This story was part of a book presented to my friends Jimmie and Maggie, in Switzerland, at their wedding in 2002. It was illustrated with photographs taken during our mountain bike journey in the heart of the Maasai lands near Oldoinyo Lengai, just south of Lake Natron.
keith harmon snow
It was, in the beginning, about dolphins.
Our friendship began in paradise, in a beach town called Kizimkazi. There is a tiny alabaster mosque there and an ancient boabob tree that has weathered centuries of pirates and Arabs and tropical storms. The townspeople gather often under the tree, in the morning after the fish have come in, in the afternoon before prayers, in the evening to sew the nets and wash down the dayÕs hardships and joys with beer. That is where I met Jimmy and Maggie, in Zanzibar.
A universe later, Jimmy and Maggie and I came together to a place where the sun burned below the horizon and the teethy creatures of the desert stole from shadow to shadow. It was a place that had forever been haunted by the bloodhunger of lions, but there were few lions here now. Here, in this vast desert of unquenchable thirst, so distant from that enigmatic island, Zanzibar, it seemed impossible to believe that place could have so much water while this place had none.
But there was no water here. We were wary of armed robbers. Our tires were mangled with patches and we had flat tires often and at times we could hardly move forward. It was over 110 degrees in midday sun. There was little shade. JimmyÕs bike suffered a fatal breakdown. And we were lost. We crawled into our tents and we slept out of pure exhaustion but we were all haunted by hunger and thirst and the specter of human beings living and dying with drought and famine.
It is the same world that we live in but not the place that we come from and in the age of space warfare and Internet surfing this suffering is so totally unneccessary. It was a desert of uncertain hope and the uncertainty was underscored by nature at its most brutal and unrelenting, by the disintegrating skeletons of the fallen creatures that it had defeated, and by the bloodshot eyes of the struggling people.
But Jimmy and Maggie were there, and I in my blind belief kept them alive, and in their love and togetherness they kept each other alive, and they kept me alive, and so together we lived.
This is the story of that journey.
It is the story of two sane men and a sane woman driven by the insanity of western civilization to bicycle through a brutal desert in search of meaning. It is the story of a people – the Maasai – and a place – Maasailand – and the consciousness such a place and such a people can bring to an outsider who chooses to travel with their eyes and their hearts open. That is how we did it. And so this is really a story about beauty and courage and laughter and suffering. It is also a story of a friendship. But most of all it is the story of self-realization—the quest for the sacred mountain.
Kizimkazi. What a name!
If you do not love that name before you get there you will surely love the place once you have arrived. From the tidal breakwaters and octupus seas of the east coast of Zanzibar I arrived in Kizimkazi battling with my fourth bout of malaria. The doctor at the local clinic – sparsely outfitted with a few miscellaneous concoctions and the outdated and ineffectual drugs dumped on this tiny village by some charitable multinational corporation -- returned from his afternoon communion with Allah to find me waiting there for yet another confirmation that my body was in imminent surrender to that parasitic invasion. By Allahs will...
I had already seen the dolphins once, and that is why the malaria emerged yet again from hibernation in the safe haven of my liver. It was the change in temperature going from the midday heat to the breezy ocean to the cold, deep dolphin water. Now, the most insidious symptom of malaria is apathy. You have the muscle-aches, and the fever, and the chills, and the nausea, and anything you eat might reincarnate itself at any moment from both ends of the digestive tract, and there is the retroocular throbbing, and the headaches – and the headaches, and the fever and the throbbing and the uncontrollable bodily emissions. But always there is that apathy.
Malaria is not a joke. It is deadly. I make light of it, perhaps, to ease my conscience. I remember all too clearly the horror of malaria, almost always compounded by poverty, and usually by the terrors of dictatorship sanctioned and funded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and all those western multinational corporations pillaging Africa. And so for millions of people malaria is a very unpleasant, protracted way of life, and a very unpleasant and protracted way of death. It wins, in the end.
It is no accident that serious malaria research was terminated in the latter half of the twentieth century, or diverted to insignificance, at the very least, in the western world. It is no accident that hundreds of millions of people suffer from malaria in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is no accident that 30% of the people in rural Zambia, for example, do not yet know that malaria is caused by mosquitoes. And it is no accident that they can purchase coca-cola, but not the most basic malaria prophylactics, in the most remote village there.
Dolphins are a temporary cure for malaria, but only the most acutely apathetic foreigner would dare swim with dolphins while suffering a malarial episode. Only a westerner infected by privilege and affluence would do so secure in the knowledge that they will probably be able to at least buy their way to good health. For me it was merely a matter of joy. I have a propensity to risk all. (I came to Africa to investigate the war.) To swim with Dolphins is to be infused with joy. Nothing short of happiness was at stake.
As a traveler, the last thing you hope to find when you arrive in paradise is another traveler. Yet there I was, much to the disinterest of this young and lugubrious couple straddling their bicycles asking directions of the natives. It was a breif and unflattering exchange. Hours later sipping cold drinks under the veranda we jointly negotiated dolphins with the man whose boat and motor and knowledge had proved highly succesful in my previous dolphin quest.
It is nearly impossible to describe the experience of swimming with dolphins and even the best writer should be wary of attempting the description. Adjectives fail. However, I will summarize the experience as briefly and accurately as my words and my craft allow. For your part, reader, you will please take several stiff slugs of rum, and hang naked and upsidedown by a rope from a large boabob tree, in a warm sun, while monkeys perch and leap all around you, while someone tickles the bottoms of your feet with live caterpillars, with a full-up orchestra playing MozartÕs Violin Concertos, and you eating fresh mango.
That will not begin to approach the experience. It is merely an example of how otherworldly the experience can be. Indeed, it can be a lot like making love with your most loved, this swimming with dolphins, and those people who have really experienced the pleasures of love – and the ecstasy of mangoes—will understand that swimming with dolphins is succulent, and titillating, and joyful, and delicious, and – most of all – it is consciousness-altering. Again, such words do not begin to describe the experience. It is, in the end, about wisdom.
But Kizimkazi is another paradise slowly unraveling. Nearby are the caves where slaves were once ruthlessly herded prior to some inhuman oceanic voyage. Arab dows still work the sea there, and you will find plainclothes soldiers in the tidal caves watching for smugglers crossing the channel in speedboats from the mainland. These policemen will wave you off if you wander too far down the beautiful white sand shore, telling you in broken English that it is not safe, there are robbers. If an insider takes you there – one of the locals, like the boat man I hired to see the dolphins – these plainclothes cops will shake your hand and light up a joint and smoke it with you, and they will laugh while they squat, one eye to the sea, one eye cocked against the smoke, and polish the blue steel of their revolvers with spit.
The first day I swam with dolphins I did so alone. I studiously ignored all the local boat operators for several hours as they hovered around me. Everyone, every outsider, the locals know perfectly well, who comes to Kizumkazi, comes to swim with dolphins. In the end I chose the man who importuned me the least and I paid him handsomely for his discretion and his patience.
The sea was the color of green emeralds and it sparkled in the sun like those overvalued rocks and when the sun went behind the few clouds that puffed and hovered high over the Indian ocean the sea turned an auspicious lavender. After a brief search the dolphins surfaced astern and I plunged over the side of the boat and the boatman drove out of their path and the doplhins – about ten of them – were swimming directly at me.
This has happened to me before, in the channel between Los Angeles and Catalina Island, but there were hundreds of dolphins there, and so the fear of being approached by very large fish, swiming very fast with fins—not easily differentiated from sharks—cutting the surface of the water, was not new to me. Then the dolphins dove deep, and with rubber strapped to my face and more rubber strapped to my feet and a rubber hose in my mouth I dove with them. That is how you swim with dolphins. (It is not like they show it in the movies.) Thus do I lust for dolphins.
When Jimmy and Maggie and I negotiated a dolphin cruise for the following morning my malaria was just coming on. By midnight it was raging and I was swimming in an ocean of sweat and shuddering from the sea breeze of midnight. I popped some malaria drugs and defiantly rose with the sun and together we began our dolphin quest. The sea fumed with indifference in a rising gale. It was high and the waves broke like large houses over the reef offshore and in fifteen foot swells we raced ahead and dropped into the sea in the path of approaching dolphins. Sometimes we hung with one arm over the edge of the boat and were dragged in the water—like harpooned tuna—to get in front of them. The sun was hot and the water cold and the wind was rising to a gale.
It was in that sublime mix of textures and temperatures and emotions that Jimmy and Maggie and I became friends. The joys and the laughter and the colors, and the swimming with all your energy, and the emerald cold water and blue heat sunshine and the consciousness – that is the key to understanding this dolphin thing – all fused our friendship together. But dolphinlust revolves around the consciousness. It can facillitate a spontaneous awakening—this dolphinswimmingexperience—and each time that it happens I find myself spontaneously provoked to a radical new comprehension of the universe, the meaning of life, and the purpose of me. What is the reality of a dolphin?
Just as a fish knows no water until it discovers air, so too do I work to shed the dead skins of my ignorance. Imagine a snake newly molted. Imagine a bird soaring with new found wings. Dolphins can facilitate that. Joy translates to bubbles in such places...
Imagine the spontaneous awakening of humanity...
It was some weeks later that we met as we had loosely planned in Arusha. I hunted down the most complete map available, from the Tanzania Department of Natural Resources. It seemed a telling and thorough map, rich with the topographical features of the land, and the cultural boundaries of the people. It was a map of the Maasailands.
We were all heading to Kenya, and so we plotted a route through bandits and wildebeast to TanzaniaÕs remote Lake Natron. We were searching for Oldoinyo Lengai—the sacred mountain of the Maasai people – the mountain of God. And the map showed this along the way. From there to Lake Natron it was a short hop to the border of Kenya on the eastern fringe of the Serengeti Plains and the Maasai Mara. There we hoped to cross into Kenya. It was a reasonable plan.
Oldoinyo Lengai is just one of the many volcanoes and collapsed volcanoes in the crater highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It rises over 2878 meters. It is the Mount Kailash of the Maasai cosmology and we tried to catch site of it from the high spots in the land, searching the horizon for a tiny cone far, far away.
We were warned about armed bandits – shifta as they have come to be known. They are merely estitute people with notzhing left to loose, refugees, disenfranchised farmers driven from their homes by dictators serving western capital, and they are dissident nomads unwilling to suffer the indignity of scraps thrown down by tourists, or the condescension and indifference of self-protecting conservationists, and they are tired of the lies from the many purveyors of ignorance and progress and development, the proprietors of raw and unbridled greed. These shifta roam the deserts of East Africa from Somalia and Sudan to Tanzania, and they were known to attack safari excursions in the place we were going.
Due to a spate of recent attacks on tourist vehicles in the vicinity of Lake Natron, few tour operators were venturing there,Ō said the guidebook. We spent several days interogating the locals, trying to differentiate the truth from the lie, and to distill the realities of marauding bandits out of the political economy of tourism: private bicycle tours negotiated by headstrong tourists are not deemed profitable to the locals, to the European oligarchy in control of tourism, or to black their slaves in the government of Tanzania who profit in selling out their people. No matter how you look at it, it was a risky proposition. It was threat as much as warning: one could almost be certain that bandits would descend from the hills or emerge from the lakes like crocodiles to prey on arrogant and uncooperative toursists sporting expensive equipment and defiant attitudes of self-reliance and privilege, entitlement and adventure. Such are the dictates of western civilization.
Recall the old wives saying: you get what you pay for. We paid for nothing. In some ways, we got exactly that. However, there are many ways to skin a tourist, and we rejected them all. In the end, scores of individual Maasai – real live people that we could see and put our hands on—benefited directly from our presence, from our passing through their village (boma), and often enough merely from our crossing their path on the most remote and unlikely desert vista. We negotiated gifts. We bartered generously. We paid for photographs. We gave money outright. We shared medicine. When we could, and we often could not, we shared water and fruit – but we had only limited and modest provisions packed on our overloaded bikes.
The Maasai were (almost) always there.
Jimmy and Maggie bought bottom-of-the-line mountain bikes in Arusha and with all we could carry we peddled out of Arusha and along the paved road until the junction that split off toward Monduli. A short cut over a hill turned into an overnight adventure in the hills of Monduli mountain (2660 meters), where we slept in the clouds with Maasai bomas and cattle bellowing all around us and where the locals stood outside our tents in the morning waiting to see us emerge. I recall a few shops where we stopped for cold sodas, where the Maasai stood around with their long lanky, handsome bodies glazed by the sun, and the bright ochre red painting their black faces and black braids of hair.
There were birds of prey soaring on the wind, and some of the paths we traveled turned to sand, and others to mud, and we slept a cold night under the biggest sky that you have ever seen. It is always big sky in rural Africa, and unless you have seen this you do not know what the big in big sky means. Suffice to say that you can see more stars and more constellations and more galaxies than you have ever imagined, and that they are brighter, and that the sky sparkles and glows in their luminescence.
The morning came with a cool mist and the next day we went down hill all morning. It was sunny and clear and there were sporadic fields of grasses and sometimes the Maasai were cutting the grass with a short blade. And so you would see the women and children carrying bundles of grasses on their heads. The children glow with a warmth and a love that is unfamilliar in the civilized world.
It is the women and children who do all the work here. The men have their excuses. Lions. Leopards. Stampeeding cattle. Courage. The wild beasts are only infrequently seen, for the most part, in the unprotected Maasailands outside the Ngorongoro Conservation area. As for the stampeding cattle – there was not enough water, and so the distance that herds had to travel daily to find nourishable grass and potable water reduced them to bones. Often the cattle were nothing but ribs and horns and hopeless eyes stumbing wearily on cracked hooves, their heads hung sorrowfully low.
Going down hill all morning meant riding our brakes on vertical slopes where the trail of dust and stones wound around the hills and through the valleys and up and down through the fields. Always the Maasai were there.
In Monduli we sampled the local constable for information about bandits and again were assured of the inevitable thieves. We left the market at Monduli in a truck because no fool would attempt to ride the mountain that everyone told us was ahead. In the back of the truck we nodded silently to ourselves in confirmation of our wisdom. At the end of the line – the boma we had paid enough money to reach – we stayed one night with Maasai families who fought over our generous tips. These were like no tips they had ever seen and they were given for no work at all.
The adobe mud-and-stick homes were dark aromatic holes where the sweet stench of meat and home-brewed beer and baked cassava hovered with the smoke of the constant fire. Fire is life to the Maasai. We sat inside and savored the rich smells, which can be almost repulsive, under the cloud of smoke which puffed out the door, away from the cold night of the high hills.
In the morning the men communicated our impending misfortunes with ostensible sincerity. It would be hard. (Yes, we thought so too.) We did not know the way. (We had a map.) The map was no good. (The options they offered us and the prices they quoted and the miserable burdens of guides and jeeps were no good either.)
We waved goodbye to our hosts and within minutes we were desceding the escarpment of East AfricaÕs Rift Valley.
It was fantastic and if you look at the photo of Jimmy and Maggie on their bikes you get some idea what kind of fantastic it was. It was a form of paradise, for me, as it revolved around self-reliance and ingenuity and perseverance and faith undaunted. It was also a kind of hell. I was excited, thrilled, and the sudden change in the surface and rough severity of the winding track confirmed for me that we were heading into territory much rougher than the guidebook described. And the guidebook was talking to seasoned adventurers, experienced world backpackers, and some archeologists, and those people outfitted for three-day thousand dollar safaris in fancy, but very rugged, durable, bushbeating four-wheel-drives.
The road was not a road but a snake of dirt and rock coiled around the mountain from head to toe as it tumbled over the escarpment wall like the boulders all along it. A steady trickle of Maasai warriors peopled the track to and from the desert and I have always wished that I bought one of those Maasai spears. Set firmly on a stout, six-foot wooden shaft rubbed by handling to a soft leathery touch, the iron blades flashed like silver daggers in the sun. The spears always attracted me. I cannot recall the first price I was given – out in the bush – but it seems it was some 6000 Tanzanian shillings. That would be about $20, I think.
The escarpment falls over a thousand meters at times into East AfricaÕs version of Death Valley. It stretches from the Dead Sea in the north of Africa to Mozambique. The heat at midday approached 120 degrees at times, and often as not there was nothing for shade. The dustbowls spun themselves out of nowhere, and they appeared even when there seemed to be no wind. They spun and whipped the sand out of the earth and tore loose the scrappy sagebrush and thornsbush and carried these up to the stratosphere, and the whole place was cloaked in a grey shrowd of disintegration and decay. It was constant, this feeling of decay, and the dustbowls at times spun themselves out of opposing valleys on a distant plain and we could watch these huge distorted funnels as they slowly whirled and twisted and danced across the endless plains, and sometimes they jousted like Anglican knights in some huge contest of war, until one or both whirlwinds disintegrated. It was not lone before another, and another, and another rose up and spun away. We laughed as the funnels approached and were unafraid when the small ones engulfed us as we rode. They surprised us too, just suddenly being there. They often disappeared before I could capture them on film. Sometimes these whirlwinds collided and drew force from each other and out of the chaos emerged a whirlwind of double magnitude.
The vast plains spread before us offering views of weeks to come. That is how big the land is here. And you could often see the muddy safari tracks – now dry as bone – that scar the fragile land, rip it open and desecrate it, and they crisscross and meander and branch off and spread out like the veins and arteries of conquest that they are. They are everywhere, and they are everywhere forever.
As strange and alluring as the funnels were these rivers of dust. Following the dusty tracks of four-wheel tourist vehicles or rangers jeeps one could only imagine the brutality of traversing such tracks under the monsoon rains, after the thundering storms that drift off the Serengeti plains and slaughter the drought of the land and draw the sleeping greenery of life out of its seasonal, self-preserving retreat. These ruts were drier than dry, and you would drown in them if you fell in, face down, and that is not an overstatement or a joke. They were as thick and fluid with dust as if they were water but they were dry as chalk. These multiple overlapping and circuitous tracks were filled with this dust powder, and any splash in the dust created waves as real as rocks thrown in water. The dust penetrated all the oricifies of the bicycles, and it caked the cracking chains and tortured the mechanical joints and sucked out all the lubricant that had not already melted and dripped in the heat.
And so our bikes sqeaked and cracked and slowly disintegrated. And the dust seeped into our bodies. It powdered our hair and it coated our throats and it stuck to our sweat and so it caked on and dried and cracked over our skin. Our tires kept going flat.
It was not long before we began to wonder if we should turn back.
The first water hole we came to, a borehole sunk by imperialism and the colonial infrastructure or, perhaps later, by the post-colonial lackeys serving the contemporary imperial interests no matter. We knew these were there, as we likely would not have ventured into hell without a plan to beat the devil. These were large cylindrical cisterns of cement, some twenty feet in diameter and ten feet high, and the first one we came to was dry. With a water filter we siphoned out a quart of dirty water from a small, black puddle where insects crawled on the bottom, and we sat under an acacia tree and pondered our wisdom. A Maasai warrior walked out of the heat, and his dismay at the absence of water translated into a mild anger cast in looks at our equipment. We shared what water we had, and soon he was gone.
The days began in dust and heat and by midday the dust was deeper and browner than the heat. The wind whipped dustbowls out of clouds that roamed over the desert vistas spinning despair out of the drought. The thorns of acacia trees and tenacious shrubs clinging to life in the hostile soil stabbed at our souls and drew tears out of our hearts. You could only change so many flat tires in a row, in that dust and in that heat, before the thought of another flat tire burned a kind of hatred into your mind, but still you knew that the land would drive its thornby soul into your tires and no matter how carefully you tried to avoid them the thorns got in and the tires went flat. Some days we awoke and every tire on every bike was flat. We would patch holes and inflate tires and they would go flat again immediately. It was the fuel of an inevitable insanity. And then there was the absence of water.
And if you could not laugh anymore – and there were many times that I could not laugh anymore—then you wanted to sit down and cry. If I had been alone I would have sat down and cried. I have done that on other journeys in other places where I was so totally alone and despaired and so nearly beaten that no energy remained to move forward. Those are the times when the darkness overtakes me, and like a crocodile it crushes me in ist jaws and drags me down into the depths of the river and holds me there.
I think everyone has this darkness, some time.
Uncertain and thirsty we continued on, in the direction of Oldoinyo Lengai, in search of a landmark village called Ketumbaine. There was a big mountain ahead of us, and days later we circled its base, following the most obvious tracks, turning back and retracing our routes, and following a different track. And always there were those flat tires.
At the end of one long day we found a small pond, a lake I like to call it, and from this ran a stream, and across the pond a stream trickled in steadily, and if you followed that constant flow of clear water through a grove of acacia where guinea hens hide, you will find a cement trough and a borehole gushing with water. The Maasai herds came and went and all through the night the sounds of cattle echoed across the plain. Ostrich in twos and fives could be seen dotting the distant expanse, and if they saw you they steered away, and once or twice a giraffe stuck its head above the trees to inspect the terrain.
On the way to this tiny lake was a long incline of dust and gravel, and it was somewhere here that Jimmys pedal and crank fell off. Now it was becoming clear that we should have turned back, but it soon became clear that we had crossed the point of no return: the nut which holds the crank in place was lost. I built a fire while Jimmy and Maggie combed the trail behind us to no avail. The nut was lost. It was not a tiny nut, and it was irreplaceable, and the crank – and therefore the pedal—was hopeless without it. We bathed and ate and I played a few tunes on my harmonica, and then we slept on it.
It was not the easiest of dilemas with which to face the sunrise. The nut was gone. We packed and loaded our bikes and Jimmy attempted to make do with a crank merely pressed into place. It fell off. After 25 feet frustration set in. Flat tires appeared. While repairing these we applied science to the pedal problem: with the cook stove we heated the steel of the crank until it nearly glowed red, and using the thin alluminum wind sheild taken from the stove as a sleeve, and supporting the crank shaft on a large rock, and hammering the crank with another large rock, we uesd heat and force to fuse the metal crank onto the alluminum and the shaft. It would hold for a little while, we hoped.
And so we set off, Jimmy pedaling lopsidedly, putting minimum pressure on the compromised crank, and riding with the uneven and irregular pedal stroke of a circus animal on a too large bicycle. Were it not for the seriousness of our predicament we all would have been hysterical. Indeed, we were hysterical, but it was the uncomfortable hysteria of a certain life-threatening fear. But our water bottles and jugs were all full, and I cannot remember, but I think Maggie and I took some of Jimmys weight, and for some time we pedalled slowly and laborously in respect of Jimmys pedal, and so we all held our breath, now and then, sure that the engineering experiment would fail. In this way we continued onward. Catastrophe seemed imminent. Jimmy complained no more or less than any of us, and that was not very often, except to now and then laugh at him self. Every time I looked at him, pedalling lopsidedly, he gained a new respect from me.
The Maasai provided insight, and a certain kind of faith, as we watched them cross the plains, the men herding cattle, the women and children herding goats and hauling water and bundles of sticks. The moran – the newly initiated Maasai warriors – often stopped to watch us, leaning on their spears, and they sometimes followed us. And together we sifted direction and purpose out of the dust and the heat and our impending lostness.
The Maasai are a beautiful people. They have clung to tradition and lifestyle against the most hostile forces both social and natural. They demand payment for photographs or other services they render – and why not? Westerners have for over a century come to their place, with all the trappings of western arrogance and superiority, with western civilization and culture, with our affluence and our standards of human rights, and we have ever taken what we want and we have left nothing but a solemn kind of resentment.
The Maasai get nothing from the powerful Amero-European conservation and tourism interests. Indeed, it is worse than that. By 1894, the Maasai were virtually obliterated from the face of the earth. Slave labor conscription by force—for the English and the German settler-conquerors—and the dreaded rhinderpest and epidemics of smallpox that they brought with them decimated the Maasai and their cattle. The big white hunters came along and decimated the wildlife. What little remained was herded onto reservations where the Maasai and the Turkana and the Samburu were excluded. All the best resources went to western interests.
They still do. The conservation areas are not being conserved, they are being exploited. And too, within a hundred miles of the Maasai territoires we biked through, there is a gold mine belonging to Barrick Gold Corporation. The Maasai get nothing out of this except exclusion and propaganda and a few measely scraps. And President Benjamin Mkapa has sold out his people, and that is why he is president (and it is not an honest election). Barrick, a Canadian-based company, counts among its directors a Mr. George Bush Sr. (former president of the United States and director of the CIA), a Mr. Brian Mulroney (former Prime Minister of Canada) and a Mr. Howard Baker (former US Senator).
One of BarrickÕs partner companies in Africa is a diamond mining firm called America Mineral Fields International – established in Hope, Arkansas – and that is the hometown of a Mr. William Clinton (former president of the United States). On one of these boards is a Mr. Vernon Jordan (a lawyer and a close friend of the Clintons). And the mining of gold revolves around access: it is insured by the arms sales, development loans, government lackeys, and—at this Tanzania Barrick mine—miners have been buried alive for it. Barrick is operating freely in Niger, Mali, Tanzania, and Congo. America Mineral Fields is also in Congo, and Botswana. It is no accident that there is war in Congo, and that American tanks are used, and that over four million people have died in this war since 1998. No newspaper will report such a story.
As most westerners have yet to learn – in particular, the breed of westerner who purports to help the world through the dubious structures of globalization and the multinational corporation and the billion dollar industry of humanitarian misery—money cannot be eaten. Of course, the multinational corporations give no money and they take no prisoners and they leave wastelands wherever they go. Perhaps no corporation better underscores the realities of predatory capitalism that Barrick Gold in Africa. Most of the Maasai know nothing about Barrick Gold in Maasailand. It is not peripheral to this story, because, as I said, this story is also about the profound suffering in Maasailand. Nowhere have the Maasai been harder hit than in the Ngorongoro – Serengeti region.
But the Maasai are not innocent, and there remains some savagery in their customs, and with these rites and rituals they do their part to perpetuate their peoples demise. Some Maasai customs are devastating, as with female genital mutilation, and somewhere there are those stupid white men who are laughing to think that anyone could so efficiently serve their patriarchal interests, because that is an institution of male power introduced by the invading and domineering Arabs. Here is a lasting tradition of violence, and it devastates the women and girls, and it is so deeply enculturated a cycle of violence that victims perpetuate it out of a vindictive rage from deep within their mutilated souls. The victims carry the unmanagable fear, the psychological and physical trauma at having been themselves betrayed, and mutilated, and violated, and weakened. It is another one of those lies human beings perpetuate aginst their kin in the name of their god and custom. And many females die from it, and others forever bleed from it, and AIDS is a byproduct of it, and still mothers do it to their daughters. And in this way these mothers shatter one of the most beautiful gifts bestowed upon a human being – and that is innocence. And there is another casualty in this ruthlessness, and that is joy.
It is remarkable that joy can be seen in these people at all, but it is there, and it is deep, and it infects you if you are willing to see it. And still there are all those western tourists unwiling to see it, unmoved by the specter of love embodied in the Maasai, blind to the realtionships between the horrible suffering of some Maasai and the touristÕs own comfortable safari tour in the Maasai territories – the parks the Maasai have been thrown out of. Such are the tragedies of western civilization: selfishness, ego, unconsciousness, and the incapacity to feel. This last is called compassion, and there is the desert in the western soul.
These human faults are the byproducts of the western media, and our western epistemology, and our religion. They are nurtured in our schools, and they grow like plants in the desert watered by the structures of violence perpetuated on our own men, women and children. And the tourists come and go and it is a bright, sunny day when one asks of himself: what is the purpose of my life? If the Maasai have their problems, the tourists have their own, and for every one problem the Maasai have there are the five problems dumped on them by conservation and tourism. The Maasai live by simplicity and tested wisdom and no little bit of vigilance and adaptation. They have few possessions—by Western standards, none – and that is something you cannot perhaps imagine, no matter how many times you have heard it said by John Lennon.
Such questions, and the big injustices, haunted me as we searched for the Maasai village of Ketumbaine.
Indeed, if there was a Ketumbaine, we later learned, there were three. The Maasai pointed us up the long sloping foothills of one mountain, a long and unrideable grade that sloped like a tongue out of the desert, and as the day grew late we suffered an unprecedented spate of flat tires. One after another, within 50 feet of each other, we could not be sure if they were new punctures or multiple punctures, and some of us swore and moaned and spat dust. We were uncertain about the direction, and I rode backwards to try to find the last herders I had seen: Jimmy and Maggie had not seen them however, and they argued that these herders had been there at all.
After a few loose gazelles and a long-necked gerenuk, I found several young Maasai and I approached and they ran away and hid. An older woman appeared out of the bush, laughing, and she soon pointed to an outcropping of rocks up the slope, and there on the long tongue of land was a boma with a Christain mission and a Maasai elder with a hut stocked with Coke and Fanta. There was, of course, a borehole.
We patched tires and pushed bikes and marvelled at the lasting pedal job, and we spent the night at this desert oasis – a crossroads where Maasai gather and celebrate and fulfill the dictates of Tanzanian government bureaucracy. Census takers and the like. There were no kudu. Not greater or lesser. As we penetrated deeper and deeper into the Maasailands we thrust deeper and deeper into ourselves for the strength and security to move forward. At some point we began to joke about the shifta – there was no evidence of armed robbers and none of the people we spoke to – those who lived in the places we traveled in – indicated that bandits would be a problem at all. That is not to say that they do not exist, just that we saw none.
The next morning again brought flat tires, and there is something demoralizing about riding twenty-five feet with a crowd of Maasai looking on and then having your tire blow flat. Humility is another of those virtues sewn within the human soul under such conditions of adversity and stark survival. But our water was good, and we had another round of Sprites while we repaired the tire, and a local Park Ranger passing through with a Land Rover shared his power pump and filled our imaginations with the threat of Eland over the next plateau. And that is how we set off to the hardest part of the journey.
There was no question of turning back now.
We traded for trinkets and gourds here and there, when we saw Maasai, but the Maasai seemed to thin out and disappear as the day wore on. We came to a borehole, and the water was plentiful, but we had just left the last site a few hours earlier and so we took the water for granted. It was, we thought at the end of the day, a borehole we could always return to. But it was far behind us by sunset and we were almost out of water. We carried a profound amount of water on our bikes, with numerous makeshift plastic jugs and standard bike bottles, but we were out of water.
Ketumbaine was the next stop on the road to Odoinyo Lengai, and it seemed likely we would be there by the end of the day. Ketumbaine never came. I can remember singing as we rode, and every so often one of us would complain about this or that little wound, or some animal streaking across the desert, and now and then a tumbleweed would blow out of the bush and startle you as it rolled into your field of vision.
The biking was a grinding slow job, maybe twenty kilometers a day, sometimes more, and usually far, far less, but it was slow and the land was cracked open in places and when it wasnÕt cracked open like a sore it was caked with dried mud, and sometimes it was just boulders and you had to weave around between and through the boulders, and your pedals would catch and the bike would throw you like a spooked horse. We climbed down steep ravines whose bottoms were invisible and then we climbed back out and the challenge came in trying to ride out as far as possible before your legs and then your breath and then your spirit succumbed and the loaded bike shifted—and sometimes you fell off. It was a new kind of exhaustion, and, like the sun, it was relentless.
It had been over eight months without rain, and then it was not the needed rain that had come, but only a teasing rain, and for the Maasai a teasing rain is death foretold. And so in the ravines and gulleys the walls boxed you in like a coffin, and you wondered at the force and violence of the river that would run there in a storm. For that is how the land bleeds, when the Serengeti clouds explode and the rain gathers like guinea hens under the acacia trees, and then the water runs as thick as wildebeest and as fast as cheetah and with the force and violence of rampaging elephants.
At some point it became clear that we were not going to find water. We had run dry long since. Earlier in the day we suffered another spate of flats that drove us under a lonely little bush for shade, but that was all there was, and we sat and patched and I think we were all ready to cry, and we watched our water disappear. When I was concerned about our situation, I kept it to myself, but I slowed down, and Maggie and Jimmy could see it. I could not ride as fast, or as long, without a break, and I laughed increasingly less, and if they asked if I was O.K. I would say yes, but I needed water.
As the days went on, Maggie had become less and less concerned, or at least she spoke less often about her concerns. For Jimmy it was the opposite. His pedal never did come off, and he had slowly transitioned – out of necessity and despair – to using it in full stroke and equillibrium with the other. (It was a marvel of engineering, and we never stopped talking about it, always holding our breath, and when Jimmy and Maggie sold the bikes back to a dealer in Arusha – almost three-fourths what they paid—they didnÕt tell him about the crank problem: it was simply no longer a problem.)
But Jimmy grew more and more concerned, and on this particluar day – and that is not to say that any one of us was less concerned – Jimmy grew tense and worriesome and complained often about the repercussions of not finding water soon. I remember that he spoke of his concern for Maggie, but I think he was speaking of himself, mirroring his own fear. He was not alone, but for this one day we let him do the worrying for all of us. We had no water to cook with, and as the sun settled below the horizon and the wild creatures woke up to the coming night, we all hoarded little sips of water for breakfast.
The mind behaves strangely under deprivation and stress.
Studies have shown that individuals concerned about the group or extended family will slowly shift into a ruthless selfishness under deprivation of food or water. Strategies of survival vary from person to person, and I have seen westerners crumble under the least imaginable threats. To go to sleep with severe thirst, after a day of sever labor, in a heat that is beyond severe, is a form of mental torture. Sleep does not come easily and when it does it is a fitfull, tenuous sleep punctuated by sudden waking frights. Every animals call echoed infinately that night, and I was certain that some creature stood outside my tent and wailed. I wished that I had a woman to hold and be held by, and I was silently pleased that Maggie and Jimmy had each other, and that they were there for me.
In the morning everything was worse. It was not just hot, it was an oven and we were caked with crust of dust and sweat and even with the lack of water the sweat kept coming. The track was clear – a double tire tread path of sand and small rocks—but it seemed to go nowhere. We conferred and reconferred often about the direction we should take, and we all knew we were lost, and Ketumbaine was a phantom place. This was the time, I think, where we all reached deep into ourselves for the strength to see it through.
We came to a boma and it was deserted. Not just empty, but the fences of thornbush the Maasai use to encircle and protect their bomas from the wild beasts were down in places, and it seemed clear that wind and time were the invaders. We looked in huts but there was no one. Later we heard voices far down the plain, and it was a long sloping plain and we were on a crest and so we headed off in that direction. We followed the voices on the wind until we found several young Maasai with their goats in a kind of forest. They ran away furiously as soon as they saw us.
After some time, Maggie approached them and coaxed them out of the bush, and an older girl told us how to go to find water, and then we found several old men and one of them walked in front of us to show us the way. He must have walked for about two miles, it seemed, and we pushed our bikes behind him, and it wasnÕt really a track anyway. It was hot. The Maasai elder was kind and generous and you could see it in the movements of his hands and the chicken feet around his eyes. And after some time he just stopped and pointed and smiled, and then he turned and began walking back from where he came. We continued on.
The desert had turned to pure sand.
Far ahead we could see the mountains, and this was the back side of the Ngorongoro crater, but we didnÕt know that yet. Hours later we came upon a few Maasai women herding their animals in the opposite direction, and their burros were loaded with large casks of water. We bought water from them, but they were greedy about it, and their prices were outrageous, and the two women fought needlessly amongst themselves. But we were thirsty beyond arguing or caring. These women wore their nastiness like a sheild, and a spear, and I wondered at the men and the women of their kind who had made them so nasty.
With several bottles full of water and a bad taste in our mouthes we continued on. Soon we found that the ground was wet, and there was a steady trickle of water flowing from somewhere into the desert. The trees had popped up here and there and the bushes were again thick, and it was like the long snake of an oasis and it became a green snake and we could see this long wet sliver of life far into the distance, and the farther you looked the wider the path of greenery. We had to mostly push our bikes here, and we were all exhausted, but sometimes we rode through the hard black soil made rich by the constant water. And the trickle of water became a small stream and then it became like the mouth of a small river and then we could here Maasai voices loud but far off, with all the sounds of their animals, and then suddenly we broke through the trees and there a few hundred yards ahead of us was a borehole and a trough and there were herds of animals drinking and there were Maasai all around.
From the top of the borehole there was a huge pipe sticking out and this gushed with water from a spout that made a crushing shower. I began laughing. There were Maasai warriors soaping their naked bodies and Maasai women washing furtively under the spout and by the time I parked my bike and half-ran over to the spout they had moved away and it was mine alone. I stood under the spout in my bike shorts drinking and laughing and shouting with the joy of cold, clean fresh groundwater. Maggie and Jimmy later did the same.
We camped here at this place, where the Maasai come and go for water, and in the morning we pushed through to the outer wall of the Ngorongoro cauldera, and we figured out where we were, and we sat in the shade of small buildings and drank cold sodas and traded with the Maasai and ate food sold by the Maasai to tourists.
We had looped around, and could close the loop by riding a few days back to Arusha. Jimmy wanted to still ride, and Maggie had had enough riding, and I was indifferrent, but mostly I agreed with Maggie, because it had stopped being fun, and I felt a kind of shame at being there on a bike in the middle of a famine. Ahead was some more brutal desert, and there were not a lot of Maasai there, and no bomas.
Later we negotiated a ride, and on a big truck we crossed miles of desert. We saw gazelle, and a few giraffe, and there were some extraordinary hills of giant cactus. That is how we came to the tourist outpost of Engaruka. From there it was a long days ride on pavement back to Arusha. The Maasai beseiged us all along the way for food and water. We picked up a few more souvenirs, like the ostrich eggs we keep, and for the next few weeks I shared life with Jimmy and Maggie—not in hardship, but in ease.
That is how we went to Amboseli, at the foot of Kilimandjaro.
But that is another story. And so we never saw the sacred mountain of the Maasai, Oldoinyo Lengai, and if the terrain we covered is any indication, and it is a good indication, then the trek to Lake Natron must be very hostile.
I want to go back to these places. They stick in my memory like the dust stuck to my skin. They haunt me. I think it is the hardship, all mixed up with the joy, and the simplicity of life, ever so complex, when it is a daily matter of life and death. And it is the refreshing exhuberance of life being lived – not for material goods or property or the distractions of affluence—but with the naked realities of neccessity and survival. You are never disconnected from the collective consciousness when you are in the Maasailands, not if you are really there, and not just going through the motions in the disconnect and privilege of the western safari, and that is where wisdom can be gained. And there is no propaganda there, except what we have brought, and the absence of propaganda is liberating.
I want to go back there in the rainy season. I want to see that parched land explode with life. I want to breathe again the rich aroma of the Maasai moving on a wind alive with the bleating of goats and the bellowing of cattle and the laughter of the children. I want to see again the smiles of those children, and hand out money, so much money, that the Maasai punish—for their penury—every tourist who comes after me, until the tourists grow and learn and awaken.
That is consciousness.
And I want to learn from the Maasai, and teach them, and bring back to my people a selection of the best structures of peace and dignity that make the Maasai such a rich people. I want to carry their humanity back to western civilization, and dismantle the gods of technology, and money, and recivilize my freinds and my family and my self.
Maybe then we can find a common place for discussion, and truth, and peace, and together discover what is sacred and what is just a lie.
The quest for the sacred mountain, I have learned, lies with me. It is a quest for truth within. It is about the search for my own humanity, and the courage to care, always, and for every one, human or animal. It is about compassion, and it is about taking action on that compassion. Every one is me, and I am they, and the sacred mountain lies with in my self, waiting for me to find it, to tap into it, to unleash that maelstrom of hope and wisdom -- and the strength to be what I believe and sew a loving change like seeds all over the land, even in the face of chaos at its worst – and chaos at itÕs worst is war and war, I have come to see, is meaningless. It is not about truth. It is not about justice. It is not about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is not about democracy. It is about profits.
Violence begets violence. Terrorism begets terrorism. Love begets love.
These forces of love lurk and hibernate and run in my guts and my bones and my soul. They are forever struggling with the forces of evil, and with the demons of fear, and with the indifference, and with the denial, that can grow like cancer within each of us. That is the human condition, and it is a Faustian bargain in which we each have a choice.
So this story is not really a story at all.
It is a prayer—for my friends Jimmy and Maggie, for their families, and for their friends, and for everyone Jimmy and Maggie in their togetherness and love touch in their lives in being who they are. It is a blessing and a wish for long life. It is a testament to hope, to peace, to a deep and lasting friendship. It was, in the beginning, about dolphins. It is, in the end, about love.