The porcupine is a clever animal, and other tales from the bush.

Saturday, July 14, 2007.

After a few restless nights in an overcrowded dorm room in Nairobi, I was convinced that things would get better before they got worse. Then I learned to sleep like a Maasai. It’s been a sobering introduction into the life of these hardened plains peoples. The fire pit is still smoldering as we tuck ourselves into bed, the air thick and acrid with the smells of roasted cabbage and scorched meat. Our bed – fashioned from a thin foam mattress and a bunch of sticks – creaks and groans each time I shift for comfort. David is sleeping beside me, breathing heavily, making hoarse noises in his throat. On my first night, while our dinner was still settling in my stomach, he stretched, coughed, then promptly dropped his pants and said, “I think we will go to bed.” It’s a ritual he’ll repeat nightly, which is how I’ve come – after just ten days in Kenya – to find myself getting into bed with a black man.

In the morning his wife gets the fire started early, boiling water and dressing the kids. The days start cool and overcast; there’s a flat gray light coming in through the window. Beside me David is sleeping soundly, turning and yawning and stretching his limbs like a housecat. Really, these Maasai men have got it all worked out. The goats are whinnying and making animal noises in the yard; the donkey is braying like a real jackass. It’s just after eight when I finally rub my eyes and sit up in bed, guilt-wracked by the sight of eight-year-old Lanoi – wearing a red sweater and her blue-checked school blouse – hauling a sack of flour into the kitchen.

We start the day with a modest breakfast: two slices of plain white bread and a cup of tea. Afterward David pats his stomach and makes soft sighs of contentment, making me wonder what sort of feats of nutritional endurance will be asked of me in the days ahead. He takes me for a walk through the bush, stooping now and then to point out an animal’s tracks – elephant, impala, hyena – or explain the excretive habits of the native dik dik. “A dik dik will spend his whole life where he goes to the toilet,” he says, pointing to the mounds of black pellets that mark the animal’s territory. Later he’ll tell me the usefulness of each tree we pass, breaking off the fragrant leaves of a perfume tree and rubbing it against my forearm, then cautioning about one of its neighbors. “This tree is very dangerous,” he notes. “Very, very dangerous. If you rub the leaf on the tip of your arrow and shoot an animal, it will not walk 100 meters before it dies.”

There’s poetry in how the Maasai read the land around them: each tree and bush, each track in the dirt, has its own story to tell. For a foreigner, the differences might be too subtle to see; but for the Maasai, this encyclopedic knowledge is a matter of survival. The bush is a drugstore and supermarket; it can be a source of great wealth or brutal hardship. At eighteen Maasai boys are sent into the bush as a rite of passage, returning after two years once they’ve emerged as men and the earth has yielded its secrets. Before marriage they’ll be forced to kill a lion in the wild. David rolls up his sleeve to show me the scar left by a lion’s claws, a long, angry tear where his arm joins his shoulder. When I ask if he eventually killed the perpetrator, he snuffs, fixing me with a look that all but says, “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t, white boy.”

We visit some of the neighboring villages, where David checks on his sheep, on his beans and corn. He hears complaints about the elephants that arrive in the night, tearing the cobs from their stalks. A young boy – the brother of his wife – makes agitated gestures toward the brown, bending stalks of a cornfield nearby, where a few local porcupines have been feasting.

“The porcupine is a clever animal,” David notes, with a trace of admiration in his voice. He points to a pile of silvery quills lying in the dirt. Nearby there are empty sheaves, green and yellow and white and frayed around the edges.

We stop to see his wife’s father, who invites us inside; David hands two cobs of corn to one of the boys to roast for an afternoon snack. Minutes later he returns with the cobs – blackened, hot to the touch – sandwiched between two plastic bowls. We’re sitting in the store room, tearing the corn off with our dirty fingers. There are sacks of beans piled on the floor; a few flies are buzzing around my legs. If Sally Struthers could walk in and see me now, the scene would undoubtedly break her heart. David’s father-in-law – tall, lean as a bean post, with two knots protruding from his forehead – sits on the couch across from us and regards me with playful eyes. He lifts a pant leg and scratches at his bony shin. He tells me I look like George Bush, and wants to know if we’re related.

There are other visits to be made. We stop in on his sister, who lives with her five children in a nearby village. Her husband is a local official; there are picture frames on the wall and upholstered chairs in the living room: signs of domestic prosperity. Her sons and daughters and the neighbors’ kids have all gathered on the couch, staring at me with bright, beady eyes. When I smile, they smile; when I wink, they make anxious little twitching movements. I take out my camera and show them the pictures I snapped earlier – clouds, wide skies, a lone acacia – and they’re soon scrambling to gather around me. I take a few snapshots of them horsing around on the couch. They grin broadly and have a hard time sitting still; in half of the pictures, some restless figure appears like an apparition in the background.

David takes me further into the bush: he wants to check on his cows. We find the herd being led by two barefoot boys in tattered t-shirts, who are so stunned by the sight of a mzungu that David has to all but corral the cows himself. For twenty minutes we shepherd them home: the boys whistling and shouting, David making low grunting noises, as if he’s clearing his throat. I try to give it a go – “Hrmph! Hum! Ahem!” – but it’s a sad performance, and even the cows seem to regard me with pity as they swish their tails and chew.

When we get back to the house, dusk is falling. Jeremiah – an old, mirthful man with hooped ears that could fit a hard-boiled egg – is squatting against the fence, scratching his scraggily chin. The women are coming back from the field with jugs of water. The boys are practicing with their bows. They point to a blackened tree stump in the distance and fire arrows that sail long by a hair or send up puffs of dirt on either side. They show me how to grip the bow with one hand and pull the string taut with the other. My first shot lamely flutters to the earth after ten feet. There are smiles all around. I try again, but my next two arrows don’t even leave the bow. This leaves everyone in stitches.

“Ha ha,” says Jeremiah.

“Ha ha,” says David.

“Ha ha,” say the boys.

“Ha ha,” I say, thinking: Let’s see you find your way around a Mac OS, fuckers.

That night, sitting in bed while our dinner simmers on the fire, we listen to the radio. David adjusts the dial – American pop songs, local news – and settles on a weekly church sermon. The preacher has a rich basso profundo that rolls like thunder gathering strength. He’s lecturing on the value of wisdom – “WEES-du-umm,” as he pronounces it, with a melodious roll that stretches for three syllables – but after ten minutes he hasn’t gotten us any closer to the nature of the thing itself. We need wisdom, he says, to “get promotions at work” and “deal with the issues” – which is sort of like saying we need faith to find a good head of lettuce at the store. After thirty ponderous minutes he says,

“Have you seen how a cow lies down at the end of the day, and it brings up the food it ate that day, and it chews it again?

“You need to do that to the word of the Lord.”

David leans forward and switches the radio off. We lay back in weighty silence. His daughter rolls from bed and bolts the front door, shutting out the cool night air and the barnyard noises. There are a few ragged coughs from across the room, and the bed creaks and settles beneath us, and we drift off to sleep, certainly spent, but probably not much wiser.

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