The Valley by Brian Martin-Onraët

(Blog by Brian)

Let me tell you about a place, unique, so unique, a place where Man was born, where rivers hide under the earth, their path only marked by the rows of acacias that run on the ground, a place lost between the clouds, so white, so white, and the sky, so blue, so blue, that you shall never want to see any other sky again.

It is a scar on the planet, an endless plain, a tear in the side of Africa, when the continent split millions and millions of years ago. It’s called the Rift Valley, something like the “Split Valley”. Some say it’s Paradise Lost, though lost it isn’t, it’s easy to find, only a few hours drive from Nairobi,  in the heart of Kenya.

Did I tell you what Nairobi is like? It was invented by the Kingereza, the English, to escape from the heat of the coast. They built a train line to reach the highlands, cool, wet, green like the hills of  Shropshire or Scotland, or the mountains of Simla in India. To build the line, they brought foremen and workers from Punjab, from Rajasthan, from Lahore, from Delhi, from Lucknow. The line was meant to go from Mombasa, on the coast of the Indian ocean, to Lake Victoria. Halfway, they built an English city, with brick houses, and white-framed windows. They planted bougainvillea, jacarandas, and roses, many roses. The English need roses and whisky to survive anywhere. And tea of course. The Indians taught them the art of tea. Tea is called Chai, in Urdu, in Hindustani, and in Swahili.  To return the favor, the English taught cricket to the Punjabis, the Sindhis and the other peoples of India. When those started beating the hell out of them in Cricket, the English understood that it was time to leave.  From India and Africa.  Most left, some stayed in Africa, white Africans, wazungu**. It was their land too. Or so they thought.

Today, (or was it yesterday?) when you walk down the streets of Nairobi, you can see them all: the Kikuyus, who lived there before, long before the Kingereza arrived; the white Kenyans (wazungu) who stayed; the Sikhs, who wear their hair without ever cutting it, in a bun under their turban, with a steel bracelet on their wrist, symbol of strength; the Indian women wearing red, green, black sarees, embroidered with gold threads, Hopefully you will see the Maasai, coming to sell their spears to the tourist shops. Don’t buy an Maasai spear in these stores, don’t even buy it from them, if you go on Safari. I bought one a few centuries ago, and I regret it, it was like buying a piece of the Maasai warrior’s soul. What does a Maasai spear do, hanging on a wall? Nothing. It no longer serves any purpose, it no longer kills lions in a one-to-one fight, the soul of the spear is gone.

Don’t buy anything in Nairobi. Flee the city of jacarandas. Take the road north, boarded by the eucalyptus and the red earth, where the Kikuyu women plant the corn to make posho. It can be a little chilly at times, but the road is good. Then, when you reach the Escarpment, it’s as if the earth is cracking open. You reach the edge of the highlands, and you stop. Five hundred, six hundred meters down, you see it: the Rift Valley. The scar tearing Africa apart. Over a century, the Valley opens, two, three centimeters. In a few million years the Rift will have cut Africa in two, forming a new continent.

From the edge of the plateau, you can look down the Valley to the horizon, to Tanzania to the south; you might even catch a glimpse of Kilimandjaro, the silent volcano with its crown of snow, the highest mountain in Africa. Then you start down the road. Halfway down the mountain, you pass by the church built by Italian prisoners in World War II. When you arrive in the Valley, the heat embraces you, dry, rich.

To the south, at Olduvai gorge, a couple of Kingereza, Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered the remains of the first men. Adam and Eve? They were short, our grandparents, one meter twenty, some very hairy, probably all black. Did they speak? Tell jokes? Did they laugh? Sing? Dance?

The Valley. Not paradise lost, but one of the last places on Earth where animals survive in large herds. Gazelles, antelopes, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, elephants, buffaloes, gnus, hartebeest, wildebeest, leopards, cheetahs… in April, when the rains begin, the young are born. A large nursery. How long have they been living there? Thousands? Millions of years?

Much later, the Maasai came. The Valley is the Maasai Country. The Maasai drifted South from the Sudan with their cows around the 15th century. The Maasai believe that God (Enka) has given them all the cattle in the world. Therefore, any other tribe raising cattle must have stolen it in the past. Fair game for cattle stealing (back). The Maasai men wear a large red piece of fabric tied at the shoulder. Women shave their heads and wear huge necklaces of glass pearls. The men walk naked under the red cloth. They never go out in the open without their spear. Before the wazungu came, the aspiring warriors had to prove their worth by killing a lion. Armed only with their spear. Today lions are protected. The Maasai have become cattle ranchers. Bored maybe. They sell the meat to the government, and they buy fabrics of all colors for women. Fashion has reached the Maasai, This year, yellow is the new red. Next year blue, perhaps. The young Maasai warriors wear elaborate hairstyles, with fine braids, tied in a round tail.

Did I tell you about the sky? Blue, oh, so blue, with those dancing white clouds. Then comes the night. Dark blue, lit by billions of stars. Watch it in a quiet place hidden among the acacias, near the river. The camp fire is lit, in a circle of grass cut with a panga, machete. Just sit there, by the light and warmth of the fire, nights can be cool. Just look at the stars. Then you hear them, the monkeys calling out, the night birds, a single lion coughing a few yards away. The hyenas laughing their eerie laugh. You can feel the furtive movements in the shadows outside the camp. Below the stars, you can see the bright eyes watching you in the dark.

 It is a unique place, a magical journey that never ends, where, for but a few minutes, I took you along.

Maasai woman, near Amboseli, Kenya, 1967. In those days fashion was red.

*Part of the Mzungu** chronicles.

**Mzungu, plural: wazungu. Mzungu is a Bantu (Swahili) word used throughout East Africa from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia and in the great lakes region, from Rwanda, Burundi, to Congo Kinshasa. It means “white man”, or woman. The origin of the name dates back to the 18th-19th century, when European explorers came to East Africa searching for the source of the Nile, the gold mines of Solomon, or the Mountains of the moon, what have you. It literally means traveller or wanderer. Africans then, could not understand why Europeans could not stay in place, why they had to move all the time.  They thought Europeans were a tad crazy. Mimi na mzungu. (I am a mzungu…)

Thank you for flying Equinoxio Airways. Kwaheri sassa. (See you soon)

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