Feeding Vanessa the Kudu breakfast


One of the tribe

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I’ve heard for years and years and years about the crossing, and it had taken on for me epic, if not biblical, proportions. Not that I was counting near misses or close calls; those have always been plentiful in my life, but it was true that I’d narrowly escaped catching the migration of wildebeest across a river during the three times I’ve visited the Mara this past season.

Now at Kicheche Bush Camp, a luxury base of six tents nestled in the spare and stark landscape of a whistling thorn forest, we’ve come to visit for several days at the end of the migration season. The Mara, after plentiful rains, was still green, just beginning to turn gold. And while my friends from Alaska, dear friends with big eyes and open hearts and minds like fresh Greek sponges, weren’t prepared for all the wonder they would experience, I was waiting for something to happen. Something I’d never seen before. Cheetah with six cubs on a termite mound nestled underneath an acacia tree; three lion brothers playing bachelor out in the middle of the grasslands; giraffes necking and posing; a hyena chasing three eland and their calves across the horizon at a speed that defies logic. All breathtaking, all splendid, and still, I held back.

Yes, there was enough game to make the most jaded of safari camp travelers sit up and take pause. But it wasn’t until our third day out, way deep into the Mara wilderness, that I woke up.

We hit the Mara River at about noon that Saturday and already a few Land Rovers had gathered – just as hundreds of wildebeest and zebra and antelope had also arrived at the mouth of the river. And the river was as I’d never seen it before – filled with wildebeest carcasses, vultures riding them in the water, taking their pounds of flesh or standing still as storks on the torn backside haunches wedged against log limbs. Hippo snored and bellowed to one another in dark pools. Crocodile, fat and hapless from the thousands of animals who’d already tried to cross and were eaten by them, stretched lazily on the banks, making not a move. They slipped into the water as certain as death might sink, like a stone.

Then it happened, or looked as if it would happen. Two zebra, who’d been dancing along the opposite bank, began bleating and honking to their mates across the river. And they plunged, swimming like all get out, their hooves punishing the water, their legs pushing them through an evil-looking current, the foam cresting and swallowing. The crocodile didn’t budge, but we began to hoot and cheer them on. My three-year-old son Tiger shouted: “Go on, zebwas!” And they made it.

For the next hour and a half, there were several half starts for the hundreds of plains animals loitering with intent. The zebras kept calling across the water to one another, shore to shore; the wildebeest snorted and stamped their feet. An eland, large as a small truck, would tiptoe down the riverbank, stretch its head out over the water and sniff the air, and they appear to flip backwards out of harm’s way. But not one of these substantive creatures was ready to get their feet wet.

Suddenly the herds began shifting and moving along side of us, behind our trucks, to another steeper mouth into the river with stone banks on the opposite side that looked impassable. Four zebra pulled a faint, storming down to the shoreline and at the very last minute, they nearly fell over backwards, listing to the right up a small hippo shute trail back onto the precipice.

I blinked. Tiger sighed, and in that moment of release, my friends from Alaska shouted: “They’re going!” We shipped the Land Rover around and barreled towards the launch pad. I saw one, two, three, then five wildebeest leap, the ultimate leap of faith, into the mighty river as if they were some descendant of Pegasus, flying and landing with a whoosh. And then doing everything in their power to stay upright, afloat, gamely hoofing it towards the sheer cliff they would have to climb in any moment. The zebra not so much followed behind as held their own above the line of wildebeest, now several hundred strong, protected like a shield from any crocodiles who might still be nursing a thirst, or any hungry lions hiding in the thorny underbrush on the opposite shore.

The whole brigade took about seven minutes to make it to safety, or at least, closer to their destination in the Serengetti. Still, there were hundreds more plains animals still lagging behind on the original side of the crossing when one baby wildebeest, not to be left behind, leapt into the raging waters. We all started panting almost at once, Oh, let him make it. C’mon little fella. Fight harder. Go that way! Watch out! He narrowly missed being clobbered by an adult carcass rushing downriver which finally swirled, butt end first, into a pool that gave him footing to climb after his herdmates.

That was my thrill for the trip, my good ride, my talisman.

Then at lunch, the river crossing continued. One of the conservancy’s managers, a distant relative of mine from Ireland, brought his wife over to meet us and talked about how zebra were smarter and shiftier when it came to migration. “They double up with the wildebeest because they know when to go but not where to go, while the zebras know where to go but not when.” Are you sure it’s not the other way around? I asked. “No, the zebras definitely have the edge,” continued Robert. “They often head for the water at breakneck speed as if they’re going to be the first brave mates to cross over, but then slip to the side at the very last moment. By then, the wildebeest are saying to themselves, ‘They’re ready! We’re going!’ And onward they plunge whether it’s safe or not.”

What I saw that afternoon was pure animal, leaping as people do with only faith in their hearts. A metaphor for what I’ve not been doing enough of since I moved to East Africa a year ago.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

THE RED RIBBON -- Evening 1

May the road rise up to meet you, the Irish say, and here in Tsavo West, it does, even as it runs away from you, up and up and up into the sky so that you feel the earth must end when the road does. Which is never. A red ribbon. At its very tip, a point or a dot as it appears to be, slips right into the horizon and you feel as if you’ve lost your way.

In my year of living here in East Africa, there’s been nothing like being out in the bush, being soaked and dipped and dyed by the wild and free, feeling the wind and the wilderness all around you. A savage and sultry sanctuary, it’s as close to heaven as I’ve ever been. You are swallowed alive by it.

And so the road pulls us along, N and I with our kids nestled in the back seat – the lovely Luisa, her friend Milly (who already appears to have caught some form of childhood distemper), and my Tiger. A rush crosses the trail, I miss it, but N has just caught sight of a leopard. “I haven’t seen one in 20 years!” she shouts. “Now this is an auspicious beginning.” We are to have many of them during our four-day visit to Ndolwa House, smack dab in the stark plainsland, gray and silver and red and orange, just outside of Tsavo West National Park.

“Hello, handsome, do you want a lift?” I query as we drive up to the lodge at sunset, just as MR steps out of the fast-drawing shadows to greet us.

“I’ll give you the ride of your life, you creature, you,” he pounces. Nothing like turning a girl on her head from the very first moment you’re introduced to her.

And so I meet the Professor or Professor Nugu Nutscratcher as he likes to call himself (we’re still trying to figure that one out). As N as shared with us earlier on in the journey, this long-legged bushman is a wizard of wonders, a miracle with children, and wild to the core with more adventures under his belt than a whole tribe of Maasai. And there he stands, as Irish or Irish as he may or may not be, but certainly, he’s got the look of it. Rugged and ruddy with a randy glint in his soft brown eyes.

I get the picture as the Professor sweeps our dusty party of eight up into Ndolwa House, a marvelous and homey wood and stone lounge, complete with dining area, a cosy sitting room, bar and the biggest fireplace I’ve ever seen (four men could play poker inside of it).

The night sallies forth with ease after our nine-hour drive. In five minutes flat we are plushed out and blissed out, sitting on deep white pillows that rest on the Professor’s horse-shoe circle of stone benches around a massive campfire, Tuskers in hand. And it turns out that our galpal M has seen leopard on the way in too.

“A leopard with a kill! Half a dik dik. Kyle spotted it in a riverbed, and once it saw us, the leopard pulled his supper into the brush, but we could still see him.”

“Wey,” says the Professor, “in a luger (riverbed), you say? I know that leopard. Oh, yeah. He lives right in there. I’ll show you pictures tomorrow and point him out. You can tell by the rosettes (spotting) which one is which.”

And then our fearless leader begins to spin a yarn about perhaps the most dangerous of all animals in Africa, the Cape buffalo. In this case, a big old brigadier bull who’d attacked and maimed eight trackers in one go, leaving the rifleman standing aghast. And so the Professor is on a hunt that leads him to another riverbed deep in the Mara with two guides and himself, and they’ve been tracking the bloody beast for near a day now and they know it’s winded but feeling safe, they believe it’s hiding behind a huge boulder, and they whisper and use hand signals to figure out exactly where the buffalo is, an angry old man who would kill them on sight. Then they hear a whoosh, a soft blur of sound in the evening light, and it is the old brigadier standing up in the sandy riverbed. And before they can barely even raise their guns, he’s come round the corner straight for them. The Professor’s friend is behind him and takes off for the hills; the tracker has tossed his gun aside and thrown himself at the feet of the Professor with his hands over his head. And our bushman has one shot to take and it’s a bull’s eye.

Here we are at Ndolwa House, not a light in sight, not an animal sound to be heard, unaware of any eyes peering at us through the dark, and we’re as entranced as our children around a fire that spits and crackles into the night as the Professor befriends us all.

Friday, October 22, 2010


One of the great revelations of parenthood is the alacrity and clarity with which your child begins to reveal him/herself through speech. Talking up a storm. Dialogue-ing with imaginary friends. Chattering as they beam up at you. And even if you don’t know quite what he or she may be saying, you beam too. The words may not come in clear as a bell, but the comical twist or inventiveness certainly does.

Tiger’s vocabulary seems to have taken off in a flash: Crocodawa for crocodile (added zing as dawa means medicine in Swahili); heliclopler for helicopter; panket for pancake; bouton for bottom; hippohohoh for hippopotamus; and chochit for chocolate. Not to mention endearing sentences and their executions: “I wanna wash my balls” (his one for soccer, ahem); “I make cutting with this spoon”; “I no want that juices”; “I need a chewing gums”; “I no want to do that”; and “I wanna brush my hairs.” Mixed in with a bit of Swahili: “I wanna lala (sleep) on your arm, just one minute” and “I need dawa, Mama, where’s my dawa!”

And then what comes your way, what’s shouted your way, is a sweet nothing which is truly a sweet something. This morning I was heading out to Que Pasa, a restaurant at the Karen dukas that’s my writing place of choice, and Tiger was bouncing high as a kangaroo on the neighbor’s trampoline. “Where are you going, Mama? Where are you going?” my three-year-old asks lustily. “Come, come, I need a hug. I want a hug, Mama.” “Big and tight. Bigger,” I ask him as Tiger leaps in a bounce into my arms. He pats my back, bouncing away with, “Thanks, Mama. See you later.”

Only three years old and he comes in loud and clear. That’s not just a conversation; it’s a song to make your heart sing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


It’s a name that settles on the lips like a kiss, or some kind of prayer, or a simple mantra that steadies the mind and eases the heart. Lamu. A whisper that belies the glamour meshed with the grittiness that is the island’s soul. And her birthright.

Old Town has been UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001. Exporting an exotic mix of ivory, mangrove, tortoisehell and spices, along with thousands of unfortunate African slaves, Arab settlers established a booming trading post here as early as the 14th century. Even today, the feeling of trade winds brushing your brow and an island ideal of a classic trade route are alive and well.

“A man without a donkey, is a donkey,” goes the Swahili proverb. True to form, donkeys weave like drunkards through the pencil-thin alleyways carrying basket loads of water, petrol, foodstuffs, sand and bricks. They collide with prehistoric wooden carts which hog the narrow streets, making passage nearly impossible, a pretzel twist of limbs. Rough burlap is tossed across donkey backs where they are ridden on the beachfront; they hurtle forward in a line or pack, egged on by the sticks of their riders. These donkeys – beige, grey, fudge brown with black, prisoner-like stripes wrapping around their ankles -- all offer up the same expression for owners and visitors alike: mournful. Mourning as if they’ve lost their way and will never find home. Their futile call to the wild is more of a honk than a bray, a kind of wailing that makes me believe that when the muzzein calls this Muslim world to prayer, it is really the braying of the muzzein and the calling of the donkeys.

Exquisite and elaborately-carved wooden doors to hidden homes keep the outside swell of Lamu days and nights at bay. Men push solemnly through the streets in full-length white robes called khanzus and kofia caps. Women, tucked away in the columnar secrets of their black burquas or purdah, flash their dark brown eyes, stepping assuredly through the press of the footpaths. Nervous tourists wade like buoys in a storm. An entire school of children spills forward.

Here, there are no roads. A neighbor tells me that there is one police car (who would it chase and where?), but I see two vehicles, a dusty red tractor and a sea-bitten ambulance full of slight young men smoking. Throngs of cats – beach cats! – haunt the port in search of fishermen’s bounty. They lurk in the doorways of shops like guard dogs, licking their paws and chewing their tails.

I’ve never stayed in Lamu proper before, only out around the bend about a 10-minute speed-boat ride away at Shela. Its 12-kilometer beach is one of the most celebrated in the world -- creamy sand, tawny dunes, camels trailing along its endlessness. The Peponi Hotel there has been hailed as one of the 10,000 Places to See Before You Die and I believe it. The hotel practically spills into the water, a causeway in the Indian Ocean between Manda and Lamu islands. The white terraced rooms overlook smidges of green, aching lawns and majestic palms; their Old Pals, a signature drink, are the mainstay of any happy hour; and the clientele ranges from the ultra famous (Princess Caroline lives two doors down) and the infamous (a widow alleged to have had her husband killed several years ago), to lively local color (assorted beach boys looking for handouts from lonely European ladies and Clementine, the head of a turtle sanctuary on one of the outer islands).

Barbara, a designer friend of mine who is as feisty as she is fine of heart, is our impetus. Along with her three kids under six, she has whisked Tiger and me away from Nairobi for a few days’ escape. She and her husband have a gorgeous, old-style Swahili townhouse complete with coral walls, limestone, wooden accents from old dhows, a plunge pool and rooftop terrace. In short, a tall slice of heaven. And it feels like just the right place for spending time in town.

On a fine yet misty day, we share stories about being Irish; she is a Belfast girl whereas my family is from Tipperary. “We could be in Ireland now,” Barbara confides, gesturing to the moody skies, her eyes flashing as green as the countryside from which we both hail. “You look this way and it’s Ireland on a bad day, or the other way, on a good day.” And she is so right as the peninsulas of the Lamu archipelago jut into the sea, clouds low, rain thundering on our hatless heads, sun brewing. The kids squeal and splash in the emerald sea, oblivious as only children can be.

We do all the things you’re supposed to do at the beach, especially in Lamu. Visit the old fort where bats hang from the ceiling in the middle of the day. Take pictures of our children sprawled across canons along the beachfront. We savor flavors of all kinds; Mohammed, the cook, makes us ginger and garlic crab that’s silky-smooth on the tongue. We sip Old Pals at Peponi after a long, blazing day on Diamond Beach. Eat too much pizza, drink too much wine, laugh too much over silly old Disney cartoons that the kids can’t get enough of (“Laaaambert, the sheepish lion, Laaaambert, he’s always trying…”, a ditty concocted for a cub who’s accidentally dropped into a herd of sheep by a stork and strives to become one of them). Out at the rock pools – charcoal-black, unforgiving volcanic formations from the ancient past – we watch small, slick, oily-looking crabs skitter and scoot across their terrain, impossible to capture as they slide in a blink into their hidey-holes.

We hang out at a coolly elegant boutique hotel next to one of the old stone jettys, run by an effortlessly warm-hearted couple from Belgium. The husband is a chef of note whose jumbo prawns (the size of small lobsters), sauteed in olive oil and garlic, is one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted. The side order of Belgian twice-fried chips served with aioli stops my heart. Twice.

Lamu nights are my favorite nights I’ve had for a long, long time. The swell of Swahili song and Arabic voices and exotic music ping pong along the rooftops; televisions sizzle. Two blocks away, the boats signal their to and fro; the cats cradling in doorways call excitedly to their neighbors; breezes tussle long hair and canopies and mosquito netting. Goats bleat and the donkeys hoof it through town. Our children sleep like the dead, while Barbara and I are alive with something only the night can bring, darkness and enlightening.

My last evening, I am on my own and decide to stop at Peponi for one final Old Pal. Ndegwe, Barbara’s houseman, has taken the children home for supper and a bath after a brief beach outing; the tide had come in and there was little room to sit unless we climbed the dunes. Across from me, a backpacker sits down, orders a Dawa, and asks my name. He is so impossibly young and smiling, with tufty blonde hair, dark teepee-shaped brows, and an excitable manner. A photographer who’s been shooting stills for different camps around Kenya, he plans to go to law school in a year. Why? It’s the family business. I want to go take care of what my family has built. Why? Why don’t you tell me about that drink you’re having? We conclude it’s vodka, lime juice and grenadine with a soda water topper, but we can’t be sure of Peponi’s secret recipe.

He’s eager and enthusiastic about taking a dhow back to Lamu town where he’s also staying, so we hop into the one that’s come back for me. I find him to be serious, funny, unguarded and think, how refreshing and surprising the night can be. At one point, he tries to sit down next to me on the boat and we nearly tip over. “But you have the best view!” he exclaims. And he is right. For lights are spilling from the terraces along the whole way station as we go, boats lit as well with fires and torches, and Venus hangs in the sky like a crystal eye. The evening star, my companion points out.

And still, despite the music and the glow of the Lamu nights, my favorite memory comes from yesterday afternoon. Our children, mine and Barbara’s, taking in the reach of the beach like so many starfish, their arms striving to capture air and water, tide and time as they run from the surge of surf pulled like taffy between sun and moon. My son Tiger runs across the shallow waters towards a rock pool, running naked across the shifting sands of Manda Island as if his happiness depended on it, running butt naked save for his electric lime green Crocs that splash and splash in a rhythm that belongs to Lamu at large.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


There once was a piggy named Ziggy...and one of Tiger's favorite pets in the whole wide world. For when Ziggy was the youngest of piggys, the two-and-a-half-year old used to visit him often in his huge, five-acre garden off of Windy Ridge Lane. But that's when Ziggy was a little piggy. And now he's the size of a baby elephant and likes to head butt little boys from Kazakhstan. Enough of that piggy! For now.

Ziggy's human parents, Frankie and Donny, are away for several weeks with their three children, so it’s their landlord Roger who gets the call. Someone at the dukas (shops) in Karen has rung him and is in a desperate state. “Those dogs, those big dogs of Donny’s got out and the pig is with them and they’re holding up traffic!” Suddenly, a spate of calls follows as more and more people in the neighborhood spot the foursome (three dogs, one Ziggy) tumbling around the parking lot. Indeed, when Roger rushes to his Land Rover – his wife takes the Golf – a small crowd has gathered at the gate to their home. How in the world, he wonders, how in the world do they know already?

He and Lilly zip down in their separate cars to fetch the interlopers and it is truly a scene at the dukas. Ziggy’s zig-zagging after Brutus, Charlie and Tulula as if they are his spirit guides in the great unknown; shoppers are squeaking and yelping; and other drivers are yelling at the security guards to open the gates to the lot, the only thing which is keeping the pets from becoming roadkill on the crossroads.

The dogs welcome Lilly with thumping tails and lolling tongues, but as they hop into the back of her Golf, Ziggy has a fit. He’s having none of it; he won’t go ANYWHERE without them, his brothers in deed and misdeed. Much squealing ensues. Roger and his friend Patrick have a devil of a time loading the porcine giant (who won’t stop grunting, coughing and screeching menacingly the whole time) into the Land Cruiser. It is a sweaty, arduous affair for all three, and Ziggy, as leader of the pack, is bereft at losing his three stooges. He’s a dog after all, why isn’t he traveling with the other dogs?!

Roger is distraught over the whole damn thing, what an undertaking, what a zoo. Meanwhile, the squealing continues at a high, feverish pitch in the back of his car. He turns to Ziggy and says, as kindly as he can,” If you don’t stop that now, I’m taking you to the butcher.” And off they go.


My friend Casey James – she of the reddish-brown, curly long hair cut hippie-style; pert freckled face; and warm, toffee-colored eyes – is as straight a shooter as they come. Direct manner, honest humor, lively and encompassing personality, no frills, no fuss. Nothing delicate about Casey, but she’s very feminine as well, wearing flowered skirts and see-through, nip-and-tuck blouses that accent her slim frame.

And somebody – she’s not sure who – has killed her euphorbia. Baby euphorbia. But instead of being on a rampage, she’s laughing as she tells me what happened over the weekend.

“We were away, just Mick and me, at the coast for three days and couldn’t wait to get home to the girls. As we come up the gravel drive, I’m looking and looking and thinking, ‘What’s wrong?’ Something’s off. Have we been robbed?!’”

Indeed they had been. A party unbeknownst to her and her husband had raided the euphorbia bed in their side garden. Beautiful, candelabra succulents they’d been growing for several years to plant around the new house they are building up near the Ngong Hills.

“Baby candelabras I’d raised from pea shoots BY HAND,” Casey pronounces. “And I was SO proud of them, coming along as they did, looking SO beautiful. But the worst offense? WHOEVER STOLE THEM OR KILLED THEM OR ATE THEM (“Are they edible?” I interject, “I think they could be poisonous”, but she laughs right over me) planted CORN instead. MAIZE,” she’s spluttering and we both guffaw simultaneously.

“Can you imagine? If I’d wanted CORN stalks to adorn my new garden, I would have planted them. Hundreds of them. Not just some PATCH. And what did they do with my babies??!!”

“So Mick and I are standing looking at the CORN, completely flummoxed, and I turn to him and say, ‘Why? Why, why, why?"

Only in Kenya.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


This morning, Tiger and I are driving down one of the most rutted byways in Karen to Stepping Stones, his little school off Langata Road. I spot a monkey crossing over to perch on a stone fence, banana in hand, and get as excited as my son about seeing him. “Taidghie (diminutive for his Irish name, Taidgh), look, there’s a monkey!” “Monkey, monkey, my monkey. And he has a ‘nana!” my son squeals.

I stop the car so we can watch him. Oh yes, our Vervet is slowly peeling his breakfast and acting as if he has not a care in the world. This sort of monkey, with his miniature black gorilla face, white face fringe and grizzled grey body, is infamous for bright blue balls which flash iridescently in and out of the sun. But except for his banana, Mr. Vervet is keeping his treasures to himself this morning.

(My first encounter with Vervets was many, many years ago at Intrepids safari camp in Samburu. We were warned to hide our cosmetics and precious items from them. For these monkeys are particularly fond of stealing lipsticks – whether Chanel or Penney's -- and coloring their faces in brazen reds, peaches and hot pinks.)

As we carry on to Stepping Stones, I take further notice of a place Tiger and I’ve not yet visited: Mamba Village. While I find it startling that a theme park for man-eating crocodiles is situated next to a pre-school, I’m fascinated by Mamba’s offerings. It dawns on me that this is the place my talented fashionista/clothes designer, Barbara, a Northern Irish girl with a wise and wicked tongue, had suggested we bring the boys last Sunday.

“You go about four in the afternoon and, ach, they put on quite a show. The wee ones go crazy for it. The keepers bonk the sleeping crocs on their heads and yell, ‘Wake up!’” We are giggling already; Barb licks her lips. “Then they bring out these MINGIN’ (Irish slang for ungodly, dirty, irredeemable) chickens, must have been lying around for years, true carcasses and, ach, they toss them to these lazy beasts who suddenly go into a frenzy. And that,” she adds, “is Charlie’s favorite part.”

Boys will be boys, and I’ve no doubt that Tiger will join his two-and-a-half-year-old buddy Charlie in rejoicing over the chicken feed. But there’s more to Mamba than meets my drive-by eye. “Oh,” continues Barb on Sunday afternoon, “they’ve got these rides from like the 1920s that you wouldn’t, ach, put your dog on! Talk about health and safety, none of them really works and they’re blast-out dangerous. There’s an old wooden car without a motor, or maybe it’s broken, and this old fella pushes it around with your kid inside without looking where he’s going!”

Wherever that old fella is going, we’re still going, and I’ll let you know soon about our own Mamba episode.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Joseph and I drive up and down the dusty boardwalk that is Mbirikani, an ugly village for anyone with a Western mindset, but curiously colorful and compelling at the same time.

We stop for lunch at what amounts to a tea room. Sides of beef hang unrefrigerated in the front window; several mzee slouch watchfully in plastic chairs at uneven wooden tables (in fact, there only seem to be old men haunting the place); a makeshift kitchen in the back, really an open room next to laundry hanging on the line, serves only chai and chapatti, our lunch.

In Ireland, where I lived for the past six years, this shabby hideaway would constitute (in more posh terms) the pub scene sans pints of Guinness and smoky whiskeys, rugby cheer, leather booths and smokers lingering wistfully in the alleyways. But I am not quite ready for Mbirikani’s real drinking establishments, even though we’re about to visit one in search of Saine Pune.

Several of the Maasai mamas shopping at the vegetable and fruit stands tell us where the infamous lion killer is hiding. At the pub. “He is crazy, crazy,” Joseph keeps saying, shaking his head and laughing. “He loves to drink.” “Beer?” “Oh, no, Saine Pune is a warrior, he goes for hard spirits.” More laughing. I’m thinking, this guy has got to be part Irish.

From behind a corner spills Saine Pune, struck blind by sunlight. The doorway to the fine establishment from which he pours is a shower curtain. That's right. “Crazy, crazy,” mutters Joseph again. An old mama from the tribe, dressed to the nines in a traditional red, black and blue shuka and bedecked with beaded jewelry, pulls the object of our desire towards our Land Rover. He is thrilled to see Joseph, a boyhood friend.

Color me stunned. For Saine Pune (his lion fame-game name) is quite an unassuming presence – lean, drunken, shaggy, virtually toothless and sporting black hair like bean sprouts. (I am reminded of the famous ‘70s-in-America chia pet.) As we drive off, dust devils decorate the red earth. Saine Pune, launched from the back seat between the two us and reeking of hooch, embarks on a string of rapid prayer, or at least that’s what I think is happening. “Are you praying?” I ask. “No, it is our way of traditional greeting.” As I listen to the pacing and exchange, I notice that what appear to be questions are long, while the answers are short “Ehe”s, “Oh”s and “Unh”s, lending a beautiful sing song to their conversation in Maa.

On the way to a nearby cluster of cow dung, mud and straw huts called bomas, our captive begins to argue mightily with me and Joseph about his fee for talking about savage hunting days. He wants Ksh 1,000, not the usual Ksh 500. Joseph corrals me back into the car and as we begin to drive away, Saine Pune capitulates with great apology. The three of us then retire to sit on short-legged stools under a wait-a-minute tree (so called because of double-edged thorns that catch your clothing coming and going).

Outlaw. Superstar. Outrage. Saine Pune is called many things, but he is regarded highly enough in warrior circles to have inspired celebratory songs in his name. This slim, goofy man has killed 13 lions in the past few years. And despite the moves the Maasai have made towards the preservation of big cats in this reserve, Saine Pune continues to be worshipped by many within the tribe, especially the young girls who are smitten by his singular bravery in hunting lions.

Most recently, when two 14-month-old orphaned cubs killed a donkey at a neighboring manyatta, this master of his own universe speared one brother in the haunch and assumed he was dead. (Recent investigations by the organization Living with Lions have indicated that the pair survived Saine Pune’s assault.) While the infamous warrior was arrested by lion guardians of the MPT that same day, he led them astray in the grass plains of Kilimanjaro, and neither cub was sighted for about a month.

While interviewing him, I am duly captured by Saine Pune’s feet. They are as gnarled as tree roots, misshapen toes curling in upon one another, crumpled and twining. It’s no wonder that his tracks have become as distinctive as those of the lions he hunts. When I ask Saine Pune about his passion for these precious and vanishing creatures, he replies: “My father was a great hunter. Nine lions he killed. But I have become an even greater warrior. Very strong.” And his arms come up curled like a pin up for weightlifting, fists in the air.

Most of this day with Joseph has been a heedful of wow. And it’s why I moved to Kenya in the first place. Just as I want my son Tiger to have an excellent childhood, I also want to continue leading an exciting life that's rewarding in every way. (Besides, it’s never too late for a second childhood!) But this subject matter of the Maasai vs. lions vs. conservation is so vast and overwhelming; many times I hardly know where to begin.

But certainly the day’s ending is clear. Joseph and I with Chief Kayok in the back, eager to recharge his mobile phone at our camp, barrel down the dusty adobe-colored dirt roads. Singing along with Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow and Tusk, we expertly skirt herds of Grant’s gazelles, their tails tucked underneath their bottoms which means they sense no true danger nearby. (These antelope are distinguishable from others because “Grant’s wear pants” -- their hind end and back legs are splashed with white for a trouser-like effect.)

The sun is rapidly closing up shop as we head back to the Chyulu Hills. And awaiting me at Elena’s is a true luxury after a long, dusty day: a warm bucket shower. Two gals from the Living with Lions , a researcher and a scientist, are coming over for dinner, a miracle concoction in this neck of the woods. John, the cook, is trying to do a vegetarian fritatta over a gas canister!

For this night at least, I am home and happy.


Saturday, June 26, 2010


I’m spending most of my day in interview mode with Joseph as my guide throughout southeast Kenya’s Mbrikani Group Ranch. First on my list is Chief Elder Ned, one of four elected by the Maasai to oversee the social activities and “upbringing” of young warriors following their initiation at around the age of 15 years. Ned, who my filmmaker friend Elena says is like Abraham Lincoln for the respect he commands and the spirit he imparts, is involved with both the Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT) and the Predator Compensation Fund (PCF). (When a lion kills any livestock, the owner is compensated financially for the loss.)

Ned is famous among young and old warriors alike for standing up to the Maasai elders several years ago when the two conservation arms were taking baby steps. He declared, in the face of all tribal logic, that “lions should not be hunted anymore. There are too few left. We will kill them all.” And his words rang true for many of the old wise men. They listened, and the warriors coming up through the ranks have begun to learn new ways of proving their manhood (e.g., through competitive social activities like games and academic accomplishments).

Joseph and I then drive clear across the great, golden savannah away from the Chyulu towards Mt. Kilimanjaro to meet with Kayok, a chief of warriors. He is a diminutive man with a noble profile, aquiline nose and all. Kayok’s role is to chaperone the young warriors in a particular manyatta until they graduate from their brothers-in-barracks living to their own home and marriage. Much to my surprise, this chief not only has a cell phone – many Maasai do, it’s quite disorienting – but has also been to the States. I ask him what he liked best. “The zoo,” he replies in Maa, a statement that further startles me. Joseph translates: “Not because of what it is, but because it showed me that Americans are trying to save animals too.”

Before we leave, I am intent on connecting with the little children under Kayok’s care. As mother of a two-and-a-half year old, I have a soft spot for toddlers and do everything I can think of to tempt them towards me – crouching down to their level, whispering gently. The girls are having none of it; two of them begin to cry, unfamiliar with seeing a mzungu in this neck of the woods. But the the chief’s mother passes a boy through the car window and he sits in my lap, not moving a muscle except for lowering his head. I am delighted and press the top it with the flat of my hand, a greeting that Maasai children offer to adults as a sign of respect and recognition.

“Now you get to meet the Notorious Gangster,” says Joseph. “My best bad guy,” he adds, eyes twinkling, his smile broad and steady. All day, I’ve had the feeling of being with a rock star already as small crowds greets everywhere we go. Spilling through the Land Rover windows, they offer huge handshakes or a clumsy embraces. But it seems my young driver/guide has saved the best for last as we head to the nearest pub.


Thursday, June 24, 2010


Welcome to that magical time of day in East Africa, late afternoon/early evening, when the heat comes alive the way we most associate with the middle of the day. It is stark and welcome and direct. I am sitting on the poolside patio of the elegant Ol Donyo Waus in the Chyulus, a conservation-minded lodge that does posh with a purpose. Here, linen, stone and wood seem to fold around you, and elephants appear to be within grasp at the watering hole below the golden flagstone terrace. The lodge nestles in the lap of a former volcanic range, looking out on nearly 300,000 acres of golden grass plains, the Twin Hills or Mau in Maasai (perfect reflections of one another, they are so proportional), and Mt. Kilimanjaro in the far distance, surrounded by marshmallow clouds in a grey-blue sky.

In contrast, I'm staying behind this sumptuous property at my friend Elena’s very basic camp (hello, sinkless) with her crew as they complete wildlife filming on THE LION WARRIORS OF KILIMANJARO. A Norwegian/Californian filmmaker who’s as gutsy as she is gifted, Elena invited me down to immerse myself in background research on what’s happening between the Maasai and lions in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem.

The two “tribes” are at a very emotional juncture. For the first time, young initiates, who’ve just been circumcised and are training to become warriors, are not killing lions as part of the ritual. By embracing this new tradition (and there is significant resistance), the Maasai are now facing another tough dilemma. What do they do about lions in a severe, post-drought environment where their former four-legged trophies attack their manyattas?

These predators are killing prized cattle and shoats (sheep and goats) instead of their normal fare of wildebeest and zebra whose populations have dwindled considerably. How can the Maasai not turn back the clocks and start hunting the most famous of the big cats again? Which takes precedence -- conserving wildlife at potentially huge personal expense to the locals or preserving a way of life at all costs? Are they truly able to live side by side so that both parties can thrive?

Today I am caught full throttle in the middle of this duality. In pursuit of a kind of natural justice, Joseph leads the way. He is quintessentially tall, dark and handsome, a young warrior with long black lashes and a graceful bearing. He also works as a scout for the Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT) in order to prevent lion killers from having their way. Joseph believes that the approximately 30 big cats left in the surrounding group ranches should be protected and spared. Many agree; some don’t.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010


My landlady Lila comes by early on a Thursday morning to collect the rent. It’s about 8:00 am and a deep mist hovers over the back garden. It does that in Kenya this time of year.

I’m feeling a bit misty myself, having just woken up from a bit of a “lie-in”, as they say in Ireland. Still in PJs and without my glasses, the world is blur to me. “What’s that gray blob?” I ask my landlady, and we both start heading towards the end of the porch. I’m thinking that perhaps someone has left us a large sack of potatoes from their kitchen garden.

But waiting for us in the misty morn is no neighborly sharing of veg. It is the biggest, ugliest rodent I’ve ever seen in my life, dead as a doornail. I mean HUGE compared to anything I’ve encountered of such species, the size of a cocker spaniel who’s been quite well fed. “I think it’s a Cane Rat,” Lila says brightly. I am momentarily freaked by the creature and shuddering visibly. “Yes, I think so. Look at those teeth!” The chompers in question are long and columnar. The Cane’s bottom and top teeth protrude directly from the end of his pug nose, unaligned, giving this erstwhile grasscutter a bucktoothed grimace. “They’re herbivores,” Lila reassures me, gamely turning the creature over with the toe of her sandal. Eeewww.

I am speechless staring at this bristly, grey-haired monstrosity, in complete rigor mortis and decorating my “Welcome” mat. The rat’s three-toed feet are clutched in a death throe, his body curved in almost a fetal position as if he died in his sleep. His ears are small and round, the size of dandelions, his face is square-ish. I imagine that if he were furrier, he’d resemble a guinea big. (Except for the larger-than-life bit.) I can’t even look at the tail, imagining it to be as thick and wide as a garden hose.

“Sandy must have killed him,” adds Lila in her plummy Oxford accent, pointing to her overly-eager Ridgeback. “Look at how proud she is.” “Christ on a bike, what do we do with him?” I mutter. “Oh, I’ll have John take him to the bin. Or perhaps we’ll burn him. They roast them as a delicacy in the bush, you know.” She is delighted with herself.

This herbivore has immediately made quite an impression upon me. I’m sure he’s been the Night Thief haunting our downstairs and leaving ghost-like paw prints of red mud across the counter tops. Last week, something dragged the pet Biltong (a kind of jerky) into the middle of the living room.

Cane curiosity piqued, I start delving online. I Google said rat and discover that they are denizens of sub-Saharan Africa and can grow up to 10 kg (22 lbs to you and me) and two feet long. I’m very disturbed by a picture of a man holding a live one over his shoulder. The Cane could easily mistaken for a baby donkey, it’s that big.

What’s more, I find two outrageous links:

1) Cane Rats for Sale – London: “Many people do not believe that Cane Rats can make for good pets. Why not give them a try!”

2) Cane Rats – The Congo Cookbook [to paraphrase]: Whether considered fine dining, a favorite pet or a pesky species, the Cane Rat is a valued source of protein, known for its tasty tenderness. Usually caught in the wild, this herbivore is consumed in rural areas and sold in urban markets just like other bushmeat. The Cane Rat is commonly used in traditional African stews and soups.

But the Zaire cookbook, Where There is No McDonald’s, gives me the greatest pause. Here for your pleasure is a rat recipe not to be missed, but only if you’re stuck somewhere in the bush with no MREs in sight.


Place a dozen smoked rats (the small field-rat type) in fresh water and soak for 30 minutes. Prepare a sauce of tomato, onion, pimento and palm oil in a large skillet. Drain the rats and remove skin and other inedible portions. (?) Fry for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally until well-cooked. A true connoisseur eats them piping hot, bone and all!!!

Serving tips: Usually offered as an hors-d'oeuvre, they also are delightful arranged on a platter of carrots, lettuce, and cauliflower. Or just slide them on a hot dog bun…

Friday, June 4, 2010


Since moving to Kenya in mid-November, I’ve been to more than my share of birthday parties for little ones, averaging about one per month. Each and every one has been an absolute carnival of candy, every parent’s worst nightmare as his or her child inhales with abandon what we refer to as kiddie crack cocaine. Tables bedecked with bowls of jewel-like candies (jelly beans, lollipops, etc.); cakes decorated with marshmallow animals and M&Ms; soft, lemony sugar cookies; and far too much chocolate (not that parents don’t regress at times and dive in too).

Ella’s third birthday party last Friday did not serve up this candy-store mania, but it did offer many of the traditional winning elements. Mothers clustered around the soft drink table, drinking tea and, in some cases, a much-welcomed glass of white wine. The occasional father or two supervised the Bouncy Castle and the equally bouncy trampoline. Streamers wove a web of color, laced through window guards, around columns, along the roof. Kids ran wild, screaming and laughing and knocking over clowns who were trying to catch them and smell their “smelly” feet. The face painter masked them with lions and tigers and bears, kitty cats and Spidermen. More tea, please. Make that a sauvignon blanc. Or, actually, make that a balloon. (There’s a restaurant nearby called Osteria where they serve wine in a regular glass, or in what’s called a Balloon, nearly half a bottle per serving.)

I only spotted midget-sized morsels of Snickers and Mars bars in the party giveaway bags. Instead, the table was laden with juice boxes, baby hotdogs, popcorn, artichoke dip and meatballs. And the cake was beyond belief, a Barbie doll head and torso decorated with pink and white icing in the shape of a ballgown. A hit, it tasted the way every birthday cake should -- cottony with frosting that reminded me of the filling inside Twinkies. One little girl told Mommy, “I want that cake for my wedding.”

The highlight of this party was Sugarboy, a lovely chestnut with a white blaze down to his nose, who’d been brought over by owner Annabella to entertain the kids. Gorgeous, elderly (23 years) and calm as a pond, he offered our kids rides around Charlie’s garden, a stunning acre of bougainvillea, yellow fever trees, cactus, passion lilies and sprawling lawn. The young ones were smitten with Sugarboy, sitting astride him as if he was their very own steed ferrying them off to galloping new adventures.

[The hostess and her daughter confessed to another neighbor that they were supposed to have Popeye for the ride-alongs, but he’d scratched his eye and wasn’t in a party mood. “Oh, no,” said our friend, paling and blushing all at once. (She is one of the most even-keeled, genteel persons I have ever met.) “No, no, not Popeye. NEVER Popeye.” “But he’s such a lovely pony!” respond the hostesses. “Oh no, he’s NOT. Popeye is a bad, bad boy. You’d have Popeye off a lead here and he’d wreak absolute havoc, charging the clowns, shying at the streamers, banging into parents, knocking over children. And he LOVES cake!” Ah, Sugarboy is all sugar; Popeye is a bad pickle on a good day.

Suddenly, not unusual for this time of year, the rain belts down in its invariable sheet, sending us scattering with lounge pillows under the terrace roof. It dampens all the decorations and makes a soup of the back garden. Still, the tiny partygoers slosh and scamper, making the most of a giant-sized rubber slide and harassing the clowns. (I hate clowns.)

While weathering the weather inside and talking with my wonderful Danish friend Annabella, Gladys rushes in. My son’s priceless nanny whispers, “Come see Tiger.” I spring outside. Surmo, with only three teeth spaced evenly along his top gums, is leading my toddler and Sugarboy around the lower garden. Tiger is mounted on the horse’s back as if he belongs there.

I have seen my son do many a splendid and fearless a thing in the nearly two years he’s been with me. Catapulting himself over the arms of armchairs; climbing onto tables and jumping into the pillowed unknown; settling himself, by himself, into the raggedy-muffin hammock for a swing-swing in our backyard; throwing himself with utter abandon into my arms as if I shall always, always catch him mid-flight. But never have I been so startled and pleased as I was watching him on Sugarboy.

My heart melts like fudge on a hot plate. Something hot and sweet spills through me. Tiger sits there, sloping into the motion of the horse beneath him, gripping the pommel lightly and waving to me. “Look, Mama, I riding!” he shouts. He pats Sugarboy’s neck and gamely insists on yet another turn around Charlie’s garden.

Pride, it dawns on me, thick and potent. I feel so proud of my son with his painted-on tiger face, part of the party ritual, his nose a button of white with black whiskers, stripes running down his orange-ish cheeks, his brows blackened and haplessly sinister. And the pride he holds in himself surges like something umbilical between the two of us. And I see him as he truly is in the world -- and in the embrace of my life thus far.

A pride of Tigers.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


When Mom and Dad retired to Ireland from California in 1988, you can imagine how the weather affected my mother even though she was from Minnesota, that dastardly state of snow and coldfronts. But she soon became weather wise with pert and pungent axioms: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”, or “You get eleven weathers in a day here”. The latter usually referred to some version of fog or rainfall: Mist; mist interrupted by blazing, inexplicable sunshine; dense fog; soft rain (don’t even ask); hard rain; rain in buckets; rain and sunshine at the same time from a cloudless sky; grey rain; purple rain; cat-and-dog rain; and my absolute favorite, horizontal rain (I kid you not).

A word about two of the raining listings above: Once my friend Clare was driving in Dublin and came upon a stop sign. As she stopped, she noticed that the front of her car was in the sun while the back was in the rain. Once again, I kid you not.

Then there’s horizontal rain which I’ve never encountered anywhere else in my life but Ireland. This version of rainfall is complemented by wind. Huge, beating, bone-chilling wind. But there you go, looking out over a golf course, and Irish people couldn’t be bothered by the rain, vertical or otherwise; they’re strolling along, climbing out of sandpits, struggling up knolls, skirting newly-established lakes. And, in this particular situation, the wetness PIERCES all your clothing and body parts, even if you’re wearing whale skin, so there’s no escape whatsoever. No wonder they drink so much whiskey there, it’s the only thing that thaws flesh and bone back to a human (and humane) temperature.

But rain in Kenya has its own peculiarities, and we’ve been having a lot of it lately. While last fall the country was suffering gravely from too little rainfall, starving people and cattle, wiping out crops, now the wet of April and May is flooding regions in the south. “When will it stop?” we all ask.

In particular, I’m haunted by the Irish rain as I lived there for six years before moving to East Africa several months ago. There is a saving grace, however; during the daytime, there’s usually a respite of sun and heat. And once again, in a country far from my homeland in the States, I’ve encountered something I’ve never experienced before: rain so thick and steady and committed that it’s as if the sky was ladling it over us, over the red earth and the now-green hills of the Ngong.

It is usually at nighttime that we know to prepare for this full blast of the Kenyan skies. That is a blessing because truly, is there anything more cozy than lying awake at night and hearing that pelting drumbeat of rain on the roof? That’s what my son Tiger and I do. We lie snuggled together in my bed, listening to this drumming instead of our usual orchestra of tree hyrax screeching, monkeys playing, dogs barking. The weather sheets against the house; you can barely hear yourself talking.

I whisper instead to my son, who always seems to be listening, “Cloud soup.” He repeats it back to me in his silvery little voice, and we draw deeper under the covers as the sky weeps, only to smile in the morning with the lure of sunshine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


5. Blonde Bombshells: At KPS, Karen Provision Store, a staple among the ex-pat community set, you can walk in any day of the week, any time of day, and bump up against an entire sea of blondes of every ilk, age and shade. I grew up in California where towheads were the rule, not the exception, but this plethora of Karen blondes is overwhelming. At KPS’ butcher counter, in the deli area, by the bread stall – blondes, blondes and more blondes. Most of whom I seem to know, as if we are Team Blonde, some sort of competitor in an Olympic Games for hair color.

Of course, as only 1% of the population here in Kenya is white – approximately 40,000out of four million – you will often find that you are the only blonde amidst a sea of stunning Africans when you go anywhere else in the Nairobi area. (It’s quite heady and quite wonderful to be the minority for a change.)

6. Bedtime & the Bubble Factory: Tiger, both like and unlike a lot of toddlers, loves his bedtime routine. Around seven o’clock, after supper and gogurt (yogurt) for dessert, you mention lala (Swahili for sleeping, naps and related escapes), and he’s off and running with a whoop upstairs to the bathtub.

Here is where fun really happens for my son, swimming like a frog in the long, deep tub; playing with styrofoam pirates offering plenty of “Ahoy, mateys!”; cleaning his toes and fingers with a small ladybug brush; and, best of all, creating beards and arm animals and face monkeys with bubbles. And I mean TONS of bubbles, soft mountains of percolating white which create a fantasy of clouds, shaped by hand in our wet and wild universe.

When the Bubble Factory has closed for the night, Tiger gets a massage with baby lotion to the tune of some sort of Canadian Mounties song I remember from my own cartoon days. Lots of laughs and much drama as Tiger covers himself with the rosy pink lotion, something he particularly enjoys since discovering his gee gee. (I nearly fell over with guffaws the first time he decided that’s the place for idle hands.)

Within a minute or so, Sir Sleepyhead asks for mama beddy, to go to sleep for the night in my room rather than his own. Sometimes I let him do so, and when I come up a couple hours later to read before bedtime, I then carry my son, who never seems to awaken from where angels love to tread, across the threshold and into his own beddy. And, from the look of him, I can now swear that no one but a child has the sweetest of dreams.

7. Skies for Days: There’s a luxury lodge in the Great Rift Valley, about a 45-minute flight from Nairobi, that I’ve never liked very much; it is quite gorgeous, but hot, hot, hot, bugged by bugs and haunted by a confusing undercurrent of mismanagement. That said, when I was there a couple of months ago, we – Alekis, John-John, Peony, Marcus, Aurelia, myself and our guide Innocent -- all went out onto its grassy plains in the Land Rover for a simple sundowner of white wine and roasted cashews. Moments before, we'd been following a cheetah with her two cubs, but then something started to happen before our very eyes, something none of us had ever quite seen before.

A sunset. But not just any sunset. One that seemed to both terrorize and tenderize the sky with color. Vivid, pure, unadulterated colors. Oranges, pale as a Parisian silk wrap and bright as a tangerine. Shades of black, from silver to steel to soft gray. Fading blues. All of which served to paint the clouds, whether thunderhead, or cumulus, or mist, into a smear of eye candy. And these clouds, in amazing shapes like a mawing mouth licking the horizon to a giraffe face to wings on a prayer, were lit from within -- not from underneath by the sun which had already vanished from the heavens. A place I had never been to before then.

8. Freddy Face Meets the Weebiscuit: In the laws of attraction, nothing compares to four-legged jealousy.

One of the men in my life these days is Freddy. Well, his real name is McFlinty after an Irish pub, and he lives next door to me, but my friend Elise nicknamed him Freddy long before we lived here and it’s stuck. Add to this the fact that he resembles nothing less than a Celtic chap with a whiskery face, an affectionate nature and a twinkle in his eye (all he’s missing is the tweed golf cap), and you’ll understand why I’ve been a goner these past few months.

More and more often, usually around happy hour, Freddy trots over to hang out on our porch, watch the sunset, wrangle a bit with the Ridgeback called Sandy, and enjoy a few treats or two. And more and more often than not, after supper, he sneaks upstairs when I’m not looking to settle in at the foot of my bed for a long night’s cuddle.

If only he didn’t have fleas. In fact, Alekis, my friend from Florida who stayed with us until recently for a couple of months, has alternately dubbed my darling Flea Bag, Death Valley, and Old Man and the Sea. But you have to understand, until very, very recently, Freddy was the one for me. (He still is, but as his adoration of me would now have it, I'm no long riding shotgun, I'm stuck in the back seat like a quarrelsome child.)

Everything changed for Freddy two weeks ago, and now my furry, four-legged beau-friend, a wire-haired Jack Russell terrier without any competition in sight, is facing the music. Because now we have Weebiscuit (Bickie for short), a little girl I got for my son, who, it happens to be, is part Jack Russell (the other half is Westie, so she’s a breed apart, or so I’m finding out). Sandy ADORES Bickie, a four-pound ball of fire who puts the Ridgeback properly in her place. But they have fun. Capital FUN. And it’s a riot to watch Mini-Me having her way with Maxi-She (Sandy is the size of a Shetland pony) on the playground.

Freddy is having none of it. Curiously enough, he’s a fellow who doesn’t have much bark or bite, but whenever Bickie runs up to lavish him with kisses, there’s a low-throttle snarl. He treats our new addition to the family with utter disdain, turning away from Bickie’s advances as if she doesn’t exist. And I swear I can see it written all over him -- an emotion of loss, maybe even grief or condescension or accusation, flickering across that whiskery face I’ve come to know and love, through those chocolate brown, sparkling peepers of his in which the light has now dulled when it comes to me.

Ah, if only Freddy knew: Dogs may be a man’s best friend, but they are a woman’s soulmate.

Monday, April 5, 2010


They say that Danny was driving too fast, that he was inexperienced, that he panicked on the turn of road between Magadi and Kiserian, that barren road that slips out of Lake Magadi, a salt mine that looks more like an oil slick, nesting up against one of the deep clefts of a Rift Valley escarpment, black and shallow. On the road again bordered by rubble and scrub, school children trek home in the middle of it as if no car would ever come to carry them away or toss them, maimed and bleeding, into the dry, toothy brush.

Danny stops for brick fuel for his household, but it is too dear and he pulls the Land Cruiser back onto the route home, gently guiding it away from all the amenities of civilization. Here, hyena laugh in between whoo-oops; scorpions furl their tails; lizards lounge; and an occasional lion scans the flatlands for easy prey, especially at night.

And then something booms; Danny thinks the world has been shaken to its very core while he nurses the Land Cruiser back to the center line. It pulls mightily, shockingly to the right and flips. Twice. The windshield shatters; the vehicle heaves as if alive. Danny is alive, thanking all heavens, shocked in releasing himself from the seatbelt and sliding onto the ground, a searing pain in his left shoulder, a numbing in the back of his skull, a dull non-recognition of all that lies dead and breathless around him.

Maasai come; they have seen the crash from some distance. Please, says Danny, I don’t know the answers to your questions. I can’t answer. They call his brother; they call the lodge at which I’m staying and where he dropped me and my friend for the weekend, an hour and a half away; they call one of Danny’s patrons; and then they call the Kiserian police. Where can help be? What can they do?

They right the truck, change the tire, and manage, despite the fact that only the parking brake works, to stop the car as needed along the way. A herd of camels looms ahead of them in the dark on the road, driven by a small boy with a big, flimsy stick; donkeys stand leaden-eyed in their way in the middle of the road; children flock from tin huts to wave them on as they herk and jerk forward. Danny cannot speak; he seems to be reeling and then, sitting so still that he cannot feel a heartbeat or hear his own breath. God was with me, he tells me later. Thank goodness you were wearing your seatbelt, I say. No, it was God. I felt his hands locked together, tightening against my chest as he held me to Him so I would not die.

The accident happened at 4.45 on Friday afternoon; Danny will not make it home to his wife and girls until 2.30 the following morning, having sequestered the car at the police station, given a report and gone to see a doctor. The people who helped me, he says later, they stole the tire jack and the two back speakers in the car. And Ksh 4,000 that was in my front pocket. I noticed nothing, he adds.

Ah, such is Kenya.

Since Friday night when I heard about what happened to Danny, in a car which I’d borrowed from a very kind friend, I’ve had a knot the size of Texas in my belly. A fist, really, that opens and closes and seizes my gut at random. Somebody twists this knot cleverly so that its presence never quite abates.

When I see Danny the following Tuesday: How did the girls take it? (His’s daughters, Blessed and Faith, are four and nine, respectively.) Your wife? They smiled, but they were very disturbed, you know this was lucky and not so lucky. Elizabeth brought them in and each took a hand and held onto it, and they kept asking me, Are you here? Yes, and I told them very softly, I am home now.

Yes, Shompole, our weekend getaway, is exquisite, a flowing blend of wood and stone and whitewashed, womanly curves, each banda tucked so deftly into the face of the Nguruman Escarpment that you think it could all disappear in a wink. Yes, the heat has been horrific, but the storm last night, what a thundering and magnificent entity to behold. How cool that rain, how fine that wind. Yes, we saw a three brother lions stalking wildebeest and zebra by the river’s edge, yet holding as still as sphinxes in the grassy plains while considering theif possibilities.

Cheetahs – a mother with two yearling cubs – run off with our imaginations. Suddenly, they sprawl across the dirt, long as golden, spotted paragraphs, arranged in such a way as to make one think they have no skeletons. And I think of Danny sprawled across that cusp of Magadi Road, and look for some solace in the purple sky.

Of course, we cannot take our eyes off a journey of giraffes, so called because they are always traveling. Innocent, our tracker-guide, says their saliva is slick and heavy on their tongues so that they can easily eat the thorns of acacia and wait-a-minute bushes. These are Maasai giraffes, less regular in the patterning of their coats than the Reticulated, and more sunny in coloring than the Rothschilds, found only in Nakuru and at Giraffe Manorin Nairobi.

It is the baby giraffes who steal Alekis’s heart. Their long-snouted faces, freckled and tawny. She loves their gray lips, black tongues, curly eyelashes, and the tufted blackness of their horns (which will wear with age on the males). These young ones are kicked out of giraffe kindergarten to fend for themselves at an early age. Abandoned by their mothers, they stick together like pieces of melted toffee, making for perfect portraits.

Yes, I surrender, this is the life. To see such wildlife first hand and so close at times, you could lean over the edge of the Land Rover and pet a lion. We lose all sense of danger here, the bewitching is so potent.

Ah, such is Kenya.

On our last evening game drive that Sunday, we head out into the middle of the Great Rift Valley where the sunset underlights the clouds into sherbert colors of orange and the steely clay of gray, making for magical pillows, thunderheads and streaks of sky. It is the most beautiful sky I have ever seen in my whole, long life. Yes, the new friends we have made, Marcus and Aurelia, embrace us like family as only romantics can do, giddy and governing. We nickname him Black Mamba for his obvious prowess, dressed and undressed (we imagine), and his Russian girlfriend shouts and laughs, The truth, Mark, tell them the truth!

And on our way back to the lodge, the night falls like plantation shutters being tugged downwards, slipping eagerly into place. We’ve just done a casual sundowner, and Innocent insists the darkness is coming too quickly on its feet, although not so for the spring hares who bounce like toy bunnies across the dusty bush roads leading to Shompole.

A present awaits us on our last night, a dinner spread that trumps all the others we’ve enjoyed. A long candlelit table at which all of the guests can sit; napkins shaped like giraffes in our wine glasses; tender lamb or soft white fish for mains; even mousse au chocolat. But the Kennedyesque Peony, the loveliest of friends and Shompole’s general manager, has cooked up a piece de resistance with Chef John. In the spirit of the mighty cheer in the air, they present a beautiful birthday cake with five candles (one for each year that I’ve celebrated my 35th).

My birthday wish? Most of all, I can’t wait to leave. I long to hold my son Tiger up against me, smell his bubble gum neck and baby shampoo hair; those smells that I will make me safe and certain again, certain that all things will not just be taken from us -- by a snap of road, an angry elephant, a strike of lightning, a scorpion underfoot, or a flood that rages.

True enough, we are merely matchsticks compared to such elements. Still, I say no. Danny could not have been killed, not on my watch.

The day before, Sammy, the local Maasai chief’s 21-year-old son, finds me a lift back to Nairobi, applying a strong hand to the bartering; Ksh 15,000 is the price we settle on. A truck arrives, not the Land Cruiser we’d been promised, and so Sammy expertly haggles it down to Ksh 13,000. In the vehicle is Weweru, half Kikiyu, half Maasai, and relaxed as a sofa. Nicknamed Topi after the most beautiful antelope in East Africa (their coats are a burnished combination of copper and red and mahogany, giving off an almost lavender hue), it is he who drives me to Karen where I live. The long-limbed, slightly buck-toothed and handsome Sammy has warned Topi, as only a chief’s son can, that he must make sure I arrive home with no further fuss.

A beautiful, doll-sized dik-dik dashes into our path and narrowly escapes. Do you know about the them? Topi asks, his face wide and dark and joyous as we crash and burn and rub against the rivulets of earth molded by rain and flood. I know, they’re the smallest antelope in Africa. There’s more, he adds. Okay, they mate for life. Yes, that’s some , but you know when one dies, the other must find a lion or leopard or crocodile to go be with its mate. That is the truth! Weweru smiles broadly as he tells me this, and I marvel and shudder aloud: Ah, such is Kenya.

Or, as we would say in my nearly-native Ireland: T’was ever thus.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


They say that until you love yourself, and properly, you’ll never be able to really love someone else. You’ll never know true love in all of its flashing and frequent and formidable forms.

But what’s the point of loving yourself first and foremost when it’s so much more interesting and compelling to love someone else? To spend the love you bank in your heart and soul on others? And who cares if you utterly deplete yourself in the process? Does it really matter if you have nothing else left to give?

Maybe it’s true about me, that I’ve never been able to embrace self-love, a decades-long dry spell that’s felt right as rain. Even now, now that my son has been with me for 17 months, it is something I cannot quite gather and grasp, even though I might hold a bunch of dying daisies as tightly in my fist as I hold him to me now. Flowers that should fall freely from my hand to seed the earth; flowers that might be pressed to hold their color and form between the pages of my old Black Beauty, or lie spread among lines of favorite poems. Flowers that blow along the wind, still alive in the journey they are taking, in a love they knew all to well.

Tonight, getting Tiger ready for his bath, I sat on the edge of the tub undressing him and wept buckets, heatedly and quickly. I didn’t want to cry with such shamelessness in front of him, yet it felt both safe and unsafe. Where did this come from, all of this lack? Why the fear of not being able for love as it comes (as it does every day)? Not feeling it, not feeling yourself. Not pushing the flood of love, the flowerbeds, the simple verses and complicated rhymes out of me, into the sun.

What do I know of love from within, for within? How it holds us and lets us go? How we let it go.

Moments before I’d shown Tiger a picture of one of the great friends of my life who died while I was in Kazakhstan readying to bring him home from the orphanage. I showed my son the picture and said, Who’s that? And then I couldn’t even tell him her name because the tears came on, heavy as harm, closing my throat and heating my skin.

Isn’t heat the temperature of love, in all if its guises, and isn’t it its color as well, the hothouse of flowers?

Tiger’s face. His cracker of a smile softens into something slightly afraid and very knowing. His eyes take on that darkening color of the sea as they do when he is serious about what’s right in front of him. He sweeps the back of his hand down my cheek. He looks up at me with small flowers of tears beginning in the curl of his lashes. He wants to know why I don’t quite reach in for the love he feels for the world, his family and himself.

This I can tell you about my son. He is kind. He is tender hearted above all things, tender as the night in all of it glories and sorrows and starlight. Tiger has a heart the size of the savannahs just south of here outside of Nairobi. A heart like a spinning wheel. Just and true and sweet and full, moving always towards you, for you, alongside you.

He stood in front of me tonight and took my face in his small workman’s hands and I don’t know how he knew, but he pulled me to him so that our necks crooked like commas. I held him fast, tighter and tighter, and I let go, but not of him. I let him love me back. The love I have for him, how cannot it not come back for me, a thief who haunts and dreams his own accords, but has every intention of not letting me be? My son’s fingers are strong and his mind is set. He will push love in and pull it out just as one might a daisy chain, as if he knows I am made for this. Potted tulips, penguin topiaries, hot orange bougainvillea that climbs and climbs.

For those few minutes on a Tuesday evening in February, I let the cleansing of a little boy’s love through all of my locked and aching doors. Mama, he said. No one’s ever so NOT let go of me.

He is 28 months old.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Part 1 of 5

Goodbye, Gourmet: Kenya is not for the kitchen-hearted. Okay, I did find Skippy Super Chunky Peanut Butter in KPS (Karen Provision Store, the A-1 market for ex-pats) this week, leagues beyond the usual offering of American-style PB riddled with sugar. But if you’re hankering for Maldon salt, black beans, graham crackers, ancho chilies, Oreos, real dark chocolate and chocolate chips, Ben & Jerry’s, frozen spinach, non-stick cooking spray, Fritos, salt-cured-and-dried capers and flaky coconut for cookies, you are lost in translation. Furthermore, you can forget real maple syrup from Vermont, unless you want to pay $12 for a small, perfume-sized bottle of the good stuff. Some of these goodies are basic fodder for any gourmand, chef, or mad housewife cooking up trouble; some of it’s all-American junk food. But the rest you’re not sure how to live without. I’m currently suffering from Crystal Light relapse.

John Moeller: A one-time big-game hunter (and one of East Africa’s finest), John is now a conservation-minded safari guide who prefers to troll the Maasai Mara and other wildlife venues on foot. Not to fret if you’re trekking along behind him – he carries a very large gun, one that could fell an elephant at not too great a distance. Of course, John has had more than his share of close encounters of the animal kind, nearly being gored to death a few years ago by a Cape buffalo, probably the most dangerous creature on the continent. As you can imagine, the stories he tells over a proper snifter of Glenfiddich – that chui (leopard), this idiot, that bull (elephant) -- rival any you’ve ever heard. And suddenly, you have a glimpse of what it means to be a dreamer who dares.

I first met Mr. Moeller (all cock and balls, as he would say) on my very first safari in 1999, and we’ve remained friends through several adventures in several Kenyan conservation parks. Just recently while staying at Serian, he spotted a lion nesting under brush as thick as any Indonesian jungle (talk about tracking and spotting). Our hearts were beating fast as a hamster’s as we slid up in the Land Rover within feet of the male cat. Suddenly, John realized that our sighting had just pulled a Topi antelope into the bush with him and was growling over the intrusion. We left the lion to his lunch, but soon came upon a single-tusked elephant who was tearing down acacia trees for his lunch. (I thought a guy with only one tusk might be a bit cali, i.e., hot under the collar, but John could tell the elephant was mellowing out by the “relaxed look in his eyes”.)

A lion-hearted man who has a leonine head of silvery blond hair and a leonine look about him from head to toe. Simply put, you couldn’t put your life in better hands. Need I say more?

Oh, I almost forgot. He’s got one of the greatest laughs on the planet.

Mosquito Netting: Sometimes in Kenya, all you can do is pray.
Not infrequently when I sleep, often a muddled sleep, I dream of Ralph Fiennes as Count Almasy, the Hungarian mapmaker, in THE ENGLISH PATIENT. And my heart goes out to him for I too suffer from nightmares of being swaddled and smothered in gauze.

Go ahead, give it a try. Wrap your bed in the ceremonial cloth of mosquito netting and you will find, usually on nights hot as a volcano, you are trapped like a tuna in this shield that is meant to keep the mosquitoes OUT. (In my experience, it keeps more of them IN.) There you are, in the middle of the night, sweating, disgruntled, harried by “no-see-ems” and their infernal buzzing. There you are bursting at the seams to make it to the loo on time, and you are literally reduced to clawing your way out of the teepee-shaped cone of white, innocent-looking layers. Ol Doinyo Lengai (mountain of God in Maasai), please spare me the English patient routine.

Jay-C’s Garage: He is a man of mighty o’ temper with a garage bursting to the seams with business. Of Indian persuasion, Jay-C’s nose is beaked, his face narrow and his eyes, brown as peat and flashing with daggers. This morning, Joseph and I went to discuss a highly-inflated and misguided estimate that he’d given to us the previous day on the phone.

Mr. Jay-C was having none of it; he flared like a Fourth of July rocket slapped by a Molotov cocktail. “You and him, you come in here and say I’ve made a mistake? That I’m not doing on that car of yours what he [Joseph] ordered? You believe him? Get out of here and take your car with you!!” I’ve never seen such a fiery, hilarious display of anger since watching Disney cartoon “baddies” on Saturday mornings when I was a child.

I remained steady as a plank. Mr. Jay-C stormed out of his office, then spun around in the middle of his booming enterprise (go figure), tore up the estimate and threw it in my face. “Just for that, for all this trouble you’ve made, I’m giving you the gaskets and washers for free!” I went to shake his hand, he guffawed and started yelling at the mechanic working on my Land Rover. Joseph shook; I shook with laughter.

The next (second) installment of 20 PERSONS, PLACES & PRODUCTS I LOVE/LOATHE ABOUT KENYA includes Bedtime, Skies for Days, Freddy Face (& Atticus), and Gal Pals.

Monday, January 4, 2010


[In the past three weeks or so, I’ve started incorporating recipes into the blog, mostly because they represent good eatin’, but also because I love to cook much in the same way that a mad, mad, mad scientist must dicker with test tubes and Bunsen burners. Herewith one of our favorite new dishes from Gladys’ simple yet formidable repertoire. Note that one of her endearing quirks is to always pluralize bacon.]

• Dice and sauté two boneless chicken breasts in a little bit of oil until nicely brown. Add large pinches of salt and mixed herbs, a little bit of soy and 1-1/2 chicken stock cubes (for more tasty, says Gladys). Heat on medium for 5-10 minutes; you want to make sure that the chicken is pretty cooked through and that the flavors have all had time to grab onto one another.
• In a separate pan, fry up four slices of collar or back bacons (you want the stuff that is ham-like, not streaky).
• Saute (fresh pan) two chopped cloves of garlic and a medium-sized yellow onion.
• Pour a can of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan and heat for several minutes until a bit reduced.
• Boil up your macaroni or any other pasta your kids will like.
• You’ve now got every pan and every burner in the house going. Fine Einstein.
• Drain pasta, place in large mixing bowl. Add in your chicken, bacons, garlic and onions, and tomato sauce. Also add 1 cup of sourcream.
• Place pasta bake in a casserole dish, top with cheese of choice (about 1 cup) and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, or until cheese is thoroughly melted.

You will love this and your family will thank you for it.


I poached Gladys. My fabulous, full-time, fun-loving nanny who has made my life and that of my son’s simply magnificent. The spice to our cookies, the filet in our tagine, the cheese to our cheese ball. She has brought many gifts to our family of two, countless ones. And I’ve never been so happy to have committed a mortal sin, lapsed Catholic that I am.

Gladys was poached. I poached her from neighbors whom I only recently met. And in this neck of the woods when you supposedly steal staff from a household, you might as well have gone out into the Maasai Mara, the famous savannah of the Serengeti that lies north of the Kenya/Tanzania border, hunting elephant for ivory and zebra for pelts and rhino for horns (an aphrodisiac).

At the time, I didn’t really understand that I was thieving; it felt more like the shoplifting you do in junior high school, a little lipstick here, some mascara there. Nothing TOO bad. But when another neighbor offered a full-time job to a local driver, a very deserving chap, he got into a scuffle of sorts with the current part-time employer and desisted, saying, “I don’t want to be accused of stealing people!”

[I am not unaware that this kind of looting smacks of colonialism and ownership of persons, but that’s not why I was out poaching.]

Before arriving in Kenya from Dublin, I heard through the grapevine that Gladys was looking for a job. She came hugely, highly recommended: “She’s gorgeous,” pronounced my Finnish friend, “I’d trust her with my children’s lives.” Another galpal who’s lived her for a decade concurred, and actually put me in touch with Gladys directly. “But you can’t breathe a word of this, not to anyone. I haven’t even told my husband. It’s just not done. And these people used to be friends, but I had to help her.”

Finally I meet THEM. At a small Christmas Eve party down the road. The wife has beautiful long blond hair with a lean, weathered, attractive look, a horsey kind of gal in matchstick jeans who raises donkeys and llamas. The husband: a good-looking charmer with shaggy dark brown hair and eyes that shine. Both possess a warm manner and seem to fit easily into this ex-pat crowd that has so welcomed me (welcomed me (and Tiger) more and more thoughtfully than anywhere else I’ve ever lived). In fact, this couple is extremely popular and well thought of.

Their six-year-old son tugs at the mother’s hand. “Mama, mama,” he exclaims, “Gladys is here!” “Gladys? What is Gladys doing here?” “Because I poached her and she’s with us now!” I mutter. The mother doesn’t hear me; she is busy shaking off her son and pretending she hasn’t heard him either.

On the way home that night, Gladys and I are laughing about the idiocy of their not even acknowledging her. Dead giveaway. But I realize it must still hurt. “She invited me to come round for coffee, to drop in anytime. Ha!” I tell Gladys with my hand on her shoulder; we are navigating mud puddles the size of Lake Baringo while Tiger sloshes through them. “She did!” Gladys barks. “I’m having nothing to do with those people.” And she laughs again. “This has been a blessing,” Gladys adds. “Hmm, I’m not so sure. Maybe a curse?” I mumble delightedly, delighted that she is delighted with us. We laugh again; Tiger splashes. Except for my family, the night is still and silent and so there for us, a sheath of navy blue.

Who wouldn’t want to leave when, after several years, you’ve making just above half the going rate (which, at $200/month, is a total steal)? When the husband-and-wife team of tossing the ball of blame between one another never gives you a raise or a bonus? When they haven’t paid your dues for several years running (a Department of Labor edict that guarantees a staff person at least two weeks of their annual salary/annum)? When you still have to ask permission to use the microwave because you still have to bring your own lunch? When, having raised their daughter since birth and their son since he was two (five years!), they don’t even acknowledge you at the same holiday party, their eyes glazing past, their hearts as hard as cooling bricks?

My friend Dick Galleher makes the perfect poached eggs. “Here’s How To Poach an Egg,” by R. Galleher: Put pan of water on stove -- crack egg into cup or glass (your choice). When water is boiling, slip egg into water. Watch it. When cooked, but before yolk is hard, take off stove -- move to buttered piece of toast in a slotted spoon -- so you don't have any excess water. Enjoy!

In light of poaching in general, I think it is all about how you treat the egg. How lucky to have taken Gladys in hand without hesitation, gently spooning her from the hot waters and fuss of steam, then placing her atop of our favorite crispy toast, right in the kitchen of our souls. “Gladleth,” says Tiger morning, noon and night, which sounds vaguely like Gladless. Gladmore is more like it.