Kenya Revisited

I have finally finished my thank-you letters for our trip to Kenya. I know, I know. That trip was a year ago now. More. We returned from Kenya on June 16, 2007 and today, by all accounting, is August 13, 2008. High time I mailed those letters, don’t you think?

As I said, they are thank you letters– a small effort toward gratitude to the many people who prayed for us and made our journey affordable. It’s just a letter and some photographs offering glimpses into what we saw and did, and the people who changed us while we were there.

It feels like a long time ago sometimes, and sometimes it feels like no time at all.

Coincidences are strange things. I just finished assembling the letters and addressing the envelopes on Sunday, and today in my e-mail is a message that the documentary film– of which our trip is one part– is completed. We’ll have the chance to see it as soon as next week and so, in a way, we’ll be experiencing it again. I’m looking forward to that.

What do I remember from Kenya? The smell of the air, I think, and its clarity. No humidity in Kenya like we have here in Durham. Sitting in the sun in the weaving room. Eunice’s laugh. The thick green of the Tanzanian woods. Beans and rice and beans. The bunk beds in Amani Children’s Home. The sunrise over the Masai Mara.

Some time ago now I read this passage in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. It was so aptly put, I had to fold the corner down. Like Dinesen, we went out on safari a few early mornings ourselves, getting up before dark and dressing in the cold, then driving out onto the plain in the earliest light. Here, if you are wondering, is what it is like:

The early morning air of the African highlands is of such a tangible coldness and freshness that time after time the same fancy there comes back to you: you are not on earth but in dark deep waters, going ahead along the bottom of the sea. It is not even certain that you are moving at all, the flows of chilliness against your face may be the deep-sea currents, and your car, like some sluggish electric fish, may be sitting steadily upon the bottom of the Sea, staring in front of her with the glaring eyes of her lamps, and letting the submarine life pass by her. The stars are so large because they are no real stars but reflections, shimmering upon the surface of the water. The light gets clearer, and, about sunrise, the sea-bottom lifts itself towards the surface, a new created island. Whirls of smells drift quickly past you, fresh rank smells of the olive-bushes, the brine scent of burnt grass, the sudden quelling smell of decay.

And then you see the swollen sun, and the darkness where the grass has been all along is suddenly individual leaves. A heard of Thompson gazelles is grazing not at all far from the van’s path or maybe, in the distance, a solitary rhino. Over the rise we find a family of elephants; coming through the trees is first one and then several giraffes.

Like the undersea world, this is one you’ve only ever seen on television, or books. And now, when the van’s diesel engine stops its rattle, you can hear the tear of the grass as the elephant pulls it with its trunk, and you can see the wrinkles on its knees. The world before you this morning is a new created island, a mythic world newborn.

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