OnSafari: Beauty & Guilt

OnSafari: Beauty & Guilt

SaruniSamburuWe are in a “safari camp” called Saruni in Kenya. It’s the only “camp” in the Kalama Reserve, 220,000 extremely wild acres that sit just on top of Samburu National Reserve. I’m hard pressed to think of a more beautiful place for tourists to stay in all of East Africa.

Later today and tonight we begin our game viewing, but arriving just for lunch it was universally decided to just “hang out” for the rest of the afternoon. You can imagine why.

Each totally private villa is chopped out of a kopjes (granite rock) about 500′ feet above the Great Northern Frontier Plains. There are sweeping views for miles and miles. The rains have transformed the red earth landscape into a carpet of green. Stark mountains and irregular hills, remnants of the turbulent volcanic age 3 millions years ago, cast charcoal shadows the length of finger lakes over the bright landscape.

You enter your villa into the living/dining room, open on two sides onto a covered stone deck. The fridge is stocked with beer, sodas and wine. Take the winding stone staircase up into the bedroom, also opened overlooking the plains. Attached is a full bathroom with an additional outdoor shower perched on a small stone platform protruding over the plains.

Created with modern Italian style by former CNN employee, Riccardo Orizio, each villa is a masterpiece of functional style. This is a community partnership with the local Samburu, and all the staff but the manager couple is Samburu.

Few communities in Kenya were so caught in the cross-hairs of modernization as the Samburu. More remote and much smaller a community than the Maasai, they live in an area famous for its rare wildlife and beautiful landscape, but one that is nonetheless ravaged by climate change.

Traditional ways of life all over East Africa fell by the wayside some time ago as education took hold. But for many of the newly educated peoples, they were suddenly matriculated out of their normal ways of life, with no new opportunities for them.

It’s the reason that so many of Africa’s great cities have huge slum components. The young villager armed with all the math and history and language skills needed for a modern life understandably loses interest in traditional herding, that in any case has grown increasingly stressful as the desert expands.

She comes to the city along with tens of thousands of other kids and no matter how ambitious or skilled or polite, cannot find a job.

Community partnerships like Saruni try to address this problem. Of course they can’t begin to solve it. Relative to the tens of thousands of newly educated migrating into the city almost every year, community partnerships like Saruni might employ a thousand at best in all of Kenya.

So I feel it critically important to recognize that some of the claims these partnerships proffer are grandiose at best. I think a better way to see these partnerships are that they don’t contribute to the problem. They are noble gestures by good souls like Orizio who clearly decided that the privilege he was born into must be shared.

And you can imagine how fortunate the Samburu working here feel. Their mein, their skills, their attentiveness and simply friendliness are so far superior, for example, to the somewhat swaggered staff we just experienced last night at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

Hopefully, one of the staff of Saruni or their children will emerge as the effective politician who somehow organizes the transformation his society so desperately needs.

As a safari broker and long time guide my very personal concern is that my clients’ experience of places like Saruni creates a false universe of where they are. That’s why we suffer the long drive out of Nairobi with hours of impoverished modernity flying by the window. It’s why I talk politics and society and history, as much as wildlife.

The Samburu landscape, the noble histories of its people, the remarkable ecology with its unique biomass represents all that’s good in the universe. You can’t put a value on this perfection. You can’t even really describe it. You have to experience it.

Perhaps because it’s so isolated Kalama’s stellar existential continuity isn’t diminished by the horrible failings of the modern world. Yet.

So it’s important to keep the guilt alive even as we “hang out” on a giant boulder over one of the grandest landscapes in existence.