Text and photos:
Source: Croatian Traveller
Africa is a genuine shock in terms of culture, climate, hygiene and assets. From the oven called “the bus” that is struggling with air conditioning, I look out the window, wide-eyed, trying to figure out what is the pavement and what is the road, what is dust, what is a garbage dump, and what is a park. Everything is merged into a homogenous mosaic of street survival and some kind of attempt to build the 21st century world with creative recycling and early 20th century infrastructure.
It is completely logical when you see it around you, but completely different from what I had imagined. Instead of traditional African images that I had in my mind, I came to poverty and dirt resembling India. It is a world dominated by gigantic cell phones and cars on billboards, whose shade hides shacks serving as office space, tin shacks used for housing, discarded truck tire with protruding legs and arms of an African gentleman leaning comfortably in his armchair. Driving behind tinted windows, I think to myself: perhaps this is the side where I belong to. In the world of neon billboards where life is framed with orderly printed price tags, and not into the world of multi-colored labels written by hand, where life is a bit more what it actually is – an agreed exchange of goods.
The initial shock is limited to the twenty or so kilometers along the main road from the airport to Mombasa and ends with the passing of the ramp at the hotel. A magnificent building with polished flamingos returns us to colonial days, although the entrance into the decrepit room brings us back to reality. But, that’s Africa. And so is the 90-percent humidity. Next stop, the beach. Like everything in Africa, the coast is also full of contradiction. On one hand, you lie on fine sand beneath palm trees (taking care that you don’t get hit in the head by a coconut falling from the height of 10 meters), cooled by the breeze and pride of the Kenyan food industry: a bottle with a tusk elephant profile on the label – Tusker beer.
On the other side, you have survival, and a thick rope dividing the two. That is where Kenya starts (or continues). That is where some sort of office space also starts. These are the offices of the beach boys, resourceful beach hawkers who try to make ends meet by selling absolutely everything to the tourists, from safaris to carved key chains. What keeps them safely on their side of the rope is the 10 year prison sentence if they cross it. However, this measure is there mostly so you can bribe someone to let you go if you were caught violating the rule. The boys rob the tourists, the state robs the boys, and the West robs Africa. The circle is complete. I wave back to one of the boys calling me. The little lady approves of this excursion to Africa. She will hold my Tusker made of coconuts, here in the shade.
I cross the rope and squat next to an African gentleman on the sand. Hey man! We shake hands. Abasi lives in a nearby village and makes a living by selling stuff on the beach. What stuff? You name it. He has something for us, for a friendly price, because, you know, Croatia and Kenya are friends. A sunscreen made of coconut oil, aloe and jasmine. Manufactured by his grandma. Two bottles should do, and his black finger writes in the sand: 8 euro. Alright, I’ll buy the repackaged hemorrhoid cream, but at least I will be defeated with only one bottle bought. That’s how much it is worth just to sit on the beach underneath coconut palms, fooling around with the dreadlocked Africans.
A few days later, equipped with our miracle sunscreen, we are ready for a safari. We cross numerous kilometers of African roads, as our driver calls them, whose usability is determined only by luck during the rain period. The tin huts along the road are slowly giving up their place to those made of mud and covered with palm leaves, while the cars are slowly replaced by mopeds, then bicycles and finally by the bare feet of smiling children. We come to the river Tsavo whose winding creates wide plains on which we see a herd of elephants. Covered in muddy water and dust, they are orange. And they are beautiful. Big and free. Unexpectedly elegant. They gently bend their huge feet and move so slowly and move so slow and important, like every step has a historical importance. Their heads sway rhythmically up and down, and their trunks merrily sway left and right. In the middle of the river, a hippopotamus emerges. Yes, we’re in Africa.
As our kidneys complain about the ride down a bumpy road with the huge Kilimanjaro in the background, it is not a problem for Rami and his van. Repeating that we are on a good safari, the road takes us to the Maasai village. The last prayer still echoed down the plains as we, squatting on the ground, joined the tribe in replying to Nai. Amen. Since we exited our vehicle some ten minutes ago, a line of 15 men in multicolored clothes and as much bald women formed in front of the village, greeting us with song. My digital camera is already in the hands of our future guide, Samuel, who started framing his photos quite skillfully.
A dance starts. In Maa language, Adumu means jump up and down while dancing, so it is exactly what they are doing. Basically it’s a courting ritual of two young warriors. Soon it was my turn. They simply put a stick into my hands to hold on to while making high jumps into the air, as if they are telling me: jump, man! I did not want to complicate further with the fact that I already have a wife, since they are polygamous anyway, so I started jumping. Realizing that it will be hard for me to surpass them, I decide to make a dramatic turn of events and make a dash for it, of course, accompanied by the cheering of the masses, sighs of women and mocking of present professionals. Defeated and fascinated, the Maasai decided to let us into their village. What began with short course in starting a fire by friction and a visit to huts built by women, ended in shopping and long haggling in the hot sun, in front of spears of our hosts. Very convincing.
Our last day. As the two Land Cruisers slowly break through the dewy grass and vegetation, the sun comes up, providing a backlight for the acacia trees and the first animals on the horizon. Appropriately, these are the silhouettes of giraffes in the bright morning sun. Soon the drive is interrupted by a shout beautiful to our ears: Simba! Lion. Toyota stops a meter from a sleepy pile of yellow muscles stretching on the bright green grass. As a true king, he laid there so we can walk around his majesty from all sides, and barely even opened eyes to the sound and smell of our van. This strength restrained only by laziness is an awe-inspiring sight.
Trying to find the best observation position, Mini, our guide through Maasai Mara, managed to plant the rear wheel into a giant hole some ten meters from the lion. Frantically revving of the engine managed to achieve only one thing: awaken the beast. We closed the windows of the van. Although he got halfway up and was giving us a drop dead stare, the lion remained motionless, probably disbelieving: how did these fools manage to find a hole in this entire savanna? The van leans onto one side, my window stands one meter from the ground. Another vehicle jumps in and tries to push us out. Nothing. The radio reports that another lion was spotted in the bushes behind our back. But it does not bother Mini so he boldly steps out of his vehicle to fasten a chain to a third vehicle that will pull us out. As a sign of our gratitude, we look for the lion in the shrubs. We are soon rescued, but our hook is crooked, and the rear doors won’t close. Mini asks me to hold them until we reach safe distance. Finally, we stop peacefully on the vast plains of Great Rift Valley in the northern, Kenyan part of the Serengeti. I step out to aid our driver. But everything I actually wanted was to feel the endless, wild, African savanna under my feet.
Even before we realized, the safari was over and we were heading home. However, it seemed to me that instead of the noise of plane engines I was listening to the welcome song of the Maasai, feeling the African soil beneath his feet. It felt like I wasn’t the one who stepped into the savanna. After everything that has happened, I felt in a weird way like Africa stepped into me.