19 March 2009


We start the day meeting with the Greenbelt Coalition, an organization founded by Wangari Mathai who won the Nobel Prize for her work planting trees across Africa. They have fantastic credibility, are very knowledgeable and pragmatic in their approach to saving Lake Naivasha, and are working on bringing all the stakeholders into dialog. After the obligatory compliments and group photo we break for lunch, after which we proceed to the Wildfire Flower Farm.A large industry has grown up in this area, supplying cut flowers to Europeans, who own most of the flower farms. Cut flowers are an environmental disaster of the first order: tremendous volumes of water, fertilizer, and pesticides are used to grow and process the flowers, lots of electricity for cooling and supplemental lighting, and then they are put on a plane and flown to market, producing a sizable carbon footprint. And then there is the issue of worker health: we heard reports of many people getting sick from chemical exposure. You want to do something good for the planet? Give fruit instead of flowers. That said, they are aware of the problem at Wildfire, and are attempting to address issues as much as an unregulated industry will do (meaning mostly to save money). And one cannot condemn- everyone changes by necessity, and all change is painful. We met with the manager, Kirigia Gitari, and the operation was as expected.

They are trying to reduce fertilizer use via compsting, pesticides with Integrated Pest Management (using one bug to kill another) and various other things. This is a shot of water on the road that runs along all of the flower farms-serious algae blooms there.

Next on the agenda was a meeting at town hall; the Mayor cancelled, so the Deputy Mayor and Town Clerk (who seemed to be the real power) met with us. It was a fascinating study in African personalities and politics. The requisite speeches and proclamations were made, and of course, status determines speaking order.

The Greenbelt contingent thanked he town officials for their attendance at the various events, and the functionaries evinced their support of the effort to save the Lake. Hard to know if this drive will arrive- as usual, the forces doing the most damage are the ones with the most money, and my experience is that politics always follows the money. Wangari Mathai and the Greenbelt have so much credibility and authority- one must hope for miracles. The finale of the meeting was a ceremonial tree planting, amusing to see officials in suits trying to get the young trees out of their containment bags and into the ground.The trees planted were acacia, a hardy species ideally suited for this dry harsh climate, armed with thorns and a nitrogen fixer, meaning it obtains the nitrogen it needs from the air and then replenishes the soil with that vital plant macro-nutrient.

After what seemed like endless officialdom, we finally made our departure, not before endless salutations -- naturally! On the other side of town is a geo-thermal power generation plant, which fascinates me-electricity with no pollution. Unfortunately a tour requires a 48-hour notice, impossible in our schedule, so we drove there to see it, but it looked like nothing, and we could not get close enough for a photo.

Today’s destination is Maasai Mara Game Preserve, reputedly the most impressive in Kenya, unfortunately a back pounding 6 hours away. On the way we stop at Crescent Island Game Park, founded by Karen Blixen, who wrote "Out of Africa," to shoot the movie. Since there are no dangerous animals, this is one place visitors are allowed to walk around, which is a pleasure after so much driving. Our guide, though nice, has a teaching technique based on asking us the names of things we could not possibly know. The whole place seems sterile and man-made, essentially the movie set that it was created to be. Though our guide describes it as a paradise for the animals, an ecosystem without predators is one with diseases, malformities, overgrazing, and overpopulation.
The drive to Maasai Mara is as brutal as expected. We stop at Narok, a Maasai town, and are of course approached by people wanting to sell us souvenirs. But it is done in such a gentle, good humored way, and always with genuine curiosity about who we are and where we are from, that it’s not a problem.

Finally, Maasai Mara: beautiful as expected. It must have rained recently, as it is wonderfully verdant. The campis on the other side of the park, and it is amazing: very low-key, solar-powered, unobtrusive tents with Maasai that welcome us with humor and gentility. They are obviously very concerned about our being attacked by wild animals and caution us repeatedly not to walk around without a guide. Doubtless they are overcautious, but we opt to heed if only to humor.

Before supper, we decide to take a walk and are escorted by two Maasai (who don’t speak English). It is beautiful: sun setting in the West, giraffe, zebra, and wildebeest around us. It occurs to me that there is a fantastic disparity of lifestyles: the Maasai must look at us as the Westerners, rich with material goods that fly in on jet planes (The Gods Must Be Crazy) and employ them as servants and guides. We look at them as a people living this elysian life: at one with nature, communing with God, not subject to the daily stresses we face. And of course, the nature of our respective stresses is so different: as a freelance artist, I will return to New York, worry about unreasonable client demands and deadlines, the source of the next job, overdue invoices, and whether I will produce on the next job (you are only as good as your last shoot). They, on the other hand, will worry (I imagine) about the source of the next meal, or being attacked by a lion. Neither of us has a clue about the realities the other faces, and idealizes the unknown lifestyle.

The day starts before dawn and as the sun rises, we surprise a “newlywed” pair of lions, apart from the pride, mating repeatedly.It’s wonderful to be in this place the only sound being the soft roar of a lion trying to have sex. They ignore the presence of people completely. After watching a while, we decide to look for other “attractions.” Soon we see a bevy of Land Rovers, which can only mean some animal worth watching. Turns out to be a cheetah with cubs- gorgeous beyond telling. The comedy/tragedy of this mother, who must be on guard against the lions that would kill her for being in their territory, surrounded by gawking humans (that includes us) is hard to describe. Slowly they all become bored and disperse, leaving us.Of course, the best things happen for those with patience, and the cubs proceed to frolic on her, which she tolerates adoringly. The hippos we see in the river are cute, then it’s lunch time. Chris, ever wise, suggests we go out again at 4pm, but we push for 3:30, and of course he agrees. Guess what: nothing to see until 5pm. Smart ones in the tropics nap through the hot part of the day. Again drawn by the crowd of Rovers, we see a lion couple with cubs, but their position in the bushes and the setting sun prevent any good photos. The park closes at 6:30, and Chris clearly wants to be close to that curfew, proceed out, but see the usual grouping of safari vehicles that indicate worthy sightseeing, and it’s a cheetah with a cub over a kill. The setting sun (at the right angle to us) and the blood on their mouths make for fantastic shots.

Back to the camp, short constitutional, and another simple but yummy supper. In the evening I sat with three Maasai men, entertaining them with my “magic box,” we call a computer. You want to hear Rastaman Vibration, got it right here. Perhaps more amazing are the things we have in common. I show them pictures I shot today, they tell me what I see. Then I show them pictures of other things from my world literally the other side of the planet, but a universe away. Now it’s Rigoletto-imagine trying to explain opera to men who don’t speak your language, and share a totally different culture.

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