|The Many Failures of Lions
||[Apr. 28th, 2006|02:23 pm]
“Now it is pleasant to hunt something you want very much over a long period of time, being outwitted, outmaneuvered, and failing at the end of each day, but having the hunt and knowing every time you are out there, sooner or later, your luck will change and that you will get the chance that you are seeking. But it is not pleasant to have a time limit by which you must get your kudu or perhaps never get it, nor even see one. It is not the way hunting should be. It is too much like those boys who used to be sent to Paris with two years in which to make good as writers or painters after which, if they had not made good, they could go home and into their father’s business. The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.”
– from Green Hills of Africa
The Icarus Complex
At the cost of a day’s pay and some grumbling from the school superintendent, I could have, at the end of March, driven about 50 miles north of Lagos to see what might have been my only chance ever to see a total solar eclipse. I might have had the perilous view all to myself for I might have been the only one outdoors. Rumor has it government officials in those states ordered citizens to remain inside, fearing that people would not understand what was happening and that bedlam would ensue. I fail to see the long-term benefits of a blanket house arrest over a little community education, but such logic has not been the wont of myopic leaders in these parts. They simply hope for a minimum of natural phenomena and then corral everyone indoors whenever something occurs which they deem inexplicable, such as, say, sideways rain or an abnormally large yam. Yet it is unlikely, or rather impossible – even if such a silly mandate were given – that citizens sat quietly and obediently in their homes without the slightest curiosity about why the light from the windows had dimmed suddenly to a kind of white and ghostly darkness.
Nigerians had just recovered from the cabin fever of the previous week, in which they were forced upon pain of police beatings to stay home from work for five days to wait, to cooperate, and to be counted in the first national census since 1991. This also meant no school, though not one of the reported one million enumerators ever showed at my door. The results will not be published until summer, I hear, but early indicators predict the following report: “There are too many damn people in Lagos. Millions, even. They’re everywhere. How could we possibly count them all?” By the time the moon began cutting in front of the sun the following Wednesday morning, everyone was so excited to be back at work and earning money again that the eclipse itself was overshadowed by the end of the senseless census malaise days.
It is the unspoken initiative of governments to fear curiosity and its fabled lethality, though in this case it would only blind the cat. Still, schools are extensions of government, and so fifty miles south of the benighted nonsense to the north, the American International School of Lagos took similar action, in which (I am sorry to say) I was complicit. I awoke that day having completely forgotten about the eclipse, and in the eventual realization of this I felt no remorse. I’m not the science teacher, I told myself, but I ended up pulling up the NASA website and finding the exact path and time to show the kids. Lagos would have a partial eclipse of magnitude 0.968 (the meaning or significance of which I had no idea) beginning at 10:21 a.m.
Around 8:30 a.m. slow and heavy through the intercom came the superintendent’s voice, with repressed anxiety and faux-calm, forbidding any student from looking into the sky. This of course had the effect of rallying even the most detached and uninterested junior high kids to the cause of defying authority. Those who could not have cared less before were now wholeheartedly committed to burning their eyes out of their heads whether the administration liked it or not.
It apparently had a similar effect on some teachers, for at about 9:15 a.m. the superintendent came back on the intercom, a little less repressed and less calm this time, making it clear to teachers that no – she repeated – NO protective glasses had been approved by the school and that all students, glasses or no glasses, were forbidden to look at the sun. I wondered where students were getting protective glasses? And which teachers were handing them out for viewing? Someone told me they saw some paper-bespectacled fourth-grader from Ms. Gutridge’s class looking upward. Ms. Gutridge, my fiancée.
During the announcement my class prepared to go down to the computer lab to do research. Before they got up from their chairs I warned them again that much worse things than blindness would come to them should I see them trying to sneak a peak at the sun. Besides, I knew after that announcement that the principals would be sniffing about the courtyard like perky-eared watchdogs looking to pounce on any curious cats and the teachers who are their keepers.
As soon as we opened the door we saw Ms. D’Ambrosio, the science teacher, holding binoculars and a notebook, surrounded by her students. At first sight, I thought she had gone mad, forcing all kids who had ever been a pain in the ass not only to look directly into the eclipse but also to magnify the descending rays deep into their optic nerves. It turned out she was only projecting the light onto notebook paper to show the shadowed outline of the sun and the creeping along of the dark side of the moon. Upon realizing what was really going on, it became significantly less interesting. And while her students and mine thought the shadowed projection was cool at first, they too lost interest after about 10 seconds. If I would have had more foresight, or even a little more common sense, I would have brought my video camera to school and at that moment pointed it at the sun, flipped the LCD screen, and shown live coverage of what we all wanted to see. They would have run from the binoculars to my video camera. I could have been a hero. Instead, I escorted my class quietly down to the lab as they all sauntered slowly and looked out into the courtyard at how everything in the sunlight seemed awash in a strange yellow tint.
As the students filed into the lab and began their research, I saw the light continue to change outside. I began to think of when I was a child and how there was similar paranoia and fear mongering in school and how I never saw an eclipse except through those ridiculous pinhole projectors. Did they really expect us to get excited about a slowly moving shadow on a goddamned piece of paper? I mean, really, I could recreate that with a flashlight and a tennis ball.
I had looked at the sun before. Never during an eclipse, but how bad could it be? As long as you didn’t stare into bright spots. Just half a second or so. I had lived thirty years on this planet, under that sun, and under that moon without ever seeing with my own eyes the true and physical evidence of their alignment. I had to do something.
Checking that there were no suspicions from my students and that they were all hard at work, I sidled slowly toward the door and told one boy near me that I’d be back in a minute. I walked down and around to the other corridor that was opposite the direction of the sun. There were no administrators in the courtyard, only a few idle parents and purposeful custodians. No one was watching me, but I hesitated. I started to look up slowly and then realized the sun was too far behind the building. I walked further down, but it was still obscured and was now shining directly down on the basketball court on the other side of the building. There was no time to go downstairs and all the way around to the court. Besides, if I did my students could see me from the windows of the lab. . . . Wait. That’s it. The windows. I could look out and up from the windows. I hurried back to the lab and must have entered more forcefully than I planned because I noticed many students looking up from their monitors with startled expressions. Going immediately to the windows, I bent over the table between two students who had stopped working, and I looked up toward the light.
“Mr. Curry!” one of them said. “What are you doing? You said not to look. You’re not supposed to look at the sun!”
I could hear several students scoot back and stand up out of their chairs, and as I leaned farther down I began to see that I would not see. The sun was too far behind the building. I would have had to be out on the court. A few kids began to gather behind me, so I stood upright in front of the table and said, “You can’t see it! You cannot see it, anyway. You can’t see the sun from here. I was just checking so that you wouldn’t look. Sit down, sit down.”
Looking back I saw that they were sitting down again though they were still suspect of me and my “checking” for the sun. I turned back toward the window and saw that the light was getting bright again. I missed my opportunity. As I was about to turn away I looked down toward the basketball court. At the far free throw line stood three young boys who could not have been older than first-grade age. They were standing side-by-side, each with one hand up like awnings over their eyebrows, with foreheads tilted back, and one of them, his mouth moving, his other arm raised straight, narrow, steady in a perfect diagonal leading up to his finger which pointed to the sky, and he stood there, fearless and defiant, Icarus incarnate, his wings melting on the playground.
Half the Battle
We talked of not going anywhere. We knew after Christmas that spring break might be our last chance for a last trip, but as we neared March we were running out of money. Or not so much running out of money as having to reserve it for other things such as wedding photography, wedding cake, wedding DJ, my groomsmen’s bar bill at the reception, a down payment on a car, a down payment on a computer, house payments through October, and the $10,000 interest free loans the school gave us upon hiring that we have to pay back in June. These are not pleasant thoughts, and they make me close my eyes and breathe deeply even as I write them, especially those last two, though the bar bill may follow close after as cause for alarm.
The three trips we took within Nigeria to Idanre and Akure, Kano and Katsina, and Badagary all together cost as much as our plane tickets to Spain over Christmas, so that could have paid for our spring break or a trip to Ghana, which we had also planned to do this year. But Ghana is now out of the question. We could have gone there for spring break, but if we were going to go anywhere it was going to be Kenya.
Heather originally had the idea of collecting tribal masks from the North, South, East, and West of Africa before we realized that most South African tribes do not use masks and that there are also no such masks in Morocco. We had our mask from Benin and one from Cameroon, and so in South Africa we bought one from the Congo, which is southern enough, and we had only now to get to Kenya.
When I told my colleague Ken that we were thinking of not going so as to save more for getting settled again in the U.S., he said that he would rather go into debt before leaving Africa without seeing Kenya. And if my mind was not made up by then it was made so afterwards. We would not stay holed up on the compound for ten days. We would spend the money and try not to think about it. We would go to Kenya.
The last two times we prepared to depart from Lagos’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport, we did so only a few days after a plane crash. The first, in October, went down shortly after leaving Lagos going north days before we were to leave Lagos going north on the same airline. The second, in December before we left for Spain, crashed upon descent into Port Harcourt in southeastern Nigeria.
Heather does not do well on airplanes even when there have been no crashes and the airline we are flying is world renowned for its safety record, so these circumstances made for trying times. Then, the day before we were to leave for Kenya, Heather called me in my classroom. She was distraught and panicked because after expressing to a parent her anxiety about having to fly to Kenya the next day, the parent said, “Oh, did you here about that plane that crashed in Nairobi yesterday?”
Before she could get me on the phone, another parent had told her that she should never worry about getting on an airplane because “when it’s your time, then it’s your time.” This always reminds me of a joke my father tells. Whenever he flies, he says he is never worried about whether it is his time. Instead, he worries about whether it is the time of the guy sitting next to him.
I told Heather I did not believe the story of the crash but that I would check it out. There really was no reason to doubt it except that it would have been an utterly absurd coincidence. The third time in a row a plane had crashed either in the country of our departure or in the country of our arrival just days before we are scheduled for take-off? – Impossible, I told myself.
I found the story right away. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport announced a plane had crashed, killing 80 people coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The news went worldwide quickly, but when the international media converged on the Kenyan Airport Authority’s spokesperson to get all the gory details, he informed them it was only a drill. Only a drill? If it were only a drill, he was later asked, why did KAA officials report the crash to the media, even down to the details of from where the plane was coming and the number of people killed? They wanted it to seem real, he said, to test their preparedness. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It is good to know all that panic and grief served a good cause. I’m glad to have helped train the staff of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Let me know if there is anything further I can do. Call me anytime with fake news of a tragedy.
The next day we boarded the Kenya Airways flight with little worry about the safety of the airline or our airplane but with slight unease about the nonsense we might encounter once we got there. Heather’s real worry was the smaller plane we would have to take to the coast at Mombasa, but I assured her it would be completely safe. Two days after we arrived in Nairobi, a small plane crashed in northern Kenya, killing 14 people.
Where I Come From
Choosing not to fly a puddle jumper plane from Nairobi to the Masai Mara meant instead enduring five hours of bump-and-rattle roads in a van equipped with the suspension of an old, rusty wheelbarrow, which, unpleasant on the rump though it was, allowed us to take in the captivating, mysterious countryside of Kenya, blurred by agitation though it was. There were some spots of relief in the journey – brief moments when the pot holes disappeared, when we could stop jerking the wheel back and forth, not having to zigzag our way forward – and it was on such a spot, cruising speedily alongside one of the endless many hills, when we looked out to see the Rift Valley below.
A few million years from now, a short time geologically speaking but possibly long after the Earth has rid itself of humanity, Kenya, along with Ethiopia, Somalia, and Tanzania, will break off from the African continent as did Madagascar 160 million years ago and the Arabian Peninsula 30 million years ago. In fact, it has already begun.
The western edge of the Horn of Africa is the only place on the planet where the edge of a continent is actively separating from its mainland, with earthquakes and magma spews occurring in increasing frequency. It happens unconsciously slow, of course, at a rate of about a millimeter per year, but when the lithosphere fully and finally cracks the Rift Valley will no longer be valley but ocean. The Red Sea will flood the deep crevices, eventually consuming the Olduvai Gorge, and inundate the signs of man’s beginning long after his end.
To view the valley smacks of anticlimax. It is difficult to see the context of its significance in the landscape. Its span and stretch can be breathtaking, but it pales compared to the sporadic acacia in the wide-open Mara laid out before green rolling hills, all appearing overwhelmingly vast until you look up and take in the expanse of sky arcing to and fro all horizons.
Looking down at the Rift Valley, one doesn’t imagine it to be a place from which came our bipedal hominid precursors; but it is. It is not easy to fathom this enormous wedge one day full of saltwater sea; but it will be so. One wonders what anthropological mysteries are lying within the ocean floors today.
I saw only a small section of the Great Rift, but I might have seen none of it had I flown a straight line to the Mara. Even so, I’d rather not have seen more of it from a plane. In a place such as that, one needs time for rumination, slow and up close. So I am thankful for my fiancée’s fear of flying. I wish I could have descended further, driven down into the valley and kicked at the dirt with my toes. If I failed to capture all I could in my brief time there, then I can only search for another chance someday.
In later life I hope to go back to East Africa, to Kenya again and to Ethiopia and then to Tanzania to see the Serengeti and the Olduvai, and again imagine it all under miles of water, after all human discoveries that will ever be discovered are long and far away from any extant memory. In the meantime maybe they’ll find another Lucy or Rosetta or their sisters, mothers, or grandmothers.
Physics, Stephen Hawking said, will one day reveal the face of God, yet archaeology may beat it to the punch. One never knows what will be found after the next shaking of the dust. And the silly disputes of tomorrow will look with scorn on the silly disputes of today, and weren’t they all silly, they will say, to have ever disputed that we all came from Africa.
The Last of Africa
Nairobi was a slow-motion flash. We arrived at the Stanley Hotel at 5:30 a.m. having left Lagos the night before and then slept like dead people, to borrow Huck’s simile, until an inconsiderate call from our tour company rep. at 9:30 woke us to settle up the arrangements. Not scheduled to leave for safari until the following morning, the full first day was entirely at our leisure. I opted for more sleeping but was outvoted by Heather and our colleague Leslie and her daughter Hannah; the two of them would meet up with family to begin a separate safari the following day. They all wanted to see the Ngong house, where Karen Blixen lived and “had a farm at the foot of Ngong Hills,” about which she later wrote the episodic Out of Africa as Isak Dineson.
Reminded of her story I recalled not her story itself or Robert Redford or Meryl Streep but the remarkable likeness of another book and movie called I Dreamed of Africa. I thought if these two stories were published more recently, there would be suing of the DaVinci Code vs. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail variety.
We walked through the house, quietly bemused with replicas of her furniture, flattering photos of her youth revealing features softer and less angular than Streep’s, and so prettier though less stunning, and we then came to photos of her lover Denys Finch Hatton with the long, thin face and small, light eyes of an Englishman less handsome than Redford but looking so very English that it makes the actor’s iconic American accent in the film seem grossly malapropos. The pictures she painted of her servants so detailed with appreciation and curiosity, her books for reference and writing, and finally the unflattering photos of her late in life, besieged by anorexia, consuming only plumes of cigarette smoke, all in black yet smiling as if she knew something we shall never know. And let us not mention the single photograph of the baron, her husband, for he was only a prop, a user being used, living a banal and privileged life without significant risk.
At the small bookstore there, Heather bought the Blixen book and that is what she read the rest of the week and I bought Green Hills of Africa and that is what I read. They served us well in the early afternoons after the morning safari and in the evenings after dinner and then the bar after the late afternoon safari and then made nice beach reading under open thatch-roofed huts in Mombasa, the words all washing down nicely with Cuba libres and piña coladas.
We left Nairobi in the early morning and on the way stopped at Lake Naivasha for a hippo safari, which involved motoring around the lake in what could be called either a small boat or large canoe, getting close enough to sleeping hippo families that, had we disturbed them further, could have snapped the vessel in two with one chomp of the jaws. The largest family we visited was 48 strong; the smallest 22. Being in the water among that many hippopotami is quite a rush, though perhaps I placed too much trust in the manually steered motor at the rear of our family-sized kayak.
That adrenaline fix being finished, we moved on to Lake Nakuru, where we would safari only a day. Here we saw white rhino, ambling in ashen and prehistoric glory, and while deep in the forest we came upon a herd of several giraffe and another herd of even more zebra, all feasting on the brush as baboons scampered about their feet. It was as if someone had arranged a menagerie there before we passed, yet it was all just happenstance of the wild. A good first day. We felt lucky.
But we were in Kenya to see cats, for we had failed to see any in South Africa. One can only see so many elephant, hippo, giraffe, water buffalo, and myriad of antelope before the sight of any animal that does not have paws and fangs becomes merely disappointing on the first day and maddeningly intolerable on the last.
So it was immeasurably satisfying to see two lionesses and a male before sunset, even at a distance at which one needed binoculars to notice which of the three wore a mane. We spent entirely too much time on them, but how were we to know we’d see so many so close in the Mara?
We celebrated that night with some Tusker, a cheap and good Kenyan lager, while taking in a live performance by The Sworbmalts, a local a coppella chorus, who in mid-act pulled Heather up and danced with her all around the lodge bar. I enjoyed this immensely, swaying in my chair to the tune of their voices. When the song was over she came back, sat down, and scooped a bug out of my beer. I gulped it down, and we went back to our room to sleep hard under mosquito nets.
The next day we were off to Mara Simba, a lodge just north of the Talek River on the eastern border of the Mara. Our room there opened up to a small patio which looked out on a river where hippos bathed and snorted loud enough in the predawn darkness to wake us for our sunrise safari and the sleeping crocodiles in the afternoon after lunch made us look up from our books more often than we would have liked.
The panorama of the Mara is ineffably exquisite. To see the sun rise over open savannah and backlight the flat-topped acacia, to see it set among the hills, each moment adding new ember-orange nuance and phosphorescent chiaroscuro to the sky, was one of the most deeply profound experiences of my life. That glow over green will forever be with me.
And the landscape over which we trekked was so teeming with life that by the time dusk came calling us home it had lost its novelty to be ten feet away from four lionesses alternately sleeping and rolling in the grass.
We saw species we never knew existed, such as the topi, an iridescent antelope indigenous only to Kenya and Tanzania whose skin shines purple, blue and mud red in the sun. We saw eland, gazelle, kudu, hartebeest, wildebeest, sable, impala. We saw cub lions, papas, and mamas. We saw all manner of elephant from baby to bull. We saw warthogs spar with their tusks. We saw thousands of flamingo fly away from the banks of a rivulet. We saw mongoose digging, throwing dirt between their legs and far into the air behind them. We saw a black and white colobus monkey looking back at us from a tree. We saw a jackal munching on a field mouse. We saw spotted hyena dog-tongue breathing in the heat. We saw the elusive black rhino, one of only about 10 in the entire Mara. We saw at least a small glimpse of what Hemingway and Finch Hatton lamented the loss of nearly a century ago – a country that still is as we found it.
Between game drives one afternoon we visited a Masai village, where we were welcomed with a song and performed by the men who jumped several feet in the air, their long hair bouncing, in ardent celebration of their song. The women sang as well, but they had no braids to bounce with dance for they are forbidden to grow hair on their heads.
We met our Masai guide who introduced himself as Dixon and who made us privy to the customs and organization of the village. We visited the inside of one of the huts and sat on a thatch bed as the buzzing of flies so bombarded us that we had to eventually ignore it as much as we could, as the villagers were now quite used to doing.
He told us of how the Masai do not hunt but subsist almost entirely from their cows and goats. He told us how the Masai have no religion and that when a villager dies they have no ceremony. In fact, burial itself is somewhat new, for they used to dispose of the body to be consumed by the animals and the earth.
We walked away from the village down to a stream where the Masai get fresh water, and when Heather asked if it were safe from lions, he said, yes, it is safe.
“But are there lions out here?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
“They won’t hurt us?”
“No, not unless you provoke them,” he explained. “I have been walking here before and come upon a lion sleeping. He woke up and saw me and went back to sleep, so I kept walking. The only time we have conflict with lions is when they steal our cattle and goats. Then we must kill them.”
“If a lion charged us now, what would you use to kill him?”
Dixon unsheathed a double-bladed machete, which we later found out also serves to cut finger- and toenails.
As we were walking back, Dixon saw Heather’s insulin pump she uses to control her diabetes, and when she explained to him what it was he was astounded. We all learned a lot from each other that day.
On our last day of safari we set out on the game drive so replete with satisfaction that we told our guide Tony we had nothing left to do but to see a lion make a kill. He laughed and shook his head, knowing the lions had made their kills by now, but you never know of what they may make a long, slow meal. Not five minutes after our joking we came upon a dead zebra in the early morning twilight, but the cause of death was not a lion.
It appeared untouched by any predator, no visibly broken skin, no deformities or parts torn asunder. It simply lay on its side with its top hind leg stiff and straight in the air. Heather speculated it might have been a snakebite. Our guide only kept saying it must be a lion for lack of a better explanation. So why was it not eaten?
On returning to the lodge from the morning drive, we saw the same zebra though it now was surrounded by several living zebras standing still. “Look,” Tony said. “They’re mourning.”
When we told this story to one of our colleagues, she said our guide was anthropomorphizing the zebra, but to say that is anthropocentric. I don’t believe our species has a monopoly on grieving.
During the end of the afternoon drive, Tony got a call on the radio and sped off fast over the rocky dirt road through the reserve. He was trying to find us a kill, but not that of a lion. When we arrived, the space was crowded with several safari vans. A leopard had drug an impala up into a tree. We saw the limp and eviscerated carcass clearly, its hoofs hanging well below a bottom branch. But the leopard was high behind the leaves, and we saw only its spotted hind end and tail. This was the second leopard we saw, and the first kill by a cat. We had seen all we could possibly ask for, a lucky safari indeed, and exponentially more impressive than what we saw near Krueger Park in South Africa.
Returning to the lodge for the last time, we felt deeply contented. And just five minutes before we arrived, there still was the zebra, again surrounded, but this time by a horde of vultures picking and pulling at the innards along with a few pelicans, and two hyenas sitting a few yards away from the action, having stuffed themselves full.
“By tomorrow, there will be nothing left,” Tony said.
Such an intensely rewarding experience can also be intensely exhausting, and by that time we were ready for the coast. Mombasa was just what we hoped it would be – a vacation from our holiday, a time to debrief, to unwind, and to reflect amid sea breezes. A time to be lazy, eating and drinking all day at the pool bar. A time to be thoughtful, reading and talking out under a thatched hut on the beach. A time to be silly, riding camels along the shoreline.
We saw the men with the camels waiting for resort patrons to give in to their curiosity. We had been propositioned already by the guys from Aqua Land next door and passed on the opportunity to jet ski out into the ocean, an hour away, to ride through mangroves, which sounded wonderful but not for €165. The camels were more our style.
Heather, whose nom de guerre is Bartering Queen, went out to inquire of the price and haggled them from 3,500 Kenyan shillings ($50) for a 15-minute ride down to 1,100 Kenyan shillings ($15) for a 30-minute ride. They agreed to this price thinking they could fit both of us on one camel, but when they saw me approach, they said, “Oh! Big boy!” and they gave us each our own camel. My camel’s name was George, they said.
All along Heather’s ulterior motive for this ride was to get down to where there were markets selling kikoi, a quintessential Kenyan cloth that has become popular as a kind of wrap-around skirt. Of course, this would take haggling as well and soon it had taken two hours instead of 30 minutes and the tide was too high for the camels to go back along the shoreline.
The camels had to be led through rough and unstable terrain to get to the back roads, along which lived local farmers and villagers who were not used to white people passing their houses and fields, much less white people on the backs of camels.
We were a source of instant amusement for everyone who saw us, and all we could do was smile and laugh back at them and greet them with “Jambo!”
It was all quite surreal, and for a moment I left my body and saw myself from the eyes of those farmers and thought that if someone would have told me three and a half years ago that on this day I would be riding on the back roads of Mombasa, Kenya, through local villages, trying to find an alternate route back to my spot on the shore of the Indian Ocean, I would have said that such a story is unimaginable.
Perched high atop a camel named George my mind began to ponder how soon I will be in a new place again yet back in my home country far away from camel rides on Kenyan beaches, zebras mourning in the Mara, and a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
This, for me, was the last of Africa, for I knew when I returned to work in Lagos I’d see nothing but my flat and my work until I finally left that behind too, along with all the other things about Nigeria that were no longer exotic but imbued with the ordinariness of home. Kenya was the last of Africa, the last of the exotic for me, for soon I’d be in a new home, and I wondered would people believe me when I tell them these stories? Would I believe them myself?
I thought of how when I leave all of this here, all the stories will recede and recede from memory until one day I’ll come home from a large grocery store to eat in front of a small television to watch reruns of sitcoms, and it will be then that I start to wonder if I really did imagine it all, all those places, all those stories leading up to the last of Africa and all of those stories about Lagos as my home. Will it all become only a dream? And will it be a dream I try to recreate or forget? Will the stories of the next three years or those of the years after that ever compare to the stories of the last three?
I came to Africa starting from scratch, and the adjustment was not always smooth. In a new life, in a new career, starting new again, will I find success? How many times will I have to fail?
As the camel George made its way back to our beach and seesawed down to let me off, I thought of all these questions once more and then put them out of my mind as we walked. For I knew the answers before I asked the questions. I knew the answers to them all.
Unless it has been trained or denaturalized by exposure to man, the lion runs from nothing. This is for two reasons – one vain, the other practical. The first is that the lion is prideful, and it will not deign to be bothered. The second is that the lion cannot run fast, and so why bother?
The lion runs from nothing but neither does the elephant, rhino, water buffalo, or hippo. So why is the lion said to rule? Possibly, one could argue that the lion has been known on rare occasions to attack and kill small elephants, water buffalo, and hippo. But still, even if it attacked the rhino, it could not penetrate the nearly two-inch thick skin. The rhino is impervious to the lion, so there is no reason for the rhino to abdicate the throne.
Also, the lion is an embarrassingly inefficient and incompetent hunter. It succeeds in only about one out of every five attempts to capture its prey. So it fails approximately 80 percent of the time. And if it were left solely to the slower, less agile males with their pretty hair, it would fail even more frequently. Female lions do almost all the hunting. Then the male lion gets first dibs on the kill, taking his “lion’s share” of about 25 percent of the meat. The females then enjoy what’s left of the fruits of their labor, and then finally, the cubs are allowed a spot at the table. How generous and equitable is that?
If a CEO, president, or monarch had a failure rate of 80 to 90 percent, he or she would likely be ousted by termination, impeachment, or coup. On the other hand, the elephant, rhino, water buffalo, and hippo succeed in finding food 99.9 percent of the times in which they go looking for it. Their failure rate is 800 times less than that of the lion.
So what is the justification for simba’s reign? Well, it’s simple, really. It’s the struggle.
The elephant, rhino, water buffalo, and hippo live in an Eden from which the lion has been expelled. Every day they wake up to a veritable cornucopia of the grass, shrubs, and trees that comprise the whole of their diet. They live banal and privileged lives without significant risk. They are the barons of the jungle.
Every day the lion wakes knowing it will have to fight, scrape, and dig to survive, and every time a gazelle jukes it senseless or an impala slips its grasp, it learns. Every time a giraffe scars its belly with a kick or a protective mama elephant charges, it becomes better, smarter in instinct.
On the last day of safari we came across four young male lions not old enough yet to grow manes. “These lions have been kicked out of their pride,” our guide said. “They have to find and take over a new pride soon.”
When the lion succeeds, it does not celebrate. It does not congratulate itself or its fellow lions that participated in the kill. It eats and rests, and begins anew, not out of self-righteous asceticism but out of necessity. It knows that next time it may fail.
When the lion fails, it does not regret. It does not wallow or sulk. It rests and begins anew, not out of self-righteous determination but out of necessity. It knows that next time it may succeed. When the lion is expelled from the pride, forced to start from scratch, it does not spend time on worry or fret. It sets out, searching for possibilities, new options and opportunities to learn, to get better, smarter, and to sharpen instinct. The many failures of the lion are the reason it is king.