by Elizabeth Clark-Stern

The inspiration for SAFARI TO MARA began when I walked down the steps of our small plane and stepped onto the red earth of the Masai Mara. It was August, Winter in Kenya, the air a temperate seventy degrees, the breeze a hint warmer, coming off the dusty plains. I would later write, in the voice of ten year old Mara,  “a sky that goes on and on so far, I cannot see the end of it.” Far in the distance I saw a field of shimmering light. Mara describes it as “a million diamonds flashing in the sun.” Binoculars revealed the mystery of these “diamonds”: a herd of zebra, grazing in the green and golden grass of the savannah.
    And so began the journey. I had no thought of writing a book. I simply gave myself over to the wonder and joy of this new world. I had seen documentaries, and thought I knew what to expect. I was very wrong. Nothing on film, seen at a distance, can prepare you for what it feels like, to sit in a Land Rover and fly across the grasslands en route to the Mara River. We watched, scarcely breathing, as hundreds of wildebeest and zebra plunged into the water, stirring the interest of a sleeping crocodile.
    Each day was a new adventure. I had the sensation of being a child, waking with a sense of great anticipation. I kept a journal, and recorded the day’s events each night. I had no idea why, but it seemed critical to account for every moment, of every day.
    I was not prepared for how close we got to the wildlife. The Land Rover pulled within a few feet of a lion kill. The animals didn’t seem to notice. I asked our Masai guide, James, why the lions didn’t jump right into our open jeep. “They don’t care for the petrol,” he said. I was grateful for the alien scent of gasoline, and thrilled with the intimacy, with all of these animals.
    One afternoon we came upon a mother cheetah and her adolescent cubs. We followed them for hours as they made their way to a hillside, scouting a kill. We were told predators typically hunt at night, so part of our adventure was identifying them by day, and discovering them the next morning, sharing a downed wildebeest, impala, or zebra.
    Each night we returned to our tent cabin behind an electric fence. We felt quite safe, but with the armed guards on patrol, there was always a sense of danger. Warthogs lived inside the grounds, butting heads, snorting, and loligagging in mud puddles to their heart’s content. One look at those tusks, and we kept a cordial distance.
    The tent cabins were quite luxurious, but we were warned to tie the zipper each night, or the blue monkeys would get in while we were gone, and throw things all over the cabin. The wild birds called to us in the morning, and the monkeys hooted into the night. On the first morning my husband, John,  jumped out of bed, crying that there was a mongoose on his feet. On close inspection, it was the water bottle brought in for our comfort the night before! We felt so connected to the animals, it seemed reasonable that one of them had crawled into our bed.
    We got closer and closer to the migrating herds. I marveled at the patterns on the stripes of the zebra. Such perfection. James told us the pattern created the “diamond” effect to confuse predators.  He seemed to know everything about the animals. “I was born in this country,” he told us, adding that the zebra are genetically like the Western horse, but that zebra cannot be tamed. People have captured them, tried to ride them, but all have failed.
    I began to imagine a  small zebra thrust into contact with a human. Would such an animal be able to bond with a human? Would it fail to thrive, preferring death to domestication?
    The first morning on safari, we were given a choice: take a modest picnic lunch and stay out all day, or return midday to the tent cabin for a luxurious barbecue of ostrich, beef, and sumptuous salads and desserts. Everyone in our party cried “Picnic!”.
    Each day James would find us shade beneath an acacia. “Stay in the jeep!” he called, hopping out himself to check the bush for lion. If it was safe, we spread out a red plaid Masai blanket, and enjoyed our sandwiches. On these afternoons, I asked James about his life as a Masai, his culture, his family. He lived at the tent cabin the complex while he was driving safari, but went home to his family in the kraal, or village, whenever he could. He talked of how the Masai are faithful to their traditions, but many are becoming highly educated, and bringing their knowledge of the modern world home to the tribe. He was happy to use his knowledge of the Masai Mara to make a living for his family, and send his daughter to college.
    I began to wonder what it felt like, to be a child, growing up in modern day Africa. Prior to our safari, we had been in Cape town, South Africa, to perform my play, OUT OF THE SHADOWS at the International Jungian Congress. We had toured a township, and seen the paradox of poverty, despair, and hope in the faces of the people. The children were another story, dashing through the township in their soccer uniforms, filled with energy.
    In Kenya we flew over the townships outside Nairobi, makeshift houses that stretched as far as the eye could see. On the ground, on safari, we were treated like royalty, and every African we talked with wanted to know about the world we came from. I began to wonder what it was like to be a little girl, perhaps a Masai, growing up in this contradiction of native tradition, where little girls are still circumcised, and married at a young age to men who already have several wives , and the vibrant possibilities of the modern world.
    On our last day, we drove past another Land Rover with a Masai girl sitting in the front seat beside her father. James said that children are highly valued by the Masai. In their early childhood much time is given to play. “Our babies are loved and held close, so they learn joy in their hearts that will last a lifetime” he said. This closeness extended to herding cattle and doing other work alongside their parents as they got older.
    It seemed that the little girl in the Rover coming toward us was her father’s helper. The idea for the book was born.