Posted by: Sarah Lidsey | May 5, 2010

Pilgrimage of the Heart: Africa and the Laikipia Masai

Throughout my life I have felt very connected to Africa.  My father worked in Kenya over a number of years and as a small child right through my teens we travelled as a family to different places in Kenya and Tanzania, camping in remote and beautiful spots, meeting and making friends along the way, and learning about the plants, animals and birds of the region.  It was a magical childhood in very many ways.

One of the places that I really loved was an area in Northern Kenya on the Laikipia Plateau, near the foot of Mount Kenya, part of the pastoral homeland of the Masai tribes, lands that run down through Kenya and into the Serengeti plains of Tanzania.  Today, as well as tending to their livestock, some of the Masai people work with tourist companies and local landowners creating joint business ventures aimed at the tourist industry.  The collaboration between tourism and tribe brings in valuable funds to the local communities, and the presence of these majestic, spear-carrying tribemen in their earth-red ‘shuka’ robes and beaded jewelry, guiding, demonstrating local ways, and selling artifacts adds to the African experience for those lucky enough to visit this part of the world.

Mt Kenya

The terrain in the north of Kenya includes huge areas of semi-arid scrub desert, with the umbrella-like silhouettes of thorn trees standing proud above the bush and along the river banks, and with rocky outcrops – kopis – rising out of the dry plains.  Laikipia is just such a place, and life stirs early, before movement in the mid-day heat becomes taxing.  Those up savoring the first hours of the day are often graced with spectacular views of Mt. Kenya whose presence in the distance seems timeless, constant, and yet ethereal.  The Masai call it Ndonyo Keri and at around 17,000’ it is the second highest mountain in Africa, after Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I found myself back in this region after a nearly ten year absence when my mother decided to take her entire family – children, and grandchildren – back to Kenya as a celebration of her 80th birthday, and to experience once more a part of the world that had meant so much to her.  It was a great treat for us all.  She knew exactly where she wanted to go, and through old and dear friends we connected with a very knowledgeable couple, Kerry Glen and her husband Jamie Christian to help us get there. They own and run a low impact safari business, Karisia Tours, which they operate impeccably as a way to fund their conservation project at Tumaren, a 3,000 acre tract of land acquired from the Laikipia Masai in 2006, and they partner with them to the benefit of the local communities and to the wildlife in the area.

Ewaso Nyiro River

The Tumaren safari camp is situation on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river and our days there were full of adventures, as well as peaceful riverside siestas.  We went on walking safaris with Kerry, Jamie, their staff and their camels each day, and in the evenings we took to their vehicles to look for game farther afield, and to enjoy the spectacular sunsets. No matter what you are doing, the sounds and smells of Africa ignite the curiosity and thrill the senses in every moment. Here the sight of a gerenuk, a long-necked gazelle that stands on its hind legs to eat off the scrubby bushes, is almost as thrilling as seeing the delicate dik-dik who shyly peer out at its base.  If you are lucky you see Grevy Zebra or kudu weaving away through the bush as they become alerted to your presence.  Elephant are around, we could tell because of the trails they left, but while we were there it was too dry and they had moved off to find food and water elsewhere.

Leshilling Lemanyass

One of the most respected of the Masai guides working with Kerry and Jamie is Leshilling Lemanyass, known as Shillingi by everyone in the camp.  Shillingi is a herdsman, a hunter, a tracker, a village man, and finally a respected and valued elder.  It was impossible to guess his age from his smiling weather-beaten face and wiry body and his actual birth date wasn’t recorded, though his village relates that an elephant was hunted and killed to mark the good fortune of his birth.  The extraordinary thing to me was that Shillingi’s toes seemed to be constructed like those of an elephant, not fused as one entity but clothed in broad, sensitive pads.  He himself had some of the wisdom qualities of the elephant as well as having a way of walking the land that reminded me of the fluid and silent way that an elephant plants his foot in the soil.  It is done with such delicacy, rhythm, and reverence as if each particle of earth is sensed and savored by the skin as it connects with the land.  There is such grace in this movement.  In his tribe today young men are apprenticed to him so that they can learn the skills of the tracker and warrior. If gifted then, they too become initiated, but it is not for everyone, and those who do not have a natural aptitude for it move on to some other position within their tribal structure.

Like many elders, Shillingi himself shared little of his past, but his brethren are proud of him and some shared stories of his adventures with us.  We learnt how he acquired the scars on his head when he was attacked and held in the jaws of a lion.  That he came out alive seems miraculous!  When hunting and tracking Shillingi, like most traditional Masai warriors, would leave all his clothes behind him so that nothing – not the scent carried in the cloth, nor the movement of the wind through the fabric – could alert his enemies or his prey to his presence.  He carried only his hunting tools and he was largely unseen by those he passed by.  One night, around the camp fire our guides told us how the three weapons Shillingi habitually carried were employed: the arrow, used at a distance to hunt or stop a charging animal; the rungu (a knob-headed stick only about a forearm in length) came next to defend at a close range, in the hand or thrown from the hand; and finally the knife, used as the last measure to finish the kill.  There were quite a few stories of near misses, where Shillingi nearly lost his life to elephant, lion, or buffalo.  All were totally inspiring and some absolutely incredible!  Shillingi himself was generous in his knowledge, opening us to the language of footprints, or spore, and how their weight, temperature and moisture (all readable on the surface of the land) gave clues about who had passed that way, at what speed, and when.

Late one afternoon Shillingi and I went out game spotting leaving everyone else resting in the camp.  At first I was full of curiosity, eager for information and I stopped him often and asked him to help me identify the different tracks we came across in the dust of the dry earth.  Who had left that dropping; broken that twig; rested under that bush? I walked alongside him as we scanned the ground for clues.  But as the sun started to wane in the sky, I fell into silence so that we wouldn’t scare off some of the animals who might be coming out from their midday resting places to forage in the relative cool of the evening light. The countryside was so beautiful, and the sounds magical and soothing to the ear.  I dropped behind Shillingi as one might when following a leader along a narrow track, though in truth the arid, scrubby terrain around us would have allowed us to travel far apart from each other while maintaining contact. I opened my heart and absorbed the wonder of the early evening light and said a prayer of thanks for the good fortune and grace that I was given in walking in this place on this day.

As I followed Shillingi I picked up his rhythm.  My footfall followed his footfall, my cadence swung into his so that there was only one rhythm and movement passing over the land.  It was only a matter of minutes before I went into an altered state, a state of meditation and contemplation, and ultimately a walk back in time to the way of the warrior.  I felt that I was walking into another dimension.  My senses became heightened as I breathed in the beauty of every aspect of creation that surrounded me: The cry of the hornbills flying close by, and the incredible beauty of a zebra and her foal as they lifted their heads and eyed us before galloping away seemed amplified. Experiencing life this way felt so natural, and the present seemed to drop away for me as I remembered another time, and another way of being. I was merged into one rhythmic current with everything around me, breathed by the same air, moved by the same wind, enlivened by the same smells, nourished and supported by the same earth, the land so much more alive than I’d experienced before.  Shillingi and I passed the rest of our walk in harmonious silence before heading back to the camp, but I felt permanently altered by this walking, meditative experience, able to understand the interconnected nature of us all in an intense and visceral way as never before.

View from Losera Moru

The following evening we went on an evening drive to a kopi about half an hour away called Losera Moru. There was a spot in this group of rocks, we were told, which was perfect for watching the sun set over this vast swathe of African bush.  It was spectacular, with hundreds of miles of open bush between us and Mount Kenya.  We had passed several kopis, when we stopped to look at some near perfectly camouflaged Klipspringer deer cautiously watching us high up, amongst the rocks to our right.  They are a rare animal to see in that area and it was exciting to do so, but more thrilling for me were the powerful energies of the kopi itself.  I asked Jamie if we could stop on the pretext of taking pictures, but really so that I could soak in the amazing vibrations emanating from these rocks.

This powerful place was Losera Moru!  My curiosity was uncontainable – what was it; could they ask Shillingi whether it was something he knew about and could share; was it a place of importance to his tribe?  It was clear to me that we had come to a highly significant place.  Shillingi shared that Losera Moru was always, and still is, a meeting place for the tribes.  Over centuries, tribal groups have crossed hundreds of miles to come here and hold ceremony with and for their people.  It is a place to honor the dead and initiate the living.  And so, with this new awareness, we found our spots to watch the setting sun, and to sit in silent communion with the spirits of the land and of this place, or just to marvel at the sun setting across the African plain.  My sense of pure belonging to Africa and to this beautiful earth was enormous.  It is possible that Losera Moru is on a confluence of some significant leylines and these contribute to its enormous power, but it is also a place that has been honored for eons, and it was this combined sense of honoring between the land and those who lived, and continue to live in absolute connection with her that was so present.  My meditation was one of gratitude, dropping back into the warrior ways that I had experienced with Shillingi the day before, and I traveled deeply into the consciousness of the land, to a place of spacelessness, and felt a real connection with the guardians that help keep this part of Africa in harmonious balance.  I felt as if my heart was forever connected to the heart of Africa, to the Source of Life.  I became aware of scurrying around me and surfaced to find that I was an object of curiosity to a whole family of Mongeese, who were playing ‘dare’ around my meditation perch!  It was an endearing way to re-enter into the ever surprising and enchanting play of life that we encountered at Tumaren.

Back in New York I took many weeks to reconnect fully into 21st century reality.  In fact, the way of the warrior was so present for me that moving out of its template, one that is inherently masculine, back into a more feminine flow was a not inconsiderable challenge.  I loved feeling the strength and surety of the ancient way of the tribal nomad/warrior, but I welcomed my wise woman home when I had digested the experience and incorporated the lessons of the past into life as I know it today.

©2010 Sarah LidseyAll rights reserved. www.sarahlidsey.com

 

 

Karisia community

To learn more about Kerry Glen, Jamie Christian and their conservation and safari operation based at Tumaren go to http://www.karisia.com

 


Responses

  1. My husband and I trekked with Kerry, Shilinghi, et al in the Laikipia region years ago. To this day, it was most remarkable journey with the most remarkable people -and animals, and land- we’ve ever experienced. Thank you for sharing your experience, as reading of it reminded me to marvel at it all.


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