In Swahili it means travel. It is also used as first name. It has to be beautiful to to be named “journey”.
The weekend off, after a week spent in the nursery school: we can choose between the golden beach of Malindi or the safari. The idea of a beach with golden sand is intriguing, but this is my first time in Africa, the first time in Kenya, and who knows when it will happen again. Safari, there is no discussion. A trip. Just the fact that the word has this meaning, for me, it’s enough to make up my mind.
“Now, get ready, you will see the real Africa. Fire Eater is our interpreter, and our contact to get us a good price for the trip. His real name is not known, he calls himself that way because once he traveled around Africa as a juggler, acrobat and, precisely, fire-eater. Now I know that he is one of the many beach boys who spend their days at the beach looking for business, jobs, and adventurous tourist ladies. He speaks an excellent Italian. He and Bianca already knew each other, she had been here on holiday last year and they became friends. He says he went to a sorcerer and asked him for a voodoo ritual to make her return to Kenya. Bianca, unaware, finally returned, this time as a volunteer, and they found themselves by chance, walking on the shore of Watamu a week ago. It seems that the sorcerer knew what he was doing.
A van with nine seats and 120 kilometers of dirt road. I’ve been sleeping very little for a week, and I’m taking antibiotics for sore throats, but I don’t close my eyes for a minute, I don’t want to lose anything. Red soil, so red, I didn’t think it existed.
“Here people have to walk up to 15 kilometers a day to get water from the wells,” explains Fire Eater. Even children. And this is an old story, everyone knows it already. The “real Africa” has been seen by everyone, in the photos, in the documentaries, in the advertisements of NGOs and associations. Everyone knows that a big part of Africa is still dying of thirst, but seeing it here, with my own eyes, it’s not the same. Commonplace, banality, but it is so. The “real Africa” arrives without filters, this way, direct, it slaps you in the face, and if all the skirmishes work great from afar, here it’s different. You’re just disarmed, and that’s it.
The very warm red of the dirt road and the yellow and burnt scrub that extends to the horizon, endless. The road proceeds without the slightest hint of curve, just a few ups and downs. And these intermittent silhouettes, dusty and very slow, along the way, pressed by the tanks full of water, which lean in balance on the head. While in every village you find, there is a beautiful kiosk of Coca-Cola, with a glittering inscription “One billion reasons to believe in Africa”. But that’s another story.
We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, where in a huge warehouse are crammed thousands of souvenirs, vases, canvases, figurines, musical instruments, bags, sandals, jewelry, “today discount”, they tell us. In the bathrooms the writings are in English and Italian. One of the shopkeepers starts chatting with the group while we smoke a cigarette, and he wants to buy one of my bracelets. If I wasn’t so fond of it, I’d leave it with them.
Finally you can see the two rhinoceroses, the metal shapes on the entrance gate of Tsavo Est. In more than 21,000 km² there are only two rhinos left, and they are not easy for man to see.
The tended field is a blast. In a tent like this I could live for years: the shower, the toilets, the veranda, two soft beds, scented sheets, mosquito net. They warn us to always close the lock, because the baboons enter and steal everything. Already five or six wander around curious, they are used to man, as if they were cats. There are no fences here, we are in the middle of the savannah, and tonight only a tent will part us from the outside.
The guide is ready. A squat little man with a sly smile and his eyes ajar, he is silent, he is not very promising. But, as soon as he begins to explain the history of the park, to tell us about every species we’ll meet, to see in the distance the animals to chase and approach, we understand that we couldn’t have better guide. Through a radio communicates with the other jeeps to keep up to date with the sightings.
They tell us that we need to be very lucky to meet the lions, but after less than an hour, a lioness is lying on the side of the road, under a low hedge. It’s huge, majestic. Nonchalant, she stares at us, as if she thought “what are these looking at?”. It’s yawning. Amazement. Let’s leave before she can get upset.
Zebras are small and very sweet. They cross the road slowly and we have to wait for them to get tired of looking at us, to continue.
I can see a crocodile while we are on the ground, just over a meter away. Thinking that it can swallow animals much bigger than me tells me that I should move away.
The giraffes’ heads overlook the trees, they’re funny and they ruminate all day long.
The size of each species is the first thing that strikes me. In my imagination it was something else. Seeing it with my own eyes, without filters, it’s completely different. I can’t fully comprehend it: in less than twelve hours I saw most of the African species, all there, one after the other, one landscape after another, crossing grassy plains, dense forests, burnt steppes, rivers in flood, hills and mountains.
The sky is now beginning to blush, the shadows are stretching on the dry grass that sways in the wind of the sunset.
Dots on the horizon. Silence. A herd of elephants approaching a pool of water. One after the other, in an Indian line, perfect order, hierarchies that I can’t grasp. As soon as they stand out more closely, there appears a gray bundle, hidden between the huge, wrinkled legs: a puppy. Clinging to a tail, it proceeds learning to walk, just opening its eyes, seeing colors that are as new to it as they are to me. All of them in a circle, as if unaware of our presence, begin to drink at the pool, to wash up, to play. Maybe we are too close. With phlegm and slowness, but in a moment the oldest elephant is one meter away from us. You can look her right in the eyes. A trumpet. And away, the jeep leaves again. Laws of the savannah. Maternal protection. Unrepeatable moment, yet eternal. A shiver.
At the camp we have dinner, Swahili lessons with Fire Eater, and a bonfire around which to sit and listen to the stories told by the masai, who at night watch over the tents, very tall, in red clothes, armed with spears.
Tonight, however, no stories: there are checks underway in all the tented camps, government officials decide that the lights will go out later than usual, and take over all the good places around the fire. Tomorrow we have to wake up at dawn, and we are all too tired to wait to see the starry sky of the savannah. Disappointment.
At four o’clock I wake up to go to the bathroom. I’m about to go back to bed, but from a window I can see, through the net, a small triangle of sky. I can’t resist, I roll a cigarette and decide to go out. The darkness is total, liquid, it swallows everything. Not even a breeze, but every now and then I hear the rustle of the grass. I remain paralyzed in front of the tent: it could be a monkey, but also an elephant, even a lion. Or just the wind. I don’t know. It could smell my fear or see the spark of the lighter. It might be hungry. But I finally raise my eyes to the sky. All the muscles stretched and the hearing sharpened in silence. I get lost. This sky takes my breath away, a shower of stars that seems to start falling on me. The constellations cannot be distinguished. If I could count them now, I could bet that this is the sum of all the stars I’ve seen since I was born. The time to finish the cigarette, and I’ve already seen five of them falling.
Strange noise on my right. The heart now bursts. The tent neighbor turns on the light: it was him.
The next day I tell Fire Eater how beautiful the night sky is in the savannah: eyes wide open, he shouts: “You are crazy! It’s very dangerous”. And judging by the size of the excrement around the tents, it’s not just baboons that have to wander around at night.
I took a big risk, but it had to be done, I had no choice. I had to see a show like this with my own eyes and take it inside of me. Until next time, at least.