A young Pakistani traveler’s unforgettable first encounter with Africa
(see Hackwriters Magazine, BootsnAll Travel, TravelLady)
When you’ve been living in a particular place for a number of years, you tend to forget that a world outside exists. You see glimpses of that world on television, in the newspapers, in books and pictures – you see the mountains, the forests, the beaches, the towns and cities, the wild animals, the different-colored people. But after a while you must switch off – there are assignments to do, meals to cook, bills to pay, sick relatives to visit, tea parties to attend. And so each day passes, drifting into the other, exactly the same as the one before. On one of these days, you will die, and you may well be a contented, satisfied person, in a worldly sort of way – you had a successful career, a nice family, a nice house, nice friends, a decent social life; perhaps not the most faultless of characters, but still, respectable; and overall yours was a rather cushyexistence.
But there is one thing you always wanted to do, and never quite did – your heart would reproach you about it often, about your lack of spontaneity, your unwillingness to accept a change – until finally it spoke no more, its voice drowned in the multitudinous hum of air conditioners and cellular phones.
And on your deathbed, you will wish you had listened. You will wish you had stepped out of the television frames of vicarious existence, stepped out of that neatly-drawn, static little circle you called life, and seen the jungles for yourself.
I’ve always had a fixation with traveling, and I’ve done quite a bit of it too with my family. It’s all been tremendous fun, in the frenzied, touristy kind of way, but this time – my 20th summer – I felt something different. Something more compelling, more powerful; a quieter kind of excitement, a deeper, older, inward kind of joy. I felt it once before, in Mecca last year, when I stood before the Ka’ba, transfixed, eyes sparkling with tears, thinking only that I’d never seen anything more beautiful. That was my faith-temple, my sacred soul-home, but there are temples and soul-homes scattered all over the world – and one of these I discovered this year, in Africa.
Kenya, to be more precise – any generalization about that vast and beautiful continent is grossly unfair. I’d never been to Kenya, or anywhere in Africa before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had some general impressions – stuff that your mind picks up from random TV shows, nature magazines and Disney movies – all thoroughly wrong, of course, as preconceived impressions are apt to be, and as we learnt (or rather unlearnt), eventually.
The first of these ‘unlearning’ experiences happened as soon as we disembarked at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, and noticed something odd – the cold! It was the middle of July, a time when back home the temperatures are such you could fry eggs on the windowpanes. Not that I mind cold, of course – I’m a winter person, and cold wind does to me what coffee does to caffeine addicts. But this was a bit of a situation – our packing consisted almost entirely of t-shirts, and, well, t-shirts, save for the two denim jackets Ammi had emphatically made us pack at the last minute. It seems that mom’s active little sixth sense had already whisperingly informed her that Kenya happens to lie below the equator, making July the blusteriest nippiest wintriest month of the year. We also later discovered that the weather in Nairobi stays cool all year round, averaging 20ºCelsius daytime – which explained why there was no central heating or cooling in any of the homes or buildings, not even fans! It was a paradisiacal sort of climate, crispy cool, dappled with deliciously warm sun, a tickling breeze and minty-fresh air. And so, happy and suddenly revived, with those denim jackets our salvation, we piled into the Pakistani High Commissioner’s black Prado for our first look at the city of Nairobi, capital of Kenya.
When I was a participant at some of these international youth summits in America, I remember people asking me questions like, “Do you have computers in Pakistan? Roads? Do you live in mud huts?”, and I would get a little annoyed, not so much at the people, but at the startlingly skewed perspective of the international media. While it’s true that millions of people in Pakistan still do live in mud huts in villages with dirt roads and no electricity, millions also live in regular cities, just like cities anywhere else in the world. What’s ironic is that I found myself wondering the same things about Kenya before we left for the trip, and when I came back my friends similarly asked me: “So, is it like, civilized?” Which isn’t really such an absurd question, considering that the only images we do see about Africa on TV are animals, natives in tribal costumes, civil wars, AIDS and famine. So when we passed the big telecom billboards, the colorful Sunday markets, the bus stops, the roundabouts, the churches, the lovely tile-roofed houses, the banks and shopping malls, the people in ordinary jeans and t-shirts, less the face paint and beaded chokers, I admit it was a bit of a surprise. Nairobi could’ve easily been Islamabad. In parts, it could’ve been Lahore too, and sometimes even Murree. I loved it instantly – it had this cheerful, easy-going, very homey feel about it that told me I could live here rather happily.
But what reminded us that we were in Kenya and not Pakistan, what made it Nairobi and not Islamabad or Murree, and what were really Nairobi’s greatest treasure, were – the trees.
I have never in my life seen such gorgeous trees. It is as if the city were an amorphous wild creature, winding and weaving its way through a web of virgin forest. They may have paved the earth, they may have put tall concrete structures in the sky, but here the jungle was still mistress, still queen, and green was the color of her throne, green were her fluttering banners, vivid, glistening, exuberant, alive. And in the silence of the night, you could hear her breathe, hear her grow – in every twig and leaf and blade of grass, in every flaming flower, you could hear the humming drumbeat of the jungle.
Our driver was called Agre, a rather immense fellow with brilliant black skin and a smile that betrayed his forbidding-suited-bodyguard image completely. He melted before Bia and me the moment we emerged from the airport and greeted him with a beaming “Jambo!” It was lucky I had learnt some Swahili phrases on the Internet before the trip; an occasional “Habari” (“How are you?”) or “Asante” (“Thank you!”) was all it took to win a Kenyan driver, shopkeeper or braid-maker’s heart. Everyone was incredibly friendly, though it was not the obligatory type of friendliness of a flushed high-pitched overpoweringly polite waitress at an American Pizza Hut, for example. Here, people were nice because they were. They tried to fleece you a bit, initially, because you were foreigners – very politely, of course, very pleasantly – but being desi (i.e. South Asian) and hence bargain-hunters by birth, we escaped the fleecing quite comfortably and ended up taking a nice lot of wooden masks, miniature drums, floppy straw hats and sea-shelled sandals back home with us.
But shopping was really the least of Kenya’s attractions. Being females, we couldn’t be pacified without doing some at least, though all thoughts of consumerism vanished from our minds the moment we set out for the Safari to Masai Mara (to come later!).
One place you must visit if you’re ever in Nairobi, though, is the Nairobi City Park. You park your car outside a gateless entrance and follow a windy dirt road flanked by riotous trees of nameless varieties, until you turn a bend and come to a clearing, where, in the center, you behold a magnificent, undescribably beautiful, fuchsia-pink bougainvillea tree. A bougainvillea tree! I was just mesmerized – the tree looked to me a goddess-bride, tall and towering, her green arms and long lush tresses flowing wild with flowers. Crowned in the deepest pink, with a green mantle of vines billowing behind her, she was the most stunning woman-tree I have ever seen. The photographs, of course, don’t even tell half the story, and the video camera shames her. But in my mind’s eye I can see her, standing there poised in her hushed, dim, light-twinkling temple, a muffled sort of chippering floating in the air… and then, suddenly, furry little shapes materialize from the darkness before your sun-speckled eyes, perched on branches, hidden in thickets, peering from behind tree trunks… and in a sudden rustling, crackling, scampering moment, you find yourself besieged by an army of wild gray Sykes’ monkeys!
When people look at the pictures of us with the monkeys, they gasp incredulously and ask, “But weren’t you scared?” The truth is, we don’t know, because there wasn’t time to feel scared. They appeared from nowhere, and before you knew what was going in, they were swarming around you, clambering on top of you, tugging your hair, knocking off your hats, fiddling with your jacket zippers, prying into your pockets. No, it wasn’t scary at all – it was supremely exciting! I can safely say that it hasn’t often happened in my life that a fat fuzzy 30-pounder Sykes’ monkey sits on my shoulder nibbling corn-ears from my palm – nor do you often find monkeys swinging from your leg or prancing on your head as if it were the most normal thing in the world for them to do.
And it was at that place and moment that I began to discover the true magic of Africa.
The Pakistani High Commissioner in Kenya, an acquiantance of my father’s, took us out for dinner that night to a delicious Indian restaurant. There’s a rather large population of Indians in Kenya, most of them descendants of the traders, artisans and laborers relocated here by the British during the 19th century (to build the Kenyan-Uganda railway, primarily). Kenya, being a former British colony, shares much of her historical experiences with Pakistan, as do all former imperial colonies. From what I observed, however, Kenya seems to have made much better progress, post-independence, as far as education is concerned. The results are obvious – everybody can speak, read and write English; nature is respected, not vandalized; public bathrooms are sparklingly clean (an unrecognized though very significant measure of social health, in my opinion); people are polite, and do not ogle; and I don’t think I ever saw a scrap of litter on any street in the city or countryside. But there’s a downside too, a consequence of and reaction to poverty, ethnic strife and a corrupt and completely incompetent police-force – Nairobi (or rather, Nairobbery, as it is often referred to in the local media) after dark is a veritable den of thieves and seditionists, mostly young, unemployed men who resent rich foreigners for coming and entrenching themselves in their country, living in fine houses and having a grand time at the expense of their resources. All houses have armed watchmen, security alarm systems, barred doors and windows. Even in broad daylight you can very well be purse-pinched if you look like a foreigner and are a bit careless about where you keep your money or cell phone. Nothing of the sort happened to us, thankfully, though we were told many horror stories by acquaintances who live there – and so we tried being as discreet as possible when we went out shopping, smiling meekly at any passerby who looked remotely threatening (i.e., anyone not smiling).
I was rather upset when I learnt this, however – I’d quite set my heart on living in Nairobi some part of my life at least, but hearing about the security situation I wasn’t quite sure I still wanted to. Suddenly I felt extremely grateful for little things we could do back home – going for drives late at night, leaving the windows open while sleeping, roaming around Liberty Market without the least fear of being mugged at gunpoint by a passerby – and for all its other imperfections, I loved Lahore from the bottom of my heart.
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) as a means of earning their daily bread.
The Masai Mara game reserve, inaugurated in 1961 to protect the animals in this wild country, 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.
We rented a jeep from the “Discover Kenya” safari agency to take us from Nairobi to Masai Mara, a large Toyota Hi-Ace with a convertible roof and absolutely no shocks whatsoever (a fact we fully appreciated during the course of the supremely rattling five-hour journey). Our driver might have been a Zulu hunter disguised as a cheetah, or the other way round. I suspect he was both. In any case, he wore pants and a button-down shirt and said his name was ‘David’. Thus we concluded that contrary to our exotic expectations, the majority of Kenyans do not practice voodoo or any other ‘primitive’ religion. 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). As a character from Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” so aptly expressed, “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 the Middle East in the 8th century, but they kept mostly to the coast, founded the port city of Mombasa, and were generally more interested in trade than proselytizing), and the rest followers of ancestral tribal beliefs, as well as some Hindus and Buddhists.
The journey to Masai Mara is one I’ll never forget. For starters, 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. You see, zebras and gazelles roam around as freely in the Kenyan countryside as cows and goats do in Pakistan. 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 distinctive 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 a Muslim pilgrim’s ehraam 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, and I couldn’t help thinking, “How wonderful the human body is, how terrifically adaptable!” It reminded me of that Creation story, 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.
We reached the Mara Simba lodge (where we were staying) thoroughly battered and blue, but giddy with excitement . The Mara Simba lodge is a pretty, misty, quiet woody place nestled deep in jungle brush on the banks of the Talek River. Mobile phones don’t work here, and the lodge landline is usually out of order. It was like being time-warped into another dimension, an unknown parallel world – a world where we became different people, new people, our minds cleared of past memories, knowing that here, we were truly away, unreachable, untraceable, undiscoverable – free.
We checked into our (simple but lovely) rooms, had some lunch on the lovely patio-restaurant, witnessed a mongoose family-quarrel under the terrace, saw two monster crocodiles sunbathing on the shore of the river, and then, we were ready to go.
David was waiting for us outside, with the homely old white van transformed into an intrepid top-open safari jeep. We all were suddenly rather grave – this was it. This was the moment. This was the reason why people from all times and ages came to Africa, why we had come to Africa. Every part of me was trembling with excitement – and as David revved up the jeep and we slowly climbed onto the track heading to the simple wood-posted entrance of the Masai Mara game reserve, I realized that, safari or no safari, my heart was already irredeemably in love with that land.
The first thing I felt was the wind on my face, ripping past like a warrior’s blade, screaming battle-cries in my ears. And the first thing I saw was the sky – a surreal revelation of cerulean that filled every corner of my vision, absorbing me instantly in its eternal blueness, its complete and absolute vastness.
That sky, that sky I beheld at Masai Mara in Kenya, that sky was a temple. It took my breath away. You cannot appreciate sky living in a city, or in a forest, or even in the mountains. But there, aboard that rattling jeep in the middle of the wild gold African savannah, there, I understood. I understood why the steppe peoples of Central Asia worshipped Tengri, and the Native Americans worshipped Manitou – it seemed impossible not to venerate, not to adore something so awesome, so pristine, so infinitely beautiful. It looked like God had just re-painted the roof of the earth with the freshest, purest of colors, and if you reached out a bit in front you could actually grab a tuft of cloud in your hands, or brush against the sky with your fingertips.
That sky was something that could make atheists believe.
I could write a book just describing that sky – but fortunately for you, we did of see other things on the safari. David had warned us not to expect to see anything, however, apart from droves of gazelles and zebras – he said that since the animals wandered about the savannah completely at will, sometimes in Masai Mara, sometimes crossing over to the Serengeti National Park in neighboring Tanzania, it was near impossible to predict where any of the animals would be at any particular time.
So we romped about in the jeep for an hour, zigzagging through ubiquitous dirt tracks and drinking in some spectacular scenery. How David knew where to take us in that limitless unmarked expanse of savannah is beyond me – but soon enough the gazelles appeared, Thomson’s and Grant’s, grazing prettily on the sides, skipping along in front of us, occasionally casting curious glances in our direction with their wide dark eyes. There were antelope too, great grand curvy-horned bucks, and innocent-looking impalas, and then wildebeest, with their unmistakable shaggy gray beards, and this other unimpressive bovine creature called topi. We saw them, sometimes lounging around in intimate little groups, sometimes in enormous herds, all swishing their tails, twitching their ears, and ruminating over supper, quite oblivious of our presence. Sometimes they’d be seen hanging out with funny looking birds too, crowned cranes, Marabou storks and blue quails, and sometimes we’d catch them in rather embarrassing positions.
Soon the zebras also showed up, but they were never seen by themselves, or even in pairs. Zebras are fully aware of their own desirableness in the eyes of a lion, and sticking together in big bunches is the only defense mechanism they have against becoming cat food. So when a lion sees a flock of zebra, he actually just sees an indistinct muddle of stripes, and while that can even confuse us at times, it is positively bewildering for the lion, who is also color-blind. Of course, if you happen to be an individualistic, itinerant kind of zebra, it’s not likely you’ll even last the day.
While David was telling us all these things, I was thinking how incredible it would be to actually see a lion making a kill – or to see a lion at all. A clairvoyant David suddenly swerved the jeep onto another track heading in the opposite direction. “This way,” he intoned under his breath, and we silently wondered where he was taking us.
I don’t know where we were, but for the first time since the beginning of the safari, we saw a sign of other human beings – a speck of white parked about 20 kilometers ahead, with ant-sized heads popping out from on top, looking with great interest at something in the grass. We made our way there. And as we approached the other jeep, we saw with our own eyes what it was that those people were gaping at.
Lolling about in the grass, barely 50 yards away.
Ripping the flesh off what looked like a wildebeest carcass.
It was unbelievable. Nobody spoke – nobody even breathed. All you could hear was the sound of wind rustling through the grass, and the grunts and chomps of the lions as they devoured the wildebeest.
They were beautiful. They were terrifying. They here hypnotic, gnawing hungrily at the mangled carcass, their mouths crimson with blood. It was a fresh kill – the lionesses had pounced upon this wildebeest perhaps only minutes before our arrival. There were three lionesses, two cubs, and one male, a young maneless who was dominating the meal. He was a budding chauvinist, grabbing the meatiest morsels and snarling nastily at any one who tried to sneak a better bite. It was macabre, and gruesome, and subliminally fascinating. Fear had completely vanished from my mind, for fear is of the future, and at that moment there was no future – just the present, raw, throbbing, completely unpredictable, supremely wild.
We had seen the first of the African Big Five.
Some people would think that a safari isn’t really a big deal, when you can see all the same animals, and many more, at any good zoo. I personally don’t approve of zoos, or any kind of permanent captivity for wild animals, though admittedly, zoos are fun, comfortable, convenient, and safe. Not until this trip, however, did I realize how incredible it is to see the animals in their natural habitat. Their territory, their domain, not behind metal bars and man-made barriers, not controlled and dictated by our rules and requirements, but free, just as they were born, uninhibited. Man becomes insignificant in that world, essentially powerless – at the mercy of the animals, as it were. It is that risk, that unpredictability, that reversal of roles that makes the safari such a moving, exhilarating experience.
So even though we didn’t see all of the Big Five – namely, the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – it didn’t matter so much. I just made up my mind that I would keep coming back here, again and again, until I saw each one of them.
And, in all fairness to Masai Mara, we saw so many other creatures in that one afternoon, that even David was impressed. “The gods definitely like you,” he pronounced approvingly. For right after crossing the lions, we happened to meet with a typically reclusive character – the cheetah. A long, lean, strapping young male, he was elegantly lunching on some juicy antelope when we arrived. He glanced up for a moment at the sound of the jeep, saw nothing of interest, and nonchalantly resumed his meal. He was a rather handsome fellow, that cheetah, and I think he knew it too – he’d stand up now and again, for no apparent reason, stretch his legs, pirouette, and then curl back up on the ground, making sure he was photographed from all angles. But the oddest sight was the cheetah’s 12-membered vulture entourage, positioned in a semi-circle at a respectful distance. This scavenger-convoy accompanies cheetahs everywhere, dutifully clearing away leftovers while the cheetah catnaps for a few days. And that is how we left them, the cheetah snoozing contentedly in the cozy winter sun, the birds already at work, and the rhythm of nature uninterrupted ever since the world began.
We saw families of elephants, complete with moms, dads, babies, and various friends and cousins, strolling right up to our jeep without a fear in the world; we passed through a sea of enormous black buffalo (probably the most unnerving part of the whole safari), staring at us glassy-eyed like they needed no encouragement whatsoever to attack (in fact, David told us, when it comes to humans, buffaloes have a history of being even more aggressive than lions). We saw a sweet giraffe couple happily sharing a leafy branch, and we saw a few stupid-looking spotted hyenas pretending to be leopards. We didn’t get a chance to drive up to the Mara River to see the rhinos and hippos, and it was still too early for the great river-crossing (which takes place about August, when hordes of zebra and wildebeest migrate to Masai Mara from the Serengeti plains), but that again is something I’ve saved for next time.
We had to turn back for the Lodge when evening fell, and were seen off at the gates of the game reserve by a baboon sentinel perched on top of an umbrella-thorn acacia. The night was very cold, we filled ourselves up with hot soup at the buffet, pulled on all the clothes we’d brought, snuggled under the dark green covers of our beds, and slept soundly to the symphonies of the jungle night.
I didn’t want to leave. Masai Mara had been more than breathtaking. I’d never before known the beauty of sheer expanse – trees were beautiful, forests were beautiful, and mountains, and lakes – but the beauty of the desert, the beauty of the savannah, of the prairie, of a faultless, sparkling, everlasting blue sky – beauty that is immeasurable – that beauty is truly sublime. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with an irresistible yearning to see that sky again, to breathe that air, to be in that world where man did not fear beast, and beast did not fear man, but every creature played its part in the great unfolding everlasting tale that is Nature.
There are few places in the world where one feels genuinely happy, happy within. Mecca was one of those places; Saif-ul-Malook in Pakistan, and Masai Mara were others, and Mombasa, though very picturesque, was not – at least not for me. The beach was truly idyllic – powdery-white sands, balmy blue waters, plush green palm trees – and the White Sands hotel was honeymooner-heaven, with its spas and saunas and bars and nightclubs and white-curtained bay-windows. Mombasa was, overall, a rather merry little place, as all port-towns are apt to be, and the old Muslim quarter was just charming – it reminded me very much of the Walled City back in Lahore. Arab traders founded the island-city in the 11th century, and in 1698 Muslims from Oman won it back from the Portuguese after two centuries of abrasive Portuguese rule (incidentally, the famous Portuguese-built Fort Jesus in Mombasa isn’t that grand at all, at least not after you’ve seen the Mughal forts of Lahore and Delhi). The area was taken over by the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1840, and finally came under the control of the British in 1898, who made it the capital of their East Africa protectorate.
Not surprisingly, 70% of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and it was here that I heard the call to prayer, the azaan, for the first time since leaving Pakistan.
(Some interesting trivia – the Swahili language derives from a mixture of native African Bantu and Arabic, which is why even today Swahili is strewn with Arabic terms – the word ‘Swahili’ itself is originally ‘sawahil’ in Arabic, plural of ‘sahil’, which means coast, and the word ‘safari’ is a variation of the Arabic word ‘safar’, which means journey).
I don’t know what you’d think, but I generally found Mombasa too touristy for my liking. A great holiday spot for most people, I’m sure, but I’d much rather live two weeks in a tree-house in Samburu, or camp out at Fig Tree and see the leopards by night, or even better, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro!
And I feel I will go back – Africa spoke to me, and someday I will make the pilgrimage again. For a temple is not only a church or a mosque, not only a place with domes and altars and four walls. There are temples and soul-homes scattered all over the world, in every nook and jungle and uncharted corner. I found one of mine Africa.
Paulo Coehlo hit upon an elemental law when he said, “If you want something passionately, the whole of the Universe conspires to help you achieve it”. If you want to get out, you will, if you want to be free, you will, if you want to hear, smell, feel, touch, understand, see the jungles for yourself – you will!
You just have to want it passionately enough.
Kwaheri, na safari njema! (Farewell, and bon voyage!)