. I finished her book in the early hours of the morning. Before that afternoon, I had never heard of Kuki Gallmann or her best selling book. Not only was it an amazing story and beautifully written, but it was about the resilience of a woman who tragically lost her husband in Kenya some years earlier, and while still in her thirties. Just a short time later, she lost her only son as well.
I too, was in my thirties and facing the possibility of losing John. Although at that time, we were not sure what was ailing him, ALS had been mentioned, but so had many other diseases. It was still early on and a definitive diagnosis had yet to be made.
The book hit me hard. There were similarities between this woman and me, primarily our passion for Africa. Born in Italy, and now living in Kenya, Gallmann's love affair with Africa began in childhood, as did mine. Following the death of her husband and son, she went on to create a protected wildlife refuge, a science/research facility, and the Wilderness School on her 100,000 acre ranch, Ol ari Nyiro, in remote Northern Kenya.
At that moment, my hope took a different turn - not only would I see John through whatever was plaguing his body, but no matter what unfolded and what hand fate would deal - Africa would play a major role in my life.
When we returned to the States, I emailed Kuki Gallmann in Kenya. I told her how much hope her book had given me, about John's illness, and how I longed to see East Africa someday. Over the next few years, we corresponded via email and post. By then, John's diagnosis became terminal, ALS, a fate we hoped against all odds was not the one to be dealt. All along, in her emails, Kuki wrote, "come back to Africa, to Kenya. It is a healing place." I knew it would be, it was just a matter of how long it would take me to get back - to begin to heal.
John and I began sending boxes full of books to Kuki's non-profit foundation, The Gallmann Africa Conservancy. The books were used at her school, founded in memory of her son, as well as in the local library on her reserve. We tried to play a small role in any way we could, which included my writing grant proposals to Bushnell which garnered a dozen pair of night vision binoculars for the anti-poaching patrol on Kuki's wildlife reserve. While our involvement was minor, it made both John and me feel as though we were doing our small part for Africa, together, even if we could not be there.
After publishing a piece about South Africa for The New York Times, I was contacted by Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA) and extended an invitation to visit any two of their safari camps in Africa. It was an unexpected and unbelievably generous offer.
While John's health was deteriorating, he was still upright, albeit with a walker, and somewhat strong, and he was determined that I go back to Africa. As he would tell me repeatedly while I agonized over the thought of leaving him, "I'll be okay - this is a chance of a lifetime, you have to go." With the nudging and reasurrances from our family doctor that John would be okay if I left him for three weeks, and under the care of his sister (formerly a nurse) who graciously agreed to fly from her home in Hawaii to look after him, I decided to go.
Along with a friend from San Francisco, we flew to Kenya and spent three glorious weeks at the major wildlife reserves from Tsavo to Amboseli, with its magnificent backdrop of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, to the arid Samburu reserve on the northern fringes of the country. We saw thousands of shimmering pink flamingos flitting across the alkaline waters of Lake Nakuru, visited a Jane Goodall chimpanzee sanctuary at the base of Mt. Kenya, and ended with an extraordinary stay at the Conservation Corp camp, Kichwa Bateleur, in the legendary Masai Mara.
Our last night at Kichwa, our evening meal was set out amidst the plains. Tables were dressed, brass lanterns glowing around the camp, casting dancing shadows across the grasses. Meats were roasting on open flames, there was song and dance around the fire, while lions roared in the not so far distance. It was indeed a chance of a lifetime. It renewed my spirit and strength for the battle that was yet to come and would consume both John and me for the next two years.
The last night in Kenya, I got a call in my hotel room in Nairobi. Kuki Gallmann's assistant was on the line hoping that we could fly to Ol ari Nyiro the next day to meet Kuki. I had tried unsuccessfully to notify her before my trip but as she was out of the country, the correspondence never reached her. We were not to meet, that trip. It would be another three years, and I would be a new widow by the time our paths would cross.
Shortly after John's death, I emailed Kuki of his passing. Her offer still held - come back to Kenya to heal, to Ol ari Nyiro. When I was able, I planned a month long solo trip back to Africa. I booked my flight from Boston via London and onto Nairobi. I planned on staying the majority of my time at Kuki's science and research camp, a few days following at her beautiful private tented camp, Makena's Hills, then onto Olerai House on the fertile banks of Lake Naivasha.
All was going according to plan. The catch was the United States was now at war with Iraq and with terrorism phobia running rampant, the U.S. State Department issued a warning of imminent danger in Kenya, a probable terrorist bombing attack in Nairobi.
For the first time, British Airways suspended all flights into Nairobi. My flight. Once again, my life was on hold. All along, I was determined to get there. The plan became to fly from London to Entebbe, Uganda on British Airways then take a charter flight to Nairobi. I was willing to go this extended route, ignore the State Department's inflated warnings, and get to Kenya on what would be just over one year following John's death.
For weeks, I did not know for sure how my plans would unfold as British Airways continued to change or modify flight plans. Just as I contemplated canceling the trip, on the morning of June 27, 2003, one year to the day of John's passing, British Airways lifted its months' old ban on flying into Nairobi. That was the only signal I needed that I was to make this solo journey.
"Get back to Africa. Be happy again."
I was on my way. Everything went without a hitch. It was both liberating and empowering to make such a trip on my own, to give myself the greatest gift I could have imagined, the gift of Africa.
While I had hoped to meet interesting people from around the world both at the science/research center at Kuki's reserve as well as at Olerai House on beautiful Lake Naivasha, due to the perceived terrorist threats and supposed imminent danger, those who had scheduled time for research at the reserve and Lake Naivasha, had cancelled.
In more ways than I could have imagined, being the only guest wherever I went afforded me the greatest opportunities and newfound friendships possible. I met, got to know, and spent quality time with the employees - wonderful Kenyans who offered me so much. My lessons learned were invaluable, the friendships made, real and lasting. I am a better person for their friendship. I will forever be grateful.
I met with Kuki on several occasions and our talks were honest and healing in myriad ways. Those who worked on the reserve, and in many capacities, were giving and helpful to a fault. The connections I made there, specifically with those at the science and research camp, were some of the deepest and most introspective of my life.
Jeffrey Muchugi, my main guide while at the camp, a brilliant mind and human being who taught me so much about the wild, flora and fauna. We spent hours talking, trekking, discussing politics, family, friends, world issues, the environment, books, and life. We joked, easily. Douglas Nagi, the top guide at Kuki's, the "walking encyclopedia" as they called him; a thoughtful, intelligent, straightforward man whose candid conversation and love for the wild brought a richness to my days. Philip Ochieng, the resident entomologist, who always had a smile on his face and got giddy at the sight of or talking about lovely things with wings - butterflies, lacewings, insects and moths. It was Philip, who on my birthday asked if I would make him a small cake for afternoon tea. I had baked a cake for the staff the day before and Philip had liked it so much it didn't matter what day it was - he just laughed and asked if I didn't mind - I didn't. And Jones, the multi-task man for Kuki who I spent much timing talking with at Makena's Hills. A shy, dear, soft-spoken man who made me feel as though I were home. One afternoon while I was out walking, Jones, in all seriousness, came up to me and in a quiet, fatherly voice said, "you need to eat something, you look thin." And Mzee Epateti, the tracker/askari (guide) and retired Kenyan Wildlife Service ranger who led my foot safaris and kept me safe. He loved the bush, as do I, and he taught me much. The bush was part of him. He was the bush.
So many more as well, from the fabulous cook, Mzee Christopher, who generously allowed me to rummage through his kitchen sanctuary to bake cakes (far inferior to his own), to Elizabeth and Ali. These remarkable individuals brought joy into my life once again. They took great care of me at a time when I could not have appreciated more the chance and opportunity to be cared for. For the first time in many, many months, I did not feel so alone.
Excerpt from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily, copyright 2007, Jan Baumgartner
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