May 2011, Durham, North Carolina. It is late spring and the rain comes heavy in this old tobacco town. Rivulets carve tiny tributaries into the Durham Triassic Basin. Soaking up the water, the red clay swells, and then offers up an overture of honeysuckle blossoms and sugar snap peas for the upcoming symphony of tomatoes and sweet corn.
In October of 2008, I traveled to another basin, a former Pleistocene lake in Kenya. In Amboseli, my intention was to study the evolution of mate choice and fertility signals in a population of wild baboons for my dissertation research. I was working with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project, an ongoing project that began more than four decades ago. Since the time that Kenya became free of British colonial rule, when the Amboseli basin was thick with rhinoceros, researchers from the United States have been following the daily lives of the baboons in Amboseli. The births of infant male Suede, born in November of 2008, and his younger brother Saa, born in August of 2010, were like bookends on my time in Amboseli. Sorghum, their lean and lanky mother, has a coat that seems dusted with ochre undertones like the deep red soil of Amboseli, and the clay from the Triassic basin. She is high-ranking and she certainly knows it. Born into a lineage of great fortune, she is the daughter of Sera, who was the daughter of Sana, who was the daughter of Safi, who was the daughter of Spot, who was the daughter of Alto, who was one of the first adult females to be identified in Amboseli by Jeanne and Stuart Altmann in 1969.
I knew it was a privilege to be a student under the project. I also knew that by choosing a research topic that required a full year in the field, I was also choosing social isolation and steep learning curves. How to identify individual baboons by sight, how to live in a remote research camp—often as the only mzungu, how to juggle the demands of multiple field protocols, how to speak Kiswahili.
What I could not have known was that Kenya would experience its worst drought in living memory, nor that I would witness it. I could never have guessed just how long it takes a wildebeest or a zebra to starve to death, nor that I would watch nearly all of them in the area do just that. I could not have anticipated the imprint that this suite of sadness would leave on my psyche as the shadows in my mind grew long and I began to wonder if, like everything else in Amboseli, I myself would crack, crumble, and blow away. Someone told me once that, as we live, we either become broken or we soften. In hindsight I see that making Maji Moto was a panicked attempt not to break.
As such, this project is not a call to arms, nor a call for specific change. I do not presume to know what those calls should be. These entries are bits and pieces of suffering and redemption, through the prism of only one mind.
They are a love letter and a eulogy.
26 November, 2008
I jump out of bed at 7:30 like an indulgent teenager. It is a late morning in Amboseli Baboon Research Camp. Early to bed is a must because early to rise is a foregone conclusion. If I am not already up at 4:45 and out with the baboons, the resident Hildebrant’s Francolins conspire to wake me by 6:00. To be sure that I have the right species, I check my Princeton University “Birds of East Africa.” A description of the Hildebrant’s Francolin vocalization reads, “a wooden crescendo of rapid notes tunk-unkunkunk with first one loudest. May continue for long periods breaking into an insane bout of screaming, often given in duet.”
May continue for long periods. Breaking into an insane bout of screaming. Yes, that’s the one.
Morning insanities aside, the fauna of Amboseli attract visitors from all over the world. Giraffe are everywhere. In yesterday’s mid-day heat, a cheetah poured herself out under acacia shade. Lithe and languid like viscous speckled ink, slow and sultry flicks of her tail were the only signs of life. Waterbucks, warthogs, creshes of ostrich. Hamerkops, bustards, crakes, and cranes. The dusky magic hour summons a lumbering family of elephants and the night wind carries big-bellied whoops and happy cackles of nearby hyenas.
And then there are baboons.
2 April, 2009
Humans and wildlife live in close quarters here and drought conditions have been drawing them in even closer. Many living creatures here are going hungry. Maasai cattle are slow, weakened by starvation. Everything on their bodies that can reduce, does. Their hooves become disproportionate to skin and bones, so that a herd walking toward you looks like a bedraggled troupe of vaudevillians in platform shoes.
But the truth is they are on the verge of death. Driving back to camp, we pass a young boy standing over a dying heifer, trying to beat the life back into her. A little girl stands next to one dead cow and one more dying. “Will someone help me lift my cow?” Neither child is much larger than one of the dying animals’ legs, but even two grown men cannot convince the cow that it is worth it to stand.
Zebras get stuck in the swamp and are too exhausted to move. Their heads surrender to gravity and they drown standing up. Elephants are paint-drenched canvases draped over a scaffold.
The sky keeps filling with clouds. A goose down comforter shields this piece of Earth from its sun and one fish-belly cloud hangs low and swollen.
How can these clouds not bring rain?
7 February, 2010
I stopped at thirty when I counted the elephants behind my tent last night. They rumbled and trumpeted and stomped around until I thought Kili’s new snows might shake right down off the mountain. Then fourteen heavy-legged white storks came in for a landing. They turned that dead snag into twilit praise-Jesus church risers with their bill-clattering rounds, and tethered me to one holy moment. The hyenas uptrill, the dik-diks tiptoe, and the mongoose prowl, so I must be back in the shallow bowl of Amboseli.
Zebras wade through fields of hock-high grass. Baboon kids cartwheel, backflip, and peer over the backs of their big, fat mamas. Camp is so overgrown that I cannot see the kitchen and each night mosquitos swarm into a high pitched superhighway traffic jam at my tent screen. Southern black flycatchers swoop and dive like rangy skateboarders on a half-pipe, click, click, clicking their way through buggy meals. Whole fields of grasshoppers fiddle a halleleujah call and an amen response.
This used to be a thorny and punishing place. It was a harsh and hardened lava rock landscape. It was sun scorched salt pans without any shade. Better pack your hardened hooves and a thick hide if you come at all, I would have said. But rain finally came! It softened those mean horizons and menacing thorns with new growth, then doused us all with a twinkling white powder of bustling butterfly wings.
But last year was still that year. It was still the year that the long rains failed and all the cattle died. Last year we watched a rising tide of misery. Death bubbled up from the core of the earth and spread out across the plain. It crept up the legs of anything standing. It was hot, it was silent, and it was horrible. The new Amboseli is still one tough lady, but now the surprises that cross my vision are just as likely to be kind as they are cruel.