|"SOTOKOTO" November 2000 Issue
Whew! I'm back from Kenya's Masai Mara but it's still reverberating in me and I can't shake the Africa Fever. Every day I wander the streets of New York in search of the scent of Africa.
We arrived in Nairobi after traveling for almost 20 hours from New York. I sat next to a window of the airplane to get a good look at the continent of Africa for the first time. After finally getting across the seemingly endless desert of Egypt, we crossed into Ethiopia. It is a part of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa that extends from Turkey and the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique. The Great Rift Valley includes Lake Turkana and the Masai Mara of Kenya (where we were headed), and then the Serengeti and Lake Tanganyika of Tanzania. It is a region that is still active and it makes me regret I don't know more about geology and earth science. This region is also a treasure trove for anthropology and archaeology. It is in this rift valley that the illustrious Richard Leakey conducted his investigations, and where the famous Lucy was discovered. Africa stimulates the intellect in all fields of study.
The day after we arrived, we set out on an early morning safari. Our driver, Patrick, is the foremost guide in this area. His eyesight must be 6.0! He told us, "There's a rhinoceros over there." but we couldn't see a thing, even with binoculars. Then, after moving along in the Jeep through savanna for about 10 minutes, I saw that there really was a rhinoceros there! Thanks to him, on my very first safari I saw almost every animal that inhabits the Masai Mara.
Got up again at 4 AM, and enjoyed a safari by hot-air balloon from "Governor's Camp," the grand old man of safari camps in the Masai Mara. Viewing the savanna and the animals from the air was totally different and fascinating. But what really surprised me was the balloon itself. I think that balloons are a mode of transport where one does not feel any G = gravity force with acceleration. If one can only get used to the occasional roar of the burner, there is no other transport that gives such a sensation of tripping. I found myself wondering if the Frenchman who invented it created the hot-air balloon just for the purpose of tripping legally! After returning to earth, we had a champagne breakfast in the middle of the savanna.
On another day we boarded a Cessna that seated 6 (including the pilot) and flew to Lake Victoria. It looked like a radio-controlled model airplane. The "airstrip" at Masai Mara is itself pretty amazing, with gnu and zebra trotting about, but the landing strip on an island in Lake Victoria was just like a golf course. It didn't particularly look like we could land there, but the English captain, who had probably done this for several decades, was able to land successfully after one failed attempt. From there we went by boat to the lodge. The lodge had a great design. When I asked about this, Bart and Mary, the Canadian couple who managed the lodge, told me they had designed it themselves and were remodeling it, and that when this remodeling was completed they would move on to remodel another lodge in Tanzania or somewhere. Apparently that is how they have been able to express their creativity and make a living while moving about Africa. I found it impressive that one could make a living this way.
After breakfast at the lodge, we cruised [the lake] until noon. I caught a 3.5 kg Nile perch and my 9 year-old son caught a 7 kg one! Bart waved goodbye to us from the dock, saying "I'll let you know when we move again," and, once again in the Cessna, we flew back to Masai Mara.
I was able to visit one of the Masai villages nearby, and to take in how the Masai actually live. I wanted to record their real music instead of the cliched music they play when greeting tourists, so I asked the lodge's naturalist, Chege, to make special arrangements for me. But when we got to the appointed village, we were told that the people had all gone and so it was not possible just now. Oh, well, that's life! After all, this is Africa, where things are "polepole", where people take things slow and easy. We drove on in the Jeep in search of another village. We found a village where there was one person who spoke English, a boy named Patrick. Through him we negotiated a price of 3,000 Kenya shillings for 6 songs. This was not even 5 dollars, but to the village it was certainly major income. I set about recording the same way as the English and German ethnomusicologists had when they had visited this area before the war, collecting the culture and the music.
Even today, the Masai dwellings are made out of hardened cow dung, and apparently it is the women that build them. The interior was warmer than I thought it would be, and there was no smell at all. They seemed to be well suited for the savanna nights, when the temperature drops considerably. When these dwellings get old and start to deteriorate they are rebuilt on a different site. It only takes a week to finish building one. It evoked their former nomadic lifestyle.
We also had an opportunity to visit a school near the lodge. Even though it was in the middle of summer vacation, scores of children and several teachers greeted us there with music. I was told that although there were some students from other tribes, 90 per cent of the students were Masai. I toured the grounds and observed the school in session, so primitive it didn't even have electricity. To my surprise, their curriculum was no different than that taught in the developed countries. What also surprised me was that most of the courses were taught in English. The very fact that I was surprised at this proves that I still have lingering discrimination. The school principal straightforwardly asked me for help. But what could I give them? Did they want just money? One of the people with the school was a youth named Jackson, and in a conversation with him I got a big hint of what it could be. They didn't want just monetary assistance. There must be a Masai tradition of not wanting to accept "charity." Jackson's suggestion was a reasonable one - he asked if I couldn't devise some sort of "exchange system." "Things" made by the students or by the community would be given in return for "assistance." In this way they could keep their pride. I thought that perhaps not just "things," but certain activities, such as having the students collect the garbage, could be the objects of exchange. It's a valuable proposal that I will look into further and put into action.
The Masai Mara definitely has a lot of animals, with gnus and zebras among them. But, on the other hand, there is only one black rhinoceros, an 18-year old female. And it was somewhat difficult to find lions, cheetahs, and leopards. If things are allowed to continue, with tourists visiting every year and driving all around the savanna, I wonder what will become of the Masai Mara's natural setting and of its animals. If tourists are no longer able to freely go about the savanna, tourism will decline. A decline in income from tourism, which makes up a large part of the country's resources, would be a heavy blow to Kenya. Preserving both nature and tourism has become a vicious cycle. Worrying about the future of the Masai Mara, I couldn't fully enjoy it.
When I visited the Masai villages, I noticed that there was trash thrown everywhere and I became concerned. They have traditionally lived using the natural things that surround them. They did fine with the things that went back to nature with time. But in recent years, plastic and vinyl products have been coming into the Masai Mara even though it is far away from Nairobi. The Masai use them and throw them away as they always have. They have no conception that they are man-made substances that cannot be broken down by nature. Not to speak of things like environmental hormones, of which they have no knowledge. If this sort of waste continues to pile up, there will be big problems in the future for certain. It will probably be necessary to take the time to teach them about these things. When doing this, rather than simply bringing the teaching and measures of the advanced countries to here, ideally someone from the region should go to the advanced countries. There they could learn about environmental issues and acquire some know-how and come back home to implement measures for dealing with the environment that are in harmony with the conventions and concepts of their own traditions. It would be nice to somehow be able to help them in this.
On this point, I heard something interesting. Lions occasionally attack the cattle that are the Masai's wealth, and when that has happened the Masai men have retaliated with a vengeance. Knowing this, the lions now fear the Masai and appear to run away when they see them. It's not clear whether lions have the ability to teach such knowledge to their young, other than through heredity, but it makes an interesting story nonetheless. Additionally, on occasion a family of elephants will calmly walk right through a Masai village. Cheetahs and others will also saunter through. In this sense, animals and humans "cohabit" the Masai Mara. Not the "living together gently in nature" they talk about in Japan, but simply living together on the same land. It's very matter-of-fact and practical. If you're attacked, you attack back. The gnus are attacked every day by the lions. But it seemed to me that there were practically no "quarrels" other than over food. "Gentle in nature" is a concept invented in the advanced countries whose original, wild nature has disappeared. Yet the reality is that nature has in fact disappeared, and if, with such words, we can be persuaded to revere nature even a little bit, then all is not lost.
Human activity has a huge influence on nature. There is no question that we have been destroying the planet up to now. In terms of geological time, unprecedented destruction has progressed in an extremely short period. After we destroy nature, as is expected, will it be possible to continue to live in a man-made environment? I think not. What knowledge we have about nature is pathetically incomplete and undeveloped. Given that this is the case, what we can do as humans is to change our activity from the present 20th century model to a so-called "sustainable model" or a "cyclical model." Unless we do this, we are definitely sealing our own fate and hanging ourselves. Of course, we could say that it is only logical that, as a consequence of destroying nature up to this point, Homo sapiens would become extinct, but other species which have been wiped out by sudden blows or who have been made extinct by man's activities are powerless and blameless. Human beings are nature's only enemies. Monkeys gone mad, for sure. Just how and why have we come to be this way? Do the anthropologists have an answer?
Pondering these things as I usually do, it's as if I now have the image of the Masai Mara burned onto my vision. Was it three years after I went to Mongolia that I first saw that horizon? The flashes of light that now and then dart from the dark clouds that slowly drift toward us from the distant horizon. The crunching sounds of a lion family feasting on a gnu that it had just hunted down. The unbelievable changing colors in the sky at sunset. The blue of the sky. The black of the Masai's skin. The sound of the wings of the flying beetles, breaking the silence of the savanna... There is a saying, "once you drink the water of Africa you will surely return to her." Having seen these colors and heard these sounds, I am certain I will return to Africa once again.
© 2001 Ryuichi Sakamoto