A Ranger, A Photographer and A Blogger walk into a Jungle.
Let us call him Fred, for no other reason than reason itself. He is a rookie ranger, newly recruited, located deep in the woods of Marsabit National Park. One night he steps out to go have a leak. Steps out of his tent, walks a few meters away and unzips his trousers. The flow starts gently, then becomes ferocious as his bladder steps on the gas. He thinks to himself that perhaps drinking too much water before bed is not a good idea. Makes a mental note to include this habit in next year’s New Year’s resolutions. The stream slows down to a trickle. He shakes well, zips up and turns. And just as he makes the first step to his diggz, he hears a rustle to the side. He reaches for his rifle, only to realize that he has not carried it with him. The first thing that comes to his mind is Poachers! These guys have no mercy for man or beast. If they find you on their way, they will fire. That is the law of the jungle. When it comes down to it, when you find yourself standing face to face with an adversary, only one life will walk out of that situation. And given that Fred does not have his gun, well, there is really no guessing who is about to go the way of all flesh.
This is a rangers camp. Surely, no ivory hunter would be foolish enough to hunt so close. Either he was too brave or too stupid. Poachers are many things, mostly awful unmentionable things that I cannot call my worst enemy even when drunk, but stupid, uh-uh…stupid is definitely not one of them.
Another rustle comes from the bush. He bends and runs his hand on the ground for something, anything, that he can find. His palms grasp a thick stick that cannot really do any damage when he comes face to face with whatever thing is lurking in the shadows behind him. A low growl tears through the leaves. Something peels itself off the darkness. Right there and then, Fred knows that he is done for.
Brown fur. Paws the size of a nightmare. Then slit eyes that bounce the moonlight back. A dark brown mane that it wears like royalty. A tongue that lashes in and out as the King of the Jungle comes face to face with man. Fred takes one step back. A twig snaps and a deathly chill runs down the small of his back and down to his trousers where it leaves an amorphous patch that spreads, sticking cloth to skin. He raises his stick and aims it at the lion like it is a real gun, hoping that Mufasa here cannot tell the difference.
The way Fred later comes to tell this story, he swears that the standoff must have lasted half an hour. The lion just stood there, waiting, and he called his bluff. Somewhere after the tenth minute, his arms were failing, muscles being eaten up by fatigue, but he could not dare to move an inch lest he spooked Mufasa into believing that he was launching an attack. He stood his ground, recited every prayer on the rosary, begging whoever was listening at the time – whether God or the Devil – to send help.
One of them must have listened, because after what felt like eternity, a ranger who was on patrol showed up and the lion trotted away into the bushes. And as it did, poor Fred’s knees melted in relief and he dropped like a sack of charcoal, his wooden gun landing on his stomach. Then everything went black.
That is how the jungle welcomed him home.
We will not name this one because he has a name. Nicholas Loiyangalan. But you can call him Nick. A fairly tall, lanky man whose parents, strangely, thought he was born to build roads. That is how he ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. And just like all these cliché stories go, he picked up a camera one day, and dropped that yellow helmet like a rapper at the end of a fire spit. Together with his friends, they set up a company and because they are amazing at what they do, business started rolling in. Most of the gigs were wildlife photography. They shot in like most of the major reserves, game parks, conservancies and sanctuary. But you see, Nicholas is not a wildlife conservationist. He is a trained engineer and season cameraman. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how our boy Nick ends up in trouble.
A call comes in for them to go shoot somewhere in the Tsavo, I think. The man on the other side is a white man with an affinity for wildlife protection. Nick and his crew rock up as usual, go on a safari, take fantastic shots, save them in computers and then leave.
A week later a familiar number calls to ask for the photos.
“Hello mate. Any chance you have some nice photos of giraffes that you took from here?”
“Giraffes? Yes. I have”
Nick goes to his computer, folder named wildlife, searches for the best photos of giraffes he has ever taken and stored in his hard drive, attaches them to an email, complete with a neat Best Regards at the bottom, then clicks send. Like the professional he is, he sends a message to the client to say, You Have Mail.
Mister Odiero does not check the email that day. And because of the silence, Nick thinks all is good. Until the next day when he is out of the office and his partner calls him, a sense of exigency wearing down his voice, asking, “Boss, ulitumia ule jamaa wa Tsavo picha za giraffe?”
“Giraffe? Eeeh. Nilituma.”
“Giraffe gani maze?”
The next time he gets a call from the client himself.
“Nick, kindly send me photos of the giraffes that you took here.” He says kindly but from the way his voice crackles, there is very little patience remaining.
“I sent photos of giraffes, sir.” Now he sounds like he is standing in the Deputy Principal’s office, trying helplessly to talk his way out of a certain indefinite suspension.
“No mate, these photos are photos of giraffes from Lewa. They are giraffes from the North, not here.”
Now this is where the math changes from simple arithmetic to calculus for the man from Maralal. Who even knows that there are different types of giraffes surely? Si giraffe ni giraffe? Those brown skin animals with necks the length of a rugby goal post, the ones who run clumsily like a bunch of silly boys jumping into conclusions. So what does this man mean by Northern and Southern giraffes? And how did this client even know that those that he sent were from Lewa? Kwani those giraffes have national IDs? Or did the giraffes have an accent?
What Nick does not understand is that his client luckily checked the photos himself, instead of delegating to a secretary who knows as much as Jon Snow. Why? Because had they published a story with the wrong giraffe, other than bringing them embarrassment, it would also cause confusion. Because that is how wrong data is recorded.
Think of it this way. Right now, there are only three surviving Northern white rhinos. Read all about them here. Now imagine if someone somewhere shares an image of a Northern white rhino, saying that it is available in Tanzania. Do you know the kind of confusion that would cause?
Poor Nick did not know anything about that. Talk to him about lighting, cameras, angles, exposure, rule of thirds, running lines…he will tell you everything. But start talking about sijui Giraffa tippelskirchi, Giraffa reticulate, and Rothschild’s giraffe, and watch his eyes dim in utter confusion. He might as well be watching a Fijian film, in black and white, without subtitles.
Luckily for Nick, his sister studied a course on wildlife. So he sends her the photos he had and she sorts him out. Talking about how different giraffes have different diamond patches on their skin, and sijui their ears are shaped sijui how. Simply put, she speaks in hieroglyphics. Which does not matter, because the client finally gets his giraffes.
Last week I was with Nick for yet another media trip to the Lewa Conservancy. Every year Safaricom holds a marathon inside this conservancy, but a few months before the marathon, there is always a media trip to cover stories from the Northern countryside. He told us this story while we were chilling inside the Ngiri House, warming ourselves next to a fireplace, beers in hand, after a chilly evening game drive. And I wish I had not laughed at him as much as I did because of what happened right after.
And this brings us to the final individual.
Magunga Williams Oduor, of House Oduor K’Okango, Third of his name, Karuoth Clan, Alego Komenya, Siaya County. That is where I come from, and that is where I must be taken back to when I die. Because that is home. Ideally, this is where I would like to check out – in my sleep, in my old age. After I have buried all my siblings (it is only fair, as a last born, to live longer) and my wife (it would be unfair to leave her behind alone), but none of my children. Yet, because of the way life is, I will most likely die far away from Alego. This is a fate I have resigned myself to. What I have not resigned myself to is how I will pass away. And one option I will never entertain, is being eaten alive by wild animals.
So guys have finished listening to Nick’s run-in with giraffes and everyone has retired to their rooms to shower before dinner is served. The sides of our stomachs are still aching from laughter. I walk out of Ngiri House’s living room and who do I find fiddling with gadgets outside? Mwarv. The photographer.
“I thought you had gone to your room?”
“No, I was taking some shots of the place. Long Exposure. Look,” he says as he shows me a beautiful photo of Ngiri House at night.
You see, I have been trying to re-educate myself. There are certain things that I got from 8-4-4 that I will never use in my life. People say there is no such thing as waste when it comes to knowledge, but you tell me, what will my understanding of Moles Concept ever help me with? It has been a decade since I left high school and I cannot say Moles Concept has helped me in any way. It just sits in my head, taking up space.
So I am learning new skills. Skills that I wish 8-4-4 had given me. And one such skill is photography. That is why the moment I met Mwarv on that trip, I told him he will be my instructor for the next few days. One of the things he had promised to teach me was long exposure. A camera trick for shooting spaces at night.
“Already?” I ask him, my vanity wishing I was the one who took that shot.
“It’s no problem,” he says, “Come I show you how to do it.”
He takes me to a green lawn compounding Ngiri, mounts my camera on a tripod, tells me which settings to put, sets a timer, and then, click. Damn! I have never believed that I can take a shot like that. Then he changes direction and asks me to take a photo of the house from a different angle, and walks away, leaving me in the dark.
What is wrong with this man. I cannot admit to him that I am scared of the dark, first of all. A 26-year-old man explaining nyctophobia is just downright embarrassing. Then second, it is not as if Ngiri House is fenced or anything. The lawn just extends into the rest of Lewa. And so as I kneel to take the shot, my heart is pounding like a landlord demanding rent.
Then I hear something rustle behind me.
It could have been nothing, when I think about it now. But at that moment, I am not taking that chance. I am not waiting to find out. Certainty is not a luxury I can afford. In my head, the same beast that stood face to face with Fred huko Marsabit, is now on my ass. And me I am not Fred. I do not sense danger and then stand to look it in the eye. At that moment, I know for sure that I am going to die. Scar is going to leap out of that bush behind me and have me for dinner. WITHOUT EVEN TOMATO SAUCE! Aiyayayayayaya! MAKOSA!
Listen guys, I know I am a goon. One from the University of Nairobi, no less. I have fought many fights – with other goons and anti-riot police alike. But even then, none of that prepared me to face a hungry beast roaming the Lewa wild. I take off, leaving the camera behind to fight its own battles.
And let me tell you something.
You would imagine that at the precise instant when you really need to run, you will take off like Usain Bolt. Yeah right. Try running when you are gripped with fear. Fear is paralyzing, my friend. You will run the way I ran that night. Clumsily. Like a newborn foal. No balance at all. Stumbling, hands flailing, tripping over untied laces. It is a pathetic run, by any standard. But I had to try bana.
Since I am here telling this story, it means I was not eaten by Mufasa’s evil brother. Later on, a ranger stationed at the house would tell me that it was actually an old buffalo that had pulled away from the herd. Apparently, old buffalos do that. When they get old, other young buffalos bully them so much that they are forced to retreat and become lone animals. Which makes them vulnerable to other pack animals.
This year, the Safaricom Marathon in Lewa is set to happen on the 24th of June. It is the only marathon in the world that is run in a conservancy, and people scramble to sign up. It is amazing just how many people think it is a good idea to run next to wild animals. Ha! These people are really dying to die. Even with the arranged maximum security or armed rangers, at every turn to protect runners, and hovering monitor choppers, I still would not dare. I accept, I am not that brave. Why are we tempting the Devil?
Since its inception 17 years ago, this marathon has raised USD6.1 million geared towards protecting these animals, sustaining other wildlife projects around the region, and enhancing the livelihood of communities living around it.
On the last day, our host, Wanjiku Kinuthia, asked me if I wanted to run in the marathon this year. I told her I would think about it, but the truth is that there is nothing to think about. I am not interested. Not just because I have no problem staying alive, or because I am not prepared for a 21km run, but also because I have already run my race in the wild. That night when learning to take photos of Ngiri while exposing my butt too long to the nocturnal beasts of Lewa, I found myself running. It does not matter that it was for all of five seconds. It does not matter that I ran for my life and not for charity. Point is, I ran.
In short, Wanjiku if you are reading this, the answer is No Thanks. Been there, done that.
I would remember that buffalo on the ride back to Nairobi. Perhaps it just wanted to photobomb, to enjoy one last moment of vanity for the Gram, as it rages against the dying of the light. And this wuss of a man denied him that.