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Sunday, July 27, 2014

African Dreams

I recently returned from the trip of a lifetime: a two-week African safari in Kenya and Tanzania. It was the most amazing trip I've ever taken.

On our first day in Nairobi, we visited a center for young elephant orphans, many of them left orphaned when their mothers were slaughtered for their ivory. I 'adopted' a young bull elephant named Bomani. We also visited the Nairobi giraffe center, home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes.

We also visited the Nairobi giraffe center, home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes. A couple of the giraffes would 'kiss' people holding a food pellet in their lips, gently using their long tongues to grab the pellets.

Every day was filled with exciting new experiences. Even days when we didn't spot any new species of mammal were filled with new things. One day we watched wildebeest gathering for their annual migration. Another day we watched zebra line up for their migration. We saw mother zebras with their youngsters, whose stripes are brown until later in life.
We watched a pride of lions circle a lone buffalo that seemed intent on becoming the lions' breakfast. Another time we watched in awe as a lioness studied a group of zebras walking toward a watering hold, then suddenly charge into their midst in a cloud of dust. A huge bull elephant grazed peacefully just a few yards from our vehicle during an early morning game drive, seemingly oblivious to our presence. We saw a giraffe bend down awkwardly to drink from a pool of water.

The diversity of wildlife, both mammals and birds, was astounding.

And on the last game drive of our last day, our guide spotted a family of five cheetahs heading out for their late-day hunt. There was a mother cheetah and four 10-month-old cubs. That all the cubs had survived to that point was a miracle. Typically only one in four cheetah cubs survives.

Like many Americans, I suspect, I never paid too much attention to stories coming out of Africa. This trip has opened my eyes to a whole new, very large continent with a wide diversity of peoples, cultures, languages and customs. I was struck by the genuine friendliness and helpfulness of the people of Kenya and Tanzania. Children along the roads as we passed by would smile and wave at us. Other children we encountered while stopped at a gas station or while visiting a Kenyan elementary school seemed very curious about people with white skin. I greatly enjoyed learning about, and from, some of the local people from a variety of tribes and backgrounds. During a nature walk with one local man, I learned that he lacked formal education because his family moved around with their herds of animals, but his knowledge of the world around him was most impressive.

Maasai man in lion skin headdress.

Member of Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.
Maasai children

Maasai medicine man (left).

Samburu man.

We visited a rural school in Sweetwaters, Kenya. Despite the poverty of the area and the complete lack of typical school supplies and equipment, the children all seemed happy and eager to learn. Some of the classrooms had dirt floors. There was no electricity in the room, no running water and no computers, microscopes, whiteboards or any of the other things typically found in American schools. Due to a severe shortage of textbooks, as many as five students shared a single book. This meant that the children were unable to take books home with them to study or practice their lessons. Many of the children walked up to 3 miles to school each morning and another 3 miles home after school. They had to be at school by 7 AM to do various chores at school. They brought their lunch from home -- typically a container of rice -- and that was the only food they got during the day. There is no lunch room or cafeteria, so they found a spot outside in the dirt to eat lunch.
If the school's garden did well, they would be provided with vegetables to supplement their rice. All students wear uniforms paid for by their parents. In poor families, especially those with multiple children in school, this is a real hardship. Children start to learn English in first grade, along with Swahili and typical academic subjects. When they reach eighth grade, they take a standardized exam that will determine whether they are allowed to pursue higher education. Students in lower grades also must take and pass standardized exams.

Teachers in the US are always complaining about having to teach large classes. Imagine being an eighth grade teacher at the Sweetwaters School and having 52 eighth-graders in your class.  Imagine trying to teach these eager learners with nothing but an old blackboard and a couple of small pieces of chalk.

Despite the obvious poverty, this was an amazing school. The teachers were enthusiastic, the children were happy, involved and wanted to learn. I didn't see any of the boredom and blank stares so prevalent in American public schools.

On many levels, this truly was an amazing trip. I'm so grateful that I had  the opportunity to spend even a couple of weeks in Africa, and I dream of returning to experience even more of this fascinating part of the world.