Whenever my parents plan a vacation for my younger sister and me, they never include Disney World or a Caribbean cruise on our itinerary. Instead, they define a vacation as a learning experience that expands the classroom to include the real world. That is how I ended up spending last summer sleeping in a tent in the grasslands of Tanzania. From Simon, our guide, I not only learned about the local culture, but I also met the dik-dik of Tanzania.
When I first met Simon, a broad-shouldered modern Maasai who stands over six feet tall, I thought he looked mean. Then he smiled, and his white teeth, even the two front ones that stuck out like sticks, sparkled like the snow on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Simon’s brown skin reminded me of the dirt covering the back roads upon which we traveled in a 1986 Land Rover; his hair, the black of a zebra’s dark stripes, created tight curls around his head. Simon loved wearing his Lewis & Clark T-shirt, a gift from some college students. He insisted the school was in New York City, while I argued it was in Oregon. Simon, who only knew about New York and California, refused to admit that I was right.
Simon also boasted that his tire shoes bound with leather were better than my American-made hiking boots. I wished I had his shoes after my mother made me trade my boots for my sister’s tennis shoes with their mesh tops. My sister complained that the neck-high grass slipped through the mesh and created a pinching feeling in her feet. Her complaints led to my suffering.
But, according to Simon, my suffering was nothing compared to what twelve-year-old Maasai boys endure. If I were a Maasai, I would have to undergo a circumcision next year to celebrate my coming-of-age ceremony. I would then spend the next three to four months recovering in a black hut. Unlike the BaMbuti of the Congo, a Maasai boy cannot scream to show his pain. The BaMbuti boys also get to go away with their fathers to learn the ways of their tribe. The thought of becoming a Maasai boy sounded as unappetizing as the funny stew that another African made for us. The stew contained red, green, and brown vegetables buried under a thick brown sauce. I spent the entire meal separating the vegetables from the meat.
As someone who spends a lot of time reading about and studying wars and weapons, I could not understand why the Maasai would fight over cows. Simon explained that the Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe, believe that they own all cows; therefore, they steal cows from other tribes. This led to a war in 1987 between the Maasai and Barbacks. Fifty Barback warriors tried to rob the Maasai farmers of their cows. After hearing cries from the farmers, fifteen Maasai warriors rushed to their rescue and killed two Barbacks. The Maasai army numbered 1,500, while the Barback forces totaled 1,700. Neither side won because the spears of the Maasai and Barbacks could not defeat the guns of the 300 government policemen.
While in Africa, I expected to see ostriches, giraffes, lions, and elephants. I did not expect to see the dik-diks; in fact, I had never ever heard of a dik-dik before I walked past some tiny pellets lying in a pile on the ground. When I stepped on a few pellets, I heard a crunching sound as if I had crushed the bones of a small animal.
“What’s this?” I asked Simon as I pointed to the pellets.
“Dik-dik poop,” he answered.
A dik-dik, I learned, is one of the smallest members of the antelope family. When I later met one, it reminded me of Winston, my Yorkie, in size but not in features. Under its eyes, the dik-dik has a blue gland that secretes a jelly-like substance. The dik-dik rubs the gland against a tall piece of grass to mark its territory; it also uses dung to mark its spot. When I walked near a dik-dik, it ran away as if I were a scary monster about to kill it.
Everything about Africa was different from what I knew. The sounds, unlike the city noises of talking people and roaring engines, were more a symphony of animals, each playing its own instrument. Without the fumes emanating from cars and the stench coming from garbage, Africa had a clean aroma as if the air had just been created. The plants and animals boasted colors as radiant as fall leaves. Even the stars that shine over Africa like nature’s night-lights differ from the ones that illuminate the sky above my house.
During our two-week stay in Tanzania, my sister missed her mirror, my mother missed her washer and dryer, and my father missed his cell phone connection. I missed pizza, my computer, and my collection of toy guns. To all my complaints and concerns, fears and frustrations, Simon responded as he did to everything: “No worries.”