Today started out as expected—waking up to the fingers of dawn slowly unclasping from their tight twist, and stumbling out of our tent in the semi-darkness—adopting the likeness of an old drunk man no doubt. Nevertheless, after waking ourselves up and taking in the beautiful sight of African savannah at our feet, we ate out delicious breakfast (the cook accompanying us on our safari is absolutely amazing) and packed out things into the safari jeep.
Here we were—Safari Day 2, about to commence on Lake Manyara. I was sad to leave our cozy little campsite—the place where we told embarrassing childhood stories amidst the darkening sky and were probably far too loud for the group of twenty or so Australians—all 50+–who were taking something of a retirement safari together. :) To them, we apologize, but alas, we were enjoying ourselves too much to notice our laughter rising a few octaves too high.
Anyway, onwards and upwards as they say :) Lake Manyara was absolutely beautiful—but in a peaceful, calming way. The lush green forest canopy hung overhead as I stood on my seat, my head and torso fully ticking out of the top of the jeep, and my hair blowing in the wind. Ah, what a glorious feeling—I felt free, liberated and so lucky at those moments.
But the truly memorable part of today’s adventure began at 3:30pm, after we had parked the safari jeep, gotten out, and started the hour long trek to a local Maasai village.
“Maasai” is the name of one of Tanzania’s most well-known tribes; they are named for their loyal adherence to traditional ways of life (i.e., no electricity, a pastoral lifestyle, etc.)
What a motley crew we were. Sabrina asking “are we there yet?” every few minutes, Tri dutifully cracking jokes in that irresistibly funny Tri voice, Michi documenting the entire adventure with her Canon DSLR, our guide, and myself—wearing my big, floppy sunhat and trying to take it all in. Yep, we were quite the spectacle. We walking through corn fields and along a road when slowly, in the distance, the Maasai boma began to appear.
“There it is,” said our guide suddenly, pointing to a small village of thatched huts in the distance. “Maasai boma.”
And here begins my account of an experience unlike any other I have had to relate in my life. Tri says that it was meant to be that our group of mzungus (“foreigners” in Swahili) on Safari were witnesses to the scene that lay before us in front of the first brown sod and clay hut that we came to. But I think he was wrong. In reality, we were lucky to see what we saw and to have the choice to do something about it.
In front of the hut sat an older Maasai man, draped in the traditional red Maasai cloth and whittling a piece of wood with his fingers. On a small piece of cloth by his feet sat three beautiful children—all alert and eyeing us with interest.
And then we saw her.
Deathly thin and stretched out like a beautiful piece of ebony wood, she lay unmoving, a forest of flies swarming around her body and filling her slightly open mouth. Not a flutter, not a twitch came from her body.
“Is she breathing??” came the terrified whisper from among us. Our guide bent over her and checked for her pulse.
Relief. There it was, fluttering like our hearts. We all stood motionless, cameras dangling shamefully around our necks—now cast in a new light as ostentatious symbols of excess and materialism. With a dull clunk my black Nikon fell against my body.
This would be an afternoon of no pictures.
Our guide spoke to the old man sitting near the hut, still whittling his wood. Coming back and addressing us, our guide said, “You know he is blind, don’t you?” No, I hadn’t realized that. Still, that was no excuse in our eyes. We stood there—helpless and horrified.
And then came a moment that I am proud to recall—we resolved there and then to do something to save a life we barely knew but had touched us a million times over in a single instant. We felt like we knew her.
Our guide tried vehemently to talk to the old man who sat whittling his piece of wood. We stood watching the Kiswahili exchange, hopelessly lost somewhere between a language barrier and the vast ocean of injustice.
You think you would know exactly what to do in those situations—at least I did.
But I was wrong.
What to do?
-Ask a guide to ask if we could pay for transport to the closest hospital for the young daughter of a culture that doesn’t believe in modern medicine?
-Give the water we carried with us as a gift of the helpless traveler with nothing else to offer?
-Walk to a nearby boma and ask if a relative there might be able to help us convince the young girl’s father to save her?
-March in like true mzungus into a culture which was foreign to us and fight for the sanctity of lfie as we would in our own?
Well, we did just that. All of it.
Though I continued to feel helpless, our guide—kind man that he is—tried and tried to convince this small community that they should accept our offer to pay to take the small girl to the hospital—but to no avail. It was during these discussions that it struck me how typical it all seemed—here was the Africa I had seen in the documentaries, here were the foreigners intruding upon a culture and a way of life with good intentions. And into my mind floated the question I had been avoiding all along—Were we wrong? Was this not our place?
“They saw she is not sick,” said our guide, turning to face our faces showing mixed sadness and anger. “She is mentally ill.”
Turning back to the Maasai people, our guide asked in Swahili “when will you take her to the hospital?” The elderly man still sitting near the young girl replied, “yesterday.”
Of course, the concept of time was a foreign concept to him. That made all the sense in the world. To the future he had given the past when many times we wish we could prolong the present. Ah, time.
With the conversation now over, we walked a few miles to a small center that had recently been opened to support the needs of the physically and mentally disabled—a true gem in the desert. We would see whether there was a Maasai doctor available there to go in our stead and reason with the young girl’s family.
Our chatter had dissipated and we were all silent as we walked away from the village. When we arrived at the center a genial looking man—the head of the facility whom I will call Shikamoo Tatah—greeted us and spoke to us about the inception of the center. He told us of the plight of many physically or mentally abused children here—they were often left behind or punished by the adults around them for their natural condition. Dr. Tatah sought to build a refuge for those children.
We decided to donate to the center, and our guide—unbelievably kind-hearted young man that he is—donated his entire pay for the trip he had led us on. You see, it doesn’t take a foreigner to see that something is wrong.
The Doctor sent the Maasai representative to the little girl’s boma and promised to send us an update once he had it. We left the centre amidst the songs and laughter of the young children waving goodbye.
What a day.
We hadn’t seen a Maasai cultural dance or the way they milk their cows, but they had still left an imprint on our souls. My black Nikon clunked heavily against my back as I walked, useless to capture a wholly un-capturable experience.