JACOB'S EMAILS FROM AFRICA
In Spring 2005 I undertook a three month journey through Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and (briefly) the Congo. These are the emails I sent home.
EMAILS FROM AFRICA [part 1]
Willing To Take Up The Burden
Monday, 7 March 2005
So, I'm here in Africa - muslim Mombassa to be precise. It is very hot and humid and the muezzin is calling the worshippers to prayer.
I decided to get the safari over and done with as soon as possible so I've just come back from three days among lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras and tourists.
The safari vans had interesting swarming instincts - the most notable instance being when one van spotted a cheetah. Within ten minutes there must have been a dozen vans and jeeps converging on the poor beast.
Our pathetic 2WD van got stuck in a ditch about 200m from where the cheetah was lying down, hidden by long grass.
The guide ordered us out to try and push it free of the mud but we were far too weak. Suddenly the cheetah got to its feet and looked as though it was about to wander in our direction.
The guide told us to get back in the van but, not wanting to appear panicked, I stood next to the door and watched the cheetah.
'So...' I said deliberately, in that annoying way I have when a crisis is looming but actually I'm enjoying it.
'No time for 'so',' says the guide, 'get inside.' In the end, rather anti-climactically, the cheetah just lay down again.
Within minutes a gaggle of safari vans surrounded us, everyone laughing at our plight. Eventually half a dozen guides got out their vehicles and together heaved us out the ditch.
We drove over to the cheetah and - along with eight other vans - circled it only yards away while taking photos. None of the animals in the park seemed to mind the vehicles at all - in fact they often seemed to deliberately strike photogenic poses as soon as a vehicle got close.
They were so obliging it was positively suspicious. I began to wonder if they were robotic animals programmed to please tourists, or at the very least whether they were all just natural attention seekers.
The latter seems more likely, but if robotic hyenas from Kenya take over the world in a few years time and bring about the end of human civilisation I will claim my dues as a prophet. There won't be much left to claim of course, but it should be worth a few sacrificial virgins.
Half-hearted Masaii dancers
That night we were treated to some 'Masaii dancing'.
Usually I avoid that kind of thing like the plague - the dancers seem to be prostituting their culture for tourists, and out of its cultural context it means nothing to me anyway - but others in the campsite decided to pay so I had no real choice.
In fact it was an entertainingly shambolic affair, in which we expected little and the dancers fulfilled our expectations admirably with some half-hearted leaping about.
I decided to regard the two pounds I was required to cough up at the end as one of those levies you sometimes (rightly I guess) have to pay for being a rich person travelling round a poor country for your own enjoyment.
The only thing I resent is that for some reason I felt pressured into taking photos of the ridiculous charade, as though I had to fulfil their expectations of how tourists behave.
At the end of the performance, one of the dancers approached the two girls in our group and showed them his big knife and long, hard knobkerrie. 'Ask me about lions,' he said, 'I know everything about hunting lions.' (Testosterone is a great cultural homogeniser I guess).
He went on to explain that he would be guarding our camp against hyenas that night. By this time I felt so pushed into the dumb tourist mold that a dumb tourist question slipped out effortlessly.
I pointed to the Masaii spear stuck in the ground by his side, with its impressive two-foot-long blade. 'Do you fight the hyenas off with that?' I said. 'No,' he replied without cracking a smile, clearly annoyed to be distracted from the women, 'I shine a torch at them'.
The next day the safari company screwed up my itinerary and decided to compensate me by sending just me up a nearby mountain with a Masaii guide.
Since the rest of the time had been spent in a vehicle I was quite relieved to go for a walk. Baboons, impalas, storks and mongeese (no I don't know if that's the plural but you know it should be) ran away from us as we walked up.
I was doing fine, but my brave masaii warrior guide with his stretched earlobes soon got breathless and kept taking breaks, pretending they were for my benefit.
A female elephant defends her baby in the Masaii Mara, Kenya
Clearly he had been getting fat off the tourist industry for far too long. In the end I had to drive him up ahead of me, beating him with the weighted cane my Saville Row outfitters had thoughtfully added to my safari kit.
Halfway up I allowed him a break to drink water, take his snuff and sing mournful Masaii songs under his breath (no doubt about the cruelty of white men), before driving him on to the summit.
The view over the Tanzanian border and the Serengeti was only slightly marred by the mobile phone mast next to us. Directly below us were dozens of Masaii villages, built in rings of mud and thatch huts. Some of the villages however had corrugated iron roofs.
Apparently a couple of years ago Catholic missionaries started handing out hundreds of these metal sheets to their converts, convinced they would immeasurably improve the lives of the Masaii. Unfortunately for them the Masaii are nomadic and traditionally have a taboo against carrying building materials from the old village to the new.
The metal roofs led to them breaking the taboo, since obviously tbe metal wouldn't rot and there weren't limitless supplies of the sheets.
The following couple of years were very bad for the Masaii: long hot seasons and short rainy seasons which pushed them to the brink of starvation.
They decided that this was caused by carrying the metal roofs between villages, upon which thousands of them renounced Catholicism and returned to their traditional religion.
This seems to have amused everyone, expect presumably the Catholic priests. I think most of us can live with their disappointment.
Yours, naturally shouldering that burden.