The sky is filling with dark, ominous clouds as it seems to do most early afternoons, threatening rain. This is the dry season but rain has been plentiful these days. The camp garden is relishing the unexpected moisture and is resplendent with bougainvillea, poinsettia, jasmine, euphorbia and fever trees, formidable succulents, draping vines and myriad wildflowers.
From where I sit and write, I look onto a landscape and horizon I had only dreamed about in some small way, in my imagination. Across the expanse of grass, the fever trees and euphorbia, the Great Rift Valley, a wave of ancient mountains and plateaus seemingly go on forever.
The Kenyan sky, more vast and changeable than words can describe or past experience can compare, is blue and clear, then at once, filled with enormous billowing clouds of different shapes and tones, from brilliant white to metal gray. The clouds create fast moving pockets of light and shadow across this ancient landscape, invoking different moods and thoughts as all around me light changes, warm sun turns to a cold breeze and unexpected raindrops against my skin, then back to a dry, burning sun.
Two families of elephants have been raiding the kitchen's organic vegetable garden. The other evening, following dinner, we ran out into a soft rain to see one family, just feet away, finishing the lettuces. A two-year-old calf was part of the herd.
Later that night, in bed with a swirl of bats around my netting, I heard the askari yelling at the top of his lungs, pounding his feet into the ground. I could hear him running around the camp, screaming, ending in front of my cottage around 3:00 a.m. The commotion went on for some time culminating with what sounded like objects being thrown at my thatched roof cottage, immediately followed by the angry trumpeting of an elephant. My room literally reverberated from the sound, too close for comfort.
Seems the askari had to frighten off the two families, a total of fifteen elephants within the small camp confines. I learned the following morning that the nightwatch askari is "armed" with a bag of stones. This is how he frightens off a three to four ton elephant, times fifteen. A few were eating outside my windows and he scared them off by pummeling them with small rocks. That was the early morning ricocheting I heard on my walls. The idea of stone tossing to frighten off the largest land mammal is amazing to me. Better stones than bullets or spears.
Douglas tells me that about a month ago, he awoke to a spitting cobra making its way into his room through an open window. He stood on the bed as the snake slowly moved across the floor and was able to jump out the window to get help. My room is not far from his. I picture the open chicken wire construction at the top of my walls. Fondly, I think of the clumsy bats flying around my room at night, and their abundance of guano. Suddenly, their antics don't seem so bad. A spitting cobra? This is the kind of anecdote I prefer to get when I'm packed and the motor is running. Not when I have another week to go.
The winds pick up as the sun melts into the horizon. I can smell rain. Heavy clouds cast shadows across the hills and from somewhere below, deep in the canyons, I hear baboons barking. It has rained nearly every day since my arrival at Ol ari Nyiro, usually at night when I am beneath my bedcovers. Rain is unusual for August, they say. This is the dry season. Perhaps the "short rains" of November and December have arrived early. In any event, they are grateful. Soon enough the skies will dry out and the land will become parched and yellow. Rain is valuable, Jeffrey assures me. "We are always thankful for a little rain."
It is cold tonight. Before dinner, I join Jeffrey and the cooks outside the kitchen where they are warming themselves beside a fire of burning coals. The heat rises to a blurred, watery vision seeping into the many hands hovering above the hot embers. The heat feels good against the damp and the smells of Mzee Christopher's dinner whets our appetites.
Tonight, he has prepared freshly caught talapia. He has sauteed it with garden tomatoes and garlic, a handful of fresh herbs. There are potatoes and fresh green beans, salad. With the cool rain falling outside, the candlelight, good friends, and a delicious home-cooked meal, I am lulled into a sense of home, of family.
After dinner, Jeffrey, Douglas and I relax in the sitting room. A red hot fire is blazing in the stone hearth; candles and kerosene lamps provide additional lighting. The rain is falling in steady streams now. We talk for some hours, mostly about the hazards of the local brew, "changaa," which can be debilitating if not fatal. The brew is notorious for blinding or killing many Kenyans as it is often secretly spiked with ethanol, pure fuel, and at just a few shillings a glass, is the cheapest way to imbibe, or get drunk in no time flat. Drunk, only if you are fortunate. Most of the time, Douglas and Jeffrey tell me, it slams you into a state of oblivion, but only after the vomiting has consumed you. And that's if you're lucky.
With a poverty level in Kenya at nearly 60%, many Kenyans can only afford the local brew. In most cases, you do not know what you are getting when you order changaa, whether or not your brew has been tainted, or laced with ethanol. Because it is such cheap drink and widely available, mass consumption is inevitable. During my previous trip to Kenya, I had heard of and read similar stories of many impoverished Kenyans unknowingly receiving the poisonous concoction. Attempts are being made to make changaa illegal due to the lethal side effects.
On my foot safaris, a few of the animals I have encountered: elephant, buffalo, warthogs, impala, giraffe, zebra, Coke's hartebeest, waterbuck, hyena, bat-eared fox, black mamba, leopard-back tortoise, and puff adder. On my birthday, Jeffrey and I took a short walking safari, about eleven miles, with a young Turkana askari, Joseph. We nearly stepped on a young black mamba that slithered across our path. It was a lovely, small snake, quite delicate looking.
The bush is thick with snakes from the mamba and puff adder, to pythons and cobras. Black mambas injure more people simply due to the snake's prolific numbers; however, the bite of the puff adder is far more deadly.
Days later, while hiking down a mountain in the Mukutan Gorge, Douglas nearly stumbles onto a slow moving puff adder halfway into our decent. They are not fast, rather thick and slow. I watch as it moves its way past, not far from Douglas' feet, and into the dense mountain foliage.
Only moments before, I sat gripping the mountainside so not to tumble downwards, oblivious to many of the hidden dangers that may have moved alongside me. The reality of wildlife, though, is that for the most part, it will avoid you at all costs. Animals are at their most dangerous when threatened, startled or frightened. If it can, the wild will avoid a confrontation long before you are ever aware of its presence. It simply prefers to be left alone.
Excerpt from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily, copyright 2007, by Jan Baumgartner.
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