Wishing Asante! to Tanzania and Kenya
Before we left for our trip to East Africa, we had several conversations with our friend John about our plans and purposeful lack thereof. John lived, worked, and studied in Tanzania a few years ago, and he offered us some helpful tips on how to make the most of our trip (He might argue that he was just as excited as we were about this honeymoon). One piece of advice he gave stuck with us like mud on the butt of a hippo. John told us to remember to put the camera and binoculars down, to drink in as many moments as we could, and to appreciate where we are.
There’s a reason why people travel from all corners of the Earth to photograph breathtaking landscapes and iconic wildlife here. It’s jaw-dropping and at times so indescribable that you think only photos will do the experience any justice when you return home. Any modern tourist would kick themselves if they forgot to bring even a point-and-shoot. However, no matter how exotic and otherworldly the settings of Tanzania and Kenya seem to Westerners like us, a collection of photos betrays the extra-sensory experience of this place.
A photo leaves you with a lasting, static visual, an immensely valuable token of the moment, but disregards sounds: a munching giraffe stripping the leaves off a thorny branch. The crunch of tall, dry grass as a leopard stalks gazelle. A pack of hyenas yelping as it stumbles through your campground in the middle of the night.
Photos neglect to convey the grittiness on your skin and the dirt under your fingernails after driving for days across the dusty plains of the Serengeti. If you didn’t want it covered in dust, you should have left it in Washington DC.
Through a photo, you can’t feel the immense emptiness as you step from your tent to the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater to peer down at the crater floor 610 meters below – a jarring emptiness that you learn is actually populated by the herds, troops, prides, packs, and loners roaming in their home.
No, photos can’t capture the relief of the cool Indian Ocean water when you’ve been soaking in too much direct equatorial sunlight. Photos can’t capture the sting of a jellyfish, nor the bizarre hope that the transparent monster leaves you with a scar because it would make for a physical lasting memory.
Your camera fails to recall the aromas of the exotic spices, teas, and coffees grown, harvested, and prepared on Zanzibar, or the stench of a shallow, muddy pool of 100 hippos baking in the sun. Stench is definitely the right description for the latter.
Even in the moment, taking East Africa in through a camera’s viewfinder narrows your field of vision. While training your lens on the leopard lounging in the crook of a massive acacia tree, you may miss the midday clouds racing from one remote horizon to the other across an impossibly blue sky. Framing the dhow skating through a crowd of other traditional boats off Stone Town’s coast can distract you from the capoeira display the beach boys are performing steps from your beachside barstool. But pull away from the camera for a moment to appreciate the whole scene, and it’s like removing a set of blinders and upgrading from that View-Master toy you had as a kid to your own private IMAX theatre.
With a recalibrated view of our surroundings, we rediscovered some perspectives that we both harbored before getting on a plane in DC. Africa is home to some of the world’s most iconic animals and ecosystems, including species that are symbolic of nations, organizations, and companies and inspire awe in children and adults alike. And while becoming acquainted with these creatures and places via photos, textbooks, and even documentaries can carve out a permanent home in your heart, visual media is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
America’s access and exposure to wildlife simply doesn’t compare. We were fortunate to witness the big five game animals, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and cape buffalo, in their natural habitats, as well as giraffe, hippos, hyenas, wildebeest, zebras, gazelle, countless species of birds, and much more. And while we weren’t guaranteed to see all of these animals, stumbling upon the next one on our wish list felt inevitable at times, and hardly five minutes would pass between sightings. Meanwhile, back in the Mid-Atlantic Region, we count ourselves lucky if we catch a glimpse of a single wild animal during a daylong hike.
We're fortunate to witness spectacles such as these, even if it requires traversing several continents to achieve. In large part, the opportunity exists because the communities we visited truly share their environment with the native animals and plants for which Africa has become so renowned. Tanzanians, Kenyans, and their neighbors have carved out a symbiotic relationship with their surrounds through which they thrive culturally and economically, while wildlife enjoys the benefits of environmental conservation and protection. The locals we met live their relationship with the wild proudly, from our safari guide Ali holding his breath along with us while witnessing two cheetah brothers run down a Thomson’s gazelle, to John, our cab driver in Nairobi, who explained that he frequently visits the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to say hello to the orphaned elephants that he considers neighbors. Our own nation would do well to take a page out of this book, and reevaluate its relationship with its wild places where still possible.
Tanzania and Kenya are irresistibly attractive places. Their ecosystems and wildlife will draw you in, while their people will welcome you with electric smiles and enthusiastically shouts of Karibu! Every bend in the dusty roads across numerous national parks, every turn down the narrow, crowded “roads” winding between cathedrals, mosques, and temples in Stone Town, every market stall or handicraft shop in Nairobi promises a new discovery. You won’t want to forget any fleeting moment, so go ahead and preserve the awe-inspiring scenes on camera. Just don't forget to get a few shots in yours mind's eye as well.