As the drought continued to ravage parts of Kenya. Samantha du Toit and her children had to learn some difficult life lessons.
The water has gone. The trickle, that was left sustaining life by the river just yesterday, has faded into the mud leaving us wondering not only how we are to continue but how the Maasai homes across the river will survive.
Already, the wildlife around us has been unlike anything we have seen before, with the usual baboons, bushbuck, warthogs, impala and monkeys now sharing the last pools of water with herds of elephants. Two nights ago, all night we could hear the elephants digging, splashing and grumbling their way upriver past our cottage. We could not shine the torches on to them for fear of sending them into a panic, so we sat quietly and relied on our senses of smell and hearing to imagine the scene below us. The next morning the tracks in the dry river bed told the story of a mixed family group, with babies as well, scouring for water.
We have been hearing stories from the herders further downstream that there are some unhappy hippos defending their last pools of water in the swamp, and charging at the cattle who try to come and drink there. This is not something people have seen before, and it seems that all the hope that has kept people going through almost two years of drought might be fading along with water in the river. Rain ceremonies, sacrifices of livestock and prayers have yielded nothing.
Dust storms are a daily occurrence, sometimes so thick that the world turns red around you. Dust ‘devils’ rush across the plains in a hot, seemingly angry flurry of dirt and sticks.
Life and death seem to feature in daily discussions. The day after the elephants passed through, a tree branch fell down, killing the baboon who had been unfortunately sleeping on it. The children went to see it. At the tender ages of three and six, I wondered how they would react. They expressed sympathy for the baboon, asked what would happen to its body and marvelled at the chance to see its hands and feet close up.
On an early morning game drive a few months before, we had come across a young lioness who had killed a zebra. Later that evening, the children acted out the scene, offering the audience (parents) different options for how the story could have ended. In some cases little Taru, the zebra, managed to outrun big sister lioness. In later scenes, he was not so lucky.
A few days later, on the path in the forest, Seyia, big sister lioness, found a small newborn mouse in the dust, having fallen out of the nest in the tree. With some help from her Dad, she made a small home for the creature and put it back in the tree to wait for its mother. We did not know how to tell her that it was unlikely to end well. We should not have worried. When the little thing was no longer there later that day, Seyia assumed that it had indeed been reunited with family, only to discover later the ants had taken it away to devour it. “Well, I guess the ants needed feeding,” she said, and walked on. Not for the first time I admired the children’s pragmatic view of the realities surrounding them.
The same could be said for our neighbours. With no water to collect from the river, and elephants crashing around their homes all night, Julius still came striding across the dry riverbed with huge excitement at the fact that his children had been watching elephants in the morning from inside their thorn bush enclosure, and had been able to see these animals close up. He was proud that the efforts of his community to conserve wildlife were indeed paying off. Despite the fact his family had lost four goats the previous week to the resident leopard, he reflected that, “We are really getting somewhere.”
And so it is that I am left reminded that nature can be a cruel teacher, but that really she is a life coach. Her lessons make us reflect and grow no matter who we are. Perhaps if we listen to her lessons with the heart of a child, we might be able to see things more clearly.
*This piece was written shortly before the rains arrived.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.