By Steve Galster.
Seconds before our brush with death, I day dreamed about my imminent return to the bustling, concrete jungle of traffic-jammed Bangkok from this lush, easy going, traffic-jammed Nairobi. I was thinking about how I tolerate the serious congestion in both places for the same reason. Simply put: Kenyans and Thais are incredibly nice people. Worlds apart, Kenya and Thailand share a number of similarities, but most importantly the length their people go in showing respect toward one another. Foreigners living in Thailand or Kenya (and there are many) sometimes complain about their adopted country, but most stay put because of the colorful, positive and forgiving nature of the people. When one closely observes Thai or Kenyan personal interactions, it is inspiring and downright humbling. Most still take the time to make a sincere handshake (in Kenya) or a prayerful hand-folded wai (in Thailand), coupled with smiling eye contact, capturing the significant moment of one human soul engaging another. People listen politely to one another in conversations and acknowledge the other’s words. Voices rarely rise to a confrontational level, encouraging peaceful interaction.
And yet Kenya and Thailand share a dark side too: they are crossroads for criminal activities that epitomize violent domination of one life over another. The centuries old elephant ivory and human slave trades, for example, still exist between Africa and Asia, with Kenya and Thailand positioned as regional trading posts. The governments of Thailand and Kenya have been accused of complicity in illicit trafficking of wildlife and people. But I think such accusations are overly broad. I have worked with some impressive and unsung heroes in both places. I believe it would be more accurate to say a greedy minority is able to exploit Kenya and Thailand precisely because the two societies are so friendly and forgiving, while the majority of Kenyans and Thais view their crooks as parasites. I pondered beyond these two countries to the universal relationships between power and domination, hosts and parasites, and blessings and harmony, before the wake-up call came.
Riding shotgun in bumpy traffic, I kept one eye on my Line chat about the ongoing Rohingya trafficking case back in Thailand (See Part 1), and another eye on email headlines streaming atop the same phone, while lamenting how the world keeps speeding up, with everyone in a hurry, absorbing and distributing more information than ever, leading to more orders and requests, resulting in more stress, but not necessarily more results. “How does one slow down these days”, I wondered.
I looked out the window: Pedestrians stepping forward with grace and direction. East Africa’s main hub, Nairobi puts its foot down, politely, and moves at its own pace. I have a lot of respect for that. But here I am again, I thought, mediating between western donors and their expectations (pressure to produce fast results and generate reports that prove it) and local realities and culture (taking the time to get to know one another before doing any business together). And then of course there is the main client, in this case, the endangered wild animals, which are also in a hurry for results, although their voices are not heard. I always try to make sure that we deliver what the host really needs, while keeping the relationship symbiotic for everyone. It’s not easy, and sometimes impossible, to manage each side’s expectations, and today was another example of what can happen when we try. When I asked our excellent gentleman driver, John, for his phone charger –my battery was dying and I was, by habit, desperate to check the flood of incoming emails–, out of respect to his elder, he turned and looked me deferentially in the eye when answering, while a small child walked right out in front of the car. “Brakes!!” yelled Tony from the backseat, and John hit them immediately. We all wondered if it was on time, as the little one disappeared from view. A moment went by in slow motion as we all went silent and anticipated the worst. Then magically, just as I was getting out of the car to have a look, the boy of no more than 6 years raised his head above the front left light and looked back at us, unscratched and seemingly unaware of what just nearly happened. Then he gave us a million dollar smile before carrying on his way. Maybe he had been day dreaming too. “Why was he without an adult?” I diverted. We all looked at one another. None of us had ever sighed so deeply.
The doe-like eyes on that happy, oblivious boy and the feeling of relief I felt will stick with me forever. That near miss tilled up thoughts and feelings about how important each life, big and small, really is, and how all lives are inter-connected through, and contributing to, a great big beautiful world. We can see these connections and the significance of each life more clearly when we slow down, observe and respect each person, plant, and animal. Such awareness reveals harmony. Ignoring harmony, I believe, leads to greed and darkness — like the ongoing, senseless killing of 70 African elephants per day to feed the luxury ivory trade; the trafficking of thousands of desperate Rohingya people to work on plantations to maintain profit margins for the oil palm business; or in my case today, the near death of an innocent boy so that I could keep up with my work emails. Lesson learned: slow down, focus, and appreciate.
Road accidents abound in Kenya, but there is virtually no “road rage”. Earlier in the day another car practically ran us into a ditch, like a scene from Death Race 2000. I got anxious when John sped up next to his lane-robbing competitor and looked straight over at him. Cussing? Nasty finger gestures? Or worse? Nope. They smiled and gently held up a sort of prayerful hand toward one another, then peacefully drove away from one another. I was stunned. We then passed under a banner for the movie “Mad Max”. I love this place. I started to see politeness as a social, harmonizing lubricant.
We were dropped off at our resting place, Ngong House, in an area called Karen, named after Karen Blixen, the famous Danish author who Ernest Hemingway said should have won his 1954 Nobel Prize for literature. When we passed Karen’s old coffee farm, as a movie buff I couldn’t help but picture Meryl Streep coming out to meet her adventurous lover, Denys Finch-Hatton played by Robert Redford. No shrinking violet herself, Blixen came from adventurous stock and was a true survivor. Her Danish father lived among the Chippewa Indians in my home state, Wisconsin in the 1870s, then committed suicide following a bout of adulterous guilt. Karen’s first husband (her second cousin) gave her syphilis before their divorce. Her true love for a decade, Finch-Hatton eventually left her for a younger woman just before crashing his gypsy moth plane in 1931. She went on to pen numerous celebrated works in English and Danish, including Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast, under her own name and several pseudonyms, including that of a male Frenchman (“Pierre”). Her farm was within walking distance of us, and walking is exactly what was on my mind and Tony’s after that long and stressful car ride. I wanted Tony, the experienced former soldier, to lead me into the suburban bush because I knew he could navigate and interpret the trails.
While he went to his room to fire off some emails, I stood waiting between our backyard garden and the border of an expansive wilderness, gawking at the natural beauty that surrounded me. Unlike most suburban landscapes, this setting blended with the bush and changed like scenes from a play. The distinctively African acacia trees stood strong at center stage; the voluminous, colorful bougainvillea resembled curtains flowing straight out of an oil painting; dominating the airwaves were bizarre calling sounds of the funny little hyrax (an animal resembling a giant squirrel mixed with a rabbit –and somehow related to the elephant); while a never-ending stream of intricately patterned birds swooped in and out of this paradise like tinker bells. The entire show was framed by the Ngong hills in the background. “I had a farm in Africa,” Blixen wrote, “at the foot of the Ngong hills.” I suddenly wished my mother were here to share this dream-like experience.
Paying closer attention, I glimpsed the order. The burgundy colors of the bougainvillea’s bracts seduced the bees that buzzed into and between flowers, extracting nectar for themselves, while ensuring cross-pollination and more flowering life. The birds were eating, swooping and seeding everywhere, while signaling the presence of potential predators to all members of this little ecosystem. Those amusing hyraxes were not just making strange noises, they were establishing their territory. Everyone was feeding or protecting another while feeding or protecting themselves. Scientists call this symbiosis or “mutualistic relationships”. I call it harmony. The entire scene and chorus of this living stage was dazzling, leading to one of those rare and overwhelming moments of sad realization that there is more beauty and wonder in the world than can be experienced or comprehended in one lifetime.
But, I thought to myself, we can use our limited time to tame greed that is unraveling this harmony. Too many people still see themselves standing outside of nature – like it is something behind a shopping window, inside a national park or a zoo. People, animals and plants have a natural interconnecting order. We are not separate. We are animals. More people are waking up to this connection, but many still have not, evidenced by the fact that we are still recklessly driving the fastest mass extinction of life ever. We need to slow down. We must recognize the difference between coexistence with nature (symbiosis) and domination over it (parasitism). This patch of paradise is what much of our world used to look like. The fact that I’m standing in the middle of it with creatures circulating right around me, making me feel connected and liberated, demonstrates that whatever grows greed, one thing is for sure: it cannot grow inside someone experiencing this. Blixen obviously felt it: “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all convention; here was a new kind of freedom, which until then one had only found in dreams.”
Rambunctuous as ever, Tony woke me from my reverie and led me down a storybook-like trail of enormous flowering vines and trees, right into giraffe territory. I love giraffes, maybe because I can relate to them. I’m tall and get stared at in Thailand where the average height is 30 cm less than my own. Elevator rides in Bangkok buildings are always interesting and make me sympathize with people who performed in freak shows. I try not to let on that I speak Thai when hearing them remark “my gosh, he’s so tall!” Or I’ve even heard “he’s as tall as a giraffe!”
Trained in wilderness survival as a sniper in the Australian Special forces, Tony is an incredible walking library of useful facts. He is also living proof that we should never judge a book by its cover, demonstrating that one can be commando tough, while funny, kind and selfless at the same time. Tony knew which plants we could eat in case we lost our way, and he recognized the difference between dog paw prints and big cat tracks (the latter pull in their claws, as had the leopard that recently walked this trail). But we both learned something new when we came upon two gentlemen closely studying a tree. Shy with no one, Tony asked “what have you fellows got there?” The two young Kenyan men turned around, smiled, and told us it was a tree whose branches acted as natural mosquito repellent. I gladly accepted a small leafy extension, rubbed it on my already itchy arms and neck, and inquired if they were researchers. Yes, they answered, they were giraffe specialists from the local university. What luck! “Please tell us something interesting about giraffes that might surprise us,” I asked, then suddenly hoped I hadn’t stumped them. Hardly. “Well,” the first one answered, “first of all, giraffes have the freshest breath of any animal because they eat acacia trees, and their glands have evolved accordingly to secrete an antiseptic to heal cuts caused by eating acacia thorns.” We stared. The other added: “Giraffes can prolong gestation periods, delaying birth until circumstances are safe for their little one to enter this world.” By how long, we asked? “Up to a couple of months if necessary.” Their own mouthwash and birthing when they feel like it. God blessed giraffes.
I doubt those people who come to Africa to shoot giraffes for sport are aware of these facts. At least I hope not. Actor Ricky Gervais recently mobilized public outrage against giraffe hunters, posting on Facebook their own photos showing them posing next to their deceased “prize”. Those were some of the most bizarre photos I had ever seen: a long lifeless giraffe neck curled around a smiling person. I suspect the hunters planned to hang those photos on their walls at home. Was it to attract love in the form of attention, respect, or admiration, or all of the above? People dominating a beast?
Later I googled the African safari outfitters that organize giraffe hunts and watched their promotional videos. Some use a sort of Rambo-like music score over a hot vehicle pursuit of these graceful, Dr. Seuss-like creations, which eat thorny leaves, have big beautiful eyes and usually let you get fairly close (unless you chase them from a jeep firing a rifle at them). I do not want to judge these hunters, I want to understand their mindset to see if we can change it. I want to know why this is a “sport” to them. I recalled what Carl Jung said about our shadow: if we get angry or uncomfortable with someone, it may be because we are seeing something about ourselves in them that we do not like. Surely greed or the need for attention manifests itself in many ways. I felt the emails buzzing from the phone in my pocket.
Tony and I did not find wild roaming giraffes, but they were near. Tracking them through their poop trails, we did find some amazing dung beetles that were working their little legs off. I couldn’t help but video-tape this wonder, which involves 2 beetles stuck to a little brown ball, rolling it up and down a fairly steep hill, which to these beetles was proportionate to Mount Everest. Eventually they find the right hole, where one beetle lays its eggs, using the poop as shelter and food until the baby beetles are hatched in a safe environment.
I feel safe inside the bush. Maybe it’s the calming effect nature has on people. A walk through these trails is more effective than any couch therapy session and a lot cheaper. When I’m in the bush, I feel far away from that highly concentrated world of people and concrete, where I suspect I’m not alone in feeling a weekly mixture of boredom, excitement and fright as we navigate through cement, metal, cyber waves, massive mounds of information, and human competitors. The dung beetle’s focused task of the day somehow made more sense to me than the jargon-laid Performance Monitoring Plan I was studying hours before in the car on that phone-sized excel spread-sheet.
Tony drew my attention to an even smaller living creature. Crouching down on his knees, he began to blow a small mountain of dirt off of an “ant lion”. He explained that this carnivorous insect creates a slippery mound-like trap of soft soil, then waits at the bottom for ants to slide down where the little lion finishes them off with its deadly pincers. Trained to take out threatening insurgents with a single shot, here was Tony locating, and teaching me with great interest about, an insect avalanche trap. When he wasn’t filling me with fascinating facts about all the creatures, small and smaller, Tony was talking lovingly about his wife and kids.
Tony reminded me of another strong, compassionate and vulnerable creature that we had encountered on a separate outing. The rhinoceros, a living dinosaur, is built like an armored tank and wields a horn that can impale any foe. Yet the rhino is normally found watching over its young, hosting a little ox pecker bird on its head, and grazing its daily vegetarian meal. The two animals bless one another. The rhino lets the ox pecker eat its unwanted ticks, while the little bird signals its host when predators are near. Tony shared a video clip with me illustrating what the rhino is capable of doing to uninvited guests, including a wart hog that pushed its luck when foraging grass below the rhino. Poor piggy.
Standing up and pivoting away from the dung beetles and ant lions, I finally gave into temptation and opened the emails that kept buzzing on my phone. Well, what a surprise (not): One message cited Malaysian police, confirming what Freeland and others had been saying – many Rohingya slaves trafficked to Thailand were destined for farms in Malaysia. The proof: 139 new Rohingya graves discovered on the Malaysian side of the border. Another email from a journalist wanting to know if we could help track down a lost boat of Rohingyas because authorities showed no interest to help. Sigh. Thousands of Rohingyas still stranded at sea, as officials from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar were meeting about the crisis, but all showing reluctance to take the floating refugees in. Our investigations with police revealed tens of millions of dollars were being made off the backs of the Rohingyas by traffickers with ties to corrupt officials, yet the remaining victims were being treated as a threat to national security.
Time to convince some busy government officials to set aside other priorities for a moment and focus on these lives. How many of those 139 Rohingya victims (and the hundreds discovered beforehand) had children? How many of them were children? What were their names? What were their dreams? Everyone has dreams. I looked back at the dung beetles, but they were long gone, reminding me that we best get moving too. We have a lot of work to do.