Going through my mother’s papers, following her death, I found my birth certificate along with every report card from Washington Irving Grade School in Waterloo IA. I’d not seen a copy of my birth certificate before, nor did I know mother had saved any bit of my past. Maybe she was more sentimental than I thought. There, in front of me was the document that baby girl Jennifer Gay Clover had been born on July 9th rather than July 10th. I was taken aback. It could have been the daft mistake of the person creating the document; it could have been in a post-birth daze, my mother got it wrong. When July 10th rolls around, it still feels like the appropriate day to celebrate. I can’t get my head around July 9th.
Birthday celebrations are something I enjoy. I’m disappointed if there isn’t some sort of acknowledgment from those close to me. I’ve had some good ones, like the time my dear friend Laurie teamed up with Dennis and created a surprise 50th party, that was—a surprise. Twenty years have gone by since that evening, and here I am debarking from South African Airlines heading for Customs and Immigration at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, Kenya, hoping the lines are short.
I can’t decide who suffers more the people holding passports and handheld luggage, or the immigration personnel trapped behind glass enclosures with no air conditioning. Not a breath of air in the room that doesn’t smell like body odor and something unidentifiable I don’t think I want to name. Children bored out of their minds, are rolling around on the floor, mothers too tired to care in what their children are rolling. It’s three days before my 70th, and I’ve got plenty of time to get lost in my thoughts as Dennis and I wait our turn.
I often hear people lament the passing years. Where did the time go? I don’t know why that happens, but memory is a squishy thing. The passing of time, though measurable is hardly something we count as seconds tick into minutes, minutes into hours. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost not only minutes but months, even years. I’m practicing the art of being in the moment, advised by Buddha, Christ, and other master teachers. It’s clear I’ll be a student until the day I die.
The last twenty years have been growing years. I’ve suffered from the loss of friends and made new ones. My parents died within six months of one another taking the answers with them to the questions I didn’t know how to ask. I’ve found significant meaning in the creative process of writing. We sold Animal Eye Specialists, the veterinary hospital we founded and nurtured for thirty years. It failed in the hands of a corporation concerned with numbers more than people and patients. I retired first. Dennis followed several years later. Most importantly I ended my long quest for spiritual connection when I opened to the concept of an Indwelling Spirit. Believing in God made more sense than the other way around.
Lulled from my ruminations by the motioning immigration officer, we walked to the window to prove ourselves worthy of entering the country of Kenya. After customs, we collected our duffels spinning round and round on the luggage carousel. The parking lot was nearly empty. I wondered if the people waiting for our arrival had given up and gone home, but two people waved expectantly. We HAD to be the Hackers. Settled in the car I had one of those I’m in Kenya moments. Street lights cast a yellow haze over the road leading to the center of Nairobi and our hotel. Memories of the movie Out of Africa came to mind, where Kenya provided an exotic, sweaty background
The Fairview Hotel is tucked behind the Israeli embassy. I don’t know when the security became critical, but I’ve never had to pass my luggage and personal belongings through an x-ray before entering a hotel. We passed inspection. As the gates swung open, I saw beautiful gardens I hoped to explore in the morning. It’s apparent the hotel was the first to arrive, the consulate second. The hotel is old and elegant, the embassy in a nondescript high rise. I long for a comfy bed and a hot shower, but the landscape and public rooms are far more beautiful than our room. I’m too tired to complain and am grateful the sheets are clean. It’s only for one night.
Exotic Nairobi, which began as a supply depot on the Ugandan Railroad, looks no better in daylight. The city is home to multi-national corporations: Coca-Cola, GE, Airtel, Cisco Systems, and many others. There are polished, sophisticated, clean parts of Nairobi, but that’s not where we were. It looked like all 3.8 million people calling Nairobi home had descended on the city center at once as we were being driven to the airport the next morning. Traffic was awful and the concept of clean air so far down the list of priorities it would not happen in the lifetime of most of the people walking and driving the streets of Kenya’s largest city.
The central business district was in a building boom primarily financed by the Chinese, who have moved into Africa to take advantage of its natural resources. Many Kenyans are worried about the debt and the likely corruption of politicians as a result of some controversial building projects. I would not miss Nairobi. It was a means to board the small plane to Sentinel Mara Camp and the wide-open plains of the Mara.
Airplanes catering to small and private aircraft are at Wilson Airport, an airport I would never have found had it not been for our driver. Street names are hard to see or nonexistent. I think travelers who consider driving in big cities in Africa are brave or naive. It took a while to reach our destination. A march was in full swing, with children and adults walking along the roads. Drivers honked and leaned out their windows. Dennis and I wondered what had caused these masses of people to walk in the sun and choking air.
We were met at the airport by the owners of Sentinel Camp. Wendy would return to her work in Nairobi, as director of Business for Life a nonprofit the couple had founded, training the poor to succeed in business. Peter was returning to their eco-conscious camp along with Dennis and me. Sentinel Mara Camp is an old-style safari camp, more like the way the explorer Livingstone would have traveled. I doubt he had indoor shower and toilets, and plenty of mosquito netting and a veranda for relaxing. Nor would Livingstone have had wi-fi connections and meals as delicious as a four or five-star restaurant in the states, but we will. As our plane prepared to land on the dirt airstrip, I looked out at a landscape without borders, like looking upon the sea only dry and yellow rather than blue. We were met by Dominic a handsome young man dressed in the traditional red robe (shaka) of the Masai. Broad shouldered, tall, he sat straight-backed as he drove, his skin gleaming in the bright sun.
Sentinel sits above a bend in the Mara River where several pods of hippos provide endless entertainment in the form of grunts and groans and skirmishes as they lounge and defend their watery territory. Babies are born and nurtured in the water. Trails through the dense underbrush mark the roadways hippos use at night, as they pass by our cabins, searching for vegetation to maintain their 3,300-pound bodies. Surprisingly aggressive and agile, hippos are the most dangerous land animal in Africa. I don’t think about danger as I watch hippos from above, safe on a high riverbank. I’m conscious of their pale tawny skin that fades to pink around sensitive body parts like the ears, the eyes and the mouth.
I woke early on July 10th excited about my birthday, and the Great Migration. Dominic had us on the road soon after sunrise as it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the border of Kenya and Tanzania to witness the movement of thousands of wildebeests and zebras. I did not know the wildebeest follow the zebras who graze on the taller grasses clearing the way for the wildebeests who prefer the shorter, more tender shoots. Accompanying the moving mass of animals are their predators: lions and hyenas. Crocodiles wait patiently in the river, while the vultures clean up the left-overs. It’s an ecosystem as intricate as a symphony.
Before we saw the Great Migration, and before 8:00 am, we witnessed the birth of a Thompson’s Gazelle.
Dominic kept a respectful distance, the Rappell’s Griffon Vulture did not. I have no clue how the vulture knew it was birthing time; I only know it wanted first dibs on the afterbirth. Mama gazelle stood still, as her newborn spread her vaginal opening to a size I would not have thought possible. Within minutes her baby dropped to the ground. Something spooked her; I hoped it wasn’t us. She ran away. I wondered if we were going to be responsible for removing the sac and fending off the vulture. She returned, however, and began taking care of her baby freeing it from its watery home.
How fortunate to watch a birth on my birthday. A new life, small and fresh, a being just starting out. Decades older and of a different species, I wondered about my birth. I didn’t have to be up and running like the gazelle, whose mother would defend her offspring against baboons and jackals, but not larger predators like lions and leopards.
No lions or leopards prowled around the delivery room at Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, IA., in 1947. My mother didn’t have to protect me from wild animals, but I wondered, knowing her anxious nature if she was plagued with predators of the emotional kind: Can I handle two sons and a newborn? What joys or burdens would the birth of my new baby bring?
Barely having processed the gazelle’s birth we were rewarded with a sighting of a solitary cheetah on a small rise, relaxing under the shade of a bush. She was uninterested in us, but I will never lose interest in her. Continuing down the dusty unmarked road, we caught up with a group of female lions relaxing in the open, looking fearless.
Each mile revealed another gift. Although the sight of a committee of vultures, would not be considered by many to fall into the category of a birthday present, I think vultures are amazing. Gigantic wingspans, long necks, wrinkled heads, and faces, they’re as ugly as the job they do and essential to the proper functioning of the savannah lands. To watch them tearing into a dead wildebeest, hopping, flapping their massive wings, hissing and complaining, (every bird for itself) is an event. I see black vultures circling at home in the states, sometimes picking at the remains of a raccoon or a skunk along the side of the highway. I thought they were big, until I saw their African cousins, designated Old World Vultures.
Dust trails as we drive toward the Sand River where we ought to see the beasts of the Great Migration. I sat quietly in the back of the open-sided Land Cruiser, hypnotized by the landscape. The wind was light, barely stirring the dry grasses. The land rolled on to the horizon unadorned except for an occasional tree. Herds of elephants and gazelles grazed, the elephants always more relaxed than the small gazelles. Lower on the food chain gazelles often look primed and ready to bolt. They run a lot because they’re chased a lot.
Dennis was expressing his disappointment to Dominic. We’d been driving for hours, and the horizon looked the same. Dominic who likes to kid was trying to reassure us that sometimes there’s nothing to see, maybe we missed the migration, after all. As we neared the top of a rise, with Dominic apologizing for the lack of migratory animals, the scene before us rendered me speechless. Dominic grinned. In the distance stood thousands and thousands of wildebeest. Their black-brown bodies stark against the hills and shallow valleys.
Dominic drove straight to the beasts and to our delight right into the herds. I felt like I was a part of the massive movement. The wildebeests, with their large heads and shaggy manes, were unfazed by our presence. Mooing and grunting they casually munched on the grasses they had wandered miles to eat. As far as my eyes could see it was nothing but horned, scruffy looking wildebeests.
Meandering through the herds to the Sand River we watched as a crocodile lay stuffed to his eyeballs having dined on a baby wildebeest. The croc wasn’t ready to surrender the remainder of his meal, though he seemed to be fighting sleep that often follows a full belly.
Death was all around, as was life. Newborn calves kicked up their hooves like most youngsters new to the world. The old and worn-out had pulled away to stand alone. Others of their species made no effort to stall the inevitable. Bones once wrapped in muscle protruded at sharp angles, the coat of the great beasts looked dull and matted. Easy prey in their aging state the dying stood, heads down.
Morbidly fascinated, I wanted to watch, see how the beast succumbed at the end. Soon, I felt I was intruding on an intimate moment. I don’t know what it feels like to die; I’m not there yet. I was struck by how effortless death seemed for the wildebeest. In fact, it was convenient for the lioness hiding on the banks across the river. She had nailed one animal who lay bloating in the sun while another stood across the narrow channel waiting to die.
Saturated with the intensity of it all we headed back to camp.
None of us talked much on the return to camp. I felt like I do after a few hours in a large museum, mentally saturated. My mind was a collage of sights and sounds as the hot air dried my skin. Sunscreen and dust, caked like a facial on my cheeks and chin. It was mid-afternoon, and most creatures were in the shade or sleeping preparing for the night run for food.
A nap seemed like a good idea, and that’s what we did once we got back to our tent-cabin until the sun started down, and the hippos started up.
At Sentinel Camp, the evening is welcomed by a campfire and canvas chairs placed near the fire pit. Wine and conversation flow as we talk with Oxford schooled Peter for whom owning a safari camp has been a dream come true. By now I was convinced my 70th was the best birthday ever, but there was more.
It began with distant chanting and huffing, growing louder as the group of twelve (give or take) tall, slender men approached the campfire. Dressed in shakas, the Masai warriors entered from the side, faces glowing in the firelight. The chanting grew louder as the flames spit into the night. The repetitious notes penetrated my being and found a home. I was riveted to my chair entranced by the scene before me. Footsteps loud against the earth ceased, and the jumping dance (Adamu) began. I don’t know if there was an order, I couldn’t tell, I only know the men were competing. Not running and jumping it was like their feet were spring-loaded as the men popped skyward, each trying to out jump the other.
From the shadows, chef approached carrying something. As the dance wound down, three men including a grinning Dominic presented me with a cake. A cake chef had made from scratch, scripted with Happy Birthday Jenny. Peter opened a bottle of cold champagne filling my glass and the glasses of our fellow travelers. A toast was offered to this old gal. Honored and humbled I felt like I’d traveled a lifetime in a single day. I witnessed the wonder of birth, the unexpected serenity of death, and a surprise celebration.
It’s fair to say, if the expressions on others faces were honest and I have no reason to doubt that they weren’t, it was an experience we’ll all recall. Not because it was my birthday, but because we felt the wonder of the African land and its’ native people, the traditions of a proud tribe and the thoughtfulness of Peter and his staff. Dinner was served, sitting beneath the canopy of stars, solar candles and torches lighting the table. Even though the food was fabulous, I made sure to save room for cake. Buttery and moist, with a fruit filling I’d not tasted before, piled with soft mounds of frosting, it was the final sweet touch to an already exceptional birthday. I asked Dominic whose food traditions include drinking milk mixed with fresh cow’s blood.
“Did you have a piece of birthday cake?”
His eyes sparkled with the memory.
“Yes,” he said.
Guests do not return to their tents at Sentinel Camp unaccompanied at night. The first time I met Marompi, our warrior protector, I tried to converse with him, but he remained silent. Maybe we didn’t speak the same language, but probably we did as most Masai learn English. It didn’t matter; I expect he found small talk insufferable. Dark skinned, sinewy and lean, he belonged to the night. His senses were conditioned to the sounds and smells, the movements and habits of the wild animals and birds. He knew the Mara and its’ inhabitants in ways I can barely imagine. After my first effort to talk with him, I gave up. He would appear as though from nowhere, and soundlessly shepherd us to our tent.
I crawled into bed closing the curtain of netting against the mosquitos. Happy Birthday I whispered to the infant gazelle. You don’t know me, but I watched you being born, and I’m thrilled we call July 10th our birthday.