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Published: March 19th 2010
After yesterday's chillaxed vibe, in which peaceful hours spent at camp were punctuated only by laundry, internet and dinner at a cafe in the nearby village, today felt like a series of intense experiences barging into each other and vying for thought space.
We'd decided to stay another day at Fisherman's Camp, partly because we didn't feel ready to leave (especially in an early departure!) and partly because we wanted to attempt a sighting of flamingoes at a place we knew only as "Little Lake," the location of which had only been described sketchily to us by a since-departed couple of travellers who told us the path (on private land) could never be found unless you knew where it was already. After a bit more asking around, we discovered that its real name is Lake Oleiden and were told by camp staff that it wasn't possible to access the lake where we thought the path was, and that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to access the lake's public entry without organising private drivers (on motorbikes or in a car). We were offered transport and guide for a price, but decided that we'd have a go at finding it alone. In fact, this was quite easy - we walked along the main road (spotting wildlife as we went) in the direction of the lake until a matatu came along - it was able to drop us fairly close to where we thought we needed to be, to access the private path. As luck would have it, Hero spotted the track a mere five minutes' walk later, identifying it by the description we'd been given: "it's an unmarked dirt track and it's got a tree that's kind of fallen down across it." A short walk down this path through a think tangle of forest and suddenly it opened up to reveal a cluster of giraffe feeding by and drinking at the lake's edge - they seemed as startled as us at the encounter, but thankfully settled in to our presence so that we could enjoy this incredible close-up experience. It was made all the more magical by the family of warthog, herd of zebra and fluttering starlings that filled out the scene against a backdrop of shimmering hippo and flamingo inhabited lake, bordered by hills. It was an experience of overwhelming and unexpected beauty that swelled in me so that I felt that the sights I'd absorbed might burst out of me in defiance of containment.
After watching the giraffe wander off around the edge of the lake off to our right, we began to make our way around the lake in the opposite direction, heading for the flock of flamingoes we could see on an opposite shore. However, we decided to revise this plan and retrace our steps after noticing fresh cat prints on the track we were following. Despite it being cat nap time rather than feeding time, we weren't especially keen on the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon their resting place and disturbing their sleep. Safely back on the road we walked the rest of the way to Kongoni, the town from which public access to the lake is possible. Back on the lake's edge again, we were now closer to the flamingoes and apart from watching them we also had a laugh at the twentyish hippos whose eyes and ears we could see poking out of the water's surface. Such funny creatures.
It was at this spot that we met Peter, a young local boy who attached himself to us as we wandered around. As our self-appointed guide Peter pointed out various of the more obvious wildlife e.g. hippos and flamingoes - bless - and showed us the flamingo and cormorant feathers that he'd picked up. In conversation we also learned a little about Peter's life in Kongoni. He lives with his grandmother as both of his parents are dead (one from Malaria and one from Typhoid). Although he's only 12 he no longer attends school, as the local high school is private and his grandmother can't afford the fees. He's hoping that someone (like us) will give him the money that would allow him to go to school. Quite a sad tale and one that is no doubt all too common here. Rather than giving Peter the money he was seeking, we shared our snacks with him while all sitting together on a shaded grassy knoll overlooking the gorgeous lake - visually, this place is paradise, but take a moment to really look and listen and you find that the global diseases of poverty, inequality, greed and corruption are well entrenched here.
As we sat I pondered Peter's words and wondered at his life, deciding that it was heartbreaking whether the information he had shared with us was true or not. If he was telling the truth (an I am inclined to think that he was) he has faced several tragedies in his young life and has an undoubtedly tough road ahead, living in poverty and being denied such basic rights as education. And yet, even if he wasn't telling the truth, then here was this little boy - still poverty-stricken - who has already been conditioned to view people as potential money sources and to fabricate elaborate lies in order to get money either for himself, for older kids, or for his family. Kids shouldn't have to worry about money so much. My mind wandered a while through trains of thought, each new idea or question raising up innumerable others until I realised I was in that circular trap of deep dark torturings over the bog problems of the world and the evils of human nature... the kinds of thoughts that unfailingly plunge me into misanthropic despair. Uh oh.
Leaving Peter to begin our journey back to the campsite I felt the atmosphere created by our earlier burst of beauty had descended into a heaviness that weighted on me and seemed to coat all that I was seeing. I can only guess what the others were experiencing but certainly our silence and the change of our walking hinted at a common thoughtfulness.
I was distracted from my musings within ten minutes, but unfortunately it was not to more pleasant things. By chance we were walking through Kongoni at exactly the time a motorbiker rode through and drove straight over a little puppy in the middle of the road. As the biker rode on with barely a glance or slower pace, the puppy gave the most heartwrenching yelp of what I guess could have been a mixture of shock and pain. Alone on the ground, it jerked unnaturally up before its body slumped to the ground. A bigger dog approached but then continued walking after a few sniffs of the puppy, as if sensing there was no hope. I walked up, wondering if there was anything I could do but although there were no outward signs of injury, the puppy was clearly broken inside, and all I could do was try to comfort it until it died. Thankfully, this didn't take long. By this stage a small crowd had gathered and we left the locals to it. Certainly, this did nothing to improve the group mood, so it was probably a very good thing that we didn't have to wait long for a matatu to come along and pick us up for the ride home. I've found that matatus are generally pretty good for diversions and/or entertainment and this one was no exception: we were three of twenty-three (and three giant hessian sacks of cabbages) on a matatu with fourteen seats. Awesome.
Still, it had been a big day, and each experience had individually and collectively impressed me with a thoughtfulness borne of contradictory sensory information and experiences: incredible natural beauty juxtaposed with the ugliness of human poverty and injustice, abundance with scarcity, life with death. Some thoughts and questions feel bigger than I can make sense of. And now, at the end of day, at our campfire I sit: barely a speck of insignificance amidst the infinite stretch of everything and nothingness, of which the only part I can see is the unfathomable canvas of starlit sky that blankets me. Bedtime.
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