Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kwaheri Kenya

My bags are packed and my tent is empty. In 12 hours, I’ll be on a plane over the Atlantic, heading back to the US. It’s been one heck of a ride.

Coming from the hyper-efficient US, it’s taken me a while to get used to a country where “I’m sorry, I have to go drink tea” is a legitimate excuse not to do something. I’ve finally figured out that “now” and “now now” have different meanings (and neither suggests that things will get done with any urgency whatsoever).

It hasn’t necessarily been easy living in Kenya. Since I moved here, I’ve been detained by corrupt police officers, I’ve contracted some weird parasites, and my tent has been invaded by biting ants. I’ve been discriminated against for being an American, for being a woman, and for being young.

But for every hardship and frustration I’ve encountered, I’ve had a hundred amazing experiences that mean infinitely more to me than all my little grievances do. I’ll never forget having cheetahs jump on the hood of my car, floating over the Mara in a hot-air balloon, or being offered a herd of cattle for my hand in marriage (which, by the way, I declined).

And then there’s the hyenas…gorgeous Sawtooth, mom-of-the-year Archer, and the loveable (but hideous) Moss. I’m pretty sure the hyenas all think of me as “that weird human that’s always hanging around the den in the white truck,” but I’ll definitely remember all their quirks and daily dramas.

I’ve also learned a ton along the way. Some of my new knowledge may be a bit too arcane to be useful (when in life will I really need to know how much an elephant weighs at birth, or how long it takes to hard-boil an ostrich egg?). But a lot of it will serve me well – now I know how to cook some fantastic Kenyan food, I can change a tire in mere minutes, and I’ve learned how to work alongside all sorts of people.

I’m not even out of the country yet, but I’ve already started to miss the remarkable friends I’ve made, the fantastic work I got to do here every day, and the unbeatable view from my breakfast table. And, of course, my unforgettable hyenas.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It ain't easy being Maasai

With my measly 5’5” height, my aversion to hot weather, and my personal dislike for red clothing, I knew I wasn’t born to be Maasai.

But hey, in the interest of cultural immersion, why not dip a toe into the local way of life? At Dupoto Forest, a gorgeous conservation area north of the Mara, we got some lessons on traditional Maasai activities.

And – as expected - it turns out I’m definitely not cut out to be Maasai. In fact, in everyone’s best interest, I should probably stay away from most of these activities. Bow-and-arrow shooting resulted in some humorous results. Needless to say, my arrows didn’t hit the target (or come even close). Luckily, I think my clever guides anticipated my ineptitude and gave me a particularly wide berth.

In an attempt to not burn down the largest intact forest in the Trans-Mara area, I left the next activity, fire-making, to the professionals. They have a very precise method: a smooth stick (made of wood from a fig tree) is inserted into a hole in a flat piece of wood (which must be African olive). After a mere minute of quick rotation, small shavings from the olive wood start smoking.

The shavings are dropped onto dry moss, and, with a few puffs of air, the moss catches aflame. Elegant, quick, simple (as long as you’re Maasai).

However, I am happy to say that I’m beginning to get the hang of one skill at which the Maasai excel: weather forecasting. Philomen can predict - to the nearest half-hour - if and when it will rain. Who needs when you have an expert around?

Anyway, in the midst of the rainy season, we’ve had a lucky streak of sunny weather. Yesterday, something just felt off, and I told Philomen it was going to rain. Lo and behold, my predicted downpour arrived, right on time.

I may not ever become a Maasai warrior, but if I pick up any of their amazing talents while I’m here, I’ll feel lucky.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My, what big teeth you have...

A hyena's mouth is a pretty intimidating sight. But, as long as you're not a tasty ungulate, it's also a fascinating one.

Surprisingly, it's not those deadly-sharp canines (those dagger-like teeth in front) that enable hyenas to do so much damage. Instead, it's the rather innocuous-looking premolars, located farther back along the jaws, that give hyenas their bone-cracking abilities.

Hyenas will carefully position a bone on one side of their mouth and bite down. Hard. Really hard.

From measuring hyenas' teeth, we can gather all sorts of information about them. We can tell an individual's rank (since low-rankers must crack far more bone than high-rankers, their premolars are much more worn), we can tell an individual's age (older animals' teeth are more worn than younger animals), and whether a hyena is "right-sided" or "left-sided" (just like we prefer to use one hand to write or to throw a ball, hyenas tend to use one side of their mouth more often to crack bone).

Now that I think about it, maybe that's why our hyenas steal gives their jaws a nice rest from all that work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In the Mara, expect the unexpected


They're big, scary, and they eat a lot of meat, right? Well, not always. Jackals sometimes seem to be the exception to these rules.

Not long ago, I happened upon this hungry jackal who was sniffing around a warthog and her babies, looking for a little morning bacon.

Naturally, you'd think the warthogs would flee the scene to save their hide. Nope...the tiniest piggie lunged at the jackal, launching him into obvious panic mode.

Not so big and scary, I guess. He ended up slinking off into the tall grass, sans breakfast (and probably with a bit less personal pride than he had started with).

This morning, we saw a jackal who seemed to be feeding on some little bits of bone. Ever the opportunists, jackals often consume the miniscule leftover scraps that lions and hyenas may ignore.

On closer inspection, however, we saw that the jackal wasn't eating scraps after seems that mushrooms were the delicacy of the day. The onset of the rainy season has caused fungi to pop up everywhere, and this jackal was feasting on a whole crop of little white mushrooms.

I'm pretty sure there's a moral to all these jackal stories...if you can't bring home the bacon, you'd better be willing to investigate other options.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science