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SAFARI TO MARA
 
[first three chapters]

1

 

“They are here,” I whisper, pressing my nose to the cool window of the green school bus. Far away, in green grasses, a million diamonds flash in the sun. My heart drums.  
    Other noses join me at the window. Giggles. Gasps. We all know what is happening this day beneath the blue sky that goes on and on, so far we cannot see the end of it.
    From the corner of my eye I see Mother walking to meet me, as she has every day of my school years, her bare black head shining in the sun, her long red robe whipping in the cool wind.
     The bus stops. “May Engai keep you warm this winter,” I say to my dear school friends. They all know that when the diamonds come to our beloved Masai Mara, I go away from school to work for my family, to put on the robes of the Masai, to practice the language of Maa. My mother says I am a modern girl, but I am also Masai.        
    I run down the clanging steps of the bus into the warm arms of my mother.
    “Mara, you have returned,” she says, “as the sun and the moon return.”
    “Did you see them, Mother?”
    She nods gently. The green bus pulls away. On the faraway hillside, the diamonds sparkle so bright, I shield my eyes. “I will make you proud, Mother. This winter, I am now strong enough to carry a calabash on each shoulder without spilling one drop of milk.”
    “Yes, my dear. I know you are strong, but there will no milking for you this year.”
    “You think I have lost my aim?”
    Her laughter is like raindrops dancing on the roof of our dung house. “I will miss our squirting contests, but the cows will have happier nipples.”
    “What work will I do?”
    “Your father will speak of it.”
    Her dark eyes fill with pride, and sadness. “What is it, Mother? Why are you sad?”
    “Questions, questions,” says Grandmother, coming out of nowhere. ”It is forbidden to  question your elders.”
    Grandmother drinks from a sour bowl. Mother finds sweetness in the most bitter thorns.
    “Mara is curious,” says Mother, lifting her chin to meet Grandmother’s eyes. “Her teacher says she is very smart and loves to learn.”
    Grandmother smacks her gums with no teeth. “Your Mara-bird is ten years old. It is time to shave off her wild hair; prepare her to become a good Masai wife.”    
    “Engai ake naiyiolo”, says Mother, bowing to Grandmother. “Only God knows.”
    Grandmother makes skinny eyes, like a black mamba snake, and goes from us.
    “Am I a bad child to ask questions?”
    “You are dearest to my heart, “says Mother. “Your Grandmother is wrong. To question is a good thing. And I love your wild hair. Do not shave it. Not yet.”
     I do not have to earn my goodness. I see it always, in her eyes.
    “Dance for me, my Mara--” she sings.
    We dance to celebrate my name, for when I was born, my mother called me “Mara” after the tiny bumps across my baby nose. Mara means “spot” for the beloved acacia trees that dot our land.
    I make up a song, “Wheeeeo, Engai ake naiyiolo, only God knows.”
    “Wheeeo” calls the rust-breasted robin chat on the beloved acacia branch above our heads.

Wheeeo,” we answer back.
    The cool, soft wind lifts the branches, like my mother’s arms reaching up to hold a basket on her head.
    “Come, Mara-bird, we will see the beautiful thing that has returned to our land.” Mother fetches her lion stick, a pole split in two that she claps together to bring terror to the great beast.
    I feel a tingle, like red ants in my belly. We walk into the green grass that tickles my elbows.
    Mother raises her long arms, “Supa, Oloololo!” she cries in greeting to our mighty mountain that zig zags across the land, to trick Engai so She will not bring lightening in the dry season. Engai is both god and goddess, present in all things. We pray to Engai the female, because Mother says if you look at the Earth after the long rains, you can see Her face in the swirling soil.
    We come to where the grasses open into the plains of the great Rift Valley. The diamonds have become a herd of great animals, their black stripes quivering in the sun.
    One is so close, he watches me with eyes as still as river stones.
    I reach out my hand.
    “No, Mara. There is a river between you and the zebra!”
    I look at my feet. A river made of grass? I laugh.
    “Dearest, you must never touch a wild one. Do not question me in this.”
    I feel my heart grow heavy.
    Mother’s eyes find mine. “Mara?”
    I lower my eyes. “Yes, Mother. I will obey you in all things.”    
    We stand together, the soft breeze cool on our faces, as the patterns of light glimmer across the great herd. The sun goes down behind Oloololo, making the blue sky orange with purple stripes.
    “Come, Mara.”
    On the way home, giraffe walk beside us, lazy legs long, loping.
    White-backed vultures glide across the sky, their mighty wings covering the setting sun.
    “What are the vultures looking for?”  I ask.
    Mother touches my shoulder to halt my feet. She lifts the lion stick, slowly, slowly.
    The grass shakes under our noses.  We are still as rocks. I squeeze Mother’s hand. She squeezes back.
    Out of the grass it comes - mighty lion? No: warthog!
    Mother scoops me in her arms and twirls me around. We dance to the snort of the silly old hog.
    “If this warthog had been a lion?” I ask.
    “We would still be here!” says Mother, rattling the lion stick, “Crrrraaacck!”
    “What mischief is here?” calls Father, driving up beside us in his mighty Land Rover.
    We laugh and do a Masai jumping dance.
     “Mara, my dear one!” He lifts me up onto his lap, takes Mother’s hand, and pulls her up too. He lets me steer as we pass Masai boys herding cattle through the fence of thorns that surrounds our kraal. This fence keeps cattle and Masai safe at night; keeps lion out.
     We love to go inside our dung house on winter nights and warm ourselves by the fire. Stars blink  at us through a tiny hole in the ceiling. I put our calves and goats to bed in their little pens beside the grass mat where I sleep. Mother and Father sleep in their own room, behind a wall of sweet dung.

Father takes off his gray-green hat, and runs his long fingers over his shaven head. He takes the earrings of the ilmoran, from the pocket of his gray-green shirt and puts them through his ears. He cannot look like a warrior on safari. He says it would frighten the tourists.
    My father looks at me for a long moment. “My beautiful daughter.”
    I smile and touch his face. It is rougher than Mother’s, but his eyes are soft and warm, as if in this moment, I am the only thing alive in his world. I wonder if he would look at me this way if I had a brother? Engai brought my mother only one child. It is a shame to my father to have no sons. He calls himself a “modern man” for having only one wife, yet he must bear shame from my grandfather, who has four.
    “Mara, you must help me in my work as though you are my son.”
    “I do not want to herd cattle like the boys. They will laugh at me.”
    “No one will laugh. You are to be my Assistant Safari Guide.”
    I shout and jump so high I think I will bust through the ceiling and into the sky. “I am to go with you, in the Land Rover? The mighty Abisinetulolo?”
    “Yes, my dear one. You are ready.”
    “I have one question.”
    Mother and Father laugh. “Only one?” he asks.        
    “What does Abisinetulolo mean?”
    “I made it up. It is the sound our Land Rover makes as she speeds through the grass:
Ab-bi-sin-tu-lo-lo.”
    “It is too long. May I call her ‘Abby’?”
    He takes my mother’s hand. “If you like, my Mara-bird.”
    Father brings me a pair of gray-green pants and shirt, and covers my hair with a  gray-green cap.
    Mother cries to see me in this “dress of the other world”.
    “But Father lives in the other world,” I say. “And now I will too!”
    “Your father has a foot in two worlds. In our kraal he is ilmoran, a mighty warrior. Out there, he is just another man with black skin.”
    Father holds Mother in his arms. “I have much to teach our daughter.”
    “Mother, I do not understand. You say it is good to ask questions. Now you are sad I will learn new things?”
     “My mind is in two places,” she says, tears making tiny rivers down her face.  “I want you to go, and be modern girl. I want you to stay and be my little Mara-bird.”
    “Each night I will return,” I whisper, “as the sun and the moon return.”

 

2  

     “It will be bumpy,”  says Father to the tourists sitting behind us. They hold on tight. This Abby knows no fear. Her wheels look like rubber, but surely they are made of iron, for she laughs at roads, and makes her own way over rocks and down mighty cliffs.
    We stop to make safari picnic. “Everyone stay in vehicle!” Father calls, going into the bush.
    No sound but a lilac-breasted roller bird on a termite mound, “Kraaaa-Kraaack!”
    Father comes back, “No lion in this bush. We can eat.”

    I open the trunk of Abby, a “special-issue”, enormous trunk, big enough for all our tools and supplies. I spread out a red Masai blanket and the sack lunches. The tourists eat very fast: salad gone in five minutes, sandwich in three, precious protein bar in two bites: chomp, chomp.   
     My father whispers that I must learn to eat fast as well. “Only when we are on safari. At home you may eat as slow as you like.”
    The tourists thank me for lunch.
    “Asante sana” I say in Swahili. “Thank you very much.” I teach them to say it. They are so happy to learn Swahili words. I see my father’s smile. He says I must use this talk, not our Maa words. I am sad I cannot use Maa. I want to share my own self with these people who have come to our beloved Kenya from all over the world.
    In no time we are off again. Father hears a crackle on his radio and listens to the words. I lean closer.
    “No, Mara. Not for your ears.”
     I feel a buzzing in my belly. My father  says this at home, before he gives me a surprise.
    Abby charges off into the tall green grasses and down a steep hill. There before us, so close, millions of beloved zebra!
    Abby moves slowly into the herd, so we do not scare them away. They watch us with black eyes on far side of their foreheads. I stare at stripes going every which-way. I am dizzy, but never so happy.
    “These animals are Burchell’s zebra,” says my father. “They come here, to the Masai Mara from Tanzania, every winter. Yes, July is winter in Kenya. Zebra and wildebeest come by the thousands to eat the new grass shoots.”
    I point to a papa zebra resting his chin on the back of a mare.
    “This is called, ‘chinning’,” says Father, “It is the way a zebra says, ‘I love you’. And, yes, it is true: every zebra has a different pattern to their stripes, like our fingerprints.”
    We pass a fat zebra swaying from side to side, her big belly moving up and down.  
    “Father, is she dying?”
    Abby stops. Father holds his hand to my lips, whispering to the tourists, “Get your cameras ready.”
    No one breathes.
    The fat zebra moans, “iilllckk.”
    Out slides a baby zebra, falling to the earth in a gentle thump.
    “Heeee--”.
    “What is he saying, Father?”
    “ ‘Where am I? What am I doing in this place?’ ”  
    “His stripes are brown.”
    “He will get black ones when he is older.”
    “Haaaw!”  
    The mother zebra licks her baby all over. He sniffs her with his black nose, looking into her eyes, as I look into the eyes of my mother.
    The baby stands, his legs wobbling this way and that. “He walks in a zig zag,”I say. “I will call him Oloololo, for the zig zag mountain, and Serat, Maa for ‘fingerprints’.”

 “No, Mara. Do not give names to wild ones.”
    “There is no harm, Father.”
    “Do not name him, Mara. Forget this Oloololo Serat.”
    “Yes, Father. I will obey.”
    I close this name from my mind. But my heart? It  sings “Oloololo Serat!” to the wild blue sky. My secret is safe. No one can hear my heart, but me.      

  

     

Photo © John Stern

3        

This night I sit by the fire with the boys. The girls sit in their own circle, pointing to me, giggling.
    My father wraps a red Masai blanket over my shoulders. His eyes say that he is so proud. He is sad as well. His mother and father went away before I was born, in a year of no rain. I know he whispers silently to them this night: “See my beautiful Mara. She brings honor to our family, as if she were a son.”
    Strong wind blows dust into the fire. Grandfather stands in his deep blue robe crowned with fur from sacred hyrax tree. His face is like Oloololo mountain, his eyes seeing farther than others can see. He is our Laibon, who heals Masai, and sees the future in their dreams.  
    “We rejoice this night,” he says. “My granddaughter is Assistant Safari Guide!”
    Father blows the horn of the antelope, “Muuuwaaa.
    The men pass a calabash of honey beer. Grandfather gives me milk to drink.
    The ilmoran stand in a line and make the Masai jumping dance. This night, Grandfather takes my hand and lets me jump with the warriors. A great honor for me. I do my best, but I am only a small Masai girl. Father jumps highest of all!
    I bow to Grandfather and the ilmoran, and leave circle.
    I search for my mother. She sits with the women, not looking at me. “Are you sad to see me among the boys?”
    She takes my hand. We go out behind our dung house where we have made two places in the soft dirt, one for my bottom, one for her’s. We sit here when the night calls us.     
    Mother looks into night sky, “Mara, what do you see?”
    I shout for joy. The Milky Way shines diamond-bright as a million zebra.
    “Where did the moon go?” I ask.
    My mother knows I do not mean the science I learned at school, of the moon making circles around our little earth. I mean the story I heard as a baby, in her arms.
    “When the moon goes away, She comes back. She may stay away on dark nights, cloudy nights, but sooner or later, the moon returns. When a man or a woman go away, they do not return.”
    “Why would Engai make the world this way?”
    Her laugh fills the night sky, “You will have to ask Her, Mara. She made the world, not I.”
    “Does it hurt you, that I have put a foot into the other world?”
    My mother claps my feet together.  “I am very proud of you, my beautiful daughter. You are all children to me, Mara, my love, my daughter, my heart.”

She sings:
    Engonyakonya
    Grow up, my child
    Uawa ingik aulo
    Grow up like the mountain
    We stay close, our bottoms side by side, until the sun returns. 

 

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