On African safari, eyes opened to the world of wildebeests and Maasai warriors

December 25, 2016 Updated: December 25, 2016 at 11:10 pm
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photo - A boy from the Maasai tribe clutches a Kit-Kat he received from a tourist group on the side of the road outside of Arusha in northern Tanzania. Photo by Seth Boster, The Gazette
A boy from the Maasai tribe clutches a Kit-Kat he received from a tourist group on the side of the road outside of Arusha in northern Tanzania. Photo by Seth Boster, The Gazette 

TANZANIA - This was the dry season, the time just before the short rain season, and the heat lay thick on the land. From the shanty towns under the mountains, to the mud hut villages of the Maasai in the western high country, to those in the northern deserts where skinny cows roamed, people spoke of a drought. A great many in East Africa depend on their crops and their cattle, and both were thirsty.

And here in Tarangire National Park, so too were these zebras and wildebeests. They had hope: They found this small watering hole.

"They want the water," our group's safari guide said, narrating the drama to us as we rode in a dusty Jeep. "But how?"

How with these five lions around the hole? A juvenile duo ate into a wildebeest, its head having flapped about in one's jaws as he dragged it to the water by its broken neck. From a hill opposite the bank, three adult females looked proudly on at the young. The wildebeest body was hallowed out, ready for the next feeder. That would be the Marabou stork, the scavenger bird standing about 4 feet tall and absolutely hideous to behold, its black wings at its side like a cloak, its beak like a scythe, its reddish head topped with the white fuzz of an old man. The bird waited for the lions to leave so it could tend to the bloody remains.

As for the zebras and wildebeests, it was decision time. They idled atop a flat meadow where there was no tall grass for those lions to hide and kill again. The grazing comrades kept a distance until two wildebeests emerged, stepping up for a closer look. The scouts observed for a moment, checking out the bush where the cats now hid with their food. The big mother lapped up the precious water, but the temptation did not work.

The two wildebeests turned back to their kin. They and the zebras walked away together, off into the unknown of the barren pastures.

Arusha's many colors

"Death is more present here, a bit more in your face," an American missionary told us. We met him at a university where he was teaching music. A week prior, in a rice patty not far from campus, his adopted daughter, a student at the university, was found dead, murdered.

He greeted our group with a polo shirt tucked into his slacks, wanting to show us the good happening here: an elaborate, $1 million cultural arts center under construction thanks to grants and donations he received from around the world. Workers were putting up the walls, earning the region's fair sum of $4 a day.

It was easy to tell the project gave the missionary a kind of hope, though it was also easy to see the sadness in his eyes. "We don't know why things happen," he said.

It was an overwhelming start to the trip. We were in Arusha, Tanzania's bustling stopover for safari-goers on their way to the big-game reserves to the west. Back home, it was the day of our presidential election. We'd been kept awake by news and also by wild sounds: the spider monkeys howling; mangy dogs from the dirt roads barking; the ibis bird's ugly squawk. Around 5 a.m. came the Islamic call to prayer. Some wind carried the praises of congregations.

In the hot light of day, Arusha showed its many colors. Women in bright garb carried baskets on their heads and babies in their arms. Men straddled motorbikes, waiting for the chance to earn some money by giving a ride or delivering a product. Children waved with big smiles and torn shoes.

The stench of burning garbage wafted through the air. The ramshackle clay walls of tin-roofed businesses jammed the side of the main road, which was in crumbles as it was being remade by the Chinese. On the side of the road, square outlines of bricks stacked up unfinished - homes being built by people who went broke in the process.

The forest of Mount Meru rolled skyward, and Africa's roof, Kilimanjaro, hid in the clouds to the east, clouds that would not answer the farmers' prayers for rain. As agriculture experiences downs, Tanzania's tourism industry enjoys the ups. The ranks of visitors continue to rise. And being their guide on safaris is the dream of many growing boys in the area.

There are other dreams. Under the thatched roof of a family hut, we met a teen who wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and his sister who wanted to be a doctor. And dreams packed a kindergarten classroom we visited. We counted 78 children to one teacher.

Tanzania's education system has long been criticized as prohibitive, as it funnels out seventh-grade students who must pass a national exam to move on to the secondary level. Every year, half might pass. The poverty epidemic ensues, while outside of Arusha, out in the mining fields by the Kilimanjaro International Airport, overseas investors get rich on the land's treasure.

We beheld the deep-blue glimmer of tanzanite at the booth of a man wearing a shiny Rolex and pungent cologne. The dealer flashed gemstones with $1 million price tags, and he pointed to pictures of him with the world's dignitaries, queens and princes and also Bill Clinton. "He'll probably come here some more now that he's got nothing else to lose!" the dealer said.

Indeed, the talk of Arusha was the victory of Donald Trump. Locals asked us how we felt and about the riots happening in America, and it was strange: We didn't really feel anything about that. Our focus was elsewhere - on the grieving and hopeful missionary.

We sat down with him for a student performance. They were friends of the girl buried days before. And in the traditions of their tribes, they combated darkness with drums and flutes and dancing.

Death begets life

At Arusha National Park, we started down a trail lined with the skulls of Cape buffalo. We looked closely at the face of death to find the beginning of life: Moth eggs had been laid on the horns that stored nutritious protein for the larvae.

We continued to a wide valley, lush with a stream gently flowing through. A lone giraffe towered beside palm trees, and she watched us curiously as we walked by. Little green and lilac birds flew all around. From the bushes, the sweet aroma of jasmine rode the breeze.

We arrived at a waterfall that crashed to the rock floor, delivering a wet, refreshing gust.

Measuring success

The spectacle of the safari gave way to stark images that were more unforgettable.

Out of Tarangire National Park, the road carved through a Maasai village where children in tattered garments dropped their goat-herding sticks and ran to our Jeep to beg. Appearing mysteriously wherever we went were boys in black garb whose skin was blackened by charcoal and faces painted white.

They were the "initiates," recently circumcised and beginning their monthslong journey of becoming true warriors, wandering by day and returning to their elders at night to learn the secrets of life.

A successful Maasai man has many cows and many wives, like the chief who welcomed us into his village. When asked about struggles, he conveyed to our guide the current drought that left the fields void of grass and the cows unproductive. Also, he said something about "curses." These were illnesses, our guide explained, treated by the village shaman. A "curse" in the past has meant HIV/AIDS, our guide said.

We left the village as women plastered cow manure over cracks in hut walls. We purchased a goat for a girl who was 14, hoping it would make milk for her and her newborn baby.

'It is like this'

The story goes that ancient Maasai were in the midst of a drought when they saw hope: a blade of grass in a bird's beak. They followed the bird to a place they called "siringet," meaning endless plains. It is the way it is, flat, due to volcanic eruptions 3 or 4 million years ago.

At Serengeti National Park, the "Great Migration" happens during the rain season, when massive herds of wildebeests cross over from the north to give birth on the plains that are both bountiful and unforgiving. The calves grow with the land's nutrients, or they become food for a predator. "It is like this," our guide said, tracing with his finger a circle.

The rain had not come. Still, the circle went on. We saw infant elephants feeding from their mothers' breasts. We saw lion cubs devouring with their pride a toppled Cape buffalo. We watched two lions affectionately hug and lick each other. We watched male gazelles spar for a mate. Far and wide as we looked, there was no sign of the rhinoceros, the prey of poachers.

And there is no sign of the Maasai in the Serengeti, except for the art they left behind on rock outcrops. As the public trust adopted the land, the villagers were kicked out. They migrated south to the Ngorongoro highlands, where today they worship Ol Doinyo Lengai, the active volcano where they believe God lives.

Bless the rains

The people here know of symbiotic relationships within nature. For example, there is the desert date tree, with fruits enjoyed by the wider animal kingdom. One will pluck a date and digest all but the seed, which will be deposited with the feces acting as a natural fertilizer. And the seed will grow a tree of more fruits, and the circle goes on.

We observed this tree as we went along a sandy path teeming with dry vegetation. We followed the scent of salt and reached Lake Burunge, quiet except for the rhythm of little waves against the shore. Three villagers were out on a wooden boat, paddling along.

The beach was empty except for the Marabou stork, the death-hungry bird we'd seen waiting for lions to finish their prey. The scavenger stood tall. But our eyes were elsewhere, upward, where flamingos had taken flight to create a brilliant burst of pink against the darkening sky.

Finally, rain was on the way.

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