Editor’s note: The following describes a trip Taos writer Deonne Kahler took with her mother to Tanzania.
We arrived in the dark at Kilimanjaro Airport. The night air was hot, humid and smelled of diesel. I was stiff and groggy from 20 hours in a plane, but my energy was buzzing. “This was Africa,” I told myself, a place I’d been dreaming of for years.
I was there with my mother and her Rotary International colleagues for a three-week stay in Tanzania. It was May, heading into winter below the equator, and most of us were new to the country. In the tiny terminal, we waited in a long line aimed at the “I need a visa” sign hanging amid broken ceiling tiles and dangling wires. The baggage carousel didn’t work and there was certainly no Starbucks for caffeine or a snack. I couldn’t have been happier.
We spent the first night at a hotel in Arusha. After a few hours of sleep, we were on our way to the first of three national parks we’d visit. Before we left the city for Tarangire, we exchanged U.S. dollars for Tanzanian shillings and our safari guide taught us our first Swahili phrase. “Hapana asante” (”No, thank you”) was meant to discourage the stream of polite, but aggressive street vendors who approached us in most public places.
We arrived at our tent camp that night. I had packed for roughing it in the wilds of the savanna and was welcomed with fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice, a hot towel for my dusty hands and face, as well as a three-course meal served by candlelight on the patio.
So much for roughing it.
I woke up in my mosquito-netted bed the next morning to the sounds of snuffling and scratching outside the tent’s canvas walls, which turned out to be a hungry warthog foraging in camp. That became the pattern on safari: days and nights of peaceful coexistence with wild nature, protected in the parks from poachers and developers and every other human danger. It was heaven.
We’d eat breakfast, pack a lunch, then drive bumpy dirt roads in search of wildlife, binoculars and cameras at the ready. The very first morning, we were rewarded with a huge herd of giraffes, zebras and gazelles grazing by the side of the road. I’d seen plenty of animals in zoos and animal parks, but it was different in the wild – it felt more intimate, more sacred. We were both witness and disciple.
The circle of life was on glorious display everywhere we looked. Despite inconveniences, including flat tires and swarming tsetse flies, the beauty of it never waned. We saw a pair of mating lions and many adorable baby animals. We saw elephants and hippos at play, as well as predators feasting on the kill. There were so many astonishing sights that every morning I’d say to my mother, “We’ve already seen so much. If nothing happened today, I’d be just fine.”
But that was never the case. Up until the very last safari day, when we were driving out of Ngorongoro Crater and back to Arusha, nature’s drama was still playing out with a lion and its freshly killed buffalo dinner, just feet from the Land Rover. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make sure we had one last indelible image to remember her by.
Rotary sponsors students at the School of St. Jude, a K-12 private school that takes the brightest of the bright who also happen to be the poorest of the poor. We had come to see one of the sponsored students graduate, and the ceremony was an all-day affair involving heartfelt speeches, much singing and dancing, as well as something called a goat cake that you’d have to see to understand.
In the week leading up to the big day, we stayed in the dorms and sat in on classes, ate lunch with the kids (beans, rice and vegetables were a staple) and got to know the children who had come from so little, but would eventually go on to become doctors, engineers, teachers and leaders. Their curiosity, intelligence and sweetness made me feel a hope I hadn’t felt in a long time, especially in light of what was happening back in the United States with its division and anger.
We visited the homes of two students, Abdul and Beatrice, and talked through an interpreter with their families. We all had questions for each other and sat chatting and laughing in dirt-floored cement-block houses. The mothers served sweet potatoes, boiled peanuts and tea, and one even gave Mom and I Maasai shukas, plaid scarves worn by the native tribe. Grace and generosity were everywhere.
We also had the privilege of visiting a Maasai boma, or village, and were ushered into the tiny mud huts to talk, again through an interpreter, with the tribe’s members. I spoke with a young man about the traditional puberty rituals for boys and girls, which include circumcision for both, and how the Tanzanian government had joined an international movement toward eliminating female circumcision. Most of the centuries-old traditions remained, including the Maasai diet, which consists of cow or goat blood, milk and meat. It was a relief we weren’t invited to join in on that one.
I was sad to leave Tanzania, but I was also ready to get home and share what I’d experienced: the beauty of the animals, the people and their culture and the endless expanse of the African savanna; the power of small actions over time, taken by everyday heroes like my mother and her Rotary colleagues, the staff and supporters of the national parks and the teachers at St. Jude’s; the hope and excitement in the faces of children empowered to do whatever they put their minds to. This was Africa.
Read more about Kahler’s travels at DeonneKahler.com.