Tears in Africa by Joan Wahl Countryman

“You can’t go to Africa on your own, Mom” my daughter, Deirdre, exclaimed when I showed her the brochure for “Wings over Africa.”

“To see Kenya has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. Now that you and your brother Tony are all grown up and I’m alone, I feel drawn to Africa. The travel agent has worked with me, helping me use my air miles, and finding the very best trip for a widow traveling alone,” I assured her. Everything would be fine.

Landing in Nairobi in October, 1994, I began to have second thoughts about my decision. Maybe I am biting off more than I can chew, I thought. What if I get sick or even die? What if the kids are right and I disrupt their lives due to this dream of mine? The airport looked shabby and everyone was coal black. I wondered, would I understand the language? Fear took over. Then, right in front of me stood a tall, handsome, African man. “You must be Joan; I’m John from Abercrombie & Kent. I will get your luggage and take you to the bus,” he said. His dark grey well-tailored suit displayed the A&K name tag with John’s name on it. His English and communication skills put me at ease. Now I could begin to relax and enjoy the experience.

On the bus, John introduced me to the three American couples that would join me on the trip. Everyone seemed very enthused except for one man, Mr. Negative. He informed all of us, “The only reason I’m here is because my wife wanted to see Africa.”

I took the front seat in the van next to the tour guide. “Didn’t your husband want to see Africa?” she questioned. “He would have loved to,” I replied, “but he died a year ago from lung cancer at age fifty eight.” Silence reigned in the back as the newly acquainted travelers searched for something to say. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Someone in the back made a comment about courage, which went over my head.

After a night in a hotel in Nairobi, we flew in a small plane to Amboseli. The next day we went out in a Land Rover type vehicle to view herds of elephants on a preserve. We stopped along a grassy area and were asked to be quiet out of respect for the animals, as a very large herd approached. The lead elephant, a female, stopped in her tracks, looked into our eyes and refused to continue until the driver backed the vehicle out of their path. Her message was: this land is mine.

Flying over the Great Rift Valley on the way to the Masai Mara, we could see great herds of wildebeest on the march for water. Viewed from the air, they reminded me of ants. When we got closer to the Masai Mara, an occasional spot of red and some cattle appeared on the ground. The spot of red was a Masai herder watching his flock.

The Masai, a very tall regal people, greeted us. We were treated to native dancing and a craft show in their round house, which was made of dung and straw and large enough to hold fifty people. I noticed a little boy who was half clad with bare feet and a snotty nose. Flies flew around him. Oh, how I wished I could take him home and give him a bath. As we left the round house and took the path for the bus, the little boy walked up to Mr. Negative, took his hand and gave him a big snotty smile.

Waving goodbye from the bus, Mr. Negative turned to us and with tears in his eyes said, “That little boy was the highlight of my trip to Africa. If I live to be 100, I will never forget him. He made this whole trip worthwhile.”

Next stop, Nanuki. Flying over the dry savannah we saw an occasional acacia tree giving shade to a few wild animals. The tour guide pointed to a heard of African antelope, known as eland, taking shelter. Our next stop was the Mount Kenya Safari Club. This luxury hotel at the foot of Mt. Kenya promised experiences one could only dream about.

Along the road to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, I saw coffee plantations and an occasional village of painted huts, some with galvanized roofs. Children played outside among the colorful clothing hanging on the lines to dry. With my nose pressed against the van window I saw a woman who was carrying a huge bale of wood on her back. Bent over almost in half, she put one foot in front of the other as the road rose in front of her.

“What is that poor soul doing with all that wood?” I asked the tour guide.

“She is collecting wood to build a fire to cook the food for her family,” the guide replied rather matter-of-factly. “I wish she could have a bike to carry all that wood,” I said to no one in particular. “These people can’t even afford a wheelbarrow!” the guide replied.

I was shocked and saddened thinking of my own wasteful habits.

The hotel was luxurious. Mount Kenya was snow capped and majestic. We were greeted at the entrance with a cool fruit drink while the guide registered the group. I was escorted to my own cottage by a nice soft-spoken gentleman wearing a brown uniform. I wanted to tip him but did not understand the exchange rate. I pulled out a bill, which, when I saw the look on his face, I realized it was much too little. Later he knocked on the door around 4:00 pm with a cup of tea and biscuits. By this time, I had figured out the exchange rate and was able to give him a decent tip. “I will be back in a little while with wood to light the fire in the fireplace. Don’t miss the sun as it sets behind the mountain,” he offered.

This is really being spoiled, I thought. He came back and lit the fire. I settled in with my cup of tea. All alone with no one to share the moment, I watched the smoke and flames rise as the picture of the poor soul trudging up the road, bent under the bale of wood, filled my heart with sadness. Her image was all I could see in the flames. My tears could not change her life in this vast country, where life seemed so unfair.

When the sun went down, the night skies were very black. A buffet table displayed an array of salads and fruit to choose from. I took a seat at the table with our tour guide and another couple and enjoyed the meal, the wine, and the talk about what we had seen and what was to come. A guide with a flashlight helped me back to my cottage after dinner. Animal sounds played like music in the night air. Mount Kenya Safari club members and many famous people from around the world finance the rescue of injured wild animals that can no longer survive in the wild. The animals are adopted, living out their lives in this great reserve where well-trained, caring staff and volunteers make them comfortable.

Our next stop was The Ark in Aberdares National Park. The Ark had the feel of a tree house, overlooking a water hole and a salt lick, which were floodlit at night. The staff rang a bell in the rooms at night to let everyone know the animals were at the water. I got up and joined the other guests on the deck to watch a black rhino drinking from the pool. The next day a large stealthy leopard walked right by the window in the lounge where I sat having a drink. Amazing!

The roar of the male lion waking from his afternoon nap, the speed of the cheetah on the chase to take down an eland, the sounds of the exotic birds and the sight of other wildlife took me to a place where I hadn’t ventured before, emotionally or physically. My broken heart opened up to my new reality.

In the dark of night, on the edge of the Masai Mara with a chorus of wild animals calling out to one another, I sat outside my tent and cried like never before. I cried for the lost moments, the unshared thoughts, the love never voiced or put off for a better time, and the many things left unfinished. I had to go to deepest, darkest Africa to share my sadness with the animals.