Friday, July 13.
Laid low by a cold for much of my first week, I’ve managed to spend a full ten days in Nairobi – an accomplishment that, I’m certain, will warrant a commemorative t-shirt before I go. Back on my feet at last, shaking a metaphorical fist at the gray winter skies, I pack my bags for a week in the bush – a stay with a Maasai chief who, incidentally, has a profile on CouchSurfing. When I tell Khadija, the receptionist at my hostel, that I’m heading to Narok in the afternoon, she shakes her head and says, “You’re going to the middle of nowhere.” When I tell her my final destination is actually twelve kilometers from there, a strange silence passes between us: a moment that snugly fits into the space between ominous and foreboding.
I’ve crammed my bag into the back of a matatu and crammed myself into the back row, sandwiched between two guys who give off a scent of whiskey and body odor that packs quite the Folger’s wake-up call. We sputter into the middle of the road, the engine faltering, while five guys rush up to give us a push. The matatu pitches and tilts over a couple of massive potholes; there are shouts of encouragement from the rear. A man in a weathered baseball cap is rapping on the window, trying to sell a few newspapers, and he’s still thrusting a bunched-up Nairobi Star our way as the engine wheezes to life.
The sky is gray, low, troubling; a light rain starts to fall. On the outskirts of the city we pass sprawling shantytowns, rows of tin-roof shacks squatting on muddy lanes. The roofs have rusted orange, and they’re receding down the slopes of garbage-strewn hills like a poor-man’s Dubrovnik. There are makeshift markets on the side of the road: piles of tomatoes and oranges; bunches of bananas, bruised and blackened and dangling on a string; pairs of cheap loafers and sandals and white running shoes. Men are squatting and sitting on stools and hitching their pants up at the knees. Meat is grilling everywhere, plumes of smoke twisting toward the clouds.
We drive for an hour over a smooth, four-lane highway; then we turn onto a bumpy road that’s swallowed by clouds of dust. There are gazelles loping along beside us, and giraffes bending the long, slender stems of their necks. Now and then we slow in some nameless town where boys rush up to the window, selling roasted corn on the cob. There are shops built from corrugated tin with names like “Good Blessing Video” and “Mama’s Place Pub,” and one-room, mud-brick shacks with the word “Hotel” improbably painted on the side. The matatu bumps along; the sky is clearing. A husky woman fans herself with a newspaper, shifting her plump legs in the aisle. The man beside me, who’s been taking long swigs from a bottle he keeps tucked away in his coat, shakes his head bitterly at each bump in the road and says, “This is Kenya, man.”
We reach Narok, a busy market town, by mid-day. There are colorful, painted storefronts advertising hair styles and cuts of meat; Maasai men and women – lean, upright, their earlobes looped and dangling and festooned with beads – hustle around with bags of groceries tucked into the pits of their arms. David is waiting to greet me at the gas station. He’s wearing a blue-checked shirt and a gray fisherman’s vest, his long, smooth walking stick the only concession to the bushman within. He presses my hand warmly and takes me to a nearby restaurant for lunch. He eats his beef with his shoulders squared and his head lowered, breaking off bits of ugali from a gray brick and scooping up bits of stew. Now and then he looks up, wipes his mouth, and asks about New York.
After lunch we go shopping for supplies, stocking up on flour and rice and a few slabs of yellow cooking fat that look like candle wax. Somehow we’ve managed to fill an entire shopping cart – a week’s worth of food – with nothing I’d want to see on a dinner plate. At the check-out there’s a hapless guy trying to squeeze everything into a single box, scratching his head and rearranging jugs of water and looking for a sturdy length of string to wrap it with. Nearby we buy some bruised onions and a browning head of cabbage at the market. A preacher in well-worn shoes and a tattered sportsjacket paces the dirt road behind us, thumping on a Bible and shouting until his voice cracks.
We catch a taxi to David’s village, a half-hour’s drive into the bush. The driver whirls the wheel and takes us over broad, grassy fields where two thin ribbons of dirt curve and swoop in parallel arcs. A flock of birds with graceful, slender necks beat their wings and fly beside us; there are bright flashes of wings in the treetops: rose-red, lemon yellow, electric blue. We stop in a field where a dozen zebras regard us with curious eyes. I snap a few pics and they start to scatter. In the distance, two skittish gazelles dart into the bush, stopping and pricking their ears and then disappearing into the trees.
When we get to his house the family is waiting in the yard: his wife with sturdy legs and arching back and steady, muscular hands; the three daughters – aged eight, four and one – staring with big white luminous eyes. They approach their father and bow their heads; he touches each one lightly in greeting. They offer their heads to me, too, and I give them each an affectionate pat. David plants his walking stick in the ground and marches toward the house while I offer to bring in the groceries. He brushes the gesture aside with an effete wave of his hand. “It’s okay,” he says, “the women will take care of it.” Behind us his wife and one of the neighbors are squatting and stooping and heaving the boxes onto their shoulders. His oldest daughter, Lanoi, is carrying a jug of water across the yard, lilting far to the side and trying to keep her balance.
The house is squat and brown and the light inside is smoky. There are two main rooms – the kitchen and the bedroom – with a tiny alcove tucked into the corner. A fire is simmering in the kitchen, where a metal grill is laid across a stone pit; smoke is billowing toward the door and the lone window punched into the opposite wall. The temperature is a couple of notches shy of inferno. David kicks off his shoes and reclines on the bed: a thin foam mattress laid over a bunch of branches. There’s a commotion by the door, where the women are arranging the groceries, and David lifts his head to tell his wife to make us tea. A certain recurring theme here is quickly becoming apparent. We sit on the edge of the bed and David tells me about his plans for the house: adding another window, moving the fire-pit to the opposite side to improve the airflow. He talks about the work that went into building the place, staking branches into the ground and padding the outside walls with dried-up cow dung.
“It is very good for the wind and rain,” he observes. “My wife laid cow dung on the roof, and it keeps the rain out very well.”
We drink the hot, sweet, milky chai that his wife pours for us and sit in silence; I can hear singing in the yard. David explains that a few pastors have come to lead a church service for the local families. Outside the women are clapping and stomping, wrapped in red shawls and skirts; the men – grave in their pressed slacks and blazers – are rocking back and forth on their heels. There are a dozen people singing and each seems to have a separate part. The women tip their heads back and fling their high notes at the sky; the men make low, rumbling bass sounds with their chins pressed to their chests. There are chickens clucking everywhere and the kids are half-naked and rolling in the dirt. I make a few ambiguous, throaty noises and squint up at the sky, an earnestness on my brow that, I hope, these God-fearing Maasai might mistake for piety.
As the songs die down, the pastors step forward, Bibles clenched to their chests. Since the first missionaries arrived two decades ago, David later explains, the Maasai have hitched their fervent hopes to the back of the Christian bandwagon. One by one the pastors give their sermons, their voices, in turn, as soft as lamb’s wool or as hard as brimstone. They jab their fingers in the air and make plaintive gestures with their eyes – a sort of Good Cop/Bad Cop routine that seems to imply we’re the worst sorts of sinners, but would be welcomed back into the fold all the same. Now and then one will lapse into English – “You must follow the path of the Lord!” – a sweet gesture, in its own way, apart from the implications. The men are saying “Hallelujah!” and the women are trembling with a ravished, awe-struck devotion, and the pastors are taking turns on center-stage, as if they weren’t a bunch of Maasai in the barnyard but The Temptations at the Apollo.
Afterward David introduces me to some of the boys from the village – tall, slim, wary kids with small tufts of hair on their heads and legs like furniture posts. They practice their halting English on me, then we kick around a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags, dirty rags, and a couple of old shoelaces. They want to know about America.
“Do you have any cows?” they ask.
I tell them I have none. They nod and consider this.
“Do you have any sheep?”
I don’t. The sun is moving behind the clouds. There are cow bells jangling in the distance.
“How many chickens do you have?” they ask gravely. I can see where the rest of this is heading. I try to describe my father’s humble tomato patch in the yard, the prickly little cucumbers and stout eggplants, as if that might somehow bridge the cultural chasm between us. They nod thoughtfully and agree, a clear sign that my efforts are entirely wasted. We sit silently and watch the sun dip in the sky, the shafts of light puncturing the clouds, and they gather around as I take a few shots with my camera, their big, beady eyes moving from the immense canvas of sky to its digital reproduction, spellbound by the miracles of the modern age.